What once was a meeting place for business colleagues and college alumni has now become a powerful marketing tool used by big brands, small business owners and, more and more, by financial professionals like you.

While social networking sites are still a popular resource for people to communicate and interact with friends and family, today they are also one of the best places to build and maintain strong relationships with clients and prospects online.

On April 26, I had the pleasure speaking at the Women Advisors Forum in New York. You can see some of the photos from the event and learn more about the next Women Advisors Forum in Dallas on May 22.

Valentina Chtchedrine, Vice President of Digital Strategy & Experience for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, joined me to share her own insights about using social media in a smart, compliant way. Lorie Konish, managing editor of On Wall Street magazine, asked the two of us a series of questions. What follows are some of my answers to Lorie’s questions.

CLIENT ACQUISTION

Here are some interesting findings from a Hubspot survey of 611 advisors in various business models, which was conducted in 2011:

  • 61% of the advisors using LinkedIn acquired a client through it
  • 47% of the advisors using a blog acquired a client through it
  • 40% of the advisors using Twitter acquired a client through it
  • 35% of the advisors using Facebook acquired a client through it

It would not be a big stretch to assert that the percentages of success above have been and will be going up as more and more advisors get the hang of and embrace social media as a part of their overall marketing plan.
Some of the more spirited independent advisors who have been out there on the leading edge for a while are telling me they are getting 50% of their new business from having a strong online presence. Rick Kahler, a Certified Financial Planner™ professional who owns and operates a wealth management and Registered Investment Advisory firm in South Dakota, told me last spring at the NAPFA Conference in 2011 that he even landed a million dollar account thanks to his online presence. I’m hoping to catch up with Rick at the 2012 NAPFA conference this week to hear how things have been building for him over the past year.

BUILDING A STRONG ONLINE PRESENCE

While it can sometimes be difficult to determine what exactly in the mix of online activities is producing the results (I believe your overall online perception is just as important as the social media component), the Hubspot survey points towards the importance of Linked In and blogging as high-value activities.

[IMGCAP(1)]

BLOGGING

Blogging helps you build a strong online presence in a couple of ways. First, frequent blog postings on your site or a credible third-party site (especially if crossed-linked to your website or a secondary blog) can significantly improve your search engine page rankings. Second, blogging can position you as an expert in your field and a contributor to a body of work or a community of interest. Blogs don’t always have to be just words, so if writing is not your strong suite, consider video blogging or posting audio content instead.

See how Andy Millard does it on the free Blogspot page he created while at one of the Social Media Boot Camps I led for FPA in 2010; he uses a mix of audio, video, photos and text.

TWITTER

Since Twitter is closely correlated to blogging – after all, it is really just micro-blogging – and is fairly easy to do (especially if you automate some of the tweets you post), I would also encourage you to consider adding that to your top tier social media tactics.

I encourage advisors to post short, catchy headlines and shortened links on Twitter. Learn to “bottomline it” and create a bit of intrigue. Think of yourself as a reading service pointing the way to good information. Then try to engage people who follow you. Retweet their posts. Comment on their posts. Mix it up about 75% business reading service and about 25% personal insights and character-revealing posts.

See how I do it on my custom-branded Twitter page at http://www.twitter.com/marieswift. If you are new to Twitter, just start an account and follow a few people or entities you know and trust such as @finplan @marieswift @napfa @sherylgarrett @byallaccounts @bobveres @daviddrucker @fintechie @michaelkitces. Once you listen and watch for awhile, it will all begin to make sense.

FACEBOOK

Facebook is gaining popularity with financial advisors as they determine how to post the right mix of business formal and business social information. The currency of Facebook is visuals so I always encourage advisors to think of their business Facebook pages an electronic scrapbook. Posting lots of photos, videos, images, multimedia presentations, and so forth, with just a little text and a few select links is a good strategy for financial advisory firm’s Facebook pages.

You might think of your Facebook page as a “celebration page” where you post photos of the firm doing community service projects together, conducting a seminar or town hall meeting, or hosting a client event. If you occasionally add a photo and simple caption of you on vacation or with your family, or doing something you love – for instance sail boat racing (which shows character and agility) – then people will get a three dimensional sense of you as a human being, not just a business professional.

See how Keats Connelly and Family Investment Center are using Facebook to build their online presence.

LINKEDIN

I think every advisor should have a LinkedIn profile. It has become a business essential. Having a great website as your online “hub” that is cross-linked to a great LinkedIn profile (both a personal page and a business page) are the two “must have” foundational elements. Then pick one or two other social media platforms and master them before you move on to another and another.

While a good LinkedIn profile almost always ranks high in search engine page ratings and is a good place to showcase your expertise, your LinkedIn can be much more than just another static profile page. Add connections strategically and take the time to look at who your connections know; ask for and make introductions. Participate in Discussions on Groups. Use some of the widgets to embed a Twitter feed or a SlideShare presentation or a Reading List on your page. Post events that are open to the public using the Events feature.

See how Know Your Options and Trovena Wealth Management use their business pages to expand their reach.

BEGIN WITH A STRATEGY

A word of advice: Don’t begin with the tools. Begin with a strategy — a social media game plan. Think of this as a multi-step process:

  • Listen
  • Learn
  • Engage
  • Act
  • Measure

Listening and learning are only the first steps — you need to take action on what you discover.
Ideally, you will be engaging your audience, “friends” or “followers” right on the social media platform. Of course there will also be times that you will be acting on what you learn (most of the time you’ll then be taking the conversation offline via phone, private messaging or email). Sidenote: No one wants to follow a long personal exchange between two people on a social media site but an occasional short personal exchange between two people can be interesting and/or helpful for the entire online group.

Monitoring, archiving and measurement are the additional pieces you should have in place. Last week I wrote about managing your webutation so be sure to read that for additional resources and insights.

COMPLIANCE

Of course compliance is always a concern so work with your compliance department or consultant to create a social media policy. Good online resources are www.arkovi.com, www.socialware.com and www.smarsh.com.

You can access a recorded webinar on compliance guidelines for financial advisors on my Best Practices blog, presented by a compliance officer for Securities America.

ProTracker software includes a Social Media Policy in their Compliance Manual.

TRAINING

You might also decide to engage a social media expert to conduct a workshop or series of consulting sessions on how to use social media in the right ways. Beyond the basics of how to use the tools, there is some nuance and social media ettiquette that must be learned.

Resources include http://www.echelonbusinesssolutions.com, www.wiredadvisor.com and http://www.wealthmanagementmarketing.net. My firm offers social media strategy, training, community development and content creation for our PR and marketing retainer clients and I frequently lead Social Media Boot Camps and training workshops for NAPFA, FPA, broker/dealers, custodians, and advisor study groups.

By using social networking sites, advisors can get their messages out quickly, measure the effectiveness of their communication efforts, and receive feedback directly from clients. Time to get your groove on!

How are you using social media? Take this quick two question suvey now.