How Marketing Can Help You Build a Firm for the Future

14 min read
April 02, 2018

True or false: The best way to grow an advisory firm is through referrals. For a long time, the answer was “true.” But referrals are no longer the primary driver of AUM growth for RIAs. Not client referrals. Not professional referrals. Not any type of referral, period. The days of growing ad-hoc because you joined NAPFA and you get client referrals are a thing of the past. So what is the best way to grow your RIA? A great place to start is with your marketing strategy.

In XYPN Radio Episode #134, I caught up with Taylor Schulte, founder of the San Diego-based firm Define Financial. Within the past year, Taylor pulled Define Financial out from under its umbrella firm and established his own RIA. In doing so, Taylor faced the same challenges that other advisors setting out to start their own RIA face: no safety net, dealing with compliance, high startup costs, and the many other risks and rigors that come with growing a business from the ground up. But he also reaped one of the greatest rewards: total control over his brand. As someone with innate marketing savvy, Taylor quickly recognized something that many other financial advisors fail to see: the huge potential of marketing to grow a firm not just for now, but for the future.

Why You Should Start Now

As client referral rates continue to decline, there is a growing need in this industry to invest in marketing. Yet surprisingly, on average financial advisors only spend between 2-3% of their gross revenue on marketing. To put it simply, advisors don’t like to spend money on their business. But even if you don’t like to, you really should. Just like with every business, it’s as important to work on your business as it is to work in your business (a quick nod to Michael Gerber).

The lack of overall commitment to marketing in the financial advising industry makes right now a great time to start. Be an “early adopter” and invest in marketing before the trend catches on widely. There will be less competition from others in your field, which means you’ll get to carve out your niche first, and you’ll see your dollar go further by being ahead of the trend. The longer you wait, however, and the more other financial advisors catch on, the more you’ll have to spend to stand out.

Launching a business is the best opportunity you’ll ever get to tell your story, and one you don’t want to miss. If you miss out on controlling the narrative around your business from the start, you run the risk of a misalignment between your brand reality (what your business really stands for) and your prospects’ perceptions of what you value. Taking the reins back and changing attitudes and perceptions can be a challenge. And if you still think that marketing is too expensive, you should consider how expensive it is to build a business without it. Marketing is one of the highest ROI tools in the startup cache. Smart, intentional marketing can help legitimize your business, create excitement around it, and draw in potential clients.

Marketing can be expensive, costing both time and money, but you also have the choice to spend as little or as much as you want. And if you start early, and start small, the cost is entirely manageable. Plus, it will pay dividends well into the future. Isn’t that what every financial advisor wants to hear?

Know Your Brand

Who are you, and why should people care? Answering these two questions is a critical first step to understanding your brand and building your marketing strategy. Every business has a brand, whether or not they realize it.

Let’s get this out of the way now: a brand is NOT a logo. It’s much more than that. A brand is the total experience a person has with your business, regardless of whether or not they use/buy your service. Understanding your brand clarifies your position in relation to your competitors and helps your business express its unique value. Put simply, awareness of your brand helps you stand out from your competition and attract your ideal clients. Knowing your brand keeps you relevant and compelling as a resource for the people you’re targeting and helps you get your market share of clients. When the battle for clients intensifies, a strong brand becomes increasingly invaluable.

When considering your brand, ask yourself the following questions: Does your brand relate to your target audience? Your brand should be obvious, not inconspicuous. Does your brand showcase the uniqueness of your service? Does your brand reflect the promise you are making to your prospective (and current) clients? Does your brand reflect the values that you and your prospects share? The answers to these questions should be clear. Your brand should be straightforward, requiring little contemplation to “get it.”

Taylor has seen great success with a couple of deliberate marketing strategies, but he wouldn’t have seen that success without an intimate understanding of his brand. Taylor’s advantage is that he very clearly understands what his business stands for, and importantly, how he’s different from his competitors.

