(Reuters) - For years, financial adviser Robert Douglass was a bit embarrassed when he heard this common question from prospective clients: What's your website?
Douglass, 55, didn't have a site for his firm, Colorado-based Douglass Financial Group, because he was a techno-phobe who assumed setting one up would take a lot of time and money.
Things changed when he hired a young partner, Lucas Cummings, 28, who found out they could have a site running in a few weeks for $65 a month. Their site launched on February 15.
"It's a lot less pain to get it going and set up than one might think," Douglass said.
In an age when people often turn to the Internet before they even try a new restaurant, many see checking out prospective financial advisers online as a given. A Fidelity survey released in 2011 found that 44 percent of millionaires use Internet research to help select a financial adviser.
While some advisers are capitalizing on this by becoming social media mavens, many others don't even have a website. Some share Douglass's fear of the unknown, while others aren't in growth mode and think they don't need the online referrals. Others don't want the compliance headaches a site could create.
These hold-outs should bear in mind that one of the most unsettling things a prospective client can find about an adviser online is nothing at all, especially in the wake of recent Ponzi schemes. The good news for these offline advisers is that creating a website is easier and less costly than they likely expect.
While fully loaded sites can cost thousands of dollars, an adviser can get a very basic site up for $50 a month, or about $600 a year. Hesitant advisers should consider this a marketing cost.
"Is it worth $600 a year to just have an ongoing advertisement?" asked Mike Ellison president of Corporate Insight, a consulting firm for the financial services industry.
In this post-Madoff world, a website is an important way for an adviser to establish a storefront, said Tim Welsh, founder of Nexus Strategy, a consulting firm that provides advice to the wealth management industry. At a minimum, advisers should create what is essentially an online business card.
Advisers also may want a website so they can better control the information their clients may encounter. Often a Web search will reveal content created by a third party, like the financial information company BrightScope, which could alert potential clients to an adviser's disciplinary record.
"Hiding from online visibility isn't going to work anymore," said BrightScope Chief Executive Mike Alfred.
The bottom line is that not having a website can make an adviser look behind the times.
"If you want to be relevant in 2012 you need to have an online presence," Welsh said.
While it's hard to pinpoint how many of the nation's approximately 320,000 advisers don't have a website, the statistics from a few big firms are telling.
About a quarter of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney's 17,600 advisers don't have a website. The rate is 20 percent at Bank of America Corp's (BAC.N) Merrill Lynch, which has about 17,300 advisers. UBS Wealth Management Americas didn't respond to requests for information about its 7,000 advisers' Web presence.
The rates aren't much higher on the regional and independent side of the industry. About 10 percent of Raymond James Financial's 5,400 advisers don't have a site, while three-quarters of the 400 advisers at Hilliard Lyons don't have a site. And only 61 percent of the 27,000 registered investment advisory firms in the United States list a website in their regulatory documents, according to an analysis done for Reuters by Fidelity.
Some firms automatically create websites for all their advisers, including Wells Fargo Advisors, Ameriprise Financial and Edward Jones.
Sometimes not having a website makes strategic sense.
Steve Adams, 52, founder of Dallas-based Adams Asset Advisors LLC, manages about $1.4 billion in assets for ultra-wealthy clients. He says not having a site gives him an edge in competing against JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.
A firm website would give those rivals an idea about Adams' philosophy and investing strategies, allowing them to spin their presentations against him. Adams said a basic site that doesn't include that detailed information would look half-hearted.
"I'd rather have mystique than something that's not fully blown competitive," he said.
Wendy Paskin-Jordan, 55, founder of San Francisco-based Paskin Capital Advisors LLC, said not having a site for her firm forces prospective clients to talk to people who have worked with her in the past. Paskin-Jordan, who manages $500 million in client assets for about 25 households, said those references give a more well rounded image of her firm than a website could.
For other advisers who don't have a site, the choice is financial.
George Fredette, 52, who runs a North Conway, New Hampshire, branch of San Diego-based First Allied Securities Inc., said he tried a site for a while, but discontinued it after deciding it was not worth the $50 a month he was paying.
Fredette, who manages over $100 million in client assets, said he doesn't need a site because most of his clients are older people who have some sort of connection to the small town of North Conway, population about 2,300.
"I don't need a web page for the referrals to find me," Fredette said.
Getting a site up can be easy if an adviser is at a large firm. Raymond James says it can create a basic site for its advisers in a day, but it also has an in-house ad agency that can help advisers who want to get more creative.
Registered investment advisers can sometimes get help from their liaison at the firms that hold their clients' money. Fidelity, for instance, offers its registered investment advisers complimentary consulting and connects them to Web designers who give Fidelity RIAs a discounted rate.
Firms looking to create a site also can reach out directly to Web development companies, including ones that specialize in working with advisers, such as Advisor Websites, Emerald Connect Inc and Advisor Products Inc.
Reporting By Jennifer Hoyt Cummings; Editing by Walden Siew, Dave Zimmerman