Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time immersed into the world of blogging and social media to build my business, and have been lucky enough to have a few publications recognize my efforts in this regard. Yet while I’ve certainly had some success, I’ve learned quite a bit along the way, with a combination of an education from the school of hard knocks, and the sheer ability to harness the data that you can gather from digital marketing to really see what’s working and what’s not.
After having built on this for a little over 3 years now, I’m sure there are many lessons left to learn, but I present here my own top 5 “lessons learned” so far in the world of social media and blogging, particularly as it pertains to the strategy of how to use it to build your business.
So from the reality that social media is just a means of helping people find out about your content and expertise (not an end unto itself), to the importance of focusing on a niche, to understanding how prospective clients will find you online and the role that your website plays in the process, I hope this is some helpful food for thought if you’ve been thinking about going down the road of social media and blogging yourself, or are stuck trying to figure out how to take your current efforts to the next level.
Social Media Is A Means, Not An End
While there has been a growing hubbub in recent years about the value of social media for financial advisors, I honestly think it misses the point; social media is a means for sharing your blog content and demonstrating your expertise and making it all seen by the people with whom you can do business. Social media is not an end point unto itself, and you’re not going to get very much business directly from just social media itself.
In point of fact, this was actually my personal revelation back in 2010 when I relaunched this blog. In reality, the Nerd’s Eye View had originally been launched all the way back in late 2007, but after writing semi-regularly for a year, I was tired of the simple reality that hardly anyone was finding my content. No one was showing up and reading, and they certainly weren’t contacting me to do business. Yet as I was witnessing the rise of social media by 2010 – thanks in part to a kind nudge by advisor tech guru Bill Winterberg that I should check out Twitter – the light bulb suddenly went off in my own head: blog content may be the value I’m sharing to demonstrate my expertise, but social media is how people will find it!
Accordingly, I pushed myself simultaneously into blogging and social media with a view that the goal of my social media activity was not to “get clients” directly, but simply to get people to my blog and website where I could demonstrate my expertise, and let that turn them into prospective clients with whom I could do business.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that there is value to engaging with others on social media, and having conversations and forming connections there. Accordingly, that too has shaped my activity and focus on various social media platforms, with a heavy focus on Twitter (which is very conducive to spontaneous engagement), some LinkedIn (especially groups, which again are more conducive to conversation and engagement), and to a far lesser extent Facebook and Google+ (the latter primarily for the potential Google Authorship benefits). I’ve found some of the connections I first made on social media to later lead to rewarding connections in person as well… but again, because I not only engaged in conversations there, but also maintained a steady stream of (blog) content to demonstrate my expertise, too.
Notwithstanding the value of social media as a conduit to your content, though, if there’s one thing I really regret in building my blogging and social media platform, it’s that I started far too late asking people for their email addresses, too. Yes, the reality is that a non-trivial number of readers consume this blog using a wide range of RSS readers, yet notwithstanding this age of mobile devices, RSS feeds, and social media, the simple fact is that the majority of regular recurring readers visit this blog via one of the more-than-5,000 emails that go out every time there’s a new article posted.
And unfortunately, even when I had first started inviting people to sign up to get blog updates by email, it was a difficult multi-step process, not very visible, and there was nothing to incentivize them beyond perhaps a sheer desire to get updates. By contrast, over the past year I added several “easy” sign-up boxes, have been offering a copy of one of the more popular issues of my newsletter The Kitces Report as an additional ‘bonus’ to signing up, and it has materially increased the pace at which I add new subscribers to the blog, and therefore the growth of readership!
Stay Focused On Your Niche
To put it mildly, the internet is a crowded place. It can be very difficult to stand out. Not only amidst the sea of other websites out there providing information on virtually anything, but also an overwhelming number of media publications providing a never-ending sea of content in nearly every vertical imaginable.
