Social media is the elephant in the room even if broker-dealer firms refuse to acknowledge its presence. Worse, continuing to do so could cost these firms their top talent as advisors migrate to platforms that help them be more productive.
According to Aite Group research, a little under two-thirds of advisors use some form of social media—mostly Facebook and, to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Twitter—outside of work to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. Far fewer advisors, 35%, use these tools to reach out to prospects or keep in touch with prospects and that could be a mistake, says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite in Boston.
The reason most advisors aren’t using social media to aid their professional lives isn’t because they don’t want to—their personal use is testament to that—but that their firms are still reticent to loosen their grip on the media. That’s especially true for firms with captive brokers, which is why independent registered investment advisors are more prevalent on the web, Shevlin says. “Asset management firms and broker-dealers often have rules in place that either prohibit or flat out prevent advisors from using these services,” he says.
Most advisors who do use social media professionally use LinkedIn rather than Facebook. Aite’s data suggests that the advisors who have taken the plunge into social media are more successful than those that haven’t, not because LinkedIn is paved with gold, but because the types of advisors who are more aggressive marketers are eager to use any new tool they can. “If it means they can get at new prospects or better connect with their client base, they’ll try it,” Shevlin says. “By limiting their use by hiding behind regulations, I’m concerned it means some firms are inhibiting their best performers.”
Shevlin says that FINRA’s guidance for using social media is actually pretty clear, especially to a demographic already well-versed in what its members can and can’t say. “[Investment firms’] executives should be a little more aggressive about it,” he says. “It’s about giving tools to your best performers.”
That said, Shevlin realizes it’s no good just berating investment firms into allowing their advisors to prospect online. Instead, he suggests they introduce social media scientifically and systematically in order to simultaneously gauge how effective it is in helping advisors grow their books as well as realistically assessing the actual compliance risk.
“I’d probably find a couple of key supporters at the senior level and go about constructing a pilot program so the compliance risk is not so great,” he says. “I’d test whether it truly helps based on the numbers before and after a two-month program and I’d use a control group.”
Starting small also means firms can figure out how many advisors actually want to expand into social media—if it doesn’t seem to work, they won’t. However, just ignoring this online revolution can only hurt broker-dealers. Besides “letting RIAs get ahead of the curve, if it is successful it has to be a retention risk to firms who limit the tools their advisors use,” Shevlin says.