Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest are all-pervasive, but just how important is it really for accounting practices to establish a strong social media presence?
Whether it’s “tweet” this, “like” that or sharing your latest selfie, these days there is no escape from social media. All of which leaves many practitioners feeling pressured to climb aboard the bandwagon when it comes to client communications.
Somewhat surprisingly, CPA Australia’s general manager content and social media, Jillian Bowen, questions the benefits of social media when it comes to clients.
“My advice is to use it with clients with caution. If your instinct is ‘it’s not for me’, then don’t do it.”
Other forms of communication still work, she says. “Simple things such as e-newsletters can be more effective than social media when it comes to clients. Email is still a very effective way to reach people.”
Michael Carter, founder of Practice Paradox, a firm specialising in social media marketing for accountants, has a different view.
“I don’t think accountants have any choice about using social media, depending on the demographics of their client base.”
He argues that, at a minimum, firms need to monitor social media. “If your business is mentioned on Facebook or Twitter, wouldn’t you want to know about it and respond?”
Picking a platform
Deciding to get involved could seem the easy decision once you start looking at the platform options. According to Carter, this choice should be led by your clients.
“Selection is a matter of the fit between your clients’ habits and what your firm’s preferences are.”
This has seen many practices gravitate towards Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, a new study led by Associate Professor Sumit Lodhia from the University of South Australia has found. Strategising for Social Media: A Public Accounting Practice Perspective investigated the use of social media by firms and found that the purpose of a communication dictated what platform it was on.
“The key is audience and strategy first, then selection of the channel,” Lodhia explains.
“You need to ask how many clients are likely to want to ‘follow’ their accounting practice. Many people find the whole idea weird.” Jillian Bowen
Firms are using a layered approach with different platforms for specific tasks, he says. “For example, Twitter has widespread use due to its real-time distribution capabilities and ability to add audio and video links.”
Although Twitter is often actively promoted to firms’ stakeholders and website users through continuously updated feeds, platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Google Plus tend to be used more on a needs basis.
Bowen agrees Twitter is a great channel for information alerts, but has doubts about its value with clients.
“It relies on people being there when it is posted. If clients are not, they are unlikely to look back through a stream of old tweets.”
Few friends for Facebook
Despite being at the heart of the social media phenomenon, Lodhia’s study found firms were light users of Facebook.
“It is not widely used for client communications, mainly for graduate recruitment purposes,” he notes.
The story is a little different for Tanya Titman FCPA, practice principal of Consolid8, a Brisbane-based accounting practice. She has found Facebook is a great platform for client communications.
“I wouldn’t have thought our clients would be on Facebook, but often we find we are dealing with businesses using it for their own business strategies.”
It has even proved to be a source of new business. “Facebook is the one producing the leads, rather than the other platforms,” she says.
Carter agrees Facebook can be useful, particularly the functionality allowing closed groups based around specific themes.
“The target group can be something like the spouse of small business owners and tradespeople who are responsible for the accounting side of the business,” he says.
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The platform with universally positive reviews is LinkedIn. This is due to its “professional and businesslike outlook,” Lodhia explains.
Titman is a LinkedIn fan, but mainly for professional networking. “It is not really for our retail clients, more our professional services clients and partners.”
It is also a good way to tap into a huge knowledge pool, Bowen says. “It can be a great source of ideas and new ways to do things.”
Although these platforms are currently the most popular tools with accountants, Carter believes their value depends on the practice’s marketing strategy. “I have seen a firm using Pinterest for posting images, quotes and memes as it is a great fit for its target audience.”
Following the guidelines
Even though social media can seem a free-for-all, there are some rules.
“[Practices] need to avoid blatant advertising and instead use subtle forms of promotion,” Lodhia advises.
Old-fashioned manners are also important, says Bowen.
“Join conversations and don’t just pop up when you want something. Remember, you are dealing with humans and you still need the same niceties as in real life.”
Carter agrees: “It is a conversation and the biggest mistakes are when someone is consistently self-promotional. You need to be authentic and not pretend. Use a conversational tone.”
Practitioners also need to recognise that social media is not for everyone. “You need to ask how many clients are likely to want to ‘follow’ their accounting practice,” Bowen notes.
“Many people find the whole idea weird. A better approach is to tell people you are available on a platform and invite them to connect with you, so that they don’t feel uncomfortable.”
Social media masters
Social media is a great tool for showing the human side of an accounting practice to clients, according to Titman.
“We use social media across a number of different platforms: Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s all about engaging with clients. We try to show a real-world approach; that real people are helping you and your business. Social media is a good strategic fit for our brand.”
While Consolid8 uses social media to create greater brand awareness and educate clients, its “sharing” environment has also led to new business via client endorsements. “As people come to like a company and its services, they want to share it with others,” Titman says.
A tip for practices keen to dip their toes into social media is to get the tone of communications right, she says.
“For example, we’ve found on Facebook that some clients love the social aspect and [want] to know what our team is doing, while others don’t, preferring more business updates.”
Consolid8 now posts a blend of material to social media, with 60 to 70 per cent of the posts being updates and the remainder covering the social side of the practice.
Despite its informality, learning the right way to communicate is important.
“You need to learn the etiquette – such as never making negative comments on any platform. Also, try to be helpful and remember, it is very hard to take anything back once it is out on social media,” says Titman.
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