Accordingly, I’ve found that the simple key to succeeding is focus. Find a niche, understand the audience that you’re trying to reach, always try to learn more about the challenges they face, provide content that solves their difficulties, and let them find you. This is the very essence of inbound marketing that blogging and social media is meant to accomplish. You can’t compete against generalist publications by being a generalist with less resources than a billion dollar media conglomerate; you can, however, be the leading expert in your particular target niche and their unique problems.
At the same time, it’s notable that enough success within a niche can actually lead to opportunities beyond the niche as well. For example, the reality is that this blog originally started primarily to promote my newsletter service and my speaking business for advisor conferences, not our financial planning firm and its services directly to consumers/clients. However, the blog has grown so visible, that now it does lead to prospective new clients to the firm (both directly via inquiries through the blog, and indirectly from the media visibility that the blog has created). In addition, the breadth of this platform has spawned several other businesses to serve my advisor niche as well, including New Planner Recruiting for advisory firms looking to hire associate planners, the XY Planning Network to help young planners start their own advisory practice serving their peers with a monthly retainer model, and Pinnacle Advisor Solutions helping experienced advisors who have hit the wall and are trying to either grow their business to the next level through investment and back office outsourcing or re-design their firm into a practice that better fits their personal needs and lifestyle goals.
Beyond the new business opportunities that emerge with growth, one of the surprising synergies I’ve also found of blogging and social media within a niche is that you can develop such a strong reputation in the niche, that eventually the traditional industry and/or consumer media seeks you out as a recognized expert! In other words, staying focused in a niche to compete against traditional media ultimately leads you to be a valuable source for traditional media as well. These days, I field upwards of half a dozen media inquiries per week – visibility that might have cost thousands of dollars a month or more for a PR firm on retainer – and it comes entirely passively on my part as a “by-product” of blogging and social media. Simply put, it turns out that your target clientele aren’t the only ones searching for experts; the reporters and editors and producers of traditional media are looking, too!
People Search For Pain Points, And You Need To Have A Service To Solve Them
While the starting point for any blog and social media presence is that you must be “discoverable” – if people are searching for you and/or your firm, they should find a website that will give them a positive first impression of a professional. However, the reality is that the majority of your future clients who find you online won’t be searching for you – they wouldn’t know who you are to search in the first place. Instead, they’ll be searching for the answers to their pain points. In other words, if your target clients type their questions and problems into Google, do you (or articles you wrote) come up as the solution?
Accordingly, it’s crucial to recognize that the best content for attracting clients with blogging and social media is the content that does the best job of answering the biggest questions/challenges/issues that your prospective clients are struggling with. And the content really should be thorough; yes, you really should be giving away as much information as you possibly can, because the key reality in the context of financial planning is that it’s not merely about having the information (frankly you can’t get paid for just giving clients information anymore, because there’s too much out there for free!). Instead, the value of an advisor – and the value that’s retained even if you’re giving away valuable information for free – is the ability to implement and use it, and the desire for getting help from an expert about how to implement it.
That being said, it’s equally crucial to recognize that if people are searching for their pain points online, and find expert information that you wrote to help them, you ultimately need a service to sell them or a way of doing business with them that actually fits their problem in the first place. For instance, if you’re writing articles about Social Security planning, the questions you’re likely to get will be about… Social Security planning, and not necessarily comprehensive financial planning, or getting help managing a portfolio. Be cautious about these kinds of mismatches; either have an option to also doing Social Security planning on an hourly basis (and then after the client pays you to do some work and is happy with the results, offer to transition them to a more comprehensive relationship), or make sure that your content will reach people who would actually be looking for a more comprehensive relationship.
Your Website Is A Filter, Not A Brochure
A “give away valuable information” inbound marketing approach is very different than the traditional financial advisor approach, where there’s often a desire to hold back information, under the presumption “If I give away too much information, none of these prospects will ever want to pay me!” In this framework, clients are scarce (you might only see a few prospective clients every month or quarter or year?), so every one you try for to get is a battle.
