As with many new technologies, and marketing in general, accounting firms have not entirely embraced social media, as there is still some trust to be earned regarding its use.
To be fair, social media is still a relatively new platform for businesses to work on, with one tool not necessarily being the clear standard for professional use. When social media is in use by the professional community, it tends to have more of a marketing bent, as firms strive to promote their brand, services and even the knowledge of their staff.
Despite many reservations, there are a growing number of cases where firms are finding good use for social media properties that even go beyond promotional purpose. Below are several examples of how firms of various sizes promote, communicate, generate client leads, and even help recruit through social media channels.
Firm: WithumSmith+Brown / Princeton, N.J.
Size: 400+ staff
Product/service(s): YouTube, Facebook, Twitter
Start date: 2011
On record: Senior marketing coordinator Sarah Cirelli
Challenge/objective: To help announce the purchase of a New York City firm and new office, as well as promote a positive firm culture to prospective employees.
Amount spent: Approximately $9,000.
Process: In the prior year, WS+B had already experimented with video to help promote what has now become "The Withum Way," a branding statement about the firm's positive culture and attitude of its employees. The video, which was posted on YouTube and the company's Web site, had "a small budget" and about 60 people filmed around one office, lip-syncing to the Black Eyed Peas song "I Gotta Feeling." More than 13,000 watched the video.
Cirelli and marketing director Rhonda Maraziti knew they wanted to do more both to promote positive firm culture and to creatively announce the recent acquisition of New York-based CPA firm EisnerLupin, which resulted in the opening of the first official Empire State office for the New Jersey firm.
Armed with more of a budget, approximately 150 staffers signed up to take part in the latest video project. The two decided on a "flash mob" type of video shoot, which took place on the streets of New York, and in front of the new office building in particular. They all practiced choreography, set to LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," for six weeks, and unveiled their routine for passersby on the morning of Dec. 2, 2011, in midtown Manhattan. The firm officially released the second video during its "State of the Firm" event in early January 2012, but it was also promoted through social media.
"To generate excitement before the video, we used Twitter and Facebook. With the new [Facebook] Timeline, it's heavy on media and we love to share photos, so we had every marketing coordinator in every office post photos from the video shoot," said Cirelli. "We also had Web developers post to our Home and Careers page of our Web site, and the next morning we shared the video from the Home page. We love this profession, but it is a challenge finding a way to make other content unique or different, and it gives us an opportunity to share other content on our Web site, so this lures [prospects] in."
Results: The firm has been recognized for its culture as an Accounting Today Best Firm to Work For, and employee retention is high, with a turnover rate of only 6.5 percent. Cirelli also noted that it is "very frequent" that new prospects have seen the WS+B videos and ultimately find their way to the firm's Web site for more information about joining the firm. In some cases, they have also received resumes in the firm's YouTube inbox, which are ultimately forwarded to HR.
"Our engagement is also much higher in social media. [The videos] give us content to share and our followers want to talk about them," said Cirelli. "It's not just about staff prospects, but our clients as well are more engaged with us."
Next steps: With the success of the past two video projects, the firm created a third in December 2012, with a much larger budget and participation from nearly half the firm's staff. Full results from that effort -- a multi-part video filmed over three full days - are still pending, though in the first day it garnered over 1,500 individual views.
Firm: Azran Financial / Los Angeles
Size: Three full-time staff
Product/service(s): YouTube pushed through Doc Stoc and Twitter, HootSuite for scheduling
Start date: March 2012 with Doc Stock and YouTube
On record: Owner Josh Azran
Challenge/objective: As a fairly new firm, it wanted to establish some thought leadership among its target client base of entrepreneurs, ultimately driving traffic to its Web site and blogs to gain potential client interest.
Amount spent: None; formed a content partnership with Doc Stoc.
Process: The firm was formed in November 2010, and owner Josh Azran knew they needed to use social media to help "get the word out" about who the firm is, and to establish some client connection and a positive firm image. Azran would read articles in areas of interest to current and potential clients, then cue them up via HootSuite for timed release over social media outlets, Twitter in particular -- but this was only the first step.
"We don't have a full-time marketing person, we're a small firm. We were generating good content, but didn't know how to get it out there in the best way," said Azran. "We also knew that we wanted to drive traffic to the content and Web site in general, since we have the potential to reach a much wider audience than just in our geographic area. This is where Twitter really helped us."
After gaining some Twitter followers, Azran would establish what kinds of followers his firm had and place a personal phone call to them, introducing himself and the firm's services. He also became aware of professional document and services community site Doc Stoc. The company contacted Azran and offered to put together some marketing content, specifically three- to four-minute YouTube videos around accounting-related topics that would be of interest to potential clients. The firm also included some specific QuickBooks training in a longer-format video series.
