News, Vision & Voice for the Advisory Community
The Mill Valley, Calif.-based website strives for a new journalistic model, based on old-fashioned values, to cover an advice industry going through a parallel set of changes
August 7, 2015 — 4:56 PM UTC by Brooke Southall
Brooke’s Note: My mother used to say that children have a tendency to misbehave on their birthdays. Part of it was the excitement of cake, gifts and attention addling their minds, and the other was simply that intuitive sense that the world was giving them a pass on good behavior for a day. So maybe that explains why this article is a touch self-serving even as it rails against disingenuous behavior by financial advisors, and other publications. The RIABiz plan is to get back to good behavior, or at least our normal behavior, on Monday.
But now I am six,
I’m clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six
Now forever and ever.
A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six
Last year around this time I broke with custom and didn’t pen a paean on the occasion of RIABiz’s fifth birthday.
Few complaints were heard.
I was well on the way to skipping the 2015 state-of-the-RIABiz article when the famous A.A. Milne poem, “Now We Are Six,” came popping into my head and stayed there. See: Notes from the RIABiz one-year anniversary party.
That’s the kind of thing that keeps RIABiz perched forward day in and out — when something remarkable catches our eye or ear or imagination, we can go right ahead and tell a bunch of like-minded people all about it. See: RIABiz has its second birthday and reaches new milestones.
In the modern RIA business, not so very much older than we are, remarkable things keep happening for us to report on. It just never stops and we only see it accelerating. See: RIABiz turns three after experiencing big growth and its fair share of growing pains.
Right now we are up to around 72,000 unique visitors each month — up from a high month of 57,000 in 2013, which was the last time we made a report like this to you. See: RIABiz turns four — and readership grows another 39%. Since John and Dawn Kodin took over the RIABiz Directory in 2011, there were 270 listings, an amount that has tripled to 816.
We have five people dedicated to the journalism side and a like number on the sales side. We have five revenue sources, with banner advertising as our biggest.
With scale becoming an issue, Terry Hong is rebuilding the back end of the RIABiz website and a few front-end changes will be noticeable within a month. See: RIABiz launches its redesigned 'responsive’ website.
We’re all RIAs now
I trace our continued viability and growth in a shrinking trade media business to our fixation on delving into what is healthy, good and thriving in financial services, that is to say the business of unbiased financial advice sold at a fair price. It’s a concept embodied by the three letters R-I-A, though RIA is also a common denominator in a regulatory sense, too. See: What exactly is an RIA?.
Most robo-advisors, virtual advisors, fee-based planners, fiduciary 401(k) advisors, multi-family offices and even hedge fund advisors are RIAs these days. These are all hyper-growth areas. See: How RIAs can compete with super-RIAs, robo-RIAs and the 'phono’- and faux-RIA market of 2015 and beyond.
Yet hardly a day goes by when I hear that this RIA chauvinism of ours is misplaced because many advisors in all channels do right by clients. See: The 10 biggest threats to the RIA business heading into 2014.
The journalists are in
I can buy that, to a point.
Look at it this way: Imagine if the medical industry evolved the same way as the financial advice business and pharmaceutical salespeople were the main providers of medical advice. After decades, many of those Big Pharma salespeople would be reasonably good healers, I bet, and the new class of healers called “doctors,” with their disinterested, holistic, open-architecture advice might look a little wet behind the ears at times. My dad was a doctor and freely admitted needing the help of experienced nurses to negotiate real-world patient cases.
But in that hypothetical scenario, hanging on for dear life to Merck — the way some hold onto Merrill Lynch — would make no sense, even if Merck salespeople took a few medical courses and sold the occasional Pfizer product.
And for journalists and readers alike, following the rise of the fiduciary physician practice as it came into being — perhaps in the virtual pages of a publication called DOCBiz, would be an entertaining, worthwhile and exciting endeavor.
Too much everything
In addition to its focus on the RIA business models, RIABiz has sought to be part of a positive evolution in the journalistic news business.
We’ve proved that an independently owned and operated online publication with no print product to subsidize sales can survive and prosper. Our business cards, inert in their boxes, are still our main print product.
And we are living proof that it is possible to survive and thrive online by staying true to our principles not only of journalism but also of web decency.
One benefit of print journalism was the economic disciplines it imposed: The cost of getting an article to market was so high that it needed to possess a level of quality to — quite literally — carry its weight as far as the paper and ink demanded and the cost to transport it.
But these days, it’s all too easy to use the online medium against readers because it costs nothing more to publish everything than it does to publish nothing. Publishing dozens of articles a day — many of which strongly resemble press releases — is good for the publisher. But for the reader, what is gained in choice is lost by the lack of filtering of what is important.
Also, because the cost of sending more emails and more stories is zero, spam explodes and so does so-called native advertising or sponsored content — advertisements semi-masquerading as real articles.
Sending multiple emails every day may be good for the publisher — at least in the short term — because it produces more click volume. But deleting those emails costs the reader — a tax on the inbox and on the brain.
Sponsored online content is fantastic for publishers. We can charge a premium for something we don’t even have to write and which costs us nothing to deliver to you. But it is terrible for the reader who doesn’t know who or what to trust. A publication is supposed to add clarity and subtract confusion by eliminating static and focusing in on what matters. Publications that increase confusion should cease to live under the physics of free enterprise.
The real difference
Going forward, RIABiz will not only survive but thrive by refusing to subscribe to reader-unfriendly practices. This includes those terrible takeover advertisements — also known as attack ads — that freeze your screen and shove a message in your face.
These distinctions may seem like journalistic inside baseball, but like the difference between an RIA and a stockbroker, it’s an important one that has real-life consequences for people on both ends of the financial advisor-client equation. See: One-Man Think Tank: The fiduciary standard may sink Wall Street’s advisors-on-yachts. Should we care?.
Our job here is to get beyond mere knowing and try, by telling good stories and removing annoyances, to make the differences alive and real in the financial advice business so that real progress can be made and fun can be had.
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RIA Publication, Blog/Social Networking Tool
Top Executive: Brooke Southall
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