While most independent financial advisors will never become nationally-recognized brands, you can become the go-to, liked, and trusted business in your community. Always remember that you have to live and breathe your brand; with that in mind, be sure to stand for something you believe in.

Know Your Message

If you don’t understand your brand and your message, you’ll likely watch your marketing dollars go straight down the drain. When it comes to marketing, never underestimate the power of words. Yes, an eye-catching logo is important to developing your brand. But ultimately, words motivate us to take action. Always strive for clarity and consistency and use language that links your message with your target clients’ values; this will help prospective clients see the relationship between their own values and those of your firm.

Be sure that your messaging aligns with your business model and mission to build a brand that is believable and trustworthy. You can’t fake authenticity; the passion and cause at the core of your business will build a deeper connection between your brand and your clients. Deliver your message with conviction, and your prospects will believe it too. Emotional connection starts with authenticity, and grows from shared interest. That moment of connection—easily achieved through well-thought-out messaging—provides a solid foundation for long-term loyalty and a sustainable bottom line.

Know Your Clients

Knowing your customer base is also integral to using your marketing dollars wisely. You can spend all the money in the world on marketing efforts, but if you haven’t taken the time to really understand whom you’re trying to target (and why!), that will be money well wasted.

When we say, “know your clients,” we’re talking more than just the typical “age, gender, location” (i.e. demographics); we’re also talking about how they think (i.e. psychographics). You need to understand your clients’ motivations, reasons, and goals for wanting/needing your service.

That may seem like tricky information to come by, but sometimes, all you have to do is ask. To understand his clients’ needs and motivations, Taylor offers a free 30-minute phone call that can be scheduled through his website. What this phone call really says is “we’d love the opportunity to connect.” Giving just 30 minutes of your time for free tells a story of “we put you first” and “we want to see if this will work for both of us.” Plus, it gives Taylor the opportunity to understand what motivates his clients, better allowing him to connect to their values.

By understanding your customer base, you will be better equipped to connect more powerfully with those prospective clients who want what your business uniquely offers.

Know Your Differentiator

Building a strong brand is key to success in today’s world, and differentiation is essential to building a powerful and compelling brand. It’s what sets you apart from the competition, and trust us, there’s a lot of competition. Taylor’s success is in large part due to his solid understanding of what makes him different from his competitors. Taylor very clearly (and proudly!) acknowledges that he’s not quite like your stereotypical financial advisor, and he plays that card to his advantage.

Once you’ve considered all of the benefits your brand offers and identified your primary differentiator, your business needs to live by that differentiator; it will set expectations for your brand that you must meet religiously. Use your differentiator to inform your messaging, and do so consistently. Inconsistency equates to brand confusion, a known destroyer of brands.

When determining your differentiator, remember never to be different just for the sake of being different. Differentiation won’t work in your favor without intentionality. You need to position yourself against your competitors in a meaningful way, and own a place in prospective clients’ minds that actually matters to them. Don’t be afraid to get creative and think beyond easy differentiators like price. Find a key differentiator that is meaningful and influential to your target market and own it.

Building Your Marketing Machine 

I like to think of marketing as kind of this machine. You do six or seven things really well and really consistently and they all kind of start to work together.” –Taylor Schulte

You won’t build your marketing machine overnight, but there are a few simple steps you can take to get started. Start small with a few tools until you understand the lay of the land and get a sense of what works for you. Always remember, what works for one business might not work for another; moreover, what works one day may not work the next. Taylor found great success with print advertising because of one local publication whose readership aligns with his customer base. That may not always be the case. Marketing is never a “one size fits all” scenario. It involves risk, trying new things, and thinking outside the box. Luckily, to a financial advisor, that’s old hat.

Once you clearly understand your brand, your messaging, your clients, and your differentiator, you’re ready to start building your marketing machine. The process of finding what’s right for your business can be discouraging, but once you’ve found the combination of marketing tactics that work for you, you’ll start to see self-sustaining growth. And because you understand your brand, target market, and what makes you “special,” you’re already well on your way to developing a killer marketing strategy (what you need to do) and plan (how you will do it).

