Tag Archives: alternative investment

Survival Skills for the Hedge Fund Apocalypse

GrimReaperThere’s an increasing volume of negative news regarding the “exodus from hedge funds,” in favor of less expensive alternatives such as liquid alts and “engineered equity” products. Although many large investors still maintain significant assets in hedge funds, the industry’s ratio of contributions to withdrawals has turned south, and the near-term outlook for hedge fund growth is not encouraging. Small and medium sized funds are likely to be hardest hit as the asset class falls out of favor.

There’s no short-term marketing panacea to offset what may be a rough road ahead for hedge funds, which is a storm that hedge funds have helped to create. More specifically, the industry’s collective lack of basic communication skills is a major contributing factor to the increased levels of investor dissatisfaction. Contrary to what’s reported in the Wall Street Journal, hedge funds are not helpless victims of volatile markets, poor performance or high fees. Instead,hedge funds are now paying the price for their own inability or unwillingness, over at least the past three decades, to explain themselves properly.

Although there are exceptions (which include those funds most likely to fare well over the long term), hedge funds are notoriously inept at expressing to prospective and current investors the “what, why and how” of their value proposition. Collectively, fund managers may be geniuses at left-brain, quantitative skills; but often fail miserably at managing right-brain storytelling skills, or at hiring right-brain people to manage those tasks properly. And unfortunately for fund managers, it’s those right-brain-related communications skills that can have the most significant influence on investor interest and loyalty.

Here’s the underlying problem: most managers continue to believe – despite a growing mountain of evidence – that investor engagement and longevity is based exclusively on fund performance. So that’s the basis on which they pitch their fund, as well as the standard by which they communicate its value to investors over time. In their opinion, nothing but performance really matters.

What those managers won’t acknowledge is that investors seek fund characteristics that have little or nothing to do with performance. In fact, what investors really want is validation that their allocation decision is sound, that the fund manager is transparent and accessible, and that relevant issues are discussed immediately and honestly.

The most recent de-bunking of the performance myth was produced by Chestnut Advisory Group (Investors Want Hedge Funds to Hedge), which further validates that high returns are not the top reason why investors allocate to hedge funds. Nearly 80% of the investors they surveyed indicated that “risk management” played the most important role in manager selection.

And that’s the fundamental marketing challenge for fund managers: building investor trust through clear and consistent communication, regardless of whether their performance meets, exceeds or falls short of benchmarks.

Building trust through communication in any profession – whether you’re selling accounting services, running for public office, or managing a hedge fund – means establishing and managing customer expectations. Here are three ways your fund can accomplish that goal:

Explain what you believe in. Investors care about what you do, how you do it, and even how you are different from other funds. But explanations of features and benefits do not drive behavior. What actually incents them to allocate and remain with you is based on the power of why. Investors need to know what drives you, what inspires you, what excites you. Your fund’s goal is to do business with the people who believe the same things that you believe. So you need to explain what you believe in.

The power of “why” goes far deeper than marketing strategy; in fact, it’s a human need deeply rooted in our biology, and serves as the foundation for all of our decision-making. To gain a better understanding of the concept, watch this 18-minute TED Talks video (Start With Why) by Simon Sinek. There’s a reason why it’s been viewed more than 26 million times since 2009.

Tell them exactly what you’re thinking. Too often, investor communication consists of boiler-plate, generic language that regurgitates news media headlines on the macro-economic factors that influenced portfolio performance. It’s a rationalization of why (most often bad) things happened, and provides no real perspective on the manager’s thought process. There’s zero insight into the quality of the manager’s thinking, or whether any thinking took place at all.

The investing world is well aware of the frank, detailed explanations in the annual report shareholder letters of Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon, but a more relatable example of effective investor communication is available from Phil Goldstein of Bulldog Investors, an activist hedge fund focused on extracting value from under-performing closed end funds. Drill down into this newsletter’s (The Brooklyn Investor) coverage to get a sense of Phil’s no-nonsense communication to investors. His communication is simple, sincere, fun to read, and most importantly…builds investor respect and trust.

