Mike Ross, a portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney who oversees $500 million with a partner, now has a new role: wirehouse blogger. In recent weeks, Ross has been writing short items on Advisor Insight, MSSB’s new in-house web network.
The work takes about 10 to 15 minutes a day, and it’s nothing fancy; Ross might outline a few details on a report or a conference call that he’s come across that interests him and he thinks is worth sharing with the 18,000 company advisors who can access the network. (It is not accessible to the public, but it does give advisors talking points to use with clients.) Unlike many bloggers who cultivate in-your-face panache, Ross prefers a low-key style, even though he’s been in the business for more than 20 years and, perhaps, has earned the right to flash a little attitude in his postings (“I really don’t try to preach on it,” he says. “I’m not going to add a value judgment.”)
Ross is one of about 230 MSSB advisors who are actively blogging these days on Advisor Insight. But Ross, who’s based in San Jose, Calif., is catching on; MSSB reports that among the company advisors who follow their bloggers, he’s the sixth or seventh most-tracked.
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney may be breaking new ground with its blogging program. Blogging isn’t a function on the workstations at Merrill Lynch; spokespersons at UBS and Wells Fargo Advisors could not be reached for comment. At MSSB, blogging is just one part of Advisor Insight, a consolidated platform launched in early November that’s aimed at helping advisors work more closely together since Morgan Stanley’s acquisition of the Smith Barney advisor network from Citigroup last year. The platform lets advisors seek out colleagues within the company who have specialized skills; expertise in pensions, for example, or maybe knowledge of particular client types such as athletes or actors (some specialties includes horses and yachts.) Advisors can get advice or even seek a partnership with experts on a particular prospect. The platform has had about 7,000 visitors since its launch, MSSB says.
“It’s a wired world. We’ve tried to build this with an idea of what works on other sites and what’s useful to people,” spokesman James R. Wiggins says. There is a range of people who can offer advice, “but at the end of the day a financial advisor looks to another financial advisor as the most credible source of information.”
So how do you get to be a blogger at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney? Simple — management decides. About 460 advisors enjoy a special status on the Advisor Insight platform; they are senior performers who either manage money on a discretionary basis, or they have niche clients. About half are actively blogging, while most of the rest are working on blogging ideas they hope to launch next year, spokeswoman Christine Pollak says. Other advisors can comment on postings, but none of the blogging posts are available for public consumption. With an eye on staying with regulatory compliance, “We review all blogs and archive everything,” Pollak says.
FINRA has taken greater note of social media; it issued guidance on blogs and social networking sites  in January. Industry consultant Timothy Welsh, president of Nexus Strategy in Larkspur, Calif., says MSSB’s blogging program is innovative. “There’s always been best practices sharing by advisors within their firms. Usually it uses the form of conference calls or videos or meetings,” he says. But regulators’ strict views on how content may be shared publicly can be problematic for social media.  “It’s kind of cool and innovative to have a blog, but by the time it gets watered down by compliance or stays away from sales ideas, it’s going to be not that helpful,” Welsh says. “There’s a reason why no financial advisor does Twitter or they have their own Facebook page, because it could be construed as testimonial to the public. It could get tripped up by too many rules that were not written when social media was invented.”
For the time being, Ross is enjoying his new activity. “I want to maintain some level of visibility, because you never know where that’s going to go,” he says. The notes he gets from fellow MSSB advisors who say they’re tracking him provides the reinforcement to keep it up. “The biggest surprise I’ve had with this is how much it’s gotten into my head,” Ross says. For example, an inspiration came to him during a meeting last week and he realized he could blog about it. There was a time when such a notion would have seemed alien to him, he says. “I kind of dismissed this thing as something that didn’t apply to me. But once I got some traction, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, I can contribute with that.’“