Practice Management

Marketing through connections

Sep 8, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By James A. Anderson

IVORY JOHNSON and Stuart Armstrong are proof that marketing to a niche demographic can be as simple as staying active and visible in a community.

A little over five years ago, Mr. Johnson, a Washington-based adviser at Delancey Wealth Management LLC, began organizing financial seminars for the local Howard University chapter of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. Word got out, and soon he was traveling nationwide. At about the same time, Mr. Johnson started mentoring teens for the advocacy group 100 Black Men, which helped him make connections with other professionals in the organization, including doctors, lawyers and engineers who began to talk him up around town.

“We know there's a wealth gap between African-Americans and whites — a Prudential study just reiterated that,” Mr. Johnson said. “In large part, we haven't had access to information, and a lot of the business I get starts when folks ask me questions. It's rewarding because you like to see your community prosper — and frankly, this is a new source of revenue I really wouldn't have considered 10 years ago.”

During the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s, Boston adviser Stuart Armstrong began offering free financial planning workshops to members of the gay community on a host of issues they faced. In a few years, the gatherings helped Mr. Armstrong, a planner with Centinel Financial Group LLC, forge a network of lawyers, accountants and other professionals — a grapevine that soon began to yield referrals.

“It's a fairly important part of my practice,” he said. “We're talking about what's been an underserved community for a long time, and I have found myself, early on in my career, in a unique position to add value to my LGBT clients in terms of financial guidance.”

This is how advisers who specialize can really shine — and get their name front and center as a trusted adviser in a community. Mr. Johnson fields calls from reporters at Black Enterprise Magazine and CNBC, and gets regular invitations to appear on money management panels at conventions for a host of professional groups.

An Op-Ed article Mr. Armstrong wrote on LGBT planning got prominent positioning on the home page of The Boston Globe's website the day the Supreme Court began hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act. He also sits on the national board of the Financial Planning Association and was chosen this year to be chairman of the organization's diversity panel.

According to marketing experts, making inroads with communities that share ethnic, religious or social bonds is a matter of gaining entry, trust and credibility. The following steps can help in solidifying those efforts.

ONE: CARE ABOUT YOUR TARGET

Marketing pros say it pays to be deliberate, because a lot of advisers' success rides on their ability to connect with clients and show they care.

“Commonalities and passion are a very good starting point, since in many cases, you possibly already have contacts in place, and know the sensitivities and needs,” said Joni Youngwirth, managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.

Still, sharing links with a group is no guarantee of instant success.

“Having a common background is definitely a head start, but it doesn't mean you'll get a client to invest money with you,” said John Nersesian, a managing director at Nuveen Investments. “Your guidance, advice, empathy, skill and competency are just as important, if not more so.”

Kim Dellarocca, head of practice management and segment marketing at Pershing LLC, said sometimes coming off as an insider can actually work to an adviser's detriment, especially when approaching tightly knit groups.

“In some Asian-American communities, privacy is highly valued,” she said. “You may actually find that clients are more inclined to gravitate to outside advisers who they feel won't be tempted to gossip.”

TWO: DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Advisers can research their target niche with a Google search or Census Bureau stats. How much business can be generated from a particular group? A local chamber of commerce or small business association office may have free marketing surveys for your community.

And it helps to narrow the focus of a niche. Concentrating on the Mexican-American community at large may be too broad. Focusing efforts on Mexican-American retailers in a Chicago suburb, however, would make it easier to streamline marketing and pinpoint more-specific needs of the community.

Advisers should research how news events, legal issues and the ups and downs of the economy affect their target group. Firsthand accounts in blogs and social media can be especially useful for gaining insight into sensitive issues.

“In many ways, the process of knowing your clients begins with searching yourself and understanding your hot-button issues and concerns as well, especially if you're a member of the target community,” said Andrea Briscoe, an executive coach for Sage Consulting Inc.

It's also useful to meet one-on-one with community insiders and leaders. Ms. Youngwirth suggests conducting informational interviews. The exercise can help an adviser bridge their knowledge of financial planning with specific needs, concerns and wishes of a target community.

THREE: CONNECT

The final step is scheduling formal gatherings and informal get-togethers. Events such as dinner parties or after-work gatherings allow niche clients to interact with one another and you, Mr. Nersesian said. The same insiders interviewed can help in drafting a list of invitees.

And as suggested in the stories of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Armstrong, sharing knowledge by holding classes or seminars that center on current planning topics or changes in the news can help an adviser build bonds in a niche community.

Sometimes planners wait to narrow their potential prospect pool until their firm is stable enough to pay the bills without fretting. But in those cases, advisers are only delaying their opportunity for success.

“Advisers think they don't have to target niches and [instead] market to everyone at the same time,” Ms. Youngwirth said. “That doesn't work.”

It takes sensitivity, research and hard work, but focusing on a niche community can be rewarding.

“Once you secure a client or two from a tightknit community, that person will be a referral gold mine if they feel you have their best interests at heart,” Mr. Nersesian said.

James A. Anderson is a freelance writer in New York (jamesalbert anderson@gmail.com).

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