By Accident Or By Design? LinkedIn Exposes Advertisers' Campaign Data

Update: I published the below post early this morning. Mid-day I received an email from someone in LinkedIn’s Corporate Communications saying, “We were made aware of this issue that enabled a limited number of LinkedIn members to see this campaign data. It has since been fixed.”

That’s good news, it was inadvertent and not by design. I can confirm that I for one can no longer see the Sponsored Update campaign results of more than a dozen investment companies and other firms, as I described below.

But I still have questions regarding the visibility of the data, how it became visible and, ultimately, what sorts of protections and monitoring that LinkedIn has in place. Without a better understanding of LinkedIn’s controls, advertisers’ interest may very well cool.

When I hear more, I’ll update the post. I’m doing this piecemeal because my email goes out at 3CDT and this first update should be in place, at the minimum.

Something happened on LinkedIn this week (is still happening as of this posting Thursday morning) that serves as a fresh reminder about the hazards of relying on others’ ever-evolving platforms.

On Tuesday, while in the process of working on a client’s competitive review, I noticed that LinkedIn was showing the results of firms’ advertising campaigns—the impressions, clicks, interactions, followers acquired and engagement rate of sponsored updates. I was dumbfounded.

To give you an idea, below I show a J.P. Morgan update, one of the best-performing updates in the samples I reviewed and off-point for mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) firms.

On the company page, the shaded sponsored update campaign results (under the heading "Gained from Sponsoring") appear to be a show/hide module. I would have assumed its display would be driven by the account login—only those with admin access to the company page should be able to see results for only their own campaigns.

When I first realized what I was seeing, I'll admit that I made a beeline to check out the BlackRock company page. LinkedIn has singled BlackRock out for its sponsored update success (see a related post), and I wanted to see the data for myself.

Curiously, no data could be seen in most of the BlackRock campaign results modules. As shown in the example below from 10 months ago, the campaign name (revealing the target audience) and elements displayed but with zeros where the data would be. That can't be right.

BlackRock Sponsored Update Zeros

Also new to me Tuesday: Each company update that hasn’t been sponsored has a "Sponsor update" button that opens to a sponsored update promotion. That seems odd to show to all, given that only the company can sponsor an update on its own page.

From time to time, I use my clients' logins to access their LinkedIn analytics. Thinking that my use of multiple logins may have somehow confused things, I cleared my cache but still saw the data.

Then I asked several others to tell me whether they could see what I was seeing. Most logged-in desktop or laptop Chrome or Internet Explorer browser-users could. The one who couldn’t see the data was accessing LinkedIn via Safari on a MacBook Air.

Investment companies were my focus, but I also found that I could see the campaign data from companies not in the financial services space, too. 

Firms whose campaign data was visible in my spotcheck include:

  • Aberdeen Asset Management
  • Calamos Investments
  • Deutsche Bank
  • Franklin Templeton
  • Goldman Sachs
  • LPL Financial
  • Morgan Stanley
  • OppenheimerFunds
  • Putnam Investments
  • TIAA-CREF
  • T. Rowe Price

If you work for one of these firms, I'd reach out to your LinkedIn account manager and demand to know what the heck is going on.

The question for LinkedIn: Is the publication of this data by design or by accident? I’d sent a tweet about my discovery Tuesday and then an email to LinkedIn’s press account Tuesday evening but have yet to receive a response. I’ve been checking Twitter and Google search results for any official or unofficial commentary on this. So far, crickets.

When and if I hear from LinkedIn, I’ll update this post. My expectation (and hope) is that this is a programming glitch that will be promptly addressed. In the absence of a credible explanation from LinkedIn, I find this breach and its persistence for most of a week to be unacceptable and inexcusable. Shouldn't somebody be paying closer attention?

What About Protections For The Advertiser?

Sponsored updates are an important source of revenue for LinkedIn. They drove almost half of the Marketing Solutions' $140 million quarterly revenue, which was up by more than double since July 2014, according to the company's July 30, 2015, earnings announcement. There is every intention to build on that, and the financial services vertical has been one of the areas of sales (and content) focus. 

