Search online the terms ‘social media’ and ‘accountants’ and instantly the criticism starts appearing. “Accountants have no idea how to use social media”, is one of the comments. Another suggests: “Accounting firms often get a bad reputation for being one of the last adopters of new technology.” The profession, it seems, needs some help breaking into the 21st Century.
Yet there are definite signs of change, with a recent survey finding that three quarters of accountants use social media. However, the Wolters Kluwer Social Media Survey (of the UK) found a big gender divide – while 88% of women accountants are regular social media users, for their male counterparts the figure is just 72%.
Another divide may be even more significant – that between the smaller firms and the largest. While small firms can appear big on the internet if they put in the effort, for the most part they still look small. Yet social media effectiveness need not depend on the size of the budget allocated.
Looking good via social media is not just a challenge for accountants, suggests Kevin Reid, sales and marketing director of BDO Ireland and a former chair of the Irish Professional Services Marketing Forum. “In some ways the professional services industry as a whole has struggled with integration of its message in digital media; primarily because of a perceived juxtaposition between displaying long term advisory skills in such a short term – and in the case of Twitter – short message environment,” he says.
“At BDO we have tried to focus on the potential needs of our clients and how best we can deliver [services to clients] via our digital offering. If we can offer insights, thought leadership and added-value to them via this medium then there is no juxtaposition and our digital offering will parallel our overall approach to delivering excellence in service.
“We, like the industry itself, undoubtedly have a further road to travel on this journey; however, we do believe that journey is worthwhile. That said, digital media is not the panacea for professional services marketing. Yes, it is another method of interaction with the marketplace, but in the end, long term trusting relationships are built on face-to-face interactions and a digital media strategy needs to reinforce that, not be an alternative.”
It is clear that many firms are acutely aware of the need to have an impressive social media engagement, backing their other online activities. Baker Tilly Mooney Moore, which is based in Belfast, is one of the smaller firms that has developed a strong and clear online presence. Partner John O’Rourke says his firm recognises its importance. “This is an area that offers opportunities for all businesses,” he insists. “For our clients it is important that we keep them updated with areas of interest in a format that suits their needs, this may be e mail, Twitter or through the website.
“This has not lessened the importance of traditional channels, such as phone calls, seminars or printed briefings, [which are] essential for more technical or client specific areas. We view digital communications as increasing the tools at our disposal rather than replacing more traditional methods and they have the real advantage of speed of delivery.”
For smaller firms, membership of a network can give them access to resources that saves them time and effort in duplicating information that is already available. But these are also links that need to be nurtured through social media. O’Rourke explains: “As part of the Baker Tilly International network we are in regular contact with our colleagues around the world. LinkedIn and the extranet have been vital in this and let us share technical knowledge, expertise and information. Facebook has been a very useful way of our staff keeping up-to-date with news from firms in the network.
“We regularly use webinars for staff training: it is a real advantage when staff can receive training from experts around the world without leaving our Belfast office. In terms of recruitment, digital communications is an instant way of promoting job opportunities and lets potential employees access information from mobile devices. We know that digital communications offer opportunities for many aspects of our business and this is only set to increase.”
As O’Rourke suggests, it is essential that firms see social media as offering far more than just additional marketing channels. They can radically change the way the firm does business – across much of its operations. For the police, and private investigators, social media are standard tools to use during enquiries. The same principles apply for accountants. They can use websites such as Duedil to find financial and director information on client companies and their competitors, and use Facebook and websites such as Glassdoor.ie to learn how customers and employees regard businesses.
Inevitably, it is the larger firms that not only have a very highly developed and mature presence across the online and social media channels, but also have learnt quickly about many of the wider opportunities presented by social media.
At the head of these is EY, which in 2012 was recognised by Flagship Consulting as the accountancy firm that was most effective in its use of social media. The firm was praised for its “high levels of quality content used to create conversations on Twitter and Facebook”. The citation added: “They have multiple Twitter accounts that interact with niche audiences as well as each other – ensuring only relevant and targeted information is posted rather than using a scattergun approach to content sharing.”
