Morgan Stanley Social Media Strategy is Half-Baked

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"Now, the country's largest retail brokerage, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, has become the first major wealth manager to allow its brokers partial use of Twitter." - Press Release
When it was announced on Wednesday that Morgan Stanley Smith Barney (MSSB) advisors would be given the opportunity to use LinkedIn and Twitter, my initial reaction was positive. I was not alone as many of us in the financial services social space shared the news with each other and celebrated the news as validation of our efforts to forward the use of social media in financial services. Finally, one of the big guns in our world was making a bold move into the social sphere. To date, the only ones willing to pioneer in social were the independents, including Cambridge Investment Research and Commonwealth. It wasn't until I read the press release further that I realized how half-baked the move was.

I too feel that the announcement may have the short term affect of enhanced media attention, but will fall flat down the road when the users of the technology realize the limitations of being forced to use “canned" and pre-approved content. Although I am willing to conceded that it is no small task to introduce social media in the heavily regulated world of financial services, AND that some participation maybe better than none, I can't help but feel let down. Let me explain why.

I think the disappointment lies in MSSB's lack of understanding of what it means to be social on LinkedIn and Twitter. It appeared to me that they didn't understand or appreciate what it means to have conversations in social networking and the expectation of users for transparency and authenticity. My guess is that the architects of the MSSB's social media strategy are not the ones who will ultimately use it. In their ignorance or haste, they made a choice to offer the path of least resistance in an effort to provide an answer, rather than a solution.

By limiting updates and tweets to pre-approved content you negate the very essence of social- which is to create dialogue and conversations. MSSB in its attempt to be social is doing the exact opposite and runs the risk of a potential backlash if their "canned” tweets and status updates are just re-packaged marketing message that are self serving. Social network users can smell a brand message in an instant, and if the tweets and updates are too corporate, or too sales oriented the entire effort fails. What's worse, in its wake other firms may hold off from making any attempt to enter the social space, rending the entire industry in a social media holding pattern. Perhaps I am placing too much importance on authenticity, however I don't think my criticism is too far off. Pat Allen, adds:

"As much as I cheer the interest and commitment suggested by this announcement, I share others’ reservations about the limits that are being imposed and the potential value of the advisors’ participation to the social communities about to be joined. There is a “conversation” already underway and the highest level question to be asked is what value will Morgan Stanley advisors add to that conversation."

Good point. If MSSB advisors are limited to prescribed content, how much value can they add beyond a sales brochure or corporate tagline. How will we know what they are really thinking and how will they manage to respond to current timely events as they are happening in real time? Or as Pat Allen points out, events such as the passing of CNBC's Mark Haines earlier this week:

"We can be certain that the tweets will represent Morgan Stanley but what will these tweets really tell us about what advisors are thinking? I think of yesterday’s impromptu outpouring from advisors moved to tweet about the death of CNBC’s Mark Haines. How will Morgan Stanley support fresh individual expression, if at all?"

Good question. Josh Brown of the Wall Street Journal was even more stinging in his post "Morgan Stanley's Twitter Intiative: Well-Meaning But Pointless" Brown asserts that the effort is lacking real impact. After the initial announcement and joy, he too read the press release and was equally disappointed.

"What sounded potentially ground-breaking turned out to be your typical, tone-deaf Wall Street sales and marketing assault on a new and vibrant communications platform."

He continues,

"With all due respect to Morgan Stanley, can they really think that anyone has an interest in being spammed with PR and pre-approved status updates from their broker? This firm is bringing social media companies public for billions of dollars and this is what they think it’s about?"

Looks like Brown and I agree that they went about it the wrong way and should have known better. I am optimistic that they will eventually get it right and that this is nothing more than an exercise in dipping their toes in the water to take the temperature before taking full plunge. (I was always more of a cannonball type than one to get in the pool a step at a time). Brown continues,

"If this is a prelude to some kind of product marketing effort using Twitter or LinkedIn, it would be better to just stop now and rethink it. The way social works for promoting a business is by building a two-way relationship, not by “pushing out” as with TV commercials or magazine ads."

It's probably too late to stop and re-think it, but they can and will probably make adjustments during the beta stage as they discover the limitations of a canned conversation. Pat Allen sees adjustments in the horizon as well.

”With a few months in, my guess is that the architects of the plan will realize that listening and learning should have been an expectation, too....With a few months in, my guess is that the architects of the plan will realize that listening and learning should have been an expectation, too. In a conversation it can’t all be about you and what you want to accomplish....As a result of its initial experience, reception and feedback from practitioners, the firm should be smarter and sharper as a result of having taken this on. I’d look for a Version 1.5 of the plan to begin to reflect the firm’s real vision for the value it can add using social media and, secondarily, the value it can receive."

Again, I agree with Pat and do think that Version 1.5 is likely to be the version they should have started with in the first place. Only when they can truly add value in an interactive model will they be leveraging the power of the medium. I hope they find this out before the backlash begins, and I hope they find out before others follow in their footsteps and make the same mistakes.
Despite the feeling that the plan is half-baked, I prefer to stay optimistic and see the glass as half-full. Even a flawed plan is at least a plan and if it serves as a catalyst to get others to push the social agenda higher in their list of priorities, then this is good news. Even Brown will concede that an attempt is worthy of our attention,

"On the one hand, it is encouraging to see the effort considering how vital social currency is becoming each and every day. On the other hand, they probably should have taken advice from people who understand the point of this stuff and how it’s done, their announcement sounds like $300-an-hour consultant-speak."

To think that Morgan Stanley could have gotten better advice had they attempted to engage those of us who are already having the conversations. So, I'd like to take this opportunity to invite Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo Advisors and UBS Wealth Management America's to contact me and the community of linkedfa.com to engage in the conversation before making any major decisions..... I only charge $150 an hour.

Topics: morgan stanley social media, Social Media, social media strategy for advisors