Has the quarterly client newsletter become old news?

Some advisers still crank out quarterly newsletters for clients, while critics say the effort just lines the bottom of bird cages

Mar 22, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

When it comes to producing client newsletters, financial advisers either love them or hate them. And if they hate them, they usually abandon the idea altogether.

"Most newsletters are a joke," said Josh Brown, financial adviser and CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management.

Mr. Brown, who wrote a blog in February about why his firm stopped producing its quarterly newsletter for clients two-and-a-half years ago, believes the practice is mostly surviving out of habit by an aging adviser population.

"They've been doing it forever," he said. "And a lot of the newsletters are ghost-written, so it's not even their words that they're sending out to clients."

Mr. Brown, a prolific blogger and social media influencer with more than a million followers on Twitter, argues that newsletters often amount to more noise in a world where investors are already trying to navigate information overload.

"People in 2019 are busy with the amount of time they're working, and trying to find a work-life balance, and you're trying to get them to read marketing material that you've commissioned to have written," he said. "It's archaic."

While some newsletters are ghost-written or partially contain generic content, there are those who see it differently and believe the flood of available information is a reason to produce a newsletter for clients.

"There is a lot of information and more and more people are looking for curated information," said Lisa Kirchenbauer, founder and president of Omega Wealth Management.

"We know our clients so we're curating information for what we think they will be interested in, and we continually ask them what they want to know about," she added. "I get it, there's a lot of information out there, but they don't even know where to start, so we help them understand what information they should trust."

Ms. Kirchenbauer has been sending out quarterly client newsletters for most of the 20 years she's been in business, and she admits she used to buy content, "but the clients knew it was canned content."

These days, her emailed newsletter is produced in-house and she pays a designer $400 per quarter to put it together.

Beyond just market updates, Ms. Kirchenbauer writes a "holistic overview," and the newsletter also includes features on financial planning, investing, book reviews and staff updates.

"We did a client survey at the end of the year and the majority of people rated the newsletter as between eight and 10 out of 10," she said. "They even email us, and tell us how much they like it."

George Reilly, founder and principal at Safe Harbor Financial Advisors, has been producing a two-sided, single-page client newsletter for three years, which he believes helps him bring in new clients.

"It is indirectly a sales pitch," he said. "I've heard clients say they share it with people."

Like Ms. Kirchenbauer, Mr. Reilly believes the key to success is keeping the content fresh, original, and specifically tailored to clients.

"I recently included a personal note about my mother, who died last year, and how that highlights the importance of estate planning," he said.

The newsletter, which goes out three times a year, typically focusses on market-related issues, tax- and estate-planning, as well as some personal pictures.

Mr. Reilly estimates that total production time takes up about 10 hours of work, and the printing and mailing costs are $600 per newsletter edition.

"It took me a while to get to the idea of a newsletter, and I decided against using generic content," he said. "We're not inundating clients, because it's just three times a year, and it's not emailed."

Even though it may seem to some like an antiquated way to communicate, the hard-copy format is a key to newsletter success, according to Thomas Balcom, founder of 1650 Wealth Management.

"I'd say if you're emailing it's absolutely a waste of time," he said. "Mailing a hard copy is more expensive, but that way clients can take it out and read it at their own leisure."

Mr. Balcom, who writes his entire quarterly newsletter, estimates that he spends about 24 hours per quarter on it, and said the quarterly cost is about $1,200 for printing and mailing.

"When I started doing it 10 years ago it was a basic word document, but now it's more of a brochure," he said. "The ones who read it are very positive about it, and I'm guessing about half my clients actually read it."

Bob Veres, owner of consulting firm Inside Information, said successful newsletters are original and interesting, and need to change with the times.

"My sense from talking with advisers is that the formal quarterly or monthly newsletter concept is dead," he said. "They're too formal, too canned-looking. What clients crave is authenticity, spontaneity and knowing that you're paying attention to what they might be interested in knowing."

Instead of newsletters, Mr. Veres suggests "personalized emails which talk about issues that relate in some ways to portfolios and the economy in general," he said.

However, Mr. Veres admitted, talking negatively about newsletters could cut into his income.

"I provide client articles to about 300 advisory firms, usually 8-10 a month, for $449 a year," he said. "But those can be used in newsletters or individual messages; nothing I said here changes because of the service I offer."

But what some advisers swear by still goes against the grain of popular culture and the evolution of information distribution, according to Mr. Brown of Ritholtz.

"How many of these newsletters can be any good?" he said. "Most advisers aren't writers, and most writers aren't advisers."

And in terms of distribution, Mr. Brown said the newsletter itself is the problem.

"We were tracking mail opens when we had a newsletter, and nobody was opening it, but millions of people read our blogs," he said. "It's not the content, it's the format. People don't want a word doc forced on them, but they do care what their adviser thinks."

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