A financial planning firm announcing their new website is a fairly common occurrence. A new site often comes with a brand tweak, new copy, new images and maybe some video. If you’ve ever been involved in this kind of project, you can empathise with the individual who has just pushed their new creation out to the world. It’s often arduous and expensive work, so it’s great when it’s finally over. Now you get to see what everyone thinks of it. Or do you? Your peers will have a view, and most will be ebullient in their praise. But do they count?
The short answer is no. Prospects are what counts. And the only indication you’ll get from them, is courtesy of the ones that become clients. Even then, the focus is on helping them become a client and it’s rare that any questions are asked about which aspects of your marketing worked and which didn’t. There could be a huge number of prospects considering becoming clients, but this process takes time and without a system, you won’t know who they are. And if you don’t know who they are, you can’t help them along the journey either.
The harsh reality is that a shiny new website probably won’t deliver a reliable stream of prospects. A website is not a system. And a system is what you need if you want to achieve a predictable marketing outcome, from a defined quantum of resource. In other words, you do something and it creates a result. Then you do it at scale and you get a scaled result – the holy grail of marketing. As John Wanamaker famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”. With all the technology we now have at our disposal, surely, we can do better. I think we can.
So, what does work? Well, in financial planning circles the mantra is often ‘referrals, referrals, referrals’. The success of referrals has certainly been true in my experience. I’ve engaged an ex-partner of a large accounting firm and felt the top-line impact of working with them to build a tunnel between that accounting firm and my office. There’s a huge amount that’s already been written about success with referrals (by people with more experience than I) and there’s also a new service called RQ Rating that looks really useful. Check it out here. For me, the biggest challenge with referrals is the unpredictability.
When it comes to allocating resources to marketing, what we want is predictability; we want a system that delivers consistent results. That way we can hire, train and promote financial planners with confidence. They won’t need to find their own clients, as the firm can provide them. We won’t need to accept that a new financial planner will be unproductive for six to twelve months after joining and we won’t need to worry about restrictive covenants. ‘Don’t worry about your old clients, if you’re good they will follow you. In the meantime, here’s some new clients.’ Sounds good right? But how to build a system that delivers predictability. First, let’s have a look at what’s actually going on.
While there is nothing quite like a personal recommendation, when you stop and think about it, most marketing involves word-of-mouth recommendations – ‘have you seen ____-’, ‘have you eaten at _____’, you should go see ______ at the cinema’. People we know, pointing us to things they think we’d like. It’s just one aspect of a successful marketing campaign. People talk about something (because it’s very good) and then you search online to find it. When you do, you make a decision and away you go. This is known as the zero moment of truth. A term coined by Google, in a book of the same name. You can download it for free from this page of resources on the subject.
This zero moment of truth applies to many online purchases. However, the higher the consequences, the more discretionary the purchase and the more intangible the product or service, the less immediate the purchase decision. How many touch points does a prospective client need to have before they commit to hire a financial planner and trust them with their worldly possessions (not to mention their retirement plans)? I’m sure someone’s done the research, but from my direct experience and that of many firms I’ve helped as a consultant, the number is high. It’s one of the reasons why so much resource is devoted to educating prospective clients. Most don’t even know what a financial plan is, let alone the difference between lifestyle financial planning and financial advice. This could be a factor that contributes to the unpredictability of referrals.
So, people buying financial planning services take longer to make their mind up. If that’s the case, we need to engage with them over a period of time. This is where permission-based marketing comes in. The drip, drip, drip that Seth Godin talks about in many of his blogs and books. It’s also the basis for the well-known concept of the funnel. Get a large number of people’s attention at the top of the funnel, increase engagement in the middle and become more focussed and personal at the bottom.
Permission-based marketing and funnels are predicated on a well-known marketing model called AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action). It’s a linear model and suggests that people’s buying behaviour is sequential. Held in high regard, it does seem to be a good framework to help think through the marketing experience. At Kingmakers, we used it to create The Escalator, which is very similar to a funnel, but reflects the idea that prospects are uplifted throughout the marketing process. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of being trapped in someone’s funnel!
This is a system designed to produce predictable results at scale. It leverages digital content, carefully designed to help the prospect move forward in the process. It works regardless of where the initial interest comes from, so it helps convert referrals as well as other activities like social media. The Escalator maps to the AIDA framework and it should be pretty obvious so I won’t bother walking through it all. What’s perhaps more valuable is to highlight the keys to building a successful one, should you choose to do so.
Bonding and how it’s done effectively
What you’re trying to do with prospects is create a bond: to start the process that can result in the development of trust. It’s important to all business transactions and when it comes to handing over your entire net worth, it’s essential. To start the process of bonding, you need to let the prospect know that you’re just like them, you talk like them, act like them and, importantly, have the same challenges and opportunities they do. This puts your proposition into context, and makes it easier for the prospect to believe that the benefits you are suggesting flow from said proposition will actually materialise.
