Act Like the Gray Lady, Think Like a Brand

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Last night I drifted off to sleep in front of the tube after another busy day at the office. The last thing I remember seeing on TV was the trailer for a new movie sequel based on Steve Harvey’s relationship book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. When the alarm clock sounded, it struck me that financial firms can satisfy their need to connect with a client base in much the same way Harvey suggests women connect with men.

What firms need to do is think like the “Gray Lady” but act like a brand.

Financial services companies have fully awakened to the reality that they need to be publishing content. Inserting a firm into the news flow is key to controlling image, maintaining relevance, and answering client needs. While plenty of firms have proven wise enough to position themselves at the social media starting gate, most stumble before making any meaningful headway. Why? They step headlong into unfamiliar territory knowing they should be in the social space but unclear what role to play, floundering in the ether between advisor, marketer, and news source.

Change is Here

Taking cues from vaunted news outlets like The New York Times, financial service firms can provide valuable content and communications through social channels while shaping the corporate image.

More than ever before, polishing one’s brand can be the difference between expanding the business or losing market share; between being a buyer or being bought. We all face the unwelcome reality today that investors are disillusioned with Wall St. thanks to the double-dealers and Bernie Madoffs of the recent past. Investors are looking for new choices.

But why should they try your firm, and do they even know you’re out there? Traditional Wall St. powerhouses are still the biggest advertisers. Young investors are probably more likely to know a firm like Merrill Lynch than a company like Betterment or Personal Capital — despite these web-based services being designed for their generation. That’s because these Wall Street goliaths continue to spend oodles of capital on advertising — money the upstarts just don’t have.

Acting Like the Gray Lady

For starters, the people controlling your communications campaign have to think like editors and journalists in a news room.

In the realm of financial services it’s especially vital to build the brand as a credible source. Establish and maintain a high standard for content. Your facts have to be straight, your sources unimpeachable, your advice actionable. You can offer the company perspective while still drawing the lines for users between opinion and fact.

Be timely and topical. Build bridges to relevant matters that are current and trending. Take a news topic and make it your own, relating the news back to your business. For ex, How the Iraq Situation Is Changing Energy Investment. Or, for a more controversial take, Forget Iraq — America has Won the Energy War. Shelve the evergreens unless you’re building a library.

Publish regularly. Note how the enduring news sources never let their voice die. They know one route for readers is to consume content in feeds (Twitter, RSS), and they fulfill the public’s appetite with a constant stream of fresh stories.

Thinking Like a Brand

Financial services firms still have to recognize they’re brands, not honest-to-goodness media outlets. When you think like a brand, all efforts need to support growth and satisfy the clearly defined objectives of that brand.

Be relatable. Know the voice, the concerns, the ambitions of your user base, and create content in keeping. Create media that engages users, and remain engaged yourself (e.g., respond to article commentary; answer gripes publically). Let users know they’ve been heard.

Remember that the business relies on recruiting and retaining people. Use the opportunity to create an affinity for your company. People want to do business with people and products that are inherently likeable. Consider what Apple did with iPhones, fostering an attachment to products like the iPhone based more on emotion than even functionality.

It’s not only a matter of what you convey, but by what channel. Part of relating to people is becoming part of their everyday life, whether it’s embracing social media or sharing how your people think through blogging strategies. Think multimedia, like NYT does. Don’t be married to a single format. If NYT were still married to paper, they’d be dead in the water like so many big-city dailies. But they’ve expanded far beyond articles to include graphics, short- and long-form videos, and podcasts. All conveying different points from different angles. They encourage two-way avenues with message boards, Twitter feeds, Facebook.

Intertwined Roles of Marketing, Sales and Communication

Some firms will say they don’t have the money or the time to spend on public relations and social media strategy. But — news flash — this is your marketing. In case you missed the memo, social media allows you to do more with less and allows you to divert resources away from manpower-hungry campaigns formerly conducted through cold calls, email, and direct mail. Also, it augments corporate efforts in customer service, customer retention, and acquisitions. That is, when it’s done right.