Let’s proceed with the assumption that showing others’ campaign data is not how LinkedIn expects to drive sponsored update adoption. This episode nonetheless is a teachable moment for all of us increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of using social platforms to more effectively reach audiences.

If you’ve ever used a social network for any length of time, you’re likely to have been surprised by changes it’s made. Facebook is notorious for this but every platformand especially the public companies under pressure to demonstrate growth in usage and revenue—will change things up without notice. And, that has frequently included the exposure of additional data. While most of these surprises have affected individuals, brands and companies acting as content publishers have been caught unaware and needed to scramble.

I submit that advertising on these platforms raises the stakes, for both platform provider and the brand willing to commit a piece of its advertising budget.

Social networks are disruptive by definition. They don’t necessarily play by existing rules. As I thought about seeing all that campaign data this week, I wondered whether advertisers may be making assumptions that those running the social platforms either don’t share or aren’t aware of.

What assurances have been extended—more to the point, where is it writtenthat campaign results aren't something to tinker with by publishing or otherwise sharing?

By now, and through some trial and error, the networks have learned the importance of safeguarding personal data. But how much vetting has been done by advertisers to understand the steps that are taken to make certain that competitors don’t see one another’s marketing response data?

How seriously do LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook et al take the need to protect their advertisers, for some of whom advertising effectiveness is a leading indicator of their business results?

We have all been impressed by what the social networks say they can do. Their targeting capabilities and the level of reporting available surpasses what’s available from traditional media sites. They've been compelling enough to command significant sums for pricey products. 

This episode makes it obvious that we need to broaden the sales discussion to explicitly communicate what we require new marketing partners to do, and to confirm that platform and advertiser are aligned on the importance of keeping campaign results private. 

6 Odd Examples Of Your Mutual Fund/ETF Dollars At Work

I once worked for a good guy who needed to grow into his ability to hold staff meetings.

In the early days, it was rough going—a dozen people jammed into a small conference room as we listened to Horace (not his real name) review the contents of his (paper) InBox piece by piece as a means of updating us. His interpretation of company memos, his analysis of competitors' work, his far-reaching commentary…until the hour struck and the meeting was over, bringing sweet relief for all.

Today’s post is not that, I hope. Maybe you’ll find something worthwhile in this random walk-through of what I’ve been clipping lately for my mutual fund/exchange-traded fund (ETF) marketing scrapbook.

Not In My House You Don’t

I have mixed feelings about tweets like this brief video of a BlackRock office (in the UK?) before a meeting was about to start. The behind-the-scenes look of it is what gives it appeal—I agree and I get it. But my stronger reaction is horror.

I’m making an assumption here, it’s possible that this was a completely sanctioned video. Allowing for that to be the case, let’s use it just as a jumping off point to something more general: If there’s one consistent message I have for every firm I work with, it’s that they lock down/rule out/expressly forbid views like this created and shared by outsiders.

Social updates showing the inside of an asset manager office or meeting (including presentation slides!) almost always serve to aggrandize the outsider (typically a vendor) only. They do nothing for your business and can cause trouble. I don’t like showing people in unguarded moments in general, my loved ones excluded. But you can imagineand your Legal and Compliance colleagues can fill in any gapsthe risks of others sharing in real-time what’s happening under your roof.

Just say no, in your meeting invitation, at the start of your meeting and at the conclusion of your meeting.

Wholesaler As LinkedIn Publisher

Wholesalers using LinkedIn to amplify their firms’ content and otherwise interact is old news (see this 2013 post). But this self-promotional LinkedIn publisher post by a new Virtus wholesaler was a new one on me when I spotted it a few months ago. 

LinkedIn didn’t cross its 1 million publishers and 1 million posts milestones this year solely on the backs of 5,000 words on climate change insights or what’s in a CEO’s purse. Why not this, I guess.

Can You Say Takeover?

Franklin Templeton Sponsored Content

Fund companies are taking part in an advertising trend that’s prevalent across most industries: sponsored content. The purpose of online sponsored content is to give an advertiser editorial placement similar to magazine advertorials in print.

