Cutting through the noise – The best direct mail marketing I’ve received this year

At least once a week I hear expressions like “direct mail is dead” or “there is so much junk mail.”

If you know anything about me, you know I’m a fan of direct mail. If there is one thing that I focus on when it comes to direct mail (regardless of quantity or the call to action) is that a message to market match is the most critical aspect to direct response marketing. This is true whether you’re a financial advisor or an automobile dealership.

I love receiving mail and reviewing the “gut impact” it has on me (and others). Frankly, most of it sucks. And the reason why people may utter the words “direct mail is dead” is because there is a lot more noise today and far more people and things vying for our attention than there was 20 years ago (on top of the fact that we all have shorter attention spans nowadays).

So when I receive something that stands out amidst the sea of mail, it warms my marketing heart. Earlier this week I received a piece of direct mail marketing that is currently sitting atop my personal list of impactful marketing efforts for 2018.


I received this in a UPS box, so it certainly made it to my desk. It came from somebody who had sent me a couple of emails previously, but I had not responded to him. My guess is that he knew that I opened them, and he may have even known that I forwarded one of his emails to a colleague of mine. This is likely what triggered in his system that I might be a somewhat interested prospect (even though I hadn’t reached out to him).

Inside the UPS box was a hand written envelope with my name on it, along with a short note to me. The gentleman is selling suite packages for concerts and sports events being held in New York City. He likely targeted me as the CMO of a financial institution that may host events where we would use suites to entertain clients and/or prospective clients.

The really cool part of this was that he included an autographed picture of Magic Johnson dunking in the NCAA championship game. What makes that particularly impactful is that I’m a Michigan State Alum and a fairly big MSU sports fan. This immediately increased the perceived value of the “gift.” He even included the certificate of authenticity.

Talk about cool. In the grand scheme of things, the autographed picture wasn’t likely that expensive (I found them online for around $50-100). But because of who I am, the value is far higher… and I certainly shared the story with colleagues of mine.

You might be asking… will we do business with him? I have no idea. To be honest, we don’t do that much in the way of suites (especially not in NYC). But I can assure you that I feel a sense of obligation to reply to his next email or call. I’m likely even going to send him a thank you note, and may even keep my eyes peeled for a way to “repay” him in some way.

I realize you won’t spend this kind of money for a big group of people, but I would encourage you to think about creative ways that can break through the noise of all the junk mail your ideal clients receive.

And since it’s football season, there’s only one fitting way to end this post… GO GREEN!

The post Cutting through the noise – The best direct mail marketing I’ve received this year appeared first on 16 Ways from Sunday.

DOL Fiduciary Rule Dies… Introduces a new opportunity for financial advisors.

So it’s official. The DOL Fiduciary rule is a thing of the past. For many of us in the financial industry, it consumed a lot of our time, energy and resources for the the better part of three years. You couldn’t turn anywhere in the financial news media without seeing it. Yet, its ultimate demise was rather anti-climactic. It died rather quietly compared to all of the noise it made early on.


I had written a piece for Investment News a while back titled DOL Rule: What’s wrong with the Financial Advice Industry. The point of the piece was to share a few simple thoughts about what I felt was right and wrong about the rule. I still feel the same today as I did then. Hopefully the SEC will introduce a rule that is workable for the industry while addressing the heart of the matter: do what’s best for clients.

The Heart of the Matter

Do what is best for clients. Seems simple, right?

It’s far more complex than that. It’s the reason that the DOL rule (R.I.P.) and the newly proposed SEC rule required more than 1,000 pages each as they struggled to define “best for clients.” It appears as though that definition is fuzzy. The problem is that rule makers want something black and white,  which (in my opinion) is the reason that the “lowest/cheapest fee” argument was the easiest thing for them to attach themselves to when attempting to define “best interests.” Anybody who understands the complexity of the financial industry knows how problematic this can be.

What do Groceries Have to do with this?

