Perspective: Direct Marketing Often Fails the Viral Test

The fourth of seven ineffective habits of retirement plan advisers

The natural inclination of many advisers who seek to build awareness of their practice is to generate visibility via direct marketing.

It’s possible that direct marketing could gain attention within, and outside of, your target market. However, in our experience working with hundreds of advisers, we’ve seen many examples of more effective marketing that can be largely invisible, accomplished with less cost and better results. Known as viral marketing, this simple word-of-mouth strategy, can help you proliferate your message and acquire third-party endorsement within your strategic focus community.

Never miss a story — sign up for PLANADVISER newsletters to keep up on the latest retirement plan adviser news.

Direct-mail campaigns, brochures, web sites, cold calls and advertising all require a high degree of spending and time, and typically result in low-quality leads. Few advisers have enough marketing spend to impact demand generation. This is particularly true in the plan sponsor space, where the likelihood of an adviser being chosen based on a mailer or other marketing attraction is minimal.

In contrast, with viral marketing, you focus your energy and resources on your most precious asset — existing client relationships — arming your clients with “contagious” messaging about your ability. When you consider the cost of acquiring clients and their lifetime revenue and referral potential, it’s easy to see that client service and retention are primary concerns.

A prerequisite to successful viral marketing is establishing client service excellence. Your viral marketing message must be consistent with the ongoing experience of your existing client base. If the message and the experience do not align, your viral marketing strategy is at risk. By striving to exceed client expectations, your current clients and centers of influence will be inclined to provide endorsements of the value you deliver.

It may require only a few quality influencers, capable of articulating your merits clearly to the right audience, for viral marketing to take hold.

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, “Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas. The Law of the Few says that connectors are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics, which means that if you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, your resources ought to be solely concentrated on those connectors.”

It’s easy to imagine how influencers or connectors who operate in close proximity to your targeted community could be highly effective in generating call-in leads.

Further, your ability to institute viral marketing is dependent on creating a message about your firm that is easy to understand and communicate to others. This value statement should be in synch with the needs of your target clients and precisely state what benefits you provide.

After developing the right viral marketing message, you should have it on the tip of your tongue ready to weave it into conversation at the right moment. For example, if the subject of plan participant enrollment comes up, you might say, “For us to be the most recognized retirement plan specialist in Chicago, we are vigilant about helping clients compel employees to save for their future.”

If a client needs greater understanding of the Pension Protection Act or Department of Labor rules, you could say, “To maintain our standing as the most trusted small-business retirement plan expert in the Bay Area, we are committed to a deep understanding of legislative and regulatory intricacies.”

Pick a message that sticks with clients. That way, the next time your client is talking with a colleague about meeting employees’ retirement needs, they are in a position to recommend you and define what differentiates you.

Getting your clients to speak about you in this way is a powerful first step in turning your existing client base into a powerful lead-generation engine.


Previous articles in the Ineffective Habits of Retirement Plan Advisers series:

Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Retirement Plan Advisers
Don’t Fall For the Experience and Intuition Trap
Do Your Best to Move Beyond “Doing Your Best’
Cast a Broader Net, Catch a lot of Suckerfish

Matt Smith is managing director of retirement services with Russell Investment Group. He is responsible for DC research and strategic development of Russell’s defined contribution investment management business in the United States. Smith joined Russell in 2001. Over his 20+ year career, Matt’s experience spans the spectrum of the qualified plan business. Prior to joining Russell, Matt held the position of vice president and general manager of ADP’s west coast retirement services operations.

Copyright © Russell Investment Group 2007. All rights reserved.

Russell Investment Group is a Washington, USA corporation, which operates through subsidiaries worldwide and is a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Nothing contained in this material is intended to constitute legal, tax, securities, or investment advice, nor an opinion regarding the appropriateness of any investment, nor a solicitation of any type. The general information contained in this publication should not be acted upon without obtaining specific legal, tax, and investment advice from a licensed professional.

Russell Fund Distributors, Inc., member NASD, part of Russell Investment Group.

RFD 07-6916. First used: August 2007