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A New Lighthouse Beckons The Financial Services Social Media Weary

11/27/2013 10:55 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014
  • April Rudin Wealth Marketing Strategies, The Rudin Group

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One of the tasks I least enjoy is attending financial services social media conferences. How odd, you might ask? Isn't that her job? Yes, but the reason I have such a dislike for these events is because THE WRONG PEOPLE ARE IN ATTENDANCE. They're usually gatherings for social media zealots preaching to a choir of more social media zealots. "Compliance won't let us do what we want," they whine, as heads nod in unison. Where are C-suite executives who need to be educated? Are they trying to ride out this social media storm by trying to maintain the status quo at their firms and not risk becoming change agents? I say, YES. Maybe it's time for them to emerge from the woodwork.

What is really accomplished by a social media event held in isolation? It further compartmentalizes and isolates both social media and compliance staff. They both retreat to their respective corners and sulk. They do not want to become "Facebook friends." Social media marketing and compliance people are natural enemies: one side is fluid, the other fixed. They are NOT equal corporate citizens. Social is the new kid on the block and is considered suspect. The potential SEC and FINRA gravitas of fines, citations and other penalties are enough to make anyone delete a tweet!

Furthermore, the social media department is a viewed as temporary on the corporate landscape. It's held out like an unwanted stepchild within the corporate marketing department in a place of isolation and uncertainty--not taken seriously. This is especially true in some financial services firms. In many larger firms, the social media team staff are considered outliers by both middle and senior management. Consequently, there is a lack of internal adoption and buy-in. Some of the reluctance is justified, but other reasons are convenient excuses to keep these folks at bay. Its seems as if Wall St is locked in a "push/pull" struggle between risk and reward. The risk is obvious: fines, penalties and disciplinary action. The reward? A nebulous tweet at best, like the obvious but prolific, "It's almost tax time!" Dominance over the social media process by financial services compliance has disallowed most of what consumer products companies and other marketers take for granted as standard, every day social. The amount of oversight needed in financial services removes most of the spontaneity of this viral medium. That allows little room for any efficacy on these rich platforms for most financial services/big banks/ Wall St firms. To be sure, even the most senior of teams of global brands/marketing--not to mention major news organizations--are significantly challenged by the "compliance vs. social" battle.

So what's the fix? I would argue starting with a marketing plan that truly integrates the social media component. That means incorporating elements of social within a corporation's core promotional efforts and including social content from important voices, starting with senior executives and moving down from there. Unless this happens, the "social media silo" is a lonely place to be, a place where social media staff will continue to struggle to find ways to make the user experience more authentic and transparent without operating in real-time. This scenario, however, is risky as well, as JPMorgan just learned in what might become a case study about what NOT to do on a social media site. Instead of truly understanding the risk/reward and the power of the Twitter platform, they tweeted a teaser aimed at college students to #ASKJPM questions about careers. As Twitter is an open platform, this was akin to holding a press conference and inviting The Onion, Mad Magazine, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to a no-holds-barred open forum about any topic relating to JPMorgan. The questions they received were not the questions they expected. The tone ranged from satirical to inflammatory, with questions spanning mortgage settlement practices, Libor rigging accusations, CEO Jamie Dimon's ongoing troubles and more. What began as a good idea was hijacked by the public, ending poorly in cancellation. Given the viral communication crisis at hand, JPMorgan handled the cancellation of the event with integrity. They tweeted: "#ASKJPM has been cancelled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board." While the team running this feed must have been significantly stressed, these tweets were even a bit cheeky! Kudos to @JPMOrgan for maintaining their composure.

The truth is that for all of us there is much to learn about how to create a controlled, social media strategy. Imagine how different the outcome would have been if JPMorgan had posed questions via email but tweeted out the questions/answers together. I am afraid that social media and financial services took many giant steps backwards after this fiasco with a #bashtag. Financial services brands are significantly challenged by their compliance and legal department but must not forget the key to effective social media communication--being transparent and authentic.

How can the social media weary in financial services remain hopeful? By continuing efforts to achieve wins for the industry that will benefit all of us. What else can we, the social media weary, do to keep going against significant odds? In the near term, I will take out my smart phone and look at a photo I took a couple weeks back of an image that made me literally stop in my tracks. It was so striking that I thought it was a mirage: Like a lighthouse, it beckoned to me. I stood in amazement and looked up at this column and smiled at the emblematic logos of the social sites that I know so well. Where was this iconic "lighthouse" located? In a very unlikely place: the lobby of Goldman Sachs World Headquarters-200 West Street in New York City!

I ran up to it and touched it! It was indeed real. Like a flag in the sand, Goldman has marked a place for itself in socialized marketing. I can't help but be buoyed by this new icon and feel the promise and hope that compliance and marketing will meet on some common ground, become Facebook friends and move into the future together-instead of remaining at odds with each other.

This will happen when marketing visionaries who can embrace socialization of existing platforms and create new vistas meet up with compliance/legal who see the light.

Financial services brands are significantly challenged by their compliance and legal department but must not forget the key to effective social media communication--being transparent and authentic.