Now EY itself is building on its social media experience to generate an additional revenue stream, as a specialist advisor to clients developing their web and social media content. Winnie Brennan, a senior manager at EY Ireland for its digital and customer proposition, explains: “EY offers a suite of services to our clients to assist them in improving their online presence and more importantly [to] examine their overall digital strategy for their business.
“Digital is only one of many channels. EY’s unique digital offerings not only concentrate on the suitable and practical implementations of digital, but concentrate on its impact on our clients’ business [and] revenue – [to achieve] tangible commercial outcomes with impartial views.
“Most businesses understand the importance of digital. The challenge is that digital has become so pervasive that clients don’t necessarily know where to start. What aspects of digital media will have the most impact to drive business? What areas of their business can best benefit from exploring digital channels?
“At times clients may find it difficult to know what they want to achieve with digital. They may see social media, online trading, website optimisation as separate initiatives or ‘things’ that they must do, but not necessarily understand why and how to optimise their investments. This is where EY comes in. Because we do not provide the tactical solutions, we can objectively assist our clients to evaluate the various digital channels and options and select the right digital solutions provider to drive their business objectives…. Clients must understand that by exploring and implementing digital channels and tools, they are impacting their bottom line – not because digital is the latest trend or because all their competitors are deploying it.”
Nelson Croom is one of several training providers targeting the accountancy profession, partnering ACCA with CPD recognised online sessions. It provides technical courses on social media as well as training sessions to enhance professional business skills using social media and business opportunity awareness training. “What is different about us is that our training is based on peer enriched learning,” explains the firm’s Alan Nelson. “That is because we believe you can learn as much from your peers as from experts.”
The structure is based around acknowledged experts who introduce the subjects and ask questions, which participants seek to answer in terms of how they would apply social media in their normal working environments, with suggestions shared with other participants. “We can engage with more developmental things and make people think much more,” he explains. “Quite often there isn’t an answer. There are tools and techniques they can draw on. It’s about their learning, not our teaching.”
In order to attract more participants to his online training, Nelson conducted a road show in Ireland last year suggesting to accountants how they can and should use social media. For this he was supported by quotes supplied by Grant Thornton. “Smart use of social media… will help us win business, achieve the growth we’re after and get the best people to join us,” said the firm. “We have a once in a lifetime opportunity. At Grant Thornton using social media at work is not only permitted and acceptable, but desirable and expected.”
For Nelson, the emphasis is not that social media is different, merely that it is a different way of doing what is normal. “I say to accountants that they have always known that the most important marketing tool is word of mouth,” he insists. “Social media is word of mouth in the contemporary setting. Accountants are natural networkers.”
Traditionally, says Nelson, a sole trader accountant will have developed links with counterparts a hundred miles away, sharing expertise. Faced with a question not heard before, the accountant would pick up the phone and ask for help. Social networking is just a matter of doing the same thing, but in a different way – through an online community.
Despite this, there is resistance from many small firms, which believe that the time investment in social media will be unproductive and fail to generate value for money results. “It is true if they do this half-heartedly, but that is true with any marketing activity,” says Nelson.
His suggestion is to seriously consider a blog and build from there. “Try blogging about stuff as an accountant,” he says. “And then hang around that a Twitter account, which points people to the blogs. And try to engage clients with this as well. I regard blogging as the same activity they are doing already. I can’t guarantee that if someone starts blogging they will win new business.” But, he believes, sending out old-style branded magazines to clients can give the impression that an accountant has not kept up-to-date.
Social media can provide real benefits across a firm’s activities. Crucially, though, failure to engage in social media can reinforce the image of a crusty professional unwilling to change. That is an impression no accountant is likely to enjoy.
Where to go for help
Provides online social media training, recognised by ACCA as part of CPD. Based in UK, but offers courses to Ireland and globally.
Ireland-based specialist provider of digital, social and mobile marketing education and agency services.
UK-based provider of a range of social media services for accountancy firms, including training and consultancy.