While there is no marketing template that works without fail from business to business, there are a few tried and true tactics that are cost-effective, impactful in this industry, and easy(ish) to do yourself.

Build a killer website

For most people, your website is the first impression they get of your business. With 97% of consumers searching online for services, your online presence is critical. Without it, people are less apt to trust your legitimacy. Some people even argue that your website is the most important tool you have for marketing your business. While that’s up for debate, in today’s age, when trying to learn more about a business, the first place most people look is the internet. With that in mind, your website should be considered a cornerstone of your brand and marketing.

Whether you’re building your website yourself, or hiring a web developer to build it for you, there are three things you can do right away to ensure you have a quality website. 1. Carefully craft your content (every word on your website matters); 2. Include a high-quality photo of yourself; 3. Prominently display your contact information.

Use language that is “on brand” and on par with your target market. This will help your clients understand your business and your values without too much thought or contemplation. Make it clear whether or not your business is the right fit for them; this will avoid wasted time for both parties (you probably know by now that time is your most valuable resource). Of these three tips, this is undoubtedly the most time-consuming. But it’s well worth the effort. The content on your website is another opportunity to reinforce your brand values, and emphasize what sets you apart from the rest. It’s also an opportunity to share your industry knowledge, experience, and expertise, which helps prospects trust you more. Seize that opportunity!

Put your face on your website. It’s as simple as that. “Humanizing” your business has been shown to increase conversions. A human face is a far better emotional connector than a logo. This can also help up your trustworthy factor. Humanizing your website makes prospects aware that there’s an actual person behind your business; the process of looking for a financial service becomes less robotic and more personalized, which clients have been shown to greatly value.

Lastly, make your contact information readily available; again, this is so simple. A prospective client should never have to search for your contact information. It’s best practice to have a “Contact” tab in the main navigation (typically as the last item), and to include contact information in your “About” tab because users often look for contact info under “About” (yes, even when there is a “Contact” tab). Your web footer is also a great place to display contact information and an easy way to ensure it’s included on every page.

Take a look at the carefully crafted Define Financial website as a shining example of a killer website. It’s clean, consistent, and to the point. With statements like, “Nobody does financial planning like we do. Period,” and “Not all financial advisors are created equal,” Taylor is very intentional about setting himself apart from his competition. His client-centric language plays to the needs and the values of his prospects, and is charming, witty, and direct. Taylor takes the “humanizing” of his website one step further by not only including a photo of himself, but including fun facts like his favorite hiking spot, best date night, and favorite golf course. Yep, he knows what he’s doing.

There is of course much more that goes into developing a stellar website than these three tips; but this trio of tricks is a great way to get started building a website, or if you already have a website, a great check on how well you’re delivering a quality user experience. Investing in your website will help establish your online reputation as successful and thriving, ultimately boosting your business and drawing in new clients.

Learn about SEO

“It’s just doing some simple stuff the right way that makes a really big difference.” –Taylor Schulte

What good is a great website if no one can find it? That’s a rhetorical question; it’s absolutely no good. Again, we’re going to talk content, because let’s face it, content is king. Content creation is a key element of SEO. Search engines value—and reward—good, relevant, original content. Creating compelling content with the right keywords in the right places goes a long way towards promoting web optimization for your website.

Take the time to optimize your titles, URLs, and descriptions (the oldest trick in the book). Use unique and meaningful titles, catchy descriptions, and well-formatted URLs. Your title is the strongest relevance signal to Google. Using keywords in your title tag is critical as that tag holds the most SEO weight of all the headings. Meta descriptions also boost relevance, as do keywords in the body of your webpages.

Keep your content up-to-date. This is so important, not just for SEO, but for brand credibility. Old, out-of-date content is a surefire way to lose prospects. There is plenty of competition in every keyword, and websites with the most useful, fresh content have a far better chance of winning that battle.

