There is plenty of competition in the retirement industry, so it is imperative that independent financial advisors and benefits brokers find ways to set themselves apart in their branding and marketing plans.
The first step is to figure out what are your core competencies and what makes you unique and then decide who you want to serve, said Marie Swift, President and CEO of Impact Communications, a marketing company that works closely with financial professionals. “Identify the market, determine the message and what methods or mediums you should use to reach your target audience with that message,” she said.
If your company does not have a brand or you want to reassess the brand you have to see if it is still effective, organizations first need to take a step back and clarify what they do, according to Linda Pophal, owner of Strategic Communications LLC in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
She insructs her clients to visualize the image they believe they portray to the market or wish to convey and then come up with language around that image. “How they describe their brand in terms of how they wish to be perceived. Maybe as a high-end provider, a boutique provider, a low-cost provider or different quality attributes,” Pophal said.
Sometimes clients have a different vision of a brand than you believe you are portraying. That’s why it is important to speak to your clients, either through online, email or telephone interviews or through focus groups. Find out what their perceptions are, and if they don’t mesh with what you want to convey, than reassess your brand and create a new marketing strategy.
Marketing a service is much harder than marketing a product because of the many different customer touch points customers have with a service organization, Pophal said. Advisors and others who serve the retirement industry must first “make a laundry list of the various touch points in which their audience is impacted or forms opinions about the organization,” she said. This could include face-to face interviews, telephone or online exchanges, fliers and other materials.
Decide if the touch points are performing in alignment with what you want your brand image to be, Pophal said. “If you want a high-end boutique of services and your people are dressed in sweats and dirty wrinkly tops, that has to be changed,” she said.
When most people hear the word branding, they naturally assume you are speaking about a company’s name or logo, but that’s only part of it. “What defines a brand is how people interact with you and the experiences they have,” Pophal said.
Swift agreed, saying that “when you start to develop your message, you want to talk in terms of what will resonate with your ideal client.”
The message shouldn’t just be about you and your firm. It should speak in a client-centric voice, she said. Advisors and other retirement industry service providers must get inside the thoughts, hearts and minds of their potential clients. They need to examine their clients’ hopes and dreams and then craft a compelling message that addresses those emotions, Swift said.
Swift recommends studying what your competition is doing and what they are successful at. She doesn’t advocate copying a competitor’s message, but emulating the mediums they have used successfully to gain new clients. “Too many advisors copy other advisors’ messages. They will take snippets and then everyone’s content seems the same,” she said. “Dig deeper to resonate with your unique audience and your unique skillsets.”
Think about why you are in business and why you are motivated to do what you do and how you can convey that to your clients and potential clients.
Swift also believes that any business person who wants to create a marketing plan should look outside their own industry to others who have been successful at marketing and learn from those examples.
Create a 13-month marketing plan. Look at the calendar and figure out when people will be making decisions that affect their future, like paying for their children’s education or preparing their taxes. Swift recommends tailoring some marketing messages around those seasonal events, like financial seminars.
“It is important to understand how your target audience gets its information, where it is inclined to look for it and where it is best to receive it,” she said. “If your audience is open to email, send email communications. If you know they are using social media, have visibility on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and, certainly on your own blog and website, you should post rich visual content like videos and multimedia.”
If you don’t have clients yet and don’t know how they would want to receive your marketing message, Swift recommends asking some of your peers or trusted business partners what they have used successfully.
Sometimes it helps to hire an outside facilitator to lead a focus group with your clients to see how they like to receive information and what types of information they would like to receive.
When crafting your marketing message, keep it simple.
“If your mom can’t understand it, don’t put it out there,” she said. Too many financial professionals rely on industry jargon but, “unless you are dealing with a very sophisticated clientele, they won’t understand it or you are making them work too hard to understand it.”
Keep your marketing plan and your brand fresh. Advisors who have been in business for 20 or 30 years should take a hard look at their logos, websites and messages and make sure they are still applicable to the industry and market conditions. Financial professionals should reevaluate their logos and their websites every three to five years to make sure they aren’t stale and are still conveying the message they want to put across, she said.
Don’t discount the more traditional forms of advertising and marketing either, said Pophal.
Even as many people have moved away from print, TV and radio ads for their marketing, for local marketers, they can still be valuable tools, Pophal said.“Open rates for email marketing are very low. A lot of those messages are not getting through to the people you want to reach. They are not clicking through,” Pophal said. “Traditional mailboxes are not cluttered these days so there is an opportunity to stand out and get noticed. …It is important for people to consider social media, not as a replacement, but as another option.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield is the only insurer that is offering plans statewide in the Affordable Care Act exchange.