By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
Decades ago, if you wanted to learn about personal finance and investing, your options were pretty limited. You could hire a professional, but you were far more likely to hire a broker or other product salesman than an actual financial advisor. You could spend your time combing through the bowels of a book store or a library looking for the few decent self-help financial books. You could pay for an expensive subscription to a newsletter that came in the snail mail once a month, though it'd be more likely to lead you astray than anything. That was about it.
But once Abraham Lincoln and Al Gore invented the internet, the number of options to become financially literate multiplied like bunnies in the garden.
Today, we are going to list each of the learning options out there, discuss the pros and cons of using them, and reflect on our attempts at using them to promote the WCI message of financial literacy.
For many of us, the introduction to the internet was through email (aka electronic or e-mail). I can distinctly remember seeing “WWW” on billboards and having no idea what it meant, but when I returned to college, I discovered that the university had established my first email account for me. The newsletter folks also rapidly recognized this opportunity. Now, they could send their newsletters faster, cheaper, and more often. They could also advertise it to the entire online world rather than just trying to grow from word of mouth. Rather than subscriptions, some newsletters (like ours) opted to give the information away for free and then sell ads in the newsletter.
Emailed newsletters are great because readers get them quickly but can read them whenever they want—at home, at work, on your phone while waiting in line, etc. There is no limit on length and you can read it as quickly or as slowly as you like, in any order, and skip anything you don't like. Sometimes it can include links to other great material, images, or even video or audio.
Our very first newsletter was in February 2012. It now goes out to nearly 60,000 people, but it is still 100% free to the readers. We actually offer several newsletters. We offer the original sponsored monthly newsletter, a weekly summary of blog posts, every blog post we ever run sent to your email that same day, and a Real Estate Opportunities newsletter for those interested in private real estate investments and courses. Many of our blog readers and podcast listeners don't realize that there are 100 “secret blog posts” out there they have never read if they weren't subscribed to the monthly newsletter. If you still don't get this, consider signing up here.
Another early use of the internet was through forums of various types. These have evolved over the years. The main benefit of a forum is the interaction between the various forum members. You can ask questions, give opinions, argue, and share the latest events. You can write using your real name, write anonymously, or not write at all. They are usually free and readily searchable. The main challenge of a forum is moderation. Without any moderation at all, it becomes the Wild West, and people, especially anonymous people, get dragged down to the lowest common denominator. So, the challenge becomes to have moderation without censorship. It's a difficult challenge, but most forums trend toward stricter and stricter moderation over time to counter internet “trolls.” You can usually subscribe by email to various “threads” on a forum, and some forums even let you like, vote up, and vote down posts by how much you like them.
We started The White Coat Investor Forum in January 2016. It has had a number of changes over the years but boasts thousands of members all helping one another to achieve financial success. However, those members are only a tiny fraction of the forum users. Most come in off the internet search engines and never create an account, just “lurking” in the background. We have co-hosted the Finance and Investment Forum at Student Doctor Network, too. One of the most popular forums on the planet is Reddit. There are “subreddits” for every possible subject out there, and so, in 2018, we started a WCI Subreddit which has also seen considerable success among “redditors” (we have more than 17,000 members). The “Reddit crowd” tends to skew younger, and people really like the “vote up/vote down” function. This serves to elevate the work of the most popular (theoretically the most helpful) posters.
A blog, short for “web-log,” is simply material regularly published to a website by a person or persons on whatever subject matter they feel passionately about. You can read it on the internet or subscribe to it with an “RSS reader” or, more commonly, by email. It's like a newsletter without a commitment. Some blogs invite interaction from readers who are allowed to leave comments at the end of each post. Gazillions of blogs have come and gone over the last couple of decades. The most popular ones usually grow into some sort of business—selling ads, affiliate marketing, developing their own products, or soliciting additional consulting, speaking, or writing business.
However, most blogs don't have many readers, never make much money, and get abandoned without ever doing much more than honing the writing skills of their authors. Blogs are particularly good for complicated subjects that include math equations, diagrams, and tables and can readily incorporate images and videos. On the internet, most people do not read every word. They skim from subject header to subject header searching for useful information. The main downsides of a blog compared to other mediums is that they're not usually very entertaining, they can easily get the tone wrong, and many users never read anywhere near the whole thing.
The White Coat Investor blog was our first product (started way back in May 2011), and it's what you are reading right now. It has always been my favorite part of WCI. I like to think I've gotten better at it over the years, but I'll leave that judgment in your hands.
Podcasts have become increasingly popular over the last 10 years. They have several advantages over blogs:
- Can be listened to while doing something else (driving, hiking, working out)
- Users are far more likely to listen to the whole thing
- Generally more entertaining
- Easier to get the tone right
- Easier to bring on alternative voices
There are additional challenges as well:
- No images, diagrams, or charts
- Difficult to address complicated topics
- Difficult to skim to find the information you really want
- Requires large quantities of storage
- Difficult to direct listeners to additional material
- Challenging to monetize
We started the WCI Podcast in January 2017 and the Milestones to Millionaire podcast in February 2021. Since that time, the podcasts have become even more popular than the blog, which I find bizarre because I consider myself to be a far better blogger than podcaster. Many of you actually prefer to consume the podcast in “blog form” by reading the show notes and transcript. Whether you want to read it or listen to it, you can do so right on the website or by going wherever you prefer to get your podcasts. We think the podcasts are particularly good for reaching new people with the message, for providing ongoing inspiration and encouragement to reach financial goals, and for highlighting the accomplishments of the WCI community.
