In the space of six months this year, Jason Ting, senior vice president of wealth management for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, racked up nearly 500 connections on his new corporate LinkedIn account. That led to one new client, four serious prospects and fresh respect for the power of a digital presence.

"Cold calls feel warmer when the person knows some of your contacts," Ting says. This, he adds, has accelerated the process of converting prospects to clients.

The financial services industry as a whole—and the employee advisor channel specifically—has been slow to embrace social media as a marketing and prospecting tool, due largely to regulatory considerations. But that is finally changing.

After a year-long pilot, Merrill Lynch began offering all of its advisors the chance to use LinkedIn last summer. "Clients certainly expect to see their advisor there," says Scott Logan, head of business technology for Bank of America's Global Wealth and Investment Management division. At Morgan Stanley, where advisors have had access to both LinkedIn and Twitter for almost two years, Lauren Boyman, digital strategy director, considers a social media presence "table stakes."

What is available still varies wildly from firm to firm—several, such as UBS and RBC, are just getting off the ground—but some regional broker-dealers including Janney Montgomery Scott and Wedbush Securities have been allowing advisors to use the whole social media trifecta of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook under corporate supervision for more than a year. "Like the rest of the industry, we were nervous," says Kelly Hoffman, director of advisor marketing and communication for Janney. "But it could put our message in front of millions more people."

Reasons to use the platforms abound. Even if it is difficult to draw direct correlations between tweeting and new business, Ting's experience of winning new business is certainly not unusual. "It's like going to the gym; if you go every day, you're going to see results," Boyman says.

Still, social media mavericks are the minority. Some blame the industry's general reticence on the fact that setting up the compliance-approved accounts can seem overwhelming. At Morgan Stanley, for example, advisors who want to use LinkedIn have to take a compliance training course, create a profile and then get that profile approved, a process "that can take a week to a few weeks," Boyman says. And from there, advisors need to take a fairly active role in making connections and sharing information if they want their work to pay off.

Other advisors are reluctant to sign up because they're either not comfortable with technology or they don't think their clients are using it. "I don't think we'll ever have 100%," says Natalie Taylor, head of marketing for Wedbush, which is aiming to boost the social media adoption rate among advisors from the current 35% to 60%.

For those who are just starting, LinkedIn is by far the most popular and practical platform. Many consider it to be an interactive business card, and their virtual connections the equivalent of a Rolodex. "It's a database," Janney's Hoffman says. "You can search for doctors within a certain mile radius of your practice, find out how they're linked to you and you have a conversation starter."

Of course, reaching out completely randomly may have about the same odds of success as cold-calling on the phone. To up those odds, social media experts advise asking people you already know to introduce you to people they know, which, of course, is the whole point of the original LinkedIn business model. Ting says he has tried asking clients to connect with him during in-person meetings, and then offers to introduce them to any of his connections if they are interested. Almost inevitably, the client in turn will offer his or her contacts. Ting reaches out to the client's contacts only after he's researched the list.

Networking with NextGen
One of the most compelling reasons to get savvy about social media is not your clients, however—it's your clients' heirs. "Even if advisors think their clients aren't on social media—and they usually are—the children of their clients are, and it's really important to connect with the next generation," Morgan Stanley's Boyman says. At Ting's office, for example, advisors created a campaign in the office to connect with the children and grandchildren of their clients on LinkedIn. Now, "most of my connections are people in their 20s and 30s," Ting says.

To that end, Jim Foley, senior vice president at Janney's Pittsburgh branch, decided to start using Twitter, despite initially writing it off as something only his college-aged children would use. "LinkedIn is probably a better business tool, but Twitter is so much more prevalent among younger people," he says. Although he laments that his children have stopped following his tweets, he is proud to maintain around 80 followers, in addition to his 500-plus LinkedIn connections.

To make social media more manageable, Foley blocks out 30 minutes in the morning to search his favorite news websites for interesting links. He also tries to stay focused on certain topics, largely related to Pittsburgh and financial planning. Some examples from his Twitter feed include Heinz announcing layoffs, statistics on local natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale formation and an article about working men caring for aging parents.

That's not to say that social media content can't show an advisor's personality. Foley regularly comments on the Pittsburgh Penguins and other favorite sports teams. While they are not directly business-related, those topics often gain him the most followers. In fact, a tweet about the Penguins sparked a response from a former NHL player who was interested in some investment advice.

Morgan Stanley is also aiming for a mix of business and pleasure. While its advisors can only tweet pre-approved content from a corporate library, the library's offerings recently expanded from thoughts on investment theories and asset allocation research to "lifestyle focused" content on food, travel and golf, Boyman says.

But learning what to post and when to post it is a big part of the process. Foley says he uses metrics, such as which links get the most clicks, to gauge what content would be successful. "It's a lot of trial and error."

Among the three major social media outlets, Facebook has the least uptake. Even at firms where it is an option, some advisors say they don't want to use it. "I would prefer to stick with LinkedIn," Ting says. Even though he is connected with clients on Facebook, he never uses it for business discussions.

One advisor who does find Facebook useful for business is Bill Kearney, vice president of investments at Wedbush Securities' Concord, N.H., office. "I'm not a natural Facebook-er, but the ability to broadcast information and create brand awareness is huge," he says. In general, his posts promote community events that his firm might be sponsoring or announce an upcoming guest on the radio show he hosts. Kearney says that his Facebook presence also helps indirectly when it comes to recruiting, since it signals that the firm is ahead of the curve.

Social Futures
Marketing executives at advisory firms are carefully watching to see which other social media platforms take off. Wedbush, for example, is looking into YouTube and Google+ for its advisors, two channels that many other firms are tracking as well. The limiting factor often is the software that runs the advisors' content through compliance. Every firm has a different interpretation of what FINRA requires for social media, but most are using software such as Socialite or Socialware to pre-approve and archive advisors' posts.

Another limiting factor is the number of eyeballs a firm can devote to the project. "Technology helps organize, categorize and archive it, but at the end of the day it comes down to people," says Joe Corriero, managing director and head of digital marketing for Bank of America's Global Wealth and Investment Management division.

At Janney, a single person—Sean Vincent, marketing oversight head—is responsible for approving any update or tweet from any of the firm's 110 social media users. That volume is still "pretty manageable," Hoffman says, and allows the content to be timely, but firms could face a scale problem if more users start posting more volume across more platforms.

No one expects social media to go away any time soon. Down the road, advisors plan to use it for even smarter prospecting and brand-building, for recruiting, for keeping track of clients' job moves and even for impromptu surveys that allow for better client service. But while social media may add capabilities, few expect that it will replace any. "Social media is a new way to connect, but our advisors are doing what they always do—listening to clients and helping them achieve their goals," Corriero says.