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How to build the best practice website — without paying $20,000

This article first appeared in Financial Planning on March 19th, 2021, and can be found here

With prospective clients increasingly searching online for financial advisors, many practice websites desperately need an overhaul, wealth management marketing experts say.

Boilerplate websites that ease compliance headaches are missing leads generated by pages capable of turning visitors to clients. As large broker-dealers compete for top talent with marketing support for advisors and varying degrees of flexibility about websites, some practices are overpaying or failing to take advantage of basic online growth strategies.

“It’s amazing how many advisors still do not have a website or they don't take it seriously — and in today's world, it's essential,” says Marie Swift of Impact Communications, a marketing firm that builds websites for advisors. “If I were to have a restaurant storefront that looked old, dated and not inviting, people wouldn't come in. You need to be discoverable, you need to be visible online.”

Most practices at least show up online. Nearly 90% of SEC-registered RIAs have a website or social media profile, and 37% have just one or the other, according to the 2020 Evolution Revolution report by the Investment Adviser Association and National Regulatory Services.

A lot of those sites aren’t doing practices any favors, though, and the requirement of approval from BD compliance offices is becoming much less of a valid excuse for boring or empty pages. Most independent BDs and some employee-channel firms enable advisors to work with vendors such as Impact, Twenty Over Ten, FMG Suite, Broadridge, Advisor Websites or Veriday.

Advisors get frustrated when they’re not allowed to use certain online tools, according to Samantha Russell, the chief evangelist of FMG Suite, which bought the website developer she co-founded, Twenty Over Ten, in December. Twenty Over Ten websites are compliant with more than 50 BDs, and FMG works with about 200 firms, Russell says.

“Definitely over the last few years, there has been such a demand from advisors themselves to want more marketing flexibility,” Russell says. “The smart firms are aware of this, and they are really seeking to provide options that enable advisors to market creatively.”

Russell and advisor Melissa Joy agree that there are clients out there picking advisors based on what they find online, even if they receive a referral by word of mouth. Joy’s practice, Dexter and Grosse Pointe, Michigan-based Pearl Planning, hired a web designer named Ellanyze.

“We get random people who decide to hire us by looking at us versus other companies,” Joy says, noting websites should at least have ways for visitors to set up appointments and include photos that don’t look like they’re from five years ago. “There's no place I go or hire or think about contracting with, where I don't check out their website.”

Some large firms spanning many practices have already gone well beyond a single website: More than 100 RIAs list at least 20 URLs on their SEC Form ADV, nine firms had more than 200, and one firm had more than 1,000 addresses, according to the Evolution Revolution report.

Vendors can help individual practices go beyond their main web page by building what marketing firm Snappy Kraken calls “microsites.” Designed to generate leads, microsites with titles like “The 5 most important money moves for physicians” or “How to take advantage of new tax laws” invite readers to click through or fill out contact forms if they want more information.

Thousands of independent and hybrid advisors paying Snappy Kraken a monthly subscription of $245 use five to 20 compliant microsites at a time with different authors and audiences, according to founder Robert Sofia. After pairing them with promotional ads and social posts, the microsites produce an average of seven leads in their first month after going live, Sofia says.

“When an advisor gets an inquiry through one of those sites, they immediately know this person is interested in this type of information,” he says. “It's a much more personal approach than just, ‘Oh, this is a financial advisor.’ It's more, ‘This is a financial advisor who specialises in ABC and they're going to help me with 123.’”

In terms of practice websites, Sofia says advisors can get a “decent” one for as little as $2,000 to $2,500. Impact’s sites start at $3,600 and go all the way up to $12,000 for richly-designed sites that come with concierge support, according to Swift. Twenty Over Ten has a variety, starting at an off-the-shelf version with no setup fee to custom sites up to $5,000 to $6,000, says Russell, noting she has seen some designers charge one-time payments as high as $20,000.

To get a sense of what BDs charge advisors for centrally-designed websites and the degree that they give advisors free rein to work with vendors on creating their own, Financial Planning reached out to more than a dozen of the largest wealth managers among IBDs, regional firms and wirehouses. The firms evenly split on whether they charge advisors for creating practice websites. Where there is a fee, it runs only a few hundred dollars; other firms offer free sites based on templates that advisors can customize.

Wealth managers are eager to show their value through websites. Representatives for RBC Wealth Management, LPL Financial, Advisor Group, Janney, Cetera Financial Group, Raymond James, Commonwealth Financial Network, Stifel and UBS each mentioned dedicated headquarters teams helping advisors build their pages and craft marketing strategies. Wells Fargo Advisors has templates and a website program through Broadridge. UBS built its template by teaming up with Broadridge and Yext; Ameriprise and Morgan Stanley also use templates, though both have libraries of content available for advisors’ sites.

Examples of the kind of support firms give to advisors for their websites include Cetera’s digital audits of advisors’ online presence, Commonwealth’s brand studio offering “premium” or “assisted” packages for practices and Raymond James’ 150-employee in-house marketing agency.

Regardless of how advisors create their sites, experts say they should remember that the best sites showcase advisors’ personality and expertise rather than just pricey design features. Russell of Twenty Over Ten warns against hiring designers that may run afoul of compliance requirements or leave advisors on their own after the site goes live.

Advisors should be asking external vendors questions on how they can add content, where they should direct support questions and how they can archive the site properly, Russell says. “Make sure that you have a system in place before you go launching the new site,” she adds.

With the SEC’s new advertising rule set to take effect later this year, another proactive step would be to start gathering testimonials from clients in line with the new standard, according to Sofia of Snappy Kraken.

“Don't overestimate the importance of a website in your overall business strategy,” Sofia says. “It is a component — not the component — and if you don't have an overall system, you'll always be disappointed.”