In our last issue, we explored why it's better for accounting firms not to go online at all than to do it without a serious commitment; discussed how they should integrate all of their efforts; and offered some tips on tweeting. in this follow-up, we'll look at blogging, and protecting your firm's reputation online.

LONGER FORM

One of the best places for employees to consistently share their expertise is on the firm's own blog. Firms that were ahead of the curve in the blogging trend have since successfully branded that thought leadership.

"Our corporate blog, 'From Greg's Head,' was launched in January 2006 and was really, really successful," shared Jen Lemanski, PKF Texas' manager of practice growth. "We originally launched the blog to increase search-engine optimization for our consulting solutions practice and Microsoft Dynamics, as a reseller. We iconized Greg Price with that blog and we were the first in the industry to do an accounting technology blog."

Before pioneering that corner of the blogosphere, PKF Texas did copious research, tracking what other blogs existed in that space and adjacent spaces, polling blogging experts, consulting with internal litigation regarding liability issues, and leveraging their connections in local technology groups.

The practice growth team, led by director Karen Love and executive manager Raissa Evans, then recruited Price, PKF's director of consulting solutions, to be the face of the new venture - literally. His portrait, previously used in a well-received ad, is featured in a strategically designed banner image for the blog site that is meant to appeal to its intended audience, complete with vibrant colors, a "techno feel" and "leetspeak" -- a language popular in the tech community that uses symbols in place of numbers.

The blog is popular enough to warrant its own title and URL, though it's still prominently linked to PFK's main site. Firms with a younger blogging presence, however, have wisely made integration the goal, including Anders, which launched a new brand and Web site in early January 2013.

"When we first started our blog, we came up with the name 'Gray Matter,'" explained Lindsay Suelmann, marketing commnications specialist at the firm. "We thought we needed a separate name for it because it was totally different than what we were doing and we wanted to market it that way." But then the firm realized, "'Why are we marketing something else, when [Anders] people are doing it?' After the rebrand, it will be in the Web site, as part of the Web site, and not a separate name."

"We wouldn't have considered that three years ago; we thought we needed our own personality," added marketing director Donna Erbs. "But with what we know about social media today, the way it's integrated, it will be a key part of the Web site, the personality."

Anders' different personalities are aligned by topic, and meet with the marketing team once a month to, among other things, discuss blog post ideas. The firm serves six total niches, and has two to five consistent bloggers for each, plus more sporadic contributors, that follow a content calendar.

In the rush to increase SEO and Web traffic, firms should not veer far from their original online and social media policies. "When you write a blog post, you also have to make sure what you're putting on there is accurate," explained Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk, president of Atlanta-based professional services consultancy BBR Marketing. "There is so much on the internet ... . During Hurricane Sandy there was inaccurate information people were retweeting and sending forward, like a crazy picture of a shark. Do a minute of research if something seems weird."

Inaccuracies or inappropriate content are also bound to pop up in a blog's comment section. Although professional services industry blogs, as a whole, don't have many comments, let alone controversial ones, all blogs should be moderated.

"Usually, what happens most frequently is someone comes on and reads a blog post about audit and changes [the discussion] to payroll taxes, or HIPAA or timelines for health care," explained Dawn Westerberg, president of Austin, Texas-based marketing company Dawn Westerberg Consulting. "In the comments section, if someone asks a question, someone [at the firm] should be equipped to say, 'The answer to your question can vary based on a number of different scenarios. This is where you need to talk to a CPA or schedule an appointment with us."

Westerberg endorses an umbrella disclaimer along the lines of "These posts are not advice, but educational in nature," citing a favorite from a legal blog that succinctly states: "You will know when you're getting legal advice, because you'll be charged for it."

 

A DAMN ABOUT YOUR REPUTATION

While firms wield control over comments on their own site, the risk remains that unhappy clients will air grievances or critique a firm's service elsewhere on the infinite Web.

Fortunately, this is less common in the accounting profession than, say, consumer services that have Yelp and critical social media users to address. Still, while viral complaints are "not in the professional services yet, it's a matter of time," according to Ruszczyk.

This is where the dashboard tool comes in handy, as more than just a way to spread good news, but to defend against the bad.

If there is a publicly broadcast gripe, the worst thing a company can do is ignore it. "You have to face the fact that, 'Someone has a complaint about us,'" said Westerberg. "I've been hearing statistics that people are eight times more likely to complain [publicly] than if they were delighted with the service. When you're online, you're alerted to that fact, and a lot of times, it's how you respond online. That should be part of the plan - what do we do if someone expresses unhappiness ... [A marketing person] should know that in advance. 'Someone said something and they were unhappy, who are the go-to partners who understand that?' And when I contact them with an unhappy client, they should go into action immediately."

Westerberg lauds American Airlines for how it handles criticisms on Twitter with "constant contact and response." According to Westerberg, a sample response would be: "'I'm very sorry that happened; how can I get someone in touch with you? Tweet me with your phone number and I will call you to set it straight.'"

Ken Bansemer, who serves as McGladrey's national talent acquisition and talent management leader, would agree. "We have to be stewards of McGladrey's reputation," he explained. "Likewise, if an individual wants to engage in dialogue, we want to offer a response." He oversees a blog geared toward recruits and written by McGladrey interns, "Success Starts Here." It joins the firm's golf blog - which follows sponsored players - and its manufacturing blog.

"If we did not have a social media presence, we'd be conspicuous in our absence," he said. "It's necessary today, for people that want to see the authenticity of an organization and the culture. You can't get that at the company's site itself, but in guest posts and sharing videos and interesting happenings."

And while a profession-wide reticence to online commenting generally shields the accounting blogosphere from Internet negativity, it can also have the downside of seemingly turning social channels into black holes. This should not discourage firms from frequent updates, however. "When we started out, we expected to have a lot of dialogue and engage a lot," shared Terri Andrews, McGladrey's national public relations director. "That wasn't necessarily the case. People are reading, because we'll put something out there and all of a sudden get a lot of comments. And we connect via Twitter and Facebook, so we know they're out there. And our competitors are out there, so we want to be there."

 

FOLLOW THE ACTION

Competitors shouldn't be the only group influencing where firms stake a claim online - the virtual locations of clients, prospective clients and talent are just as important.

The obvious sites are LinkedIn and Twitter, but firms should do research and find out where the companies and individuals they do business with have a presence. Firms serving small and retail clients, for example, should have a Facebook page. And while Google Plus doesn't have as large a user base as other social networks, Westerberg recommends having an account, if only to improve search results: "Google denies a benefit between Google Plus and Google search, [but] I've anecdotally noticed that content I've posted there ... seems to get out there right away."

And with so many people accessing the Internet through social media applications on smartphones, it's vital for firms to mobile-optimize their Web sites.

Generally, less is more when it comes to social media, especially for firms just entering the space. Since a mere presence is no longer enough, firms benefit from fewer accounts, but with an engaged audience to whom they can devote the proper time and energy.

Therein lies the simple, central directive, explained by Westerberg and applicable to a firm's entire online presence: "It's a matter of doing it. ... You're not going to get momentum on social media platforms if you're not doing it."

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