Conventional wisdom maintains that most business people should not discuss controversial topics like politics with clients. Simply put, the downside of alienating prospects outweighs any upside of enhancing bonds with like-minded individuals. But are the majority of advisors following this accepted belief playing it too safe on social media?

David Bahnsen pulled up stakes as a managing partner at Morgan Stanley 10 years ago to create his own firm and enjoy the freedom to discuss both politics and the markets on his social media and elsewhere. In the ensuing decade his firm’s assets have soared to $4.5 billion from $700 million—growth he attributes to his growing media presence.

While incorporating potentially polarizing social media posts into a brand is not for everyone, Bahnsen, the managing partner and founder of the Bahnsen Group in Newport Beach, Calif., is part of a small but growing cadre of advisors who are fearless about taking on controversial topics, including the upcoming presidential election and public and corporate policies they believe are failing.

“Politics are a huge part of my life. What I’m able to do is defend intelligently our belief system, which attracts like-minded people to our firm,” says Bahnsen, a self-described “momentum conservative.”

On August 5, Bahnsen posted a video to X (formerly Twitter) in which Ron DeSantis speaks at a New Hampshire town hall meeting. DeSantis emphasizes in the video that he will ignore President Donald Trump’s anticipated personal insults and focus squarely on policy. “If this argument isn’t compelling to voters, we deserve to lose,” Bahnsen wrote.

About Trump, DeSantis said, “He did not drain the swamp, not even close. We ended his presidency with Anthony Fauci running the country. You couldn’t even fire Anthony Fauci?”

Bahnsen’s pronounced conservative political and fiscal values (and his ability to raise large sums of money) have made him an attractive target for Republican politicians taking the pulse of California Republicans. “I meet with Ron DeSantis regularly right now,” he says. “I talk with Larry Kudlow every week. [Kudlow is the former director of the National Economic Council and currently a Fox Business host]. I’ve had 10 U.S. senators in my office and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for politicians. I had a huge event in Orange County that [former Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin and Ivanka [Trump] attended. We lean into this and we’re very involved politically.”

“I’m favoring DeSantis, but feel that while he has an uphill battle to win the primary against Trump, he has a better chance to win the general election,” Bahnsen says.

Being opinionated on X and his “Capital Record” podcast, sponsored by the conservative National Review, Bahnsen attracts thousands of listeners weekly, and that “has been a very good thing for business,” he adds. “I’ve probably lost two clients in eight years over this. I think there are probably some who are put off by what I say, but they would never have been our clients anyway.”

His high profile on social media has also led to frequent cable news appearances on CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business. In one of his recent appearances this year, he challenged J.P. Morgan with a shareholder resolution asking for a public investigation into whether the bank was discriminating against customers on the basis of their religion or politics—after it was reported that accounts held by conservatives had been purged. His resolution failed, but Bahnsen claimed to Fox Business that it left the bank “petrified” to discriminate.

An impressive 74% of advisors now report that they have found clients as a result of social media—but social doesn’t have to be political, says Susan Theder, chief marketing and experience officer at FMG Suite (who also contributes to Financial Advisor). FMG offers an all-in-one marketing platform designed to provide advisors with a website, social media, blogs, events, video, email and printed marketing collateral.

“It really comes down to defining your target market, value proposition and brand message,” Theder says. “If you have a pure niche strategy and are focusing deep and not concerned with appealing to multiple political beliefs, then it can make sense. But for most people, political posts could pose the risk of alienating existing and potential clients.”

The most successful advisors have a clear target audience and a strategy; they post often and make five thoughtful comments on others’ posts for every post they make themselves. Then they follow up with direct messages through channels such as LinkedIn’s InMail direct messaging, Theder says.

Some 74% of advisors who landed a client on social media had followed up using direct messaging this way, Putnam Investments says. But advisors who post and opine often about politics or individual stocks also run the risk of garnering unwanted regulatory attention, Theder says.