“Man Up” when things go sideways. It’s difficult to believe that any fund manager would be so short-sighted as to report performance when it’s positive, and then go silent when it’s not. But this spineless communication approach happens with some frequency, and most often involves managers who peg their value to investors solely on performance. For investors, in terms of trust, this is equivalent to playing a round of golf with someone who only writes down his score for a hole when he shoots a par, birdie or eagle. “Good times only” fund managers will always have difficulty finding any investors willing to play that game.

The medical profession provides an interesting corollary that demonstrates the potential benefit of communicating bad news. The University of Michigan studied the impact of improved communication related to medical errors. When their doctors began to explain to patients why an error had occurred and what steps would be taken to avoid it in the future, medical malpractice lawsuits dropped 65%. Customers – whether they be patients or investors – understand that the there are no guarantees in life, and most will respond positively to honest communication.

There’s a tangible payoff for setting and managing investor expectations. According to the Chestnut Advisory Group’s research, trusted asset managers will:

  • Raise significantly more capital
  • Be engaged more quickly
  • Be retained far longer
  • More easily up-sell and cross-sell

That’s a fairly decent return for any hedge fund manager, in exchange for an investment in clear, forthright, consistent communication with current and prospective investors.

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Investment-Related Publicity: How Clueless is Your Fund?

According to BNY Mellon’s most recent survey of Investor Relations (IR) practices worldwide, fewer than half of the nearly 700 respondents are using media relations to support their IR goals. More significantly, only 6% of that group included media exposure as a top IR goal.

Whether its reluctance to proactively pursue publicity (also called “earned media”) is based on cost, control, or misunderstanding of the function, the investment industry is failing to take advantage of one of the most powerful means to build investor awareness, third-party endorsement, and assets under management.

Here are some thoughts on how your fund can effectively leverage publicity:

More Publicity is Not Better: The term “media mentions” is broadly used by the investment industry to describe publicity, which implies that the sheer volume of exposure is beneficial. Even if your fund generates piles of press clippings, however, there are too many distractions within print, broadcast, and digital media channels to ensure that target audiences will ever notice, or be influenced by, any of those mentions. A media relations strategy driven by volume rather than substance is an expensive, zero-sum game.

Not All Publicity is Created Equal:  High-value media exposure puts an exclusive spotlight on your fund’s intellectual capital, underlying values or narrative, and typically allows you to control all or most of the content. On that basis, specific types of publicity — such as a firm profile written by a “friendly” journalist, or a one-on-one interview on relevant topics — are far more valuable than simply being mentioned or quoted (often with a competitor or two) in a news story, or providing a sound bite for CNBC.

Create Credibility Tools: The underlying value of media exposure lies in the inherent third-party endorsement that’s provided by a respected, objective media source. (This is why a Wall Street Journal article is more valuable than paid Wall Street Transcript coverage.)  Your goal is to generate media exposure that serves as ad hoc “credibility tools” for your firm, which can be used in your IR program to assure current investors, prospects and referral sources that you are a safe choice. If your publicity doesn’t make your fund’s marketing materials more believable, then the tactic will never have a connection to asset growth.

Plan Media Solicitations Last: Most media exposure is pursued in a haphazard, opportunistic manner. But to generate publicity that has inherent business value, you need to work backwards: first define what specific behavior or opinion you’re attempting to influence, and then determine what type(s) of media exposure will accomplish your goal. Only at that point are you prepared to solicit specific media opportunities that have the potential to drive measurable business outcomes.

Put Your Media Exposure to Work: Too often, media placements are passively hung on a website or a LinkedIn profile like a hunting trophy. But media exposure itself is never the goal; it’s only a means to an end, and must be put to work. Current and prospective investors, referral sources and other key audiences should be consistently reminded – through your positive media exposure – of who you are, what makes you different, and why they should invest with you. This is the tedious but critical step that most firms skip: maintaining a database of important contacts, and nurturing those relationships with those individuals by leveraging their media exposure to drive awareness and engagement.

Slice & Dice for Incremental ROI: In our digital age, there are online opportunities to gain additional mileage from the publicity you generate. For example, if you’ve scored a bylined article in a respected publication, initiate a discussion on the article’s topic within appropriate LinkedIn user groups, and attach a link to the published piece. Or use Twitter to promote your article’s link, by Tweeting (more than once) a provocative observation or quote from the piece to generate interest.

