FPA NexGen Goes to Anaheim

Last weekend I took a quick trip down to Anaheim for FPA’s NexGen Community of Interest annual conference. Previous conferences had been stand alone, but this year the NexGen conference was lumped in with the FPA national conference (which started the following day at the Anaheim Convention Center). Here are some of my highlights:

Middle Market Session
Boulevard R participated in a panel discussion moderated by Michael Kitces on different models for serving the Middle Market. There were two advisors on the panel as well: JJ Sessions and Patrick Dougherty. It was interesting to hear how it’s still a big challenge to serve the Middle Market outside of an hourly model (which is very hard to do successfully).

The session had great audience participation, particularly from Mary Bell and Bonnie Hughes. We talked about how software alone won’t solve consumers’ problems and that having a person behind any technology is critical. It also is important to remember that people typically want to be told what to do (a lesson from behavioral economics which is reinforced by the experience of technology companies such as Financial Engines) and while cash flow sites like Mint.com are helpful, they’re a far cry from financial planning.

Another aspect that was touched on was the constant need for advisors to be out in the community marketing their services. Without steady engagement and a flow of new prospects, advisors can’t have anywhere near a profitable business serving the Middle Market (or any other type of practice for that matter). After the session was over I spent some time bringing one of our busier AMP advisors up to speed on the new email marketing service. The value proposition I laid out for her is really simple and she got it right away:

1. Current marketing efforts (brown bag small/medium company presentations, etc.)
2. Follow up with an email campaign offering the Starter Roadmap
3. Prospects who are interested click on the activation link the email (prospect qualifies themselves)
4. Advisor can view their information (advisor qualifies prospect)
5. Advisor finds new clients
6. Repeat

What the World Really Thinks of Your Profession
Ron Lieber, who one former colleague from Fi-Life described as the big kahuna of personal finance writers (Ron now writes for the NY Times) led an interesting session where he basically just flashed quotes from people he interviewed about the perceived value of financial planners. After a few minutes it became clear that planners have a major marketing/positioning problem.

The public doesn’t get “planning” and thinks that planners are more or less the same as investment advisors at wirehouses (not to be trusted). The quotes ranged from “they’ll steal you blind” to “the dartboard always wins (stockpicking is random at best)” to “I don’t need to pay someone to lose money for me.” The thrust of the comments highlighted the perception that for the general public, financial planners are synonymous with asset managers.

It made me think about something I heard at the NexGen Circle Gathering the night before where someone said that the financial planning community’s interests are diametrically opposed to those of financial services companies. If the financial planning community is going to get noticed, they need to position hard against financial services (right now they’re just getting lumped in with them). This is made more challenging for FPA, since a major source of revenue is based on sponsorships from these same financial services companies. Also, if FPA narrowly defines their membership (like NAPFA has), then they undercut their ability to grow and have an impact. Alienation vs. Irrelevance.

Under the Trees
I attended the lunchtime discussion on marketing and business development which included close to 2/3rds of all NexGeners (there were two other discussion groups, but this topic had by far the largest draw). Before we got started, I got to chat with Ron Lieber who had edited a story that Fi-Life had published on Boulevard R back in the early days. Ron is a really nice guy and very thoughtful about including other people in a conversation.

Some of the interesting take-aways from the discussion were:

* Niche yourself by working with a select group (anesthesiologists) and then become an expert on their issues and create a study group with other professionals who serve your niche.

* Build a non-client advisory team with individuals who have outside expertise and will help you think through business issues twice a year. This could grow into a great source of referrals after a couple of years and benefits your advisors as well, since they can network amongst themselves.

* Create a plan and work the plan. Marketing traction doesn’t happen overnight and many advisors give up if the initial results aren’t stellar. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I’m glad that I had the chance to attend this years NexGen conference. It’s the one chance I have during the year to connect with many of the planners who have been big contributors and supporters of Boulevard R’s efforts to bring independent educational content out into the world.

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Setting AMP Free

Sometime soon we’re going to lead a new release of the Advisor-Branded Marketing Platform (AMP) out of the barn and set it free. That’s right, AMP will be available for free.

No commitments. Free forever.

Part of our motivation for offering AMP for free is to make it more widely available, while delivering more value with a new feature set that is so compelling that some advisors will want to upgrade from free to a premium version (now a more affordable $99/month instead of $295/month) in order to automate their prospect qualification process. Our bet is that advisors will easily be able to achieve ROI with AMP by avoiding just one prospect meeting each month (while still delivering real value to the prospects they can’t take on with the branded Starter Roadmap).

