As global institutes ramp up their presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, in addition to developing their own online communities, the impact of social media is being felt across the accountancy profession. Paul Golden reports on current strategies.
Social media is growing at an exponential rate. At the time of writing Twitter has just passed 300m accounts and is signing up 750,000 new users a day, while Facebook boasts more than 677m active and so far 75m people have registered with LinkedIn.
While Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, remain predominantly person to person services, all three are being used by institutes to communicate with members and build profile.
For example, ICAEW has 11 online specialist communities with more than 54,000 registered members. They are able to connect with other members of the community and send private messages using the institute’s internal system.
It has also run a number of social media initiatives, explains member services director Sharron Gunn.
“For example we recently conducted a ‘tweet up’ campaign where ICAEW and one of our members that uses social media in her firm were able to identify a core group of accountants using Twitter,” Gunn says.
“We ran a blog in Talk Accountancy and asked everyone to share their Twitter name and then ran two online meetings where they could talk to one another.”
ICAEW is also using Twitter to share information on its activities with members, including social occasions but also speeches, participation in events such as debates and other announcements.
The institute’s LinkedIn group has almost quadrupled over the last year from around 1200 members in 2010 to more than 4600. Gunn describes LinkedIn as “definitely becoming one of the most trusted business networks that accountants are choosing to use to network with their peers”.
Online networking can make it easier to find peers and start building relationships with potential clients.
During the economic downturn budgets for networking became tighter and this has probably helped the growth of non-face to face networking, although Gunn remains convinced that this type of contact is still essential for developing meaningful relationships.
ICAEW uses social networking to connect with both its ACA students and potential students, including current undergraduates and school leavers. It set up an online community for ACA students in 2009, which connects students and enables them to interact with each other, seek advice and source information.
Potential students can join its Facebook fan pages and the ICAEW careers page also has a ‘career planner’ application, which enables them to see what their career as an ICAEW chartered accountant might look like. In the next few weeks it will be launching a Facebook page aimed at school/college students.
“We have integrated all our social media presences with our traditional online strategies,” says Gunn.
“On our website you have the ability to share our content through your own social media accounts, as well as like/follow and connect with us through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
“All our emails include links to our social media presences as well so we are giving our audience the choice of how they communicate with and receive information from us.”
Through its communities/social media team the ICAEW offers business owners the opportunity to set up their own communities, either on its branded communities and/or by building a presence on external social networks.
One of the aspects of social media that generates most debate among accountants is the extent to which it can be used to generate business.
Mark Lee from the Tax Advice Network says accountants should not try to market their practice on social media unless they are prepared to take a very long term view or are able to market direct to a key target audience.
He remains unconvinced that accountants want to use social media whilst at the same time encouraging them to use LinkedIn and make sure they can be found there, either by people who are looking for them specifically someone like them.
However, Cheap Accounting managing director Elaine Clark describes social media as a means of reaching a wider audience than could be achieved via conventional networking events. Her advice to prospective ‘Twitterers’ is to start by planning what you want to say.
“There are enough people out there to be heard by even if there are others pursuing a similar approach,” Clark says.
“Many people who try Twitter give up pretty quickly, which means you can develop ‘trusted advisor’ status if you stick at it.”
Clark is unconcerned about the ability of social media to reach a specific audience.
“One of the reasons accountants are not good at marketing is that they don’t speak their customers’ language,” she adds.
“Social media is all about people – you are influencing a person, whether they are a small business owner or the director of a multinational, so the principal should work for marketing your services to large customers as well as small businesses.”
Drew Cullen, director of marketing and communications at CIPFA says that from time to time the institute collaborates with firms such as PwC and Ernst & Young in the use of social media – for example, online coverage of its recent international conference was jointly screened on the Ernst & Young website.
“Social networking is used in addition to traditional communication methods and networking activities rather than as a replacement,” Cullen says.
“Our members and customers communicate and network in many different ways and as a result we use a range of channels to correspond with them, of which social network sites are only one.
“However, social networking sites are becoming an increasingly common communications method for members and customers and are integrated into our [wider] communication plans where appropriate.”
CIPFA has a Twitter feed and a presence on LinkedIn and Facebook and updates its staff blog regularly on issues affecting public financial management.
