Here are a few outreach tips from one of the fastest-growing advisory firms in the country.
The geek in me always looks forward to the T3 conference, recently concluded at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Once again, the exhibit hall was an electronic bazaar of products, new enhancements and a lot of tech tools you’ve probably never heard of or realized you needed. The sessions were a mix of product announcements, interpretations of current and future tech trends and explanations of, very specifically, how this or that tool will make your life easier.
This year’s meeting seemed to have more than its share of major announcements, upgrades and changes in what you can do with your desktop.
Among the most significant came from T3 itself. Founder/CEO Joel Bruckenstein recommended that the audience visit a new jobs site at www.T3TechJobs.com, which does something completely different: it serves as a resource for finding those tech staff positions that are totally ignored by the job sites that cater to finding openings for financial planners. Need somebody who is fluent in Redtail, MoneyGuidePro and Orion Advisor Services? This will evolve into your go-to resource.
Meanwhile, why should the galaxy of exhibitors be confined to ordinary real space when they can also exhibit all year long in cyberspace? T3 has created its Virtual Exhibit Hall, not only offering virtual booths, but also real reviews from real users on different tools and upgrades.
The vendor announcement that seemed to get the biggest buzz was TD Ameritrade Institutional’s Model Market Center, which brings together third-party model portfolios that advisors can “subscribe” to, created by, initially, Wilshire Associates, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Russell Investments, State Street Global advisors, WisdomTree Investments, CLS Investments, Anchor Capital Advisors and Cambria Investments. More will be added, including portfolios created by advisors in a peer-to-peer sharing system.
Why the buzz when there are other model marketplaces out there? TDA Institutional’s announcement validates the concept, for one thing. But perhaps more importantly, the Model Market Center is integrated with iRebal—and one of the biggest advantages of using the Center will be providing a customized tax overlay on client portfolios. That won’t be easy with platforms that don’t come with tax management capabilities.
But suppose you want to provide index portfolios to your clients at a rock-bottom cost? Orion’s announcement of its Advisor Strategy and Tax Return Optimization (ASTRO) platform, to be available March 1, offers similar advantages to TD Ameritrade’s new platform: the ability to automate a customized tax overlay on portfolios that track each other without necessarily having to be identical. Orion (https://www.orionadvisor.com/) also has its own peer-to-peer model marketplace, called Orion Communities, and its booth drew a crowd of curious advisors who wanted to see how it works.
There is also a new risk tolerance assessment tool called Risk Essentials, announced at T3’s conference. The tool takes a gamification approach to evaluating how clients review market risk, make spending choices and develop their goal priorities—what the parent company TrueProfile.com believes takes the two-dimensional approach to risk tolerance into a third dimension.
There were banners everywhere for AdvisorEngine (www.advisorengine.com), the all-in-one advisor work environment, recent purchaser of the Junxure CRM program, which also owns the Wealthminder goals-based financial planning program. AdvisorEngine is promoting holistic wealth management that provides something more than the promise of most of the exhibitors (greater practice efficiency): deeper engagement with clients because they, themselves, can interact with advisors on the advisor’s website and tech stack. The full capabilities are still in beta, expected to become widely available this Spring.
If that wasn’t enough, MoneyGuidePro was announcing enhanced client portal capabilities—tools from a company called MX—which allows clients to evaluate their own savings habits, cash flow needs and historical spending and income data. The tool seems to be aimed at helping advisors work with younger, less-wealthy clients who are either in debt or in a stage of life where it’s hard to put daylight between spending and saving.
And, of course, there were affiliation and joint announcements: investment research provider YCharts (www.ycharts.com) partnering with Dynasty Financial Partners, and the comprehensive client portal Everplans being adopted into the Raymond James Financial advisory system.
