What Happens When A Financial Advisor Dares To Mix Politics And Social Media

What happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real”
(MTV's The Real World)

Something quite fascinating is happening in the Comments area of an RIABiz article published Monday. The article is about a financial advisor using social media to build his business. That’s how reporter Kelly O’Mara explained her assignment when she emailed me Friday afternoon asking for a comment.

But, the devil is in the details and here are the specifics in this case. RIA and financial advisor Mark Matson of Matson Money is taking to the social sites to mount a campaign teeing off a statement made by President Barack Obama on July 13:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Matson takes exception to this. He created the YouTube video below mocking the President's statement and a Facebook page called "Yep, I Built That." The YouTube video is inching toward 1 million views and the Facebook page has 105,000 fans. Awareness and affiliation may very well lead to business for Matson.

“Is it a good idea” for an advisor to step out with such a political message? That was the question O’Mara posed to me.

The Pull Of Shared Values

I was headed out of town, with one niece in the car and on my way to pick up another, but this case of applied social media merited pulling over for a quick chat. Yes, I said, it’s likely to be effective and more so than a standard marketing or public relations strategy. Advisors who are succeeding with social media are using it to brand themselves and draw like-minded people to them. It’s not uncommon in the physical world for people to choose their trusted partners because of what they believe to be shared values.

Before YouTube and Facebook, Mattson still would have been railing against the President. The difference today is that the reach of Mattson’s voice is virtually unlimited. I don’t share his politics (“How many times are you going to say that?” my niece whispered while I was talking to the reporter), but Mattson is free to pursue new, powerful tools to capitalize on what he sees as a business opportunity.

Could Mattson lose business because of his activities? Is that a huge risk? My response was, “I don’t think it’s a huge risk. It’s a known risk and he must have done the calculation.”

But enough about Mattson. Because after RIABiz published the story, the community took over. Check out the 100-plus comments to the article and you will see engagement—in terms of volume and passion—the likes of which we rarely see in the investment space. Some of it is ugly and reminded me of the unvarnished tweets I saw on AdvisorTweets.com late on the Sunday night (March 21, 2010) after the health care bill was passed. A few had been deleted by the next morning.

I recognize some advisors' names among the commenters—the Wordhouses, Tim Rosen, John Vucicevic, Brendon Jenks, Curtis Erickson. And, it's a safe bet that some comments are from ringers.

Are Advisors At Odds With The Will Of The Country?

A few commenters express concern about the lack of balance in the comments. Elmer Rich III even asks, “Let’s observe that all the comments on this post represent one side of the political spectrum. Interesting, but not representative of the society in whole since Obama is going to be re-elected. Are advisors at one end of our society’s political beliefs?”

And editor Brooke Southall weighs in a few times, including with a gallant note for Gerri Leder, president of LederMark Communications, another source quoted in the article.

“The one voice in this article with a whiff of dissent was Gerri Leder’s and a commenter said that he wouldn’t do business with her as a result of her views. Gerri is a small business owner who … 'built that’ consulting firm. Nobody stepped in to defend her and I’m afraid it may have chilled the conversation,” writes Southall.

The interaction on this page is exceptional. I don’t love most of what’s being said but I love that it’s taking place. Technology has dropped the hurdle for expression, making it possible for a start-up pub like RIABiz to shed light on a topic, ask the right questions, stand back and let others take the conversation where they will.

The Better Informed Client

As a topic, politics is considered taboo in polite company. If I’m a client, I don’t necessarily need to know my advisor’s politics. The client who walks into a financial advisor’s office can easily pick up on cues. Who else is in the framed photos? What are the books that are being displayed? CNN or Fox News on the television? Who are the jokes about?

But if my advisor is as fervent in his or her world views as some of the advisors commenting on the RIABiz article, then I absolutely want to know. I’m not afraid of words I don’t agree with, I’m leery of politeness masking something I couldn’t condone and wouldn't patronize.

In that context, I see no risk in advisors or others, including asset managers, using social media to reveal who they are, what they stand for and how they communicate. Quite the contrary. Clients are better served by such transparency.