What this means in practice, is that you use language, metaphors, analogies, stories, images and themes that will resonate with the prospect. This is difficult if you haven’t lived in the prospect’s world, so it’s easier to focus on a target market that you really know well. If I write about trying to get the balance sheet in the Gabriel return to balance, the owner of a financial advice business will know that I know. I feel their pain.
Talking to a specific person also requires focus. You need to stop trying to land every prospect and start being useful to a very narrow market. The essay by Kevin Kelly called A Thousand True Fans is a useful read on this subject. You can find an edited and updated version of it here. You’re aiming for the minimum viable audience. Creating a persona helps, but you need to go much further than the usual blog posts on this subject suggest. Imagine you are creating a character in a movie and explore the depths of incentive and perspective. This process will either involve a lot of research or a deep search of your memory.
Focusing on everyone’s favourite subject
Effective marketing content is selfless. You might have one hundred years of collective experience and be the best qualified group of advisers in the country, but do prospects actually care? Well, they care about themselves. Their favourite subject is not the history of your firm, it’s not your backstory, it’s theirs. Do they want authenticity from you, or professionalism? Peoples’ attention spans are very short these days, so if you’re going to put something out there, you want to make sure it resonates. Stay focussed on the prospect and if you must talk about yourself, make sure it’s in the context of how you can help the prospect.
Technology that really helps
Our email inboxes are sacred places where we take action on incoming communications. It’s the reason why everyone wants your email address these days. And you want a prospect’s email address too. Offering them some valuable content is the number one way to create an exchange of consideration: your email address in return for this content. But once you have it, what do you do with it? Well, you don’t spam them with sales-orientated mail for one thing. But you know that right. This is where systems come in. You want to set up a communication protocol that can adapt to the prospect’s behaviour. Luckily, there is software available that can make this relatively straightforward. You will need to build some logic into the system, but the end result is a series of email communications that adapt based on what the prospect downloads from your site. This kind of system can help the prospect up your escalator and it’s very scalable.
Now this one is obvious but it’s still pretty rare. Creating a compelling story is an art, but there is a process behind that art. It needs to be relatable, captivating, exciting and it must resonate. There’s no better way to put your proposition into context. Tell a story about someone relatable, who has challenges and opportunities similar to your prospect and weave in how the proposition created significant value.
Side note – interviewing your existing clients rarely produces the desired results. It’s a favourite of many marketing consultants: conduct some interviews, maybe video it, take some pictures, pull all that into a good-looking website and wait for similar families to beat your door down. The number of firms that have done this and are now launching new sites, is a strong indication that it doesn’t always produce the desired results. Reality can be mundane, but stories don’t have to be.
Show and tell
Seeing something in action is a great way to bring it to life. Financial planning has historically been a largely intangible, not to mention entirely discretionary purchase. Many firms have struggled to express what it is (and what it isn’t). Some firms use the outputs from cashflow modelling, but a significant number still only give the client a suitability letter as the conclusion to a deeply engaging and wonderfully cathartic process. So, in terms of quality the output doesn’t match the input or the process. Now, the client has already signed up to the proposition, so they are not making a buying decision at the point where they get a suitability letter, and they probably don’t have anything else to compare your output to either.
However, when we want to use the output from the proposition to help in the marketing process, we need to improve it. Developing a framework for a financial plan, using images and graphical representations of data, is a great way to bring the plan to life. As it’s your design, you can also bring in charts from your cashflow software, to help tell the client’s story. Walking through an example (maybe using the same character from your client story), by recording your screen as you flip through the presentation and your voice as you talk through the case, helps to bring the proposition to life, while introducing the prospect to an adviser at the firm.
Consistency and patience
We’ve built a number of these structures for firms, and it can take between twelve and eighteen months before you start seeing strong organic results. You could see much faster results if you have referrals pushing traffic onto your escalator. Referred prospects typically move up much quicker, jumping steps or just consuming content quickly and taking action more readily. If the prospects are generated organically, you need to figure out search engine optimisation, manage your reviews, work on social media and adjust your email distribution, all based on accumulated data. This requires both consistency and patience. Consistency in terms of regular posting on social media, publishing blogs, podcasts or whatever else your entry-level content is, and patience as far as results go. Once you’ve built your escalator, you need to treat it as infrastructure and make adjustments based on hard evidence. So no new websites until the data tells you that the website is a problem.
A lot of financial planning firms like to talk about their evidence-based approach. Whether it’s investment management or increasingly in their financial planning work, being seen to have a data-driven approach is popular; with good reason. Marketing activities are no different. Without a framework like The Escalator, you have multiple sources of data and it’s all difficult to gather and interpret consistently. If you build a structure, then it’s predictable and you can determine the data you will gather over time and how you will interrogate it. This makes it easier to analyse what your prospects are actually doing over time, and to make adjustments that help them become clients in a shorter timeframe.