In the social media age, marketers can become as distracted by new channels of communication as the supposedly attention-deficit customers they target. Certain tools like LinkedIn and Twitter have become standard, but with hot new social platforms emerging at a fast pace, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Instead of mastering every one, then, successful marketing professionals remain aware of the trends while utilizing the tools that logically fit into their firm's larger online ecosystem.

Professional services company CBIZ, in its affiliation with national, independent CPA firm Mayer Hoffman McCann PC, follows this strategy through its "digital sphere" network of social and digital properties. This model, while technologically advanced, relies on timeless marketing fundamentals, according to Mark Waxman, CBIZ MHM's chief marketing officer.

"Our overall strategy for digital and social is to basically mimic proven business development techniques that have served professional service firms for eons, like building the profession through referrals," Waxman elaborated. "Let's step back and look at how professional business development is done and what works. It's pretty classic, when you talk to people doing business in accounting for many years - it's about referrals and the personal relationships of people I know and meet networking. [Accountants] are trusted to do that, so don't stop doing that, but do it in a different place. We do the exact same thing, show them how to build those relationships, get referrals, get credibility through leadership, but build a set of social and digital properties."

These properties, while not location-based, should be just as anchored in prospective client behavior, and specifically "where" that base exists online.

"Know your audience and know your message - you have to make those two connect in any piece of marketing," advised Sarah Cirelli, interactive marketing manager of New Jersey-based CPA firm WithumSmith+Brown. "I get upset when people are sometimes so quick to jump on what's working for everyone else. There should be purpose behind your marketing message, because at the end of the day it's still marketing and you should make it contextually relevant. You should know your audience, and be able to target the user. Are they watching videos on their phone? What blogs are they reading? Where are they spending their time online? You have to break down the basics of marketing before jumping on the new tool."

That said, as accounting firms cultivate a more comprehensive, client-tailored marketing presence, there are a few areas of online growth that can't be ignored.

 

VIDEO

Many firms are now aware enough of the huge search-engine optimization potential in videos to have at least created a YouTube channel. But the overall popularity of online video has simultaneously increased viewer expectations and decreased attention spans, so high-quality, easily consumed content is required to stand out.

Luckily, most social networks are enabling the video boom. The YouTube Video Editor offers free online editing capabilities. Twitter-integrated mobile app Vine allows users to create and post short, looped videos. LinkedIn added a visual component to profile pages so that users can easily upload images and video.

"All platforms are going through revolutions to support video," Cirelli said. "Phones are coming out as cameras first, phones second. The consumer shift has happened -- people are watching videos and you have to be doing it. It's the easiest way to get someone engaged in your topic and have a higher ranking on Google."

Engagement level is the key, as Web traffic doesn't automatically lead to client conversions. Missouri CPA firm Brown Smith Wallace, after gaining attention for the dry humor of its Kyle's Video Blog series, in which senior auditor Kyle Dodwell explains timely tax concepts, recently launched a targeted "Brown Boarding Business Series" of videos.

"We have complicated services we offer with a broader reach beyond our local market," explained BSW director of marketing Michael Bowlan. "Video seemed a great way to deliver that message. The problem I saw in most videos was that they were talking heads. Unless a person is particularly engaging, people aren't trained as entertainers. How do you convey that information in an entertaining and informative way?"

For BSW, it was the series, which explains topics through white board visuals in clips of less than five minutes, with the option of going deeper into a specific subject with the companion Brown Boarding Business Series+ channel, built with cloud-based presentation software Prezi.

Of the three topics BSW has covered so far, the video on captive insurance companies generated at least one lead from a company that had met with the firm about the industry a few years ago but reconnected after watching the video.

 

PRESENTATION

Prezi joins online presentation-sharing community SlideShare, recently acquired by LinkedIn, as a probable PowerPoint successor. Though Prezi is software and SlideShare a hosting service that supports, among other file formats, PowerPoint, both have emerged as dynamic tools for meetings and events. Bowlan gauged significant Prezi interest from fellow marketers when he used it to present during June's 2013 Association for Accounting Marketing Summit in Las Vegas, while CBIZ MHM approaches SlideShare similarly to its video efforts, in terms of appointing firm experts to explain concepts in a visually interesting way.

