tl;dr: this a LONG post – here are the key points for the time-crunched:
- Skip the bundled services:
- product companies (FMG Suite, Advisor Websites) are bad at delivering services, and services companies (agencies, consultants) are bad at making products
- there’s an inherent conflict of interest when the services team works for the product vendor
- an independent digital marketing expert who knows the industry can add value to your online marketing investment by helping to select the right product/feature mix.
- SEO is tricky:
- the “rules” are uncertain, complex and constantly changing
- beware of guaranteed results. It’s a great environment for bad actors looking to make a quick buck
- the assistance of a trusted expert can provide great value in this area
- Don’t just “mail it in”
- your website and digital marketing assets are often the most visible expression of your brand. Invest accordingly.
A few weeks ago, the president of a wealth management firm we work with asked me for my impressions of FMG Suite, an online marketing platform built especially for financial advisors. His timing was particularly fortuitous, as I had been working on a marketing services framework for advisors, and thought the exercise might inform that process.
As the biggest player among a handful of platforms targeting financial advisories, it’s easy to find advisors who are or have been, customers. So I spoke with a few about their experience with it. My first question was why they chose it over the others. The consensus was that FMG Suite was the biggest and best-known of the four or five vendors approved by their broker-dealer. But when asked how satisfied they were with it, responses ranged from ambivalent to marginally dissatisfied.
Their disappointment seemed to stem from two things: they didn’t fully understand what they were buying, and an underwhelming onboarding experience. Figuring that out was a bit of a lightbulb moment, as I quickly realized that the marketing services these firms needed most are in the gap between service expectations and service delivery and between product positioning and the customer’s level of digital marketing acumen.
What follows combines my observations and analysis of FMG Suite, along with my suggestions on how advisories can maximize their investment in it, and digital marketing as a whole.
* The names of Mindtap’s clients and those of FMG Suite’s customers are intentionally left out and/or redacted out of consideration for their privacy, and to focus the reader’s attention on observations, analysis, and recommendations.
ServicesIt isn’t uncommon for software companies to offer services meant to complement their product, nor is it uncommon for them to be bad at it. There are simply fundamental conflicts between the ways product-oriented organizations and service-oriented ones operate. And in this scenario, the more profitable product side always gets the resources.
Customers in this niche are also at risk because they’re in unknown territory in much the same way that I am when it comes to tax planning or investing. In that scenario, I could just go with whatever the guy in the Fidelity call center says, or choose to invest in a trusted expert with a CFP after his name.
Despite what I’ve related above, there is clearly a demand for the services they’re offering, otherwise, they wouldn’t continue to offer them. Though I suspect that it’s driven mostly by lack of awareness of alternatives (yes, there are alternatives).According to their documentation, FMG Suite does support advanced customization, which means that you can take advantage of the valuable, industry-specific regulatory and integration features that the product offers, but…
key takeaway: skip the bundled services and hire an agency that can work with you to craft an online presence worthy of your brand.
Cost vs ValueIn a discussion with a client who has been using FMG Suite for about a year, I pulled up the solution their website and asked him which onboarding tier he had used. When he replied, I commented that it was interesting that customers at that level only received help with homepage design, but not interior ones.
“Really?” he said. “No wonder I was disappointed.”
I think there are a few things at play here:
- This product was the “Cadillac” of the handful of website solutions approved by his broker-dealer, so, other than deciding that he wanted the “best” one, I don’t get the impression that a lot of time was spent researching options.
- Niche products like this one face a challenge in describing their products and services: both being highly detailed and oversimplifying have the potential to confuse prospects
Some combination of the first two describes many financial advisors. They know they need to “be online,” but having come up in a referral and event-driven business, they see their website as a brochure rather than a source of new business. As a result, they don’t invest the tume and money necessary to move from brochure to lead machine.
Key takeaway: An independent online marketing expert who understands the industry and knows your firm can add value to your digital marketing investment by helping to select the right product/feature mix.
ContentOne of the most prominently promoted features of FMG Suite is a library of canned, FINRA-approved content that can be posted to the advisor’s website. While I don’t doubt that having content that doesn’t have to go through regulatory is attractive to both advisors and broker-dealers, this offering misses the most important aspect of content marketing: generating brand awareness and leads by attracting traffic from search engines.