Funds that use media exposure effectively also understand the greatest limitation of the tactic: that no amount of publicity can compensate for an enterprise that lacks a strong value proposition, a clear sense of purpose, and underlying integrity. Without those cornerstones of brand reputation, publicity’s potential to expose a fund’s shortcomings will always represent a liability.

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A Few Marketing Best Practices for Alternative Investments

Although the lion’s share of alternative funds have yet to dip their toes into Lake Transparency, some small funds are cutting a path for the rest of the industry, in terms of smart marketing…if that’s defined by how clearly they explain their value proposition, and by how well they create investor interest.

Although it doesn’t provide a complete picture, very often you can gauge a fund’s marketing savvy by its website, which in our online world serves as the mother ship for a company’s brand.

So based solely on their websites, here are two small funds that can serve as examples of marketing best practices:

  • Monterey, California-based Topturn Capital – a single, low volatility hedge fund, and
  • Lake Forest, Illinois-based SilverPepper – a liquid alt firm offering two sub-advised funds

And here’s why these two firms are exceptional:

  • Both funds demonstrate that small firms can market themselves very effectively. In fact, smaller funds have a marketing advantage over larger competitors. Fewer people often can mean less politics, a more flexible compliance viewpoint and fewer opinions from the peanut gallery, which serve to dilute core messaging and can kill great ideas.
  • Both funds tell engaging, believable stories about themselves. Their stories explain their investment philosophy and commitment to their business in very human terms, directly related to their own life experiences. They don’t pontificate; they connect with people.
  • Both funds use video to tell their stories. Seeing and hearing fund principals makes those individuals and their firms credible and likeable. This visceral connection is critical in a business where “management” is consistently cited as a leading factor in fund selection.
  • Both funds display thought leadership. Their intellectual capital is showcased, but not in a self-serving manner. Topturn Capital, in particular, succeeds in maintaining market interest and increasing its credibility through well-written blog posts on topics ranging from Ebola to the market impact of presidential cycles.
  • Both funds understand the importance of brand strategy. All of the website elements – content, messaging, design, navigation – support a well thought-out effort to differentiate their firm’s value proposition, and to make it memorable. These are not cookie-cutter marketing solutions; and they reflects pride, creativity and skin in the game.

Admittedly, the SilverPepper website pushes the marketing envelope, in terms of what’s acceptable to most hedge fund compliance officers. But here’s what’s significant about the emergence of liquid alt firms like SilverPepper: because of their retail orientation and facility with sophisticated marketing tactics, that emerging asset class will indirectly drive hedge funds to show greater courage and creativity in marketing in the years ahead.

For most hedge funds, whether they emulate Topturn Capital or SilverPepper, the adoption of marketing best practices – or any marketing practices at all – is long overdue.


This article appears as the March edition of “Marketing Alternatives,” a monthly column published in the Barclay Insider Report, a newsletter produced byBarclayHedge, a leading provider of alternative fund data.

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The Road to Hedge Fund Transparency: Marketing Essentials and Potential Pitfalls

To survive and prosper in a marketplace where transparency and trust are now valued by investors and promoted by regulators, hedge funds will be increasingly required to build a rational and risk-averse approach to external communication. Ideally, those plans will also avoid many of the non-productive tactics that marketers are known to promote.

Here’s a marketing roadmap designed to achieve that objective:

Build your brand strategy first. This internal discipline yields a unified view and clear expression of what your firm seeks to achieve for investors, how it addresses that goal, what makes it uniquely qualified for consideration, and why investors should select and trust your firm. An upfront articulation of the firm’s value proposition serves as the cornerstone of a written marketing plan that should include: tangible business goals, appropriate marketing strategies and tactics, calendarized activity, budgets and accountabilities. Any firm that operates without a formal plan (which should be simple, and not take months to create), eventually becomes a victim of “trust me it’s working” marketing. No plan = lots of wheel-spinning + no tangible business outcomes.

