Online forums can't replace face-to-face networking

"I'm all a-Twitter;" "It's a Tweet life;" "Incurable Tweaker" (i.e., someone so addicted that they sneak tweets).

By now you've heard all the cool wordplay surrounding this social media phenomena. In fact, it seems like everyone is writing about social media in general these days - offering advice on appropriate implementation or reporting on success stories. It's there at every turn of the page.

This is certainly not a criticism. Social media, applied purposefully, is a smart addition to any marketing communications program. Without question, the value of social media cannot be understated. However, neither can the value of networking live and in person. What it comes down to is finding the right balance between the two.

Like any profession, accounting continues to change, and among the many changes over the past few years is the growing popularity of social media within firms - including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. Acceptance is good as long as firms understand that accepting the new doesn't mean throwing out the old. In fact, the most successful firms are leveraging the power of social media while preserving traditional, effective elements of their communications model, like attending on-site social events.

Balance, people - balance.

Consider a firm's clients: While clients love the convenience of online services (e.g., portals), they still expect periodic sit-downs with their trusted advisor. The same philosophy can be applied to firms. Building a social media following is smart marketing, but there is just as much value and necessity in mixing it up face to face.

PUTTING THE COOL BACK IN OLD SCHOOL

Compared to the

ber-cool feeling of tweeting and blogging, on-the-ground networking is sometimes considered doing it old school. Nonetheless, on-site forums (or communities) have been a longstanding and faithful tool for the profession - offering a solid venue for exchanging information and knowledge between colleagues. Participants work collaboratively to identify resolutions to common issues and pain points within the profession, and all within a supportive and non-competitive environment. Many of these events also offer demonstrations on the latest and greatest technologies, roundtable discussions, and leadership and software training. Try getting all that into a 140-character post.

On-site, non-cumulus forums (just a little cloud humor) provide participants with a level of energy and in-depth discussion that is difficult to replicate in a Web-based environment. Brainstorming for solutions and defining best practices is a complex and dynamic process that is best supported by dedicated, in-person interaction. For most, coming up with the next great idea is difficult to do in isolation. Generally, it's through a process of idea-slinging and dedicated group discussions that viable solutions evolve and "A-ha!" moments take place. Put several great accounting minds in the same room and inevitably the A-ha!'s will abound.

WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

Community participants are talking about everything - from technology and staffing issues to paperless processes and automated workflow. And unlike social media, discussions are synchronous. As ideas evolve, members actively work and rework them, applying practical experience and theory. Immediate multi-way feedback helps to sustain momentum and excitement - motivating participants to take ideas through to completion and devise action plans for implementation. In the end, everyone walks away with a host of inventive ideas.

Community members are hitting all the hottest topics, and these are definitely conversations to get in on. For example:

* Getting integrated. Time is money, so firms are always searching for ways to boost efficiency. Integrated software solutions are key in supporting digital processes, moving firms toward zero data entry, and ultimately boosting return on investment. Through hands-on demos, forum members are taken through each step of an integrated workflow and what it takes to implement.

* Give me paperless or give me death. Who isn't talking about paperless? Everyone knows the value proposition - elevated efficiency, reduced overhead, and the coveted green effect. For most firms, however, the biggest obstacle is not knowing where to start. Community members are sharing paperless success stories and the technologies and practices that got them there.

* SaaS kicks @ss. Software-as-a-Service is on everyone's tongue. Many community members are using SaaS applications and sharing how cloud computing has helped them achieve true life-work balance, recruit and maintain qualified staff, and accelerate efficiency overall. SaaS is at the center of a new paradigm in the profession. It's the topic to talk about.

* Practice management software at the hub. Participants not only get the opportunity to discuss the leading practice management applications, but also see them in action. Product demos illustrate how to centralize firm data in one convenient location and maintain real-time views of firm status via advanced digital dashboard technology. With so many firms moving to the "hub" model, there is a wealth of information flowing between community participants.

* The skinny on software. Doesn't it always seems like the minute you learn one technology, a new one pops up on the radar? Firms are always one technology away from being outdated. It's a cold, hard fact. On-site communities offer the skinny on the newest applications, enhancements and other progressive technologies. If you've ever wondered how some firms always seem to stay a step ahead with technology, chances are they attend on-site events regularly.

TWEET AND MEET

Staying plugged in to all that is going on within the profession is a balancing act. The marriage of social media channels with traditional on-site communities provides the balance firms require.

Social media offers a forum for day-to-day communications, not to mention eliminating the boundaries of time and distance. Through these cyberportals, professionals can now reach beyond their local accounting neighborhood and access a world of knowledge.

On the other side of the scale, on-site events support face-to-face connections that drive effusive dialogue and leverage the experience of the many who make up a diverse profession.

One medium does not outweigh the other in importance, but rather they rely on each other to create a sound networking foundation for today's next-generation CPA firm.

SO WHAT'S THE FINAL 411?

It's pretty simple. Keep writing on walls, blogging with a vengeance, and chirping it up - while also building relationships via active on-site community participation. Combined, these efforts will continue to move firms toward the light ... or, rather, the light bulb. And aren't we all ready for that next big, beautiful A-ha! moment?

Kristy Short, Ed.D, is principal of SAS Communications 360 LLC (www.sascommunications360.com), a public relations firm exclusively serving the tax and accounting profession, and a managing partner in RootWorks Communications LLC (www.rootworks.com), as well as a professor of English and marketing at the University of Phoenix and Cleary University. Reach her at kristy rootworks.com.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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