FutureTimeline, a recently launched, free Facebook application from Fidelity, aims to help consumers “create a vision of their future, plan for big and small life events, track progress toward personal goals, and share their goals with friends and family,” according to Fidelity.

Aside from the sharing aspect, most financial advisors would probably say they do something similar, albeit in a radically different way.

While FutureTimeline isn’t meant to replace a holistic financial plan, its launch points to what is becoming more common—online, and sometimes social, financial planning tools and resources for consumers. At the same time, advisors are frequently encouraged to be “social” and to use social media as a device to build relationships with clients and prospective clients.  

Though advisors are increasingly on these social platforms, bringing financial goal setting to the social media sphere in this fashion probably won’t change the way clients interact with their advisors. Will it instead help those who aren’t working with advisors start thinking about their finances?

Well, that’s the goal of FutureTimeline said Deborah Pont of Fidelity’s public relations department. Available to all Facebook users, “it is meant to be a fun, interactive and educational way for individuals to take a proactive role in their finances,” Pont said in an email. “It is not intended to be a substitute for a comprehensive financial plan.”

However, whether people want to share this information online is still unclear. Alan Moore, a fee only planner in Milwaukee, Wis. said that while social media is becoming a bigger part of our lives, that doesn’t mean people necessarily want to share such private information as financial goals on Facebook.

“Talking about finances really is the last taboo,” Moore said. “It seems the goal [of Fidelity’s FutureTimeline] is to create social pressure from friends and family to help achieve financial goals, and I’m not so sure people will buy into it.”

Rather than create pressure, Pont said the FutureTimeline can serve as a way for families to start important conversations about financial planning.  “Increasingly, conversations about financial planning are becoming a family matter and many families find themselves making financial decisions affecting multiple generations,” Pont said.

Marie Swift, an expert on communications and social media for financial advisors said that though the application is “new and novel” right now, it remains to be seen if in fact advisors’ best clients or older clients would use it.

“It could very well be that the application will hold the greatest appeal for Gen X and Gen Y, who grew up using Facebook and may be very social in sharing their financial goals with certain friends,” said Swift.

Despite Moore’s criticism of the marketing implications of FutureTimeline (because resources point users back to Fidelity’s site), he said there are some interesting and potentially beneficial elements of the application. Moore commended the visual aspect of FutureTimeline and said it could prove helpful because visualization is very powerful in setting and achieving goals. "If this gets young people to envision just 3-5 years into the future, it would be worth it,” Moore said. “Heaven forbid, if it got people thinking about retirement; that would be really good.”

And this is in fact what FutureTimeline aims to do, said Pont. “Through FutureTimeline, we hope to help users think about their future, inspire them to save, and start conversations about their aspirations with others in their lives,” she said. “It can be a tool to help overcome inertia when it comes to setting and planning for savings goals.” Pont also pointed out that Fidelity’s website offers Fidelity and non-Fidelity funds and research from independent third party sources. 

With Fidelity's FutureTimeline, the sharing feature is optional. "Goal sharing is based on the user's Facebook privacy settings which can be customized at any time by the user," Pont said. And actually, Moore said that this type of resource might be improved without the sharing element and cited Boulevard R’s Retiremap as a tool that is better suited for the client-advisor relationship. 

That said, there may in fact be a place for a consumer friendly, social media tool like FutureTimeline, because “advisors don’t work with most Americans,” Moore said. “Anything that puts good information in the hands of consumers, I’m for it.” 

There’s no denying that social media is becoming more and more commonplace, especially among younger generations. As that happens, the type of information and the way people share it will also evolve. “Over time social media is less social media and more just our life,” Moore said. “Finding ways to integrate financial planning into our lives is a good thing.”

As more advisors work to navigate their own social media use, they may begin to see clients or prospective clients using FutureTimeline, or something like it. According to Swift, that could be good. “The advisor will almost certainly learn something new about his or her clients -- and that's always a good thing. Even now, Facebook is a good tool for learning more about one's clients,” Swift said. 

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