Financial Company Gets Social, Stays Compliant

Commonwealth Financial allowed its financial planners to set up social media profiles and interact with customers by using new tools that let them log conversations

Striking up business relationships through social media lets companies and customers casually interact and build trust. But unfettered personal dialogue is exactly what makes financial services companies hesitate to join Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks.

Government and industry regulations require banks, brokers and others to monitor what employees say to clients and then be able to produce that material during audits and lawsuits. But it's hard to record and archive social media interactions because they often take place outside corporate networks, and the sheer volume of data they generate can be difficult to manage.

Still, financial services companies have to find a way to use social media as commerce develops there, says Todd Estabrook, CMO at Commonwealth Financial Network. The IT, compliance and marketing groups at the $640 million independent broker and dealer have together experimented with enterprise use of social media, learning what works and what doesn't.

Typically, it takes several "touches," or instances of interaction, before a prospect becomes a paying customer. "Financial planning is a relationship business," Estabrook says. Social media can be an effective way to supplement the calls, direct mail and seminars financial planners use to build relationships.

Early last year, Commonwealth Financial stepped gingerly into social media by allowing financial planners to post pre-approved personal profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. The compliance department vetted the material and instructed employees to turn comments off and not respond to posts. The static content and lack of conversation, while simple to archive, took the social out of social media. Just 100 of the company's 1,400 planners participated, Estabrook says.

Michael Sundberg, director of information security at Commonwealth Financial, was reluctant to push further into social media because browsers or network-based tools for archiving social media interactions have limitations. For example, they work only on specific computers or networks. If a financial planner logged on to Facebook on his home computer, the plug-in on the office computer or corporate network wouldn't know.

But last summer, Sundberg found a compliant way to allow interactivity.

A service from Erado, which specializes in archiving electronic communications, can log social media activity by user account, no matter how or where a person accesses a social site, Sundberg says. Commonwealth Financial still vets profile descriptions and disclosure statements for compliance with regulations. But it now allows comments and conversations because they can be archived and spot-checked for compliance via the reports Erado generates. About 700 of Commonwealth Financial's planners now use social media.

Estabrook says he can't quantify any sales attributable to social media, but allowing financial planners to talk to prospects online adds to the interactions that precede a deal. "It's not magic bullet, but it needs to be part of the strategy," he says.

Senior Editor Kim S. Nash can be reached at knash@cio.com. Read her blog, Strategic CIO.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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