[IMGCAP(1)] As a new or young accountant there are a number of responsibilities and challenges on your plate.

Much of your time is dedicated to training on regulations (such as GAAP, tax codes, etc), internal firm processes, the studying for the CPA exam, CPE courses if you are credentialed, not to mention the day-to-day tasks associated with client service and delivery.

And you still need to consider how you will develop your professional network.

As you know, services like accounting, auditing and tax work are relationship driven. The stronger the relationship the more likely they are to turn to you when an issue or opportunity arises. As a result, the challenge as you progress through your career is to meet and build strong relationships with clients, prospects and referral partners.

It’s a straightforward strategy that seems easy enough, but is it? How are you going to manage all the responsibilities of your position while finding additional time to spend on network development? In the past, network development focused on being active in community organizations, associations and other groups. This required time outside of the office meeting people, establishing and nurturing relationships and building trust. Only once trust was established would the contact share the details about professional issues, challenges and opportunities. This was a very time intensive process that has to be repeated over and over again with every contact. The task of building and maintaining a professional network to a lot of energy and required a high level of hands on care.

The emergence of social media has transformed all that.

While you will always have to spend time going out and meeting new people at events and other programs, there has been a change in the way relationships are developed. Social media programs have created a process where interactions occur in real time and the entire process of relationship development can be quickly increased. These changes are good news for young accountants as these tools will allow them to develop relationships and create connections in ways their predecessor could not have imagined just 10 years ago.

Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are wonderful tools to drive network and relationship development efforts. There are a number of ways to meet new people, learn about their interests, share relevant information and ultimately develop a meaningful relationship. They are also applications which can be used to make the process more efficient and effective.

The challenge is understanding the most effective way to use these social media tools for relationship and network development. With so many social media tools to pick from it is difficult to know where to invest your time and what activities will yield the highest return. It can be a time-consuming task figuring out the best way to use these sites. As a result, outlined below are four steps to get you started in the world of social media:   

•    Develop an Information Rich Profile. No matter what tools you decide to use, do this. Simply providing basic information about your firm, position and where you went to school is too basic. All too often there are professionals using these services that spend a minimal amount of time on profile development. They offer basic information about themselves but don’t personalize it. This puts them at a disadvantage because there is not enough information for others to decide if they would be appropriate in or add value to their network. As a result, they are often not given careful consideration and potential opportunities are missed. To avoid this add as much information as possible about yourself. If you have have written articles, developed presentations or are involved in professional activities or events let people know. The trick is to keep it professional. Avoid including very personal details about your life or what you did last weekend. This is not an appropriate forum for that information. Focus on professional interests that others might be able to relate to. If you are an auditor who is interested in IFRS, GAAP changes, the most recent FASB pronouncement or other issues make sure you add that information to your profile. The more people can learn about you the greater the chances you will have something in common. The commonality will drive interest in you and your firm.

•    Build Your Network. Once your profile is complete it can be discouraging if at first you have a few connections. When launching your network focus on ”real life” professional relationships you already have. Whether this is just the professionals in your office or existing client relationships, seek them out and add them as a connection. This will not only allow you to build your online network, but also provide access to what groups and activities your peers and clients are involved in. To maintain inertia whenever you meet someone new find if they have a Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. If so, obtain permission to add them as a connection. This will help to build your network, allow you to learn more about them, and provide another avenue of communication for relationship development. There is a large amount of information available that you might not have otherwise discovered from the brief meeting you initially had with the contact.

•    Join Online Groups. There are a number of interest groups in both LinkedIn and Facebook where professionals with common interests come together. The options include professional development, networking and charity/special interest groups. A few examples of professional development groups include the Employee Benefit Plan, Audit Quality Control Center group, Governmental Audit Quality Center, Young CPA Network, and CPA Exam Candidates. There are also a number of young professionals groups including Detroit Young Professionals, Denver Young Professionals and Chicago Young Professionals. You can also join industry focused groups such as the Texas and Chicago Construction Groups. In addition to joining the groups that most appeal to you, determine which of the groups your network members belong that are appropriate for you to join as well. This will allow you not only to stay current on the topics and issues important to you, but also open the door to the issues and topics relevant to your network members.  

•    Participate. Like most things in life what you put into this is what you will get out of it. If you don’t spend much time with Facebook or LinkedIn it is unlikely you will realize a meaningful return. There are a number of accounting professionals who use these tools and don’t participate beyond a few comments or discussion topics. They are likely getting very little out of social media and are missing crucial growth opportunities. This may seem like just another demand on your time but it is a worthwhile task. Every post, piece of information or conversation you join the more exposure and credibility you are building with members of online groups and your network. To make it easier, schedule some time every day or every other day to interact with your network. This does not have to be a time consuming task but it does make sense to spend 90 minutes a week diving into content, and interacting with members of your network. The more you interact the more others will interact with you. This is the key to the entire process interaction, engagement and discussion.

The value of all of these activities is that it will strategically position you with colleagues, prospects, clients and potential referral partners. It will keep you in front of them and aware of their interests, challenges and ongoing concerns. As a result, you will have access to critical information that can help develop the relationship while positioning you and your firm as a potential solution provider.

While the task of network development and relationship building still requires you to leave the office and spend time at events, social media can help you accelerate the time it takes to develop these relationships. The opportunity it provides to learn about your network, develop a repertoire and position yourself as possible solution provider is unmatched. As you progress through your career in accounting invest time in social media. It will not only help build your network but it will serve as a critical relationship development tool.

Brian Swanson is a partner with Flashpoint Marketing- http://www.flashpointmarketing.biz His firm specializes in providing business development strategies and practical marketing solutions for CPA firms. He can be reached at bswanson@flashpointmarketing.biz.