TO TWEET or not to tweet, that is the question. And for professional services firms, where reputation management is absolutely forefront of minds, creating a 140-character update is often a handwringing, harrowing process.
If that seems like an over-egging of what should be a simple sentence made available in the public domain, then take the example of digital design and advertising agency Huge. In a fascinating article on the agency's work at BusinessInsider.com, an example is cited of 45 days from the inception of a corporate tweet, to actually hitting the ‘tweet' publish button.
Accountancy Age assumes that most practices don't take that long. But whether they tweet at all, leave it in the hands of an external PR, with a marketing assistant, or the founding partner; firms approach Twitter and social media differently.
The biggest firms have the greatest resources at hand, and as such their corporate Twitter accounts are very active. As Grant Thornton senior partner Scott Barnes points out, its tentative first forays on Twitter were as another outlet for its press releases, but that has changed.
"We comment on topical issues, cover our seminars - it's an important marketing channel. We have 12,000 followers, and it's also a channel to our people," says Barnes.
Analysis of the Accountancy Age Top 50+50 that are using Twitter undertaken by Coldlime found that PwC, Deloitte and KPMG lead the way in follower numbers although EY falls below Grant Thornton, BDO and Baker Tilly. In social media at least it appears possible to break the Big Four's hegemony.
The table shows Coldlime's analysis of the firms in the Accountancy Age Top 50+50 that are using Twitter. The latest data is from all their Twitter accounts (Followers, Followed, Tweets) and combined them with data from Moz's Followerwonk (Days on, Social Authority) to create an original picture of their Twitter activity as of 15 May 2014. "Social Authority" is a more accurate measure of a Twitter account's influence than simply counting followers or number of tweets as it takes into account the level of engagement generated by the tweets by measuring the number and frequency of retweets.
Martin De Saulles, marketing lecturer at the University of Brighton and founder of ColdLime, who put together the ‘Firms on Twitter' research, told Accountancy Age he is "surprised" that 10% of the Top 50+50 firms don't have a corporate Twitter account.
For EY, Twitter is one aspect of its sophisticated social media platform for connecting with clients, communities and the media. "It's not just about broadcasting a message or new report: Twitter is a way of sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas," according to an EY spokeswoman.
But the spontaneous, and often irreverent, nature of Twitter is difficult for corporates to get a handle on. How can accounting firms manage this? One thing is to not set up too many barriers to tweeting - not even 45 minutes of checking, let alone 45 days. Grant Thornton's marketing and comms teams manage Twitter, and have "light touch" processes in place, effectively a second pair of eyes to proof the tweet itself.
"We rely on our people to be sensible on the corporate account. There's a review process, but on quality rather than anything else...it's light-touch," says Barnes.
The light-touch approach seems a sensible one. With innumerable opportunities for firms' staff to embarrass themselves, a heavy-handed and process-driven approach to social media is unworkable. Rather than fret about monitoring and policing, EY points out that it is "actively encouraged" for staff to have Twitter accounts. The rule is, effectively, ‘remember who you are and what you represent'.
Former Price Bailey executive chairman Peter Gilman agrees that trust is inherent - but staff must accept that any social media comments they make will reflect on the firm. "I'm acutely aware of representing Price Bailey, you can't detach from its integrity."
He believes that firms have not yet found their way around understanding the value that can be driven from Twitter.
"Many are there because they feel they ought to be there. By having a twitter profile and not doing much with it risks giving you a dull reputation." Instead, Gillman focuses on his own Twitter account, "for raising my profile".
A way of life
For big, established, firms it is understandable that driving huge value from Twitter is easier said than done, and may take a disproportionate amount of time. But, conversely, some firms are structured in such a way that Twitter is a way of life, a key tool.
New, lean, practices whose focuses about working online with clients, then Twitter is a natural place to win clients. And this is exactly what Elaine Clark does with her firm Cheapaccounting.
Clark has run her online firm since 2007 and social media has been the heart of its content marketing strategy. She is the face of its Twitter account. "Our organic growth is through social media," explains Clark. "Twitter is social engagement, a way to network with a huge number of people."
She appreciates that not many firms are in Cheapaccounting's position, where is structured to suit an online world. But the biggest risk that firms face is not necessarily about running a clunky, basic, campaign, the big fear of Peter Gillman's, it's about not engaging in social media at all.
"The biggest risk is not using it...people can complain through Twitter [about you], so the risk of not being on it is even greater," says Clark. "You need to be able to cope with that. The world we service contains much more intelligent users, they know what buttons to press."
So has Grant Thornton won clients through Twitter? "Probably not," says Scott Barnes. "But it creates a profile and impression of a firm that's keeping up with the times. We're very active in thinking about ways of communicating."
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