Videocasts are like podcasts on steroids. The most common place to host videocasts is YouTube, where they are readily searchable. You can like, subscribe, and share videocasts with others and easily post a link to them. They are challenging to produce to get high-quality audio and video, but they're even more challenging because they require public speaking and acting talents that many of us do not have. They also require large amounts of storage. It can be immensely time-consuming to script out an entire podcast or videocast, but if you don't want to do that, you will need to be relatively good at talking off the cuff. YouTube users tend to skew young, so it is great for topics appropriate for young audiences. I have found it to be most useful for tutorials—walking people through using calculators or spreadsheets or showing how to fill out tax forms. Those of you who work on your own cars know what I'm talking about. There is nothing like a video to show you how to do something on your car. It is also a great place to host videos inserted into emails or blog posts.
We started the WCI YouTube Channel in 2017. We have always had big plans for it, but now, we have the staff resources to finally start getting those plans implemented with many more, but shorter and better-edited, videos.
Most people may not think of online courses as social media, but they certainly would not exist without the internet. These often include comments and discussions, either right in the course itself or in an associated forum or Facebook group. Although they require a ton of effort to do well and are often relatively expensive, these are a fantastic way to really teach financial literacy, as well.
We have developed several online courses over the years and promote those of others in the physician personal finance space. Our most popular one is the Fire Your Financial Advisor course, which helps you to rapidly become financially literate and to develop your own written financial plan. It also now includes its own private space for students on the WCI Forum.
I'm not sure Mark Zuckerberg knew what he was unleashing when he founded Facebook in 2004. It has come to dominate the planet and has attracted the attention of government officials and regulators. People use Facebook for all kinds of different reasons ranging from checking in on the grandkids to arguing politics with strangers. People and businesses have Facebook pages that you can follow (or more powerfully “like”), which results in their posts showing up in your “feed.” Users scroll through their feeds looking for posts of interest.
The key benefit of Facebook is that it requires little time, attention, or commitment and that it is primarily consumed on mobile devices. The key challenge of using Facebook to promote financial literacy is that it requires little time, attention, or commitment and that it is primarily consumed on mobile devices. Financial literacy is not a subject that is easily learned through hundreds of 15-second interactions. However, it can be a method to help others be aware of more appropriate methods of learning about personal finance and investing (blogs, newsletters, podcasts, courses, videocasts, etc.).
While Facebook can be technically searched, its search functions are unwieldy, and material rapidly drops out of your feed, never to be seen again. For getting new information out rapidly, it has few equals. Of course, bad information can be spread as readily as good information. One unique feature of Facebook is the ability to “go live,” which is basically a real-time videocast. The software is quirky and doing anything “live” is terrifying, but there is nothing else quite like it.
We have had a WCI Facebook page for years, followed by about 21,000 people. We have found it particularly useful to share recent blog posts, keep followers up to date about real-time news events, and celebrate the successes of our community.
Another very interesting Facebook feature is a private Facebook group. These groups can be focused on just about anything you want. Posts are relatively private, and membership can be restricted and removed at will. The main benefit is that posts in the group show up in the Facebook feeds of group members, and members mostly do not have to worry about anyone but group members seeing what they post. The downsides, unfortunately, are massive. Many people are using their real names on Facebook. While possible to use an alias, Facebook discourages it. While private, there is nothing a group can do to keep members from taking screenshots of what other members post and using them for their own purposes. Group administrators have little recourse available to prevent that. If they can figure out who did it, they can remove them from the group. But that's about it.
The larger a group becomes, the less “private” it truly is. The method in which people use Facebook (short periods of time while distracted and on mobile devices) also discourages thoughtful interaction and encourages “trolling” types of behavior. Due to the rapid nature of posts dropping off of feeds, it suffers even more than forums from having the same questions asked over and over again. Like with a forum, moderation is a challenge. Aside from trolling, you also see people using groups for their own purposes, whether to promote their own businesses or to try to discuss “off-topic” subjects such as religion or politics.
The White Coat Investors Facebook Group was started in August 2018, and membership rapidly boomed. It currently boasts about 61,000 members with lots of discussions on various topics. I also occasionally “go live” in it. It is a great way to introduce people to “white coat investor ideas” and sometimes helps direct people to resources and more complete discussions of a topic on the website. Members also post lots of, well, “interesting” investing ideas there. One thing about putting 60,000-plus people in one place is that you will quickly find that there is absolutely nothing that they all agree on and that it really takes an exceptionally high amount of courtesy on the part of all to avoid offending and being offensive. By far, the most emotionally challenging job at The White Coat Investor is overseeing that group.
