Tag Archive for: blog

Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion

No financial blogger wants to get in trouble with the law, become liable for financial damages, or tarnish his or her reputation. You’ve probably thought about compliance with laws governing advisors registered with the SEC, FINRA, or other regulators. But what about copyright laws?

I believe a significant number of advisor-bloggers are guilty of copyright violations when they share information written by others. I have come across several well-meaning advisors who mistakenly believed they acted within the law when they copied all or part of other people’s blog posts. In fact, they had broken the law and could have been on the hook for financial penalties.

To help you cope, I’ve written this article sharing two common misconceptions, three resources, and one suggestion to keep you on the right side of the law and make everybody happy.

Fair use of copyrighted material infographic

Misconception #1: If you credit and link, that’s enough

Most advisors and other financial bloggers know you shouldn’t copy someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. However, I’ve seen advisors who think it’s okay to copy an entire newspaper article on their blogs as long as they name the author and publication details in addition to linking online to the original article.

This is not correct, as you’ll realize when you check out my resource section below.

Misconception #2: If you only copy XXX words, it’s okay

There is no word-count rule that protects you from charges of copyright infringement. If you use the “heart” of the work, you’re in trouble, as explained under “Factor 3” in the “The four factors of fair use” section of the University of Minnesota University Libraries’ excellent web pages on copyright.

In fact, even short phrases may be protected by copyright, according to “Copyright Protection for Short Phrases” in the Copyright and Fair Use section of the Stanford University Libraries website.

How can you share content without violating copyright? Check out the resources in the next section.

Resources for “fair use” of copyrighted material

Lawyers use the term “fair use” to describe the legal use of copyrighted materials. Here are two websites and a printable checklist that will help you assess whether the amount of another author’s text that you reproduce in your blog post is acceptable. There are no short, easy guidelines that fit all situations.

  1. Understanding Fair Use” is a good overview of the issues, presented by the University of Minnesota’s University Libraries.
  2. Fair Use,” a book chapter on this topic, is available on the Stanford University Libraries website.
  3. “Thinking Through Fair Use,” a printable checklist from the U. of Minn. library, will help you think through the issues for specific materials. NOTE: the original link no longer works. Instead, see the first link on “Understanding Fair Use.” Or,check out the “Fair Use Checklist” from Columbia University Libraries.

Suggestion to ensure “fair use”

When in doubt, ask the author for permission to reproduce the content on your blog. Don’t assume they’ll say “yes.” However, you may score points with writers who are anxious to spread their message. If the writer says, “No,” at least you know to tread carefully in how you use the author’s content.

By the way, I don’t oppose bloggers summarizing or adding their own spin to other people’s content. But please don’t violate copyright by exceeding what is considered “fair use.” Speaking of authors, I’d like to thank the writers on Freelance Success, including Tania Casselle and Erik Sherman, who helped me find resources for this blog post.

NOTE: I updated and deleted some links on July 25, 2013, after finding the original links no longer worked. I updated links again on August 23, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2018.

 

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Insecure about blogging? Write a letter

Some people feel they shouldn’t blog. They hesitate because they don’t have novel topics, or they feel their writing isn’t good enough.

Letter exercise

If you’re hesitating, you might benefit from an exercise called “Exploring Self-Compassion Through Letter Writing” in Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion; The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

As part of the exercise, Neff suggests you write a letter from the perspective of “an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind, and compassionate. Imagine that this friend can see all your strengths and all your weaknesses, including the aspect of yourself you have just been thinking about.”

The next step is to “Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend—focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for.”

Your friend’s response to your letter

What would this friend say about your:

  • Writing skills
  • Blog topics
  • Other weaknesses and strengths

Here are some of the points this friend might make:

  • Writing is a skill that can be improved through study or working with an editor. Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • It’s okay to discuss topics that others have already discussed. This is because they are perennial concerns of your prospects. You can use your insights and personality, as discussed in “How to add personality and warmth to your writing,” to make an impression on your readers.
  • Blogging can be a great way for advisers to clarify their thoughts on important topics, regardless of whether it brings new clients. It also improves your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) on topics you care about.
  • There may be fixes for other weaknesses that you perceive.

Sure, sometimes your imaginary friend will sometimes tell you to give up on blogging. For example, if you’re an incredibly busy advisor with a steady flow of new clients, and you’re a terrible writer, then that might be a valid reason not to blog.

