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As social media becomes increasingly popular, the financial planning world has struggled to figure out how social media marketing fits into the big picture. Where can an advisor find time to engage in social media amidst other efforts to network, develop business, and drive referrals? And of course, all of that marketing activity has to fit around the time to actually run a business and serve clients, too!

Yet from a best practices perspective, social media shouldn't be viewed as an alternative to networking and referral marketing. Instead, social media is simply another way to do networking and referral marketing in the first place! After all, social media success still ultimately relies upon making personal connections and building relationships to generate new business. Or viewed another way, relationship marketing is all about being social, and social media is just another medium for being social!

The caveat, however, is that while networking meetings and referral marketing are often a slow, one-client-and-center-of-influence-at-a-time effort, time invested in social media is able to be leveraged to reach dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of prospective clients at once. In other words, ultimately social media is not an alternative to networking and referral marketing, it's simply a more leveraged and scalable way to do it! Which also means if you're trying to figure out where to find the time to start getting engaged on social media, you might look to carve the time from some of your other, less efficient and effective marketing activities!

Social Media As Networking And Referral Marketing

The truth of financial planners using social media, which is intuitively obvious to most people anyway, is that no financial planner gets a new financial planning client just by sending out a tweet one day. If getting someone to transfer their life savings to you was as easy as putting together 140 characters into a tweet or two, we'd all be overflowing with clients at this point. Instead, the reality is that connecting with new clients - and centers of influence who can refer them - happens by establishing relationships, and relationships in turn require cultivation through an ongoing series of interactions to build and establish trust.

Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey

Accordingly, financial planners engage in the ongoing steps with clients and centers of influence to build and establish trusted relationships, necessary to develop business, generate referrals, and gain new clients. Of course, just as with social media, the reality is that trust is not instantly established the first time an advisor shows up at a networking meeting or asks for a referral, either. Instead, as Stephen Covey discusses in his book "The Speed of Trust", a positive balance in the "trust account" is built up over time by consistently engaging in the key behaviors that establish trust, a combination of character-based behaviors (e.g., talking straight, demonstrating respect, and being transparent) and competence-based behaviors (e.g., delivering results, confronting the difficult issues, and continuing to improve yourself).

However, the truth is that demonstrating and engaging in these key behaviors over time simply requires engaging with others in a social environment, not necessarily any particular social environment. Which means ultimately, these steps to building trust can potentially occur in any social medium, whether it's a networking meeting, or a conversation on Twitter. In other words, social media doesn't replace networking, it's just another medium for being social (Tweet This!), and to the extent that trust is built through social interactions, it can be done via social media just as it can be done via in-person social interactions as well.

And in a similar manner, just as generating referrals through networking events typically happens not at the first meeting you show up to, but only after an ongoing series of interactions that establish your trustworthiness and credibility, so too does social media require a series of ongoing interactions to build trust over time. The point is not to send out a single tweet to get a client; the point is, just as with in-person marketing and networking, to become a trusted source of credible information and solutions through an ongoing effort to make deposits to your trust account with all those you interact with in that social environment, culminating in an opportunity to do business with (or generate referrals from) those people with whom you have built a connection.

Why Social Media Over Other Marketing Approaches?

So if social media marketing still demands the same kind of consistent and ongoing relationship-building efforts that traditional networking and referral marketing require, then why bother changing to a social media marketing approach? The answer in a word: efficiency.

The challenge of doing in-person networking is that it can be remarkably inefficient. There may not be a lot of networking opportunities in the area, or the competition with other financial advisors may already be significant; furthermore, some people just struggle to network and market themselves effectively in the first place. The end result can be hours spent out of the office at a networking event, just to walk away with only three business cards, none of which turn out to be opportunities to do business together or generate referrals. And the only way to collect more business cards and make more connections and hopefully develop more relationships is to spend even more time going to networking events.

By contrast, when engaging in social media marketing to deliver on the core aspects of an inbound marketing approach as a financial advisor - finding, creating, and sharing relevant content to your target audience that establishes you as a trustworthy and credible provider of solutions - the effort is substantively the same whether you are reaching dozens, hundreds, or thousands of prospective clients and referral sources via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other platforms. From the perspective of getting started, that can be a significant challenge, as a significant time commitment is necessary and the early results will be very limited. Yet just as in building all other aspects of a business, scalability and long-term efficiency are keys for long-term success.

