Spending limits lead to financial clarity. Debt as a retirement tool. Keeping recreational spending in check. Slowing down spending to speed up wealth creation. Those who know Halifax-based financial advisor and author Stephanie Holmes-Winton are well aware the topic of client debt is, for her, a personal crusade.

It’s not just an issue that weighs on her mind. Holmes-Winton has made it the focus of her life’s work and the basis of a personal blog, which she launched in June.

Defusing Debt serves as a companion to her book of the same name. And it’s a great example of how advisors can harness technology to make a name for themselves in the marketplace, and be associated with a specific type of advice, whether it’s debt, taxes or retirement planning.

“I realized while I was writing my book that I could never end the conversation where the last chapter of my book left off. I created a blog so I could continue to connect with my fellow advisors and get them thinking and get them talking,” she says, looking back.

“I spend a lot of time with business people in other industries where social media is being embraced rather than feared. They challenged me to take my mission and my words and put them online for all to see.”

At first, Holmes-Winton found the jump from the printed page to cyberspace a little daunting. She had to re-educate herself and devote the time necessary to understanding the technology and the many tools available to her. Once the tech hurdles were cleared, it was a question of working the blog site updates into her regular schedule.

“It wasn’t easy to get online – not because it wasn’t easy to do, but because I found it a little intimidating. I created the blog back in February but didn’t publish it until June. I hesitated quite a bit when I opened the blog account, but before I knew it, I was on the road doing talks, so I couldn’t sit down and make time for it,” she said.

“When I really think about it, I was also scared of how readers would react to my unfiltered content. Finally, I forced myself to sit down and upload all of my articles and videos. Then, I promised myself I’d post at least once a week, which I do manage to do most Mondays.”

Fitting social media responsibilities into an already busy schedule is a common complaint that strategist-consultant Jay Palter, of Palter Social Media Strategies, hears from some of his clients. Palter, a life-licensed insurance professional, Web project developer and online communications strategies consultant is a communications, business and online veteran who started his own Web development and new media firm, NetEffect Communications, in the 1990s. In 2006, he began producing online learning systems and content for such leading insurance companies as Manulife, Sun Life, RBC Insurance and Standard Life.

Advisors picking up the keyboard want to connect with a wider audience. They want to become a thought leader in their industry, but sometimes following through with this desire runs up against the time and effort such engagement requires. Other issues facing advisors are their perceived knowledge gaps or their false perceptions that social media outlets and tools are just passing fads. But Palter believes the benefits are worth putting forth the effort necessary to overcome any learning curves.

“While the social media space is maturing and becoming more mainstream, there are still many opportunities for advisors to make a mark online and stand out from the crowd. The very mainstreaming of social media means more and more aspects of your business relationships will be conducted online,” says Palter.

“Expectations of online interactions are growing among prospects and clients alike, so if you want to be competent in that space, you need to start ramping up your skills and knowledge.” For Holmes-Winton, the benefit of establishing such a direct line of communication was immediate and automatic. She dismisses any notion that sharing her thoughts could in any way be detrimental to her business or her career.

“I love the relatively instant feedback I get from my blog. Being able to create basically anything I want by myself and controlling my message and profile on the Internet is very empowering,” she said. “Another advisor said to me last week, ‘I can’t believe that you’re revealing your secrets in your blog. No one will buy your book or hire you to speak if you keep sharing so much.’

“[But] the opposite is true, actually. I’ve got so much to give on the topic of debt and I want to change the industry. Giving freely, I believe, brings me more business. I have no fear of sharing and I know nothing will ever change if I keep my cards close to my chest.”

Beyond the time commitment, the biggest issue when it comes to advisors moving into the social media space is the subject of compliance and the restrictions governing what an advisor can write or speak about. Fearing they’ll have no life jacket to protect them, some advisors fear even wading into what they think are the murky social media waters. And, in some cases, the firms simply won’t permit communications they don’t vet. But Holmes-Winton believes the risk is worth the reward in so many ways.

“I think we’re reaching a dangerous level of control in the industry. Giving advisors guidelines and checking up on them randomly would probably go a long way to catching those who are saying things in private that they shouldn’t, which is what really matters, as that’s where clients get hurt,” she said.

In Holmes-Winton’s case, in order to make her voice heard and develop a social media strategy, she had to make a very hard choice.

“The sad answer to the compliance issue for me was I was forced to choose. Any contact with media was banned by my dealer in 2009. So, I had two choices. One, I could be the voice I wanted to be and get things stirred up and serve my life’s purpose, or two, I could give up and shut up. I’m not so good at shutting up to begin with, so I resigned from my dealer and sold the mutual fund portion of my practice.”

Because of that, Holmes-Winton had to figure out how to replace the money she would have made selling mutual funds. That’s where her book, workshops, keynotes and outside interests came into play.

If an advisor wishes to test the waters, Palter advises becoming familiar with LinkedIn, the business-oriented social media site where professionals post profiles, make contacts and connections, post job opportunities and discuss issues related to their field of expertise.

“For advisors, LinkedIn is the place to start. Update your profile and connect with other professionals. You’ll also find lots of clients online and their testimonials can be very helpful with new prospects. LinkedIn also allows you to join groups of similar professionals and stay on top of relevant issues,” Palter recommends.

“A well-managed Facebook presence will give prospects and clients a glance into the kind of person you are – your hobbies, your passions and your values – all of which can lead to broadening your networks.”

Palter warns, though, that some advisors can overdo things and end up pushing people away. It’s always best to use common sense and be yourself, whether you’re posting on LinkedIn or sending an e-mail to a client.

“Don’t be the person in the online world who’s always pushing their virtual business cards on people. Build trust over time by being helpful and approachable. Steer clear of ranting and raving or others who are. Conduct yourself with civility and respect for others,” he advises. “Show some personality, but use good judgment in doing so.”

With so much positive feedback about her blog from all over the world – including the United Kingdom, Australia, North America and South Africa – Holmes-Winton is looking to expand her social media platform and her site in the near future.

The biggest jump for her will be to make the leap to video. Although she’s aware doing so will require a significant investment on her part, she understands that sometimes a well-produced video can have more of an immediate impact with an audience and also creates the opportunity for a viral campaign.

“It’s so important to me to embrace social media and continue to build my strategy, because it’s part of my voice. I feel, at least in my case, the real risk would be having no voice, blending in, and not having the world hear what I really have to say. Silence has consequences too,” she said.

“Social media is here to stay, whether we like it or not. I believe this is the greatest opportunity to educate and protect the public, but I know it’s an uphill climb. I think advisors would be best served by presenting a social media strategy to their powers that be. Show exactly what they want to do, why and the expected outcomes.”

Top social media tips

  • Listen before you leap – Tune in to what people are saying online before wading into the discussion.
  • Be a giver – Share information and be as helpful as possible as a strategy for building credibility.
  • Show some personality – Sharing personal feelings promotes intimacy, which is a big factor in trust.
  • Read Trust Agents – Chris Brogan and Julien Smith have written the bible for advisors who want to build their business online. Get yourself a copy.

Source: Jay Palter, Palter Social Media Strategies

  • Jay Palter is a social media strategist and coach with two decades of professional experience in financial services, software development and marketing. For more information, visit http://palter.ca/web.

  • Originally published in Advisor's Edge