A notable recent example was the David Walker blog on its Public Finance website on the future of public audit, which generated a high level of re-tweeting and email sharing.
“Using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, CIPFA alerts members and customers to its thought leadership work, new products and training courses and information for members,” adds Cullen.
“We hope to direct people to our website where they can find further information.”
Staff are encouraged to use social media for constructive purposes, such as answering questions from members and contacting customers.
Postings are monitored, but its director of marketing and communications says CIPFA would only usually moderate postings if they were inappropriate, inflammatory, defamatory, commercially-biased, spam or comments encouraging illegal activities or that were detected as transgressing copyright or intellectual property laws. Head of communications Ed Roddis says the role of social networks in building the institute’s global profile is being explored carefully.
“A good example is the extensive use made of Twitter by some attendees at our international conference, which includes a re-tweet by Tony Blair about a speaker from his Africa Governance Initiative,” he says.
Roddis is convinced that accountants are by and large making effective use of the connections established through sites such as LinkedIn, pointing out that he receives regular requests to connect from former big four colleagues.
“We are also seeing increasing numbers of business contacts being made on the back of LinkedIn. Social media updates are acting as a prompt to making more informal connections with old colleagues,” Roddis adds.
ICAS is in the early stages of its social media strategy, admits Atholl Duncan, executive director UK and global member engagement.
“We are developing our Facebook presence for connecting with students and school leavers,” Duncan says. “We also use Twitter and LinkedIn and expect to develop these activities much further over the next six to nine months.
“Social media does not reduce the need for face-to-face interaction at professional and networking events but it is very useful for regular contact.”
The general ICAS Facebook page includes blog posts, news and details of upcoming events. There is also a Capella group for the chartered accountant student society. The purpose of the ICAS Twitter feed is to raise the profile of new content on the website and this account is linked to the institute’s LinkedIn official members group.
The Facebook page in particular is aimed at people who might be interested in pursuing accountancy as a profession. In the past, ICAS would have had to organise events with schools and universities – now students can ask questions directly, questions that they might be reluctant to ask in front of a group or in a face-to-face situation.
“We are also looking at whether we should run social media training courses for our members,” says Duncan.
“We have already set up one that will take place in June in response to requests for advice on the business applications of social media, for example how members might monitor what is being said about them online.”
ICAS has a member of staff who is responsible for the social media strategy across its social media activity. Its executive director for UK and global member engagement describes the social media strategy as part of the institute’s overall business strategy “so it very much underpins our overall business objectives, rather than acting as a standalone platform”.
Duncan adds: “The aim is to complement and enhance business activities. We have a digital marketing strategy team with responsibility for this area – it is a relatively new push for ICAS but one that we are quickly developing.”
IMA CASE STUDY:
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) launched an exclusive online professional community – LinkUp IMA – in June 2009, in tandem with the rebranding of its website.
The objective, explains online communities manager Kevin O’Brien, is peer to peer connection.
Members can set up a profile, participate in online discussions and join groups related to subject matter or local chapters. They can also access a resource library and other documents restricted to members as well as a jobs board. There are also some public-facing areas and public groups, but most of the content is for members only.
Over the past two years, LinkUp IMA has signed up more than 1700 members who have created 120 groups.
“We use other social platforms such as LinkedIn to deliver a non-member experience and when we were developing LinkUp we started our LinkedIn communities,” says O’Brien.
“We wanted to avoid third-party advertising and include certain specific security features when we developed the community.”
The IMA is in the early stages of a significant upgrade to the community and will be adding additional features that users are accustomed to from the likes of Facebook within the next six months.
Members can post whatever they like as long as the posts are not offensive. The institute doesn’t moderate posts unless they contain inaccuracies or if it is a customer service enquiry that has been misdirected, although members can report questionable posts.
“Feedback from the community is positive, particularly from members with specific functions who like to be able to communicate in a secure, focused environment. Members have found funding sources for research as well as jobs through the community. It is accessed by people all over the world and enhances the profile of IMA as an organisation,” says O’Brien.
IMA president and CEO, Jeff Thomson describes LinkUp as a vehicle for growing the organisation and sustaining relationships between members, particularly across geographical borders. Close to 30 per cent of IMA members are outside the US