I “wowed” out loud when I landed on this Think Advisor page, which leaves no doubt who’s sponsoring both the editorial and advertising on the page. Franklin Templeton “owns” the page with seven placements. I spotted this in April and then again earlier this week but your results may vary.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

On the very day in May when David Letterman retired, Fidelity was ready with a Letterman-esque Top 10 countdown to retirement.

@Fidelity is one of the largest Twitter accounts (translation: plenty of potential follower support) and easily the most interactive (replies 64% of the time versus 0% for most asset manager accounts). This should have been a can’t miss/slam dunk.

And yet there were just seven retweets. The graphic did better (76 likes and 21 shares) on Facebook although still less than I would have guessed.

Huh. This was a brilliant idea. Why didn’t it catch on?! Maybe the update copy didn't (or couldn't) go far enough to snag attention?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a chimp can do social media.   

In A Keyword League Of Its Own

There are all kinds of ways people can use to find their way to your site, but organic search continues to top the list.

Guess what dominant mutual fund and ETF firm is also crazy dominant in the number of organic search keywords driving traffic to its site? According to SpyFu data, Vanguard has twice as many keywords as T. Rowe Price (the next closest competitor although BlackRock is gaining), and look at the progress made in just the last three years.

I’d show the graph for Vanguard versus just ETF firms, too, but it isn’t pretty. 

ROI Challenged?

This upsetting graph is from a Boston Consulting Group benchmarking survey of asset management marketers. Every data point in this self-assessment of go-to-market capabilities is fascinating.

But the low, low regard that marketers themselves have for their “marketing spending-productivity tracking” is no less than a cry for help. Tragic and unnecessary. Let me know what I can do to help.

3 Areas Of Intrigue: Another Fund Data Site, Social Financial Literacy, Pace of Social Finance

Chicago’s weather has been unsettled (is it or is it not going to rain?), the Chicago Blackhawks have yet to truly assert their superiority in the Stanley Cup Final, and more business meetings/calls have been cancelled in the last few days than have happened. Things are not quite coming together this week.

And so it’s no surprise that I couldn’t close on one of three ideas that caught my attentionwhat follows is a bit on all three.

New Insights On Fund Distribution

On Tuesday, BrightScope launched Fund Pages, promising to deliver individual investors and financial professionals “deep [data] insights which were previously expensive or hard to find.”

As a quick refresher, BrightScope is “a financial information and technology company that brings transparency to opaque markets.” The firm got its start providing retirement plan ratings and analytics and extended the business a few years ago by building a directory of financial advisors. It’s not much of a leap from its previous work to see it diversify now into mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) data display that includes a fund scorecard and trended analysis.

According to the Website, the firm obtains its data from both publicly available and private sources, including regulatory filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission and Lipper. A rather prominent note on the fund pages encourages asset managers to make contact about "streamlining" your fund data feed directly onto the platform.

It seems like an uphill climb for BrightScope to take on other fund data sites, Morningstar among the most prominent, but I wish them well. Update: I didn't take it upon myself to compare the product data offerings but some RIABiz coverage published after this post addresses that. 

Here’s what’s new from my perspective.

The offer to connect investors with advisors

Fund companies largely rely on advisors to introduce their funds to investors. But BrightScope thinks it could work the other way around. Investor awareness of a fund could prompt a call to an advisor.

For example, this screenshot shows the three advisors displayed on the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (Admiral shares) profile

Clicking on one of the advisors goes to an advisor profile page where there's a contact form. The page also includes a list of the funds the advisors uses.

That’s different and so interesting. It closes a loop in a way that hasn't been done before.

Comparisons of fund company Websites to other product manufacturers’ sites have never quite held up because there’s been something missing: Where and how to buy the product. Every other manufacturer offers product availability information for its retail visitors.

Sure, some old-school firms still conclude all content with the suggestion that investors talk to their financial advisor. But this feature goes much further: Like a fund? Here’s who sells it. 

