Do "blogs" have any place in your practice?
What's a weblog, or "blog," for short? David Winer
(http://dave.editthispage.com/myNameIsDaveWiner) can tell you. No, I
don't know David Winer personally. I know him because he has a
longstanding blog that's quite easy to find on the Internet.
In a short history of blogs, Winer explains, "Weblogs are often-updated sites that point to articles elsewhere on the Web, often with comments, and to on-site articles. A weblog is kind of a continual tour, with a human guide who you get to know. There are many guides to choose from, each develops an audience. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of [blogs]." And not all blogs flow in just one direction; many now invite readers to participate, creating a forum, in effect.
If you follow technology and use it eagerly in your practice (as all efficient planners do), then you've got to have asked yourself whether there's an application for blogs in your practice. With our clients, we advise, educate and opine; that's our job. Isn't that the same thing bloggers do?
George Papadopoulos, CPA/PFS, CFP in Novi, Mich., probably represents a middle of the road approach: "I have a family blog but not a business blog. I've thought quite a bit about whether I should start one, but I haven't made up my mind about [a number of issues] such as, would it be for current clients, prospective clients or both?"
Papadopoulos also worries about legal and compliance problems. "I tend to speak my mind and, if I 'go off' on a particular subject about hedge funds, Janus, Fidelity's manager merry-go-round or tax reform, the last thing I need is a lawsuit. I may be covered by the First Amendment, but who needs the hassle!"
And Papadopoulos questions one more thing: Do the people who read blogs fit his target market? That's perhaps the hardest question of all to answer because no one really knows who reads blogs and who will be reading blogs in the future. After all, it's a young phenomenon. Who's to say "ideal clients" won't spend part of their days several years down the road reading the thoughts of their favorite columnists and other pundits in blog form?
Some advisors are more certain that blogs will be read by the right people- i.e., prospects-and that blogs can make an advisor and his services more "inviting." Scott Cole of Cole Financial Planning in Bessemer, Ala., believes blogs can be a doorway for the consumer to get to know their planner. "It can give them a window to an advisor's humanity which I believe is very appealing. As a consumer, if I can get a 'feel' of what a person is like, then I am more willing to consider working with him. In this way, blogging- I think- counters the overexposure to cold, unauthentic marketing and sales pitches."
Interestingly, though, Cole has taken a hiatus from blogging. He hasn't put it away for good, he says, but at least temporarily, having learned the important lesson that "blogs are only effective if there is continual 'conversation' taking place; therefore, they can be time intensive." And, like most advisors, he worries about the compliance aspect of blogs, too. "Compliance issues worried me, mostly because I wasn't sure what would or wouldn't be compliant."
The problem may be even bigger than compliance. Stories about bloggers getting in trouble for their casual remarks are becoming more frequent. In just one instance that surfaced in August 2005, Traffic-Power.com, a search engine placement firm, sued a 25-year old blogger named Aaron Wall whose readers posted comments on his blog critical of Traffic-Power's services. (Some blogs allow for reader postings, although Mr. Wall might just as well have made these statements himself.) The point is, where does freedom of speech bleed into defamation of character? Blogs are often about shooting from the hip, but a countertrend toward censorship may be underway.
Can common sense prevent compliance and defamation problems? Most likely. Says Sherman Doll of Capital Performance Advisors in Walnut Creek, Calif., "I'm not real concerned about compliance since I avoid promoting performance figures or making stock or fund recommendations." Add to that list of "don'ts" obviously risky tirades on, for example, the perceived shortcomings in some wirehouse's "service" offering, and one should be pretty safe.
Doll's own blog (http://cpamoneyblog.blogspot.com/) avoids such problems. His most recent postings discuss Roth 401(k) plans, equity-indexed annuities and so-called kickbacks to broker-dealers. Sure, these topics are potentially troublesome. Doll might have lambasted a particular provider of equity-indexed annuities, but he has the common sense to steer clear of that trap and discuss the issue's controversies without naming names.
Scott Dauenhauer of Meridian Wealth Management in Laguna Hills, Calif., is similarly comfortable, and maintains not one but two blogs: http://themeridian.blogspot.com and http://teachersadvocate.blogspot.com. The first is for his clients and prospects; the second is geared toward school employees. "I usually will link to articles and provide short commentary, or do my own entries on a subject I think is important. I then reinforce the blog by linking to it through a monthly e-mail using Constant Contact [an e-mail marketing service, www.constantcontact.com]. All of this costs me just $15 per month."
