[IMGCAP(1)]Accounting firms are not exempt from the influence of socialnetworking and social media. The questions firms face are: Is it betterto control or influence social networking? And how can social mediahelp accelerate business?

I believe firms should make everyeffort to influence social media and forget about trying to control howemployees use them. What follows is a presentation of the facts and whyI believe exerting influence is the only logical economic alternative.

Howinformation is communicated and consumed has changed drastically inrecent years. At one time, most of the world's information wascontrolled by a few and distributed to millions, but the Internet hascaused publishers to radically rework their business models. Because ofe-mail, firms conduct business differently than they did 10 years ago.It won't take long for today's emerging social media to become criticalin helping firms communicate with precision to clients and prospects.

Inorder for firms to benefit from these tools, however, they must jointhe global online community. Unfortunately, too often I hear that firmsare merely trying to control social media by restricting access to them.

LEVERAGE, DON'T RESTRICT

Somecite reasons that sound logical, but there's no good rationale I canfind for firms to control employee access to e-mail, instant messagingand social media (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter). Firms oftenprohibit social networking tools because the business purpose is notimmediately apparent. They don't understand social media and how toleverage them. Not all social media tools have a business purpose, butignoring them will limit your firm's influence and may ultimately leaveit in a noncompetitive state.

This is a strong statement, so allow me to explain.

Clientsand potential clients are talking about you and your firm online. Doyou know what they are saying? According to Nielsen Research, 78percent of people trust their peers' opinions. This is not a newphenomenon, but social networks make it much easier to disseminateinformation. In particular, micro-blogging tools like Twitter andFacebook's status update feature enable users (including businesses) tospread information instantly. (At first Twitter was only popular withteens, but now adults and businesses are learning how to leverage itsease of use and pervasiveness.)

Most consumers and potentialclients go directly to the Web to research alternatives and seek peeradvice. Should your firm ignore this fact, or should it take aproactive stance and influence what employees and clients say aboutyour business? Referrals have always been important, but socialnetworking is like steroids for a referral program (for positive ornegative results).

Differentiation is critical when it comesto marketing, and social networking tools help individuals and firmsdifferentiate themselves in the marketplace. Organizations can play totheir unique abilities, rather than try to be all things to everyone.

Moreover,social media provides 24/7 transparency and access. Some argue thatthis invites an invasion of privacy, but others believe in its power asan accountability tool. It is becoming increasingly undesirable andproblematic for people as well as organizations to present multiplepersonalities in a connected world.

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

Socialmedia is ultimately about developing communities and encouraginginvolvement in those communities. This is where the greatest potentialfor influence resides. The tools provide capabilities to manage asignificantly large number of relationships efficiently andeffectively. You may ask why this is important, and I believe theanswer is to avoid commoditization. Communities have always beenimportant to firm development, but in today's environment, communitiesno longer have geographic boundaries. It is possible to specialize witha much larger population from which to attract clients. Marketingexperts understand this concept, but not all marketing expertsunderstand the tools that are available today.

This is not acriticism; it results from the ongoing development in available toolsand technologies. In order to help CPAs better understand these tools,I have placed the most relevant technologies into context below. (Ipurposely ignore gaming, entertainment and livecasting - even thoughthey have economic importance.)

The primary categories of social media tools that firms should be aware of are:

* Social networking - community platforms (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace).

* Publishing - blogging and the management of intellectual capital (Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga).

* Audio digital content - intellectual capital (podcasts, iTunes).

* Photo digital content - intellectual capital (Flickr, ImageShack, iPhoto).

* Video digital content - intellectual capital (YouTube, TED).

* Microblogging - short broadcast messages (Twitter, FriendFeed, Tumblr).

* Productivity - mashup applications and convergence of messaging (Mozilla Ubiquity, Digsby, Scribd).

* Aggregators - filtering information by user interest (Yelp, Digg, Reddit).

* RSS - automatic feeds.

* Search engine optimization (Google, Bing and Yahoo).

* Mobile applications, such as for the iPhone and Blackberry.

Asyou review this list, hopefully you see tools from several categoriesthat your firm is already using. One size fits one, and that is whyusers must determine the configurations that are important to them.

Mostfirms use webinar tools and leverage this technology to reduce travelcosts and investments in education and training. Deciding which toolsare most useful and implementing priority applications in your firmwill require thought, planning and training.

FIRMS UNDER THE INFLUENCE

CPAsas well as firms are already under the influence of several socialnetworking trends. First, many in our industry are embracingpurpose-driven (filtered) networks, because they value peer opinionsand want to interact with others who understand their unique challengesand culture. The Boomer Knowledge Network has seen significant growthin the last year as a result.

Secondly, mobile devices arerapidly becoming the preferred interface for social networking.Blackberry and Apple's iPhone have done much to promote this trend inNorth America. In Africa and Asia, most people are limited to a cellphone, but have developed efficient texting languages and tools.

Finally,progressive firm leaders are encouraging employees to learn aboutsocial networking tools and implement them to promote business. As withany new technology, a few are championing the implementation andhelping spread the interest in and understanding of social media'spotential to accelerate profitability.

Consider the following action plan to leverage this technology and ensure a return on your firm's investment:

1. Develop a social networking task force that is comprised of younger members of the firm and influential leaders.

2. Develop a list of requirements and priorities (i.e., communications and training).

3. Develop standards, policies and procedures.

4. Select the appropriate tools that integrate with your systems.

5. Implement pilot projects and rapidly expand to additional users.

6. Continually monitor the development of new tools.

7. Participate in peer groups to seek advice and share experiences. (The Boomer Knowledge Network is a great place to start!)

Mostfirms are just learning how to leverage this technology, so peerrelationships are extremely important. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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