Written by Justin Meise, as originally published in The Reverse Review.

Frequently, I’m asked by all types of financial professionals—from reverse mortgage specialists to investment advisors to accountants—“how can I better position myself in my market? Oh, and we’re a small shop with no budget to hire a PR firm or consultant.”  Well, I have good news. While nothing in life is free, there’s a lot of PR that can be had on the cheap OR, more correctly, by committing the time and using some basic tactics.

A professional or a small firm seeking to raise its visibility in a specific market (which they know well) and to a specific audience (which they understand) can generate quite a bit of visibility without having to make a major spend on consultants or advertising. Also, if your target audience is limited to a relatively small geographic area—say within several counties or a portion of a state—it won’t be cost effective to hire a firm in most cases.

To build a good strategy and plan for the small, local firm let’s focus on three key elements: Audience, Content and Distribution. (Yes, it can be more complicated, but we’ll keep it simple). Let’s examine each…

Audience Experienced reverse mortgage people know that the sales cycle for reverse mortgage is long—really long. The primary audience—senior homeowners—is very cautious and rightfully so.

The home represents, for most borrowers, their single largest asset and one that they probably spent their lifetime purchasing. For their generation, home ownership was the pinnacle of the American dream and a truly special achievement. Their mindset was that it wasn’t truly owned until it was paid off. This varies significantly from the mindset of baby boomers and gen-X-ers who are very comfortable carrying debt on everything from homes to home appliances.

Further, despite the industry’s best efforts to educate consumers and the media about reverse mortgages, these complicated products continue to receive mixed reviews and are frequently impugned. As a result, seniors are slow to make decisions and take a long time to think about the decision.

Like all large demographic groups, it’s difficult, or even a mistake, to attempt to generalize too much about seniors. For example, it may surprise some people to learn that seniors’ use of the Internet has been increasing steadily. According to a 2010 Neilson Company report, more seniors are using the web and spending more time on it than ever before:

While people 65 and older still make up less than 10 percent of the active Internet universe, their numbers are on the rise. In the last five years, the number of seniors actively using the Internet has increased by more than 55 percent, from 11.3 million active users in November 2004 to 17.5 million in November 2009. Among people 65+, the growth of women in the last five years has outpaced the growth of men by 6 percentage points.

Not only are more people 65 and older heading online, but they are also spending more time on the Web. Time spent on the Internet by seniors increased 11 percent in the last five years, from approximately 52 hours per month in November 2004 to just over 58 hours in 2009.

We also know from a mix of research and personal experiences that seniors have quite an extensive group of advisors they turn to for help making major decisions, starting with their adult children. And frequently, it’s a daughter who provides care and helps parents make decisions. Beyond family, there’s a wide range of possible influencers that includes friends, attorneys, accountants, financial advisors and organizations they respect such as AARP.

The point is that there are multiple audiences to consider when developing a strategy. The primary audience is obviously the senior homeowner who is eligible for a reverse mortgage. However, the communications approach needs to include tactics that will reach all of these other influencers or advisors – the secondary audiences.

Content Last year, I wrote a piece for The Reverse Review  (June, 2010) discussing many of the challenging topics to address with reporters. I was optimistic that NRMLA’s current effort to develop new messaging and content would reap benefits for all members. Well, it has. The Marttila Strategies research piece, The Retirement Abyss: America’s Seniors’ Search for Security is a veritable treasure trove from a PR perspective.

The challenges and the surrounding issues raised last year are worthy of review but let’s also see how the new content makes it easier so you can handle the tough issues:

Scams To combat an image that reverse mortgages are a scam, credible, third party data is crucial. Critics typically attack reverse mortgages for its sales practices, suggest that seniors are taken advantage of, and suggest that seniors would be better without them.

Thankfully, the industry has produced very useful survey data for addressing these types of arguments. Standpoint data points include:

  1. Seniors with reverse mortgages give the financial product exceptionally high ratings.
  2. On a 10 point scale, 43 percent rated their reverse mortgage a “10”.
  3. More than 50 percent of seniors with a reverse mortgage would recommend one to a family member or friend.
  4. 90 percent of all seniors with a reverse mortgage felt no pressure to proceed with a reverse mortgage.
  5. More than half of seniors with a reverse mortgage could not cover their monthly expenses without one.
These are just a sample; the study includes many great data points for combating this criticism.

High Cost The cost of reverse mortgages will likely always be an easy topic for critics to target. Product enhancements, such as options that lower upfront costs and the new HECM Savers product are just two examples that can be used to handle this criticism.

Tips to use locally on this issue include: Take on the issue of cost upfront and be prepared to disclose and explain the different fees, especially as they are required by HUD. Make a clear connection between cost and value.

Incorporate information on newer products and product enhancements into your discussion. For example, when addressing a topic like the cost of the MIP, discuss the value back to the consumer when discussing product changes:

-In October 2010, FHA introduced the HECM Saver, which charges an upfront premium equal to 0.01 percent. The annual MIP charged for the Saver and Traditional HECM was raised to 1.25 percent.

-Such options offer the senior more choice and lowers costs of obtaining a reverse mortgage…

Be sure to reinforce the value seniors derive from a reverse mortgage using survey data:

-48 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers need it to stay in their homes.

