As an advisor, one of our most crucial but difficult challenges is figuring out how to get new clients to grow the business. In recent years, several new digital platforms have emerged with the aim to bring consumers and advisors together - allowing advisors to showcase their knowledge by answering consumer questions, with the hope of acquiring new clients. However, as I've warned advisors before, building your digital marketing presence on third-party websites can end badly, and this week's abrupt shutdown of NerdWallet's Ask An Advisor platform is a case-in-point example of what can go wrong!
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, I discuss marketing lessons learned from the news that NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor Platform is shutting down - particularly the risks associated with building your digital marketing strategy on "borrowed land", and what you should do instead to succeed in the long run.
For financial advisors that were using the platform, NerdWallet's announcement to shut down their Ask an Advisor platform came as an abrupt surprise. The personal finance site had started out providing credit card comparisons back in 2009, but in more recent years had branched into other channels, from bank accounts and mortgages, to offering a platform where consumers could ask financial questions and financial advisors could respond to those questions, in the hopes of gaining some visibility and possibly even a new client. But, with only three days notice, NerdWallet suddenly announced resources were being allocated towards other company priorities, and advisors will lose the ability to respond to questions, or even directly edit their profiles, after March 31st.
Notably, this is precisely the type of risk that I've warned advisors about for some time when it comes to building your digital marketing strategy on someone else's platform. Advisors who have poured their heart and soul into the Ask an Advisor platform suddenly have to start their digital marketing strategy all over again from scratch. And the reason they have to is because they built on someone else's platform. If you're an advisor on NerdWallet, you just lost all of your equity value from the content you built, even though NerdWallet can continue to monetize your content by placing ads for their products, their solutions, and their advertisers next to it. That's the risk when you create value but don't retain control of it because it's on someone else's platform!
Now, certainly digital marketing can be an effective strategy for advisors, but the ultimate point of all of this is that if you want to succeed in the world of marketing online, it's not just about creating content to demonstrate your expertise, but retaining control of it so you can build on it over time. Which not only avoids the risk of having the content disappear when some other company decides to "reallocate resources" elsewhere, but also ensures that you have the ability to control how the prospect experiences the content, and the call to action they get at the end! Which is what really drives new client results!
In the end, building on your own websites means that you own the traffic, you own the SEO value, and you can create the call to action that turns readers into bona fide prospects – all without worrying whether you are going to lose control of the platform or your ability to engage a prospect in the future. Don't be a digital sharecropper. Build a foundation you own, you control, and that you can leverage to turn your audience into real new client business!
(Michael’s Note: The video below was recorded using Periscope, and announced via Twitter. If you want to participate in the next #OfficeHours live, please download the Periscope app on your mobile device, and follow @MichaelKitces on Twitter, so you get the announcement when the broadcast is starting, at/around 1PM EST every Tuesday! You can also submit your question in advance through our Contact page!)
#OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces Video Transcript
Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Office Hours with Michael Kitces!
For today's Office Hours, I want to talk about the rather abrupt news this week that NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor platform is shutting down.
For those who aren't familiar, NerdWallet is a personal finance website, one of a few that was born in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and their key service when they launched was a credit card comparisons solution. Consumers could go to NerdWallet, enter some information, and then get suggestions about the right credit card that matches their situation. And at the end, NerdWallet would pass along the consumer to the credit card company to open up a new credit card account, and the credit card company paid a commission to NerdWallet for the referral. And that was their core revenue driver – affiliate marketing (i.e., commission lead generation) for credit cards.
NerdWallet had a lot of success with this. And after six years, they were estimated to be driving almost $100 million of revenue, still driven primarily by the credit card affiliate offers, and they had a huge $64 million Series A round of fundraising in 2015 to accelerate and grow further. Obviously, one of the caveats of their business is that there's only so many people that need a new credit card in any particular year and are going to use NerdWallet to do it. In order to sustain the growth and diversify their revenue lines, NerdWallet started adding other channels. They added bank account comparison tools and mortgage comparison tools. And then, in 2013, they started coming into our world of financial advising as well.
When it came to advisors, NerdWallet didn't build out a full on comparison tool, but they did launch a solution called Ask an Advisor. The idea to Ask an Advisor is that consumers can come to NerdWallet, ask a financial question, and advisors would then respond to the questions. If the consumer liked it, they might follow-up with the advisor to do business, and at worse, the advisor got some visibility. And from NerdWallet's perspective, it gave people more reasons to come to their website, as well as provided a source for a growing volume of free content. Because every time someone answers a question, that's content on the site that can be found by a search engine, which brings in more users to their website. For NerdWallet, that's an opportunity to cross over people to other products if they can just get more traffic.
And then more recently, NerdWallet even added a premium service called AdvisorVoices, where you can pay a little more and have a feature article written about you, which would hopefully bring a little bit more visibility to some of the content you were creating.