The image below is a screenshot of what comes up when I copy a sentence from some of that canned content, paste it into the search bar, and tell Google to return every site containing that exact sentence. The number circled in red at the top left of the image (5,640) indicates how many sites were found.
To verify the results, I clicked all of the links on the first page of search results, and the same post appeared on each page. (full disclosure: I didn’t actually click on all 5,640 results, but the odds that a sentence of that length appears in a post that isn’t identical to the post I copied it from are infinitesimally small).
These findings indicate that, at best, the content library will have no impact on traffic from search engines; and at worst, diminish the entire site’s ability to do so.
There was a time when online marketers were terrified of what was believed to be a “duplicate content penalty,” but these days most SEO experts don’t believe that sites are directly penalized when for publishing content that appears elsewhere on the Web, though they all agree that it can cause issues. Here’s how:
- Unless you ask them to, as I did to achieve the results pictured above, search engines typically won’t show more than one copy of the same content, so they’re essentially forced to choose one. For example, in the image above, if I had not told Google to display all results, the query would have returned one of the 5,640 potential results, which means that each site containing that content has a 1/5,640 chance of being in the search results. Had performed the same type of search with original content, the odds of appearing would be 1/1.
- When other sites link to a page or website, it typically improves the target page and site’s search ranking. When your content is original, there’s only one site to link to, but if it’s one of over 5,000 instances, someone would first have to find your copy (see odds above).
Key takeaway: wealth management firms (or anyone else) wishing to generate meaningful traffic from search engines must regularly post original content.
CampaignsThe Campaigns feature, which is available in the second pricing tier, automatically pushes content to the advisor’s site, social media feeds and email list on a weekly basis. Claims of traffic increases like the one below abound on FMG Suite’s website.
“Our…educational content…Increases overall traffic to your website on a monthly basis” and “…these campaigns lead to huge bumps in website traffic.”
Having established that these “huge bumps in website traffic” are highly unlikely to be coming from search engines, where are they coming from? If they happen at all (I have yet to examine the reporting), the visitors are largely coming from the automated social media posts and email blasts, which means that they’re either existing clients or existing leads. And that’s an important distinction because visitors that find a brand’s site based on a non-brand-specific query are often encountering that brand for the first time. And generally speaking, generating awareness is more value than re-engagement.
Key takeaway: the website traffic generated by the campaign offering comes from re-engagement but fails to address the need for brand generating exposure. Opt-out of Campaigns, generate original content and use other automation tools.
That said, re-engagement may remind a client or lead that they need to engage the firm in a revenue-generating activity. There’s also a chance that an existing client or lead will share the content that’s posted, which would increase exposure to a degree, but experience tells me that this type of activity is quite limited.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)We touched on the concept of attracting website traffic from search engines in the previous section, but this topic is worth a deeper dive.
Search engine optimization refers to the practice of positioning content on a web page (on-page SEO) and on websites external to the site that the page is part of (off-site SEO), to attract visitors using a search engine to find information related to the page’s content.
It has been about 15 years since the practice of SEO came into its own, and since then, the term – if not a full understanding of what it means – has become widely known beyond the digital marketing cognoscenti. As such, we get a lot of requests for, and questions about it from clients and prospects.
The tricky thing about SEO is that with the exception of a handful of people who work at the search engines, no one knows for certain what makes one page appear higher in search results than another.
There are, however, certain well-established tenets of SEO, but even those are subject to change as engineers continually optimize algorithms in an ongoing effort to improve the relevance of search results. This reality, along with the inherently technical nature the beast has made SEO a fertile ground for organizations and individuals that thrive in gray areas.
I didn’t find a direct assertion that FMG Suite’s content offering increases traffic from search engines, though a few statements like this one seem to infer it.
“By providing you with a library of videos, presentations, and articles, [product] helps you build up your website with a lot of interesting content designed to keep viewers on your site longer (which can help your SEO).”
The part about keeping viewers on a site longer refers to the belief by some that “bounce rate” is one of over 200 “ranking factors” Google considers when determining the order in which results are displayed.
