As the financial planning world continues its journey into the digital age, marketing and growing a financial planning practice faces new challenges. Some firms suffer as methods no longer work the way they once did, while others struggle to implement new strategies like blogging and social media without any clear strategy or understanding of how to do it successfully. Yet through it all, recent marketing research on advisory firms has shown a new category of marketing that has quietly emerged as the marketing method with the greatest growth on an absolute and relative basis: online search, where the firm attracts clients through Google, Bing, other search engines, and social media sharing. While the rise of online search is still in a nascent phase, its prospects are bright as the world goes digital. Accordingly, the best firms are beginning to take the key actions now that will be necessary for success, from better defining target clientele, to creating relevant content and distributing it, to beefing up the raw aesthetic quality of their websites so they leave a good impression - so that in the future, they won't have to find new clients, because the new clients will find them!

The inspiration for today's blog post was a recent survey by Rydex|SGI AdvisorBenchmarking that was shared on AdvisorOne, which evaluated the marketing methods being used by RIAs in 2011 versus 2010. The survey found a notable decrease in advisors' recent use of social media - as many early adopters have seen only limited success thus far - as well as a decline in the use of blogs and newsletters. Many categories held relatively stable, such as seminar marketing, client appreciation events, and direct mail. Yet the one surprising category with the biggest rise from 2010 to 2011: Online Search. A summary of the survey results are shown below.

Inbound Marketing and Online Search 

As I have written in the past, inbound marketing will play a significant role in marketing a financial planning firm in the future, and the recent growth of online search as a marketing strategy is just the front edge of the emerging new trend. What's notable, though, is that while online search itself was on the rise, the use of social media - which can help support online search traffic - fell significantly. In addition, the use of a blog also declined significantly, even though Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to support online searchability can actually be one the primary reason for a firm to run a blog in the first place! 

Overall, these mixed results suggest that advisors are struggling to get a clear picture of how to evolve their marketing in a digital world. The drastic decline in the use of newsletters suggests a growing realization that the world is moving digital and people are going online for their information, and that mailing paper newsletters is no longer very effective (although the data does not make it clear whether the category includes paper newsletters only, or "e-newsletters" as well), while unsolicited email campaigns are on the rise and poised to pass direct mail campaigns. Notwithstanding this shift to more digital marketing, though, advisors who have been using blogs and social media as early adopters in 2010 and prior years appear to be backing away from the approach... despite the fact that the decline appears to coincide with a rise in the results that blogs and social media are intended to create: to make the firm more searchable and more easily found by targeted clients.

Improving Online Search Results

Ultimately, advisory firms that want to succeed at marketing in the digital world must take action on the following four steps:

1) Have a clearly defined target market. If you can't explain exactly who would be searching for you, what problems that person would be facing, and what solutions you can provide, you'll never be found amidst the sea of other financial planners who all basically say they do the same thing. This is why ultimately, most professionals will need a well-defined niche to succeed in the digital world, unless they have the size and scale to be a regionally or nationally dominant firm with a substantive marketing budget.

2) Create relevant content. People use the internet to search for the answers to their problems all the time. The key is to create content that answers and solves the problems your target clients face - so that when they search for the answers to their problems, they find you (and your content).

3) Make the content findable. The internet is a pretty crowded place. It's not enough to just create the content and wait for people to find you. It's also necessary to help get the content out there, so people will be able to find it when they want to. This means distributing it through multiple channels, from email signup lists to social media platforms to a blog. It also means making the content able to be easily shared, so that people who find your content can share it with others they know who might be trying to solve the same problem. Your prospects could refer you to other prospects before they even become a client!

4) Give a good experience when people show up. It's not enough to just have the content and help people find it; the reality is that when people find you this way, your website is the first impression they'll have of you and your firm, so it needs to be a good one. This means not only does the content itself have to be good and relevant, but the website itself has to be visually and aesthetically appealing and draw people in. As recent research has shown, out of the first 7 things your prospects notice on your website in forming a first impression, the actual content ranks a mere 6th

By taking these steps, you can improve the results of your online search capabilities and inbound marketing, to capitalize on the world of the future where you don't find the clients - the clients find you. But only if your content is relevant enough and findable enough that it can reach them.

So what do you think? Have you gotten any new clients because they found you through your website or your content? If you type your own name or the name of your firm into Google, can you find your own firm? If your clients typed their problems into a search engine, would your firm come up as the solution? 

  • Susan Weiner, CFA

    This fits in with what you said in your Journal of Financial Planning Q&A about the rise of firms defined by expertise rather than geographic closeness to prospects.

