Fair-goers using laptops at the US search engine giant Google's stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. — AFP Photo
NEW YORK, May 14 - It isn't vain to Google yourself over and over again, especially if you are a financial adviser - it's simply prudent in an era when consumers check online reviews of everything from restaurants to slippers before they sign on the dotted line.
Roughly one in two people with investable assets between $100,000 and $1 million said they use social media to connect with professionals, according to a LinkedIn survey done in March. That Web-savvy client base, coupled with the growth of several adviser-monitoring services, means that wealth managers must actively manage their online presence, industry experts say.
“Every adviser should be very cognizant of how they're portrayed on the Web, where they're judged by people they don't even know yet,” said Mike Alfred, co-founder of San Diego-based BrightScope, which two years ago launched an online directory of financial advisers.
Potential clients who want to check out an adviser can start with a simple Google search, or log on to sites such as BrightScope, AdviceIQ and MyFinancialAdvice, which all collect and publish information about everything from adviser licenses and employment history to side hobbies and languages. Advisers should control their own online profiles, share required disclosures with clients and learn to use online rankings and ratings to a marketing advantage. The right online strategy can help win clients.
Some sites require advisers to sign up and create their own profiles; other sites aggregate publicly available information regardless of whether the adviser is involved or not.
BrightScope, for one, gathers information on brokers across the industry, taking data from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, state insurance department disclosures, and self-reported information from advisers and their firms.
Advisers who want to personalize their pages, can do so if they pay a monthly fee of $100. They can replace the default shadow profile box with a photo, add a more detailed description of their services, and post personalized content.
PLAY OFFENSE, NOT DEFENSE
A key aspect of any vetting process includes looking at past records, or in the case of financial advisers, regulatory reports that disclose any former infringements or complaints.
While that data is initially published in detailed reports from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's BrokerCheck system, public sites are picking it up, making it easier for investors to find via search engines.
“Consumers are getting smarter, and pretending it doesn't exist is a bad strategy,” Alfred said. For wealth managers, that means keeping disclosures visible on their own Web page, and talking about any past problems candidly with clients and would-be clients.
THE MARKETING ADVANTAGE
Advisers can also market online, making sure they show up on sites where consumers look for financial help such as MyFinancialAdvice, a site that publishes a directory of independent, fee-only advisers.
It's useful for them to include as much specialty information about themselves as the site will allow: whether they are fee-only or take commissions, for example, or whether they specialize in women clients or young professionals, and what part of the country they are in.
“Advisers have always and continue to have a difficult time getting their personal brand communicated to their local client base,” said Nick Stuller, chief executive at AdviceIQ, which runs a database of more than 2,000 advisers.
AdviceIQ does a regular ranking of advisers, based on criteria selected by the site's editors, such as “top advisers to divorcees” in a specific region. The site features advisers included in those rankings. Stuller said AdviceIQ sends advisers copies of the rankings, which otherwise are not archived, so they can show them to clients, both current and potential.
Advisers who use AdviceIQ pay $995 a year to be featured.
BUILD YOUR OWN
Even advisers who don't pay for third party listings should at least make sure to curate their own image. “You need to at least be online and have a decent Web presence,” said Kim Sharan, chief marketing officer at Minneapolis-based Ameriprise Inc, which encourages its advisers to use LinkedIn to expand their client connections.
Make sure that your online presence matches your offline presence, Sharan said: “Be authentic. Think about how you are positioning yourself in the written word. Does that match who you are in person? What does your picture look like? Is that you?” The market for these sites is still in its infancy, said senior research associate Grant Easterbrook of Corporate Insight, a financial services research firm.
Most of these sites are two years old or less, and there still isn't a category killer. But Easterbrook predicts growth and more pressure on advisers to get involved.
“Advisers have so much to do in a given day,” he said, noting that monitoring their online presence will need time and effort.