David Yeske tinkers with his Web site the way some people tend a garden, constantly planting and pruning. At one point, the San Francisco-based financial advisor and future president of the national board of directors for the Financial Planning Association (FPA) spent up to 30 hours a week toiling on his little patch of online real estate.

No doubt, many of his colleagues considered him a poster boy for poor time management. But log on to Yeske.com and see who's laughing now. His Web site has become a strategic prospecting and client service tool-and the envy of many in the industry. About half of his 95 clients actively collaborate online through secure private pages, and except for one or two who don't own computers, the rest at least log on occasionally to check his travel schedule or look up a phone number. "The Web is all about choice," he says. "It adds an extra channel for communicating with your clients."

As advisors look for ways to bolster relationships and streamline workflow, the Web, once perceived as a potential threat, has emerged as a powerful tool. At the very least, an online presence suggests credibility to prospective clients. Even more important, a good home page delivers a compelling brand message that reinforces an advisor's philosophy. And the most advanced sites serve as interactive tools that enrich communication with clients even as they automate work flow.

What's more, the Web delivers a highly desirable demographic to advisors. Households with incomes of $125,000 are twice as likely to spend time online, according to HNW Inc., a marketing and media company focused on the high-net-worth market. In January alone, 51.6 million users visited finance and investment sites and spent more time there than at any other type of site, including search engines and portals, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. And an April study by the Spectrem Group on behalf of Advent Software revealed that 41% of investors with more than $500,000 in investable assets would either move assets or directly pay a fee to receive Web-based, consolidated wealth-management services from their financial advisors. The lure of assets up for grabs explains why even powerhouses like Schwab Institutional are getting into the Web development and hosting business.

The issue now is not whether to be on the Web-but how. "Many advisors started and then got stuck," says Joanne Day, co-founder of Trumpet Inc., a Phoenix consulting firm that advises planners on technology. "They keep asking themselves, 'How can I get more out of my Web site?' That's the wrong question. They should really be asking, 'How can I deliver more personal service?'" The answer to that question, she says, can help clarify what role a Web site should play in a practice.

Figuring out what makes you special to your clients is the first step in enhancing your online presence. And the answer may surprise you. "My practice is very high-touch, with plenty of phone calls, cards and a quarterly newsletter I write myself," says Barbara Steinmetz, president of Steinmetz Financial Planning in Burlingame, Calif. Although she received a Web site (www.steinplan.com) as a birthday gift from her sister four years ago, she has not changed it since.

About a third of her prospects find her Web site through FPA and NAPFA links. Her hands-off approach to the site is all the more surprising given her clientele: Silicon Valley executives in their mid-30s with $1.5 million to $5 million in assets. "You would think my Web site would be a turn-off to these folks. Heck, they could probably fix it themselves. But I get the feeling they like the luxury of hard copies and dealing with an actual human being."

Steinmetz says her role is to be a "professional mom," and making her clients feel special is her forte. "Maybe younger planners who grew up in the tech era would feel a greater need to connect with clients as a peer on that level."

One such younger planner is Tom Jaccard, president of Jaccard Financial in La Jolla, Calif. At 26, he is just starting out-but you'd never guess that from his Web site (www.jaccardfinancial.com). Jaccard created the site himself using a software program called Dreamweaver, along with some help from his tech-savvy twin brother. "The truth is, I'm cheap. The Web is the most cost-effective way to advertise. By just letting it evolve over time and spending a few hours a month, I've avoided having to pay anyone. It's just like updating your computer equipment. You have to write some of your monthly budget into it."

In addition to monthly planning tips-he gets them free from the FPA-and sample financial plans, Jaccard offers clients the option to complete forms, pay fees and sign documents electronically. He admits that not all his clients use these tools, but at least three of the 10 clients he has taken on in the past year chose to work with him because of his Web site.

For planners who don't have Yeske's green thumb-or a tech-savvy twin brother-outsourcing can be a cost-effective option.

One service that attracts enthusiastic reviews is AdvisorSites, which offers custom-built Web sites along with timely content from veteran financial journalist Andrew Gluck, who has emerged as a popular tech guru for the advisor community. "If Andy sets you up, you don't have to worry about making a mistake," says David Drucker, a financial planner who recently sold his practice and is now writing a book called, Virtual Office Tools for a High Margin Practice. "You can go in and change the photos, the logo, the formatting of the page, whatever you want."

Because the Internet is constantly changing, Drucker says, the ability to make changes and providing strong customer service are two important qualities advisors should seek in an outsourcer. In fact, Day says she has helped several advisors switch from the slow, clunky service offered by once-popular LightPort.com to AdvisorSites.

Although Gluck's business provides basic cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all sites, he thinks it's important for an advisor to customize an electronic presentation to accentuate his or her firm's strengths and personality. His list of clients reads like a Who's Who of the advisory profession, including such luminaries as Michael Chasnoff, Roy Diliberto, Norm Boone and Tom Connelly, all of whom want their Web sites to convey the individualistic nature of their practices.

