For financial advisors who want to be more wired, things are getting easier. Compliance officers and regulators are starting to relax rules on the use of social media, and wealth management companies are actually encouraging advisors to use more networking tools.

The anxiety financial firms once felt over doing business on the social network has been replaced by a growing fear of becoming irrelevant if they don't. Last year research firm Cogent Media reported that nearly 70% of investors have "reallocated investments, or began or altered relationships with investment providers, based on content found through social media." In another study last year, IBM said that most global financial services companies are engaged in some form of social media that uses personal data to understand and manage customer relationships.

But wealth firms and advisors venturing onto the new landscape in recent years have learned from experience that it's not as easy as just signing onto Twitter and tweeting whatever comes to mind. There are opportunities, but also risks.

How do you navigate the new social terrain in a way that enhances client relationships, improves financial advice and avoids business risks? Here, the three best tips from advisors and experts on playing the social game:

Build Stronger Relationships

Half of the 6,000 brokers at Raymond James use a desktop application that collects and manages what clients post on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and provides a quick compliance review of their brokers' own posts. The wealth management firm's technology is managed by Hearsay Social and designed to conform to policies set by the company's compliance team.

The most important lesson the firm's advisors have learned using the application the past three years, according to Katie Berg, Raymond James product manager for digital assets, is to use it as a two-way communications tool and not just another channel to speak "at" clients. "Listening is probably the most important thing to learn," she says.

Berg uses her own blog to counsel Raymond James' advisors on using social media to keep tabs on their clients' "important life events such as job changes, promotions and baby announcements." She writes: "By listening to what your contacts are saying, you can learn valuable information that can be used to help start and enrich conversations with clients, prospects and business contacts."

Advisors agree that knowing more about their clients' lives helps them deliver better financial advice and meet the suitability standards set by regulators. "New resources like social media and data aggregation enable us to find better solutions for our clients," says David Edwards, president of independent firm Heron Financial Group Wealth Advisors. "Our clients pay us to know them really well and to anticipate their financial needs and concerns. That's how we win their money."

From the clients' point of view, having a financial advisor who's clued in to whether you're having a baby or refinancing your house adds value to the relationship. "You can get real financial advice based on your own personal data that isn't based on a meaningless printed pie chart," says Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon who now teaches social data and finance at Stanford University.

Protect Client Privacy

Financial advisors have always known the value, and the danger, of using personal information. Before there was Facebook, they trolled newspaper stories to learn about job promotions, new hires, weddings and, yes, obituaries — anything that chronicled the lives of clients or prospects and their families. They know from experience that using that information requires a finely tuned sense of discretion. Nobody likes a stalker. "Social polish" is a must-have for wealth advisors, Berg says.

Social media heightens the need to be discrete. By generating an immense amount of personal information, it gives wealth managers a powerful tool — but also one that could backfire with great potential for legal and reputational damage. But truly protecting client privacy in the age of social media is a larger, longer-term, harder-to-define challenge than it was in the past, one that financial firms need to tackle on an institutional level. While all firms say they won't share data that is "personally identifiable," legal experts warn that promise may be difficult to keep.

"Increasingly, technologists can take information that appears on its face to be non-identifiable and turn it into identifiable data," notes Paul Schwartz, a law professor and privacy expert at the University of California, in a study paper last year. Wealth managers need to keep this in mind whenever they use client data — even for market research in which names and account numbers are blanked out.

"Firms that share information with a data aggregator need to work as true partners, because there is liability all the way down the road," says Michael Burwick, a securities lawyer for Day Pitney in Boston. "They need to recognize that data collected over social media channels must be protected. It needs to be treated consistently all the way downstream to wherever it is used to assure anonymity."

Wealth managers need to be aware that using account data can cause problems long after it's collected. The SEC established that clearly when it levied individual fines of $15,000 to $20,000 against the president, compliance officer and sales manager of Florida broker-dealer GunnAllen, after it was liquidated in 2010. The SEC charged the firm's officers for transferring client data to a new firm without the clients' knowledge or permission.

Prepare for Uncertainty

Financial advisors waiting for clear rules on social media use from the government, the courts or corporate ethics committees may have to wait a long time — and lose business in the process. FINRA has made it clear that it will not be issuing any significant new directives on use of social media anytime soon. And no one expects big policy changes from U.S. securities regulators, who already have their hands full implementing legislative mandates adopted in the wake of the 2008 market crisis and the Madoff mega-scandal.

"It's a whole new medium and the guidance from regulators has not been updated in some time," says Michael Epshteyn, a lawyer and privacy specialist for Hogan Lovells in Washington. "You have to have a risk management program in place that considers various types of risks — reputational, compliance, legal and others."

The rules on using social media may be less than clear, but the basics still apply: communications can't be misleading or promissory. Some incidents are black and white. In an SEC case concluded just over a year ago, the owner of an eponymous Illinois firm, Anthony Fields & Associates, was banned from the securities industry for life for marketing $500 billion in fraudulent securities over LinkedIn.

But many situations are murkier. This tweet became part of an SEC action that resulted in a $10,000 fine and a year-long suspension for the author: "It's going 2 b a good Xmas & New Year! Ck out AMD! Like I have said, it should b@ least a $10B co. which should b @ $ 15/shs. Happy Trading!" The tweet was one of 370 such messages sent by a Twitter-happy registered principal of a small California firm, Titan Securities, who allegedly sent the message without a compliance review.

LinkedIn is seen by most firms as the safest, most appropriate channel for wealth managers, because of its clear focus on business and professional networks. Yet no industry standard has emerged, and some say LinkedIn is "too impersonal" to be very useful. Hilliard Lyons' media specialist, Chambers Moore, says her firm encourages wealth managers to create "real personas" on their own Web sites, "having fun with it and talking about their interests."

Each wealth firm is pursuing its own strategy. Edward Jones says its wealth managers use LinkedIn and Facebook but not Twitter, with its rapid fire, one-line messages that are harder for compliance managers to oversee. Raymond James uses Twitter, but only if tweets are preapproved by compliance. All wealth managers post privacy policies and capture records of nearly everything they post or send via email to comply with regulators' concerns.

The Fields fraud case was egregiously obvious, but more often wealth management firms and compliance officers will be working in the gray zone of the happy tweeter from Titan Securities who just "liked" chipmaker AMD too much. Advisors, be advised: Before you send your next tweet, consider who it's aimed at and who it's supposed to be helping.

 

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