Improve your website’s loading time. Have you heard Will Ferrell’s joke, “Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow internet to see who they really are?” While this is obviously a joke, what’s not a joke is how angry slow internet, or a slow-loading website, makes people (did you know that 40% of consumers will leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load?). Faster websites have been shown to generate more conversions, and page speed is an SEO ranking factor.

The world of SEO is vast, and this is just a tiny glimpse into it. And it’s a long-play that won’t garner results overnight. But these are simple, manageable tips for getting started. If you’re anything like Taylor, once you get into it, you may soon find yourself “fiddling with SEO stuff” at 6am on a Saturday…

Build & maintain quality relationships

When it comes to marketing, it’s easy to get wrapped up in gaining new clients. Never forget or underestimate the value of your current clients. Utilize a simple direct mail campaign, like sending out personalized birthday and holiday cards, to stay engaged with your clients and let them know that you’re thinking about more than just their money: you’re thinking about them, too. Something as simple as a birthday card has the power to evoke a sense of loyalty that can pay dividends well into the future.

Thank you cards are another simple but powerful tool to bolster your reputation as a cut-above financial firm and a great way to welcome new clients on board. A short and sincere (handwritten, please!) thank you makes your clients feel special and personalizes their experience with your business. This simple, cost-effective marketing tool will remind your clients why they chose you—and why they continue to choose you—above your competitors.

Perfecting Your Marketing Machine

When implementing a marketing strategy, knowing your numbers makes setting goals easy and can keep you from getting discouraged. Marketing magic doesn’t happen overnight; seeing slow and steady progress will let you know you’re on the right track. Having clear indicators of success or failure will help you recognize what might not be working early on so as not to fall victim to a marketing money pit.

Tracking metrics is integral to understanding (and improving) the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. While not every marketing effort has a measurable ROI, there is always a way of determining whether or not something is working for you. You just need to do your due diligence.

SEO efforts can be easily tracked through tools like Google Analytics, which helps you analyze how your website is functioning, and gives a clear indication of SEO successes and failures. A simple tool like Google Analytics can help you understand the origin of your website traffic, identify slow loading page times, pinpoint top organic keywords, and in general keep tabs on how well your website is performing.

If you follow Taylor’s path and invest in print advertising, be sure to employ a tracking method. In Taylor’s case, a staggering 99% of his prospects schedule their initial phone call through the Direct Financial website. With this in mind, Taylor added a question to his online scheduling form asking prospective clients how they heard about his business. And if they don’t come through the website, he asks them during their first interaction. Simple; straightforward; effective.

To quote performance improvement guru H. James Harrington, “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement.” Tracking your marketing efforts allows you to continuously perfect your marketing machine. Your marketing plan should never be static; it’s a living, breathing document that should be frequently measured and refined.

Taylor has admittedly spent a lot of time and money in perfecting his marketing machine, and he’s reaping the rewards of that effort. You can learn more about how he’s using SEO and print advertising to grow his business by listening to the full podcast here.

Alan Moore headshot

About the Author

Alan Moore, MS, CFP® is the co-founder of the XY Planning Network, a support network for advisors looking to serve next generation clients. He is also the CEO of AdvicePay, the first and only compliant payment processor for financial advisors. He is passionate about helping financial planners start and grow their own fee-only firms to serve Gen X & Gen Y clients largely ignored by traditional firms. Alan has been recognized by Investment News as a top “40 Under 40″ in financial planning, by Wealth Management as one of a “The 10 to Watch in 2015″, and was the first recipient of the NAPFA Young Professional award in 2015. Alan frequently speaks on topics related to technology, marketing, and business coaching, and has been quoted in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and The New York Times. He is also the host of XYPN Radio, one of the largest podcasts for independent financial advisors. He currently lives in Bozeman, MT so that he can hit the slopes on powder days.

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