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We recently sat down with Len Costa, the partner overseeing content strategy and the digital and social media practice at RooneyPartners. Len’s team designs strategies that help organizations connect with key constituencies, optimize their brand identities, and engage and activate clients, prospects, and the public.

We were interested in his take on the use of social media for financial services companies, particularly those in the B2B space. How is the social media landscape changing the industry, and what can companies do to optimize their involvement and success?

Q. Set the scene for us: What forces are at work in the world of branding and social media for financial services firms?

I think there are three major trends shaping financial services, social media, and branding.

The first is that technology is reshaping — and disrupting — the financial services industry. One of the things that has taken the industry by surprise is the rise of fintech (financial technology) start-ups that don’t have the legacy burdens of more traditional financial services organizations.

The second major trend has been an issue since the financial crisis in 2008 — overall low levels of consumer trust in financial services organizations, particularly traditional financial services organizations, a legacy that is concerning at a time when the industry is being disrupted. Simply put, there’s an opening for newcomers to the industry to position themselves as trustworthy and transparent.

A third interesting trend that’s been in play for some time now is the evolving expectations about the kinds of brands people want to do business with. People want to learn about a brand and engage with it through digital media in ways that really weren’t possible before. I think this is now true of B2B buyers, not just B2C consumers. There’s an increasing expectation that you should be able to engage with the brands you do business with. And there is an expectation that brands will respond and engage as well.

Q. Given that landscape, what’s the opportunity for financial services brands?

As content marketing and content sharing are enabled through social media and other digital channels, there’s an opportunity for brands to demonstrate higher levels of transparency, and to develop trust with consumers by creating and sharing valuable content — not just making the hard sell. If you can create interesting and useful content, you can build an audience. When you build an audience, you can improve the opportunity to market and convert sales.

Q. And this is the case for B2B financial services brands as well as B2C ones?

Social networks have improved the tools available to B2B financial services marketers to build brand awareness, to move people through the customer journey and sales funnel. You can build lead-generation programs, remarket and retarget in powerful ways. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter — all three of the major social networks offer pixel targeting, so you can build custom audiences and learn more about their behavior than ever before. For example, you can identify and remarket to people who downloaded a particular piece of content, or those who visited a web page or left their email address. And then, ultimately, you can build lookalike audiences and market to people who are similar to those who engaged with your brand in a particular way. In B2B, in particular, we’re seeing lots of innovation around customer experience.

Q. What are the most important considerations when thinking about how to launch a social media presence or execute a particular social media strategy?

At the heart of any social media strategy is defining the audience that you’re seeking to reach and what action you want them to take. Then, there are a number of variables that are really important to help you understand where and how you can reach them.

First, we look at where an audience is spending time. Is it Facebook? Twitter? Just because it’s a B2B audience doesn’t mean you’re limited to LinkedIn. We have run a number of successful B2B campaigns on Facebook, leveraging industry and job title targeting to find our audience. But you have to put in the work and analysis to investigate where your audience is reachable and at what cost, whether that’s Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

A second crucial element is context — what is the social media conversation and content that is of interest to the audience you’re seeking to reach? The magic happens when your content and your message are shaped to fit the expectations and the preferences of the audiences that you want to reach, rather than looking like you’re coming out of nowhere. The promise of social media is that it’s not disruptive advertising. But if you’re not shaping your social media messaging properly, it can still feel disruptive and people will scroll right by your content.

The third foundational element is to conduct competitive benchmarking. What are other organizations in your industry vertical doing to drive brand engagement? What tactics are they employing? What content are they focusing on? Understanding all this can help you identify the white space, so that you’re not becoming a “me-too” brand, but instead building a unique proposition for your customers.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges in building a social media strategy?

The first is that social media has rapidly become a visual medium, and a lot of organizations are simply not equipped with the talent to develop visual content. Large financial institutions might be really great at producing a 45-page white paper, or a substantive research report, but they don’t necessarily know how to convert that valuable content asset into derivative and micro-content assets that are suitable for distribution through social media. This is absolutely crucial to driving engagement.

A second challenge, especially for organizations that have not already built up sizeable social media audiences, is the recognition that effective social media requires paid social media activities. There’s just less organic reach available to brands these days. So without the benefit of a paid strategy, it’s really difficult to move the needle, build reach and engagement at scale, and make progress toward a larger objective, whether it’s brand awareness or lead conversion. Organizations that have not previously invested in social media don’t always understand that they need a paid media component to deliver results rapidly, and they need to be prepared to allocate the required resources. The great thing about paid social media is that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune — especially when compared to more traditional forms of advertising.

Lastly, social media should never be thought of as a standalone “strategy.” Social media, instead, is a channel — and it should be thought of as part of a broader set of channels and tactics that are activated to deliver against specific business objectives.

Q. How could B2B financial service organizations be using social media differently?

One overlooked opportunity we see is social media analytics. There’s so much real-time intelligence that’s available. Take Twitter, which is a real-time, public, 24/7 social network with no algorithmic filter parsing the content flow, so everything is accessible to anyone with the right tools and expertise. It’s an amazing data laboratory that’s just sitting there for any organization to use — whether they are on Twitter or not. Does your firm want to launch a new fund and market to financial advisors? Do you want to know what retail investors think about active management versus passive management? Are you trying to market a new type of insurance product? There’s valuable data available in social media that can be analyzed to inform both social strategy and business strategy.

I’m excited about the possibilities — and challenges — of social media marketing. Even though it’s relatively new territory for many B2B financial services firms, the opportunity is substantial and, if executed correctly, the ROI is compelling.

Interested in connecting with Len? Reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Hannah FoltzAbout the author
Hannah Foltz is a Senior Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. When she isn’t stuck on the L train, she is diving into research and helping develop positioning and messaging platforms for B2B companies.