At Mercer Advisors, a Sign RIAs Are Taking Their Online Presence Seriously

The RIA is investing in digital marketing like few others in the industry.

(Illustration by RIA Intel)

(Illustration by RIA Intel)

RIA Intel launched almost a year ago but firsts are still happening. Last week, on behalf of an RIA, a digital marketing agency asked if the publication would hyperlink to the RIA’s website in a story that mentioned it — a story from September of last year.

“I think this would help your visitors to find Mercer Advisors and their services,” an employee at the agency wrote.

It’s hard to argue against her. But that’s not the primary reason the agency is sending cold emails seeking to lay virtual breadcrumbs between websites.

Backlinks, or inbound links, tell Google and other search engines that two websites are connected. They are, in some sense, a signal of approval used by search engines to calculate a website’s domain authority. The higher a website’s authority, the more search engines will show that website over others in search results, leading to more visitors (who might also be readers, shoppers, or potential clients of an RIA). Third-party ratings and reviews in ads, which the SEC has proposed allowing financial advisors to use, are also taken into consideration, among other things.

But tracking down every mention of a company online and getting other websites to link to it and improve a company’s visibility on the internet, a strategy called backlinking, is tedious and time consuming. To help it collect links, Mercer Advisors, the Denver-based RIA with more than $15.8 billion and 400 employees, hired Upgrow, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco.

“Effective digital strategy really takes a lot of time. That’s why we hired a digital agency. It’s such a specialized skill that we didn’t want to bring it in-house,” Karen Lee, chief marketing and strategy officer at Mercer Advisors told RIA Intel.

Before she joined Mercer, in February of 2018, Lee held marketing and strategy roles at Wells Fargo’s wealth management and community banking divisions. Although Upgrow is handling the RIA’s search engine optimization (SEO), and managing Mercer’s ads on search engines, Lee’s “small and mighty” team of four handles many tasks themselves, too.

The team includes an artist, a specialist focused on sales and Mercer’s mergers and acquisitions, one person responsible for the websites and newsletters, and a vice president of marketing to share duties with Lee and the others. The group is nimble and answers to few, which Lee likes.

“It’s nice to go to a smaller organization from a large one where there is a lot of bureaucracy. If you have an idea [at Mercer], you can go ahead and implement it. I was used to a lot of gatekeeping,” she said.

Over the last two years, Lee gave Mercer’s website a facelift and created websites specifically for the RIA’s 47 local offices (which have a better chance at appearing in local searches online). Mercer also built its own marketing automation software to manage its drip campaigns, a series of emails sent to clients and prospects. Email is by far the primary driver of traffic to advisor websites and, consequently, lead generation, according to a report published in January.

In addition to dedicating enough resources to hire Lee and her team, build internal tools, and hire an agency, Mercer also has an ad budget. Lee declined to share what portion of the firm’s revenue goes toward marketing or the dollar amount it spends. However, the fact that her group exists automatically gives Mercer an advantage over most other RIAs, she said.

Lee is part of a study group with chief marketing officers from other companies and said many don’t have the team or resources she does. Although, some have more, she added.

And in the future, those things will be even more important. “I think we’re a well-kept secret. As soon as people understand our capabilities it’s an easy sell,” she said. The challenge is getting in front of investors, especially without being able to draft big-budget ad campaigns for companies like Wells Fargo and others.

“Digital, I think, will be a much more critical component of client acquisition. We have been thinking that this is really the next frontier for RIAs. Those who are able to spend, we’re at a competitive advantage, frankly.” Lee said.

Financial services firms are also spending more. In 2019, the sector plowed $15.5 billion into digital marketing, according to eMarketer, a 76% increase from just three years ago.

Still, Lee doesn’t believe smaller RIAs are hopeless. Mercer’s digital marketing efforts complement more primary growth drivers, like referrals and M&A, and won’t likely supplant them.

Firms with small marketing budgets can save by attempting to learn and do things themselves or hiring contractors. For any RIA planning to hire a contractor, Lee shared advice she learned while working at bigger companies: “Negotiate every single thing.”