Do Investors Have Different Expectations Of Mutual Fund And ETF Firms On Twitter?

Do retail investors think of Twitter and interact with mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) Twitter accounts in a way that’s different from how they use Twitter to interact with other brands?

I first wondered this last year when there was no sign that investors (or asset managers) took to Twitter to explain what was going on during the May 6 flash crash. That surprised me, as Twitter has established itself as a channel for real-time news and information, especially during crises when information is streaming in from multiple sources.

In the almost full year since, Twitter has grown in awareness, users and number of asset managers with Twitter accounts. But the Twitter accounts are being used almost exclusively for one-way marketing purposes. While that might be the preference of a brand, consumers usually have something to say about that—what with "the conversation" being the premise of social media and all.

A Customer Service Alternative

Companies in other businesses have demonstrated how to deliver customer service via Twitter. (Think @Comcastcares, @Zappos, Best Buy's @Twelpforce or even Bank of America's @BofA_info.) In fact, many consumers have learned that seeking help on Twitter or using Twitter to escalate a question or complaint originally posed on another channel can get attention quicker than non-public channels such as the telephone or email.

In our earliest conversations with asset managers just thinking about exploring social media, the prospect of rowdy, unreasonable masses berating them on Twitter is almost always expressed as a concern. But in the two years that I’ve been watching what are now 40 mutual fund and ETF company Twitter accounts as well as monitoring other names, I’ve spotted surprisingly few service-related communications initiated by tweeters.

Resource For Tax Filers?

If there was going to be heightened communication, I’ve thought, it would be the weekend prior to yesterday, the Monday that income taxes were due. Firms experience and prepare for heavy phone and Web traffic leading up to “Tax Day.” Fidelity has said that it receives about 45% of all annual IRA contributions within the 28 days before the tax deadline.

Given the last-minute tax filing frenzy, I wondered whether some of the information-gathering and question-asking would spill over to mutual fund and ETF Twitter accounts.

The short answer is: No, it didn’t.

As you can see below, Vanguard on Sunday took some heat for scheduling Website maintenance.

These tweets show how @Vanguard_Group followed up Monday.
And then see how perfectly lovely Sunday’s complainers turned.
This next exchange from Friday afternoon illustrates a classic cage match in which Twitter account-holders pit one channel against the other. In this case, Fidelity’s instant messaging capability offered on its Website won. Note that the @Fidelity Twitter account responded about 30 minutes after the original tweet and yet it was "too late."

But these are a handful of interactions with companies managing $13 trillion of investors' assets. All was surprisingly quiet over the weekend and Monday.

By the way, it may make sense to you that the only tax-related tweets were directed at Vanguard and Fidelity, the two largest fund companies. In my sporadic surveillance, I see the most service-type interactions between those two, @USAA and TIAA-CREF’s @TC_Talks accounts.

Larger firms need larger customer service staffs, as we know. But I’d caution against linking the likelihood of Twitter interaction to market share. Clients or advisors from any size firm could have conceivably reached out on Twitter, including those seeking contact with firms that don't have Twitter accounts.

Different Or Just Early?

My question for you: What do you think is going on? Are clients distinguishing between your firms and the other brands they increasingly turn to for service on Twitter? Do they have different expectations from you?

Banks handle much more transaction activity than money managers, of course. But this series of tweets gives you an idea of one financial services user's expectations of @BofA_help on Monday.

Are your clients that much different from those who use Twitter, even including banking customers? Is it that investors are more reticent to seek information publicly? It’s not just that tweets are public, remember, it’s that an investor’s followers—who could include friends, co-workers, relatives—are likeliest to see at least the first tweet (after which the asset manager account might seek a direct message, private interaction or a phone conversation).

I have my doubts about whether it’s the nature of the information that’s being sought. Of course, financial services customers have been trained not to disclose personal or account information but there’s a wide range of other possibilities for "conversation."

Others prepped their Twitter questions for tax-related exchanges. In December the IRS announced @IRSnews and a Spanish-speaking account @IRSenEspanol for tax tips, tax law changes and “Where’s My Refund?" questions. A third account—@IRStaxpros—was established for professionals. Other accounts getting a tax workout over the weekend and Monday included @HRBlock (whose account is on Time magazine’s list of 140 Best Twitter feeds) and @TeamTurboTax.

And tax-related tweets from financial advisors were flying over on

Is it still just early for investors to think of Twitter as an asset manager customer service channel? That's what I think. Even though it may never be a channel as heavily used as private channels, I nonetheless believe that asset managers need to prepare for more customer interaction on Twitter, including in advance of Tax Day 2012.

What do you think?