Flags designating surf swimming area, Rainbow Bay, Qld, AustraliaWhen I accepted the invitation to keynote the Hillross Annual Conference 2012 in Canberra, Australia, focusing on practical strategies for social media, I was pretty sure that one of my main challenges would be finding examples of successful engagement via social media by financial advisers.

Part of the problem is that financial advisers operate in a highly regulated environment and have a justifiable concern that engaging with clients and the general public via social media might bring problems in terms of reputational risk or even put their whole business at risk.

My presentation is in the national capital, Canberra, this coming Friday Jan 20th and I’m very much looking forward to that. Hillross Financial Services is one of Australia’s premier wealth adviser firms, with a network of over 300 advisers and over 100 firms across Australia, who help create and protect the wealth of affluent and high net worth Australians: I feel honoured to have been asked to work with this group and I’m confident I’ll learn from them as well as sharing what I know.

Global issues

It’s clear to me from my research so far that the challenges facing financial advisors engaging with and through social media are by no means confined to the Australian scene.

One of my US colleagues put it this way: “Because of strict laws and internal controls by large financial companies, it’s difficult for many financial advisers to use social media as freely as the rest of us.”

That response was part of one of twenty five answers to a question I posed on LinkedIn Answers, in these words:

Do you know of any success stories of licensed financial advisors using social media to grow their business?

Screenshot of question on LinkedIn Answers about financial advisors and social mediaI would like to have felt I could ask about “case studies” rather than the softer “success stories”. A case study worthy of the name should include a context, a specified problem or challenge, and should report on what went wrong, or not so well, not just on the success elements.

But from the searching and asking I had already done, I thought that would be drawing too long a bow. Even so, I was hoping to pull in a bigger haul of success stories than eventuated.

That experience has emphasized for me that there is a real dilemma for many businesses looking at engaging via social media, and not just for financial advisers. Lawyers, people in the pharmaceutical industry, other professionals, have various boundaries in terms of their use of social media.

I don’t believe the problem is insuperable.

Right now, as as I’ll be proposing in my presentation on Friday, the way through the dilemma is, as I see it, to develop a coherent social media strategy with strong risk management protocols and procedures built in.

To take an analogy from where I live, on Australia’s sunny Gold Coast, we have magnificent beaches but the surf can be very treacherous.  The answer for most of us is not to stop swimming but to swim in the area between the lifesavers’ or lifeguards’ flags. The presence of those flags doesn’t mean that nothing can go wrong, but it does give a reasonable assurance that the risk can be handled.

We have are used to having policies, including risk management, for our finances, our human resources management and other areas of business. We’re just not used to having social media policies as a normal part of doing business. But we need to. While that might seem obvious to people working professionally in the social media space, I am continually meeting business people for whom the idea that you could actually have a robust system of risk management that works for social media engagement seems to come as a surprise .

Getting the strategic framework right, incorporating good risk management processes, is a non-trivial exercise, but it can be done – and must be done by any business wanting to engage seriously and responsibly via social media. (To indulge for a moment in  a bit of shameless self-promotion, helping develop social media strategy is one of the things I do, as a social media strategist, for companies wanting to get the edge, not just follow along.)

In the meantime, I am still looking for great – or quite simple – success stories from licensed financial advisers and wealth managers to help me tell the story.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).