I frequently shop at a local grocery store around the corner from my house. We don’t do all of our grocery shopping there, but for quick trips to get many of the basics, this is where my family turns. We do this for a couple of reasons. We happen to like some of the produce there, and the convenience of it being really close to the house (with easy parking) makes it simple.

The big regional/national grocers are an extra 10 minutes away. We do some of our big shopping trips there, but it tends to be something that is planned out in advance (considering we have two little girls that need to be factored into the equation).

Once in a great while, I’m tasked with running out late to get milk or one of the household “necessities.” The gas station on the corner tends to be my “go-to” solution. It’s a quick and easy stop with the added benefit of actually being open at 11 PM.

In each of the above examples, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to purchase milk during those grocery trips. Our girls are turning into milk-junkies. The cost for a gallon of milk at each of those places varies dramatically. One could argue that the gallon that costs the most (from the gas station), may be the least fresh. But that doesn’t stop me from making that purchase when I need to.

As a consumer, I’m making those purchases based upon something other than price. I’m placing a value on convenience, flexibility, service, and the added benefit of buying local vs. a national chain. Sometimes I think about and look at the price I’ll be paying, but I’ve got enough experience and knowledge to understand that I’ll be paying more in exchange for things that are more important to me at that moment than dollars and cents.

The Opportunity

After the tax reform bill passed, my team created a seminar focused on some of the most recent changes affecting the financial lives of those 50 years and older. I wrote about the opportunity that it presented in a blog post titled 6 Ways to leverage tax reform in your marketing strategy. The focus of the seminar was on three recent law changes:

  1. The Social Security claiming strategy changes
  2. The DOL Fiduciary rule
  3. Tax reform bill

When the DOL rule officially became a thing of the past, I was immediately asked “well are we going to pull that from the presentation?” The question was a valid one that I had received from a number of advisors. I think the expectation was to simply remove that section and just go back to doing things the way we always had.


The death of the DOL Fiduciary rule gives advisors an incredible opportunity. We’re provided with the opportunity to educate consumers about how the financial industry works. And while it’s a bizarre analogy, we can share with them the difference between the gas stations, the local grocers and markets, and the national chains. ALL of them have their place within the industry.

We simply need to do a better job of helping consumers arrive at their buying decisions logically, regardless of whether they are buying an investment or a gallon of milk.

Explain what a fiduciary is. Explain why your clients see value in doing business with you. Be transparent. Help them to understand a little bit about the industry and where you fit in. In a world that is going increasingly digital, I’m firmly convinced that there will always be a strong need and desire for financial professionals that want to build relationships with their clients, while helping to hold them accountable for the things that need to be done to help them reach their goals.

We’ll get a fiduciary rule someday. For now, we’ll have to rely on the financial professionals that can objectively explain how the different aspects of the financial industry impact to the very consumers it is there to serve.





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



Direct Mail Marketing & Undeliverable Rates: What to Expect

There’s nothing more frustrating than wasted marketing dollars. It’s one thing if the message isn’t effective. It’s another thing if it reaches the wrong audience. It’s an entirely different issue if it never even makes it to anybody at all.

I’m referring to the dreaded undeliverable mail. Last year alone, our firm sent out more than 5 million pieces of direct mail to promote events. The post office likes us, what can I say. The lion’s share of that mail is assisting independent financial advisors promote educational events. However, WHAT is being promoted has no bearing on undeliverability rates.

We use a number of different types of mail to promote events, including postcards, tri-fold and bi-fold pieces, as well as envelope style mailings. What we mail usually determines whether we will send it first-class or standard-class with the USPS. When we use small postcards, we’ll typically mail them using first-class postage since the price difference is nominal for that size mailing.

We do this marketing as a service for the financial professionals with whom we work. It’s a means to an end for us. At least once a month, I’m sent a note expressing frustration with somebody receiving a bunch of pieces of returned mail. I get the frustration. The most recent note I received included a picture of the stack of returned mail with the note “that’s a lot of money being thrown in the toilet.”


