When it comes to social media, it's all about domination - at least it is for Andrew Rose of Naden/Lean in Timonium, Md.

As the firm's director of marketing and business development, Rose has a dizzying number of URLs listed after his e-mail signature in an effort to support his overarching goal - to dominate the "organic" searches for his specific keywords on Google. Or, simply put, to have his firm come up first when people search for dental CPAs - as dentists are the niche clientele his firm serves.

"When my social media - Twitter, LinkedIn - come up in the organic [those links that are non-sponsored], it means my competitor has been bumped out of that page," Rose explained. "I saturated that space and all roads lead back to me."

For example, if a dentist clicks on one of Rose's Twitter links, it will capture their attention by leading them to the firm's blog. Once there, a link leads the visitor back to the firm's Web site, with more specific information and a way for that person to make contact.

"We have [gotten] new clients to such a degree that a majority of print ads have stopped running and we have amped up the amount of money we spend on search-engine marketing," he said. "I just launched Facebook ads. We want young, progressive dentists, because that's a 20-year client for us."

Though one would think nearly everyone has jumped on the social media bandwagon by now, it's not necessarily true, according to Kristin Gentry, director of marketing at consultancy The Growth Partnership in St. Louis. "Most haven't yet," she said. "And of those who have, most are probably doing it because they think they have to and don't have any plan or strategy in place - which is necessary for measuring ROI."

Gentry added that most firms use social media primarily for recruiting purposes and aren't sure about how to use it for business development or sales.

CONTENT IS KING

In the world of social media, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn take the top spots in what CPAs are using to network online. Most users say that Twitter is great for getting the latest news, Facebook helps tremendously in recruiting prospective younger staff, and LinkedIn is a more professional way of reconnecting and making new contacts.

Still, though these sites are popular and are drawing results, blogging appears to reign supreme. Those CPAs who have started blogging have already seen the results.

"Blogs are really the Holy Grail of socialmedia," said Michelle Golden, president of Golden Practices in St. Louiswho has her own blog, Golden Practices, at http://goldenmarketing.typepad.com/."They are a place to position your expertise, but they take a commitmentand a discipline that is rare in an accounting firm, in terms of starting it.Most accountants want more assurance that something is going to be effectivebased on the time commitment that it's going to take. They generate the greatestresult, but they take the greatest leap of faith to start." 

"It's solidifying our relationship with our current clients," said Jason Blumer, managing shareholder at Blumer & Associates in Greenville, S.C. "That is huge. They are always saying, 'We read your blog. Thanks for that.'" Blumer, who has been using social media tools for two years, said that his blog, Thriveal, at http://thriveal.com, is the centerpoint to his firm's social media strategy.

Blumer said that he spends about 10 hours a week on maintaining his social media sites - Twitter, LinkedIn, and a Facebook firm page - and that he writes his blog with a "snarky" voice to make it engaging and interesting to his clients.

Scott Heintzelman also knows the value of blogging, as he's been the author of The Exuberant Accountant, at www.exuberantaccountant.com, for just over 18 months.

"In order to calculate an ROI, you first need to develop top-level goals," said Heintzelman, who blogs on average three times a week, and has roughly 1,000 business leaders reading each post. "Second, you need to determine actual cost/investment."

He was able to list his beginning goals: reduce the number of face-to-face meetings with his network without losing impact; focus on high-quality content and "calls to action" in his blog to engage in dialogue with clients, prospects and referral sources; have more than 50 percent of his top 50 targets/prospects as subscribers (which has been achieved); create 48 new appointments with businesses that have not yet purchased services from his firm; and provide "a meaningful leave-behind."

Because the blog has taken off with what Heintzelman described as zero-dollar investment and minimal time investment, the firm has launched four more blogs internally - focusing on its niche services. (For more on blogging, see "Let's hear it for the blog!")

BEYOND BLOGGING

At Cerini and Associates in Bohemia, N.Y., exploration into social media tools has just begun, but the results can already be measured. The firm has joined LinkedIn, opened a Facebook group and fan page, begun a blog and created a Twitter account. So far, Facebook has offered the least return, according to marketing coordinator Theresa Weston.

Twitter, however, has been another story. Before the account was set up, the firm's Web site had been receiving about 800 unique hits a month. After they activated Twitter, those hits have nearly doubled, more unique visitors are coming back and more people have been making contact with the firm - both potential hires and professionals wanting to collaborate on seminars.

"It is a worthwhile investment," said Weston, who spends about 15 minutes a day maintaining the sites. "It's definitely had significant impact for us."

Eric Majchrzak, marketing and communications manager at Freed Maxick & Battaglia in Buffalo, N.Y., who has been doing what he described as "early-generation social media stuff" since 2003, introduced something entirely different - the firm installed an interactive digital Twitter billboard first in the business district of downtown Buffalo and then in Rochester, N.Y. For him, the idea of customizing a message in real time has endless possibilities - especially since what is posted through his firm's Twitter account will be posted on the billboard.

"Twitter is all about accessibility," he explained. "It played into our brand strategy about being accessible and providing value. If you look at our Twitter page now, I try to be disciplined. We're using it as a channel primarily to deliver our high-value content and thought leadership. I'm not trying to just chit-chat on there."

This year, his firm has plans to launch a YouTube channel for recruiting, as well as a stand-alone accounting career Web site. But Majchrzak's still not done. The firm has also hired a full time e-marketing and communications specialist, who will oversee the firm's social media presence, Internet and Web site usage, and search engine optimization. They will also conduct regular internal social media staff training. "We've built some momentum and we've seen enough return where we can justify and bring on a full-time body to own the segment for our firm," he said.

GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT

In response to growing demand from CPAs to understand and use social networking tools, assistance has begun to emerge. Many state societies offer social media primers, and now more consultants are stepping in, with "starter kits" to help firms figure out how to use these mediums to their strategic advantage.

For example, Chicago-based PDI Global rolled out a Social Media Starter Package last fall, including a 90-minute consultation focusing on a firm's social media marketing goals; information regarding the benefits of a social media marketing program; a collection of case studies of how these tools have helped firms attain new business; a social media privacy policy and code of conduct; and an implementation plan for using LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter that includes a content calendar and advice on what information to post and when.

"We launched the package thinking the firms wanted to do this on their own," said Sarah Johnson, director of consulting at PDI Global. "But the majority of the people we are working with are taking it way beyond the basic package."

Her colleague Art Kuesel agreed, and added that firms have been picking and choosing what they would like help on: "The package hasn't necessarily been embraced as a package deal. It's more like, 'You can help us with social media, let's talk.'."

Gentry said that The Growth Partnership is coming up with a similar product, with a plan for a launch after tax season. She said that she would work with firms to develop a social media strategy that will include goals, measurements and staff education on social media policies and time management. "I had a firm ask me recently if I had a template for a social media plan, and there's no way you can have a template because it's based on what the firm's individual needs are," she said.

For a social media primer, see the online version of this article at AccountingToday.com.

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