Across the political spectrum from Bahnsen is Ross Gerber, a liberal Democrat and unabashed Tesla devotee who founded Gerber Kawasaki in Santa Monica in 2010 with longtime partner Danilo Kawasaki. Gerber has waded into the shareholder activism arena and credits his constant presence on social media and cable news with helping grow the business to $2.5 billion.

Gerber recently waged a very public campaign to get on Tesla’s board in protest over CEO Elon Musk’s alleged “distraction,” when he sought to purchase the social media platform Twitter, a deal completed in October in 2022. The share price of Tesla tumbled 75% from November 2021 to early January of this year, in part, said analysts, because of the perceived Twitter distraction as well as other problems plaguing the carmaker. Gerber waged his campaign in TV interviews and on Twitter, asking followers if they supported his campaign for a board seat. Some 20,000 of his 330,000 followers answered yes.

But the partners of Gerber Kawasaki also found out the hard way that comments on Gerber’s Twitter account could come back to bite them. When the firm was undergoing a Securities and Exchange Commission audit, the examiners began looking for coordinated firm-wide trading patterns, and they combed through old tweets.

“We just had an SEC audit last year which came at the bottom of the market. They decided to go through my social media, so, yes, it was really fun,” Gerber says. “They pulled out a bunch of tweets discussing stocks from 2021 when things were crazy, so it was a little bit of a wild period of time. I tweeted some things in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have, like ‘I really like this stock and we’re buying it.’ But when they looked, there was no correlation between what I said and what our 27 advisors were buying,” Gerber adds.

“So now, if I go on TV and talk about how much we like Tesla, our employees can’t trade for 24 hours. If I have 50 interviews in a week, we try to warn the team ahead of time,” Gerber says. The trading halt is for employees and related accounts only.

According to Kawasaki, who is vice president, chief operations officer and chief compliance officer at the firm, “Ross has a big mouth, but it’s all coming from a good place. Our audit is not finalized. We submitted everything they requested, but we’re waiting for closure,” he says.

“For everyone here, the most important thing is our fiduciary responsibility to clients. Ross can go on TV and say great things about Tesla, but our job in managing client assets is very individualized, so certainly there are no trading patterns spurred by him doing TV appearances,” Kawasaki says.

He adds that the free exposure Gerber garnered on Twitter (now X) and cable news has been invaluable to the growth of the firm, which he predicts will add $500 million in assets by the end of the year. “I think it shows our personality and the fact that we’re human beings with opinions and we’re not afraid to take a stance on things that we believe in,” Kawasaki says. “We understand that it may alienate people and they’re probably the people who aren’t a great fit for us and vice versa.”

Gerber’s bid to join Tesla’s board was ultimately unsuccessful, and he admits now that the backlash and shunning from outraged fellow Teslaholics were painful. But he insists he ran a “hugely successful activist campaign.” He flew to the company’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, and listened as the board rolled out its business plan, which included Musk’s promise to create a succession plan, start advertising and not sell any more stock—all changes Gerber says he campaigned for.

All told, Gerber Kawasaki owns about $100 million in Tesla shares, with another $1,468,833.96 held in the AdvisorShares Gerber Kawasaki ETF (GK), an actively managed growth fund, subadvised and managed by Gerber. The fund is beating the S&P 500’s 16.8% return year-to-date with a 19.9% return, though it’s down some 14.8% since its inception on July 1, 2021, while the index has returned a positive 3.1%.

As far as the requirement that the firm halts trading for 24 hours after a TV spot, one compliance specialist, Buddy Doyle at Oyster Consulting, says those cooling off periods aren’t unusual for advisors touting stocks. “The more sensational you are and the bigger your following on social media, the more likely you are to garner regulatory attention,” says Doyle, Oyster’s CEO. “You become a known entity and the SEC is looking for things that influence the market inappropriately.”

Doyle also notes that dually registered advisors may need to get approval for social media posts from their broker-dealers, while RIA firms have more leeway. In any case, they must be “fact-based and true” in their assertions.

One way to add a layer of regulatory protection in blogs and social posts is to express your views as opinions, rather than facts, and refrain from promising an outcome. Even adding “I think” before or after statements can be helpful, Doyle says.