Here were the stats centered around this mailing and then we’ll dive into what should be expected:

There were approximately 9,000 postcards mailed. There were 144 pieces of mail returned as undeliverable. That represents a 1.6% undeliverable rate. I don’t love it any more than the next guy, but here’s what the industry gurus will say (and then I’ll share our experience):

Data provider infoUSA says:


Online postcard print company PostcardMania says:


Mailing Systems Technology quoted some USPS stats and stated:

Mailing Systems technology.PNG

Our data historically has shown anywhere from a .5% – 2% undeliverable rate. We run every list through the NCOA (National Change of Address) directory with the USPS AND we purchase a new list for EVERY mailing we conduct. The other thing to point out is this: Many novice marketers will say something like, “I’ve never had this happen before.” There’s a good chance that your marketing efforts in the past didn’t mail using first-class postage. Keep in mind that the USPS isn’t obligated to return undeliverable mail to the sender.

While I understand the frustration, before you go on a rant at your marketing firm, lead list company, or mail house, make sure you know the facts about undeliverable rates. With that said, there are certainly plenty of list resellers that have “old” data. Do your homework in finding reputable data providers.


All the best,


Five Steps Top Advisors Take When Evaluating New Technology

The following blog post is from an article I recently had published on


One size does not fit all.

In our world of increasing automation, having the right tools can streamline your practice, increase productivity and enhance the services you provide your clients. However, investing in new technology can be a big decision. With so many options, choosing what’s best for your firm can be challenging. Following these five steps when evaluating new technology will ensure your firm has all the information it needs to make the right choice.

Focus on the future

Many firms make the mistake of only considering their current needs, rather than anticipating how their practice may change over the next 5-10 years. Think about where you would like your firm to be 10 years from now and what technology you will need to get there.

When conducting a cost-benefit analysis, evaluate economic and lifestyle impact over at least a three-year period. Many benefits will not be apparent until the solution has been in place for months or even years. In addition to cost savings, financial advisors should also factor in improvements in efficiency. Could this technology free up your time to do more productive things in your practice? Would it eliminate the need for a future hire?

Consider value

The best solution is one that fits your unique needs. While most applications can be customized, those customizations cost time and money. Each added feature should be evaluated based on its ROI and value to your firm. Solutions designed specifically for the financial services industry are often quicker and less costly to deploy because their features are created to be a better fit for any financial firm’s requirements.

Look for a scalable solution that meets your needs today as well as grow as your business grows. A 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that automating transaction workflows has the potential to increase the scalability of these processes by 80 percent. By automating routine tasks, technology solutions enable financial advisors to be more productive and can help firms better manage their personnel costs.

Ensure integrations

When evaluating new technology, consider its APIs and ability to connect with your existing platforms and any future ones you may need. The average financial advisor wears many hats in addition to their role as client advisor; acting as a business manager, marketer and administrator, among others. Integrating various applications for an advisor will make it easier to juggle these various roles. While the majority of financial advisors purchase technology solutions as a bundle, additional integrations are often beneficial.

Integration is especially critical for compliance software. As requirements become increasingly complex, smaller firms and independent RIAs often struggle to keep up. Experts recommend that advisors use similar technology to monitor their own practices and trading activity.

Financial advisors can also streamline their business processing activities by establishing an integrated forms solution. A good e-processing platform provides a consistent portal for completing paperwork and simplifies the process for onboarding new clients by automating the completion of many forms. Integrating client data across platforms and digitizing signatures can reduce the hassle and frustration of un-indexed paperwork. Look for firms that are developing solutions that deliver a true A-to-Z offering across multiple business lines.

Consider which integrations are most important to your business. Technology should make your life easier and minimize time normally spent on data entry and other tedious tasks so you can spend that time serving your clients and building your business.

