‘Siri, find me the top-rated succession planning advisor in Fort Worth, Texas.’
Some forward-thinking RIAs are betting that Siri, Alexa, and other voice assistants will become an increasingly common way that people search for financial advice online.
One such firm is Aspen Wealth Management, a $190m shop out of Fort Worth, Texas. In a 2021 RIA Benchmarking panel hosted by Charles Schwab over the summer, Aspen’s chief executive, Helen Stephens, explained that her marketing team is working to position the firm as a top result on Siri when a person asks their device to recommend a local RIA.
In the same way that firms use search engine optimization to achieve top rankings on Google, Yahoo, and other text-based search engines, Stephens said: ‘We want to be optimized for voice.’
They’re not the only ones who see value in voice search. In late 2018, Morgan Stanley inked a partnership with publicly traded tech company Yext to help the firm boost its digital presence, including how frequently it is recommended by voice-based search engines.
‘We could very well see a time in the not-too-distant future where over 50% of searches are voice,’ Morgan Stanley Wealth Management’s head of digital marketing, Erik Jepson, told Investment News at the time.
Do people really turn to Siri when they need a financial advisor? Perhaps. But voice assistants are just the tip of the iceberg. CMOs and marketing departments everywhere are shaking out their next-gen lead generation and prospecting strategies as retiring baby boomers begin transferring their wealth to younger relatives or business successors.
The investment advice industry isn’t exactly known for keeping up with bleeding-edge technology.
So when Mercer Advisors sought to hire a new chief marketing officer earlier this year, the firm selected someone with big-time experience outside of the world of finance. Gary Foodim, who joined Mercer in July from New York-based debt relief firm Strategic Financial Solutions, spent more than five years as vice president of consumer marketing for media giant Conde Nast.
Foodim will lead a push for organic growth by Mercer by focusing on digital direct-to-consumer methods including ‘paid search, paid social, connected television, programmatic advertising and behavioral retargeting,’ he said.
He added that the firm won’t be investing in Siri or Alexa in the immediate future, but that it’s a possibility ‘further down the road.’
‘Those [voice assistants] are super interesting. For almost everything we thought people would “never” do, it has ended up becoming mainstream. People thought we would never buy groceries without going to the store. People thought we would never buy shoes without trying them on,’ he said.
Beacon Pointe Advisors has historically taken a very different approach.
According to its chief marketing officer, Alli Hillgren Warner, Beacon Pointe’s most effective lead generation vehicle in the last several years has been its self-published digital content, including a few podcasts hosted by the firm’s corporate leaders. Client engagement with this content has only been accelerated by the pandemic, Warner said.
‘We manage about 130 advisor profiles on LinkedIn. We post all that content on behalf of all our advisors. That’s tens of thousands of eyeballs a month on our content,’ she said.
Beacon Pointe’s primary focus for 2022 is to beef up its search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
‘If you’re not investing a lot of time and money on SEO, that’s the first thing you need to do.’
Warner said her firm looked into voice assistants a few years ago but decided it was too early in the tech’s lifespan to justify a marketing spend. She said the concept is essentially the same as marketing with search engines like Google – ‘you’re going to pay for those recommendations.’
She added that today, ‘the biggest challenge for RIA marketers is deciding where to spend dollars to have the most impact on generating organic leads.’
With a myriad of options, many RIAs, especially in the independent space, are outsourcing these tasks to firms like SmartAsset, with its SmartAdvisor lead referral service, and Snappy Kraken, which charges RIAs to automate digital marketing tasks like distributing original content or buying advertising space on social media.
Amid an industry in flux, one thing is clear: Advisors today have more marketing tools at their disposal than ever before – and not just because of technology.
In December 2020, the SEC adopted a new advertising rule that opened the door for RIAs to use testimonials, third-party ratings, and endorsements in their marketing materials. The rule change, which went into effect in May, overturned a ban on the strategies that had lasted for more than 40 years.
According to Snappy Kraken’s chief content office, Francesca McLin, client testimonials are powerful for one reason: social proof. It’s the same reason Amazon uses star ratings to rank the products sold on its site, and why internet review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List got so popular.
‘People like to know if other people have had a good experience,’ she said.
For advisors, testimonials will be especially useful in marketing expertise within a certain client niche, she said. For a recent widow looking to reorganize her finances following the death of a spouse, for example, stumbling across a testimony from another widow praising an advisor’s proficiency could have a powerful affirming effect.
On the endorsements side, RIAs will benefit from what McLin called a ‘principal of authority.’ That means a vote of confidence from a familiar, ‘trusted’ third party like a celebrity or influencer is likely to increase the perceived level of trust between an advisor and their target audience.
Despite these advantages, just one notable RIA firm, Dynasty Financial Partners, has really leaned into the new regulatory environment. The middle- and back-office service provider revealed in August that it had inked endorsement deals with three of Major League Baseball’s top prospects: the Rays’ Wander Franco, the Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez, and the Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr.
Why aren’t more RIAs taking advantage of the new rules? One reason is compliance. The SEC has set a compliance date of November 4, 2022, before which firms may either comply with the new ad rule or the previous one. Jumping in early could draw unwanted attention from SEC examiners.
‘Testimonials, reviews, and endorsements are a massive opportunity for firms that are able to embrace them … but everybody’s waiting for others to take the first step,’ said Wealthsource chief marketing officer Patrick Brewer. ‘Nobody wants to be the first to get smacked in the face by regulators.’
Beacon Pointe’s Warner added: ‘Do we really want to be the first mover in this space? The SEC is still figuring out a lot about how to evaluate these things. Our compliance officer and I go back and forth on how patient we want to be.’
Whether through endorsements, testimonials, or nifty digital advertising techniques, Brewer said advisors who want to be successful in courting next-generation clients will have to lean into their niches and personalities to capture their target audience’s attention.
‘A lot of that is going to come through doubling down on content-driven marketing. Advisors who can step outside the corporate veneer and be themselves and stand out as individuals – there’s a huge opportunity for them,’ he said.
Lining up a business owner’s unique personality with a corresponding specialized market, Brewer said, is a ‘proven formula that works in every industry.’
Note: This story has been edited to correct Patrick Brewer’s title.