Social Media Wizard
Squeezed between visits to the exhibit hall, there were actual educational sessions, many of them hosted by tech executives themselves. But the one that I most enjoyed was a presentation by Josh Brown, aka Downtown Josh Brown, aka The Reformed Broker, blogger, serial tweeter (with more than a million followers), author (“Clash of the Financial Pundits;” “Backstage Wall Street”), media celebrity (CNBC’s daily “The Halftime Report”) and CEO of New York-based Ritholtz Wealth Management, where he works with a group of other tweeters and bloggers, including company founder Barry Ritholtz, Bloomberg Media commentator and author of “Bail Out Nation” and “Super Boom.” The staff includes Ben Carlson, director of institutional asset management, who writes the popular financial blog “A Wealth of Common Sense,” and director of research Michael Batnick, who joins Carlson for a popular joint podcast called “Animal Spirits.
Brown’s firm is basically a blogging, tweeting, commenting, media machine, and was recently named the fourth-fastest growing wealth management firm in the U.S. by Financial Advisor magazine. “We’re building a practice based entirely on the opinions that we share in the public,” he said.
Brown was here to tell us how to do our own version of social media outreach, and how the social media efforts at Ritholtz had benefited the firm.
But… Why would you want to go to all that trouble in the first place? Brown told the audience that Ritholtz Wealth Management has enjoyed a number of advantages from its social media habits. The first is recruiting.
“Advisors join us because they believe in what we’re doing and they want to be a part of that movement,” said Brown; “not because we were willing to pay 2.5 times revenue and the other guy was paying 2.3. We’re not using recruiters and we’re not running employment ads. Everyone who works on our firm, from research to certified financial planners, has come to us because they were reading our blogs. Every single one.”
The second advantage is marketing to consumers, who are looking for authentic voices that give them not just information, but also a perspective that comes with a level of candor that people seem to find refreshing and trustworthy. “If you put your points out there, then like-minded clients who want to be a part of it, they find you,” said Brown. “Our firm gets hundreds of quality inbound client inquiries, seven figure and up households, every single month. Last year, we didn’t have enough people to follow up with them all. As someone who spent a decade cold-calling high-net-worth individuals, and begging them to spend a few minutes talking to me,” he added, “I can tell you first-hand that this is a much more fun way to build a business.”
The third advantage is that many of these clients are not only pre-sold, they are trusting and ready to buy into a planning and investing process that they already understand. “We only end up talking with fans of the firm, and fans of our message,” Brown told the group. “When they’ve been reading you for a while, there’s a comfort level that would otherwise take months to cultivate. They trust us, they feel like they know us, they get what we do.”
And finally, the planning process moves along more quickly, because of this pre-established level of trust. “My CFPs, the people who are talking to inbound inquiries, they are having deep-dive information-gathering discussions with prospects relatively quickly,” said Brown. “When you have people calling you, they are obviously a lot more willing to share information about themselves. I think that’s a really big differentiator in terms of our process,” he added. “Within the second conversation, they’re going in.”
Beating the brands
So… How did they do it? “There really was no deliberate plan when we started out doing what we do,” said Brown. “All we were trying to do is use our blogs to say thoughtful, interesting, intelligent things. What we’re doing is taking the innate talent in the firm, letting the world take a peek behind the scenes, and playing up the fact that the firm is an ensemble. It’s a group of advisors and experts who are working together.
“Which is what prospective clients want to see,” Brown added. “That’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a team that can be their team.”
Brown said that it’s surprisingly easy to get a bigger following than, say, Merrill Lynch. “People don’t follow brands,” he said. “They follow people. That’s why the Kardashians have 50 times more followers than the E-Channel, which they appear on. That’s relevant to every vertical, finance included. Nobody wants to follow a brand.”
Later, he made fun of a major financial institution’s online outreach efforts. “Whenever I see video from a major brand in finance, I laugh,” he said. It is like a $50 billion company hosting a video on Facebook, and it gets four likes. On Twitter, it gets two retweets. They couldn’t even get their own employees to retweet it. There’s no engagement, no interest, no buzz, one comment, nine likes.
