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Don’t Fear the Future, IAA Social Media Panel Says

Ah, the good old days of the mid-1990s, when business people debated whether they needed a website. Lately there’s déjà vu in the air now that social media is playing a greater role in the affairs of financial advisors. Do I need to be on Facebook, or have a Twitter account? Do my clients really care?

It seems that they do, a panel assured more than 100 advisors at this week’s Investment Adviser Association conference in San Francisco. Two-thirds of LinkedIn users consult their network on investment issues, said Lee Kowarski, principal at kasina, a New York-based financial services consultant. Those social media users are more likely to share information about their advisor with their networks, he said.

Taking a casual poll of the audience, Kowarski found that just 10 to 15 percent of those assembled are active users of social media. Nationally, nearly 76 percent of financial advisors are using social media in some fashion, according to kasina research, and their numbers are growing.

For example, 61.1 percent of those polled last year use LinkedIn, up from 48.7 percent two years earlier. And 47.6 percent belong to at least one LinkedIn user group. kasina found that 20.9 percent of advisors last year used Twitter, up from 13.3 percent in 2009. And 9.4 percent of advisors follow industry experts’ tweets.

Wendy L. Harrington, executive vice president, global marketing services, at FranklinTempleton Investments, likened social media strategy to an orchestra—each element of media serves as a separate instrument but all are following the same piece of music.

Franklin Templeton’s marketing goals are to connect with, engage and service their clients. It started with a blog two years ago on financial issues that’s picked up by other companies around the world; the effort was followed by FT presence last year on YouTube (videos during the muni crisis) and Facebook, to reach a broader community, Harrington said.

Harrington’s advice to neophytes: “If you haven’t started yet, you want to go onto LinkedIn, get your profile up, join a discussion group, and just look and observe how it works. And then you can figure out how you would like yours to operate.”

David Edwards, principal of Heron Financial Group in New York, said advisors should tailor their social media strategy to the markets they are trying to reach. He agreed that LinkedIn is a good place to start.

“Busy executives have no time for Facebook, but they live on Linkedin. That’s where they got their job, how they hire their staff, that’s where they get their next job.” Advisors who track executive moves on the site have a good chance of reaching out to prospects when they switch jobs and are looking for financial advice on how to handle the payouts from their previous job, he said.

Facebook, meanwhile, is favored by people under 35 or older than 60 (grandparents who like to stay in contact with grandchildren,) he added.

Client expectations have changed the way Edwards manages his firm’s website. He said he wasn’t a fan of posting his picture on it, but was persuaded to do so. “You are now the brand,” he said. “In a post Bernie madoff world, clients want to see the whites of your eyes before they pick up the phone. They’re still afraid.”

He also posts white papers he comes across that he thinks are worth sharing on his Facebook blog; it gets fed through Twitter to the firm’s home page. “Fresh content says we’re engaged.”

Small firms have nimble advantages over larger ones when it comes to social media strategy, Edwards said. “I’m the president, chief marketing officer, and chief compliance officer. We have a very short decision cycle,” he said. “A lot of larger firms are very worried about the compliance thing. I think you just have to accept that there’s a risk, like there was with websites’ e-mail, and just push through that.”

W. Hardy Callcott, a partner at the law firm of Bingham McCutchen LLP, said more regulatory guidance is emerging on social media. Finra has issued two notices on the subject, and the SEC in January put out some advice for registered investment advisors.

“On the legal compliance side, the key things are how do you supervise it and how do you retain it. Think through the technology issues of that at the outset because once you start it, it’s hard to go back and bootstrap in,” Callcott said.

Kowarski agreed with Edwards that advisors shouldn’t let compliance concerns keep them out of social media.

“The reality is, every firm wanting to explore this space has been able to find ways to do it in a compliant fashion. The regulations are behind, but they’re catching up. They see this is the wave of the future,” He said. “This isn’t a fad. We might not be talking about Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn five years from now, but we’ll certainly be talking about interacting with our customers in a way that’s very different than we were five or 10 years ago.”

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