The World We Live In: How Yelp, YouTube and other platforms can land you in hot water

Marketing 101 will teach you that third-party validation is one of the strongest trust-builders available as you seek to grow your customer/client base. This is true for every industry. Small businesses will often rely on testimonials and endorsements from satisfied customers. In fact, small business turn to social media platforms every day to help them accomplish this.

The unfortunate reality is that the financial advice industry has to be extra careful when it comes to testimonials and endorsements, even if they appear to be on the up and up and out of your control.

Just this past week, the Securities and Exchange Commission censured and fined three investment advisers for violating the testimonial rule by promoting their business on Yelp, as well as for advertising testimonials on their website and YouTube channel.

InvestmentNews broke the story earlier this week. 

Let’s dive a little deeper into how this happened (and I’d like to share in the frustration that I’m sure many of you reading this will also have).

From what I’ve gathered, these advisors hired Dr. Len Schwartz, the owner of a marketing consultancy firm Create Your Fate. The story suggests that they hired him for one of his services called “Squeaky Clean Reputation.” The irony is unbelievably laughable if it weren’t such an unfortunate conclusion. (The end result of them hiring him to improve their reputation resulted in the exact opposite). I digress.

Full disclosure: I don’t know Dr. Len Schwartz. I’ve been solicited by him a few different times on LinkedIn, but I’ve never taken the bait. For all I know he could be an incredibly upstanding professional.

With that said, there is some danger in hiring outside consultants/professionals. The liability they have for the work they do for you is FAR LESS than the liability you have. According to the story, Leonard Schwartz and his firm would reach out to the clients of the advisors and solicit testimonials, specifically on Yelp (who knows if the clients were encouraged to provide testimonials elsewhere).

According to one of the advisor’s administrative proceeding notes, Dr. Schwartz was contracted to solicit and compile and post the testimonials on various websites and YouTube.  It goes without saying that this is in direct violation of the testimonial rules. If you’re so inclined, the PDF link below is guidance from the SEC regarding the testimonial rule and social media.



Some Guidance and a short rant (I’m sure many of you have the same frustration)

The basic rule regarding testimonials applies to investment advisor representatives. Unfortunately, it does not apply to financial professionals who are only registered representatives and/or insurance agents. This is one of the many flaws with the regulatory nature of our industry. The playing field is not level. For those of you that operate in a fiduciary capacity as investment advisors, I’m sure there is nothing more frustrating than to see other advisors websites littered with testimonials. As a marketer, it irks the heck out of me since establishing third-party credibility/validation is a foundational marketing activity.

Here’s the quick actionable guidance I’ll give you:

  1. Re-assess who you have helping you with your marketing. Evaluate whether they truly know the industry you are in and whether they truly have your best interests at heart. As somebody who builds marketing systems and programs for advisors, compliance with the rules is my number one priority. And yes, it occasionally results in us not being able to do/say some of the things I’d like to be able to say.
  2. Rid yourself of testimonials. I hate it. You hate it. But it needs to be done.
  3. Build third-party credibility in other ways. EARN yourself media opportunities. This is far easier than you may think. There is a little bit of detail regarding this here: Turning Press Into Profits
  4. If your clients are truly willing to give you a testimonial, then they are worthy of cultivating into a referral source in other ways. I call the program “From Clients to Partners.” At the core of the program is a focus on client experience and creating professional contrast. Shoot me a note if you’d like to find out more.

That’s all for now.

Be smart out there! Clients first. No shortcuts.

All the best,

Mark Mersman



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