By Jason Bramwell
When the time came for Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP (Baker Tilly) to develop its approach to social media, it was clear that a one-size-fits-all strategy wouldn't work. The firm tailors accounting and advisory services to more than ten industries, including food and beverage, construction and real estate, and health care.
"We're not relying on one centralized voice to communicate and make connections via social media", chief marketing officer Tammy Barboni, who's based at the firm's Minneapolis office, told AccountingWEB. "Baker Tilly has deep industry and service specialization. So it's really about working with each practice area and finding where its target audience is online and how they're using social media for business purposes, such as identifying potential service providers, researching topics, and validating referrals."
As part of that approach, Baker Tilly's marketing department - with input from the human resources, IT, and risk management teams - created and implemented the firm's social media policy more than a year ago. Firm partners and employees operate discussion groups on LinkedIn, provide content to industry blogs, and offer career pages on Facebook and LinkedIn.
"Baker Tilly's social media policy was designed to strike a balance between encouraging employees to be brand ambassadors and to be good stewards of our firm, our clients, and our people", Barboni says. "Our staff are asked to be professional and respectful about how they use social media. For example, the policy encourages making connections on LinkedIn and other channels, but prohibits sharing confidential information about clients or the firm."
Creating a Successful Social Media Approach
The following social media approach has proved successful at Baker Tilly and can be adapted for use by other accounting firms.
Start with audience discovery. The first step is to understand your audience and how it might use and interact on social media during the decision-making process.
"Our target audience is generally the C-suite of midsized organizations: CEOs and CFOs. In cases of consulting services, our audience also includes CMOs, CHROs (chief human resources officers), and CIOs (chief information officers)", Barboni says.
Baker Tilly found that its target audience uses several different online resources, such as the firm's website, Google, and LinkedIn, to make connections and search for issues-based thought leadership.
"Our website is core to our sales and marketing efforts", Barboni says. "C-suite leaders spend time on our site looking at partner bios, reading information from thought leaders, and learning more about our firm and its services. They also watch webinars, listen to audiocasts, download white papers, and read case studies.
"Our audience is also going to LinkedIn to learn more about the people from our firm who they're talking to and meeting with", she continues. "As such, our marketing team members format webinars, alerts, and newsletter and white paper posts so our partners can share them with their connections on LinkedIn. This information is also posted to our website and promoted through campaigns. In some industries, like business technology, Twitter has also been a widely accepted channel."
Develop a social media objective. The social media objective should serve as a guide to how your firm interacts on social media channels. "For example, our objective is to share relevant information with targeted audiences in an effort to make connections and build meaningful relationships", Barboni says.
Choose which social media channels to pursue. One of the biggest challenges of creating a social media approach is resisting the temptation of choosing a social media channel first.
"I'd get requests early on like, 'Tammy, we need to be on Facebook tomorrow.' So I'd say, 'Ok, why does your practice area need to be on Facebook? Is that where your audience is?'" Barboni says. "It may be that we should be on Facebook, or it may not, but let's sit down and move through the process. The framework we developed made a lot of sense to people, and we could walk through it and make the right decision."
Baker Tilly decided that Facebook would be best used for its campus recruiting group, which recently started a careers page on the social network.
"That's the only way we're currently using Facebook from a business perspective", Barboni says. "Our C-suite audience may use Facebook to connect with family and friends, but they're not typically using that channel to make connections within their industry."
Before launching the Facebook careers page a couple of months ago, the firm's recruiters conducted focus groups with campus recruits.
"Some said they would use Facebook just for personal connections - friends and family. Others said they would listen to messages from companies, especially if they're trying to find a job and connecting with potential employers, so there was interest there", she adds. "What we committed to do was create the Facebook careers page and help the recruiters develop a plan about what and how we wanted to communicate on the page. We continually monitor it, and we'll continue to seek feedback from campus recruits."
While developing its social media strategy, Baker Tilly targeted LinkedIn as a channel to build meaningful connections with clients and potential prospects.
"When we looked at our ideal client or our ideal potential client, we found they were predominately using LinkedIn for professional connections. So we provided LinkedIn training and tools for our partners to use to make these connections", Barboni says.
For example, one of the firm's partners is a subject matter expert on energy utilities and created a LinkedIn group called "Power Up."
"The intention is not to push out marketing messages; the intention is to share thought leadership and industry ideas", she adds.
While starting a page or discussion group on a social media channel is easy, Barboni says the challenge is successfully sustaining it.
"People really underestimate the resources it takes to leverage social media in a high-quality way", she states. "So one of the things we did was to create a social media readiness checklist. It's a framework that people should follow to understand the resources that go into it."
The metrics Baker Tilly uses to measure the success of its social media approach depend on the goals that were defined for a particular team in the planning process, Barboni says.
"For one platform, we wanted to increase awareness, so we look for an increase in website traffic", she says. "For another group, it might be the number of times its content, such as an article or infographic, has been shared socially."
Another method is measuring return on objective versus return on investment. "One objective might be for a team to increase its public relations opportunities. We can then measure how many press releases have been issued or shared through social media, how many impressions they created, and how many media hits they received", Barboni says.
Building a Meaningful Profile
According to Barboni, LinkedIn profiles should include three essential elements.
"First, your profile should have a professional photo. That sounds simple and basic, but some people don't have that", she says. "Second, make sure you highlight your experience in an interesting and meaningful way. Share your credentials, and get recommendations. Last, let your personality show through your profile. LinkedIn is not just about regurgitating your resume; it's about making connections. So do a little bit of storytelling about yourself, your experience, and your interests."
Barboni shared the following three lessons learned during the creation and implementation of the firm's social media approach.
1. Understand your target audiences. Successful social media efforts start with a strategy built on how your target audiences use social media at each stage of the buying process, not how you want to use social media. Resist the temptation of choosing a social media channel first, such as Facebook or YouTube, and then figuring out how you want to use that platform.
2. Social media is a long-term commitment. Although Facebook and Twitter pages can be launched quickly, it takes resources, planning, and dedication to make them successful. A long-term plan for sustaining a meaningful and interactive social media presence is critical to meeting your objectives and avoiding damaging your brand. Your social media work plan should include not only an editorial calendar of specifically targeted content, but engagement expectations for answering audience questions or concerns quickly and effectively.
3. Require a social media plan for each audience. Accounting firms that serve multiple industries and offer a broad base of services will likely need a social media plan for each target audience - if the strategy depends on sharing relevant thought leadership. A one-size-fits-all approach to social media, using a firmwide single push of communication, is not likely to resonate with your audience in a meaningful way. You're much more likely to make a valuable connection by understanding the needs of your audiences across sectors and services and delivering relevant content to them.