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Liven Up Your Web Site: A great online presence requires more than adding your picture to a turnkey template.

Like it or not, prospective clients expect you to have a good Web site. Just like a business card or brochure, a top-notch Web site, be it for a financial adviser or fund company, shows that you're a serious professional. A good site's high-tech flexibility offers you myriad options for low-cost marketing and client-communication "touches."

Nevertheless, it's surprising how many advisers resist creating a Web site because it costs too much or they don't know where to start. A good Web site doesn't cost-it pays. And while some advisers spend $6,000 to $10,000 to set up a complex site with the help of an expert team, there are several reputable organizations-such as AdvisorSites, Lightport, AdvisorSquare, Emerald Publishing and CEP Advantage-that can help you build a decent Web site for less than $1,000. A handful of specialty consulting groups, such as Peter Montoya, AdvisorMarketing and my own company, Impact Communications, also know your business.

Sadly, 80% of the financial adviser Web sites I visit are average at best-and many are simply terrible. They drone on about the adviser and the firm, are sloppy and blend into the sea of sameness.

Your site functions primarily as a way for prospective clients or referral partners to check you out on their own terms and determine if they'd like to contact you or request more information. It needs to be eye-catching and to send a clear but distinct message. To be an asset, your site should represent you well, add value and be both client-centered and user-friendly.

Build your brand. Use your logo and company color palette, signature photos and other branding elements to

create a consistent public presence. Your material should look similar whether it's in print or electronic format. Strive to create an attractive public persona and build unique perceptions in your ideal clients' minds.

An adviser asked me recently to critique his marketing materials. His printed information and Web site looked like they could have come from two entirely different companies. It had not occurred to him that he was creating a disconnect for people.

Develop your brand and use it to its full advantage. Create a unified look and stick with a consistent message across all media.

Make your site user-friendly. Don't use your Web site as an electronic version of your brochure. Web pages demand concise, snappy language that leads the viewer with small bits of information in a logical sequence. Guide visitors with links from one page to the next; don't leave them hanging at the bottom of the screen.

Avoid dark backgrounds with white or light text on the screen and small fonts (anything smaller than 11 point Arial), which are hard to read. To punch up the page, use serif type (with fine lines at the ends of each letter) for headlines and subheads and sans serif type for body copy, in a color that matches your company's palette. Break up long blocks of text with graphics, subheads and bulleted lists. Include lots of white space. Use secondary, click-through pages for people who want to drill down and learn more. Don't make people work to read your site or find what they need.

Offer a unique message. Many advisers seem to borrow the same dull, institutional language from other advisers' and fund companies' sites: blah, blah, blah, money. Optimize, minimize, maximize, neutralize, summarize. Your trusted adviser. Help you reach your financial goals. Modern portfolio theory. Efficient markets. Fee-based this and fee-only that.

There's nothing inherently wrong with these words or phrases, but they're not particularly compelling or engaging. If you look and sound like all the other advisers in your market, how can the readers determine if you're the right adviser for them?

Use what makes you unique to tell a story. Provide a case study. Use metaphors. Draw "word pictures" in the reader's mind-why say "retirement analysis and planning" when you can describe "multiple streams of income" or "a worry-free retirement." Be specific and talk in benefits, not products. Nobody wants a financial plan or a professionally managed portfolio of investments. What people really want is your help, so they know that they're moving in the right direction. They want to know that things will be all right, or at least more palatable, whatever life throws at them.

You'll create a more compelling message if you write (and speak) in the "you" voice. In this case, "you" refers to other people, not yourself. Instead of saying, "I'm sending you a special report," flip the focus to the reader by saying, "As a socially responsible investor, you'll be interested in this special report." You'll attract people more effectively if you show that you understand their circumstances than if you broadcast your own wonderfulness.