On Feb. 14, Vanguard's 64,000 Facebook fans received virtual candy hearts with the messages:
* Buy 'n Hold Me
* Long Term Love
* Retire w/Me
* Hot 4 Savings, and,
* Mutual Love
The images also went to 53,000 Twitter followers, while close to 50,000 more viewers have been glued to 30-second YouTube movie-trailer parodies with warnings like "Horror," "Drama" and "Suspense may be great for movies; they're not so great for investing!"
Yet, none of the above gets as many hits as Vanguard's initial venture into the social media space, a blog that has chalked up more than a million page views since its launch in March 2009.
"The blog is our biggest driver," affirms Shayna Beck, Vanguard Group's recently appointed senior manager of social media, who can't say enough about her "spectacular, creative, innovative team."
Adjectives like these are what keep fund firms such as Vanguard and Fidelity Investments at the top of the Kasina Social Media Index, whose second annual edition is due this April. Last year, the consulting firm ranked 45 asset management companies' presences on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn and YouTube, assessing how effectively the firms integrated their message into the characteristics of each outlet. Only Fidelity and Vanguard rated "Best in Class."
More and more "high-level asset managers" began communicating over social media during the past year. But they don't-or don't know how to-use it to the best of their capabilities, according to Kasina research analyst Jesse Mark.
"We're still seeing firms pushing content that's already on their website, rather than engaging with customers," said Mark, who promises that the methodology behind this year's survey is more rigorous, thanks to advances in tracking technology. Kasina evaluates the quality of each firm's presence on the popular sites by availability and quality of content, and user experience. The categories are then weighted, based on a score of 0 to 100. Last year, Fidelity and Vanguard each earned a score of 80; TIAA-CREF followed at 79, iShares scored 78 and The Hartford, 77.
Numbers Don't Lie
Fidelity launched its Twitter activity in October 2009, followed by a Facebook presence a year ago. The firm's Twitter followers grew from 455 at launch to almost 38,000 last December and over 39,000 today. Fidelity had 1,350 Facebook fans two years ago. That number passed 43,000 by mid-February.
"We have some activity on LinkedIn, and we're expanding there, but our major focus is on Facebook and Twitter, and there are very substantive differences between them," says Richard Blunck, Fidelity's executive vice president of web distribution and personal workplace investing.
"We make a real effort on our end to be consistent with our branding, our message, our customer service so that the audience gets a consistent message on each platform, but the way you interact on Twitter with messages limited to 140 characters, is very different from Facebook, so the audiences vary," Blunck points out.
"People follow Twitter a little more closely and frequently, so we do more frequent messaging on Twitter. We do Facebook once a day, which wouldn't work on Twitter," he explains.
"Twitter users tend to be very experienced, so it's easy to get conversations going," Blunck adds. With five to 10 people working on social media at any given time, Fidelity provides moderators to monitor and respond to the interactive conversations. Team members also work with Fidelity's customer service and product teams. Beck came to her current position from the company's legal department where she served as associate counsel and manager. She continues to serve on FINRA's Social Media Task Force. That relationship leverages her expertise, for the investment industry's benefit.
"Last year, the biggest prohibitor [to engaging in social media] was compliance concerns," said Mark. "Compliance is still an issue, but it's not the most pressing. Now it's budget and getting buy-in from senior management. ''
A lot of firms are still struggling to build a case. It's definitely scalable. "But to do it well, you have to have dedicated personnel to create the content."
Kasina finds the average firm dedicates the equivalent of two to three full-time people to managing social communications. That also involves "a couple of hundred-thousand dollars" to achieve a successful outcome.
The problem with getting more funding is how to demonstrate the dollar-value of staffing and creating a social media program. Most firms don't yet have the necessary tracking technology, Mark said, although some smaller asset managers turn to third-party providers who track both compliance and social media sites. On the other hand, Kasina finds that benefits like brand awareness and higher website traffic speak for themselves.
At Vanguard, Beck recognizes how much her team benefits from the resources and support of senior management. But this doesn't seem to come as a surprise. "Given that Vanguard is a virtual company, it's well-suited to the social media space," she said.
As far as costs go, "we're a small team, but a dedicated team," she adds. Only a few writers and project managers devote full-time to the social media sites. But in order to respond to consumer inquiries, the effort continuously involves specialists who help develop and review content.
"We'll continue to keep an eye on expenses, which are pretty much compliance costs and crew members. At the end of the day, we don't want to add for the sake of addition. It's about listening to the investor, about giving them the information they need the way they like it to give them the best chance for investment success."
At Fidelity, Blunck is looking ahead: "Two years from now we'll be astonished at the changes," he said. "The interface will improve significantly, and our usage volume will increase significantly. We think this is a very important channel."
In fact, both Blunck and Beck believe that for many customers, it is already the channel of choice. While it's not uncommon for social media staffers to respond to some online inquiries by supplying an appropriate in-house phone number, Blunck recalls one Fidelity customer who was less than pleased to receive that response.
"If I'd wanted to talk to someone on the phone," he wrote back, "I would have called the number myself."