Emperor’s new clothes

THE WHOLE WORLD seems to have gone crazy about social media: all of your family and friends are on Facebook, your business contacts are all on LinkedIn, and even you have a Twitter account to rival Stephen Fry’s. Not only does everyone seem to be talking about and using these and other social media sites, but the valuations being put on the companies behind these sites are reminiscent of the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millennium.

The ability of these new technologies to transform the way people communicate, build communities, share ideas and engage in commercial and social activities is not in dispute. Look at the way social media is currently facilitating political change in the Middle East and North Africa. In many consumer businesses, particularly those focusing on young people, social media is transforming the way companies build and promote their brands.

However, like the dot.com bubble which eventually burst, I believe that many social media sites will never achieve the returns investors and shareholders expect, and that many commercial users of these sites will never gain the benefits they anticipated when they started to invest in and use this technology. A case in point is the use of social media by professional services firms, including accountants, to boost their marketing and business development (BD) activities.

Egged on by an army of communications agencies and consultants, accountancy firms have been encouraged to get their partners and staff trained in and set up on LinkedIn, to set up a Twitter account for the firm, and to open up a Facebook page.

Call me a cynic, but the increased activity around social media has occurred at a time when most practices have been struggling because of the economic climate, and assisting firms with social media has proved a nice little earner for agencies when budgets for other marketing activities have been falling. Personally, I think it has been the classic case of the emperor’s new clothes: tell partners that this new technology– that they don’t really understand – will transform their ability to pull in new work and then get them to invest in it to generate some much-needed income for the agency. But sadly the returns from this social media activity will be low, and I will use the rest of this article to explain why.

To assess whether social media has anything to offer accountancy firms looking to improve their marketing and business development, it is important to understand how this technology might influence buyers at each stage of the new business cycle.

The first rule of effective marketing is to ensure that you do a great job for your existing clients, so that they act as your advocates and recommend you to others. This word-of-mouth recommendation has always been the most important way in which accountants get new business, and was around a long time before ‘modern’ marketing techniques were sanctioned by the various institutes. As satisfied clients are less likely to tell others how good you are – unlike dissatisfied clients who will tell everyone – finding ways to accelerate the process of referral is important. The best way to ensure that this happens is to bring clients and non-clients together at appropriate events – seminars, dinners, discussion forums, etc. – and to facilitate this exchange of recommendation.

Personally, I cannot see how social media adds to this important BD activity. I know LinkedIn allows recommendations to be posted, but am I the only one who finds these very schmaltzy and off-putting?  Anyway, there seems to be far too much of “I’ll recommend you if you recommend me” going on!

The second most effective source of new business is relationship building with prospective clients and potential referrers. Now here I will admit that LinkedIn does serve a purpose as a contacts database with a few interesting knobs and whistles.

However, initiating and building relationships with decision-makers who might use your services, or refer you to others, happens through face-to-face personal contact. The key then is to find ways to engineer opportunities to meet such people. This is best achieved through networking or speaking at seminars, conferences and other forums attended by your target audience.

Such relationship initiation and subsequent building does not happen in cyberspace. Using LinkedIn as a tool to research people’s backgrounds is one of its uses, but please do not be tempted to use it to ‘cold call’ people who you are targeting. I recently came across a consultancy that was recommending firms to do just this.

Cold calling never (well, very rarely) works in professional services marketing – meet your target at a function first, try to assess their needs, and then make an approach. They are far more likely to respond in this situation.

Finally, much has been made of social media, particularly Twitter, as a tool to communicate information on issues relevant to your target audience. Now we all recognise the importance of good thought leadership in demonstrating our capability in a particular area, but bombarding people with 140-charater tweets is not the way to do this. Stick to white papers and articles in the trade and business press, both of which have more credibility than tweets or even blogs. People are being bombarded with a blizzard of information these days and tweeting just adds to this. Write less often and in media which will have more impact, and remember to send reprints or PDFs direct to your clients and targets.

Social media is not a panacea for an accountancy firm’s marketing problems. Some sites, like LinkedIn have limited benefits, but believing that you can sit at your desk typing tweets and posts, which no one will read, rather than getting out and about and meeting people face-to-face is the big myth of social media that is currently being peddled in the professional services sector by many who should know better.

And remember, you do not want to be walking about your office like the emperor with the BD equivalent of no clothes on, i.e. without any work.

Kevin Wheeler has been advising accountancy firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for 24 years

Kevin Wheeler and Heather Townsend (below) will be speaking at the Accountancy Age Best Practice conference on 23 June.


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