By contrast, the mentality of inbound marketing with blogging and social media is entirely different. The challenge is not Method A: “how do I get 1 new client from the next half dozen prospective client meetings” but instead is Method B: “if I can reach 1,000 people by giving away valuable information, how can I find a way to work with 1% of them.” Recognize that converting 1% of 1,000 prospects into clients under Method B gives you 10X the clients you were getting under Method A!
This is the fundamental difference between marketing from a mindset of scarcity with traditional advisor marketing (must push hard to get every client I can, because there are so few opportunities!) to a mindset of abundance (how do I reach thousands by giving away valuable information and convert just a small number who want help implementing it). The more focused the content is on giving the information people they need to solve their pain points, the more likely it is that they will find it, and the more opportunities there will be to work with a small subset of those people who need help applying that information in their own business/personal circumstances.
Thus, in a world of scarcity and traditional advisor marketing, the primary purpose of your website is to “sell” you and your services to your prospective client, like a digital marketing brochure. In a world of abundance with blogging and social media inbound marketing, the primary purpose of your website is to “filter” prospective clients and screen out the non-qualified ones, ensuring that the only ones who contact you are the ones who will value you, your services, and want to do business with you.
Accordingly, this is why it is ultimately so crucial to put all the pertinent information about your services on your website; not just to communicate the ‘features and benefits’ (which still matter), but also your fees and costs, any associated client/fee/asset minimums, and the target/ideal clientele you work with. Because if you actually try to draw in all of those prospective inquiries, and have an email conversation/phone call/meeting with every conceivable prospect (the traditional approach), all you will end out doing is wasting an immense amount of time with people who can’t/won’t work with you anyway.
In other words, simply put, your blog and social media are the funnel that bring a large volume of people to find your content and expertise and “wonder” if they should do business with you, and the website should be the screening tool that filters through those readers to ensure the only people who contact you are qualified prospects who actually want, and can afford, to actually do business with you!
Build On A Solid Platform (That You Own)
In the new world of digital marketing, your website and the associated blog are the core of your online presence and the virtual storefront for your business. As a result, it’s absolutely crucial to build upon a solid foundation, which means you absolutely, positively, must actually own your digital presence.
Accordingly, this means that you should always own the domain name of your site, and put all of your content on your website. Domain names can be registered for a ridiculously cheap price; the cost of ‘owning’ your little corner of the web has never been cheaper, and there are numerous quality providers who can host your website. Don’t be a digital sharecropper building your business on someone else’s virtual farmland like Blogspot or WordPress.com, at constant risk that a change to their pricing/services/business model could be the end of yours.
In addition, it’s crucial to build your site on a content management system (CMS for short) that will evolve with the times – which means something big and open source that has thousands and thousands of developers constantly iterating on enhancements and plug-ins and solutions to make it better. The leading CMS option in this space – probably sufficient for virtually all financial advisors – would be WordPress (meaning you install WordPress to run your site, not set up your blog on their WordPress.com platform). Drupal or Joomla are acceptable alternatives as well. But be very cautious about getting locked in to a proprietary content management platform from some industry niche provider that will leave you stuck if the company isn’t big enough to do the continuous development to keep pace with the competition (and realistically, most advisory industry providers are not big enough to keep pace if they’re building their own proprietary platform).
In retrospect, one of my greatest personal mistakes in building my blog was that I stayed far too long on an outdated CMS platform, and was constantly struggling with the inability to add simple plug-in features which are abundantly available now that I’m on WordPress. And indeed, the site’s traffic has grown significantly since I finally made the transition late last summer and this blog was ‘reborn’ anew. Which means in the end, perhaps the greatest key to building a good digital presence is simply to be using the right tools that make it as easy as possible in the first place!
So what do you think? Are you active at all with blogging and social media? What lessons have you learned the hard way? What's working for you? If you're looking to get into more blogging and social media, what are you still struggling to figure out?