Social media has the ability to damage your brand as much as it might help, depending on how you use it. If you use it incorrectly, you may appear selfish and spam-like. Correctly implemented, however, a well-thought-out social media strategy can help you interact with clients online in a friendly and helpful way.

Some of the advisors I coach say they have acquired new clients from their website. Wouldn't you like to have people call you because they found your website, even if that happens just a few times a year? When a prospect is referred to you from a friend or family member, do you know what they'll discover about you through a search engine? If you don't, shame on you. How can you manage what you don't know?

Prospects will typically review your website, your LinkedIn profile, other social media profiles and anything that you've written or which has been written about you. Do yourself a favor and take a few seconds to find out what's there. You need to think about managing your online presence since people will research you online regardless of whether you manage it or not.

Your website is the easiest thing to manage. Its most important feature is you. You don't have to boast to have a great presence online. The first step is to upload a great picture. Get a shot at least from the waist up rather than a tight headshot. People read from left to right, so having your photo in the upper left corner of your home page is ideal.

When it comes to the words you use on your site, they must meet compliance rules. Be sure to post your value proposition—a short statement that answers the question of why someone should do business with you instead of a competitor. Place that as the opening sentence or paragraph. Next, give some information on what makes you an authority to provide those benefits. Then, offer a bullet point list of the benefits of working with you. Finally, list the features you use to provide those benefits.

Optimal Searches
Select a keyword that someone might use to find you using a search engine. Start looking at the higher ranking sites of your competition and see what they have in common. Are there patterns you can apply to your website? Your social media profile should link to your site.

Of all the various social media sites, LinkedIn is the most widely accepted in the financial services industry. Your LinkedIn profile is likely to be one of the first sites that pops up when someone searches for you online.

I think of it as an online ID. Prospects will typically review it before coming in to meet you, so you should create the best possible profile within the compliance guidelines set by your firm.

First, have a great picture. Next, don't make your profile a resume, make it a summary of your value proposition and benefits. If your website copy is already compliance approved, try borrowing from that for your LinkedIn profile.

Prospects want to work with people, not nameless, faceless corporations. The more you can personalize your profile, the better. You may also want to list any additional credentials, certifications and licenses you have. If you are allowed to list hobbies or interests, do it.

Consider using compliance-approved press releases that can now be optimized for search engines. Those press releases will be found for literally years after you share them, and if the terms are optimized, they will usually rank high when someone searches your name. A press release looks like someone else is writing about you and as long as it's approved, it can help build your brand. If you hire someone, send out a press release. If you change firms, get a new designation or are holding an event, consider issuing press releases.

Unfortunately, you may find things posted about you online that are unflattering. Monitor your online presence regularly so you know what clients and prospects may be reading about you.

Be a Friend First
Most firms have rules about posting online, and some discourage personal posts. If you see a potential prospect asking you to connect on LinkedIn, consider picking up the phone after you accept the invitation. I like sending greeting cards (ones through the U.S. Postal Service) to stand out from everyone else in their social media world.

However you approach someone, avoid any self-serving "let's do business" or "buy from me" pitches in the initial contact. People are simply sick of being hammered and spammed to death.

Why not take a new refreshing approach, like "Thanks for connecting. How can I help you build your network?" or "Please let me know what's most important to you about LinkedIn so I know how to help."

Avoid saying, "Let's get together so I can show you how I can help you reach your goals" in an initial contact. Try to make a friend first. Remember, this is supposed to be "social," which means a conversation, not domination.

The reality is that 20% of your social network will provide 80% of the value. Don't turn off that valuable 20% by using bad netiquette because word can spread quickly online.

Is social media for everyone? No, it is just like gardening. You need to nurture and grow your network to harvest the fruit. If you are not patient or just want instant results, you should spend money advertising so people simply can call you. One costs money, the other costs time, and there is no reason you can't do both. However, I don't think you will damage your brand if you simply run a bad ad. You can severely damage your brand by using improper netiquette.

If you decide to jump into the social media universe, know that you need to spend time each month giving to your network for your network to give back to you. Neglect will be costly.

Todd Colbeck is principal and founder of the Colbeck Coaching Group, a subsidiary
of General Business Center, Inc. You can reach him at this email address.