Evan T. Beach, CFP®, AWMA®, is a wealth manager with Campbell Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va., and a Kiplinger and Credit.com columnist who has also been published on Yahoo Finance, CNBC, TheStreet.com, Bloomberg, and U.S. News and World Report. He earned his CFP® certification at age 26, becoming one of only 3.3 percent of CFP® practitioners in their 20s at that time.
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If you live in an affluent ZIP code, odds are you’ve received postcards with a large picture of a medium-rare filet and an offer of a free dinner at a well-known, expensive steakhouse. That brief moment of excitement can turn sour when you flip over the invitation and realize it’s just another annuity or insurance pitch. If you’re like me, or how I used to be, you think, “How can these product-pitchers have the same title I do?” In the next 1,500 words, I’m going to do everything I can to convince you to be more like these people, applying their marketing energy to your top-notch planning firm. Perhaps knowing that some of these teams are bringing in north of $200 million per year will help you read on.
In 2018, our firm broke the $100 million barrier in new, organic assets for the first time. For a Creative Planning, Edelman, or Fisher Investments, that may not seem like a big deal, but for a firm managing less than $500 million at the beginning of the year, it’s something. For us, the answer was not free steak dinners; most of our new business comes from classroom-based instruction. Those big-name firms, like ours, are intentional about marketing and business development. They spend money on marketing and track ROI. What a concept!
Our marketing budget would likely make most RIA firm owners sick to their stomach. However, the ROI may make you cry tears of joy. A general rule-of-thumb is to spend 10 percent of your top-line revenue on marketing. So, a $500 million RIA firm would invest $500,000 per year in marketing. That number may scare you, but we live in a society where we are constantly enticed by shortcuts to whatever our goal is. Let me be the first, or hundredth, person to tell you that the silver bullet does not exist on the business development front. The secret? Large dollars aimed in the right direction pay large dividends.
Persistence Pays Off
I have heard for years that seminars don’t work. Yet Edelman will do 800 of them this year. I doubt a firm managing $200 billion (post-merger) would dedicate the time and resources necessary to this cause if it weren’t fruitful. If you fall into the category of “I tried it; it didn’t work,” chances are that you’re either not doing it enough or not doing it with enough systems.
In the never-ending pursuit of perfection of seminar and classroom-based education, we had a coach tell us never try anything for less than 90 days. Pair that with my rule of never doing anything less than once a month, and you have a framework for how long you must try something before reaching a conclusion about its viability.
At the age of 29, after seeing numbers dwindle for our university-based seminars promoted via direct mail, I spent $12,000 out of my own pocket to try a Facebook-driven seminar campaign. Guess how many clients I got? Goose egg! Fast-forward two years: that same channel yielded 16 new clients for our firm and will return our investment in less than a year in a fee-based business. To find success in any marketing effort, you must be willing to embrace the failure that will come first. High emotional quotient will get you to try it again.
In a world where Kylie Jenner can become a billionaire mostly due to her social media reach, our industry must realize that we need to reach people where they are—and that’s not alongside their mailbox. Facebook has more than one billion daily active users. On average, people spend 35 minutes per day on the site or app.1 That is significantly longer than most people spend reading their physical mail. Today Facebook has higher ad revenue than all other media companies outside of Google.2
So, am I saying you need to be advertising on Facebook? Not necessarily. What I am saying is that you need to be growing your list or your “tribe” in some way. Clients don’t become clients when you need them to. They become clients when they make a transition that requires your help. The only way you are top of mind when they do is to be dripping on a list big enough to hit your new asset goals.
Selling the Invisible
Up to this point, I have talked only about marketing. Essentially, what needs to happen to get people in your door. In 2014, I bought a new Jeep. I remember the excitement walking out of the dealership about my comfortable seats, moon roof, and new technology. My only regret was the extended warranty I was pushed into buying. Five years later, the seats are still comfortable, and the moon roof is just as large, but I would be in serious trouble without my extended warranty. The reason I wasn’t excited about it upfront was that it was, and is, intangible. It’s something I paid a lot for, but it did not come with something that I could hold on to.
We are in the business of selling the invisible. No exciting new car or piece of technology. We sell a service that often does not have a definitive, immediate value. The fastest-growing firms have made their product tangible. They have a propriety process or offering that says exactly what the consumer gets and that comes with a deliverable.
The way our brain works is that important decisions, such as hiring a new adviser, get made by the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion. We use our logical brain, the neocortex, to rationalize that decision with a cost-benefit analysis. Without a tangible product, there is a cost but no definitive benefit, and therefore, no way to rationalize our decision to hire someone.
Is Your Firm Actually Growing?
I am a CFP® professional by trade and a technical adviser by nature. I teach about 20 CPE courses per year on some dense planning topics. You may be wondering why I write so frequently about business development. I believe that content is nothing without clients.
How valuable would Lebron James’ skills be if no one were willing to pay to see him play? The same is true in our world. You can be the most technically efficient adviser with a litany of letters behind your name, but if no one shows up at your door, all that education was a waste of time. So, our firm hires marketing professionals. This is not the same person as your administrative assistant. These are people, many coming from other industries, who know how to develop leads and find ways to get them to your door or one of your events. Be brutally honest with yourself. Strip market performance and systematic savings away from the growth of your firm to see if you’re actually growing. If you’re embarrassed, it’s time to hire some help.
If our firm has a bad month from a business development standpoint, it’s rarely a coincidence. I can find something broken in our processes in the previous six months. We track everything from the time we run a campaign, to the touches leading up to the campaign, to the drip after the campaign, and finally through our sales process. There are ratios in each chain link, and if our campaign has fallen short of its goal, one of them has strayed in the wrong direction from the mean. Every one of these metrics shows up in our dashboard, an Excel spreadsheet built by our computer guru, Ben. When one metric strays over a certain percentage from the mean, it turns either red or green. The idea is that we can fix a broken system, but we can’t fix a person. If the process is the same every time and it stops working, it’s usually not the system, it’s the adviser who isn’t following it.
Imagine a world where every Fortune 500 company fired all of its sales and marketing professionals, and then told their employees that it was not only unnecessary to sell the company’s services—but unethical. Welcome to the RIA world, where we have shifted so far from product sales, we have convinced ourselves that we don’t work in sales at all.
You probably thought that this column was going to be a pitch for doing dinner seminars. It’s not. The point is to try to get you to be intentional about your sales and marketing activities.
We can trick ourselves into thinking that our firms are growing because it happens naturally through stock market growth, but the reality is that once clients are in distribution and the money is going out, instead of coming in, the company that bears your name will start to crumble. The insurance salesman has already figured this out. Why haven’t we?
- According to January 2019 stats, available at omnicoreagency.com/facebook-statistics.
- See “Amazon Is No. 3 in Online Ads, Closing in on Google and Facebook,” by Michelle Castillo. Posted Sept. 19, 2019 by CNBC. Available at cnbc.com/2018/09/19/amazon-third-largest-digital-ad-platform-behind-facebook-google.html.