Contemplate implementation

While purchasing a solution that can be integrated well into your business model should save you from hassle, it is also important to understand the details of how the product will be deployed and have a proposed timeline for implementation. Ask about the solution’s ease of launch and which features will be readily available when the solution goes live. For more complicated applications, it may make sense to go live with a basic solution and implement customizations in phases.

The solution you choose should be intuitive and user-friendly. If a platform is difficult to apply, your firm may struggle with adoption rates. The provider should conduct user acceptance testing (UAT) with your team before deploying the solution.

Confirm ongoing support

Financial advisors should discuss what support the vendor or provider will offer after implementation. It is important to understand how bug fixes, updates and other issues will be addressed and whether there will be any costs associated with these support services. Top providers will want to ensure their tool continues to meet your needs.

When it comes to technology solutions, one size does not fit all. Taking an analytical approach to the evaluation process will help your firm avoid costly mistakes while adopting technology that makes your advisors more efficient and effective.

Video marketing: The 21st century version of judging a book by its cover

The following blog post was an article I recently had published in InvestmentNews.


Videos can provide key details about a financial adviser in an easy–to–consume format that many potential clients prefer

We are hardwired to judge a book by its cover, despite what our parents may have taught us. When it comes to attracting new clients, this is a wonderful truth that very few advisers leverage. In fact, most advisers are marketing their “book” (themselves) without a cover.

The 21st century version of a book cover is an introductory video that enables financial advisers to speak directly to potential clients and communicate what I call the TRICK: trust, relatability, inspirational, credibility and knowledge. The best first impression is all about the TRICK.

First impressions

When you meet a potential client for the first time, how do you introduce yourself?

You probably tell them about your background, your business and, most importantly, what you can do for them. Surely you wouldn’t read them your biography or detail the full history of your company. These same principles apply online.

Trust. Potential clients need to feel comfortable with a financial services company before trusting that company with their money. Gaining the public’s trust remains a key challenge for financial advisers. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer continues to rank financial services as the least trusted business sector.

Unfortunately, many advisers are still relying on an “About Me” page to communicate their trustworthiness. This is the online equivalent of handing someone your resume — it’s impersonal and does little to gain the reader’s confidence.

Relatability. Videos provide key details in an easy?to?consume format that many potential clients prefer. But you must be relatable to them. The content marketing experts at Sumo analyzed 650,000 hits on their website and found that only 20% of visitors read articles in their entirety. Your company’s site must compete with an increasing number of distractions, so holding a viewer’s attention is imperative.

Inspirational. Don’t search for inspirational quotes and think this will accomplish anything. You need to inspire viewers to want something you provide. This isn’t always easy in our business.

Credibility. Your video and/or website should position you as a credible authority on the topic of financial planning without your coming across as pompous. This may include leveraging third?party sources for validation (such as articles or books you’ve written, or B?roll video of you on television).

Knowledgeable. There is a fine line between explaining modern portfolio theory and communicating a difficult financial concept through an easy?to?understand analogy. Make sure you know where that line is when you create a video.

There’s a lot that goes into creating the perfect introductory video. Before you grab a camera and start recording, here are a few tips:

1. Keep it short. Your potential clients are busy. Wistia’s research has shown viewers’ engagement with a video drops off sharply after the two?minute mark. Aim for a video between 90 seconds and 2 minutes long.

2. Tell your story. Why are you in this business? What story can you tell that might demonstrate knowledge, trust, and credibility while inspiring someone at the same time? Telling them “what” you do is wasting valuable seconds. Focus on “why” and “how” you do what you do.

3. Speak directly to your audience in their language. Keep the tone warm. Be conversational. Focus on being relatable over being scripted and polished.

4. Focus on quality. Some companies may be tempted to create their own video in hopes of saving money. However, shooting your own video can be very time-consuming. Creating a polished video typically requires multiple takes and meticulous editing. Hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

According to Brightcove, viewers who watch a low?quality video are 62% more likely to have a negative perception of the brand that published the video. A professional video team can help you capture the right message and let you get back to work while they handle the editing and publishing.

