Sound Check: Where Financial Firms Struggle With Social Media

Even financial service firms that have been slow to adopt a social media strategy have moved passed the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we question and are now dipping their toes into places like the Twittersphere. Despite this positive trend, some firms are still struggling to find their way in this new environment.

I use the term ‘struggling’ to indicate several unwanted outcomes. The first, a much more common issue firms face when delving into the social space is like open mic night at a coffee shop or comedy club. Anyone with enough courage can stand in front of the audience, although what’s spoken into the microphone typically falls flat for one reason or another. For individuals, it can be lack of preparation or experience. For firms using social media, it could be one of those too, in addition to more fundamental roadblocks.

Escaping the sound loop

I’ve witnessed a company set their social media strategy, staff the team and then get very little traction towards meeting their own objectives. In fact, firm’s social media streams quickly got stuck on repeat. The whole exercise became route repetition of the same few updates each week. We’re talking about word-for-word copy & paste jobs of the exact same sentences. Every. single. week.

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Forget for a moment that the main premise behind Web 2.0 involves the ability to exchange information instead of merely projecting it out into the ether. Just think about this for a second. If you met with a person who said the exact same thing every week, you’d quickly call off those meetings because you’d know upfront what would be said. What’s more, you’d end the discussion with the distinct impression that you weren’t being heard–since no matter what you say, you’d expect another copy & paste post next week. That’s not a discussion. And it doesn’t leave room for engagement.

Warming up the mic

In this particular case of endless copy & paste, the firm tapped a technical web expert to lead the social media media effort. The decision seems logical, since these are the people that have the most in-depth knowledge of website building, SEO, etc. However, the challenge for web techies is that often do not represent a company’s frontline storytellers — the public faces that put out views and interact with clients, prospects and the media. As such, they can face significant challenges when using these tools of engagement and dialogue due to the fact that this had not been something that had been asked of them in the past. It can represent a steep learning curve that MUST include entail a break from 1-way communication (where the sender speaks and the receiver listens).  Social media requires the opportunity for 2-way communication.

The essential social media learning curve. Image credit: Ron Koller

Number One Emcee

The ability to pique an audience’s interest and deliver web-friendly fodder for engagement will in large part determine the success of your social media program. In my view, we need to think about a social media manager’s role not as the person on stage with the microphone, but as the master-of-ceremonies who ties together a string of performances mostly by managing the transition. This means adopting an investigative journalist’s mentality, navigating the entire organization to showcase frontline figures –the company’s leaders and experts– and packaging the show for the audience.  Bringing in marketing and press teams can help.

Noise complaints

Many financial service firms are subject to strict regulations not just regarding how they conduct business but also how they communicate with regards to which intended audiences they address as well as the content of their messages. As a result, some firms are hesitant to say much of anything on social media lest they incur the wrath of their own compliance teams, or worse, their regulators. Truth be told, given the social media presence of so many financial companies today, it’s hard to argue that there are any deal-breakers that would keep your firm from being able to use these tools. That said, it’s still a good idea to steer clear of discussions about your firm’s products or services. Not only do audiences hate the hard-sell approach, but compliance teams tend to hear alarm bells as well. Personally, I think this is a relief for most firms often focus a bit too much on themselves and not quite enough on the fact that their offer touches upon their clients’ major life decisions e.g. education, retirement, estate planning, etc. Turning the focus a bit more towards customers’ life experiences could bring a breath of fresh air to many firms’ communications.

Don’t forget social listening in your social media program Photograph: Ronald Grant

Sound check

Another and much less frequent issue arises when a firm faces the audience’s heated wrath. Bands use the sound check before a performance to ensure that their instruments are connected, properly tuned and that sound levels are where they need to be. Recalling the importance of 2-way communication, a social media sound check means listening to what the audience is saying about your firm and your industry. Not listening can get you into trouble, as JP Morgan Chase found out with their planned Q&A on Twitter back in November. Using the hashtag #AskJPM, the firm solicited questions for their vice chairman. A deluge of hostile questions ensued (here’s the NYTimes recap) and JPM called off the Q&A session. The lesson: make sure you’ve got a social monitoring system in place as part of your social media program. Many monitoring tools automatically report on whether your brand’s mentions have a positive or negative tone. It’s important to know where you stand with the audience before opening the door and inviting them to throw virtual tomatoes.



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