NerdWallet Closes Ask An Advisor (AAA) Q&A Platform [2:20]
But suddenly, this Tuesday, after some advisors I know had been building on Ask an Advisor for three years, NerdWallet sent out an email notice to all of its Ask an Advisor participants informing them that Ask an Advisor was being shut down on Friday. So that's three years of building, and then three days notice that it's being shut down. And that's that. The company is "allocating resources to other company priorities now".
Notably, NerdWallet did clarify that all the questions that consumers have asked, and all the answers that advisors have provided will remain on the platform. So, the content is still there, and it can still be found. It will still show up in Google searches (at least for now). The advisor's profile page, which is kind of the core anchor that consumers read and find an advisor through, will remain as well, with a link back to the advisor's website and their name and photo.
But, once the service shuts down, those profile pages will no longer be active, which means you can't change them anymore. Whatever's there stays there. NerdWallet did say that over the next couple of months, an advisor can contact them directly and have them manually make a change or request that the profile page be deleted. But, after June 30th, you won't even be able to ask them to delete your page anymore because they're completely discontinuing support for the service. And so, presumably, you won't be able to change it anymore at that point either. It'll just be frozen in time.
In other words, NerdWallet's going to walk away from the Ask an Advisor platform. It didn't meet their business objectives, so they're not supporting it anymore. The content will stay because... why not? It's already driving some traffic for them and it costs virtually nothing just to leave the web pages up. But no more advisor logins... no more advisors answering new questions... no more new content... not even the ability to edit your existing content... and not even the ability to edit your profile page.
If next year you change firms, you have a new business, or you make a new website – tough luck! Your NerdWallet page will still point to your old firm and your old website. You can delete your profile in the next three months, kind of preemptively, or just accept that you're going to have an old obsolete profile in Ask an Advisor pointing to an old firm and website you've long since left, and that you can't even change later. That's the challenge when a platform gets abandoned.
Don’t Build Your Foundation On Borrowed Land [4:23]
For those of you who have been following my discussion of digital marketing over the years, you know that I have long warned advisors against building their digital presence on other people's platforms for this reason. When Investopedia launched their Advisor Insights platform last year, which is their version of a Q&A platform for advisors, we did an Office Hours like this and I strongly urged advisors to skip it and not build there. And similarly, I've warned people not to build on Facebook because then you're beholden to their platform.
What happened to the early adopters of Facebook? A lot of them got screwed. They spent a bunch of money and effort building a big audience, and then Facebook told them, "Now you have to pay to get your content seen by your own audience who already liked your page." At that point, what are you going to do? You're stuck. You've already invested in the audience. Now you have to pay again to reach them because you're beholden to their platform.
And so I've warned advisors against LinkedIn Publishing for the same reason, and not writing on Blogspot or WordPress.com for the same reason. Simply put, don't build your business's marketing foundation on borrowed land. Don't be a sharecropper that farms on someone else's land. Because you know what happens, eventually the landowner takes control of the land again for their needs and kicks you off. And then what? They've got beautiful farmland, you've got nothing. That was the sad fate of sharecroppers 150 years ago, and that's the risk you face today when you build on someone else's land by using platforms like Ask an Advisor.
Now, after all, even with NerdWallet shutting down, they still get the benefit of everything that's made in the past. They still get the SEO benefits, they still get the consumer traffic. If they decide to go another direction and offer some new service, they can put new products and new ads next to the advisor content that advisors made three years ago. You have no control over it. They just get to reuse it and remonetize it some other way, because they own the content advisors donated to them for free exposure that didn't get them much business... but NerdWallet keeps the value.
Now, to be fair, I'm not trying to suggest that NerdWallet was being nefarious here. I think they entered the advisor marketplace in good faith to do something that would be successful for all involved. Because, the reality is, if they had been able to convert traffic into new clients for advisors, everyone would win. NerdWallet could start making money by charging people for the service, because advisors will pay for lead generation. They could have gotten paid for client leads the same way that they get paid for credit card leads and bank account leads and mortgage leads. And it would have been good for a lot of advisors to get clients, because it's hard to get clients. If you get a platform where you answer some questions and you get some clients, it's a good deal for everyone involved.
But the issue remains that when you pour your heart and soul into a platform like Ask an Advisor or Investopedia Advisor Insights or WalletHub or LinkedIn Publisher or Huffington Post or Medium – all those different third party platforms out there for content – when the platform changes its mind or its vision or its direction, you're screwed! You're left twisting in the wind. You lose all the equity value of what you built.
At best for an advisor, NerdWallet is now basically an empty shell for their Ask an Advisor pages. NerdWallet can still monetize the products, but advisors can't anymore. So you lose the value of your content and they can put ads for their products, their solutions, and their advertisers next to your content. They'll still make money, but you can't anymore. And at worse, sometimes these services just shut down and vanish altogether, and your content and all your work and all your value is completely gone.
