Marketing At The Morningstar Conference: Finserv Goes Funserv

Instead of publishing a blog post related to asset management marketing last Thursday, I headed over to the Morningstar Investment Conference in Chicago (my hometown) to see what I could see in action. I didn’t expect to meet up with many marketers onsite, and didn’t, but I certainly saw a lot of your work.

What follows are a few random, ragged observations. The overall event itself was packed with information and opportunity. Congratulations to Morningstar's Leslie Marshall, Director – Events, Magazine and Social Media, and the entire conference team, and my thanks for having me as a guest.

MainStay: In It To Win It

MainStay Investments was at the conference to win it. The firm has had a great couple of years, and it’s a reasonable assumption that advisors would have more than a little interest in the MainStay booth. Why not test some cool tech to drive engagement?

In this video, Frank Ranu, Senior Associate, Social Media Digital and Creative Services, explains an innovative Morningstar-focused campaign that involves a box of Cracker Jack, a smartphone app (Taggar) and a woman who walks out from around the box of Cracker Jack to greet Morningstar attendees and encourage them to enter a contest.

This was a campaign with more than a few pieces, and Frank’s analytics suggest it was positively received.

A Slice Of Life

Over at the William Blair booth, my friend, former colleague and, I should say, current client John Jackson, Intermediary Marketing Manager, was leading with content—two-minute-ish video clips that are at the core of the firm’s Watch and learn alternatives campaign.

A single image doesn’t quite capture the effect of dynamic portfolio manager Brian Singer mid-delivery so I took a few rapid shots on my Android phone and let the Google+ Auto Awesome feature do the rest.

The result shows a slice of life in a fund company booth—Marketing does its job while the Sales guy does his.


Natty Marketer

After having been named the #1 fund family for 2013 performance in the annual Barron’s/Lipper Fund Family Ranking, Natixis took a victory lap by serving as principal sponsor of the conference. Natixis was everywhere, sponsoring the mobile app, the complimentary charging station, the beverage cups and the chewing gum.

We might have talked about all of that but when John Refford, Natixis Vice President, Strategic Marketing Technology, and I met up for the first time, I was drawn to his Pebble. The Pebble is a watch he helped fund on its first day on Kickstarter in 2012. John received it about a year later.

If wearable tech truly takes off in 2014, John has a headstart in familiarizing himself and thinking about its value for this space. Way to stay sharp, John.

Our Very Own Meme!

In opening the conference, Morningstar’s Kunal Kapoor, Head of Information Products and Client Solutions, promised an upbeat get-together. And, with the exception of some comments from selected portfolio managers, the conference delivered. At one point, Refford even invoked the term “funserv” in the #MICUS tweet stream.

Ironically (given the recent $50 billion outflows from PIMCO Total Return Fund), from the general session dais it was PIMCO’s Bill Gross who introduced levity. As Carlos Santana-esque music played, Gross took the stage wearing sunglasses and he even paused to check his cool factor out on the big screens.

It prompted some entertaining tweets, and finserv social media hit a new high when Michael Kitces posted this meme-worthy image. Animated gifs and selfies (see more below) followed. 

Asset Managers And Social Media?

When meeting up with like-minded people in the Social Media Lounge in the middle of the Exhibit Hall, the conversation naturally turned to the state of social media in the asset management industry. These are my latest thoughts, colored by what I saw at the conference.

Kudos To Morningstar For Leading The Way

I sincerely believe that Morningstar itself, led by Leslie Marshall, is to be credited with helping accelerate the awareness of and adoption of social media in the investment industry.

The origin of Morningstar’s business was in the compilation, standardization and distribution of fund data and analysis—basically making it easier for investors to understand and follow funds. Then Morningstar was easily the first investment industry publisher to seize on using social platforms to advance the exchange of insights using the new content formats.