A bounce is a website session in which the user visits only the first page they visit on a website (the landing page) before ending the session by closing the browser window or going to another site. Bounce rate is the ratio of sessions that resulted in a bounce to the total number of sessions.
There is, however, widespread disagreement as to whether it’s a ranking factor at all. I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re looking to give yourself a bad headache, Google “engagement and SEO,” click a link and start reading.
key takeaway: SEO can be tricky. Be wary of any claims made in regard to search engine ranking or traffic from search engines. The assistance of a trusted expert could provide great value in this area.
DifferentiationWhile conducting the search referenced above, I noticed that many of the pages looked quite similar to each other, as illustrated in the image below. The reason for the similarity is that FMG Suite uses a limited set of website templates and doesn’t provide design services for interior pages for the first two of three onboarding tiers.
In a related incident, a client using the Campaign offering signed up for another firm’s newsletter and received the same content from them that had gone out to his own clients on the same day.
While I wouldn’t say that the probability of this happening to a client or prospect is high, it’s certainly possible; and if it did, it’s not likely that an advisor would lose a current or potential client as a result, I can’t imagine that it would leave a positive impression.
Key takeaway: if a brand’s most visible marketing asset is a mass-produced commodity, there’s a pretty good chance the brand will be perceived in the same way. Skip the service offering and hire an agency to build a custom site on this or another platform.
Brand PerceptionProfessional services providers are hired for their expertise, and publishing original content thought leadership is an effective way of demonstrating thought leadersip while differentiating from their competitors. But does publishing syndicated content have the same effect?
In a 2015 survey asking 378 Internet users ages 8 to 60 what they thought of brands that publish licensed content on their blog, 59 percent said it had no impact, eight percent said it had a positive effect, and 33 percent said it made the brand look worse, even when the content came from a respected source.
Key takeaway: the value of content marketing is greatly diminished, if not eliminated, when firms use non-original content.
Design ValueFormer IBM President Thomas Watson Jr. once said: “good design is good business.”
In Watson’s day, that was likely seen as a big revelation, but in the age of Apple and Starbucks, design and customer experience have gone from window dressing to measurable competitive advantage.
Case-in-point: the Design Management Institute’s Design Value Index (DVI), tracks the 16 publicly-traded companies that score highest against the DMI’s criteria for “design-centricity.” The last DVI report published showed a 211 percent return over the S&P 500, marking the third consecutive year that it achieved results in excess of 200 percent over the S&P.
The key attribute of most financial advisor’s ideal client is wealth, and wealthy people tend to appreciate and expect a client experience that meets their standards. As a result, wealth management firms often invest heavily in their physical presence, though the virtual presence of many doesn’t reflect the same commitment to quality – puzzling, given the likelihood that more prospects and clients will visit their website than their office in any given time period.
Key takeaway: given the important role it plays in brand perception, investing in an online experience that reflects a commitment to quality is likely to deliver a great deal of value.
SummaryFMG Suite’s value lies primarily in the specialized aspects of the offering, such as:
- systems and processes that support and reduce compliance-related risk and overhead
- established relationships with broker-dealers
- integration with other industry-specific products
- the ability to keep the advisor and/or firm top-of-mind with clients and prospects with little-to-no customer involvement or effort
- relatively low cost
- subpar service offering
- deficient/misleading content marketing product
- templatized sites and shared content homogenize firms
ConclusionThere are a number of parallels between being a financial advisor and a digital marketing consultant. Just as people aren’t required to hire an advisor when they start saving for retirement, are allowed by the IRS to prepare their own taxes and buy their own life insurance, so too can wealth management firms purchase and publish their own website, manage a social media account, or buy online advertising without any guidance.
The challenge for both, then, is to demonstrate the value that can be derived from a strong relationship with an expert who can refine often complex systems, processes, and strategies into easily understandable concepts, manage risk and recognize/capitalize on opportunities.
My intention in writing and publishing this evaluation was to peel back the curtain a bit and show financial advisors, and any professional engaged in some form of online marketing, that having the guidance of a trusted partner with the knowledge and experience to read the signs where you may not see any, can open up new world of possibilities.
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