“Getting into politics is an interesting part of social media,” he says. “If you look at Gallup polls, there is a pretty close split between Republicans and Democrats, so you run the risk of turning off a fairly significant portion of the population. But you don’t need everyone.”

Carolyn McClanahan, a licensed doctor and founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla., which manages $230 million, has been active politically for years, but never more so than in the last 18 months. McClanahan advised Donna Deegan, the only female Democrat to ever win a mayor’s race in Jacksonville. She’s also been active on Deegan’s transition team. And she was named to lead a health committee that will find candidates for city chief health officer and create overall healthcare policy for the city.

While McClanahan doesn’t “get into posting political opinions just to post,” she has been a longtime advocate of healthcare for everyone and supported President Obama’s push to expand care. “I think people should be authentic so they’re never putting on a face they don’t wear,” says McClanahan. “So, I’m always authentic in all I say and do and that helps me attract the clients who appreciate who I really am. But we don’t make it a personal thing.”

Has her social media ever cost her clients? “One time a client, when I was advocating for the Affordable Care Act, was not happy with that and left. But that was a good thing. If they were that angry that I supported healthcare for everyone, we were probably not a good fit.”

McClanahan also served as a volunteer family and emergency medicine doctor at Volunteers in Medicine, a free clinic for the working uninsured in the city, until she went on hiatus last year to work on Deegan’s healthcare platform.

Does her X account ever bring her clients? “I never approach anything in the public or media trying to get clients,” McClanahan says. “The thing that brings us clients is doing a fantastic job taking care of clients. I don’t care what clients’ political beliefs are or what they believe in, but I do like working with nice people.”

Of course, some advisors have created high profiles on social media while avoiding politics. Winnie Sun, the managing director and founding partner of Sun Group Wealth Partners in Irvine, Calif., has garnered 312,000 followers on X, which has helped her firm grow to $250 million in assets under management since she left Smith Barney 10 years ago to join LPL.

She prides herself on completely sidestepping all things political or controversial. “I try to stay away from that online because it’s very polarizing, at least for me,” Sun says. “I know plenty of advisors who share online, and I think some of them do that effectively, but for my brand and community, I don’t think it’s appropriate. I lead the biggest business tweet chat online on Twitter. My community expects me to be inclusive.”

The frequent CNBC guest also hosts the digital TV show “Level Up with Winnie Sun” that appears on Nasdaq, Amazon Fire and Roku, and she co-hosts another show, “The Loop.” She uses a full-time, in-house videographer to produce her shows, which garner her thousands of views each week.

If clients try to discuss politics with her, “I let them lead and by all means I take note of their opinions from a planning perspective, but I probably wouldn’t engage, unless they ask for an opinion,” Sun says.

Her clients come from all walks of life, she says, especially the entertainment, media and tech industries. She and her partner at Sun Group, Brandon Chang, pride themselves on working with a diverse clientele that includes everyone from “very conservative” retired business owners to LGBTQ clients.

Would Sun hire an advisor who had a political bent on their social media? “It would not be a deal-breaker,” she says. “We’re looking for talent that is interested in learning and growing with us. I’d never tell someone to be anyone but who they really, really are, especially in this line of work, where it’s tough. But I’d also say, ‘Keep an open mind. Rarely is anything black or white.’”

Sarah Howes, the vice president of advisor marketing at Commonwealth Financial Network, helped create the firm’s Brand Studio platform, a suite of marketing tools that help advisors think strategically about their desired audiences and how to reach them. Brand Studio launched in 2021.

Howes’s biggest concern isn’t political tweets but a lack of consistency. “You can’t be good at something unless you’re willing to be bad at it. You can’t step out of the gate and be a rock star. The people who get leads have been doing it for years and get better and better,” she says.

She says the most successful advisors hire or outsource the production of video posts, vlogs, podcasts—which she says can be “quick, snackable bites” of helpful information that clients and prospects crave.

The overall challenge of social media, Howes says, is to keep investing when there isn’t an immediate return. “You have to think about the missed opportunity costs. If you’re not doing it, someone else is.”