A question that constantly surfaces -- how are financial advisors and firms using social media? And, to what end? More specifically, is LinkedIn trending as the primary source of social activity in our industry?

Since 2009, we’ve also asked those same questions at live events, in roundtables with our customers and in surveys. However, we’ve found that often turning to real world data tells us more. In 2011 we started our annual “look into the archives” where we seek to understand the quantitative and qualitative statistics within.

But first, we have to step back and observe that some things need to be in place for an advisor and firm to become digital. It starts with some fundamentals:

1) Understanding how the existing regulatory rules and guidance applies to the digital space.
2) Determining how we want to present ourselves on social media (i.e. customer service. educational, a networker or as leaders – or a combination)
3) A firm grasp on the technology for content creation and publication as well as managing compliance.

A lot of digital and printed ink has been spent discussing those three fronts. Once protocols are handled, then the question moves to: how do we handle engagement (how people respond to our content and how it is shared)? To consider engagement, we look into the data.

It starts by considering what is trending in 2013 for financial advisors using social media. In our case – we look at a sampling of our archive data in aggregate to come to some conclusions.

The Lean Toward LinkedIn
Part of the "lean toward" LinkedIn suggests an initial comfort level. Since its launch in 2004, LinkedIn has grown in acceptance as a business and networking tool. However, it was not considered social media before the phrase took new flight in 2008/­2009. There is a comfort that LinkedIn is understood, and folks who may feel less savvy on other social platforms are confident they "get it" with LinkedIn.

From 2010 to 2012 advisors were making connections and some profile optimizations. In part due to the shifting feature set of LinkedIn, as well as the swell of commentary on the application of LinkedIn for business, in 2013 we see significant upticks in profile updates (embedded files are one of those new features, as well as expanded data points, like Projects and Publications among others).

Status updates have trended up quite a bit as folks are simply using their stream more regularly and sharing or creating content.

Specific upticks:

• In 2011, LinkedIn accounted for 3 percent of volume in our archives, in 2012 it was 20 percent and  in 2013 year to date it’s 25 percent. The number of profile changes has doubled year over year.
• Skills use exploded as soon as the new features emerged (the nudge that LinkedIn provides when visiting certainly encouraged that.)
• The top two other areas of profile changes are Positions (not just job changes but edits to the profiles -- i.e., adding new capabilities like slide shows and videos) and Education (extremely helpful for advisors seeking to tap their alumni connections network).

A preference for LinkedIn trends in most industry surveys -- and makes sense considering that “lean” toward something comfortable and understood. However, there remains some confusion about what needs to be in social media policies and also how the technology works.

It starts with the LinkedIn profile -- once that profile is approved (easiest of the compliance steps), then all is good. Firms need to monitor and retain the activity such as status updates and profile changes.

At some firms, we do see policy constraints around genuine engagement and content creation and here there is a risk of reduced legitimacy in the long run (i.e., when a firm enables social and then allows its workforce to use only content the firm creates and distributes, without narrative or editorial freedom).

On the technology front, LinkedIn does have a more layered approach with their API from a technical perspective -- and many data points a financial advisor or a firm would want for discovery, compliance and reporting can be inaccessible. Connections data is one example where, with more recent moves by LinkedIn, a popular tool [Job Change Notifier, which advisors relied upon to surface 401(k) rollover opportunities as an example] is now shutting down.

However, the data needed specifically for compliance is largely present, but an advisor or a firm will need to use a technology solution to get it, which pushes the burden of jumping through hoops for the data from the firm to the provider.

One of the technology challenges of social media activity (and really, any of the modern digital actions that are not driven through a singular channel, such as Web site or e-mail communications, is that you have to juggle numerous mediums (audio, video, imagery, text et al) and multiple channels (first screen, second screen and now third screen -- as in computer, tablet and smartphone). This all has to be supported, captured and then normalized in a way any daily user can consume and interact with it.

This is no small effort. We’ve spent four years immersed in the integrations, data and finding ways to keep this as simple as possible and keep learning something new daily.