    I imagine that some people have dropped blogs because of the effort required rather than because they’re ineffective.

    It’s too bad that advisors are dropping newsletters. E-newsletters–and even print newsletters–are a great way to get more mileage out of content, such as blog posts, which were created for other purposes.

  • Josh Patrick

    There’s one thing that you left out of this very good post. That’s it takes time for an inbound program to have any success. We’ve been at it for about a year and where now just starting to get twenty leads a month. Of these, if one becomes a client, I’ll think we’re successful.

    I also believe that with consistency we’ll be moving to about 40 leads a month during the next year. When we get a great follow up system in place for the leads this will produce business. But, like everything else it takes time, consistency and effort to get a result.

  • Colin Williams

    Good article. Interesting how the numbers move around. Would be good to know how many were involved in the survey as a small number can skew the numbers.

    There is little doubt that there is a lot of confusion as to the best methods to market yourself, as everything is moving so quickly.

    Both Newsletters and social media dropped off but hard to see where it was replaced. I’m guessing many are using social media as part of normal day life and maybe not viewing it as marketing. Just a guess!

    Your headline does sum it up. You will be found more often as a result of search engines and social media. And if you can’t be found, it will be a real struggle to stay afloat.


  • Kevin Condon

    Josh Patrick’s comment is right on. Think of the time it takes to generate twenty new leads using “street networking”, i.e. golf, service clubs, lunches, seminars, newsletters, etc. Used correctly, your social networking activity should take less than thirty minutes a day and draw more people to you than traditional outbound marketing, not counting blog post creation, of course.

    I’m pretty sure some blogging activity was reduced in the survey due to NO ONE IS READING THEM, and therefore the business decision was made “I don’t have time to do one”. But, the blog content isn’t the problem so much as the inability to target accurately and work a social network consistently and well. There are a handful of really successful social networkers in the profession. Why are there nearly no opportunities for them to interact? Look at the NAPFA and FPA Retreat sessions. See anything there, (present company excluded, Michael,)anything that sheds light on the ubiquitous opportunity presented to advisors by social networking?

    Your conclusion is perfectly true, Michael. Effective inbound marketing fueled by effective social networking will be the future of both online _and_ face to face advice.

  • Stephanie Sammons

    There is no silver bullet in digital marketing, and really the secret is it takes tremendous time and effort to generate results. However, it’s a bit of a snowball effect once you reach the tipping point. To get to that point, you’ve got to make a minimum of a 12 month commitment to the process.

    Also, blogs don’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to write 1000+ word articles (like we do Michael :) ) or even be a great writer. A compelling image, embedded powerpoint presentation, or even a couple of paragraphs designed to make a point can all serve as effective blog posts. Blog technology allows for mixed media formats such as images, videos, and podcasts. Granted these things take time to produce.

    As business owners, we need to think like media companies today and design your branding as well as develop your programming. It’s the new cable…and now there are millions of channels. You’ve got the opportunity to create your own unique channel and build your own unique following in order to grow your business. It’s quite a compelling once in a lifetime opportunity!

    Digital marketing is hard work, and my prediction is that 20% of the hardest working advisors (who provide quality content and thought leadership) will capture the bulk of online search and social media business opportunities…at least until the market becomes saturated.

    Stephanie Sammons

  • Hilary Martin, MBA, CFP

    Yes, I’ve received inbound calls from my blogging and social media efforts. I can’t see running a comprehensive inbound search campaign without the blog, and in that effort Stephanie Sammons and her team have been invaluable. My blog has become my voice, I may have some natural advantage due to some writing skill, but mostly I’m passionate about helping people sort through the mess of conflicting messaging and find truth and peace of mind. Financial planning is such a unique industry, where independent advisors serve consumers best, yet we struggle to make a dent in marketing and impressions due to limited budgets and ability to advertise.

    Thank you for reminding me to better define my target market (it’s in my mind, but maybe not yet communicated effectively on my blog), and thank you, Stephanie, for reminding me that it might take a year to reach the tipping point.

    I’ve been 100% to one blog post/week, and I’m trusting the process! We started right around the beginning of January, so check in with me at the beginning of 2013!

  • Kim Gaxiola

    Excellent article Michael. I will share with everyone that I have been doing a lot of what you say to do in this article. Last year in the summer I launched for supporting financial needs of women in technology. Since promoting, making content available on the site, and sharing on multiple social media sites, I can say that I have had success being found online by HNW. Most importantly, I’ve been found by the people I want to do business with.

Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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