5. Offer a next step — a call to action. Set a marketing goal and incorporate it into the end of your video to persuade your viewer to take the next step. Perhaps you want the viewer to schedule an appointment, sign up for your newsletter or connect with your company on social media. Make it easy for potential customers to take action by clearly providing the details and embedding links.

6. Paint a picture. Use this opportunity to paint a picture for your viewer. Whether you are painting a picture of goals and dreams (inspiration) or the picture of what to expect when somebody meets with you, be intentional about your word choice.

7. Get ancillary marketing benefit. Adding video to your site offers important advantages for search engine optimization. By tagging the video with the appropriate products, services, hashtags and, most importantly, location, you can help your video reach the appropriate audience. Also include any products or services that are discussed in the description to ensure the video shows up in search results for that topic for users near your geographical location.

Adding an engaging introduction video to your website is a great way to humanize your marketing. People do business with people. More specifically, they do business with people that are trustworthy, relatable, inspirational, credible, and knowledgeable. Getting that message across is the real TRICK.

Independent Marketing Review:

The independent marketing program reviews are designed to provide an overview of a financial marketing program that is available in the marketplace. Over the course of a year, I bet I receive 50+ inquiries from financial advisors asking me my thoughts about certain programs available. Your inbox is littered with these offers every single day. My goal is to help you evaluate them objectively, and share any real-life experiences that I may know of related to the particular program. If you have a program you’d like reviewed, shoot me a note at

Financial Advisor Marketing Program being reviewed: RecommendedExperts (


A few weeks back, an advisor asked for my opinion on RecommendedExperts. Essentially, here’s what they offer to do:

  • Draft a press release on a specific topic related to you and your business.
  • Submit the press release to various media outlets
  • Provide you with a graphics pack that includes “As Seen On” with logos and images to add to your homepage and profile.
  • The cost is $397.

To be honest, this isn’t an awful deal. It’s reasonably priced. You’re getting some writing services and a press release submission for $400. But there were a few things that caused me to raise an eyebrow. Here are a few excerpts from the salesperson’s email to the advisor, along with my commentary after each:

“we have just signed a deal with some major authority media organisations, the release we’re compiling will be picked up on the major news networks…”

My reaction: just signed a deal? This is how press release distribution companies work. They distribute the release to dozens and dozens of media outlets and major news networks.

“As we discussed, typically a spot in an announcement like this would cost anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 and would take at least three to four months to come to fruition but because we’re in beta, we’re subsidizing the whole process… so in return for the guaranteed placement in the major news sites… and the ability to use As Seen On… logos for ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX on your website etc… we are covering everything, other than our basic costs of $397.”

My reaction: $10k – $15k? 3-4 months? Cough, cough… lie. Getting a press release written and distributed is about the easiest thing in the world to do. (We do it regularly, and can have one drafted and distributed in hours. Cost will vary by the service we use and the audience we want to send it to, but it’s nowhere close to $10,000.). I’ll share some links below.

“Lastly we also guarantee exclusivity to anyone we work with… in other words when we announce you in one of our releases you will be the only specialist in your area that we supply the As Seen On… logos to.” 

My reaction: Woohoo. So what? This means nothing. Anybody can send a release in your area on the same topic at any time.

Excerpts from the note I sent back to the advisor about the opportunity are included below. It may be helpful.

I wouldn’t do this with this company for three main reasons:

Reason # 1: They blatantly lied to you about the normal cost of this. The only thing they are doing is interviewing you and then charging you for the write up and the submission of a press release. This is NOT $10,000 – $15,000 (See # 2 below.). Personally, when somebody lies this blatantly to me, I wouldn’t do business with them out of principal (regardless of how cheap it might be).