-45 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers live in the home in which they raised their children vs. 35 percent for non-borrowers.

-More than half of seniors with a reverse mortgage could not cover their monthly expenses without one. Also, reinforce the national data by injecting real borrower stories from your market to illustrate the value and benefits.

Distribution So now you know your audience and you have good content. Now it’s time to explore the most effective ways to distribute that content to your audiences.

Since most reverse mortgage people I’ve met are adept at using events, seminars and other similar activities, I’ll focus on the press, social media and the web. Purists may cringe at my characterization, but these are simply forms of distribution. Each has its nuances, so the basic concept is to adapt your content for the audience and the method of distribution:

Working with the Media Novices should maintain a healthy fear of the press. A poorly chosen phrase or analogy may seem innocuous in conversation but can be horrible to see in print. Also, reporters, despite their best intentions, get things wrong. With a topic like reverse mortgages, expect that they will rehash past information run by national news outlets.

On the plus side, effective use of the media can improve perceptions not only of the product, but also of you or your firm. After all, positive press is essentially a de facto endorsement by a third party.

The key is to help the reporter do his or her job by presenting organized, easy to understand information and being responsive to their needs.

There are likely anywhere from a handful to over a dozen print publications that are potential targets for the kinds of information you will provide. What you are looking for are editorials that cover senior issues, personal finance, retirement planning, real estate or local business activity.

Some publication categories include: -Local Daily Papers -Community Business Papers -Community Senior Papers -Weekly Community Papers -Community News Websites

Working with seniors to sell reverse mortgages is probably a good parallel for handling media outreach. It’s a bit of a sales process, but as with reverse mortgages, it’s a trust and relationship based sell. Your goal is to become a reliable, credible source of information for the reporter. Achieve that and you will begin to see results.

Some additional tips for outreach include: -Focus on what is of value to the reporter and his/her mission to write an accurate story that is interesting and helpful to the publication’s readers. -Learn and understand the publication’s news cycle—don’t expect to reach reporters at deadline time. -Be conscientious about returning calls, following through, and providing promised content. -Learn reporters’ preferred method of interaction, which might even include LinkedIn or Facebook. -Be patient—it takes time to build relationships and it can take weeks or even months to see press coverage

Social Media & the Web Social media, blogs and other community sites present an opportunity to reach a portion of the senior audience directly and indirectly (via adult children/caregivers/advisors to seniors). The numbers and diversity of people using these sites are mind boggling and can therefore help you establish a personal brand with the circle of influencers around seniors.

Facebook is particularly intriguing because somewhere between 400-500 million people use Facebook, depending on the source. Roughly 56 percent are women and the fastest growing demographic on Facebook (reported through the end of 2009) are women over the age of 55. YouTube offers less precise statistics, yet hundreds of millions of videos a day are viewed and their core audience is men and women (evenly split) ages 18-55.

LinkedIn had about 55 million users in 2009 and that has climbed to above 100 million.

Facebook is a fascinating phenomenon and presents the most exciting and interesting opportunities. As defined, Facebook is a communication tool that enables conversation and the efficient transfer of information, images, and other content. But to the avid user, it’s much more. Facebook is the primary interface through which they experience the internet and the lens through which they view all news and information from the local to the global. It’s a playground filled with silly games. It’s a forum for debate and for validation. And as a result, well-packaged information can spread at lightning speed to millions of people.

All of these vehicles can be used to create visibility and connection with your primary and secondary audiences.

Here are some quick tips and ideas to consider: -Walk Before You Run – Just as companies weren’t real without a website as of 10 years ago, companies without a social media presence are similarly deemed out of step. But remember: -It’s about conversations not presentations. -It takes time and lots of it to develop a meaningful following and to remain engaged with followers. -Effective use requires a continuous stream of activity.

Social Networking Sites – Facebook and LinkedIn are points of engagement and communication. -Facebook, LinkedIn – Create a profile and get in the conversation. -Share Content – Become a source of valuable information. Don’t post sales pitches, but do post helpful information for local seniors that other people will want to follow and forward. -Leverage PR – Repost positive media coverage to create more distribution for good news on the web. -Engage – For example, LinkedIn Groups and Answers in particular offer terrific, additional distribution of content to targeted audiences. Join and monitor relevant groups and find opportunities to showcase your knowledge.

YouTube, et al – Video is one of the fastest growing content delivery methods on the Internet. -Consider creating video versions of the content you provide. Blogging – Blogs can create additional distribution for thought leadership content and are also leveraged through social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, where content is easily reposted. -Establish a blog about your local housing market, issues for local seniors, etc. Google’s Blogger is about as easy as it comes to create one. -Optimize for Google blog search through a combination of simple preferences and content. -Repost and link blog entries to your social networking site profiles (most can be integrated automatically now anyway).

Most professionals I know have great content in their heads and know their audiences. Building a personal brand in many cases is really about taking the time to create effective and efficient distribution. By focusing on knowing their complete audience, developing great content and being creative with distribution, any professional can raise their visibility. Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and focus on delivering valuable information, not sales pitches.