“And the reason,” Brown added, “is because it’s boring, it’s cliched, it’s completely what you would already expect: people sitting around, a guy in front of a bookshelf, or a woman sitting behind a news desk—like public access television but worse, because it’s about a boring topic. The stuff was written by a committee, the consultants got involved, and they are failing conventionally because they were afraid to attempt something bigger.”
Meanwhile, any advisor willing to put out authentic views of her opinions can stand out. “I don’t care how much money the legacy firm has,” Brown said. “You have a chance to start from scratch and build something entirely unique, something authentic that finds its own audience. You don’t have to write the best content out there every day; you don’t have to come up with dazzling insights all the time. But if you try and fail and try again and continue to get better, and figure out what your readers like about you and then play that, it’s going to happen.”
He also said that in the process you can become a better advisor. “This is going to force you to crystalize your value proposition, your investment beliefs, your philosophy,” Brown told the group. “Through that process of building authority, you become better at what you are already doing.”
Brown said that most advisors are getting bad advice about social media from their marketing consultants. “They’ll tell you that this is just marketing to bring in new clients,” he told the group. “I think that’s a really big misnomer about social media.
“Everyone frames it as: tweet and get clients,” he added. “If you’re thinking about social media as a big lead generation tool, I think it’s the wrong conversation in 2018. I think this is more valuable as a client retention tool. Your existing clients are your primary audience, the ones who going to be consuming your content, assuming they found you that way. You become part of their reading habit. And actually, you have their money now, so you should expect to be getting more attention from them, not less, in everything that you do.”
An additional advantage is that you save time and energy during the times when the phones of most advisors are ringing off the hook. “When you have the week we just had in the markets, 600 point swings up and down, 1,500 points intraday, our clients have questions,” he said. “It’s not realistic for an advisor to speak to every client they have on a single day. Our clients know exactly where they can find out what we think. Our thoughts and views are on display, and they don’t have to wait for us to push out an email to them.
Another misconception is that you need to create clever material, or have dramatic insights every week or month. “Authenticity and personality are the keys to the whole thing,” said Brown. “All things being equal in this business, people do business with people they like. And you build likability from trust, wit, having interesting things to say, fun ways of looking at things. This is not about doing the one great article and then spamming links to everyone in your inbox. It’s about living it, publicly, at all times, and standing for something very important to you and your clients.
Brown also said that most people believe that you have to get on traditional media in order to drive users to your blog or Twitter account. “Today, the game has been completely flipped on its head,” he told the audience. “In the old days, it used to be you would go on TV to promote your website. Now they book people who have a big web presence and a big social presence. Not just CNBC but all media.”
Brown told the story of doing an interview with the Washington Post about market volatility, and then they asked him: Could you tweet it?
“I said: You’re the Washington Post! You need ME to tweet a link to your story?!? But the truth is,” he continued, “the reason I originally got on TV was because of the things I was saying on the blog, and because of the audience I built online. The mainstream media is looking for people who have an online following already.”
Another misconception is that only younger people access information on Twitter or blogs. “I’m going to be in an airport in two hours, and I’m going to walk through the airport, and what am I going to see?” Brown asked the audience. “What is everyone in the airport doing? They’re staring at their phones. The older people are on Facebook, younger people are on Instagram, insane people are on Twitter, and everyone has their social media preference.”
I don’t think everybody in the T3 audience was convinced that they’re as equipped at creating a social media voice as two best-selling authors and a few additional talented writers. But you don’t have to have a million viewers to get the advantages of pushing your opinions out into the blogosphere. If your clients enjoy reading your messages, they will be more likely to proudly forward links to your blog, or retweet your messages, to others who might resonate with your outlook on planning services and the markets.
The T3 environment itself, with all the announcements and all the new tech initiatives, was a perfect framing device for Brown’s message. With all the tools at all the booths, any advisor probably has more efficiencies in his/her monitor, and better productivity leverage, than reps at the largest brokerage firms, who have legacy systems and which move forward by committee and consensus. Being willing to speak out without a committee is just another extension of the same advantage to the smaller independent firm.
(Next year’s T3 Technology Conference for advisors will be held January 29-February 1 in Dallas.)