"SlideShare is built for lead generation - if people want to express interest or ask for more, there is a built-in tool for that," Waxman shared. "We do get leads, and have had this happen more than once with the properties that tie it together. People who view SlideShare are looking for specific information on a very specific subject, and they view that. They see the person it is by, they Google that person, find their YouTube videos, think, 'I like this guy.' There have been opportunities that way, where it started with SlideShare, and they directly contacted them."

 

PODCASTS

Experts are also central to podcasts, which are increasing enough in popularity that the industry is attempting to "remove the jargon" and rebrand the episodic audio streams as "online audio," according to Cirelli, who recently attended a national social media conference.

"There are still tons of people using podcasting, and it's an easy way for us to get the information we are always looking for," she explained. "It's easy in that it downloads itself. Commuters are using it, fitness junkies in the gym - everyone is using their phone."

For the last six months, CBIZ has been repurposing its video content to meet the demand by stripping out the audio to offer in downloadable episodes. "It's an outgrowth of our YouTube videos," Waxman shared. "Because we have this, we're leveraging the content in multiple ways, in YouTube videos that could convert to podcasts. We tested it six months ago and it's a very, very popular outlet. It's an automatic process, with a new video - after we post it and tweet about it - we convert it to a podcast and go through that process again. There have been remarkably big numbers in the growth of the podcast, and with people choosing to subscribe as opposed to [downloading] just one. We have 250 new subscribers a month to the podcast channel."

 

PHOTO SHARING

Visually showcasing firm personalities was the impetus for Seattle CPA and management consulting firm Francis & Co.'s foray into another trendy online platform.

As a self-described Pinterest addict, marketing coordinator Lorena Leber saw potential in the pinboard-style photo-sharing Web site that has been typically relegated to retail consumers and hobbyists.

"I know that people respond to visuals, and that's all that Pinterest is, basically," she explained. "What better way to convey something with minimal usage of wording? I created individual boards to showcase all the personalities and created a company page."

The firm's 10 members were initially hesitant to fill their own boards, but Leber lured them in by making an example of her own and passing out questionnaires on personal interests and activities to guide them in their image choices.

In addition to linking Pinterest profiles to the firm's social media channels and e-mail signatures, Leber encourages clients to visit the pages, also filled with event and fundraising photos. "I'd recommend Pinterest to all firms to give people the opportunity to get to know individuals within a CPA firm and break the mold that's expected, that long-standing assumption that CPAs and staff are boring and have no personalities," she continued. "I was kind of shocked at the silence [from firms on Pinterest] because it's such a great way to share the team. That's what sets accounting firms apart; we market who we are and how we're different from other firms. The services are traditional and there are standards with guidelines we have to abide by. What's different in your firm, and how are you going to showcase it?"

While other accounting firm marketers like Cirelli and Waxman have their eye on Pinterest, it hasn't become an integral part of their firms' strategies beyond the occasional posting of event photos or infographics. Hugely popular, Facebook-owned photo-sharing app Instagram is another platform that accounting firm marketers are tracking without yet seeing a huge potential for the profession. After Instagram's recent addition of video functionality, however, Waxman said that he could see the social network later integrating slide shows and other business-friendly options.

 

THE WHOLE POINT

As it stands, the trends and tools that progressive marketers are embracing, beyond establishing expertise and conveying critical information in a non-"salesy" way, build firm credibility simply through their use.

"Having these videos available to our team for a meeting with a client means you don't have to schedule with any big production or use a conference room," Bowlan said of BSW's Brown Boarding Business Series. "You can meet at a coffee shop or at a desk and show them on an iPad if they haven't seen it already, and that kind of technology makes you look smarter. It also shows you are on the cutting edge of technology. If they are looking for CPA firms for advice, it just makes you look like this is a firm that's up on things."

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