Unlike most of the data on the pages, Advisors Using This Fund information will not be extracted from BrightScope’s database, it will be self-reported by advisors registered in the system and the names displayed in what looks like alphabetical order.

My guess? Adoption will be spotty unless BrightScope finds a way to share success stories (leads) with advisors.

The display of wholesaler information

According to the blog post, registered advisor users will automatically see the wholesaler for the fund they are viewing, and they can email the wholesaler directly through the fund pages.

There’s even more information on that in this MFWire post including a surprising quote from Ryan Alfred, BrightScope co-founder, president and chief operating officer, that “we want to make it easier for advisors to connect with wholesalers.”
Surely, that’s something on which asset managers and BrightScope agree—but who knew that it needed to be made easier?!

BrightScope plans to build public-facing wholesaler pages based on whatever can be found in SEC and FINRA data.

Your firm is probably capable of distributing product data to every new data distribution partner that emerges. But this BrightScope feature raises a question about the readiness of your wholesaler contact data and your ability to take advantage of visibility opportunities on BrightScope and other third-party sites in the future. 

If you haven’t already (and my impression is that many firms have not), I’d get your wholesaler information into a database. Clean it up, make sure the go-forward maintenance responsibility is assigned and prep it for distribution to augment whatever files others can pull from the regulators' data feeds. 

Another intriguing vision worth learning more about: “FAs [financial advisors] will see data and be able to tie in articles they [wholesalers] write on, say, a specific fund or firm, to be seen by investors.” To date to my knowledge, wholesalers are writing few if any articles and likely none to be seen by investors, but we shall see where that goes.

Ad-targeting capabilities

Ad targeting is mentioned in the MFWire post but not in the BrightScope post. Already a site with some advertising on it, BrightScope plans to leverage its advantage of running a platform of registered users by offering the capability to target specific users as well as viewers of specific pages.

Insights Into Social Financial Literacy

Early in the week, I saw a few mentions of an infographic presenting the highlights of a Transamerica study of social financial literacy.

The infographic embedded on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog presented only the results of LinkedIn users’ (oh, LinkedIn, there you go again, being all LinkedIn-y). Later, I found a Transamerica SlideShare deck dated June 5 presenting the overall results, although not the same kind of data highlighted in the LinkedIn deck.

The first screenshot below is from the overall deck. What I found most interesting: Of all the social networks, Reddit and Twitter users are most likely to pay to meet with a financial advisor. 

This second image below is a combination of two datapoints from the LinkedIn deck. As you can see, eight out of 10 LinkedIn users say they won't pay to meet with an advisor, although four out of 10 say they have met with an advisor. Two-thirds of LinkedIn users say it's unlikely they will pay to meet with an advisor. Oh my.

I made an effort to find someone at Transamerica who can provide a narrative on the results but no luck so far. June 19 update: Evidently, I've jumped the gun on this. Transamerica has reached out and said they're about two weeks away from giving this work the formal reveal it deserves. Watch this space—assuming there's more to share, I'll write another post.

Kudos to all of you who prepare infographics to present survey results. Just be sure to include the basics about the survey on the infographic so it can stand on its own. Without knowing the total number of responses, the methodology etc., it’s hard to know what to make of these somewhat alarming findings. The overall deck is embedded below. 

Can Social Finance Work?

Executing in financial services can be tricky, nobody needs to tell you that. But you might be interested in following a discussion that’s happening this week about whether social finance can work.

If it can, of course, your job is headed for change. (Last month, 77% of surveyed financial services marketing executives told the 2015 Makovsky Wall Street Reputation Study that they are concerned about losing customers to alternative providers.)

I had mixed reactions to Tuesday’s TechCrunch blog post, “Why Has ‘Social’ Failed In Fintech?” I thought it had value as a round-up, if pessimistic, and the comments showed an encouraging level of interest in the topic.

But a few points in the post didn’t sound right. Example: The statement that “a recent analysis of Facebook Ads by Salesforce.com shows finance ads to have one of the lowest click-through rates at 0.2 percent.” The work is from 2013, and while CTRs on finance ads were not the best, they also were not the worst performers.

