WASHINGTON -- There are few marketing issues in the advisor sector that in recent years have inspired more interest -- and uncertainty -- than the use of social media in the practice.

Evangelists for tapping into sites like Twitter and Facebook stress that even while they represent a fundamentally different communications platform from the traditional ways that advisors would promote themselves to prospective clients, some of the same marketing rules apply.

For advisors, that starts with huddling with the marketing and client-services teams to define what, precisely, the practice hopes to achieve through a social media strategy, according to Jared Trexler, social media manager and marketing specialist with Ed Slott and Company.

"Would you go through any marketing campaign without a plan?" Trexler said during a presentation at the Financial Services Institute's Financial Advisor Summit.

Social media campaigns can serve many ends, from thoughtful blogs on hot-button industry issues that can raise the profile of individual advisors to engaging with clients on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, where the network effect of word-of-mouth referrals might bring in new investors. "They're inviting their friends into your business' story," Trexler said.

But from that starting point of setting goals for the campaign, the world of social media makes a sharp turn away from conventional marketing strategies.

"Social media is not an online form of cold calling," Trexler said. "Social media is not cold calling and it's not the old way of doing marketing," he added. "It's not about selling at all."

Then what is it about? More than direct sales, social media caters to softer marketing ends like branding, customer engagement and elevating the profile of an advisor or firm within the industry.

Think of the real value of social media "not as a return on investment but a return on influence," Trexler counsels.

Within the ever-expanding galaxy of social media, Trexler suggests that advisors, particularly those just getting started, consider four platforms: blogging, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Each lends itself to a different approach -- for instance, advisors might pen a blog only once or twice a week, while they could send out dozens of tweets a day. But each platform offers new opportunities for engagement and promotion. A firm's Facebook and LinkedIn profiles should contain referring links back to its home page, blog and contact information, for example. Advisors who opt to pen a blog should establish a regular publishing schedule, and be sure to incorporate keywords ("financial planning," "financial," "retirement planning," etc.) to enhance their visibility in Google.

Of those four platforms, Trexler suggests that LinkedIn holds the greatest value for business marketing, referring to a firm's corporate profile on the network variously as "your virtual business card" and "your second website." Facebook, by contrast, is a more appropriate platform for "social marketing," an admittedly vague term that encompasses efforts at branding and reputation management. But with more than 1 billion users, Facebook is too important a destination for advisors to ignore, Trexler argues, recommending that company pages on the site should be packed with images -- the content that garners the most clicks and comments on the site.

Trexler also believes that the critical mass building across online social platforms also makes for a compelling argument for advisors to embrace the medium. For instance, a Pew poll earlier this year found that 60% of respondents between the ages of 50 and 64 report using social networking sites, up from just 11% in 2008. Then, too, the barriers to entry on the social Web -- a few clicks to create a Twitter account, a few more to get on Facebook or LinkedIn -- are extremely low.

"You have a massive opportunity to reach a large, targeted group of people in one place at one time. It's a very low initial dollar investment," Trexler said.

It is the nature of the financial industry that any social media campaign must come with careful consideration of the relevant regulatory and compliance obligations, ranging from those promulgated by FINRA and state authorities to the policies of their own firms or their broker-dealers. Those requirements may vary from firm to firm, and advisors must be mindful of such distinctions as the one FINRA draws between static content, such as profile or background information, that requires the approval of a registered principal prior to posting, and dynamic content, such as a tweet, that does not.

But Trexler's larger point is that compliance concerns are not the immovable object that many in the financial-services sector have seen them, particularly when sophisticated archiving platforms like Erado, Hootsuite and Socialware can catalog every tweet, comment and post advisors submit to social platforms, offering the same level of retention expected of email communications.

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