In addition, it's worth noting that social media activity can have other, indirect benefits that make the time more valuable as well. Social media activity can make in-person meetings with prospective clients more efficient, as people who meet with you will already have had a chance to get to know you and get comfortable with you; if it's someone you won't get along with because they don't agree with your planning views and philosophy, that will likely come through in your social media presence, which means they will never contact you and waste your time in the first place. Conversely, those who do find a connection with your views and perspective will essentially be "warm" leads who already feel a connection with you the very first time you meet, accelerating the in-person trust-building process. Furthermore, the greatest social media success ultimately builds on itself; if you deliver valuable information, eventually the people who follow you will share that information with people who follow them, and your network will build on itself simply on the basis of your existing, ongoing efforts. This can be especially important if the goal of the business is rapid growth, or if your business model requires a higher volume of clients to be profitable (e.g., hourly planning).

The bottom line, though, is simply this: while the initial time investment may seem like a lot of effort with very little payoff, it's crucial to remember that unlike traditional networking, as the social media audience and success grows, the results can increase exponentially while the time obligation remains the same. In other words, social media is a fantastically scalable marketing effort for a small business.

Tips For Finding Time To Start Social Media Marketing

So given that social media does take at least some time - and most financial advisors don't exactly have a lot of spare time on their hands - how does one find the time to get started?

The key is to recognize that since social media marketing is ultimately just like other networking and relationship marketing - just more efficient and scalable in the long run - the easiest way to find time is to identify what other, less efficient marketing activities you're engaged in, and carve away some of your unproductive time into a potentially far more productive direction. In other words, don't look at social media marketing as something you have to find time for, on top of everything else you do. View it as something you allocate time towards instead of some marketing effort you're already doing that's less successful, effective, or efficient.

So once you've carved out a little bit of time, what should you do next? Here are 5 tips that may be helpful to get started:

1) Start Simple. Don't look at social media as something you have to do with a giant splash all at once. It is something you can tiptoe into over time. As a starting point, I'd suggest created a LinkedIn profile (if you haven't already), and focusing on filling it out entirely (as your first presence on a social networking site, especially one so focused on business professionals, you don't want to look like you're half-a**ing it!). For a good "LinkedIn 101 Guide" for financial advisors, check out this article for ideas about what to include in your profile and what to share on LinkedIn.

2) Listen Before You Leap. If you want some perspective on what social media is all about, and what works, start by just showing up (virtually) and listening in on the conversation. Twitter is a platform that's particularly conducive to just listening; you don't have to tweet or say anything to get value from it. And as an added benefit, if you communicate nothing and participate anonymously, you don't have to worry about any of the compliance hassles. See here for some guidance on easy ways to get started on Twitter as a financial advisor.

3) Share what you read already. Success in social media - as with almost any networking and relationship-building effort - is to be seen as a trusted and credible source for information and solutions. Hopefully, you already make an effort to read and keep yourself up to date on the latest news and information that's important to, and regarding, your target clientele, so the next step of social media is to simply share what you already read. With the online tools available today (see here for a list of what I use for social media activity), you can make your initial social media efforts little more than tapping a quick button on your screen after you finish reading what you were reading anyway, making the marginal effort to share content all of about 2 seconds!

4) Communicate In A Manner Comfortable For You. Once you've established your initial social media presence, and you've started to share what you're reading that might be of interest to your target clientele, the next step is to begin creating some of your own content to share that demonstrates your personal knowledge and expertise. While writing blogs is obviously my preferred mode of communication, there's no particular requirement that a social media content effort has to be built around the written word, especially if writing is not your thing. If you prefer to talk and interview people, consider podcasting. If you're better communicating visually, try videos and creating a YouTube channel. The bottom line: utilize the communication style that works best for you.

5) Schedule Yourself. If your plan is to do a little social media here and there whenever you get around to it, and you have a normal, busy financial planning practice, you're never going to get around to it. Accordingly, the key to social media success - and any marketing success, really - is to create a plan of what you're going to do and when you're going to do it, on a consistent basis, and then hold yourself accountable to that plan. The good news in the context of social media, though, is that the time commitment can be a small, bite-sized effort on a regular basis, not big chunks of time like networking events and other marketing activity. So set your goals accordingly. It might be checking in on Twitter and LinkedIn for 10 minutes a day, sharing at least 5-10 articles a week, and creating 2 new pieces of content (blog article, podcast, video, whatever) each month. But if you don't have a schedule you're committed to and can be held accountable to, you're not going to get it done.

The bottom line, though, as noted earlier, is that ultimately social media is not an alternative to networking and referral marketing, it's simply another way to do networking and referral marketing, creating social engagement to build relationships with an approach that is more efficient and scalable in the long run. And as marketing activity, if you're struggling to find time to dip your toe in social media, you might start by looking at what other marketing activity and effort you're already doing that you could repurpose. While social media won't likely have any quick wins - nor does showing up for a single networking meeting - the long-term opportunity is incredible.

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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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