Onsite during the event, it’s not just Leslie who works the #MICUS hashtag. It’s also the business leaders whose full-on participation gives the social channel added editorial cachet. This assures that the stream isn’t overrun by tweets promoting booth numbers and giveaways, and that’s important.

The level of engagement this year rounded out the content planners’ on-stage personas while also demonstrating their interest in how the audience is reacting to the content, accessible via the Twitter backchannel.  

Scott Burns, director of manager research and apparent master of ceremonies, had sent more than 30 tweets—some his own thoughts but many retweets of others’—in the first hour of the event. Then he sent this tweet, which made me smile. It's pretty obvious he's taken on tweeting as part of his job, too.

Just Half Of Presenting Asset Managers Have A Twitter Account…

By now, most of the largest asset management firms do something in social, even if it’s just a LinkedIn company page or YouTube channel with a video or two. But across-the-board adoption, best practices and accompanying gains in relevance and engagement? No, we’re not close yet.

Most of the presenters at the conference work for asset managers, and yet asset managers had little to say about their participation or their commentary on Twitter.

By my count, only half of the 27 presenters from asset management firms—and these firms were those selected by Morningstar analysts as being the most program-worthy in 2014, remember—hail from firms with Twitter accounts.

…And Most Of Those That Did Used Them For #MICUS Promotions

A few of the firms that have Twitter accounts used them and the #MICUS hashtag, but not always to the best effect.

If you’ve ever watched the tweet stream closely during an event, particularly during a general session event where most are focused on this one piece of content, it’s a bit jarring to see a promotional message (i.e., a notice about the swag available at a booth). Too many of those off-topic tweets were from firms that have much more to say but didn't.

Why were asset managers’ contributions to the conversation so marginalized?

For starters, let's consider why asset managers with Twitter accounts were mostly silent about what their presenters were sharing in Chicago.

Compliance issues would be my first guess. It does take some doing, including some of it in real-time, to use Twitter to share event content in addition to marketing updates. The possibility of being on the receiving end of tweets responding to the content has to be anticipated and planned for, too (even if the decision is to not respond). 

Below is a tweet that J.P. Morgan Funds had queued up and ready to go in support of its presenter. Note how the use of an image enables more to be said than can fit in 140 characters. There are ways to participate, as this example shows.

A second factor might be the siloed manner in which event participation is divvied up as opposed to coordinated. Marketing’s role is usually limited to the booth, any related social (in the physical world) events, maybe pre-event emails. The content to be presented is the province of the Investments professionals, who may be oblivious to Marketing's interest in it.

A third consideration may have to do with “ownership," internal governance of the account and how narrow and/or deep the owners feel is appropriate to go with tweets emanating from a single, mostly B-to-B conference.  

At the same time, there are also opportunities for non-presenters to take part in content conversations. By tracking the #MICUS hashtag, firms both in the Exhibit Hall and outside it could have weighed in with their own content contributions.

This business may be too genteel to expect any bond managers to have had Twitter fun with Bill Gross' sunglasses-wearing but maybe there was an exhibitor that could have offered him branded croakies, if that's still a thing. The dreamer in me wishes that Gross, no stranger to Twitter, would have commented on some of the post-keynote tweets. But none of that happened this year.

Morningstar delivered a vibrant, highly tracked backchannel. We'll have to wait for next year (that's just something we do in Chicago) to see whether more asset managers will find a way to capitalize on the natural opportunities that accrue from taking part in relevant conversations.

I’m not saying anything that most marketers don’t understand and agree with. It’s just another measure of where we are, and the extent to which the benefits of being social have yet to be inculcated within the industry.

Meet Some Of The Tribe

Finally, much of the energy at any conference has to do with people coming together, to learn and exchange ideas but also to see one another, for the first time or again.

So, let me go personal here and say how much fun it was to meet up with people who are active in finserv topics online. Since I’ve mentioned everyone in this photo on the blog at one point or another, I thought you might want to see an update to their avatars. More? Blane's animated gif is here.

Shown in the snapshot with me are: