Word of mouth might still be the most common and successful way financial advisors land new clients, but that won't necessarily be the case for long as investors of all ages are becoming more familiar and comfortable with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

To help financial advisors and firms jumpstart their social media endeavors without running afoul of FINRA regulations, LIMRA and social middleware firm Socialware this week rolled out "Insight: Advisor Series," a new social media training program specifically designed to help guide them through the potential legal and cultural landmines presented by social networking sites and platforms.

More than 300 financial services sales, marketing and distribution professionals got their first look at the "Insights: Advisor Series" training program during LIMRA's 2011 Distribution Conference in Orlando, Fla.

A group of five financial services firms have been beta testing the application for the past several months and, according to Socialware CEO Chad Bockius, most have moved beyond determining simply whether or not they can use social media in a compliant fashion to finding new ways to differentiate themselves from competitors online and off.

"I've been watching this industry go through this transformation to adopt social media for the past year and biggest thing I've seen is that it's no longer about competing on best compensation or products or best TV commercials," Bockius said. "Those are all commodities. This industry is coming around to the fact that it will differentiate itself and its advisors based on the relationships they build. Social media allows these producers to build more and deeper relationships and -- done right -- that will translate into more revenue for these firms and producers."

The subscription-based app can be accessed online from the LIMRA website or, more commonly, through individual firms' e-learning management systems which are already used for a variety of training on everything from sexual harassment to individual investment product education courses.

Socialware, based in Austin, Texas, broke down "Insights: Advisor Series" into palatable, 30-minute chunks on sections including Social Media 101, Compliance Basics, a pair of courses of LinkedIn and Facebook and one course on Twitter.

The training program costs about $100 per user a year and will be updated on a regular basis with new techniques, social media developments and compliance updates so advisors will have good reason to revisit the program again and again throughout the year.

"The one thing you can count on in social media is that things change very quickly," Bockius said. "In just a week, there's something new that advisors need to know about."

The self-service training subscription, which meets the suggested social media education and associated requirements proposed in the FINRA Regulation Notice 10-06 provides advisors with a framework for adopting these sites in a compliant manner and tips to help them take full advantage of this new communications channel within the bounds of industry regulations.

It runs on any e-learning management system and allows firms to customize the training to provide the company-specific policies and rules to financial advisors.

Bockius said social networking sites give financial advisors a wealth of information -- their professional background, circle of friends, educational history, marital status, etc. -- that prior generations of advisors didn't know before picking up the phone to cold call a potential client. If an advisor happens to know a friend or a friend of a friend in a potential clients' online circle, it can make a huge difference.

"Instantly the level of trust you've just built is off the charts," he added. "That's ultimately what will revolutionize this whole industry. To be a successful producer these days, you have to overcome a huge trust barrier that wasn't there five or 10 years ago."

A 2010 Socialware survey found that 60% of financial advisors already use social media for business purposes and, of this group, almost half have generated new referrals directly from establishing a social networking presence.

The survey also found that use of social media by financial professionals is expected to grow more than 70% by the end of 2011 as firms and individual advisors continue to make a more concerted effort to tap into this potential goldmine of new clients and services.

In December, an FTI Consulting report found that Generation Y investors, one of the groups most active and familiar with Facebook and Twitter, will soon become the wealthiest generation in U.S. history with a combined annual income of more than $3.4 trillion by 2018.

"Many social media websites have become more influential than the traditional communication tools used in the past," James Kerley, president of LL Global Services, said in a statement. "It is vital that our industry incorporate social media into their day-to-day business activities to reach more customers -- in particularly the younger generations."

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