Ultimately, I decided against sending a tweet about the post but it continued to weigh on my mind.

Then Howard Lindzon, StockTwits founder and the real deal in fintech, published a response that disagreed with the TechCrunch blogger’s premise. Social has not failed in Fintech, Lindzon wrote in “What Is Taking Social Finance So Long?” It is underway.

However, Lindzon wrote, “The author fails to point out that social finance has been guarded by antiquated rules of FINRA and the SEC, and no other industry that has tried to become more social has faced more regulatory and incumbent pushback.”

This cheered me and I thought it would you, too. Take hearteven the would-be disruptors find your environment challenging. And, also like you, they’re not giving up.

Just 5 Sites Command Almost Half Of All Finance Keyword Search Rankings

May I just say how much I love a free online tool?

The latest object of my affections is Ayima Pulse, which is a visualization of Google search rankings on more than 50,000 non-branded keywords. It offers “share of voice” leaderboards on the top Websites in 10 verticals, including Finance. (Insurance gets its own leaderboard, which is a refreshing departure from tools that track finance and insurance under one big ole financial services bucket.)

You’ll want to go and check it out yourself, but here’s what I’ve gleaned after spending some time on the site.

Search Ranking Volatility

Ayima provides a look at daily ranking changes over the last 30 days. According to the latest data, Finance search rankings are not volatile.

This has particular relevance now. We are just past the April 21 start of the rollout of "mobilegeddon," when Google said it would change its search algorithms to remove non-mobile-friendly sites from searches conducted on mobile devices. The expectation was that rankings would be significantly re-sorted as some sites would drop, the result of a Google penalty.

However, the Ayima data suggests that it was a non-event for Finance search leaders, judging both from the flatness of the volatility graphs and from a comparison of the leaders on desktop and mobile search. This looks to be the case, incidentally, for all the verticals except Gambling.

Finance Search Ranking Volatility.png

Search Leaders

What Ayima calls "Visibility (share of voice)" is calculated from the search volume, ranking and estimated clickthrough rate (CTR) of all sector keywords, converted into an overall percentage. Arrows indicate site movement within the leaderboard from the previous day.

Finance Search Ranking Leaders.png

To the right are the top 10 Websites ranking for Finance keywords. I've been watching this daily updated ranking for several days, by the way, and CNN and Yahoo frequently trade places between #1 and #2.

No investment product providers have broken into the top 10. Just two investment company brands—Fidelity at #34 and Schwab at #61—are on the larger list of 100 sites that Ayima makes available. Each site has less than 1% of share of voice. Related: Morningstar.com ranks #31.

Below is a look at how Fidelity and Schwab search visibility on mobile devices has fluctuated over the last 30 days. Fidelity has been more up and down, but both are labeled as mobile-friendly by Google and neither appears to have suffered from the algorithm change.

Schwab Fidelity Search Rankings.png

Search Concentration

The top five Finance Websites command 48%, or almost half, of the top finance keyword search rankings. That leaves every other finance site to slug it out for the other top keywords.

This is second only to the Jobs vertical—the top five Jobs sites snag 64% of their keyword rankings. There’s the least concentration in Education, where the top five leaders in that vertical attract have just 19% of all organic search rankings.  

Finance Desktop Search Ranking Concentration.png
Finance Mobile Search Ranking Concentration.png

Fear Of Missing Out?

So, what's to be made of the fact that mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) firms are nowhere to be found on the list of the top 100?

Buck up there, SEO-aware and socially-savvy asset management marketer, it's not a certainty that your sites are missing out. This is not necessarily a reflection of investment companies’ search performance because there are at least two pieces of information we don’t have:

  • We don’t know what the top 50,000+ Finance keywords are (an email I sent to Ayima has yet to be answered). In its April 20 introduction to Pulse, Ayima explained that “at midnight each day, we take Google’s top 100 organic search results for the most popular non-branded keywords relevant to our top 10 industries and add them to our database.” For a general idea of the top 1,000-ish Finance keywords, of course, you can always consult the Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
  • We don’t know what individual firms are seeking to rank for. Your keywords are probably long-tail. But...in an array of 50,000 keywords, there are likely to be words you want.

