Twittering To The Top

Social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter can be great business builders for financial advisors. You just have to be smart about it.

You won't find out what Ryan Pinney ate for breakfast if you sign up to follow him on Twitter (twitter.com). Known on the fast-growing social networking website as The ProAdvisor, Pinney, 34, sticks with practical messages, which, like all missives on the site, must fit into 140 characters or less. “I prefer to send out very little content, but I listen to all of the conversations taking place and get the pulse of the marketplace,” says Pinney, a chartered senior financial planner at Pinney Insurance Center in Roseville, Calif. “When I do send something out, it's targeted and relevant.”

That may be why Pinney has attracted close to 1,500 followers in less than three months of using Twitter — and the reason his posts are leading to new business for the family-run company, which brokers both insurance and financial products from offices in six states. Pinney recently attracted a new client, a 41-year-old dentist from the Bay Area, after sending out a simple tweet that said “Disability income — the forgotten insurance,” which pointed followers to a full-length entry about the subject on his blog, The ProAdvisor (TheProAdvisor.com). The dentist posted a comment on the blog, then sent Pinney a direct message on Twitter, asking for more information. Pinney wound up putting together a disability insurance package for the dentist and his practice, after which point he was asked to create a 401(k) plan for the group and handle some of the dentist's personal financial planning. Better yet, his new client opened the door to about eight other colleagues in the building. “He's given me introductions and entrée to the other dentists in his group,” says Pinney.

Pinney doesn't just use Twitter. He has also won new business through connections on LinkedIn (linkedin.com). Recently, after doing some work for a partner at a law firm, he requested LinkedIn introductions to the other partners. Two of those partners have already made referrals that led to a new project in May. “They were doing trust work for someone and realized there was a need for additional life insurance for estate liquidity purposes,” he says. “It ended up being about $20,000 in additional revenue to our agency.” The beautiful part is that Pinney has only spent about $300 for his social media push, entirely for expenses related to his blog, such as domain registration and web hosting. All told, he devotes about five hours a week to writing the blog, making comments on other sites, and using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Digg, a site where users share articles, videos and images from the web.

If you've ignored social media sites because you've heard that teens dominate them, now may be time to give some of the bigger ones a second look. (Even the SEC is using Twitter to communicate with the public.) The majority of Twitter users are now 35 and up, according to comScore, a company that does Internet marketing research. Facebook saw its greatest growth in the 35 to 49-year-old age group (24.1 million) from December 2007 to December 2008, with a substantial jump in users between the ages of 50 and 65 (13.6 million), according to Nielsen. And the average LinkedIn user is about 40 years old. Meanwhile, you might not connect with many ultra-high-net-worth clients on social networking sites, unless they are private or invitation-only communities aimed at this demographic, like ASmallWorld (asmallworld.net). But there are plenty of high-income professionals on certain well-known sites that you can access for free. About 60 percent of LinkedIn members report an annual income of $93,000 and up, while those with personal incomes of $200,000 to $350,000 are most likely to have 150 connections or more on the site, according to a study by Anderson Analytics and LinkedIn conducted in Nov. 2008. “With social media, I find I'm attracting a totally different type of client,” says Pinney.

He's not alone. Adam Blumberg, 34, who sold an IT service firm and began working for Strategic Financial Group, a MassMutual Agency, in January, won his first client, a website consultant, who bought disability insurance, after meeting her through a friend on Twitter and inviting her to lunch. “I'm not writing about financial planning strategies,” says the Houston financial planner, who has taken his Series 7 test and is awaiting his credentials to become a broker. Recently, when Blumberg sent out an exclusive announcement to his Facebook and Twitter friends about a financial planning seminar, 11 people showed up. “I had never met seven of them,” he says. He's now following up with six who asked him to contact them immediately. He sees social media as an efficient alternative to cold calls and direct mail letters. “I think that's how a lot of people in my generation are going to do it,” he says. Social networking sites can also be useful for developing relationships and sharing business strategies and tips with other industry professionals. LinkedIn has numerous groups for financial advisors, like The Financial Advisor Network, Financial Advisors United or The Wealth Management Group, where seasoned professionals engage in discussions about business strategies, partnerships, recruiting needs, or regulatory changes. Blumberg has found it particularly helpful to connect online with other entrepreneurial types, with whom he shares a lot of common interests.

Of course, using social media can have its downsides. You have to be just as careful not to break regulatory rules here as you do on your company website. And you don't want social media websites to become an addicting time suck. You may need to keep an eye on how much of your day you invest in such sites. Here is some advice on how to use the sites to win new business while avoiding these drawbacks.

