SOCIAL MEDIA, once the reserve of early adopters and hardcore techies, has become embedded in mainstream internet experience and, increasingly, business marketing strategy. Clever use of social media can level the playing field between corporate heavy-hitters such as the Big Four - who have budgets and resources available for large-scale integrated marketing campaigns - and small accountancy practices.
Definitions of social media still vary widely, making it hard for the uninitiated to find a way in. However, perseverance will pay off, particularly for small accountancy practices. Savvy organisations have now recognised the power of social media for engaging specifically with existing and prospective clients: marketing efficiently, communicating expertise and enhancing company reputation. Indeed, some accountancy firms, such as CheapAccounting.co.uk, rely almost exclusively on social media for marketing.
Upping the interaction
Social media is used to describe sites where the user - as opposed to the publisher - has the ability to contribute content, comment on other people's contributions and make connections with other users. Social media is about facilitating interaction and collaboration in an online environment.
Before integrating social media as part of a marketing strategy, it is vital to have initiated an online presence and actively maintained it- a website, blog or combination of the two - which will act as a foundation for extending online marketing activity. From that basis, a regularly updated satellite social media tool can significantly improve the company website's search engine optimisation (SEO).
It is also important to know which social media tools are available and how they can be used to deliver business objectives. When used properly, each of these platforms have different benefits.
Blog sites, including Blogger, Blogspot and Wordpress, are simple to create and offer an easy-to-maintain online presence that is flexible, reactive - allowing content to be uploaded on demand - and topical. By hosting a blog, accountancy firms provide a platform for their practitioners to demonstrate expertise and relevance to visitors, perhaps offering advice and addressing frequently asked questions. Interest can be created among a wider audience through use of sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
A blog is also an ideal platform for insightful discussion of industry developments. For example, debating changes to legislation, rules and regulation in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review, or commenting on Accounting Standards Board (ASB) reports and key news stories, such as the PAYE controversy earlier this year, will boost reputation among peers, clients and potential clients, positioning the firm as a market-leader.
Actively contributing to established accountancy blogs which have an existing peer audience - such as accountancyblog.com or blog.taxassist.co.uk - also amplifies the company voice.
Online directories and review function
Increasingly, online business directory sites on which small or local accountancy firms often advertise - such as Yell, Qype and Yelp - are integrating a review function into their listings facility. Online reviews are no longer constrained to hotels and restaurants: accountancy firms' service and delivery is also being reviewed and rated online by existing clients and viewed by new business prospects.
Facebook and Twitter are great places to engage with clients and keep abreast of emerging issues in the accountancy profession. Using hashtags such as #accountancy and #accounting on company posts ensures that the practice's point of view is part of the debate, showing clients and competitors that the company has an authoritative voice.
Creating a LinkedIn profile and joining groups for accounting professionals, including Accountancy Professionals UK or Accountancy Age, is also an ideal way to forge and nurture business relationships.
Including video in the online marketing strategy of professional services firms may seem redundant, since there is no ‘product' to physically demonstrate or ‘sell'. However, content sharing platforms like Flickr and YouTube - which allow users to upload photos or videos, and view and comment on other users' uploads - offer the opportunity to give accountancy businesses a ‘face'. Recommended ways of using video include engaging potential clients through workshop-style webinars or video blogs from the firm's expert accounting professionals, which can then be promoted via YouTube channels and other tools.
As these show, social media platforms allow independent accountancy businesses to interact with clients in entirely new ways, presenting unique peer recommendation opportunities and offering an audience to communicate successes and expertise.
Used properly, social media can help to maintain and nurture existing relationships, develop new ones and improve the overall perception of your practice: displaying active participation in the issues which matter to the accountancy profession and to clients.
Many staff, clients and business prospects are already using these platforms, and may well be discussing the business, industry or looking for accounting advice. This represents a valuable source of new business opportunities that cannot afford to be missed.
Before beginning to engage with the various platforms, invest in research investigating which social media tools clients use to enable intelligent targeting. Initially, select the channel that is most relevant to the firm's audience and objectives, developing interest and building confidence within this space, before introducing additional channels.
In addition, agree objectives specific to the business: decide what social media can deliver for the firm - for example greater client or industry visibility, creating a reputation as a pioneering thought leader in the accountancy profession, or positioning the firm to the media as an expert commentator - who will own which tool, and how achievements will be measured.
There are many free tools available both for managing social media activity and for monitoring various channels. Tweetdeck and Hootsuite can help to manage online presence and conversations across Twitter and Facebook, while Google Alerts and aggregators such as Google Reader and Netvibes can help you stay on top of what is being said about the business and the accountancy industry at large.
Sokratis Papafloratos is head of social products at Yell
Online accountancy practice CheapAccounting.co.uk provides cost-effective accounting to small businesses; combining consultations with a qualified accountant with online bookkeeping software. Since launching in 2007 they've relied on social media to grow the practice rather than traditional marketing techniques such as advertising and telemarketing.
Through the company's blog and Twitter channels, as well as a presence on the UK Business Forums and guest blogs on sites like The Start Up Donut, CheapAccounting has built an online reputation which generates leads. By offering free advice and industry insight, company founder Elaine Clark has positioned herself and her business as a thought leader within the industry and a trusted adviser to small accountancy firms.
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