Dan Sondhelm is a partner and VP of SunStar, a marketing and public relations firm located in Alexandria, Va. Sondhelm is also the editor of iFinancialMarketing.com, a Web site designed to help financial marketers with shareholder communications.

The business of marketing mutual funds is looking mighty grizzly these days.

Most formerly strong performing equity mutual funds are in the tank and fund advertising directors are scrapping performance-touting ads, scrambling for more soulful messages or even scaling back on advertising altogether.

Does that mean your fund group should collectively crawl under their desks and hide until the market rebounds? Absolutely not.

Believe it or not, the market's reversal can spell opportunities. Tougher markets and leaner times just mean that it's time to rethink your marketing strategy and redirect your dollars to be sure you get the very biggest bang for your buck.

The Power of PR

A proactive public relations campaign combines media awareness with a comprehensive plan to remain up front and visible for the entire world to see--whether the stock market is soaring like an eagle or sinking like the Titanic.

An effective PR effort can be an efficient, inexpensive and time-saving way to get your fund group's message out or win your savviest portfolio manager, smartest equity analyst or most insightful executive a few minutes in the spotlight. That not only helps boost your firm's profile and potential fund sales, but even a thimble-full of recognition may boost the self-esteem of some of those melancholy managers.

Remember the ads of just a couple of years ago that screamed eye-popping triple-digit fund performance?

Remember when it made perfect sense to pay big bucks to have your fund's stellar performance numbers sprawled across the pages of big-name business publications and glossy magazines for all the world to see?

Well, those advertising dollars are harder to come by these days, and fund companies are not advertising in their usual publications. Many are being more selective about their marketing dollars. That is clearly evidenced by the ripple effect as those same newspapers, magazines and online sites have seen ad revenues fall off sharply.

The question to ask is: Is your funds' current performance or inspiring message really worth the $81,000 price tag you would have to pay for a single half-page ad in the national edition of the Wall Street Journal?

How about Leaning on Your Wholesalers?

The successful mutual fund wholesaler works at building trusting relationships, then escorting assets to your front door. But the bottom line is that fund wholesalers expect top dollar.

According to a recent compensation study, the average mutual fund wholesaler pulls down over $200,000 per year. Multiply that by the number of wholesalers needed to span the entire country, and you're talking big bucks.

A smart approach is to make your fund available in the now numerous mutual fund supermarkets. That can be a wise distribution decision: Put the product where the shoppers are.

But are fund investors actively shopping given the current state of the equity market, or are they just window shopping?

And don't forget that it costs real money--from 25% to more than 30% of each dollar your supermarket proprietor rings up--to secure prime supermarket shelf space.

Media Relations

So what's PR got to do with it?

To borrow a well-known corporate tag line from yesteryear, the core concept is to "Reach out and touch someone." That "someone" is usually a reporter, an editor or a broadcast producer. The media is an integral component of any savvy initiative to get into the public eye.

Like it or not, reporters and journalists are your very necessary connection with the rest of the world and your core audience--be they retail investors, hungry brokers or independent financial advisers. In reality, the media can become a very powerful tool for getting your message out and boosting your fund group's profile.

Getting to know and understand who the various media players are is a great first step. You'll want to know which reporters and editors cover mutual funds, and which publications and broadcast or online media groups you will want to hone your message to. Then you, or a PR agency, can work at developing relationships within those organizations and with their key people.

Keep in mind that PR is not a stand-alone effort. It can dovetail perfectly with your advertising and wholesaling efforts by reinforcing brand identities and affording your salespeople a concrete news article to hand to advisers or offer on your firm's Web site.

Harnessing the Media

Whether you love the media, or love to hate the media, you must agree that collectively, the media is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

A glowing story about your company may enhance efforts to attract assets. In reality, that reporter or publication or news program has unofficially endorsed you and your product.

On the flip side, a very negative news story can be harmful and can hinder attempts at attracting investors.

Think of the most successful business merger. Then consider exactly what made that merger so successful.

In all likelihood, the two firms had strong complementary capabilities. The end result was a combined company that emerged bigger, better and stronger.

That same kind of partnership can and should take place when you bring your firm's PR efforts together with reporters, editors and broadcasters.

Your need: To get some recognition for your fund group. A busy reporter needs: A great fund story to pitch to his editor.

You want: To put the spotlight on your up-and-coming star portfolio manager. A top news producer's desire: An equity expert to put on her newscast.

Reporters live to uncover, explore and analyze news and events. Editors want to fill pages or vacant Web site space. Broadcast producers yearn to fill chairs and special spots and airtime. So why not give all of them exactly what they want?

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