However, in many cases, your friend will say “Please blog.” Listen to your friend.

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Must you be inspired to write?

Inspiration may make a difference in your writing. In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and The Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty says:

             Although most psychologists and writing teachers distrust the Romantic notion of an inspiration that is separate from skill or hard work, and doubt the claim that one can write at one’s best only when “in the mood,” so many professional writers take these notions seriously that perhaps we should too. After all, psychologists, as opposed to professional writers, are not known for writing well.

I don’t know that I’m ever truly inspired. After all, I write about mundane topics on my blog, and for my client work, it’s mainly a matter of organizing material logically. However, it’s easier for me to blog when an idea strikes. For example, the Flaherty quote that I share above made me think, “This could be a blog post!” I promptly grabbed the legal pad that’s often at my side when I read. I immediately started scribbling.

Experiences like this are why I agree with Flaherty’s advice that:

Perhaps the most practical implication is not to keep yourself from writing when not inspired, but to be ruthless about writing whenever inspiration hits. This approach requires always having paper or a palmtop computer with you, and above all to avoid answering the door or e-mail when you are in the middle of something good.

As I’ve written in “No batteries required: My favorite blogging technique,” I always have a pen and a pad of paper with me. I’m drafting this post as I work through Flaherty’s book. It’s in the magazine rack by my side, as I write on a yellow legal pad.

Poll: Do YOU Need inspiration to write?

Please vote in my poll. I’m curious to learn about YOUR experience. I’ll report on your answers in my newsletter.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Bloggers, value your thoughts

You matter. One of the best ways for writers to distinguish themselves is by sharing their thoughts. That’s why the following line from Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink resonated with me.

One of the essential characteristics of a writer is the willingness and ability to see the stories in our lives and to believe that our observations, thoughts, and obsessions are worth following to the page.

The stories in our lives are particularly important for bloggers. I’ve discussed this in posts like the following:

Pay attention to your thoughts, discover the stories in them, and use them to make your writing stand out.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Use a wacky days list when you run out of blog ideas

If you ever run low on blog post ideas, a wacky days list may solve your problem. You can use the list as the basis for brainstorming exercises. Whether it’s weekly calendarEmployee Appreciation Day or Be Nasty Day, it’s amazing how a holiday calendar can spark ideas for your financial blog.

Days with obvious relevance

The titles of some days may lead directly to blog post ideas. For example, Employee Appreciation Day made me think of:

  1. How you can help your employees by offering a better 401(k) plan
  2. How your firm appreciates its employees’ continued learning as they try to better serve clients
  3. Three budget-friendly ways to show your appreciation for your employees

Days that trigger personal stories

Some of the calendar days may trigger personal memories that you can use to make a point for your readers. Let’s take National Frozen Food Day. You have a blog post if you remember the great “deal” on frozen food that went bad when you didn’t have enough room in your freezer. There’s a lesson about false economies.

Days that serve as metaphors

Plant a Flower Day could serve as a metaphor. You can suggest steps that your clients can take that will brighten their financial lives as a flower might brighten their gardens.

How about YOU?

How do you use holidays or named days to inspire your blog’s editorial calendar? I’d like to hear from you.

 

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Blogging Q&A with Jim Blankenship

I invited Jim Blankenship of Blankenship Financial Planning in New Berlin, Ill., to participate in a Q&A about his blog because I was struck by the depth of material on his blog. When I tweeted a question to him about his blog post explaining the file-and-suspend strategy for Social Security, he quickly tweeted back with a link to a blog post answering my question. I imagine it’s powerful to have this kind of information easily accessible.

This is the second in a series of Q&As with advisors who blog. The first was with Michael Kitces of Nerd’s Eye View. If there are other advisors whom you’d like to hear from, please let me know.

 

Q. When did you start your blog, Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row—and how did you choose your focus?

A. When I started in April 2004, I was sending a paper newsletter to my clients (first quarterly, then monthly), so I just took the newsletter articles and blogged them.  In late 2008, I started specifically writing articles for the blog.

I focused first on tax laws and IRAs because my clients had specific questions about these areas.  A bit later, I added the Social Security focus. I have focused on these three areas since then, but always writing for my audience’s interests.  When they send me questions outside of these three areas, I write about them as well.  Sterling Raskie joined the firm in 2012, and one of his primary areas of focus is insurance, so he’s been writing about that quite a lot.

