Accounting firms attempting to establish a comprehensive online profile should start with the accounts they likely already own: their Web site, Twitter feed, linkedin page and blog. But if the site's copyright is from last decade, the firm's Twitter profile image is the default egg, linkedin connections are thin, and the blog hasn't been updated since Obama won the election (the first time), it's almost better to have no presence at all.

Today, prospects, clients and potential recruits have gotten savvier and more specific about what they want from a company's online offerings, and merely reserving URL real estate will no longer suffice.

Instead, the key word for firms refining their digital image is integration -- in more ways than one.



The first stage of this assimilation is on a firm-wide basis, starting with commitment to an active online existence and explicit rules for anything published on the firm's behalf.

For forward-thinking firms, this usually translates into a social media policy. "Firms should be establishing that policy up front," advised Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk, president of Atlanta-based professional services consultancy BBR Marketing. "There should be a person in charge of managing that process, someone with the maturity and understanding to handle it - that's the primary thing."

Of course, maturity does not connote age, as many firms have found that younger employees or interns best harness the "light-hearted, fun nature of the medium" that Ruszczyk does not want companies to sacrifice when drafting a social media policy.

Policies typically address appropriateness -- forbidding employees who tweet, blog or publish under the brand from using bad language or broaching especially controversial topics. The policy at Houston CPA firm Pannell Kerr Forster of Texas also outlines the time that non-marketing employees should devote to these updates, which is typically no more than 30 minutes per day.

For these employees who don't manage the firm's social media accounts but have individual, firm-approved ones from which they dispense specific expertise, Top Six Firm McGladrey uses a registration process that includes getting supervisor approval, reading the firm policy, and registering their account.

Smaller firms probably don't need this formality, but could benefit from employee training. Both PKF Texas and St. Louis CPA firm Anders (recently rebranded from Anders Minkler & Diehl) hold social media sessions, with Anders' marketing communications specialist Lindsay Suelmann leading the one on Twitter. "A lot of people don't know how to tweet, who to follow, or how it helps the firm," she shared. "We tell them what types of things to post, let them know what people are searching for out there, but mainly how to use it, and how to represent the firm."



From a content standpoint, a good place to start is with timely updates.

"There are a lot of facts and news that are not controversial at all, and that would be of interest to the people they follow and the folks following them" on Twitter, explained Dawn Westerberg, president of Austin, Texas, marketing company Dawn Westerberg Consulting. "They can be little reminders, '15 more business days until fourth quarter filings are due,' or, 'Three more days until our webcast on getting ready for year-end procedures' -- anything you would put in the newsletter or alert clients to with an e-mail."

Westerberg recommends streamlining this scheduling, whether through an editorial calendar, which both Anders and McGladrey utilize for their online content, or a simple document.

"Set up an Excel spreadsheet and look first at those calendar events that have messages around them: quarterly reporting deadlines, extensions, firm events, open houses," she continued. "Assign people to be responsible for different periods of time or subject matters, so you're sticking to the schedule. Maybe it's an intern or someone in the marketing department that acts as a sort of clearing house to remind people of their duties, and to orchestrate."

Orchestration is easier with a dashboard tool like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, which allows user to easily view their own tweets, replies, mentions and direct messages to a Twitter feed, as well as the tweets of those they follow. On this platform, tweeters can set up specific lists that will help facilitate critical components of the social media process: engagement and conversation.

"Social media really does rely on a consistent presence to get much from it -- otherwise you're not using it as the medium should be used," said Ruszczyk. "It's called 'social' for a reason -- if all you're doing is pushing services or using it as a pure sales tool, it's not going to work out very well for you."

"[Social media use] is the same as if you are at a reception or networking event," Westerberg explained. "If your behavior is just broadcast, broadcast, then it's not the soft sell and it becomes spam-like. You should be paying attention to clients, prospects - no one goes on these platforms to be ignored. It's a really easy way to have nice, warm feelings between you and a prospect or client. There's the value of them knowing you notice what's going on with them, which goes so far in developing those relationships and building loyalty."

Westerberg recommends that firms both set up a Google alert for their clients and keep an eye on news pushed out through their social media channels. Then, for example, firms can proudly retweet a client's update on charity work, or reply with congratulations to an announcement about a recent award or milestone.

Firms should expand this monitoring beyond their current clients, however, by creating lists. "You can have gold for clients, silver for prospects, green for members of the media," Westerberg advised, adding: "That is a huge and overlooked aspect of online marketing -- staying in front of people and media outlets. Several times a day I see different writers and bloggers who need different information on topics. If you can answer on that topic, it gives you a little exposure."

The second part of this article, appearing in our next issue, will cover blogging, and protecting your firm's reputation online.

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