Six Degrees of Networking: The Use of Social Networking in Accounting Firms

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Gene Marks considered LinkedIn an annoyance. When he received emails inviting him to join the social networking site, he accepted them as a courtesy, but never accessed his account.

One day, the Philadelphia-area accounting software reseller discovered he had 30 connections, so he took the time to fill out a profile and check out who the people he knew.

Nine months later, he is singing LinkedIn’s praises, noting that it generated about 10 leads from people looking for QuickBooks and Great Plains expertise, and helped him find a specialized contract worker and check that employee’s references.

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“I’d go immediately to see who they were connected to and that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing is pretty cool,” Marks says, referring to the trivia game in which players try to connect any film actor in history to Kevin Bacon with as few links as possible based on movies they were in together.

The game stems from the concept of six degrees of separation, which theorizes that everyone is an average of six steps—or in this case links—away from each person in the world through their mutual connections.

LinkedIn aims to function the same way, only with business contacts.

“The whole system is based on the notion that if you work through your professional relationships to accomplish all kinds of tasks, you’ll be more successful than if you don’t,” says Patrick Crane, LinkedIn’s vice president of marketing and advertising.

LinkedIn clearly states its philosophy on its Web site: Relationships Matter.


And the more members there are, the higher the probability of successfully finding people.

Nearly 21 million people in more than 150 industries are LinkedIn members, with 1.3 million joining per month, boiling down to one every two seconds in countries around the globe. As of April, it was ranked the 214th most visited Web site by Alexa.com, which lists sites based on traffic. Considering there are more than 108 million Web sites in existence, by some estimates, Marks believed it was worth giving it a try.

After filling out his profile so people knew his areas of expertise, Marks says he received emails from out of the blue from people who were looking for someone experienced with QuickBooks and Microsoft GP. A keyword search for members in the Philadelphia area with Great Plains in their profile brings up his name and his profile, stating he specializes in consulting and training on those products. The searcher can send him a request for business, which essentially is a lead, through a LinkedIn email. Then Marks can allow that person into his network, which has grown to roughly 87 people, and let the prospect see other associates he has worked with in the past and use them as referrals.

On the flip side, Marks stumbled upon a Microsoft CRM engagement for which he needed someone to do specialized development work. Only one of his employees is dedicated to that area, and he was busy with other projects. So if Marks didn’t find someone else, he would have had to turn down the job.

Finding specialists in a hurry was always a problem in the past because it was difficult to hunt for people on job Web sites when they were already employed. He would call people asking if they knew anyone with experience in a certain area, search forums for a particular product and use Craigslist.

This time, Marks searched LinkedIn and found someone to fill the role within three days.

That worker also told Marks to choose anyone in his network for reference-checking purposes and that he would make the connection, instead of Marks having to send an anonymous email and hoping it got answered.

“2008 is the year for the social network sites hitting their stride,” Marks says.

Jack Schaller, president of Pennsylvania-based TriStar Data Systems, which resells Sage’s Peachtree and Timeslips products, agrees that such sites have gained momentum over the past four months, though he’s unsure whether LinkedIn will ultimately emerge as the top resource.

For now, he is experimenting with the tool to send business to other resellers who are well-qualified to solve other members’ problems. But he wants to ensure those he connects with will respond appropriately.

“Part of the expectation of having them in my network is I’m going to send them referrals and if they don’t want them, they shouldn’t be in my connection network,” says Schaller. “An emerging set of ground rules need to get defined.” (See related story, “Rules of Engagement.”)

He feels comfortable sending work to his intimate network of roughly 33 connections. He connected one person he knows whose company is growing and is “maxed out on QuickBooks” to a reseller of Sage’s Accpac product to discuss a possible switch.

Admittedly, he could have done the same thing via email, but using LinkedIn allowed the QuickBooks customer to see everything about the Accpac reseller’s company and her previous work, compared to Schaller harvesting all the information off her Web site or simply providing a link.

“That’s one step less powerful than being part of the same network and being connected visually through me,” Schaller says. “We could all find business opportunities via email and pick up the phone, but the LinkedIn piece gives more credibility.”

Helping Hands

Another way to gain credibility is by contributing to LinkedIn Answers, which allows people to ask questions in a discussion board style, which anyone can answer. The kicker is that the person asking the question can rate responses and the people responding earn points if rated positively.

“Your status rises, so you’re the preeminent expert in accounting software based on performance,” Schaller says.

Marks bumped up his own status on a separate social site offered by Bank of America called the Small Business Online Community, which he frequents himself to glean insight on issues affecting his 10-employee company and which also has helped him generate business.

“If I write an article for them or get active in a particular post, people read that and go offline and contact [me] with questions and that turns into work,” Marks says. “It’s a good way of Internet marketing and it costs nothing other than time.”

Accounting software vendors have created their own online communities in hopes of getting their customers to help each other in a similar fashion.

One of the oldest examples is the Accountants Resource Network 2, which Thomson Tax and Accounting offers for free to its CS Professional Suite users. The original ARNE formed in the mid-80s as a DOS-format bulletin board for which customers paid roughly $200 per year and additional fees to dial up through a broadband modem and communicate with one another, says Bryan Hoeft, director of marketing for Thomson Tax and Accounting’s Professional Software and Services. The Windows version emerged in the mid-90s and Thomson dropped the charges because there were lots of free forums available and they wanted to provide better support to customers beyond what they could discover by calling the vendor’s help line.


“Many of our customers are [owners of] small and medium-sized firms. They can’t run down the hall and ask people questions. They come to rely on this peer network and bounce things off each other,” Hoeft says.

Today there are more than 15,000 registered users contributing 100 to 200 posts per day in the offseason and up to 500 posts during tax season, according to Hoeft.

John Anderson, a manager at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Weidmayer, Schneider, Raham & Bennett, started using ARNE five or six years ago as a way to learn about tax issues and accounting theory beyond what he could read in a guidebook, and has turned into a frequent poster.

“On the technology group, people asked questions about how to use particular pieces of the application and I gave answers,” says the CPA and Certified Information Technology Professional. “After time, I built a following of people who look to me for technical expertise. I became more of a poster helping colleagues within ARNE on hardware and software issues.”

That resulted in about 10 IT consulting leads over the past few years in which he helped other firms in a more formal way as part of paid engagements.

Anderson doesn’t post primarily to find business, however.

“Other things I post on I’d never see a professional engagement as a result. That’s truly the altruistic component to it,” he says. “There’s not an expectation by ARNE users that people are in there trolling for business.

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