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Tapping Clients' Social Networks

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

With Hearsay Social services, financial advisers can learn about life events, stay on top of news; Have you friended your insurance agent? Hearsay Social asks

Financial advisers and insurance agents may be among the few Facebook users who want to see more baby photos in their feeds.

Such images - or news of new jobs, houses or cars - can be valuable information for agents.

Some advisers are even working with a company called Hearsay Social Inc., which tracks what clients post on their Facebook pages. Agents use that information to quickly tailor product pitches to specific customers - without having to pick up the phone.

"When you look at insurance agents and financial advisers, they were kind of the original social networkers. The products they sell are so based on trust," said Steve Garrity, chief operating officer and co-founder of Hearsay Social, adding that it was time-consuming for agents to keep track of social media feeds. "This makes it much, much easier for them to do it."

The San Francisco firm says that roughly 115,000 agents and more than 100 companies worldwide use its products, which also track social media behavior on other sites like LinkedIn, Google Plus and Twitter. Hearsay also helps agents and advisers monitor their own social media performance and message their clients.

Before Hearsay can monitor communications, clients must opt in. Customers receive a message from their adviser asking for access to their status updates in return for more personal service. If they say yes, their agent will see the same information as their clients' Facebook friends.

But ordinary Facebook friends aren't in a position to, say, reject a loan application, according to John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's privacy project. He worries that there are no safeguards to protect customers who post about health problems from being treated differently by their insurance company, for example.

"Judgments could be made that are inappropriate," Simpson said. "I worry that people don't understand what is going on. They don't realize what's involved."

Despite such privacy concerns, more companies are seeing value in the intimate information their customers post online.

"People's conversations are a true presentation of who they really are," said Ashish Soni, executive director of digital innovation at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. "If you are getting that raw information from social, it's a gold mine."

Hearsay Social declined to disclose its annual sales. It has more than 170 employees and has raised more than $51 million, from investors including Sequoia Capital and New Enterprise Associates Inc.

Misty Farukh, an associate vice president of investments at Golden Gate Wealth Management with Raymond James & Associates Inc., said that several years ago, it was challenging for financial advisers to get information out to clients fast enough. Sending a letter could take 48 hours to get the appropriate compliance approval in some cases - not to mention mailing time.

At Raymond James, which uses Hearsay Social's platform, Farukh got approval from her compliance team to post a video about "5 Career Lessons from Han Solo" on her firm's Facebook page in just 10 to 15 minutes.

Farukh uses Hearsay Social to check up on Twitter and LinkedIn. Next year, she expects to use Hearsay's platform to ask clients whether they will give her access to their Facebook pages. She's looking forward to seeing clients' photos of their grandchildren or recent trips.

But what if she saw posts of a client, say, betting thousands in Las Vegas instead of saving for their kid's college fund?

"We're not regulators," Farukh said. "I'm not going to go crazy when it comes to client spending. I'm going to do my diligence and do what's right for the client."

If a client has told her that their goal is to save money, she said, that might mean telling them that they should cut back on their spending. She plans to have that type of conversation with a client in January.