Results: Before the use of social media, less than 10 percent of contacts came through the Web; now at least 50 to 60 percent do. Azran said that the videos were also a major contributor to clients wanting to utilize the firm's services, and it recently won business over "a national firm" after a client saw his firm's videos. "One of the biggest things our clients will call out [about us] is they consistently say they are happy and comfortable by looking at the videos before they even pick up the phone the first time to contact us," said Azran. "They get to know us first."
Next steps: The firm is looking into using LinkedIn and Google+ to position itself in thought leadership and for prospecting.
Relationships & referrals
Firm: CBIZ Inc. / Cleveland
Start date: 2011
On record: Chief marketing officer Mark Waxman and social media marketing leader Amanda Markos
Challenge/objective: The firm believed social media had potential to help build relationships and get referrals. It also needed to empower and train a large staff throughout multiple offices to use social media, and LinkedIn in particular, to its full potential.
Amount spent: Only small spending on LinkedIn ads.
Process: Waxman knew that many in the firm needed to promote the firm's services as well as their own personal expertise and thought leadership. Through his own experiences and research, he found LinkedIn to be one of the best tools to do so.
"This business is about relationships and referrals, and social media has the ability to do both but in a digital environment," said Waxman. "The biggest bottom line is you fish where the fish are, and for business decision-makers, LinkedIn is where they are. We developed a social sphere, we figured out what 'ponds' we were going to play in, and we knew where much of our audience was spending time, and that's where they were most likely to be found."
His goal was not to get everyone in the firm to use it, but enough of the right people. Everyone at the firm was invited to get trained on LinkedIn use, particularly "more client-facing people." Waxman and his team, including Markos, helped create short information modules in the form of live webinars that would guide viewers on best practices and specific use. They also recorded the live presentations and shared PowerPoint slides in case anyone missed the live webinars.
Once trained, individuals would post in the LinkedIn groups best suited to their expertise. "One of our goals in the LinkedIn groups was continuing our marketing theme of thought leadership and sharing timely news on tax and accounting, so we had targeted our professionals who lead or focus on certain areas, even in specific states," said Markos.
Results: LinkedIn has become the No. 1 social media site used by the firm, with nearly 80 percent of all of its employees using it. The firm has had close to 2,000 employees through the training already as well. Waxman also noted that the firm can attribute "millions of dollars in business" to the use of LinkedIn.
"The free elements [of LinkedIn] are all you need to build the necessary relationships," said Markos. "We also start and facilitate LinkedIn groups and in some cases translate those online groups to offline and they become groups that attend live events in regions or states."
Next steps: The firm is close to completing its eighth webinar on specific tools in LinkedIn training. There have also been six offline learning and knowledge-sharing events, and there are "several more" planned for 2013, according to Markos.
Smolin vs. Superstorm
Firm: Smolin, Lupin & Co. / Fairfield, N.J.
Product/service(s): Facebook, LinkedIn and firm Web site
Start date: October/November 2012
On record: Director of human capital Rachel Anevski
Challenge/objective: To provide up-to-date, useful and location-specific information to staff and clients affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Amount spent: Nothing.
Process: After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, where many of the firm's employees and clients reside, many of them wanted to know if and when offices would be open or power restored, where local relief aid might be or simply where to go to charge phones, computers and other electronic devices. Clients also wanted to know that their information was safe, and Anevski and her team felt the best way to communicate would be through social media and the firm's Web site.
"In a disaster, people are calling insurance and they are calling their accountants," she said. "One of the partners began texting me and I pushed out that data; we also have a PR company that provided outside data, specifically links to township information, what was happening with power, what towns were saying and so on. We also made sure our employees were safe and we posted media on what to do in these events or how to get to the Red Cross and other safe areas."
Anevski found that many staff and clients did not have cable access to view local news, but were able to get on to the Internet through charged cell phones and computers. The firm also posted photos of affected areas. Some even came in through a staffer who is in the National Guard and was able to view devastated areas first hand -- one of which was managing member Ted Dudek's own home. Anevski said that since he was displaced, they were able to forward him photos.
The firm's New Jersey offices were closed for about a week, but once open they allowed clients to come in and charge devices or even use them as temporary work spaces until their own heat and power was restored.
"We encourage social media use here. We do not have very strict policies because we know this is how the world is moving and it's never been abused," said Anevski.
Results: The firm effectively communicated with its staff and once it was revealed when offices would open, everyone was accounted for at the offices that day. Clients that were able to utilize the space were also told that the firm was able to arrange business interruption insurance, which resulted in even more client work.
"Ultimately, our efforts showed that we care, and it improved our overall [social media] readership too," said Anevski.
Next steps: The firm is looking to utilize social media outlets to recruit, educate and "show that we've got depth of knowledge with these channels."
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