 

Q. How has your blog brought you new business or improved your existing client relationships? Please explain and quantify, if possible.

A. It’s rare these days to have a new client come to me who has not read either my blog or syndicated articles from it. My articles are syndicated on sites including Forbes.com, TheStreet.com, Morningstar Advisor, and FiGuide. The great benefit is that folks who’ve read my writings already understand much about how I work, who I am, and my areas of expertise. In addition, from having read my articles, there is a level of trust already built into the initial conversation.

This has helped with long-distance relationships, which have increased significantly over the past two to three years.  We now routinely have clients that we exclusively work with long-distance. They account for something like 40% of new clients. In contrast, prior to starting the blog, long-distance clients only came about when someone local moved away.

 

Q. What blogging techniques or topics have most helped your business?

A. The blog’s niche focus on taxes, retirement plans, and Social Security has reinforced the fact that we’re experts in these areas.

Keeping to a schedule has also helped. I started with a haphazard approach to blogging, without any schedule.  I soon recognized that I needed to be more consistent in my blogging efforts, so I set the goal of writing three articles per week, one on each of my focus areas.  Sticking with this schedule has helped me to manage the time to blog, as well as letting my readers expect a level of activity.  As with all things that take time, you will make time for the things that you put a priority on, and I have (since late 2008) always put a priority on keeping that schedule.

I maintain lists of topics to write about, spurred by reader questions, real-life client situations, and articles I’ve read, so I never run out of things to write about.  Sometimes the mix of topics differs week-to-week, but the primary focus areas are still represented in my writing.

 

Q. What are three of your favorite—or most effective—blog posts? Provide the titles, URLs and a comment about why you included them.

A. I don’t really have any favorites.  Here are three of my articles that have had the most hits.

Charitable Contributions From Your IRA – 2012 and Beyond — this explains how the elimination of the Qualified Charitable Contribution option changes the tax effect of making contributions to charities from your IRA. Of course, the tax law was extended, so this now applies to 2014 now—until the law is extended again.

The File and Suspend Tactic for Social Security Benefits — as the title suggests, this is a straightforward explanation of the tactic.

A Little-Known Social Security Spousal Benefit Option — this explains the option where a higher-wage-base spouse files a restricted application to receive half of his or her spouse’s benefit at Full Retirement Age, but delays filing for his or her own benefit to age 70.  Not many folks understand this one, so I’ve written several articles to help explain it. I still get questions every week.

 

Q.   What’s your best tip for advisors who blog?

A. Just do it.  It’s not rocket science.  Find your focus, be consistent, and put a priority on writing, even if it’s once a week or once a month.  Over time, this will build up to a significant body of work that potential clients can refer to, and it will make a difference in how you interact with people.

In addition, use all of the tools available — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest — to promote your blog posts.  Explore using various plug-ins to your blog to push out your articles, such as RSS, email subscription, and automatic tweeting.  These free tools are worth their electronic weight in gold, in terms of promotion and reaching out.  Answer questions via each tool, and strike up conversations.

Track your traffic – you can’t know if you’re getting through if you don’t track it.  I use a combination of Google Analytics, WordPress statistics, and Bing webmaster tools to track traffic.

Always respond to comments on your blog posts in a timely fashion — this keeps the conversation going beyond your initial writings.  It’s no different from returning phone calls.

Note: This post was updated on Jan. 14, 2014, to correct a typo.

Alternate short and long blog posts?

Some bloggers have made their reputations by writing long, thoughtful posts. Their only problem? They’d like to post more frequently, but long posts take too much time.

“Is it okay to alternate short and long posts?” That’s the question one of them asked.

There’s no law against it. Blog posts can run any length. However, if you’re known for in-depth posts, I like the idea of managing readers’ expectations by telling them that you’re alternating short and long posts. The folks who enjoy the long ones will know when to visit your blog. You may pick up new readers with short attention spans with your alternate posts.

If the contrast between your short and long posts isn’t great, you don’t need to say anything. The length of my posts varies greatly, but I haven’t remarked on that until today.

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t write like a spiny cedar!

The triangular spikes that studded the tree’s bark caught my eye along the Costa Rican trail. They’re the spiny cedar’s protection against sloths who would scale it. When you write, please don’t put spikes on your text. They’ll turn away the time-pressed readers who are your sloths.