What we’ve focused on in this new release is email marketing. We found that email is a powerful way to make use of the AMP functionality (qualifying prospects, helping people with financial education and building a local brand). So in this new release, we’ve made professional grade email marketing a core offering.

We recently did a test with an advisor’s 400+ prospect list and found that it led to approximately a 10% completion rate. That is, out of the all the prospects we emailed on her behalf, she generated over 40 Starter Roadmaps. For advisors, it’s an easy, efficient way to find out who is interested in your services and if they’re qualified to come on board as a client.

Part of the free service will be the ability to send a one time email campaign to a group of prospects. The premium service will allow much more extensive email marketing capabilities, as well as full access to the prospect data. Both versions will include detailed campaign reports.

The new AMP is looking forward to helping financial advisors have much more effective email marketing campaigns.

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5% is 100%

As many retirement advisors are keenly aware of, regulatory change seems to be coming to the 401(k) world.  Part of the reason that we’re paying attention to this space at Boulevard R, is because we’ll be rolling out a new product specificially for the retirement plan market in the coming weeks.

The new product is the Retirement Plan Compliance and Education Platform (Rce) and is designed to automate 404(c) compliance and deliver on-demand participant education to save advisors time and reduce their costs, while doing a better job of protecting plan sponsors from fiducairy liability and preparing participants for a secure retirement.

Last week I came accross an InvestmentNews article on the proposed 401(k) Fair Disclosure and Pension Security Act that stated, “independent advisers who would qualify under the rules account for just 5% of the total population of more than 200,000 retail advisers and registered representatives in the United States, according to estimates from The Tower Group Inc.”

If the 5% of advisors represent all the advisors who would meet the regulations and the remaining 95% of advisors will be forced to adopt new business practices the retirement plan market could get very interesting.

Now, it’s hard to tell if the conflicts of interest provision in the act will remain, particularly since it was already challenged by two democratic representatives in committee.  However, the committee chair, Rep. George Miller has close ties to the current administration and both see 401(k) plan reform as a major priority.

Stay tuned.  We’re planning on covering this in more detail as the legislation moves forward.

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What’s New- Profiles & Business Model

I think it’s fair to say that when we rolled out AMP, we over-promised what it could deliver right out of the gates.  In the three months since we launched the first profiles, we’ve learned several things from listening to consumers and advisors, as well as tracking the metrics.

Here are the key issues we identified:

  1. If an advisor already has a prospect’s contact information (a Known prospect), they should be able to pre-register them and then email a unique link that automatically logs the prospect in as soon as they click on it (of course the email would explain all that)
  2. Unknown prospects should be able to sign up without having to input so much information, while also getting more value right away by being able to access the Dashboard without having to first sign up
  3. It should be easier for prospects to contact advisors through the profile page
  4. The profile should tell a better story about “this cool new service created by really smart people (economists and financial planners) and used by institutions you can trust (Virginia Tech and Texas Tech)”
  5. Advisors should be able to list specific services they offer in order to further niche their practices and attract prospects

So in response, we decided to launch a new profile (you can check out a live version here and watch the video for advisors that describes the features of their new profile below).

As a results we just launched these major improvements to AMP:

  1. A new profile designed to tell a better marketing story to Unknown prospects, with a video, dynamic contact forms and a place for Unknown prospects to sign up next to an example of the Starter Roadmap.
  2. A time-saving new feature that pre-registers prospective clients through the Advisor Management Interface and emails them a unique link with a token that captures all their information as they enter it, so that advisors don’t have to spend as much time meeting with prospects, while also gathering very helpful data without having to do any of the work.
  3. A new system flow that takes prospects deeper into the educational platform and delivers more value by showing the Dashboard content, while also making it easier to sign up with just a name and email

So far, we’ve gotten very positive feedback from the advisors.  Though this is purely anecdotal, one advisor who is using AMP very effectively as an efficiency tool to screen prospective clients, received 3 unknown, qualified prospects in one week.

Additionally, we’re going to be rolling out a new business model in the next few weeks that will make AMP much more affordable and available.  Most importantly, it will be a big step forward in helping us deliver educational content to help people reach their financial goals.  Which is precisely what we set out to do in the first place.

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Best Marketing Idea in the Last Two Years

Jay Peroni, is one of Boulevard R’s most successful advisors, averaging one new client per month with our software. This is his answer to a question about the “best marketing idea he’s implemented in the last few years.”

