As the Web evolves, so can your business.
Wikis, blogs, webcasts, instant messaging, podcasts, RSS feeds--just keeping up with the definitions of new and ever-evolving technology is enough to make your eyes cross.
Concepts like e-mail, e-zines, e-newsletters, e-books, and online surveys are easier to grasp simply because they take something we once received in physical form and morph it into digital form. But virtual cities where real people can create an alternate reality and "live" online through their "avatar" identity and get sucked into real debt? Wait a minute!
Don't believe me? Here's an excerpt from an article on News.com:
"Second Life users can purchase virtual items with a pretend currency called Linden dollars--named for game creator Linden Lab. But they use real-life currency to acquire that virtual coin. In fact, there's an exchange rate between the two: One U.S. dollar will buy 271 Lindens, enough to buy a basic outfit for an avatar, which is the digital representation of a person."
While we're all busy professionals and must stick to the primary tasks associated with serving our clients and producing revenue, none of us can--or should--ignore what's happening on the bold, new Web frontier. There are ways for even the most technophobic advisor to use Web 2.0 tools to his or her advantage.
What Is Web 2.0?
The phrase Web 2.0 refers to the second-generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites, wikis, and folksonomies (see the Web 2.0 Glossary at the end of this article) that facilitate collaboration and sharing between users. Technologies such as intranets, weblogs, social bookmarking, podcasts, RSS feeds, social software, Web APIs (application program interfaces), Web standards, and a proliferation of online services have led to a significant shift in how people work and use the Web.
What we're seeing is a transition. Web sites are no longer isolated information silos, they are sources of content and functionality. Some even become computing platforms, serving Web applications to end-users. We are also seeing a social phenomenon: People have embraced the act of generating and distributing Web content. The phenomenon is characterized by open communication, decentralization of authority, and freedom to share and re-use information.
The good news/bad news is this: Now anyone can become an instant "author," pumping out information (or misinformation). The challenge--both for you and your clients--has become determining which sources are reliable and which are not. There is also an enhanced need for organization and categorization of content; technologies such as furl and digg were created to provide a solution.
But while the Web continues to evolve, human emotions and needs remain the same. Studies show that people go online for three things: To find information, to communicate with family and friends, and to shop. They often have their favorite sources of information and might set one site--a trusted blog such as the Huffington Post or a straight news source such as CBS Marketwatch--as their home page, and will they check it several times a day for key information and updates.
So what does this mean to you? Client and prospect behaviors are changing as fast as individuals find new solutions for their news, information, and consumer needs. That means that effective media relations and marketing is critical to your success as a financial planner, especially with boomers and the affluent, most of whom are online with broadband Internet connections.
In today's crowded marketplace, you know it's vital to differentiate yourself as the advisor of choice in your local buying area. Effective media relations and marketing can provide the differentiation you need. If you have a good online presence, it's quite possible that clients, strategic partners and even journalists will "stumble on" and reach out to you.
Great Aims on the Web
One great aim is to use the Web and other electronic communications to educate the public about personal finance, financial advisors, and the profession. Educated consumers make better clients and can more aptly select the right advisor to help them meet financial goals. When they choose a specific advisor, it's important to remember that they are choosing the person--someone with whom they feel safe, comfortable, and willing to share their deeply held hopes and dreams.
That means you need to humanize your Web site to build the relationship and establish trust. Fill it with process graphics and people pictures (the majority of which should represent the types of people you want to serve), audio messages from you and professionally produced video (preferably from larger organizations with whom you're affiliated). Make your Web site as "human" as possible. Put photographs of yourself and your staff in the "About Us" section, but never on the home page unless you are some sort of celebrity. If you'd like to take things a bit further and show a less formal side of your firm, create a "scrapbook" or "events" page; add photos (with captions) of you doing things you love, such as volunteering in the community, running a marathon, coaching Little League, hosting your radio show, accepting an award, or speaking at a conference.
If you use a brief movie on a splash page or an audio on the homepage, keep the wiz-bang Flash animations to a minimum and give people the opportunity to opt out, cancel, or somehow squelch the multimedia presentation--you want to emphasize the human touch and give people choice. Fill your virtual and media relations world with the sights and sounds of people. For instance, if you use e-mail communications, put your photo in the signature space. Give people lots of opportunities get a sense of you and your team. You want them to start thinking "this is someone I think I might like and trust."
In today's world, consumers expect you to have a Web site. It's one of the ways they gather information and determine if you're a viable resource. It takes the pressure off of them and gives them a safe way to check you out on their own terms. Still, it's amazing to me how many advisors don't even have a Web site (or, if they do, it's an embarrassingly bad one). Pay attention to your site; the key is to keep it simple, professional, and fresh. Don't have a Web site? Better get with the times.
Using Web 2.0 Tools to Build Trust and Visibility
If you want to branch out further, you might add podcasts, videocasts, webinars, e-newsletters, or a blog; then either post that information to your Website or push it out via e-mail to your firm's mailing list. Autoresponders such as AWeber make it easy to formulate and manage an e-marketing or client communications campaign. Services such as Constant Contact or I Make News give you attractive options for creating a custom e-newsletter, while companies like Advisor Products, Forefield, and HNW Publisher provide attractive semicustom options.
