WASHINGTON -- Advisors can cite any number of reasons to steer clear of social media in their practice, but firms that resist new online channels altogether do so at their own peril.
That's the message delivered by Marie Swift -- president and CEO of a public relations and marketing firm catering to independent advisors -- during a presentation at Fidelity's Inside Track conference last week.
As clients (and everyone else) spend more time online, people increasingly expect to interact with their advisors through social media channels, argues Swift, of Impact Communications.
"To me it's really not a question anymore of if we do social media, but how well we do social media," Swift says. "Your competitors are online, so your participation online is important."
Yet when Swift asked the audience of RIAs about their use of various social platforms, the smattering of raised hands suggested that many advisors remain hesitant about the use of social media. It was a decidedly unscientific poll, to be sure, but advisors in attendance expressed reluctance on a variety of fronts -- concerns about compliance, doubts about the ROI they can from social channels, and worries about dedicating time to tend to a social media presence amid all the other responsibilities of running a practice.
Swift dismisses all of them.
On compliance, what Swift says is "the No. 1 concern" for many advisors, she believes that the fears of running afoul of regulators have been overstated. Certainly, she says, advisors should update their compliance manual to keep in step with the regulatory and business requirements -- addressing areas like how social content is archived, who within the firm has permission to post content, and who will supervise the social media programs.
Advisors also need to distinguish between interactive content, which generally does not require pre-approval, and static content, which typically does. But those distinctions also apply to more conventional marketing materials, Swift argues.
ROI MORE ELUSIVE
The evidence she offers to demonstrate an ROI is more spotty, however -- she tells a story of an advisor who landed a multimillion-dollar account by combing through LinkedIn connections, for instance. And while Fidelity is encouraging its advisors to embrace the platform, the company also lacks hard numbers to quantify gains from social sites. (To get them, it is adding questions around that area to its annual RIA benchmarking survey.)
"It's still anecdotal," said Ross Ozer, chief marketing officer at Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services. "The hope is we'll start to answer some of those questions, because that's what's on everyone's mind."
The amount of time advisors need to dedicate to tending their social media presence will vary from firm to firm, but Swift suggests that it doesn't have to be overwhelming. Advisors could post one engaging tweet each day, for instance, or set aside a half-hour each week to mine LinkedIn, she suggests.
LISTEN BEFORE TALKING
As with any new endeavor, advisors can venture into social media gradually and at their own pace. "You don't have to run before you walk," Swift says. "You want to listen and learn first. You want to listen before you start talking."
She also suggests that advisors should view social media not as a platform unto itself, but rather as an integral component of the firm's marketing plan. She recommends a hub-and-spoke model, with the firm's website serving as the hub and the various social efforts -- a Twitter feed, LinkedIn and Facebook, blogs and search-optimized press releases, each pointing back to the main site -- extending the online presence into different corners of the Web.
Formalizing a strategy within the broader marketing plan can also lessen the intimidation factor that has kept many advisors sidelined, Swift advises.
"Writing it down will help internalize it and give you a roadmap," Swift says. "So just like you recommend that your clients have a financial plan, I would recommend that you have a social media plan that's a part of your marketing plan."
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