Financial advisors aren't diving into social media as fast as texting-obsessed teenagers, but a growing number are testing the waters.
Nearly half of registered investment advisors (42%) use LinkedIn, 27% use Facebook, and 13% use Twitter, found a survey conducted by Rydex/SGI Advisor BenchMarking last December. Their top reasons for wanting to learn how to harness social networking platforms: securing new clients (46%) and enhancing communication with current clients (35%).
Navigating the compliance aspects of social media, subject to the rules of advertising, is off to a rocky start. RIAs are fumbling with the Securities & Exchange Commission's vague rules on fraud and record retention. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority released more specific social media guidelines earlier this year but many broker-dealers are still scratching their heads and keeping registered representatives on a short leash.
Social media is "very much a moving target. It's very unclear from a regulatory perspective ... No one wants to be the first one to step over the line and get slapped with a lawsuit," says Steve Schueth, president of First Affirmative Financial Network, an independent RIA that specializes in serving socially conscious investors. "We're doing as much as we can within the context of the guidelines. It's not worth it to stretch the limitation of those guidelines," says Judith Seid, founder and president of Blue Summit Wealth Management, a San Diego-based firm specializing in sustainable and socially responsible investing. She'll be co-presenting the workshop Embracing Social Media to Grow Your Business at FAFN's 21st annual SRI in the Rockies conference this month.
Blue Summit posts financial articles to the blog on its Web site and has posted its advisors' television news interviews there and to YouTube. All postings and its advisors' LinkedIn pages, which link back to Blue Summit, require preapproval from its broker-dealer. Public comments may not be posted on its blog.
Blue Summit's big social media focus over the next year, suggested by its advisory board, will be producing professional videos. It recently recorded a series of 30-minute interviews with socially responsible separate account managers which are in the approval and editing stages. Blue Summit uses e-mail blasts to notify people of its blog and YouTube postings and is building its e-mail distribution list. It uses Smarsh, an e-mail archiving solutions provider, to comply with monitoring and retention requirements.
Social networking at the personal level is also helping. Seid, who uses her business contact information on a triathlete social networking site she belongs to, says several of her new clients are from the triathlon community. "People want a personal connection with a financial advisor," she says. She lists her company Web site and e-mail address on Facebook although she isn't allowed to say there that she's an advisor.
Seid also belongs to the Transformative Investing Network, an invitation-only intranet for licensed financial professionals established by FAFN and run on Ning.com. "It's really useful. We pick people's brains about topics," says Seid, who used it to get a client a referral for an out-of-state estate planning attorney.
Nearly 200 people belong to the three-year-old closed network, which enables members to discuss client issues and other topics without SEC or FINRA restrictions. "If we were open, we'd have to be subject to both," says Schueth. "We don't want to have to police it for compliance reasons."
FAFN has told its network of advisors they can't discuss business on Facebook. Meanwhile, Schueth has become active this year on LinkedIn where he belongs to more than 20 groups related to sustainability and responsibility. He doesn't post professional advice. He thinks his LinkedIn efforts brought new people to FAFN's BaseCamp SRI series and is curious to see if it draws participants to this month's conference. Managing assets below the $25 million minimum required for SEC registration (the Private Fund Act included in the Dodd-Frank legislation is bringing some changes) has given portfolio manager Jan Schalkwijk more latitude to explore social media.
"With a smaller firm there's more room for interpretation ... you're representing yourself," says Schalkwijk, president of JPS Global Investments. Portland-based Schalkwijk was been twittering as "Greenstockguy" for about a year. His blog, Greenmarketinvestor.com, feeds into his LinkedIn page. He's also been providing answers for LinkedIn's Q&A component.
Schalkwijk, who defers to an outside compliance advisor, says he uses social media to introduce broad topics because he doesn't know exactly where the line is. He emphasizes discretion. "Whatever you do in an offline community is amplified in the online world," he says. "If you're using it as a sly marketing tool it stands out pretty quickly."
Schalkwijk has found people of all ages using social media. "They tend to be forward thinking folks, people interested in new ideas," he says. So far, he's made mostly horizontal connections with peers in the worldwide green community. He's more hesitant to pursue vertical connections with clients given the unclear compliance boundaries.
Whether or not you're interested or allowed to use social media, now's the time to learn the trends, tools and technology so you can know what your options and opportunities are, says Marie Swift, president and CEO of Impact Communications. Her Kansas-based marketing and public relations firm serves financial advisors and allied institutions.
Swift, who conducted Web 2.0 and Social Media Boot Camp at the Financial Planning Association's annual conference in October, recommends trying blogging first, then tweeting. "Any digital presence helps improve a search engine's hunt for your Web site," she says. "A Web site should be the hub of all media activity but it's easier to promote a blog since people think it's informational."
If you're thinking of joining a social network, read the marketing material and benefits statement, and run it by a compliance attorney if you're your own compliance officer, she says.
And before your next online chat or tweet, keep this in mind: "One click goes to thousands of people ... When you put something out to more than one person it's considered marketing rather than client communications," says Seid.
Financial Advisor magazine reaches 90,000 financial planners and investment advisors through its print publication and its Web site . It also publishes FA green , for advisors interested in socially responsible investing, and Private Wealth , for advisors targeting the ultra high-net-worth market.
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