10 for 10: Themes and trends from a decade in financial communications

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Last month marked my tenth year working in financial communications, and the only constant over that time has been change and challenge. Breathtaking really, and while looking back, a few themes emerge:

  1. It’s not about performance, stupid, or is it? Time and again, I have watched advisors or asset managers outperform their peers and markets, and yet fail to build their businesses accordingly. The takeaway? Performance matters but so too does great marketing and communications, the ability to educate, enlighten, and engage broader markets to win confidence and add assets under management over time.
  2. Through the Haze of War. The world shuttered, and so did I when the world collapsed in 2008. What the financial crisis taught me more than anything is a steel belief in the power of opportunity — even in the haze of fear. The best of my clients seized this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand and grow, at rock bottom prices. They knew instinctively that during chaos, money gets put in motion.  Capitalizing on that movement required more marketing and exposure not less. During the mess, one notable client grew assets from $300 million to $1 billion, while another grew from $2 billion to more than $6 billion. Takeaway number two: crisis demands action and those who can act stand to gain the most during times of uncertainty.
  3. No one cares about you. So stop talking about yourself. The buzzwords and industry banter don’t resonate with real people. They seek out and align themselves with those who speak to their own financial situations or life events. Takeaway number three: Don’t be part of the communications disconnect. Burrow in on your client, their needs, their wants. Where they are in their lives and where they want to be instead of preening about your model and your approach.
  4. The Advantage of your Disadvantage. No one has the dollars to compete with the big boys. They dominate the airwaves and ad buys. They outgun and misspend. Ironically, though, it’s all to their own detriment. The disadvantage of excess is that it breeds contentment, the dog bowl of the lapping underdog. The takeaway? Creativity and cunning are the great equalizers. And today, through the power of social media, content marketing, 24/7 media exposure, and other low cost tactics, financial services David’s are slaying Goliaths with stones and slings waged against lumbering giants.
  5. WTF ETFs? ETFs are total game changers, ballooning from $65 million in 2000 to more than $1.5 trillion. Individual investors, traders, institutional asset managers, 401(k) plans, and endowment managers have all said yes to the ETF revolution. The speed of transformation in the industry has been breathtaking. Takeaway time: Failing to consider, evaluate, and adopt the tools of today will make your business a thing of the past. Many firms (think American Funds) have failed to anticipate  all the ancillary changes and opportunities that has resulted from ETF adoption — advisor compensation to fee-based, the rise of ETF model portfolios, sector investing instead of stockpicking, and of course an increase in ETF products.
  6. Silicon Mêlée. VC money is pouring into online finance services start-ups. Firms with names like Betterment, Personal Capital, and WealthFront. They threaten to hollow out those advisories that choose to overlook Millennials and refuse to embrace the very online and social media tools used by younger, technically savvy clients. The takeaway? Change or die. Your next generation of client is more comfortable with investing online and more likely found on smart phones and Facebook, rather than country club greens.
  7. Do like Bobby Kennedy and integrate your marketing and public relations with new business development. Technology exists to track and monitor to integrate and synchronize all aspects of your communications. The takeaway is that you are missing opportunity if you can’t identify who is visiting, following, friending, and sharing your message, and if you aren’t transforming your public relations and communications into a lead generation machine.
  8. The enemy of my enemy is my Facebook Friend. It’s not either or anymore. The division between traditional and social media has fallen. Print exposure goes viral. Linkedin can communicate a CNBC appearance to thousands of prospects. Opportunity exists within each platform. Takeaway number eight? There is no new media, just media. It’s still all about the story, just the delivery has changed. Financial services needs to understand and leverage every possible channel or risk becoming lost, irrelevant.
  9. What’s the alternative? It’s alternative — investing, that is. Hedge funds have gone mainstream, broken out of institutional closets.  With it has come the loosening of their marketing restrictions. The takeaway? Like the industry as a whole, alternatives need to embrace the new era of communications, to sustain growth and win more assets away from the traditionals.
  10. A Web of deception! Please, please. No more strategic web sites with pre-Seinfeld technology and stock photos of ever rising stock charts. Dreary in design. Static content. Nothing more than brochure-ware that fails to speak to the real world. My takeaway here?  Replace your website with a blogging platform, update it regularly, use it to engage and enlighten. Get social, get mobile, use video and transform those ridiculously boring, never-read PDF market commentaries into shareable content.