[IMGCAP(1)]On a personal level, social media offers an easy-to-use platform to share information and connect with friends.

In business, we are just now beginning to understand and grasp the value associated with using various networking sites, especially in the accounting profession and business marketplace.

Most of the time, accountants want to know what kind of ROI they can expect; any time spent on non-billable functions must relate back to growth. Still in its infancy, social media offers a practical means to build business and turn prospects into clients or customers, while building knowledge and holding discussions that directly relate back to our work.

Niche Sites Lead to Information Exchange
Americans spend about 17 percent of their time on the Internet using social media sites, which would explain why use of these sites has tripled in the last year. Despite growing popularity, oddly enough most people don’t realize that they have engaged in social media activity. E-mail messages and Web sites are examples of social media, yet the nomenclature we now think of as “social media” didn’t explode until 2003 when LinkedIn was created.

Still considered the most professional of any social network, many accounting firms endorse LinkedIn as their only means of social media because they can quantify the ROI when a LinkedIn relationship gives a qualified referral or turns into a client.

Two other social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, are the next most popular social networking sites because each one demonstrates new and innovative ways to make connections. Twitter is the fastest-growing community site with a reported 1,382 percent increase in visits from February 2008 through February 2009 (the last benchmark Twitter has available). Facebook says it has more than 300 million users with 65 million users accessing Facebook on their smartphones.

Because accountants work in many business arenas and consult with clients on various issues, niche social media sites are popular because they address issues directly targeted to the profession rather than maintaining a more general approach. Developers of sites know and understand this concept and have designed their sites to meet the needs of the targeted populations.

As a result, content is developed to build an accountant’s technical acumen and make them better at what they do. For example, if an accountant works in appraisal and business valuation, discussion forums and blogs catering to these topics are ideal to learn what’s happening in the field. Tax professionals enjoy visiting sites that discuss the latest legislation, or how sales and use tax software helps automate a return. At the highest levels within a firm, partners visit sites that offer refreshers on the industry, human resources and practice management. Other sites offer Web seminars to satisfy CPE requirements or enable connections with former colleagues and enhancement of professional networks.

Sharing various types of information on these sites is key to the long-term survival of social media. Yesterday’s static bulletin boards are today’s real-time chat rooms and online forums where questions can be asked and answers given in a matter of seconds. One-way communications has its place, but not online. Social media Web sites are designed to hold conversations to make us experts and even learn some useful soft skills.

Pros and Cons
Clearly, there’s a site for everyone, but using social media has advantages and disadvantages. On an individual level, ask yourself if social media helps meet your own professional and personal goals. Are you seeking an answer to a technical question or seeking new employment? What are you working on right now?

Within firms, managing partners like social media when it helps build relationships—connecting with colleagues and professionals to discuss topical business trends or exchange information.

Partners are more supportive of social media if there are either direct or indirect benefits from time invested in these activities. Texting is a form of social media and the primary communications platform for younger generations. A partner or manager who sees a person texting or viewing a site may not fully realize that the employee is either engaged in networking activities or in learning something new.

A better approach is to hold a firm-wide conversation about the advantages of using social media, assessing which applications make the most sense given the firm’s overall mission and vision. In addition, many firms are now beginning to implement formal social media policies that outline the recommended sites employees should visit and the amount of time during work hours an employee should spend using social media.

Social media continually changes; what’s hot today may be old news within a matter of days. Whether you choose to visit some of the niche networking sites that are more professional, or spend time on some of the more trendy sites, an ongoing evaluation is absolutely necessary.

Human nature dictates that we must decide how we want to spend our time. If social media didn’t exist, we would be doing something else, of course. Nevertheless, social media is a dynamic part of our lives not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, social media usage is growing exponentially. Just consider that business-to-business sites grew at a rate of 184 percent from last year. And as it continues to grow, its business return is also increasing as more professionals join and actively participate in social networks.

The bottom line is that using social media wisely is the key to success. It is important for firms to evaluate the right sites — selecting niche forums that provide the greatest value in the way of information acquisition and prime connections. It is also important to realize that by avoiding social media altogether, it may mean being left out of an increasingly mainstream U.S. and international business paradigm.

Scott H. Cytron, ABC, is a frequent contributor to industry publications covering professional services industries, including accounting, healthcare, financial planning, collections and debt, and high-tech. He is a staff writer for Big4.com and works with many CPA firms to increase their recruitment and retention efforts through communications and marketing strategies. Contact him at scott@cytronandcompany.com.

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