These days, you qualify as a serious Luddite — and more importantly, a bad businessman — if you don't have some kind of web presence, whether it's a simple page with your firm's address, phone number and basic information or a more sophisticated one with a secure sign-in for clients, a blog and links to profiles on LinkedIn and, say, Facebook. But how do you design a web page that really creates value for your business — either enhancing your brand or generating leads for new business — without spending a fortune or running afoul of regulators?

Bill Losey, a certified financial planner with 20 years in the business, says the website he created in early 2007 has helped him attract, on average, one new client a month and more than $5 million in net investable assets per year. With his website (myretirementsuccess.com), blog (bill-loseys-play-to-win-now-blog.blogspot.com/), e-newsletter and paid web advertising combined pulling in an average of two to three new clients a month for the past three months, he expects to bring in $8-to-$10 million in net new investable assets through these efforts in 2009. “It's a snowball effect,” says Losey, whose one-man 60-client firm, Bill Losey Retirement Solutions, is based in Wilton, N.Y. He's found that customers prefer to learn about him through several venues before picking up the phone to make an appointment. “This is my marketing machine.”

Contrary to what you might expect, building this multilayered online presence hasn't cost Losey a fortune. He estimates spending between $5,000 and $7,500 a year on upgrades to his website, plus $200 to $500 a month on a Google AdWords campaign that drives traffic to his site for those searching under terms such as “retirement expert.” Writing articles and e-newsletter messages that he repurposes as blog postings takes about 2 hours a week of his time, and his teen-age son spends about five hours a week posting updates.

As Losey's experience shows, coming up with a smart online strategy that works for your firm is more important than having a corporate-size budget if you want to attract customers through the web. You can keep costs down by asking yourself some key questions that will focus your efforts ahead of time, say web experts. “It's very, very easy to waste money trying to trial-and-error everything,” says Ed Taylor, founder of Internet Marketing Group in Ashland, Ore., who has advised firms ranging from small financial planners to a large hedge fund. Below is a list of some of those key questions:

  1. Am I allowed to create my own site?

    If your independent wealth management practice has a relationship with a broker/dealer firm, inquire about your b/ds online policies first, says Taylor. Some b/ds require their advisors to stick with a template-based site fed by content that has been pre-approved by the firm's compliance department to adhere to SEC and FINRA regulations. Other b/ds may allow you to customize, but will still require that you submit content to their compliance teams for approval first. After working out the details with LPL Financial, for example, Artisan Wealth Management in Lebanon, N.J., built a customized site (artisanwealthmanagement.com) last July, says founding partner Ed Collins. The three-advisor, fee-oriented firm, which caters to high-net-worth families and individuals, now sends any new material for posting to the compliance team at LPL Financial for review before posting.

  2. What legal regulations do I have to follow?

    Both the SEC and FINRA monitor investment industry websites carefully, says Scott Galer, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based partner at Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, LLP, who advises clients such as securities issuers, underwriters, b/ds, and investment advisors on their websites. He helped several clients bring their sites into compliance after they received warning letters from both regulators. In one case, the SEC sent notice because the firm's website made it too easy for the general public to find information intended for clients participating in a private placement. Get legal advice on your site when you're still in the planning stages so you are in compliance from day one and you'll avoid trouble — and the expense of emergency revisions later. “If you're not complying with regulations, you can lose your license,” Galer says.

    How much will hiring legal advice run you? At a bigger financial services firm, your in-house compliance team should be prepared to advise you, says Galer. For smaller b/ds, he typically offers some guidance on building a web presence as part of a larger regulatory registration package, which can cost around $25,000, he says. If you're not a b/d and are running a small informational website, budget several thousand dollars, says Galer.

  3. How will visitors find me?

    To attract the most traffic to your site from your ideal prospects, you'll need to plan the design and content to focus on the search terms that they will most likely use to find you in Google and other engines, says Taylor. He uses a subscription tool called Wordtracker (wordtracker.com), which costs $329 per year, to home in on the right ones, so he can help clients plan a site that highlights these words. If you don't have the time to spend experimenting with search terms, consider hiring a search engine optimization (SEO) expert. Taylor says SEO consulting costs typically start around $3,000 for small financial service businesses setting up websites. Corporate web teams often have the expertise to tackle this without outside help.

  4. What image do I want to project?

    Besides being visible to search engines, a high performing site will generally answer a couple of key questions, says Lorrie Thomas, principal of Lorrie Thomas Web Marketing in Santa Barbara, who teaches web, search engine and social media marketing at UCSB Extension and UC Berkeley Extension: “Is my design on brand? And does it sell the power of my expertise and my services?” Generally speaking, ultra-cheap cookie-cutter websites won't give you the flexibility you need to tailor your design and content to your target wealth management client, especially if he's high-end, she says.

    Losey learned this first hand a few years back. Although he had shifted the focus of his firm to retirement planning for wealthy individuals, his first website gave the impression he was a generalist. “Prior to upgrading the website and specializing in retirement, I'd get phone calls from everybody and anybody — from people saying ‘I need help getting out of debt' to ‘Can you help me with my 529 plan?'” he recalls.

    So about 18 months ago, he hired Advisor Products, a web development firm in Westbury, N.Y., that specializes in financial services, to create a custom site for him and offer branding advice. On the new site, he refocused all content on his specialty. “It's all retirement, all the time,” he says. These days, most of the calls he gets as a result of his web marketing come from prospects in his target demographic: pre-retirees with average investable assets of $625,000. “Nine times out of ten, the people who are calling me are ideal clients,” he says.

  5. How can I encourage customers to reach out to me now?

    Many firms that prefer to use their main site as an evergreen online brochure find that satellites — such as blogs, videos and microsites on topics of immediate interest to prospects or those who might refer them — can trigger new business opportunities. Lee Rosenberg, a CFP with ARS Financial Services in Jericho, N.Y., says he has heard from three new prospects since he began posting sound-bite length advice on some of the challenges customers mentioned during in-office appointments, such as responding to changes in IRS rules for 2009, on his six-month-old blog “Trusted Expert Network” (trustedexpertnetwork.com). “We've tried to be up-to-the-minute in what we put on there,” he says.

    Posting information that will trigger referrals from other professional services firms works best for some firms. That strategy helped White Horse Advisors, a financial advisory group in Atlanta with about $500 million under management from clients who range from retirement plan sponsors to high-net-worth individuals. White Horse published extensive information last year on a market research study it commissioned on exit planning for entrepreneurs — one of its specialties — on its Exit Planning Research & Resource Center micro site (exitplanningresearch.com). Patrick Ungashick, president, estimates that about 10 new clients have come on board as a result of referrals from other professional services firms who read the research. “Because of our [narrow] market focus, 10 clients is a pretty big number,” says Ungashick. The micro site has also prompted media and speaking appearances, he adds. The total cost of the micro site: About $5,000 for the web development and about $20,000 for market research.

  6. How web savvy are my target clients?

    No matter how high end you want your site to look, don't get sucked into using flashy design elements that require tricky clicking maneuvers, especially if you're targeting older prospects, who may not be as comfortable with the web as the average teenager. “The law of usability is if people cannot use your website they won't,” says Thomas.