Six Strategies for Social Media
Social media, which started with the creation of GeoCities in 1994 and has matured into dozens of sites led by Facebook, Twitter and Linked-in, has finally begun to reach maturity.
Maturity is not easy. It throws media into an uneasy transition, with both good news and bad.
The three leading social media sites have successfully maneuvered through public offerings and earned their founders billions of dollars in public stock. All three have grown, developed loyal followings, and established rudimentary advertising platforms.
But there have been problems as well. Facebook is being deserted by millions of users each year, mostly in the Tween-to-Teen set. The very young are a fickle audience, and are not enchanted by the growth in adult and senior users on what they thought of as their social platform. Twitter, meanwhile, has been tagged as an outlet for the narcissistic and for phony tweets. And LinkedIn is still a service haunted primarily by people looking for new jobs and sales reps looking for leads. Worse yet, it has no valid revenue generation model.
They have all suffered from recent revelations that some celebrities, businesses, and government agencies have purchased phony “Likes” and “Followers” from data farms in Eastern Europe and Asia.
For all of its faults, however, this maturity means that social media may be the perfect environment to promote and expand professional service firms such as law firms, accounting firms, and professional tax preparers. It requires only that the service follow certain best practices and strategies suited for this type of media.
“You have to have a social media presence, as part of your identity,” says tax professional Jim Lowe of Asheville, NC. “It is only one part of the marketing puzzle, but it is important. Your logo is out there. They see your name. And you build close relationships with your clients.”
Lowe, his wife, and daughter, are the staff of AVL Tax Professionals. An Enrolled Agent (EA), Jim Lowe is a federally-authorized tax practitioner has technical expertise in the field of taxation and is empowered by the US Department of the Treasury to represent taxpayers before all administrative levels of the Internal Revenue Service for audits, collections, and appeals. Jim and Jody Lowe have practiced tax preparation in Asheville since 1994, and together founded their current firm.
“Service to your clients should include value beyond billable hours and new business development,” says Joe Kovacs, APR, the marketing director for accounting firm Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman. “Social media is a powerful relationship builder. Using social media, you can get to know your clients on a much more personal level – one of the most important strategies to meet and maintain valuable clients. People want to do business with professionals they know and trust, and social media makes that possible.
Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman CPAs (www.GRFCPA.com), located in the Washington, DC metropolitan region since 1981, is a professional services firm that provides clients with financial, tax, and consulting solutions. For more than 30 years, it has supported the financial and operational success of nonprofits locally, nationally, and around the world. Its professionals also offer accounting and consulting services to government contractors, businesses, individuals, and attorneys in need of advisory support. Gelmen, Rosenberg & Freedman supports clients by hosting community service events and participating in industry organizations. Local business publications recognize that role -- the firm is regularly listed in the Washington Business Journal’s annual list of Top 25 Accounting Firms in the region.
The growing maturity of social media provides opportunities not available during the formative years of these media. Firms operating on a small advertising budget can now maximize the visibility of their brand by communicating the same message across multiple platforms. This low-cost strategy can help companies connect with both current and potential clients.
But like all successful marketing programs, the effective use of social media requires some planning and strategy. Here are the top six strategies we gleaned from discussions with marketers, accountants, and professional tax preparers:
1. Have a plan. Too many firms stumble into social media without a plan, so you see a lot of posts and tweets that can turn prospects and clients away.
“Professional services firms like to differentiate themselves, and social media is a way to differentiate yourself by communicating and posting content,” says GRF’s Joe Kovacs. “The value is created by planning and focusing useful industry resources for relationship-building purposes. This takes place offline, and requires a commitment, but will establish a viable and obvious return on investment.”
2. Stay Local to the Market. Being “friended” by people in places you don’t serve can clog your social media sites and interfere with real client relationships. Firms should be prepared to gently reject followers and friends who cannot be served, or those too far out of the firm’s markets.
“We are a small local practice, so all of our social media is local,” says Jim Lowe of AVL Tax Professionals. “We learned early on that having hundreds of “likes” outside of our area may build a huge list, but our customer base is local to Asheville, North Carolina. Trying to serve customers outside of our market may be gratifying, but it doesn’t lead to new business or satisfied clients. You need to have a local presence, a local identity, to serve local clients.”
3. Integrate your Social Media Platforms. A post on Facebook should be promoted actively on Twitter, and the same information posted to LinkedIn. They should tie back to the other, because each reaches a different audience.
“We include a section on our web site to re-cap our Facebook posts and tweets,” notes Jim Lowe, “which in turn directs people to our Facebook & Twitter pages. Posts to our Facebook page are automatically updated to Twitter and then to our website. They work together, built on a single set of marketing and relationship building messages.”
4. Offer Compelling and Interesting Content. The worst mistake in social media is to present too little, outdated, or boring content. Social media sites must remain fresh, current, and directly of interest to present and potential clients.
“In social media, you are what you present; most people don’t realize this is also an investment in public relations,” says GRF’s Joe Kovacs. “Local lead generation is what you want, but the foundation of that lead generation is a consistent message that is communicated effectively through the information you create and post. There may not be an immediate payoff to social media, but there can be a significant return on investment if you put the effort and resources behind those sites.”
5. Throw in some modest advertising. Facebook offers a modest fee for placement of an ad-style mention across its service. Twitter is experimenting with paid tweets, and LinkedIn is moving toward some level of advertising support. In all three cases, getting in at the ground floor presents an opportunity to extend the communications and relationship building into new territory for a fraction of what conventional magazine and newspaper advertising would cost.
“Limited advertising on Facebook, spending like $2 per day, has generated “likes” and interested prospects who are local,” says Jim Lowe. “With Facebook, I feel you have to do a little paid advertising to show up on people's newsfeeds. We are experimenting with Google AdWords to see if we can achieve the same for our web site and our social media sites. By combining a little advertising with our content, we can present a consistent message across multiple platforms, so that they reinforce one another.”
6. Post locally, but think strategically. Social media is not a fast-term proposition. As with all opportunities to build effective relationships, the use of this media takes time to cultivate and effort to maintain. It is necessary to post immediate and relevant content, but then also be patient to see the return on this investment in time and resources.
“Competition on the social media is fierce,” says Joe Kovacs. “You don’t always see an immediate visibility when you post things. You have to have patience from the outset, and continue to invest in the early stages even if you do not see immediate results. It requires frequent updates, frequent responses, and frequent contacts with people and institutions you would like to do business with.”
Social media is maturing, and in doing so is becoming more valuable to professional services firms. The investment in resources is modest, but time and attention over the long term, with a consistent message, are the keys to social media success.