Gluck is fond of reminding advisors that when a client goes on the Web, the advisor has the same 17-inch screen to work with as Merrill Lynch or Salomon Smith Barney, so make the most of it. Few places offer a competitive playing field that is as level as the Internet. "In a way, the well has been poisoned because advisors think that getting a template Web site is enough," Gluck says. "But each advisor practices a little bit differently, and it's important to get that across. Building a Web site-and doing it right-can be a painful experience. But if you don't know what your services are, how can you even create a business plan?"

For a $3,000 set-up fee and $600 to $2,000 a year for content, Gluck will coach you through as much soul-searching, branding and technical assistance as you need. Advisors who have comparison-shopped praise Gluck not only for his strong understanding of their communication needs but also for his reasonable pricing. More than 450 firms now rely on AdvisorSites, which employs 15 tech-savvy people, and the company has entered into an agreement with SunAmerica's sprawling broker-dealer network.

AdvisorSites recently added data feeds and compliance services, moves Gluck delayed because he had concerns about Web-site security and an excessive emphasis on investment performance. "Performance data will be treated in the context of overall communications," he explains. Coming soon will be account aggregation services.

The firm's latest service, AdvisorSites Compliance Engine Snapshot (ACES), takes snapshots of advisors Web sites, something the SEC expects RIAs to do. Many expect the National Association of Securities Dealers will follow suit and expect the same from registered reps.

For advisors who crave advanced tools such as live data feeds, AdvisorSquare also offers a comprehensive toolkit, albeit using an application service provider, or template, model. For a start-up fee of $300 plus $110 per month, advisors can get a premium package that includes everything from live presentations and Web seminars to automatically generated prospect lists that fit the advisor's demographic. The service has fared well in the accounting, insurance and brokerage industries with big-name clients like Fidelity, Schwab and Guardian, but some advisors have complained about what they consider a hard-sell approach.

For advisors who custody assets with Schwab, another option is its recently launched Advisor WebCenter (www.advisorwebcenter.com), an advisor-branded Web site development and hosting service. Through a partnership with Yodlee Inc., the program can aggregate information from more than 3,000 data sources, including non-Schwab accounts. Given that Schwab.com is the stickiest financial site online (1,166 unique visitors accessed it in January, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, with the average user spending almost two hours there that month), advisors could benefit from the powerhouse's reach.

But for advisors who don't need account aggregation, however, the service could get expensive: One-time set up fees range from $3,500 to $7,500, with annual licensing fees depending on the degree of customization. Currently, the service is available only to Centerpiece users, although connectivity to other portfolio-management systems is being developed.

In many ways, going straight to an outsourcer is like buying a new car. If you don't already have a very clear idea of what you want, you're likely to be wowed by the sales pitch and purchase a whole lot of sleek, expensive options that you don't need. "You want to keep your Web site simple," advises Yeske, who considers bells and whistles like splash pages, stock tickers and Macromedia animations worthless. "Clients don't have the patience to see all the whiz bang geegaws that you can jam on to your Web site."

Likewise, market data can be useful within a financial planning context, he says, but too much focus on performance can undermine your message. "Your Web site should keep your clients focused on the big picture." Usability-the study of how individuals use the Web-is now an advanced science, so it's surprising how many people continue to break basic rules, such as short loading times (less than 10 seconds is ideal), proper logo placement, easy-to-find contact information and meaningful content on the home page. A good reference is Homepage Usability by Jakob Nielsen, the godfather and guru of Web usability.

Despite all the toys available online, most advisors are using their Web sites for far more basic functions: connecting with current clients, sending a clear message to prospects, storing and backing up client data and saving money. In fact, the Web can function as a powerful way to prequalify clients with very little effort on the part of the advisor. "The reason people go on the Internet is to shop," Jaccard says. "I wanted a comprehensive site like Amazon, where you give someone all the details they need to make a decision. I even include my fees. The people who are willing to read it are shopping and motivated, and those are the kinds of clients I want."

Yeske agrees. "Online, people can be like a fly on the wall, getting a sense of who we are in a nonthreatening atmosphere." Some prospects have lurked on his Web site for months-occasionally posting a question-before actually signing on with the firm. "People self-select and know what to expect when they become clients."

As far as Yeske is concerned, the prospecting and client-service aspects of a Web site work together. "All too often, financial planners put up these online brochures that function as quasi-sales pieces. Yet the best way to make an impression on prospective clients may be to show them how you interact with existing clients. A Web site that is just quietly going about its business serving clients is a lot more impressive than a glossy site just trumpeting the virtues of the firm."

To the degree that your message is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a Web site. Some planners mistakenly believe that if they outsource Web development, they can delegate all responsibility for content and never have to spend time refreshing their site. In fact, planning is especially critical for advisors who choose to outsource. And although it may seem that your current clients lack interest in the Web, think about their children-and start investing a little time now in plotting and tending your online garden, which just may be the most valuable piece of real estate you own.