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Martin Bamford: Advisers should take social media more seriously

Martin BamfordMy memories of trips to Wetherspoons are, at best, hazy. In most cases this is due to the passage of time rather than the consumption of alcohol, with the notable exception of that one evening with the vodka and Red Bull.

As someone who became teetotal about 15 years ago, the lure of a beer and burger deal is not usually going to get me through the door. It was therefore a bit of a nostalgia nudge to read the JD Wetherspoon pub chain is quitting social media.

Naturally, it used Twitter to announce the bizarre decision to its 44,000 followers, blaming bad publicity surrounding social media and our collective unhealthy obsession with it.

It is fair to say some corners of social media have been through the mangle in recent weeks. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and use of personal data from Facebook was a wake-up call for many. But it has never been more important for businesses, including financial planners, to have a good presence on such platforms.

We get around a third of our new client enquiries from a combination of our website, online directories and social media profiles, which demonstrates the importance of being visible and readily available on the web.

Looking outside of the world of financial planning (although perhaps not to national pub chains) and our typical daily behaviour highlights just how important business use of social media has become.

Imagine for a moment you want to refer someone to a friend. You are likely to refer someone who is easy to refer. For a growing number of consumers, that means being able to make the referral using social media. Personally, if I am able to tell someone the Twitter handle or Facebook page of a trusted supplier, then that is how I am going to refer them. If they make it difficult to do this, by having no social media presence or one that is unappealing to share due to its inactivity, then that referral is unlikely to happen.

Of course, social media is not only about referrals; it is also our first port of call to make a complaint. I have seen a number of social media accounts which seem to have been established for the sole purpose of moaning about poor customer service. And the work of many corporate Twitter accounts (BT and South West Trains both come to mind) give the impression they spend a lot of their time each day fielding customer complaints.

There is a danger we start to believe that social media is somehow not real life. Leaving aside the apparent presence of bots controlled by Russia, it serves us well to remember there is a real person behind every tweet.

We might witness a seemingly high proportion of unpleasant behaviour online, with keyboard warriors emboldened by their anonymity, but we choose who we follow on Twitter and to whom we pay attention. That does not remove the fact that, when it comes to starting and cementing personal and business relationships, the use of social media plays an important role.

It is, of course, fine to take the lead from Wetherspoons and nix the use of social media from your marketing and communications, especially if flouncing off results in you getting some national press coverage. But the world has changed since the days when a business could be built and sustained on the occasional pub lunch with a local solicitor and a handful of client referrals each year.

Clients today expect a variety of ways to stay in touch, become better educated and engage with their financial planner.

Martin Bamford is managing director of Informed Choice

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