Dauenhauer's first blog site shows his personality to his reader, it demonstrates his knowledge of critical financial planning issues and it carefully bypasses potential compliance and legal entanglements. In his most recent post, Dauenhauer links to an article on Yahoo! Finance about Ben Bernanke, the new Fed Chairman. The article is written by none other than Jeremy Seigel of Wharton School fame, and Dauenhauer highly recommends the article to his readers. Before that, he linked to an article on oil prices and their long-term effects on the economy. Prior to that, he linked to a Saturday Night Live skit (i.e., video file) spoofing the new Morgan Stanley commercials depicting an account exec who is practically a member of the client's family. (It never hurts to let one's clients know one has a sense of humor.) And, before that, he wrote his own personal account about doing post-Hurricane Katrina community work in Biloxi, Miss.
Alan Weinkrantz would applaud Dauenhauer's efforts. Weinkrantz, whose own blog can be seen at www.alanweinkrantz.typepad.com, is a public relations consultant who claims "financial planners should develop blogging strategies as a means to differentiate themselves." To demonstrate their versatility, Weinkrantz even started a blog for the sole purpose of selling his house. ("The buyer gets a free oil change at the local garage, free coffee at Starbucks, and dinner at a local restaurant with decades of history.") Yes, the strategy worked.
So you say you'd like to try blogging but don't know how to get started. Well, you don't have to create your own blog, as several advisors have discovered. Abacus Financial Planning in Columbia, S.C., has begun contributing to the local newspaper's own blog, says Barbara Griffin of Abacus. Neil Brown of Burkett Financial Services in West Columbia, S.C., also contributes to it.
"Our newspaper, The Columbia Record, includes a section called Your Money [www.thecolumbiarecord.com/your-money/] to which we submit informal articles every couple of weeks," says Griffin. "I don't really expect to get any results from it, but one never knows. Plus, we plan to incorporate the articles that we write on our Web site." Brown adds, "I enjoy sharing and educating and this is a way to reach beyond my client base and to help those who can't afford my services. Because I am not representing anyone in doing this, I feel I have no compliance issues. I use general statements, make no specific recommendations and use standard disclaimers in my blogs."
If you do want to create your own blog, it's really quite simple. Many Web sites have sprouted to facilitate the process. Perhaps the best known is Blogger (www.blogger.com). To test its ease of use, I set up a free blog at Blogger by merely typing in some basic contact information, naming my blog and selecting a template, or look for my blog from among 12 choices. In less than five minutes, my blog was running and I was posting to it (see http://druckerknowledgesystems.blogspot.com/).
Another type of blogger site is exemplified by Createblog (www.createblog.com), which supports Blogger, Livejournal (www.livejournal.com), Myspace (www.myspace.com) and Xanga (www.xanga.com)-all blogger creation sites-with free layouts, scripts and tutorials.
And, finally, any time you create a Web site, whether a blog or a more traditional site, people must be able to find you. Now, there are even search engines designed especially for the blogging community. For example, by going to Feedster (www.feedster.com) or Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), you can find desired blogs quite easily. I typed "Dauenhauer" into the search window on Feedster and the first item returned was Scott Dauenhauer's second blog site, which he calls "The Teacher's Advocate." Bloglines' first return was Dauenhauer's first blog site, "The Meridian."
If you'd rather be a reader than a writer of blogs, you can adopt a news reader program to deliver "feeds" from your chosen blogs. Check out FeedDemon for Windows (www.feeddemon.com).
Which is all to reiterate that advisors need to keep an eye on the latest technological goings-on and constantly ask themselves how they and their clients can benefit from them. The blog represents such an opportunity. While it's still new, just having a blog, as Weinkrantz notes, is a way of differentiating oneself.
For the advisor who likes to think of himself as unique, though, a blog might just be essential. Says Cole, "I think engaging in the various mediums that people utilize shows that the advisor is progressive and in touch with the world around him. And, if the advisor is in tune with the world around him, then the would-be client may reason, 'This advisor has the ability to be in tune with me.'"
David J. Drucker, M.B.A., CFP, an independent financial advisor since 1981, now writes, speaks and consults with other advisors as president of Drucker Knowledge Systems.