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Morgan Stanley is in the process of testing a pilot program that would allow its financial advisors to interact with clients and others on social media websites Twitter and LinkedIn through pre-approved public updates and private LinkedIn emails, invitations and introductions. Today, Morgan advisors are only able to create profiles, but not post updates or send messages.

This makes Morgan the first of the wirehouses to wade into the social media updates game. The other wirehouses either allow or are experimenting with allowing their FAs to contact clients through private messages, invitations and introductions on LinkedIn. But public updates do not yet seem to be on their agenda. Merrill Lynch is running a pilot to allow such private interactions, according to spokeswoman Selena Morris. The firm will have a few hundred FAs on board by the summer, and a full rollout is expected in the fourth quarter.

UBS allows invitations and introductions on LinkedIn, but not messages, while Wells Fargo allows its advisors to create profiles only. The independent firms have moved faster into this space. Independent broker/dealers like Raymond James Financial, Commonwealth and Cambridge Investment Research are allowing truly interactive conversations to take place in real-time, without pre-approval.

Tech Evolution

In an internal memo released Wednesday, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney (MSSB) told its 18,000 brokers that they would soon be able to post preapproved “static” updates on LinkedIn and Twitter. Starting next month, Morgan Stanley will begin allowing a small test group of approximately 600 advisors to send pre-approved tweets and status updates on the popular social media sites, according to the firm’s internal memo, which was reviewed by Registered Rep.

Users will also be allowed to send LinkedIn InMail messages, request introductions, send invitations and participate on the site. However, reps will not be allowed to “recommend” other financial advisors, nor be recommended by others because of the regulatory rules around the use of testimonials.

“We think this innovation is critical to our strategy,” says Craig Pfeiffer, MSSB’s vice chairman in an interview. “But it’s also a new frontier and in any other experience it’s always been good to walk into these situations. I would think of this as evolutionary.”

Lauren Boyman, MSSB’s director of social media, notes that the firm plans to loosen the reigns eventually. Critical will be having the firm’s advisors catch up with those who are early adopters and much more comfortable understanding how to use the social media platform in a compliant manner.

“Eventually everyone will be able to come with their own tweets,” she says. “But there’s no specific timeline right now.”

The advisors in the test group include members of MSSB’s Chairman’s Club and those who helped the firm launch the project. The remaining reps should have access to the two social media sites within six months. For now, advisors will be able to access and post to Twitter and LinkedIn only from MSSB’s own platform.

Yet, understanding that the line between work and home can be blurred and that often users of social media sites access them through handhelds and other mobile devices, the firm says it is working on eventually allowing advisors to access the social media sites from instruments not wired to the firm.

“The decision definitely signals that [social media] is not something they’re going to shy away from,” says marketing expert Stacey Haefele, CEO of the New York-based HNW, which focuses on wealth management firms. “RIAs definitely want to use these channels but everyone is afraid of regulations. And when one of the big firms says we’re going to do it, it definitely creates an environment that says, ‘What’s a responsible way to do it?’”

Notably absent is access to Facebook—which many view as a more personal social media platform than Linked In, and not a site where affluent investors go to find business recommendations. Nevertheless, Boyman says MSSB has not ruled out allowing access to Facebook in the future.

“We’re definitely not ignoring the largest social network in the world,” she says. “We certainly acknowledge there’s a lot of potential.”

For now, though, the firm is focusing on getting its advisor base up to speed on LinkedIn and Twitter. It’s part of a bigger technology push that has included the launch of an internal social network, Advisor Insights, last year, and the development of a platform that will allow advisors and clients to access holdings and other materials on iPads and mobile devices.

“I think this is a pretty big step forward,” says Pfeiffer. “It better aligns our clients lives around technology and how they engage in their personal lives with their financial advisor.”