In the recent past, many accounting firms struggled to recognize the necessity of social media, while only those that were considered cutting edge integrated it into their marketing strategy.

Today, the awareness level is high enough to have encouraged -- or perhaps forced -- most firms into establishing a social presence, so that the message is gradually becoming less "I'm here!" and more "This is why I'm here and what I can do for you."

The positioning is more strategic, and the conversation more engaged - the result of both social media's proven influence and the maturation of some of its biggest platforms.

 

THE BEST

LinkedIn, with its professional user base and focus, remains the most popular and easily adopted social network in accounting.

"Firms and partners once saw social media and online marketing as a time-killer, but that attitude has changed a bit - and, for some firms, changed substantially," explained Stephen White, who for 12 years helped lead the social media strategy of Washington, D.C.-area Top 100 Firm Aronson in his capacity as chief administrative officer and partner, and recently became principal of Greenfield Belser, a brand, marketing and consulting firm for professional services firms. "Only the forward-thinking partners had LinkedIn profiles, and now it spans across all four generations. Many, if not a large percentage [of firm professionals], have some sort of LinkedIn profile."

Top 25 Philadelphia-based accounting firm ParenteBeard continues to reap the social network's benefits, according to communications manager Karen Toner. "LinkedIn is the biggest outlet we push here, since everyone can play a role in marketing the firm," she explained. "We encourage our team members to take an active role and reshare updates from our company page. We actively host LinkedIn training sessions and prompt the team to join industry groups on LinkedIn."

White stressed the exponential nature of LinkedIn's personal connections, which immediately amplifies this shareable -- and marketable -- content.

The social network also continues to be a crucial recruiting tool, especially for experienced professionals.

Recent updates to the LinkedIn interface, however, have proven both beneficial and detrimental to these efforts. The design changes have made LinkedIn, like other social networks, more visually oriented, thus attracting more attention and click-throughs for posted content.

On the other hand, LinkedIn removed the products and services section from company pages, to the chagrin of many professional services firms. "The downside is we invested -- as I'm sure many other firms did - significant time and resources into the product and service section," Toner reported. "This is where we were able to have client recommendations posted and go into detail about each service. LinkedIn has replaced that feature, as you probably know, with 'showcase' pages, which are really not as beneficial for professional services firms as [they are] for product companies."

Despite these updates, the network remains vital, she continued. "LinkedIn has proven to be the space where the most prospective employees, clients and business partners are on."

 

BEYOND LINKEDIN

While it remains the predominant social network, LinkedIn can no longer be the entirety of a firm's social media strategy.

"Too many professional services firms are spending time in logistical LinkedIn boot camps, but it's about creative and strategy -- social media marketing is still marketing," explained Sarah Cirelli, marketing manager at New Jersey-based Top 100 Firm WithumSmith+Brown.

"It's about understanding the product, message, and targeting the message -- to where the audience is hanging out online, because we're all hanging out online somewhere," noted.

Indeed, audiences have become more fragmented as Facebook and Twitter adoption rates increase. Both have given LinkedIn competition in the recruitment space, with Facebook making recent strides, according to Christine Hollinden, president and founder of professional services marketing firm Hollinden.

"More firms are using Facebook, for example, as a strong recruiting tool," she shared. "And Facebook is more mature in itself. There's a higher adoption rate and use for recruitment with all the things you can do - posting photos, other integrations, and the ability to post a bit longer messages. It lends itself to showing the culture of the firm, and conveying what a great place this is to work."

It's about "how to reach those people with a little bit of experience, and Facebook is gaining on LinkedIn tremendously for recruiting experienced people," Hollinden added. "It's becoming a more serious tool than just 'Hey, look at us.'"

While most marketing professionals agree with establishing a company Facebook presence, they are still assessing just how serious the more "personal" of the big social networks has become.

Additionally, the recent exodus of Millennial and young users to trendier networks like Instagram and Twitter has lessened Facebook's impact on entry-level recruiting.

"Our Facebook page was originally launched as a recruiting tool to share photos of the firm's culture with college students, and post information about which colleges we would be visiting for job fairs and recruiting events," Toner shared.

"About two years later, it seems the college students are no longer connecting with us as often on Facebook. They want to connect on Twitter. They are more likely to tweet us or send photos through Twitter when they approach the ParenteBeard table. As a result, this past year we've hosted two 'tweet chats' on different accounting niche topics - forensic accounting and tax. The concept was to engage the students by letting them have a live chat with one of our partners that works in the field. The forensic accounting one had a huge response with partner Bob Gray as the topic expert."

As Twitter continues to gain steam, it also provides a balance between the professionalism of LinkedIn and the more private Facebook. "We are finding personalities in Twitter, and [accounting professionals using it] to convey information, adopting the concept of a sound bite, or a 'cocktail conversation' for Twitter," Hollinden explained.

This kind of tailoring content and communication style for specific platforms is becoming more common, she continued. "There's been a whole shift -- before, there was a parroting effect happening across social media. Firms on social media were, really, 'Come up with one thing to say and post it on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter'-this kind of parrot repetition. Now we're seeing a more independent strategy taking place, with thinking through the tools themselves and the audiences, and approaching them more strategically. That's fantastic."

While blatant automation loses favor, the practice of strategic automation and syndication remains an essential way to keep busy firm partners and managers active.

The more reticent and overwhelmed executives, according to White, "don't appreciate that 90 percent of the content being posted online is syndicated, repurposed content from somewhere else."

More firms are enlisting the help of free or cost-effective products like Sprout Social and Hootsuite to be more strategic and efficient in their social media use, White continued. He also recommends dlvr.it, a content sharing tool that automatically truncates and conforms content to a syndicated destination.

These tools also facilitate a more recent trend. "The future is social media listening," White shared. "Many firms are starting to get wise to this, adopting Hubspot and products like Radian6 and TrackMaven. These products are the true testament to big data ... storing content in large databases and building apps that allow users to create filters, alerts, and view into the social media sphere based on conversations, determining who's talking about certain things, like your competitors or you. You can use hashtag filters, using those social listening tools, to determine who's doing what, rise up in the social sphere, or push down other content you don't want out there."

 

THE REST

While these tools facilitate efficient posting and strategic listening on the big social networks, the more enterprising firms are discovering entirely new social platforms.

At the beginning of 2014, WithumSmith+Brown began using photo-sharing network Instagram to roll out a weekly series of video "culture shorts" to be viewed and "liked" by fellow users, who can then click through to the firm's Web site to find out more. The initiative has prompted many of the firm's professionals to create Instagram profiles, according to Cirelli, though, despite the network's general popularity (Facebook purchased it for $1 billion in 2012), internally, it's "something we have to sell and help with. The demographic that's already [on Instagram] is excited to see us there, and then there are guys that don't get it."

Meanwhile, ParenteBeard recently established a presence on Glassdoor, the career site where employees anonymously provide feedback about their company, where Toner reports a growing number of viewers each week.

"Just like Yelp or TripAdvisor, prospective employees want to know the inside scoop on a company," she explained. "That is why we are spending time encouraging honest reviews and showcasing the firm's culture through photos and videos."

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