We expected Jay might talk about some of his other successful marketing activities and plug Boulevard R later in the interview, but we’ll take it.

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A new profile for the “Fighting Gobblers”

Boulevard R started out with the mission to make independent financial advice accessible for all consumers.  During the course of trying to make this happen, we’ve realized a few things:

  1. Personal financial content works best when there is a real person on the other side of table.  A computer monitor will only get you so far.  If you’re really trying to solve problems or get personalized, in-depth financial advice, working with a person you trust is important.
  2. Independent financial advisors have always been our biggest boosters
  3. Of the independent financial advisors, younger advisors have been our most active evangelists

So we’re happy to announce that we’re helping to return the favor, particularly to the youngest financial advisors, since we are making the Advisor-Branded Marketing Platform (AMP) available as an educational tool for some of the top financial planning programs in the country.  We’re kicking this program off with the Fighting Gobblers (aka Hokies) of Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech

Last October we had a chance to demo AMP to Prof. Ruth Lytton of Virginia Tech at FPA Boston.  She was impressed with what we had created and in turn, we were impressed by her and VT’s financial planning program the more we learned about it.  This semester, Prof. Lytton is going to use AMP in her client communications course.

We’re excited not only at the opportunity to help educational institutions who are furthering the profession and training the next generation of financial advisors, but also the reach that AMP can have when you put it in the hands of a bunch of smart, enthusiastic students.

Check out VT’s new profile!
www.boulevardr.com/edu/VirginiaTech

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Bob Veres & “the future of planning”

For this month’s edition of Bob Veres’s monthly newsletter, Inside Information, he decided to profile Boulevard R’s Advisor-Branded Marketing Platform (AMP), even though we haven’t launched yet.  We’ll be doing that at the T3 conference in Dallas next week.

Michael Kitces was kind enough to introduce us and during the interview and subsequent communication, Bob asked great questions and really tried to understand how AMP works.  There really isn’t anything in the financial advisor space like AMP.  From what we can tell, there’s not even a category for advisor marketing software.  Particularly one that has the potential to effortlessly deliver so much value to prospects.

We were impressed by how much Bob was impressed.  Here’s a direct quote:

“This may well be a peek at the future of planning itself.”

Bob also really looked at this from a generational standpoint.  It’s true that Boulevard R has developed a lot of our content, as well as our planning approach by working with some of the top younger financial planners.  Bob took this to another level, though:

“I think I’m finally looking at the way the next generation of planners- a generation that is working productively but not totally comfortably withing the Baby Boom paradigm- will offer the planning service when they finally take the reins of the profession.”

Bob went on to say:

“Until NexGen gets firmly into the leadership saddle of the profession, Boulevard R looks like a nice way to cultivate future clients and offer help where it was uneconomical to do so before.”

Looking at how advice is delivered, which is how Boulevard R wants to impact financial planning so that more people can access independent advice by working with a fiduciary, Bob wrapped up with a forecast:

“But within the next ten years, whether with Boulevard R or some other program, I think you’ll start to see the planning relationship change to something that most of today’s practice owners would have trouble contemplating–a service that will be more democratic, efficient and interactive than it is today.

It’s not hard to see, in the Boulevard R screens, a future where the planner is freed up to offer advice, counsel and wisdom without the administrative chores that make today’s relationships so expensive.”

We’re looking forward to keeping Bob update as AMP rolls out.

If you want to explore a live demo of Boulevard R, including the interactive goals process, Roadmap Questionnaire, Sample Roadmap and online Dashboard, just click here or on the image below.

Explore a live demo

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Dave Drucker Scoops AMP

A couple of months ago, Dave Drucker contacted Boulevard R, since we were quoted in an InvestmentNews story about how younger planners feel a need to serve Middle Market consumers.  Over the course of the interview, I started talking about the new service we were rolling out for independent financial advisors and his curiosity was piqued.

We scheduled another interview so that I could explain in greater detail what we were building and how it could help advisors.  The real challenge was that at the time our site was still all about consumers, so it wasn’t easy to clearly demonstrate the model.

Fortunately, Dave is a very conscientious reporter and he sent me a draft for fact checking, which allowed me to the chance to more clearly explain how AMP works.  The result is a very well written article in Morningstar that covers the old model and then segues into what we’re doing now.  Since the article came out, we’ve received a number of inquires and sign ups.  We’ve also put up a video demonstrating just how the new Advisor-Branded Marketing Platform works (thanks to Aaron Coates).

