By Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk
Written by Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk, BBR Marketing
Originally published in Public Accounting Report, Vol. XXXV, No. 7.
One of the hottest topics among accounting firms lately is how to integrate the power of social media into firm marketing, rainmaking and communications. Some firms are using social media extensively; others are just now starting to dip their toes in. Other firms are avoiding social media entirely. But whether partners embrace or resist it, the social media phenomenon is here to stay. The real question is how firms can best use social media for their benefit without falling prey to its downsides.
For those just entering the conversation, social media is a group of Internet-based applications that provide opportunities to network, collaborate and engage in real-time, online conversations. While social media have been around for quite a few years, they are still relatively new—and constantly morphing—media with a variety of platforms and particulars. The options seem limitless and can be overwhelming.
The “Big Three” social media for professionals in 2011 are Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Here’s a short breakdown of each for the uninitiated:
Twitter is a real-time information feed, where users communicate through 140-character “tweets” with their followers. Many businesses use Twitter as a means of connecting directly with their customers and to communicate company news and promotions. Most professional services firms on Twitter use it to share knowledge, communicate best practices and network with others in their industry-specific communities.
Facebook is a real-time information feed, where users can create personal and firm pages. Facebook pages can be social media versions of a firm’s professional website. Firms use their pages to announce news and updates, which then drop into the feeds of other Facebook users that have chosen to receive them. Much like Twitter, professional services firms use this platform to share knowledge and best practices, and to create online connections with followers.
LinkedIn is a social networking site specifically targeted toward business users. Members are able to interact with other professionals in an online social setting. It can also serve as a centralized, web-accessible database of one’s professional contacts. Users can stay up to date on connections’ work status or job changes and subscribe to updates from specific companies. LinkedIn Groups are industry-specific subgroups on the site that allow for networking within one’s own industry.
Blogs are regularly edited and updated sites that share information, typically as brief articles displayed in reverse chronological order. Blogs differ from a company’s primary website in that new content is added on a very regular basis. Blogs tend to have a conversational tone and are less formal, providing commentary on current issues and trends, with the goal of sharing knowledge and sparking a conversation. Often, blogs are connected to a firm’s main website so visitors can view both easily. Readers can typically “subscribe” to blogs via RSS feeds so they are notified when any new content is added.
Where Is The ROI?
So what does all this mean to the public accounting business? How to use these new marketing tools, or whether to use them at all, is being discussed by partners and marketing staff at firms all over the country. They realize these tools can be powerful new ways to increase their firms’ exposure to audiences that may otherwise remain inaccessible.
However, a social media presence requires a level of commitment and consistency that exceeds the time and resources that many firms and partners can or want to commit. This is a valid concern for busy professionals with limited time and whose time is billable. The return on investment must be high enough to justify spending what could be billable time on social media.
So is it worth the investment? Where are the benefits to justify it?
For those accounting firms that have a strong social media presence, it’s about creating awareness and a positive image for the firm. This effort increases visibility on search engines and also promotes the thought leadership of firm management, which in turn can generate referrals.
“Before we started blogging, we were never found on Google unless you typed in the firm name,” said Jaimi Czarnezki, marketing director for Henry & Horne in Phoenix, Ariz. (net revenue: $17 million; 15 partners, 110 staff; three offices). “After we created our blogs, we started ranking on the first page of Google for many different keywords. When a prospect searches for a topic discussed on one of our blogs, it directs them to our website, and they call us. For example, we recently added a new 401(k) client this way. The prospect was searching for answers on Google, and our 401(k) blog was the first link that came up. The prospect read what we had to say, went to our website, and then called the firm.”
While social media is typically about brand awareness and participation in online conversations, it’s not uncommon for firms to receive business directly from their social media accounts. Graham Dodge, director of marketing for Katz, Abosch, Windesheim, Gershman & Freedman, based on Timonium, Md. (net revenue: $14 million; 22 partners, 79 total staff; three offices), has developed business through LinkedIn and another social media venue, YouTube.
“We recently added a new audit client because he approached one of our accountants through LinkedIn. Additionally, we have a potential client who mentioned that, upon seeing our YouTube videos, he is now more likely to use our services since we seem to be a firm with fresh ideas,” Dodge said.
In addition, KAWG&F’s YouTube animated series, “Gotta Love Tax Season,” was featured on The Huffington Post in a round-up of “Funny, Educational & Bizarre” tax-related videos for Tax Day 2011. “Our YouTube channel received around 3,000 views within the first three days of the article,” Dodge said.
At New York-based EisnerAmper (FY11 net revenue: $253 million; 170 partners, 1,200 total staff; 10 offices) articles linked to social media have generated viable leads. When a partner wrote an article on changes in leasing recently, the link was shared through social media sites. “We received three calls from real estate companies that wanted to do some events with us or partner with us on some business because we were seen as experts on the topic due to that article. It prompted them to contact us,” said Susan Wittner, director of marketing. “They wouldn’t have found us any other way.”
Stories like these explain why more and more firms are jumping into social media. Add to that the low cost of entry, and everyone should jump right in, right?
Not necessarily. Like any marketing effort, it is important to research the options and see if it is worth the firm’s time and investment. While the social media accounts are free, firms should consider the cost of the time it will take for a person to properly execute and monitor the accounts.
“As a middle-market firm, we don’t have the bandwidth or the budget to pull marketing stunts for cool-factor alone,” said Raissa Evans, executive manager of Practice Growth for PKF Texas in Houston. (Net revenue: $20 million; 14 partners, 149 total staff).
“We hope to offer up information and tools in a variety of channels, and by doing that, further the conversation between our marketplace and our firm. The long-term ROI on our firm blog and social media is consistently 40 times the dollar investment, as well as an immeasurable amount of branding, public relations and connections for the firm,” she said.
Most firms that are really seeing value from their social media efforts are careful to warn others that there are right and wrong ways to go about it.
“It is a marketing tool that brings exposure for the firm, but it is not a magic bean that produces instant results,” said Mark Eberle, partner at Henry & Horne. “One needs to be consistent and patient. A firm needs a champion to stay behind it.”
“We had an extensive planning phase,” said Brad Simon, EisnerAmper’s manager of internal communications. “I personally went to 15 to 20 conferences and roundtables on social media topics, including legal precedents, how to maximize the vehicle, how to engage the audience and best practices. Educate yourself, and do your research. Be prepared before taking the next step.”
Social media is becoming more widely adopted, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still skepticism. Education is important.
“Any pushback we received stemmed from a lack of education about these tools and how they can be applied to business. We conduct internal training on a regular basis,” said Eric Majchrzak, marketing director at Freed Maxick & Battaglia, based in Buffalo, N.Y. (Net revenue: $36 million; 36 partners, 250 total staff; three offices).
Up to this point, accounting firm partners tend to be more involved in following up on the leads social media generates, rather than having direct involvement in the daily management or conversation, but that seems to be changing. Some partners are writing their own blogs now, like Greg Price, director of consulting solutions at PKF Texas, who is the face of the firm’s long-running blog, “FromGregsHead.com.” Price also tweets from @fromgregshead.
Henry & Horne’s Eberle is another example of a partner who is actively involved in the firm’s social media presence. “Many partners still look for direct results and don’t understand that marketing is about general exposure to those who ultimately may want or need your services,” said Eberle.
Partners will increasingly step up and be active participants in the social media universe.
“Social media is not a fad; it is the way people communicate. If you do not join in, you will be left behind,” said Czarnecki.