Advertisements in the local newspaper or a Facebook page promoting your firm are all well and good, but for a really big impact on clients and prospects, try inviting them into your home.
Zaneilia Harris, president of Harris and Harris Wealth Management in Upper Marlboro, Md., is a planner who has found that marketing events provide a memorable, interactive experience for current and prospective clients. Harris, who concentrates her practice on women - especially widows, senior executives and business owners - holds two to four events annually, and most take place at her home.
Harris uses her home, she says, "because I'm bringing these women into a setting where I'm making myself vulnerable. I think this makes them a little more comfortable. I'm not trying to hard-sell anyone - I think women get turned off by that. They get to interact and mingle with me, which I feel gives them a chance to know me more intimately."
You don't have to open up your living room or backyard to reap such benefits, however. Wherever they are held, special events can produce an impact that is not available through other channels, according to Howard Givner, founder and executive director of the Event Leadership Institute, an industry group. "You can create a sense of community among your clients, and that's something that can't happen with other, more remote marketing methods," he says.
All of this may not seem easy to accomplish, however. For financial planners who have never held an event, the decisions that have to be made can seem overwhelming: What kind of event should it be, where should it be held and what food should be served?
CHOOSING AN EVENT
The first step is to determine your primary goal. Do you want to thank existing clients for their business and build on your relationships with them? Or are you actively seeking to expand your business? The purpose of an event will have an impact on the size of your group and where the event will be held, as well as what kind of message or knowledge you deliver. Whatever the goal, event planners recommend keeping the number of guests small enough that you can personally interact with all of them.
Perhaps the most common special events are seminars held over either breakfast or lunch, and after-work or weekend receptions. Whatever the gathering, however, "the thing you want to get across is: What do you want people to think about you as a financial planner when they recall the event?" Givner asks. It's up to you to determine what kind of event suits your firm's personality.
Choosing where to hold an event is the next step. A lengthy presentation of educational material might lend itself to a corporate suite, conference center or hotel meeting room. "Really understand what it is you're buying from the facility," advises Joan Eisenstodt, founder and chief strategist at Eisenstodt Associates, a meetings and hospitality consulting firm in Washington, D.C. A hotel meeting room might cost more than you expect. Some hotels may offer free meeting space if you meet an agreed-upon amount of food and beverage spending, but by the time you add in taxes, services charges and gratuities, you might find it cheaper to look at other types of locations.
When it comes to seating your group, keeping attendees comfortable is a key to keeping them engaged. Professional meeting planners recommend what are called "half rounds" or "crescent rounds" - circular tables with chairs around half of the circumference, all facing a stage or lectern. No one has to crane his or her neck, and guests can take notes without writing on their laps.
For smaller groups, scale down the size of the room. "With 12 to 24 people, I would perhaps want to contract a hotel suite where we could have comfortable furniture," Eisenstodt says. "You want something that makes people feel comfortable," especially because your guests my not know anyone at the event besides you.
A reception could be at a wine bar, art gallery or even your home. Financial planners who hold marketing events say they've used all of these types of venues successfully, depending, again, on the message one is trying to convey.
Even lower-key events like cocktail receptions can include an element that ties back to your practice. "Last year, we did an art gallery event, and then we had the owner of the gallery speak about investing in art," says Maëlis Mittig, client relations manager at Francis Financial in New York. "We try to keep it interesting and educational."
Mittig says her firm has also held a wine tasting at the owner's home in Manhattan and, most recently, a networking event at the firm's headquarters. "It's a good chance for us to introduce new things going on in our firm," she says. "I think it does make a huge difference as far as how the clients look at us as a more personal, family-oriented firm."
For clients of Bluestem Financial Advisors in Champaign, Ill., "this past year's event we held at a local photographer's studio," says Jacob Kuebler, a CFP at the firm. Guests were served drinks in a low-key setting where they could network with one another and the artist. "The second half of the evening was a presentation given by the artist about his work, his passion and pursing his goals," Kuebler says. "We tied it all together by incorporating it into how our firm helps the clients find and reach their goals. It was a smashing success, and our clients loved it."
How to invite guests will depend on what kind of event you are holding and whether your focus is on current or prospective clients. A "thank-you" reception calls for a more personalized invitation, experts say. "Don't just rely on snail mail and email," says Ross Ozer, a senior vice president in marketing for Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services. "Make the personal connection" and pick up the phone, he says.
If you're seeking new clients, publicizing the event via social media or local media is an option, but that leaves you with much less control over the size of the group. Even if you request an RSVP, financial planners who hold events say they've learned to expect no-shows. Inviting clients to bring a guest throws another variable into the mix, but the uncertainty could be worth tolerating if it leads to new clients.
Jennifer Cole, CFA, founder and president of Cole Financial Consulting in Albuquerque, N.M., says she hit on a technique to decrease the number of no-shows at her lunchtime presentations, which consist primarily of individuals who don't already have a relationship with her.
"I don't advertise the location," she says. "They have to RSVP in order to know where to go." A few days before the event, Cole says, she follows up with the address - and with a request for confirmation.
As you develop a program, keep attendees' attention spans and energy levels in mind. If you're going to deliver educational material, keep presentations to 40 minutes at the maximum, professional conference planners say, and don't just click through a PowerPoint presentation.
"You have to be able to motivate the audience to listen - and that's a skill in and of itself," says Sandy Biback, owner of Imagination+ Meeting Planners in Toronto. "If you can incorporate some Q&A or discussion among the people, you'll be able to keep them in there."
Keep in mind that anything you say at a presentation is subject to the same compliance standards as written material, Ozer says. "Shy away from anything that sounds promissory," he says. "We're all very sensitive about promising what the future's going to look like."
If the laptop, tablet or other device you plan to use in a presentation is an Apple product rather than a PC, confirm with the facility that its equipment is compatible. "Not everything works in sync with another product," cautions Laura Zap, event meeting manager at the Dolce Norwalk Hotel and Conference Center in Norwalk, Conn. The Macintosh laptops and iPad tablets that have gained popularity don't work with all of the equipment some conference facilities and hotels have on site, she says. "If you walk in with a Mac, make sure you bring everything with you," she says. Otherwise, you could wind up with a projector that doesn't show what's on your screen.
FEEDING THE MULTITUDES
Figure out what, if anything, you're going to feed your group. A continental breakfast works with an early-morning event, although Eisenstodt suggests serving fruit if you want your guests alert. Professional meeting planners say a lunch event is reliable in drawing people - and in helping to ensure that they stay until the end of the presentation.
The drawback of providing lunch is the expense. Some advisors say their firms serve food catered by local restaurants; others opt for local gourmet markets or upscale grocery stores. Cole says that when she was just starting out, she hosted brown-bag lunches. Let your budget, the size of your firm and the impression you're trying to convey dictate the menu, and don't forget to ask guests about food allergies and offer vegetarian-friendly fare.
After the event, it's crucial to follow up with your guests. Cathy Curtis, CFP, owner of Curtis Financial Planning in Oakland, Calif., holds an annual "Food, Fun, Fashion and Finance" event at her home. She says she has begun to follow up her events with online surveys to find out what people liked and what they learned.
Thank existing clients for attending, ideally with a handwritten note. If a client brought a guest whom you hope to turn into a client in the future, Ozer suggests asking your client to make the introduction rather than reaching out to him or her yourself. "Talk to the client and let them know you'd like to make contact," he says. "With cold calling, what I've seen in some of the research is that without that relationship in between, it's challenging."
Martha C. White, a New York writer, contributes regularly to The New York Times, Slate.com and Worth magazine.