Unless you have been living on a different planet for the last five years, you will have noticed that your business or practice has changed. Or rather, you will have noticed that the conversations around you and your organisation have changed, and either you have adapted and adopted new ways or you might soon be losing business to rivals who have. The change in question is the arrival of social media. What five years ago seemed like an interesting fad for a few geeks and the better-connected type of nerd has blossomed into a major part of most business life.
While professional services may be some way behind the most up-to-minute, youth-oriented, consumer-facing brands, more forward-thinking firms within the sector have nevertheless reacted to this increasing demand for a meaningful social conversation and have put in place some sort of social media strategy.
It is clear that social media for some will become a catalyst for change within large organisations.
The full impact of some of these changes is well highlighted in a new report by Useful Social Media (USM). In its third annual State of Corporate Social Media briefing, it reveals the extent to which social media is maturing. Having been introduced to organisations largely as an addition to the marketing function (which itself partly explains why B2C firms are much more comfortable with the subject than B2B firms), social media has, according to the USM report, started to spread across organisations. Issues as diverse as gaining better customer insight, protecting (and improving) corporate reputation and even developing stronger employee engagement are all being tackled through social media. With the exception of the employee engagement element, B2C companies are more likely to use social media for all of these things than their B2B counterparts.
So what are the lessons for professional services firms from the latest trends in social media? It’s unlikely that many accountancy firms, however large, will benefit from the kind of resource put into social media by a consumer-facing company such as American Airlines, which reportedly responds to over 8,000 tweets a month. And each within 15 minutes. But there are clear advantages from central marketing departments learning to let go and encouraging social media for business purposes to spread through the organisation. One lesson is that the most prolific and effective social media users allow at least four named individuals to run the social media and often have more than six working on it. While for the world of B2B that mostly means LinkedIn, along with Twitter and some Facebook, for B2C that means Facebook as well as a host of newer growing social media outlets such as Pinterest and Instagram.
But statements about the effectiveness of social media highlight the area of greatest concern. How do you measure return on investment in social media? What does an effective social media campaign look like? Is it simply about driving traffic to a website or (worse still) about simply counting the number of followers you have? As the USM report makes clear, this is one area where there is still much to be learned right across the market. If consumer brands sometimes struggle to understand exactly why they are engaging so heavily in social media (are they keeping in touch with consumers or keeping up with competitors?), then how much rarer must it be to find an accountancy firm that understands what it is all for?
Of course, some accountants and firms have managed to build up impressive reputations and followings on Twitter, while LinkedIn is bursting with groups of finance directors and practitioners sharing grievances and sometimes solving problems together. In a profession that’s all about people, it follows that building a strong reputation as a key expert and knowledge point within a community can help you to build influence and might ultimately lead to more business. The issue is that so far there is very little real evidence to back up this common sense.
According to the USM report, it is apparent that “the advent of corporate social media adoption has had a deep and lasting impact on organisational structures”. It is clear that social media for some will become a catalyst for change within large organisations. What was once a grand experiment is now a routine part of how firms interact and learn about customers. As the USM report explains, “It has forced organisations to re-think how, when, where and why they communicate with their customers.”
For larger global firms, social media is also boosting global collaboration. Previously, where organisations were often highly compartmentalised or stuck in silos, the development of new models for working with social media has led to new ways of thinking more generally and is forcing teams to realise social media cannot be “owned” by the marketing team or any other single business unit.
Perhaps most importantly, social media is at last becoming a board-level issue and a concern for CEOs and senior partners. It may feel like something for younger practitioners or smaller firms, but even if you’re not sure why it matters just yet, and regardless of what type of business or practice you work in, social media will only get more important in the years ahead.
Richard Cree is editor of economia