I talked to one advisor last year that actually had answered over a thousand questions on NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor. Think about that. A thousand questions! If it takes you five or six minutes to find a good question and answer it, write up a quick response, that means he probably spent 80 to 100 hours writing content on NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor platform. And now, it's shutting down and now he's losing control of what was created. And I had asked him, how much business has he actually got out of all that activity, all those hours that he put in. Cumulatively... three prospects! That's what he had, three prospects. And I asked him how many of those were qualified. One. And did the one do business? Nope. That's the problem with building on other people's foundations.
What You Should Do – Build Your Own Platform [8:24]
The ultimate point of this is, if you want to succeed in doing any kind of online marketing by creating content that demonstrates your expertise and actually turning it into a real client business, then you have to build on your own platform. You have to build on your own foundation. Don't build on borrowed land. I know a lot of people hear me talk about this and they think it's something like, "It applies for Kitces because Kitces built a big site, but it doesn't apply for me because I'm an advisor that's getting started in all this."
I started somewhere too. I went back and looked. The first year that we had the site, on a good day, a couple dozen people showed up, and most of them were people I already knew. The second year, we maybe doubled that. A hundred people might show up on a good day if we posted a new article that was really popular. But what happens when you build on your own foundation and you add to it over time? Now we run an article, 10,000 people show up on the first day, and more show up on day two. That's the difference when you build on your own land and you own the equity of it and you can build over time.
Ultimately, that means creating your own website, with your own blog, and putting your content on your website, where you own it and you control it! And you don't have to worry about putting 80 hours into a platform, only to get an email with three days' notice that says, "Sorry, we've decided to allocate our resources to other company priorities." Because when it's yours, it's yours. It's your call and not someone else's.
And the reality is, the biggest key to this from a business development perspective is that it's not even just about owning the content, it's the ability to control how the reader interacts with the content and what call to action they get at the end. Because when it's your website, you can serve up a message that says, "Hey, did you like this article? Want to learn more about what I do? Click here to read more about me." Or you can give them a little nudge that says, "Like all this content? Think it's helpful? Want to get more of my expertise? Sign up for my mailing list," and get their email address. And then start sending them expertise content regularly and build a relationship with them.
Because the truth is that virtually no good prospect is going to do business with you because you answered one random Q&A question brilliantly on a website. Right? If that was their one thing and you answered it on the website, they're done. They're going to move on. I think that's a huge reason why people that answered a huge volume of questions on platforms like NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor didn't actually get any business out of it. I mean, at best, maybe you'll get a lead and they'll ask you more context about their question, but they haven't had time to get to know you and trust you enough to hand over their life savings and put their financial future in your hands based on one Q&A. Which means all you're really doing is giving your content, your expertise, and your greatest value to some other platform where they can make money off of it while you pray that someone happens to click through and do business with you.
I think that's a huge reason why people that answered a huge volume of questions on platforms like NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor didn't actually get any business out of it. I mean, at best, maybe you'll get a lead and they'll ask you more context about their question, but they haven't had time to get to know you and trust you enough to hand over their life savings and put their financial future in your hands based on one Q&A. Which means all you're really doing is giving your content, your expertise, and your greatest value to some other platform where they can make money off of it while you pray that someone happens to click through and do business with you.
And it's a pipe dream. It just doesn't happen that way. It's not that you can't create a business with clients online, but if you really want to do business with the prospect who read something that you wrote online, you need to connect with them more than once. You have to connect with them repeatedly over time. It takes time for people to know, like, and trust you, which means you have to build a connection to them, which means they have to come to your website, and that's where you can engage them... where you can sign them up for your mailing list... where you can connect with them on social media... so that they become a regular reader. Because that's what ultimately builds the trust that turns into a real business.
I know a lot of you have heard me pound the table on this for years, but I continuously see advisors not taking the advice and building on other platforms. And then sad things like this NerdWallet announcement happen and they find out that they're losing the value of everything they've built.
For those of you who are on Find an Advisor or something similar, use this as a tough life lesson reminder that it's time to stop building on borrowed land and start building on a platform you own and you control. And you can even do it the same way. I mean, if you're getting questions from clients and prospects, turn them into Q&A answers and write the answer, but write them on your site, so you own the answers and you own the traffic and you own the SEO value, and you can put a call to action that engages the prospect to become a regular reader and get to know you and like you and trust you and eventually become your client.
The bottom line is, there's actually nothing wrong with Q&A. It's a great way to create content, but please, please stop building on borrowed land. Don't be a digital sharecropper. Build a foundation you own and you control and that you can leverage to turn people who see your expertise into clients and real business.
This is Office Hours with Michael Kitces, 1 p.m. East Coast time on Tuesdays. Obviously, a little bit off today because of my travel schedule this week as I was speaking for FPA Minnesota yesterday. But thanks for joining us, and have a great day!
So what do you think? Were you a user of the Ask an Advisor platform? Did you get results? Do you have any regrets now? Do you think it is best to build on your own platform? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!