We’re looking forward to launching AMP at the T3 conference in Dallas (which we found out about only after Dave did the story), where we’ll be able to demonstrate a much more full featured solution that what is described in the Morningstar article.

We’ll also be participating on Marie Swift’s panel discussing how to automate marketing efforts on Saturday morning, so we’re excited about that as well.

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Since the NY Times now knows…

When we first started talking about the idea that would grow into Boulevard R in June of 2005, we saw ourselves as a consumer facing site.  We recognized that the majority of Americans didn’t have access to affordable, independent advice and set out to fix that.

We’ve now come to the realization that we can’t do this alone.  We need to partner with others to help us realize our mission of delivering unbiased, actionable advice.  The answer was right under our noses: independent financial planners who act as fiduciaries and in the best interests of their clients.  Many independent planners and advisors recognize that their industry has a moral imperative to serve all Americans, but their business models typically either force them to serve only the wealthy or work on an hourly basis at $100-$250/hour, which still leaves a lot of folks without access to advice.

What I told the reporter from the NY Times who called this afternoon and what will be announced in a Morningstar article that comes out next Thursday is that Boulevard R is shifting business models.  We’re moving from B2C to B2B by providing independent planners and advisors with an Advisor Branded Marketing Platform that will be white-labeled for them.

Our goal is to help advisors bring in more prospects, especially since Americans are demanding more independent advice in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as be able to engage all those who are not yet qualified to become prospects and be able to serve them once they do reach the advisor’s minimum limit.

In essence, we want to help independents automate a lot of their marketing efforts through leveraging existing clients and prospects with online tools, as well as providing them ways to target prospects through online search, online advertising and collateral designed to attract consumers to their profile page.  What Boulevard R gets in return is to realize our mission of serving all Americans by having advisors and planners distribute what we’ve created.  Win-win.

Of course, all existing users will still be able to log into their Dashboard and get value from it as we continue to add content and evolve the platform.

So check back here next Thursday and you’ll see a new homepage and a much more detailed explanation of Boulevard R’s new direction.

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What’s happened to trust?

In an up-market almost anyone can make money on their investments, but if the last few weeks of market turmoil have proven anything, it’s that it is impossible to know what will happen next.

While these are certainly difficult times, we feel that independent, unbiased financial advice has never been more needed than it is today.  We even got a call yesterday from a local small business reporter asking about how many more people have been coming to Boulevard R.

A recent FPA/Ameriprise study conducted by Harris Interactive points out the value of financial planning.  What was particularly interesting to us, was that 84% of Americans with $50K and above don’t see the value in financial planning or don’t think that they can afford it.  Of the 9% of Americans who have received a comprehensive financial plan, they were overwhelmingly more confident about their future and their financial security when compared with those who don’t have a plan (though this was before the $700B bailout plan and the collapse of AIG and Wamu).

Anyone can help people invest their savings, but where can consumers go to get actionable financial advice that they can trust?  I think that trust is actually at the heart of the current financial crisis.  No one trusts what financial services companies are telling them.  One day they announce that they’re financially sound and the next day they blow up.

This is a resounding failure of leadership both from inside the financial services industry and the agencies who are tasked with oversight (though my guess is that many of the agencies have seen their regulatory powers stripped over time or have had less than pro-active leadership running them).  The financial services industry was already steadily losing consumer confidence (except for independent financial advisors) and after what’s happened in the last few months, that’s going to turn into a precipitous decline.

I’m certainly not an economics major, but I wonder why the federal government doesn’t take some of that $700 billion and send out an army of auditors to review all the accounting books of financial services companies and then publicize their findings so that we can restore some transparency and trust in the marketplace.

Part of what we’re trying to accomplish with Boulevard R is to restore some of the trust that’s been eroded by a lack of openness and advocacy on behalf of consumer’s best interests.   At our core, Boulevard R demonstrates that independent, unbiased financial advice which doesn’t have an ax to grind can help all Americans- not just the rich who have typically been the only ones who either can afford it or qualify for this kind of advice.

There is still a lot that Boulevard R can do to make the planning process more effective (some of it’s on our development plan and the rest we hoping to hear from you after Oct. 14th), but we feel that our solution goes much farther than anything we’ve seen and really helps consumers with some real expert guidance based on who they are and what’s important to them.

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