Create a bona fide website, not a proxy. In an online world, websites are the mother ship of market transparency. If a hedge fund is unwilling to provide on its website essential information related to its capabilities and credibility, then the firm is not really serious about market communication. Ideally, your website should express institutional values, explain investment processes, showcase human capital, provide examples of thought leadership and include inherent 3rd party endorsements. It’s not a sales pitch or report card. Your website will generate investor interest by allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions about the firm and its potential to help them achieve their goals.

Leverage your firm’s intellectual capital. Thought leadership – which is overused marketing jargon – is a strategy that leverages knowledge and ideas to engage target audiences. Effective thought leadership can involve a broad range of marketing tactics, but should always be designed to achieve measurable goals; not to simply have people think you’re smart. A hedge fund’s intellectual capital represents its most powerful market differentiator, and can be showcased without giving away any proprietary information or methodologies.

Harness the market reach of LinkedIn. LinkedIn has become an important due diligence tool for investors, intermediaries and the financial press. Most hedge funds understand this, and either provide a very basic firm profile, and / or allow its employees to post their personal profiles on LinkedIn. But to harness LinkedIn’s enormous market reach and professional clientele, hedge funds must establish a buttoned-up institutional persona that’s consistent with the firm’s (bona fide) website; ensure that its employees’ profiles enhance the firm’s brand positioning; and take full advantage of appropriate user groups on LinkedIn to raise brand visibility and display its thought leadership. 

Hold off on Twitter and other social media sites. Twitter can be a great information source, and most hedge funds should use it exclusively for that purpose: to listen rather than to speak. Few hedge funds have the time or social media sophistication to engage safely and consistently on Twitter, and the compliance risks are significant. Facebook is simply not an appropriate channel for hedge funds, and posting comments on independent blogs or online publications will not yield meaningful results.

Manage press exposure selectively. Beneficial media exposure can provide valuable brand credibility. But this is a high-risk tactic because reporters have agendas, can make mistakes, and are not in business to make your firm look good. However, hedge funds should proactively seek media exposure through participation in targeted editorial opportunities – such as bylined articles, OpEd pieces and certain types of feature articles – if they provide total or nearly complete control over what’s published. Although guest spots on financial news channels such as CNBC can fuel the ego, these are high-risk opportunities that most hedge funds should avoid.

Unfortunately, most media coverage yields no marketing value, because it’s simply hung like a hunting trophy on a firm’s website. To benefit from the implied 3rd party endorsement, beneficial coverage must be properly integrated into the firm’s direct communication strategy with clients, prospects and referral sources.

Merchandise conference participation. Investor conferences are high-cost tactics that can be effective for hedge funds. But these events also yield low results because firms fail to properly re-purpose the related thought leadership they’ve produced; which can serve as raw material to influence target audiences that are much larger, and sometimes of higher value, than those in attendance at the conference. Doing all the heavy lifting (in terms of content preparation, travel, time away from office and home), but failing to benefit from that investment – both before or after the event itself – represents a tangible opportunity loss.

Forget advertising for now, and perhaps forever. Regulators have not made it easy for hedge funds to understand the rules of the new advertising game, so the industry is better off encouraging the very large players – with deep compliance muscle – to be the first ones on the field. But there are more significant reasons why most hedge funds should never include advertising in their marketing plans. Notably, institutional advertising is expensive, requires a long-term commitment to be effective, and is very difficult to measure or generate a market response. More importantly, at most hedge funds there is an extensive list of marketing strategies and tactics (for example, building an effective website) that should be addressed first, and that will provide a more meaningful return than advertising.

As market dynamics of the investment world drag hedge funds, however reluctantly, into the new era of transparency, there is some good news for those firms. Hedge funds have long demonstrated their ability to sustain a successful business enterprise without traditional marketing tactics. So any benefits that effective market communication might provide for them are very likely to result in incremental asset growth.

Additionally, because hedge funds do not currently depend on marketing for survival, they can act in a deliberate, strategic manner. Hedge funds have the luxury of being able to design and implement their marketing programs incrementally, and to focus on doing a limited number of things very well.

In that regard, other vertical industries may eventually point to hedge funds as examples of best practices in branding and marketing. But at the current rate of change, that’s unlikely to occur in our lifetimes.


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