Weekend Essay: What Does Your Online Presence Say About You?
A former boss of mine once said that a lot can be said about someone by the condition of their shoes. A lot of my coworkers just laughed at that old saying, but if you think about it, it’s true.
When I was about seven, my teenage aunt dated a young man who worked as a trainee butcher. His younger sister was eager to tell everyone how he showed up home for the first date with ground beef all over his shoes.
I’m ashamed to say that as a child I found it hilarious. It seems funny to me that he didn’t realize his fashion faux pas or that he just didn’t bother to put in the effort. The poor boy would probably have been mortified if he had known that his shoes were a source of fun among us children.
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Fortunately, I am more charitable as I age. Now I think the shoe incident was probably due to inexperience and lack of time to cool off after work. My grown-up self also views the soiled shoes as some sort of trophy – it showed he had a job, which was no small feat for a recession-stricken youngster in the early 1980s.
My aunt’s relationship with this boy came to an end after a few weeks. Not because of his shoes – they just didn’t have much in common.
I can’t say my grandfather was upset about this given the dirty shoes incident. Doing national service in Gibraltar had made him want to remove all the offending shoes left in the hallway with his trusty shoe-shine kit. The next guy to date with his daughter had shiny shoes and was clearly wedding gear, as he’s now my uncle.
Why am I feasting you on family stories about dating disasters and dirty shoes? Well, I see a parallel every time I look at the online presence of consulting firms. You can tell a lot about a company and its advisors by the condition of their websites and social media platforms.
Advisors tell me that the first thing potential clients do when they need advice is to search the internet, so their online presence has to be up to par. It’s like having “curb appeal” when trying to sell your home – you want to create a good impression from the outside so people think it’s worth stepping inside.
Researching the Internet is definitely the first thing I do as a journalist when looking for advisors to talk to. I find social media platforms and advisor websites to be great sources of new contacts, but I’m as selective as any client would be. It’s not about doing a quick Google search for a former financial advisor and thinking ‘they will’.
I was amazed earlier this year when I did a Google search and found an advisor who didn’t appear to have a significant online presence. There was an address and a phone number, but nothing else.
There must be a website, I thought. But if there was, I couldn’t find it. The advisor also didn’t appear to have a LinkedIn profile or a Twitter or Instagram post. Intrigued, I made contact via an email address I found on the FCA register – yes, they were still allowed – and rightly so, never got a response.
I was convinced that the advisor was “old school” or technophobic, happy to do things as he always did with the clientele he had had for years. Would they be worth talking about if they hadn’t bothered to join the 21st century technologically? Especially since there were a lot of other advisers who had great things to say about their websites and social media accounts.
I don’t have a massive social media presence myself, so I understand why some people might take it or leave it. If it weren’t for work, I probably wouldn’t have any online presence. Not because I’m a dinosaur or a technophobe – I just don’t have a lot of free time and the little time I have, I prefer to use it in another way.
When Facebook was all the rage, my mom coaxed me into signing up, but I wasn’t that fussed. I had seen people posting pictures of their dinner and telling everyone they were watching TV, so I concluded these were people who had too much free time.
At the time, my husband and I had just moved into a new home with two young children. I felt my time was better spent reading to children or taking care of a brush.
I was also concerned about the amount of information available online. While searching for counselors for profile interviews, I was amazed at how quickly I came across personal information – names and photos of spouses and children, where they live, the school they attend, photos of children in their school. It makes me uncomfortable.
It reminds me of when I was looking for the second half of a parent’s address online. She lives in New York and has recently moved. I sent Christmas presents but I forgot where she lived. By typing in her name and half the address, I also learned how she voted in the last election. I may be too British, but I think that kind of information should be between the person and the ballot box.
As far as I know, the advisor without an online presence might have felt the same as I did. As if their time was better spent dealing with clients and the inevitable red tape that entails, rather than posting on social media and emailing journalists. I have no problem with that.
But like my shoe trivia, you can’t control other people’s perceptions. You know the reasons why you have or haven’t uploaded something, but it’s not always clear to others. However, it does help to be aware of how things may appear to others.
Before I call an advisor, I want to know if they can help me, like a client does. I want to get a feel for who they are as a person and if they are as approachable as they are professional. I want to see that they have something to say for themselves and I don’t have to look too long or too long to find advisors who fit the bill.
I love the “about us” sections that you find on most consulting company websites. I ran into a consulting firm the other day that didn’t have one and thought it was a mistake because it felt impersonal to me.
An “about us” section tells me who I will potentially be dealing with and why I might want to contact. The photos in these sections tend to be quite functional and corporate, what the marketing experts tell me is to convey professionalism.
Still, I’ve seen a few more quirky websites where everyone from the CEO to the bottom is casually dressed and doing something outside of work. It could be playing with the dog or pursuing a hobby, such as fishing.
These grab my attention more because I can see the person behind the office attire. Since financial advice is relationship-based, it makes perfect sense for me to do this rather than wrapping up personalities in a costume. I find it easier to connect with people if they present themselves to me as real people – as individuals rather than a cohesive group of counselors.
However, the branding experts I’ve spoken to say these are the horses for the lessons. For every client who prefers this more offbeat approach, like me, there is someone else looking for a firm with a more traditional image. So I understand why many businesses take the proven approach of being fit and started on their websites.
But I wonder if that will change after the pandemic, with many companies retaining some elements of the work-from-home policy that was initially imposed on them by the government.
Just this week, I spoke to advisers across the UK about how they’ve embraced hybrid working arrangements now that Covid-19 restrictions have eased. It seems to me that work has become less formal as a result – even face-to-face meetings have become more casual.
After 18 months of video calling, people are so happy to be able to meet their advisors in person that they don’t necessarily equate formal business attire with professionalism. “It’s like going out for coffee with friends,” one counselor told me.
One of the things about communicating online is that it’s easy to build relationships faster than face to face. So, while LinkedIn is meant to be a work-related platform, it can be nice to share things of a personal nature on it.
Members of my network have shared photos of their children with disabilities, for example, to promote awareness of diversity and inclusion within the business community. Most people took it as expected, but some wondered if LinkedIn was a suitable platform and suggested Facebook as a more suitable place for this type of post.
In my opinion, there is a place on social media at work for personal material if it has a purpose. If it causes us to pause and reflect on our behavior, motivate people, show solidarity, or tell people who we are, that’s not a bad thing. Likewise, any work-related social media posts that clearly have a purpose should be as engaging as the personal material.
I have lost count of the times I have seen extremely annoying messages from advisers on pensions, Isas and the stock market that I have seen elsewhere. To me it sounds very “preachy” and I am extinguished. I feel like they just picked the easy option in their rush to get content – anything – out there.
This may be unfair of me – as I mentioned earlier, I understand that time is a factor. Keeping up to date with content posted on social media and websites takes a long time that advisers may be hard pressed to find.
But just as my childhood instinct was to find the dirty shoe episode funny, as an adult my first response is instinctive, often “unfair”. It is only after that that I start thinking about the whys and hows that lead to a more thoughtful alternative interpretation.
I have also seen advisers post many uplifting quotes and “thoughts of the day” messages – but very few others. I would almost love to receive a moralizing article on what to do about my Isa after being suffocated by feelings of “well-being”.
It might be a cliché, but variety is the spice of life. Let’s take a look at the community of online advisors.