Twitter was founded in 2012 and is a favorite social media for many of its users. It excels at rapidly disseminating information, but in many ways, it's the online equivalent of hundreds of people standing on boxes in the public square screaming at each other at the top of their lungs about whatever subject strikes their fancy. Many bloggers try to publicize their work on Twitter, but it is surprisingly poor at directing traffic to websites. If you think Facebook is primarily consumed in short bursts and subject to trolling kinds of behavior, it has nothing on Twitter. A far higher percentage of Twitter users are anonymous, there are no private Twitter groups, and users are basically limited to only two remedies when things go bad—they can delete their own tweets (but can't edit them) and they can block specific accounts from seeing their tweets. Those two limitations are easily worked around simply by taking screenshots of tweets before they are deleted and by creating multiple throwaway accounts that have not yet been blocked.
To make matters worse, tweets are limited to 280 characters (not 280 words), severely hindering the ability to provide context and to get the tone right. Popular discussions also bring in the followers of the various participants, most of whom know nothing about the other participants in the conversation and who often jump to truly inappropriate conclusions. Twitter is, by far, the meanest of the popular social media platforms despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Twitter users skew toward the young, educated, and high earners. Most users post little to nothing—10% of users post 80% of the content. Frequent posters are much more likely to be women, to be posting about politics, to be less attached to their local community, and to be Democrats (by a ratio of as much as 2:1.). The reaction to that political bent was profound enough to launch what basically amounts to a conservative Twitter alternative known as Parler.
The White Coat Investor has more than 28,000 Twitter followers. We send out links to our posts, interesting material written by others, and inspiring quotes and stories from our community.
The ‘Gram is primarily a platform for sharing images, which makes it pretty tough to use to promote financial literacy. You can't even post a link to a blog post there until you have 10,000 followers. However, it is a far more positive place than Twitter or Facebook.
We use The White Coat Investor Instagram account to share inspiring stories from our community, to share news about new events and products, and to do occasional giveaways. Now that we have more than 14,000 followers, we also try to help people be aware of our new blog posts with limited success.
Pinterest is a tricky social media platform to use to promote financial literacy. “Pins” tend to be mostly images, such as infographics, recipes, and lists. One-third of users are in the U.S. and 71% of them are women.
When we can think of something good for a pin, we stick it on The White Coat Investor Pinterest account. Feel free to follow along with the few hundred users following our account if you're on the platform.
Didn't think of this one as social media? You're not alone. It's never anonymous, but you can have both “connections” and “followers” who can see what you post on your LinkedIn account.
I don't know if “your network is your net worth,” but we have 500-plus connections on LinkedIn. Feel free to join them.
TikTok is one of the newer social media platforms. It is mostly composed of very short videos that often feature the host dancing or pointing to words or images that pop up on the screen. If that sounds to you like a difficult way to promote a message of financial literacy, I agree. There are definitely some people out there trying, though.
Social Media Cautions
The world of social media can be a crazy place, both for content producers and for content consumers. Here are a few words of warning before venturing in.
#1 Develop a Thick Skin
Social media can be a cruel place. While it can be affirming to receive thousands of “likes,” it can be just as crushing to receive the equivalent of thousands of “hates,” whether they come in the form of insults or other people liking the insults directed at you. While sticks and stones can still break bones, despite what we learned in elementary school, words still can hurt you. Don't expect social media to become any kinder; you either deal with it as it is or you should stay off it.
#2 Be Careful Giving Up Anonymity
While people may be a little nicer when everyone is using their real name, there is precious little benefit for most users in giving up their anonymity online. If you're not trying to build a brand, create a professional reputation, make money, or run for political office, I cannot in good conscience recommend you use your real name in any online space. Be careful sharing intimate life and financial details, as well. Hackers, identity thieves, and kidnappers are obvious concerns, but there can also be other severe real-life consequences of your online activities. Future employers are likely to peruse your social media accounts. Tweeting the wrong thing can get you fired. You may even find people want to “cancel” you by sending your posts to your employer, widely publicizing them in connection to your employer or family members. They may even attempt to destroy your business by discouraging your customers. That is all much harder to do with an anonymous account, especially if you never post anything.
#3 Realize You Are Being Manipulated
Social media companies, including many bloggers like us, are in the ad business. They want you looking at your feeds for as long as possible and as often as possible. They are deliberately showing you the content that is most likely to keep you doing that. Many of the “people” online aren't even people at all—they're bots. When you do want to get real “news,” be sure to acquire it from multiple sources across the political spectrum, especially non-partisan and less-partisan sources.
#4 Take Occasional Breaks
An occasional “social media fast” is a good idea. I took one last December. For the entire month, I didn't get on to social media, including any of our forums. You probably didn't notice since we have a staff member in charge of our social media efforts who was already doing 2/3 of our “social media stuff.” She simply transitioned to doing 100% of it. If you really want to disconnect, though, avoid reading the news online or in print as well. You might be surprised how much happier it makes you. It definitely worked for me, and when I re-engaged, I did so at a much healthier level and in a far more useful way for my personal and professional life.
What do you think? What do think are the best ways to use social media to promote financial literacy among doctors? Comment below!