Be Cautious

To avoid problems with the SEC and FINRA, from day one, submit any material you post to the same rigorous compliance standards and reviews that your firm uses for printed materials, say experts who specialize in social-media marketing for financial professionals. “Whatever you do with your offline marketing, you've got to do with your online marketing,” says Sam Richter, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of ActFi, a practice-management solutions firm in Plymouth, Minn. that helps financial advisors and institutions develop their social media presence. Make sure you check on your firm's policy before you register for any online community. “Any time we have something remotely questionable, we have to run it up the flagpole,” says Pinney.

Set Up A Good Record Keeping System

In case you do receive questions about material you've posted from regulators, keep a printout of any page on a social media site where you publish or update information, even if you are simply changing the word “from” to “to,” Richter says. “If the SEC were to come in and say, ‘Show me your online communication,’ you would want to be able to take out a well-organized folder with date stamps,” Richter says. For added assurance, keep a permanent, noneditable digital copy, such as a TIFF file that you back up on your hard drive, Richter recommends. This might slow you down somewhat, but if you're busy working with clients, you probably don't have much time to be writing on your Facebook “wall” and firing out tweets anyway. There shouldn't be scads of stuff to save and backup.

Seek Out Niche Networks

Michael Fitzgerald, 34, a wealth manager at Fitzgerald Financial Partners in Houston with both his CPA and CFP, says he has attracted about half of the 25 clients at his two-year-old, fee-only firm through social media, primarily by posting a bio his compliance lawyer approved on a couple hundred social media sites. These communities include specialized ones he believes will attract prospects who are a good fit for his retirement-focused business, such as Modern Medicine, a hub for physicians, and Active Rain, which focuses on real estate, an asset he incorporates into his financial planning strategy. Today the internet is full of specialized social networks, and some aggregators, like ning (ning.com), host hundreds of them, allowing you to search for specific kinds of groups. “You don't want to take over the entire internet,” says Fitzgerald. “You want take over the internet of the people you're interested in working with.” Usually, clients come to him. Recently, for instance, he began working with a married couple of physicians who found him on Active Rain.

Do Some Detective Work

The advanced search capabilities of LinkedIn can help you uncover new prospects you might never have considered, so it's worth taking time to read instructions on the site and learning how to use it, says Richter, author of Web Search Secrets: Take the Cold Out of Cold Calling (Adams Business & Professional). (For a tutorial on LinkedIn, go to http://learn.linkedin.com/linkedin-search/#advanced_people_search.) Say you want to attract more high ranking corporate executives as clients. You can use this powerful search to look up all of the VPs at a particular corporation with a strong presence in your city, then see if other people in your network on the site know them and are willing to make an introduction. When you view the prospects' profiles, any mutual connections you have will pop up. If you do have shared connections, you can then ask your contacts for an e-mailed introduction on the site. “When an advisor asks for a referral, it can be an uncomfortable situation,” Richter says. “It's easier to say, ‘I have five executives at Best Buy I'd really like to meet. Do you know any of them?’ That's the power of LinkedIn,” he says. “It can allow you to find people and connections you never knew existed.”

Write Your Profiles Strategically

LinkedIn is one of the most popular and highest-traffic sites for business people, so make sure you take some time to polish your profile there. As a first step, opt for the free vanity url that includes your name, which will help pull it higher in Google searches, Richter advises. And make sure to fill out the profile completely, he says. By filling out the “specialties” category carefully, you can influence the keyword searches on LinkedIn where your profile appears, he notes. Even the details you include in seemingly inconsequential categories such as “interests” will create a particular image of you for potential clients, so consider them carefully, he says. “When you talk to clients about why they hire a financial advisor, they say, ‘Because I trust the guy. We have the same core values’,” he says.

Watch Out For Minefields

Publishing recommendations clients have made about your work on social media sites such as LinkedIn may be tempting, but it isn't a good idea, by all accounts. Because these could be construed as testimonials, making them visible might get you into regulatory trouble, says Richter. “Some people believe you can accept recommendations from nonclients, such as fellow board members of a nonprofit,” he says. “My counsel is don't even go there,” says Richter. “The SEC has not ruled. It's not worth the risk.”

So how can you benefit from word-of-mouth publicity on social networking sites? You have to leave it to your clients to do the work for you — which they may do without prompting if they see your name popping up there. Edward Gardner, a certified financial planner and CPA at Edward M. Gardner PC, a 33-year-old, 1,000-client firm in Houston and author of How to Start Your Financial Future (Outskirts Press, 2008), was pleasantly surprised to win two new clients, after existing ones sang his praises to their friends and family on their own pages on Facebook, which he recently joined.

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