Seizing opportunities in social media

Jan 19, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Trevor Hunnicutt

For many advisory firms, social media is the ungainly jigsaw piece that doesn't seem to fit in the puzzle.

Even for financial advisers who find ideal clients on the web and engage them in a way that actually wins their business, both of which can be a tall order, is it ever possible to keep the compliance folks happy?

Maybe that question is a problem only for those who choose to view it that way. At Searcy Financial Services Inc., an independent advisory practice based in Overland Park, Kan., advisers approach social media in a way that suggests that they see online communication as a solution rather than a problem.

SHOW, NOT TELL

Instead of fighting the regulatory limitations on how much they can boost their business, Searcy's technology maven said the firm works within and around those limitations.

“We can't tell people that we're wonderful and we're giving and we're generous, nor can we allow other people to say things like that about us,” Searcy adviser Jessica A. Maldonado said.

So where the firm can't use words, it uses pictures, posting flattering photos of charity work on Facebook and Instagram, she said.

“It's a way for us to be able to say, "Hey, we're generous and we're caring and we're thoughtful,' without ever saying any of those things,” said Ms. Maldonado, 34, who is in charge of technology, compliance and human relations.

“It creates a mood when people see that kind of thing routinely,” she said. “They get a good feeling and good vibe about the company that we couldn't otherwise communicate.”

Searcy's immersive use of social media was among the reasons why InvestmentNews recognized the firm for excellence in its 2013 Adviser Technology Study, which surveyed 409 firms. Searcy also earned a 2013 Best Practices award and the highest score in the study's “innovators” category for its cloud- and mobile-based core applications.

The registered investment adviser's other initiatives have included using technology integration to speed up new-client initiations and installing voice-over-IP telephones at the homes of its advisers to allow communication with clients on the go and during emergencies. In fact, Ms. Maldonado permanently works out of her Peoria, Ariz., home, more than 1,000 miles from the firm's headquarters.

And Searcy has synthesized its policies on technology — from computer security to social media — into a nine-page document.

It is isn't exhaustive but enough to put in the hands of a trustworthy employee, Ms. Maldonado said.

"EARLY ADOPTERS'

“We've always been early adopters,” she said, recounting the nearly four-decade-old firm's use of pricey, early-model computers and dial-up Internet, with its hiss-and-synth soundtrack.

But Searcy learned to embrace technology once it proved itself capable, Ms. Maldonado said.

“We're no longer on the bleeding edge,” she said. “You don't want to buy too many $55,000 computers.”

But Searcy's forays into social media cost little and have paid extraordinary dividends, according to Ms. Maldonado.

For instance, the firm's president, Michael J. Searcy, last year helped a client participate in an ultramarathon-length run of 44 miles and posted pictures on Facebook.

“As a result, people have gotten exposure to our firm, and they've referred half a dozen of their friends to us,” Ms. Maldonado said.

Three or four have become clients, generating recurring annual revenue of $40,000 at little cost, she said.

“There's nowhere else where we could have that kind of return on investment,” Ms. Maldonado said.

The problem, as she sees it, is that other advisers tend to approach online social media the way used-car pitchmen approach television ads.

“But a lot of these social-media venues are not for the purpose of sales,” Ms. Maldonado said. “They're for the purpose of sharing and having relationships with people.”

Many advisers develop intimate relationships with clients, forged through discussions about personal matters, Ms. Maldonado said.

“We get into messy stuff, so part of the social-media thing for us is being able to be vulnerable with you, because I think that's endearing for people,” she said. “But it's not for sales.”

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