Why RIAs should avoid the carnival barker approach to publicity

More PR is not necessarily better -- especially if you're a small or midsize firm

Thursday 3.15.12 by Guest Columnist Gordon G. Andrew

Brooke’s Note: Gordon Andrew has a humble enough bio at the bottom of this article. But a look at his website reveals some pretty heady PR experience. Andrew has served as Sandy Weill’s head of communications at The Travelers. He was called in for his PR expertise by the CFO of Enron (remember him?) I don’t agree with everything Andrew has to say here — especially advice that might discourage sources from talking to RIABiz — but I love that he takes a strong viewpoint and explains it well.

Many RIAs believe that as a means to raise brand awareness and drive investor inquiries, more publicity is always better, But there are several reasons why the carnival barker approach to publicity is a losing game. See: Advisors should go all-in to make PR worthwhile — otherwise, steer clear.

For starters:

- There are too many distractions within traditional print, broadcast and digital media channels to ensure that target audiences will notice your firm’s brand exposure, remember seeing it or be influenced by the coverage.

- Many types of media exposure have very little marketing value. For example, having your chief investment officer quoted in a story that also includes quotes from competitors will do little to distinguish your firm’s brand, or to make the phones ring.

- Publicity (also called “earned media”) is a beast that must be fed consistently. This effort requires that a company either engage an outside PR agency or employ dedicated staff members who are skilled at pitching stories and nurturing press coverage. See: The Grossian formula for PR: Why Bill’s press is good press, even when it’s bad.

Big enough to fail

So, if media placement is both inefficient and costly as a marketing tactic, then why do wirehouses and large, sophisticated wealth advisors continue to use it? Big firms use PR because they can afford to. They have the financial and human resources not only to be consistent in its application, but also to be sloppy in requiring a reasonable return on investment.

Conversely, because resources are limited, small and midsize RIAs cannot play the same publicity game. To survive, they must demand that PR tactics be cost-effective and accountable. See: Behind the PR man’s curtain: how RIAs can successfully deal with the media.

Unfortunately, firms that attempt to go toe-to-toe with deep-pocketed competitors by emulating their “more publicity is better” approach are often disappointed with the results of PR over time. Although they may succeed in generating some media exposure over a six-month or one-year period, many companies eventually drop the tactic altogether. Other than a pile of press clippings or some online content for their website’s “In the News” section, RIAs are often hard-pressed to draw a connection between their publicity efforts and AUM growth. See: Fast take on growth: Five tips on marketing and sales strategies that work amid fears of a double-dip.

Game change

If the bad news for small and midsize RIAs is that they lack the financial resources to maintain a consistent brand presence using publicity, then the good news is that “more publicity is better” is a losing game that no wealth management firm should play, regardless of its size.

RIAs seeking to leverage publicity to drive business results in a cost-effective manner need to play a very different game, using the following rules:

Generate credibility tools, not placements

The underlying marketing value of publicity lies in the inherent third-party validation provided by the media sources that create exposure for your brand. Your goal is to generate media exposure that will yield a credibility tool for your firm, telling investors, prospects and referral sources that you are a “safe choice.” Your media exposure must shine a light on your firm’s value proposition (addressing why people should do business with you) in order for that publicity to serve as an effective credibility tool. More bluntly, if your publicity doesn’t make your firm’s sales collateral more believable, it’s a wasted effort.

Seek only high-value exposure

Contrary to conventional wisdom, less publicity can be better for RIAs — if it is high-value media exposure. No publicity has the right to exist without a specific business application, and not all publicity is created equal. High-value exposure puts an exclusive spotlight on your firm’s intellectual capital, underlying values or narrative, and typically allows you to control all or most of the content. On that basis, certain types of publicity — such as an exclusive firm profile written by a “friendly” journalist, one-on-one interviews on relevant topics, bylined articles, blog posts or op-ed pieces that you’ve written — are far more valuable than simply being mentioned or quoted in a news or feature story, or providing a sound bite for CNBC. See: Early adopters of social media, RIAs are growing disenchanted with its power to drum up new business.

Plan media solicitations last

Under pressure to produce media exposure of any kind, PR firms and internal marketers sometimes generate a placement first, and then attempt to figure out a way to leverage (or “merchandise”) that publicity. Too often, publicity with or without merchandising potential is simply hung on an RIA’s website like a hunting trophy. As a marketing-savvy firm, you must work backward by first defining what specific behavior or opinion you’re attempting to influence, and then by determining how you’ll apply media exposure to accomplish that goal. Only at that point are you prepared to solicit specific media placements that have a purpose, editorial focus and the potential to drive a measurable business outcome.

Build an internal merchandising system

If you’re creating effective credibility tools using publicity, it’s essential that you establish an internal discipline to ensure that your current and prospective investors, referral sources and other key audiences receive those tools on at least a quarterly basis. Many RIAs fail to understand that the return on investment of publicity is based, in large measure, on the depth and reliability of their firm’s customer relationship management system. To maintain top-of-mind awareness with your target audiences, and to benefit from the media’s third-party endorsement of your business, you must take steps (in a manner that’s not overly self-serving) to ensure that whatever publicity you generate is directly applied to remind people of who you are and why they should do business with you.

Slice and dice for additional ROI

In this digital age, there are opportunities to gain additional mileage from the publicity you generate, in terms of search engine marketing potential, and exposure to audiences that may not be covered by your firm’s CRM system. These efforts should supplement, rather than serve as an alternative for, your internal merchandising discipline. For example, if you’ve scored a bylined article in a respected publication, initiate a discussion on the article’s topic within appropriate LinkedIn user groups, and attach a link to the published piece. If you use Twitter to promote the article’s link, extract a provocative observation or quote from your piece, rather than tweeting, for example, “Read my article that was published in RIABiz.” If you’ve been interviewed on CNN or the local news, post that video on YouTube, and be sure to include a written commentary that gives your video additional context and marketing value. See: “Top 10 tips for the 'social’ financial professional when creating your LinkedIn profile.

Summing up

Changing the way you think about and apply publicity — primarily by abandoning the notion that the discipline requires a carnival barker’s approach to capturing marketplace interest — will allow your firm to gain a powerful marketing capability. If publicity is designed and managed in a strategic manner, small and midsize RIAs can compete effectively against investment firms of any size.

Gordon G. Andrew is managing partner of Princeton, N.J.-based Highlander Consulting Inc. Inc., a marketing communications firm that helps wealth managers to gain and keep clients. He blogs at Marketing Craftsmanship and can be reached at gordon@highlanderconsulting.com or through LinkedIn.

Gordon G. Andrew

Highlander Consulting | marketing