Reason # 2: You can do this yourself. Simply draft a press release and send it. I’ve shared a few entities that send press releases and you can pay for them. It will be cheaper than what this place is charging. They are only sending it to Baltimore area media. For the price you are paying them, you could send it with a national distribution. Links to some of the places you can use to send press releases are below:


The big player in the distribution game is Cision, which owns PRWeb and PRNewswire (if you google around you’ll see this). If you don’t want to write it yourself, you can hire a writer (which is essentially what this company is pitching… they will write the story and then submit it, using one of the above mentioned providers, no doubt). Here’s an interesting blurb about that PR writer world. 

Reason number 3: Compliance is compliance. Sending a press release itself will NOT be a problem. Once it is written, you would need to have it reviewed like any other marketing. HOWEVER, the “As Seen On” thing will likely not fly because it’s not EARNED media. This is a fine line and we know that regulators are concerned about this matter. It would be equivalent to creating a 30 second TV commercial, paying to have it air one time on each of the big networks, and then saying “As Seen On…” Don’t take this as direct compliance advice, but that’s my assumption on how it would be viewed.

On a positive note: There is VALUE in doing press releases. Between improving your search engine optimization (SEO) on your website, to showing up in searches for topics that you want to show up for is all good. I just don’t like how this company pitched it. If you weren’t in a highly regulated industry, I’d probably say to go for the whole “As Seen On” thing. If you decided to hire them, you should only look at it for the benefits I mentioned from an SEO perspective, and NOT the “As Seen On” bit. My hesitance with this company is just in the fact that they blatantly misled you. That usually seals the door shut for me.

Failing the Marketing Sniff Test: the Clint Arthur “Experience”

It took the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s a while to showcase this “epic fail,” but there’s an important lesson from this story for all financial advisors to learn.


The story/sales pitch goes a little something like this:

“Hey Mr./Ms Advisor, you need to build credibility and trustworthiness. I have an opportunity for you to speak at Harvard or West Point. You’ll be a featured speaker on an important topic to your business! You’ll gain instant celebrity status and prospective clients will swoon over the fact that you were invited to speak at such a prestigious facility.”

Sounds intriguing, right? That’s the short version of “marketing guru” Clint Arthur’s pitch to advisors, insurance agents, and anybody else considered to be an entrepreneur. There’s just one problem. It doesn’t pass the sniff test. At least, it shouldn’t pass YOUR sniff test, and it certainly won’t pass the sniff test of any regulator.

In full disclosure, I’ve never met Clint Arthur nor have I done business with his company Celebrity Launchpad or Guaranteed Celebrity. He could be a stand up guy. However, when this idea was shared with me by a few advisors with whom I work, something about it didn’t sit right with me. As they say, the devil is in the details. In fact, the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s did their best to share some of those details in their stories published earlier this year (Meet the Guy Guy Who Gets Financial Advisers Appearances at Harvard and West Point & Advisors Using Harvard, West Point Speeches as Marketing: Unethical?)

Here’s what I understand about the “opportunity”- you pay a pretty penny for the chance to speak. You deliver a 5-7 minute speech (give or take.) The audience is full of the other business owners who paid to be there. The room at the venue was rented by Clint Arthur and gang. There is zero affiliation with the university/facility, although the marketing and branding certainly positions that to be the case (after all, they want you to be able to say that you were invited to speak at Harvard).

So, what’s the problem? After all, it is technically true that you were invited to speak at Harvard (albeit you weren’t invited by Harvard, and thousands of others were also invited). And you did actually speak on a financial topic at Harvard, right? So telling people that you were invited to speak at Harvard and actually spoke there shouldn’t be a problem, right?

The line is pretty gray here. There are really two parts to this equation – the ethical part and the regulatory compliance part. The Barron’s article focused more on the ethical issue that exists. In my opinion, the real issue becomes one of a compliance issue. Regardless of how you are registered or what licensure you maintain, all regulators have some rules regarding misleading consumers. In my opinion, this is why this marketing/PR activity doesn’t pass the sniff test. The average consumer WILL perceive this to be something different than what it truly is – there’s absolutely no denying that.

