Practice Development | PLANADVISER May/June 2017

Marketing Your Firm

To stand out in the field, look inward

By Karen Wittwer | May/June 2017
Art by Ryan Peltier

Retirement plan advising is a field where many specialist practices may sound or look alike—e.g., touting  expertise in defined contribution (DC),—so how you market yourself is critical. But far from a one-time campaign, marketing is a process and takes time, repetition and research—including introspection.

To get the input of an expert, Michael Francis, president and chief investment officer (CIO) of Francis Investment Counsel LLC in Brookfield, Wisconsin, hired a public relations (PR) firm and calls it “one of the smartest things we’ve done in years.”

The consultant spoke to Francis’ clients, asking how they perceived his firm, and surveyed his top competitors. The feedback reconfirmed where the firm was unique, crystalizing its brand, which it could then stress more fully in its request for proposal (RFP) responses and finals presentations, Francis says.

“There’s no real substitute for talking to [clients’] clients,” agrees Tom Branigan, CEO of Branigan Communications in Milwaukee and Francis’ consultant. He commends Francis for allowing that open access, and then for applying what the feedback gleaned. Such willingness is crucial for success, Branigan says.

Beyond branding, firms can gain from basic self-analysis, he says. “You don’t have the time or money to market to everyone, so decide who your ‘bulls-eye target’ is.  Would you rather go after new prospects or focus on current clients—keeping them happy and well-served?” he says. Further, determine your greatest perceptual challenge in the marketplace. “Is it awareness—meaning your targets don’t know about you—or credibility? The answer should dictate to a large degree what you spend your marketing dollars on,” he notes.

The answer also aids in choosing a marketing approach and tactics. Advertising works best to build awareness with potential clients, he says, recommending social media—for its cost effectiveness—and print and online ads. To  bolster credibility with current clients, use PR, although the ideal campaign combines both, he says.

As to repetition, creating a niche as an expert helps. For the last 22 years, Francis has been writing the quarterly “401k Adviser” column for the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal. He also reminds clients of his value by offering extras for their participants—his firm’s Fat Wallet Challenge, held in conjunction with 401(k) Day in the fall, and a traveling educational conference every three years.

Another event of this type is the annual 4.01k Race for Financial Fitness, created three years ago by Jason Chepenik, principal of Chepenik Financial in Winter Park, Florida. The race is run every April 1 and benefits Junior Achievement. What began as a local branding exercise, reflecting the plan adviser’s passion for financial wellness, has grown into a national event, run in six cities this year with partnering advisory practices and bringing in personal finance journalist Jean Chatzky as the “official 2017 financial head coach.”

 Conversely, a blow-out “one-and-done,” which may seem exciting to clients, is easily forgotten, Branigan says. Other potential duds: seeking non-newsworthy coverage in a national publication or presenting yourself as a thought leader when you are risk-averse. Instead, take time to develop your story, he says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”