The question invariably comes up: "What is social marketing and should I incorporate it in our firm?"

The answer is always: "It depends." Before you can decide if you should incorporate social marketing/media into your marketing efforts, you need to decide what the desired result is. What do you hope to accomplish?

Let's start off making a distinction between what social media is and what it is not.

What social media is: a set of online tools and activities for consumers, sellers and influencers to create, share, exchange and interact with content. It's about a conversation and collaboration. It's about interaction. It's about shared experiences.

Here's what social marketing/social media is not: It is not just another marketing or promotional channel. It is not something you can do without active participation. It is not something you can do that doesn't provide value for your clients and your prospective clients.

There has to be some sort of participation. There has to be some sort of valuable interaction. It cannot be fake or forced, but rather, it needs to be genuine and authentic. So, why is it important for accounting firms?

The old ways of doing business and staying in touch with clients and prospects are changing. And that means the old ways of marketing your services might not be the best for your firm. Clients and prospective clients want to have a conversation with you. They want you to listen to them and to be heard. They want to know that there is a relationship. Often they want to know as much about you and your expertise as they can before they even entertain the thought of meeting with you.

For accounting firms, that means staying in regular contact with your clients and prospective clients. It means informing them of new developments that may affect their business. Letting them know of situations where you helped solve a problem for a client that is similar to the one they are facing. It means having some sort of dialogue. It may even mean telling your story or showcasing your expertise on a blog.

Social media marketing may not be right for every accounting firm. And it certainly stands to reason that not every accounting firm should go out and start Tweeting randomly. That would be an unproductive use of social media and your time. However, having a tax blog on your Web site where you can provide details about new tax laws or issues might be worthwhile. Or maybe it's an niche-specific blog that deals with the issues facing a particular industry, like construction or manufacturing.

What about using Facebook to connect with prospective job candidates, or for college recruiting? Or even using something like LinkedIn or Spoke to build your professional network for referrals? Of course, it wouldn't be inappropriate to potentially Tweet about a new product or service that your firm is offering.

I think you get the idea. What is it about this social marketing/media that makes it effective? For many, it's the transparency, openness and apparent honesty of a conversation - a dialogue. It's about the immediacy. It's about the interaction between the company and the consumer. That interaction is pretty hard to have with traditional forms of promotion and advertising. Those are almost always one-way.

There's a lot to know about social marketing/media - from blogs and podcasts, to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, to YouTube and Flickr. You need to do your homework on all that is out there and be sure that you know what you want to accomplish before you start. The key is having an idea in mind about what it is you want out of social marketing/media. If you're not clear on what the ultimate goal is, you will most certainly not achieve it.

If done well, social media/social marketing can help grow your firm. Done poorly, it will leave a lasting impression that isn't always favorable.

 

Timothy Allen is a marketing account manager for Wipfli in Madison, Wis. Reach him at tallen@wipfli.com.

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