In the end, there are far more legitimate ways to build credibility and earn trust with the general public. There’s a big difference between “earned” media and “paid for” media. Some “paid for” media is legitimate, but it requires you to be more careful when scrutinizing and evaluating the opportunity.


6 ways to leverage tax reform in your marketing strategy


The following blog post was an article I had published in InvestmentNews:

Changes like tax reform give you an opportunity to educate and provide value to the public.

After months of deliberation, our government passed the largest tax overhaul in over 30 years: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Whether you agree with the changes or not, the public will need advice on how to manage their finances under the new law. When approached properly, the new legislation should provide financial advisers with the leverage they need to expand and exceed their 2018 marketing goals.

Here are six ways you can use the new tax plan to build existing client relationships and acquire new clients:

1. Hold an educational seminar. Whenever a new law is passed or regulations change, the public will always ask, “What does this mean to me?” This type of uncertainty creates a great opportunity for advisers to offer free seminars addressing common concerns to both existing and prospective clients. Seminars can also be held on a variety of more specific topics to targeted audiences. Since each demographic is affected differently, specific seminars can offer more relevant information to each group, so those in attendance receive personalized direction for their current and future needs.

2. Give presentations to the most-affected groups. Make your practice more accessible to new clients by offering free presentations in your community. This will give you the opportunity to share your specialized knowledge with a group that will benefit from it, while allowing you to build your brand and connect with potential clients in a niche area. The groups that are impacted the most by the new bill include charities, churches, universities, families, business owners and real estate investors. Develop some collateral that positions you as a dynamic speaker on specific topic or specialty within your practice, while keeping in mind that all of this material must speak directly to the interests of your target groups. Some options include a website, video or a simple brochure.

3. Provide existing clients with information. It’s great to bring in new clients, but it’s also important that you keep your existing clients up-to-date on legislative changes that may alter their financial situation. Some changes might affect your entire client roster, while others might just impact a small segment.

One suggestion is to group similar clients together when distributing information, so you can tailor it to their specific needs. Identify the best channels to communicate with each group and create a strategy for reaching them. This may vary from creating a fact sheet or new email marketing campaign to an informational video or social media campaign. Information that is accessible and easy to share will likely bring in more referrals as your existing clients spread the word about your services.

4. Reach out to CPAs and tax preparers. Many advisers struggle to develop meaningful relationships with CPAs. One way to start is by asking your existing clients who will be preparing their taxes this year. With your client’s permission, reach out and mention that you have a mutual client before asking them to a business lunch where you can exchange opinions on how the new bill will impact your clients.

Remember, when it comes to taxes, you are crossing over into their turf. To earn their willingness to provide referrals, you have to demonstrate knowledge, credibility and trustworthiness first. Share a few ideas and strategies that you are looking to integrate with your clients and get his or her feedback on what you’re doing to help people.

5. Reach out to real estate agents. A relationship with a real estate professional can lead the way to receiving referrals, as agents generally work with a wide variety of clients, many of whom are new to the area. First, however, you must establish your worth.

Real estate agents will likely be significantly impacted by tax reform, but they may not understand its full effect. To prove your value, consider creating a personalized seminar or write a short guide on the new tax reform bill’s impact on the real estate industry. With this personalized touch and expert guidance, agents will be more likely to recommend you to their clients. As with CPAs, maintain your relationship by sharing case studies with them in order to continually demonstrate your knowledge and commitment to your clients.

6. Offer a free consultation. With even a limited budget, you can offer free consultations to existing customers and warm prospects. These risk-free meetings are a straightforward way to provide your insights to those willing to listen. The value of your time will likely pay off in the long run when clients decide to sign on with you thanks to the personalized touch.

