Steering the work of one creative firm serving asset managers is a nautical theme: Don't give up the ship. The saying, explain executives of Blu Giant, is about keeping a goal, but allowing that there are many routes to achieve it.

Crafting messaging goals for fund providers in an era of strict regulation can be stressful. But the Omaha, Neb.-based firm says there are ways to develop strategies, even for social media, that can keep a provider from drowning in too much information or sinking under regulatory fines.

Blu Giant's CEO Brett Clarke, President Joseph Miola, and creative director Christopher Norton met with Money Management Executive to discuss how communication is changing for financial firms, and better ways to get a message across.

How is the shift to digital platforms and communication playing out?

Norton: Print still plays a vital role. A lot of people say it's dying, but people are just doing different things with print. They are doing great, specific pieces that are part of their story, rather than just printing everything. And they work in conjunction with a website.

A lot of the stuff that you'd run off on a regular basis, like a fact sheet, that's going online because it's easy to send. But when you're selling and connecting people, you're at a conference, there is value in a targeted brochure that tells your story to a specific audience. Something that they can take away and then lead them into your online presence.

Miola: There's a lot to be said about having an intangible product in your hands. As much as everything has gone digital, print hasn't completely gone away. There's still a requirement that shareholders receive a hardcopy of their prospectuses and financial reports. To add to the earlier point, with print it's more specific about what they want to get out there.

How do you make prospectuses or proxies more readable? A number of executives get frustrated that they are printing material most people ignore.

Miola: As far as proxies, unfortunately there's no way to make that look pretty. That's just stale, Plain Jane information. As far as prospectuses, you have clients who go both ways on that. They'll do their logo on the cover or they'll try to make it more enticing by putting some artwork or design. Again, this is where the creative side comes in, whether its attractive text or artwork, putting in bar charts and other types of graphics to make it more interesting for the reader to go though.

Norton: And digestible. Not all, but some people are intimidated by a giant prospectus. But if you can bring a level of user experience to something like that, that could make a difference.

Clarke: That's obviously where there is a huge opportunity in the digital side of things. In partnership with Orion, we've created Engage, from which they send out a video statement for their clients. We're able to send personal data, and that feed goes over the video. So that is a huge way that we can, on the statement side of it, make it a much more personal, a much more interesting experience. We had clients tell us they didn't even realize at first it was their numbers on the screen. But that's where things are going on the video side of things. In the next few years, your television will be personalized, not only to the home that it's going into, but based on facial recognition technology, to the individual who is watching the TV.

So to get people to really look at a paper statement, there's things you can do, but there's a limit, until we can figure out how to raise a hologram out of the paper to provide some special effects. (Laughs).

Norton: That's where there needs to be the connection. Instead of having your print stuff and stuff for the website separate, they all need to be working together with purpose.

There's so many options for communication, but what is enough? And how do you embrace it all, since the needs differ among clients?

Clarke: The clients are going to be the ones deciding when it's enough communication, which won't ever be enough. There's different clients that engage on different levels. Everything that we do isn't for every individual advisor or manager. So if our client is on social media, he's going to be sending out e-mail campaigns, he's going to do a video, newsletter, online advertising, he's going to send out a printed statement - he doesn't expect all eight methods to go to each client.

He's expecting to communicate in as many ways as possible, in order to reach different personality types, whether they want to watch a video statement or they want to go line through line on their statement; or that they want him to text them or email them. You take what you get.

Norton: Another thing that we do is coach people about being very purposeful about the channels that you are using. Don't just have one message and blast it out across everything and see what sticks.

So if you're on Twitter, great, let's understand how people are communicating on Twitter, and how to interact with them on Twitter, instead of just posting links.

If you're going to have a video statement, don't let it be exactly the same thing as the paper statement, just read aloud. Let's think about the best way to use video to tell the right story.

Overlap will exist, but you want to approach everything intentionally. There's regulation to think about. But if you're doing it right, it doesn't have to be frustrating. It's just about telling your story across different channels.

Clarke: Of course there's also the generational shift. Millennials are demanding a different form of communication. So right now clients are trying to figure out how to communicate with them, but as soon as the millennials become the old generation, they'll just stop being named. After a certain age, they just become the "Above 50" group. At that point they'll have phased out some of the older ways of communicating, but then there will be something new and different. It's kind of an ever-turning circle.

Advisors can be just as picky about the product provider sites. A recent study showed that they have preferences, and many times decide on what products to use based on a firm's site.

Norton: One of the things that I see across the industry is that people spend all this money to get their message out, and have all of this information on their site. But if you just come to it, oftentimes, there's nothing leading you down a path. There's just a massive website with a lot of information on it, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what in the world you're supposed to learn there. This is true of really big organizations, all the way down to smaller RIAs and independent advisors that think they need to have all this information out there.

A lot of our work with clients is helping them find that right balance between brain experience and information on their website and lead people down a path so that they are getting to where they need to go, and presented with a menu to find stuff. We understand that some businesses are very diverse, and there are many different parts to them. That doesn't mean you can help people find where they need to go.

How complicated does that goal get with regulation? Most firms might feel they need err on the side of over-documentation to avoid penalties, and that's why you see such dense sites.

Norton: That certainly plays a part, and a lot of times people will operate from a place of fear. When I first got in the industry, I was overwhelmed by things because I didn't know it. But I think what unique about our firms is that they both grew up in the industry. We don't have legal people directly on our team, but they sit three desks over from us and they are involved in everything that we do. It's infused into who we are. We've made them a part of our workflow, from beginning to end. The legal department doesn't have to be the sales prevention department. You can get them involved and work with them. You can do it together and do it well.

If clients come to you with a mandate, how do you work within that, because you're a creative firm and that's not really creative.

Clarke: We take them through a process. They're more involved in the discovery process than clients who come and say, 'Hey here's what we need.'

Most of their ideas, when they do come, are correct, or within a standard deviation of where they need to be. They know their business, they've built their business, they've been on the frontlines. They know what they need and what their clients want. The delivery method of that is where it tends to vary.

It's the look and the feel of the site that we have to work with them on. The client is always right - but sometimes with design aspects, our team has a saying, "Don't give up the ship."

Meaning, if we pitch this huge idea, and they all but say they hate it, we don't give up the ship. There are more ways to accomplish the goals than just the first way we try it. Or the way the client necessarily wants it. So we take what they want, put it into where we think it needs to go, and even if they still don't like that, there are still more ways to get there.

In marketing, there's more right, and less right, and clearly wrong ways. But there's no one way, clearly above others, guaranteed to do better than any of these ideas. That's impossible.

Partly the reason for these questions is because of the challenge posed by millennials. I assumed firms were coming to you with a blank slate.

Clarke: Here's the interesting thing, 50% of our clients don't care about the millennials. Not yet. They just don't care. Then the discussion is, 'Why do I need to update my website?' or. 'Why do I need a website, my clients aren't on the web. They're old.' Yet we have piles of research that shows they actually are the ones on the Internet. Those firms are just now beginning to care about the millennials.

Norton: And we do have clients that are doing a lot and are preparing for that. But to your point, there's certainly a coaching element to what we do, where we are trying to lead them down a path, just like we're trying to do with the end product. Sometimes it's true, they will come to us and say, 'We totally trust your judgment, and whatever you think we need to do to reach this audience, we're in.

And then you present it to them, and they hate it, and say, 'This isn't us.' And you respond, 'You're right, it's the audience you're trying to reach.'

So you've got to work in between what they thought they wanted and what they actually need, and come up with something that bridges both. That's where "Don't give up the ship" came from. It's about the solution is there. You may have to chart a different course to get there. 

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