Consider making use of online survey tools, such as Survey Monkey and Zoomerang, or add a clients-only section to your Web site. The clients-only section might provide access to their investment accounts and contain client-specific document vaults that contain wills and trusts, insurance policies, and other important documents in case they want to check on these without making a phone call. That can save you and your staff work too. Services such as Pete Wheeler's Family Office Network even allow you to set permissions to allow strategic partners (such as the client's CPA or attorney) to access certain portions of the online document vault.
Many advisors want to know if they should start a blog. My reply is a resounding "maybe." While a blog can provide another forum for you to express your opinions and share information, it can be time consuming. Blogs should be kept fresh to attract a following you'll need to post weekly or even daily reflections. In addition, many advisors tell me they plan on blogging about the markets and financial matters; this can be problematic from your parent company or broker/dealer's perspective, and it might not be allowed for legal reasons. Keep in mind, too, that a blog entry should be short and less formal than a Web site entry. If all you're going to do is post market commentary and educational content, why not go through the normal quality-control process and reserve that for your Web site?
Keep in mind that the Web can be like a narcotic. Don't spend a lot of time pushing out electronic communications and creating grand Web sites, calling your e-efforts "relationship building," while, in reality, your relationships have begun to languish. Keep things in balance and don't get swept away with your own creative brilliance. You can be writing the best blog in the world, but do your clients and ideal prospects really care?
So the real questions become: Who is your target and what is important to them? What local organizations and virtual communities are they involved with? How are they using the Internet? How do they prefer to receive information? How do you most effectively connect with them . on their terms?
Many clients, even younger ones, still prefer a phone call and a hard-copy newsletter to e-mail messages and e-newsletters. They may have cell phones and iPods, but they're not likely to be reading your blog on their Blackberries. Time is precious, and unless you are providing the most compelling content, people are as likely to delete your e-mails as they are to read or forward them.
The truth is, we all suffer from information overload. And, now that anyone can become an overnight "author" by self-publishing an e-book, writing and distributing a white paper, posting articles on their own sites or creating a blog or e-newsletter, consumers have even more critical of information sources, tuning out all but their most trusted brands and, one hopes, ratcheting up their discerning mind.
When advisors ask me about using new media to build relationships with clients and prospects, my first questions are, "Who are your ideal clients, what are you trying to accomplish and why do you think this may be an effective method for achieving that goal?"
If your ideal clients spend their time interacting with peers through virtual means such as My Space, Linked In, or Eons, and you have the time and inclination to start your own blog or participate in an online community, then you might do well to invest in that effort. If, on the other hand, your ideal clients spend more time traveling, dining out, golfing, attending the symphony, or supporting the arts, you might focus your efforts on becoming visible in those circles through volunteer efforts, advertising in related directories and event programs, writing for associated publications, speaking at their meetings, and hosting affinity events. While your efforts may be focused on achieving visibility through traditional methods, you can supplement your campaigns by posting travel and lifestyle tips on your Web site, sending information via e-mail or creating an online calendar and event reservation system.
Web 2.0 Glossary
Podcast: A method of publishing audio files to the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed and receive new files automatically by subscription, usually at no cost, for instant listening or downloading to their computer or music player (such as an iPod, which is where the "pod" in podcasts comes from).
Wiki: A collaborative Web application, generally open to the public. Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia, is one example.
Blog: A blog (or weblog) is a journal (or newsletter) that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blogs generally represent the personality of the author or the Web site.
RSS: A family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. An RSS document, called a feed, contains either a summary of content from an associated Web site or the full text. RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite Web sites in an automated manner that's easier than checking them manually.
Social software: Programs that allow users to interact, share and meet other users--My Space, LinkedIn, and YouTube are examples.
Social bookmarking: Some sites allow users to post their list of bookmarks or favorite Web sites for others to search and view. These sites can also be used to meet others sharing common interests. Examples include digg, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon and furl.
Folksonomy: A way to tag and retrieve Web-based information (anything with a URL) for one's own later retrieval. Your tagging may sometimes be shared and open to others.
Online social network: Communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. They are primarily Web based, and provide a collection of various ways for users to interact, such as chat, messaging, e-mail, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging, discussion groups, and so on. For example, Eons is billed as "the first and largest online gathering place for people lovin' life on the flip side of 50!"
Intranet or "Web office": A private network (it resembles a password protected version of the Internet, usually confined to an organization). Allows work groups to collaborate in real time 24/7 via shared calendars with automatic reminders, libraries of information, discussion forums, contact management systems, and document archives.
Webcast or webinar: A seminar held on the Internet, linking participants via conference calls and PCs with access to the Internet. It can be a one-way presentation, or there can be interaction between the audience and host. (Check out MorningstarAdvisor.com's webinars here.
A recent convert to the LinkedIn virtual business community, Marie Swift is president of Impact Communications, Inc. While she loves the ease of connecting and sharing information via the Web 2.0 and is a self-proclaimed e-mail addict, she has not yet created an avatar. Visit www.impactcommunications.org for a link to her one-entry blog.