The best thing that could ever happen to financial services marketing can be summarized in one word: change. Change can provide you with the opportunity to educate and provide value to the public, especially when you’re working in the financial services industry. Potential clients are bound to have questions, and as an adviser, it is your job to market your services as the answer. This new bill gives you the chance to maintain relationships with existing clients and reach new audiences you might not have thought of before.

DOL Fiduciary Rule Enforcement: How Massachusetts May Have Provided the Spark for a Massive Fire

On Thursday, February 15th, the state of Massachusetts charged Scottrade with dishonest and unethical conduct and a failure to supervise. This is believed to be the first known enforcement action under the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule.

Where this will end up, nobody knows, but it could be the spark that triggers a fire within the financial industry. According to the regulator’s complaint, Scottrade violated impartial conduct standards by conducting some sort of sales contest with incentives for their employees to bring in new assets.

Let’s talk about the reality of this: anybody who has been in the industry for any length knows this happens all the time. It has been a part of the wirehouse and insurance sales culture for decades. The problem is this: far too many financial professionals (and the firms they associate with) are under the impression that the Fiduciary Rule (or Conflict of Interest rule) isn’t yet in effect.

As somebody who is actively involved the everyday communications with our own affiliated advisors, as well as the daily efforts to attract new professionals to our firm, I can tell you that there is a great amount of confusion surrounding this rule. In many cases, it isn’t confusion; it is flat out ignorance.

This is what advisors need to know: this rule is in effect. Today. Now. The “delay” that was triggered as a result of the Trump administration only impacted the second phase of the rule. Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy – it was assumed (due to statements coming from Washington, D.C.) that there wouldn’t be enforcement action taking place. The state of Massachusetts has proven that assumption to be faulty. And it won’t surprise me one bit if other states follow suit.

What does this mean to you as a financial professional? Much of that depends on the firms with whom you affiliate, the licensure you maintain, and the recommendations you make. Don’t be mistaken, regardless of your answer to the three questions items listed above, the rule still applies to you. The risk/exposure may be different depending upon your response to those items.

It really comes down to operating in an environment where impartial conduct standards are established and ensuring that those standards are adhered to by the institution and the representatives of that institution. For example, if you are affiliated with a broker-dealer or corporate RIA, has there been a process and standard established to review recommendations for best interests, as well as an honest effort to reduce or eliminate major conflicts of interest? If you affiliate with an insurance brokerage entity (FMO/IMO/MGA), do they understand the importance of adhering to this standard? Unfortunately, many are still running sales contests, sales incentives, and offering production-based compensation. Knowingly or not, many of these activities are a direct violation of the portion of the rule that is in effect and they are putting the professionals with whom they work in the cross-hairs of a potentially devastating regulatory mess.

This isn’t just an opinion. It’s a substantiated fact as evidenced by the state of Massachusetts. You may love the rule. You may hate the rule. You may be like me and think there should be a logical compromise to this regulation that could accomplish the goals of putting the interests of clients first without creating such a confusing and complex overhaul to the way business is done within all of the different entities that operate in the financial industry. None of that matters though. Our feelings about the rule today don’t change the fact that we all need to operate in a new environment. Sadly, some professionals aren’t quite there yet. And what’s even worse is that many financial institutions (broker-dealers, RIAs, FMOs, etc.) aren’t there yet either. And ignorance won’t be much of a defense if a regulator knocks on the door.

In the meantime, this Scottrade charge will be an interesting story to keep an eye on. You may not be aware, but TD Ameritrade is in the final stages of its acquisition of Scottrade. I’m sure this is the last thing they wanted to deal with as this thing gets buttoned up. If it turns out that the Massachusetts regulators have a leg to stand on when it comes to enforcement actions, you can bet that it may pave the way for other states to follow suit.

For more information and details on DOL Requirements, you can refer to our DOL Executive Summary and DOL Extension Fact Sheet.

For those of you already affiliated with USA Financial, you can find this information on the dashboard.



All the best,

Mark Mersman