What are the spikes in your writing?

In many cases, the spikes in advisors’ writing are ten-dollar words: fancy-schmancy jargon or Latinate words that could easily be replaced by plain English.

For example, I’ve long disliked the word “mitigate,” as I wrote in “Can you make a case for mitigate?” “Financial writers clinic: Getting rid of ‘mitigate,'” and “BNY Mellon: I liked your ‘truth ad’ until you used that word.”

By the way, if you’d like to see a genuine spiny cedar, my husband and I took this photo on the Teak and Canal trail of Hacienda Baru on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

Q&A format for articles: Good or bad?

The Q&A format has its uses. An FAQ section covering frequently asked questions belongs on many websites. However, this format should be used sparingly for articles.

FAQs work, so why not Q&A articles?

Unlike articles, FAQs are meant to be searched or skimmed for one question, not read word-for-word. Their readers seek answers to specific questions or solutions for problems, such as “How can I fix it when I get Error Message XYZ?” An FAQ may include many questions, but the reader is interested in one—or only a few—Q&A pairs.

Q&As make it hard to grasp an overall message

The Q&A format makes it harder for readers to grasp your overall message than with an article. A traditional article can offer an introduction, headings, and a skilled writer’s transition between topics.

Q&A interviewees may hold you hostage

The Q&A format works best when your interviewees know how to hit your readers’ hot buttons, and they’re articulate. You can’t count on finding that in every interviewee.

When you choose a Q&A format, you deny yourself the use of paraphrasing. As a reporter, I learned that only lazy reporters always use direct quotes. Paraphrases, which restate what your source said, can be more economical and effective. Plus, a colorful quote stands out better against a background of plain vanilla text.

Q&A format is okay when…

A Q&A format works well when you

  1. Write FAQs
  2. Keep it short—My gut tells me three questions is a good length. A Q&A may work well as a blog post. I often discuss reader questions on my blog.
  3. Interview a famous person whose fans care about every word he or she utters—Think Justin Bieber and young girls or Jack Bogle and index fund devotees.
  4. Edit the interview transcript—Word-for-word transcripts don’t make anyone look good. At a minimum, cut out the ums, uhs, incomplete sentences that don’t work, and irrelevant material. If you’re interviewing a corporate employee for your company’s newsletter, you can take more liberties, as long as you check with the employee to make sure you haven’t misrepresented him or her.

What do YOU think?

I’m curious to learn what you think about the pros and cons of the Q&A format. If you’ve used it effectively, feel free to share a link.

Blogging lessons from the New York Times’ public editor

When she started her job, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, set herself three goals that can also apply to advisors who blog for their firms:

  1. Put readers first.
  2. Encourage conversation.
  3. Promote transparency and understanding.

The goals need some tweaking for advisors because, as Sullivan explains in “My Turn in Between the Readers and the Writers,” “…the public editor’s job is to serve as an in-house critic as well as the readers’ advocate in matters of journalistic integrity.” To make her goals relevant to advisors, I put my own spin on each of her three rules below.

1. Put readers first.

A blog that focuses only on boosting your firm and its ranking in Google and other search engines won’t do you much good. Readers who aren’t engaged by your content won’t stick around. They’re not likely to become clients either.

Your blog should focus on providing useful information on topics that your clients and prospects care about. Write in plain English so they can understand you.

2. Encourage conversation.

Sullivan starts her section on conversation by saying, “Journalism, these days, is no longer a one-way proposition, with celebrated news organizations handing down the news like Moses with his stone tablets.” Advisors aren’t Moses either. Plus, they can gain from listening to their readers.

Encouraging conversation is a tough one for many advisors. Concerns about compliance spur many advisors to turn off the comment feature on their blogs. But even without allowing comments, you can pose questions that invite people to contact you.

If your blog allows comments, that’s even better. Try to get a conversation going. It’s not just a matter of posing questions. When readers comment, you should show your respect for them by responding. At a minimum, say “Thank you.” It’s even better if you react to some aspect of what each person says.

3. Promote transparency and understanding.

Advisors are used to the idea of transparency of fees and the like. Transparency in a blog might mean taking a more personal approach to some topics. Perhaps you can reveal something about your life that makes your blog post topics important to you.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net