Accounting firms are not exempt from the influence of social networking and social media. The questions firms face are: Is it better to control or influence social networking? And how can social media help accelerate business?

I believe firms should make every effort to influence social media and forget about trying to control how employees use them. What follows is a presentation of the facts and why I believe exerting influence is the only logical economic alternative.

How information is communicated and consumed has changed drastically in recent years. At one time, most of the world's information was controlled by a few and distributed to millions, but the Internet has caused publishers to radically rework their business models. Because of e-mail, firms conduct business differently than they did 10 years ago. It won't take long for today's emerging social media to become critical in helping firms communicate with precision to clients and prospects.

In order for firms to benefit from these tools, however, they must join the global online community. Unfortunately, too often I hear that firms are merely trying to control social media by restricting access to them.

 

LEVERAGE, DON'T RESTRICT

Some cite reasons that sound logical, but there's no good rationale I can find for firms to control employee access to e-mail, instant messaging and social media (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter). Firms often prohibit social networking tools because the business purpose is not immediately apparent. They don't understand social media and how to leverage them. Not all social media tools have a business purpose, but ignoring them will limit your firm's influence and may ultimately leave it in a noncompetitive state.

This is a strong statement, so allow me to explain.

Clients and potential clients are talking about you and your firm online. Do you know what they are saying? According to Nielsen Research, 78 percent of people trust their peers' opinions. This is not a new phenomenon, but social networks make it much easier to disseminate information. In particular, micro-blogging tools like Twitter and Facebook's status update feature enable users (including businesses) to spread information instantly. (At first Twitter was only popular with teens, but now adults and businesses are learning how to leverage its ease of use and pervasiveness.)

Most consumers and potential clients go directly to the Web to research alternatives and seek peer advice. Should your firm ignore this fact, or should it take a proactive stance and influence what employees and clients say about your business? Referrals have always been important, but social networking is like steroids for a referral program (for positive or negative results).

Differentiation is critical when it comes to marketing, and social networking tools help individuals and firms differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Organizations can play to their unique abilities, rather than try to be all things to everyone.

Moreover, social media provides 24/7 transparency and access. Some argue that this invites an invasion of privacy, but others believe in its power as an accountability tool. It is becoming increasingly undesirable and problematic for people as well as organizations to present multiple personalities in a connected world.

 

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

Social media is ultimately about developing communities and encouraging involvement in those communities. This is where the greatest potential for influence resides. The tools provide capabilities to manage a significantly large number of relationships efficiently and effectively. You may ask why this is important, and I believe the answer is to avoid commoditization. Communities have always been important to firm development, but in today's environment, communities no longer have geographic boundaries. It is possible to specialize with a much larger population from which to attract clients. Marketing experts understand this concept, but not all marketing experts understand the tools that are available today.

This is not a criticism; it results from the ongoing development in available tools and technologies. In order to help CPAs better understand these tools, I have placed the most relevant technologies into context below. (I purposely ignore gaming, entertainment and livecasting - even though they have economic importance.)

The primary categories of social media tools that firms should be aware of are:

* Social networking - community platforms (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace).

* Publishing - blogging and the management of intellectual capital (Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga).

* Audio digital content - intellectual capital (podcasts, iTunes).

* Photo digital content - intellectual capital (Flickr, ImageShack, iPhoto).

* Video digital content - intellectual capital (YouTube, TED).

* Microblogging - short broadcast messages (Twitter, FriendFeed, Tumblr).

* Productivity - mashup applications and convergence of messaging (Mozilla Ubiquity, Digsby, Scribd).

* Aggregators - filtering information by user interest (Yelp, Digg, Reddit).

* RSS - automatic feeds.

* Search engine optimization (Google, Bing and Yahoo).

* Mobile applications, such as for the iPhone and Blackberry.

As you review this list, hopefully you see tools from several categories that your firm is already using. One size fits one, and that is why users must determine the configurations that are important to them.

Most firms use webinar tools and leverage this technology to reduce travel costs and investments in education and training. Deciding which tools are most useful and implementing priority applications in your firm will require thought, planning and training.

 

FIRMS UNDER THE INFLUENCE

CPAs as well as firms are already under the influence of several social networking trends. First, many in our industry are embracing purpose-driven (filtered) networks, because they value peer opinions and want to interact with others who understand their unique challenges and culture. The Boomer Knowledge Network has seen significant growth in the last year as a result.

Secondly, mobile devices are rapidly becoming the preferred interface for social networking. Blackberry and Apple's iPhone have done much to promote this trend in North America. In Africa and Asia, most people are limited to a cell phone, but have developed efficient texting languages and tools.

Finally, progressive firm leaders are encouraging employees to learn about social networking tools and implement them to promote business. As with any new technology, a few are championing the implementation and helping spread the interest in and understanding of social media's potential to accelerate profitability.

Consider the following action plan to leverage this technology and ensure a return on your firm's investment:

1. Develop a social networking task force that is comprised of younger members of the firm and influential leaders.

2. Develop a list of requirements and priorities (i.e., communications and training).

3. Develop standards, policies and procedures.

4. Select the appropriate tools that integrate with your systems.

5. Implement pilot projects and rapidly expand to additional users.

6. Continually monitor the development of new tools.

7. Participate in peer groups to seek advice and share experiences. (The Boomer Knowledge Network is a great place to start!)

Most firms are just learning how to leverage this technology, so peer relationships are extremely important. Don't be afraid to experiment.

 

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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