If you’re feeling competitive, I wouldn’t look at the top of the list where it can be no surprise that the media sites dominate. I’d look toward the bottom of the list. What do Visa’s PracticalMoneySkills.com (#94) and the American Finance Association Journal of Finance site (#62) do that you don’t? Should OurFreakingBudget.com (#83) outrank your site? Hmm, who knew that Pinterest.com (#27) was ranking for finance keywords?

On the topic of being anti-competitive, let’s take a moment to consider Google.com’s #3 ranking. Finance keyword searchers use Google, only to be taken by Google search engine rankings to a Google property (Google Finance or even just an inline result—see this post) almost 10% of the time? Interesting. 

If you spend your days thinking about how to effectively use Search to draw people to your business online, the visibility and volatility data provided by Ayima is all pretty interesting. It's another valuable tool to add to the digital marketing toolbox.

Are Fund Companies Becoming Invisible To Investors?

What if fund companies have been going about this all wrong?

What if the decision to focus on distribution as opposed to end-users has been a mistake?

What if years of business-to-business brand-building should have been directed at building a consumer brand?

What’s the future for product manufacturers whose users don’t know their names?

These are a few questions raised by research released Monday by Hearts & Wallets, a financial research platform for consumer savings and investing insights working with its database of 5,500 U.S. households augmented by focus group work.

“In a grave strategic error, investment product managers have allowed their offerings to become commoditized,” Laura Varas, Hearts & Wallets partner and co-founder, said.

Hearts And Wallets Product Awareness.png

Varas gets to this conclusion by pointing to data that shows a decline in product awareness across all lifestages. At the same time, awareness of asset allocation—something distributors provide—is increasing.

In 2010, 76% of U.S. households knew what investment products they owned.This year, 66% do—a 10 percentage point drop in five years.

The study Product Trends: Ownership, Allocations & Competitive Metrics, whichdetails product ownership trends and opportunities within all lifestage, wealth and age segments, finds that only 54% of the Mass Market could say what types of investment products—mutual funds, ETFs, individual bonds etc.—they own. That’s down 14 points from 68% in 2010.

“This trend is yet another sign of how product manager attentiveness to distributor needs, while ignoring consumers, has allowed retail financial distributors to gain the upper hand in satisfying the needs of the ultimate decision-makers–consumers,” says the press release headlined “Wake-Up Call for Investment Product Managers.”

Oh and also, the firm adds, “the loss of power among manufacturers is exacerbated by the white labeling trend in the defined contribution space. Investment menus are shifting from manager-branded portfolios to generically named options in which money management firms are virtually hidden from participants.”

Meanwhile, Distribution Awareness Is High

“We believe it behooves major investment companies for consumers to be aware whether or not they are shareholders, even if the products were selected by an advisor,” said Hearts & Wallets.

The firm measures this with a Shareholder Awareness score.Vanguard and Fidelity have the most aware shareholders—two-thirds of all shareholders are certain that they are those firms' shareholders. Among purely third-party distributed funds, American Funds leads with a 50% awareness score followed by BlackRock, which has built its score up to 47% from 41% in 2011.

Hearts & Wallets Toothpaste.png

By contrast, 90% of consumers nationally can answer questions about at least one “store”—which is how Hearts & Wallets refers to retail and defined contribution providers that work directly with investors. Just as a Cuisinart blender is available from Bloomingdale's, an American Funds fund might be available from an Edward Jones store or a BlackRock product from the Fidelity store, it explains to focus groups.

The focus group discussions yielded additional troubling insights.

"Participants said they once had expectations for product, but no longer did. And they said they felt most products are the same; products are not perceived as adding as much value as stores," the firm reports.

Even for a third-party distributed fund company, an “extreme degree of disconnection with the consumer” has many disadvantages, according to this explanation from Hearts & Wallets:

  • It puts the product managers entirely at the mercy of the “store.”
  • It deprives the consumer of knowing that the manager cares about them; many, if not all, of the managers care deeply about their shareholders.
  • It deprives product managers of the opportunity to engage with people who are aware of, and presumably interested in, their brand.

