Financial services companies have been slower than their brethren in other industries to embrace social media, but a recent report by Boston-based Dalbar suggests that investment firms may finally be joining the Facebook-enthused Twitterati. In May the independent research firm released its first-ever ranking of social media engagement by financial services firms (awarding them up to five stars). The winners: Ameriprise Financial, John Hancock Financial Services, New York Life Insurance Co. and Prudential Financial.

What does it take to be a top-ranked financial services firm? It used to be enough to attract mega-assets while offering a great lineup of products and excellent customer service. Those qualities are still important, but the bar has been raised. As Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have made increasingly deeper inroads into the communications landscape, fund companies have entered a new arena in which to compete with their peers.

“Everyone has skin in the game,” explains Kathleen Whalen, a principal of Dalbar, which has been vetting investment and insurance companies, financial professionals and retirement plan providers since 1976. “This is a huge part of how people communicate these days.”

Dalbar started ranking investment companies in the 1990s on their web site features and functionality, and it views social media prowess as a natural extension. To ferret out the savviest social media players, the firm undertook an in-depth exploration of 60 companies, judging them on two criteria: “follower engagement” (the average percentage of total followers that liked, commented upon or shared) and “intentionally engaging posts” (the percentage of posts meant to initiate engagement).

The winners’ successes provide a road map for other firms to follow, that is, if they want to reach an audience that uses social media.

“We’re a relationship business, not just a transactional business,” says Jon Pauley, who oversees a small team as head of digital strategy and marketing at Ameriprise Financial. “If our prospective clients are on Facebook, that’s where we need to have the conversation.”

Minneapolis-based Ameriprise, with $783 billion in assets under management, was the only investment firm to achieve a five-star rating on its Facebook page. “Those posts that were meant to engage and actually did engage came together to form a superstar of social engagement,” according to the Dalbar report.

John Hancock and New York Life shared top honors for their LinkedIn presences, though each firm garnered only two stars. Boston-based John Hancock was lauded for its skill at soliciting comments from its followers “while still maintaining the professional attitude expected on LinkedIn.” New York Life was given credit for applying “the ideas behind their high engagement posts on other social networks” to LinkedIn.