Making The Invisible Visible

IntelInside.jpg

On the flipside, marketers could no doubt list several arguments in favor of having a strong connection with users of their products.

Think of the legendary "Intel Inside" branding campaign that dates back more than 20 years. Its success in promoting the importance of a branded semiconductor chip (a commodity if there ever was one) in other manufacturers' computers powerfully drove sales and built brand loyalty.

Intel Inside inspired multiple subsequent “ingredient branding" efforts—what marketing professor Philip Kotler referred to as “making the invisible visible.”

You and your firm may want to review the Hearts & Wallets data. See whether it piques your curiosity about the level of your shareholder/investor awareness and its potential impact on your prospects for growth. The research prompted the following random thoughts from me this week.

The role of the relationship. As fascinating as I find the work and the conclusions, Hearts & Wallets' comparison of retail investment product distribution to consumer products and stores isn’t apples to apples. Toothpaste isn’t sold by anyone who seeks to have a relationship with the buyer. There’s a difference between the context of a consumer product transaction and an investment product selected for an outcome-oriented investment portfolio.

That said, I'm reacting to what I’ve seen that the firm has shared publicly. There’s more in the full study, which also includes “insight into innovative product solutions to help product manufacturers regain some balance with distributors.”

Content requires distribution, too. Embedded in asset managers’ reliance on others for product distribution is a reliance on others for content distribution. Every brand needs to distribute their content but investment brands especially so.

As I’ve commented on previously, mutual fund and ETF sites are product manufacturers’ sites. Their full product specs include information that other sites won’t. But, most product-related traffic goes to distributors’ and others’ domains.

It's just a consequence of today’s business model that when using thought leadership and other content to raise awareness and to demonstrate relevance, asset managers rely on others’ platforms to reach others’ audiences. As with product distribution, this makes firms dependent, can be costly and complicated, and subordinates the fund company brand.

A two-track approach. Let’s suppose that that you find a slide in your retail investor awareness and your firm is determined to reverse it. The effort would take at least two tracks: reaching current investors and reaching the public in general.

Together, omnibus accounts and overall intermediary pushback (i.e., who’s relationship is this, anyway?) present practical challenges to the prospect of elevating the brand to current investors. The greater opportunity will be with whatever marketing, media, public and community relations can accomplish.

Hearts & Wallets’ release recalled the 1990s when “high product awareness prompted consumers to seek out products like the Magellan Fund ofFidelity Investments, which was once the world’s best-known mutual fund.” That was the fund managed by iconic manager Peter Lynch.

For 2015—a disruptive time for every piece of retail investing from the products to the distributors/advisors to the users themselves—effective awareness-building would need to go beyond the promotion of a star manager or two.

Budget-busting. Any strategic decision to reach out to the retail investor would be an expensive one across the board. Brand and advertising is already the largest percentage of asset management marketing budgets, according to SwanDog Strategic Marketing benchmarking work. But most firms today focus on media that helps them reach 300,000 financial advisors. Add retail investor-focused ad buys, inbound marketing, analytics, etc. and you are talking big money.

An ETF advantage? This data would seem to temper what we can expect from mutual fund firms that are getting into the exchange-traded fund (ETF) business. Product awareness is a prerequisite to brand loyalty or brand affinity. If awareness is low, the fund company new to marketing ETFs, whether to advisor-assisted or self-directed investors, may be diversifying product lines with less of an advantage than it realizes.  

A shift in the power dynamic. Who in the typical intermediary-focused organization best knows the consumer? The people who answer shareholder inquiries and (wait for it) those who've recently become involved with the listening and responding responsibilities of social media. A serious commitment to pay attention to consumers would require the building out of resources, conceivably shrinking—even if just a bit—the influence of the wholesale sales organization.

Regarding social media, specifically: Given access to platforms with millions of consumers, is it a miscalculation for firms to instinctively want to fence off an account or area with content directed at advisors? I'm beginning to wonder.

Your thoughts?