Professional services firms and social media – too old at 50?

31 March 2014 By Northern Lights

Professional services firms and social media – too old at 50? image

VJ1I was delighted to be invited as guest speaker at a dinner to discuss ‘Is social media turning Professional Services firms upside down?’. The debate is – or should be – relevant to businesses in every sector, but one comment has left me deeply disturbed.  There was tacit agreement that “of course partners aged over 50 are never going to understand or ‘do’ social media”.

Here I want to look at the key points discussed, my own views of the issues and what boardrooms and management teams should be doing.  And I put my cards on the table.  Just as management teams initially dismissed websites as ridiculous, but now no business would be without one, so management teams have got to understand the risks and opportunities of social media.  Age cannot be a barrier.

First the dinner.

VJ2Co-hosted by Julian Pike, partner at Farrer & Co in their beautiful London offices, with Annabel Dunstan and Imogen Osborne of Question and Retain, the guests were an inspiring and lively mix of leading agencies and heads of comms – or similar – from professional firms, including Accenture, Savills and BDO, as well as Ruth Wyatt, editor of PR Week.

The dinner was reassuring in one sense – my views that bosses are ignoring or delegating social media were confirmed around the table.

But, whereas I am convinced we have got to get managing partners, ceos and management teams to understand and manage social media – there was a view that we have to accept that most people over 50 will never get involved with social media.  Ruth Wyatt was brilliantly outspoken on a number of issues – and her robust view was also that it’s time for professional services firms to wake up and smell the coffee.

What were the other key themes from the dinner?

1.      Facebook for recruitment is now established

VJ3Starting with the easy stuff, social media for recruitment is well established.  This was an easy win and starting place for most firms – and companies.  Partners knew that their teenage children were on something called Facebook and though few really understood much about it, they were easily persuaded some time ago that this was relevant for graduate recruitment.


Increasingly, LinkedIn is being understood as a recruitment tool.  I remember years ago putting up a screengrab of the finance directors in my LinkedIn network.  And one director in the audience looked at me, jaw dropping, ‘you mean, I can just search for the word finance director?’  Yes, and that has turned the world of recruitment upside down.

 2.      There is still not a social media ‘market’ for professional services

VJ4One of the challenges in the B2B market is that it is not yet fully formed.  It is difficult therefore to demonstrate the full power of social media while there are still so many gaps.

Taking the website example, very few directors could have seen the way the internet would become more important than a phone.  Until the world was on the internet, who could have seen how a Google search would work or that we would buy our shopping online at night?  Four years ago, a girlfriend of mine told her board about the arrival of Kindles and the opportunity for their particular business – but all she got was a lot of guffaws around the table about how no-one would read a book on a computer. 

More fool them.

What firms now need to understand is

  • Blogs with insights and tips will become a normal part of websites – the part with personality which is topical and the most relevant to clients.  Your thought leadership.  Commenting on blogs and guest blogging will become a part of the networking process
  • As business leaders progress to using LinkedIn as a business tool, rather than a CV, they will start searching for the expertise they need through it.  So professionals need to understand how LinkedIn works as a search engine
  • Google will only increase in importance and power – and finally, you will wake up to the need for engaging social media if you want your firm to be a player!

3.      Very little is being done in strategic new business targeting

VJ5The biggest opportunity to use social media for professional firms and corporates is using it to win new business.  I must have held around 30 workshops for business leaders and corporates on how to win business through social media and am constantly amazed that rarely does anyone know about Advanced Searches. 

This blog shows what business we have won through social media and how to measure the ROI of B2B social media

 This is where I start to get professional firms and corporates understanding more about the serious value of social media.

 4.      Snobbery is holding professional services firms back

This was a new thought for me, but I think spot on.  There is a rather old-school view that social media is naff and just as few senior people will admit to watching and enjoying soap operas, so admitting to understanding and using social media is rather down-market.

 5.      The risks of social media are neither understood nor managed

VJ6My big concern is while boards laugh about the irrelevance of social media, they are not managing its risks.  And there are plenty.

When I wrote a guide on creating a social media policy, I listed some of the risks to be addressed as

  • Unwittingly giving away intellectual property
  • Security breaches (actually most directors are seriously worried about this – but worried about the wrong bits.  Their solution is to deny access to social media sites.  As if no-one has a smartphone)
  • Employees playing pranks with videos which break health and safety rules, regulatory guidelines etc
  • The implications for PR and HR. Anna Gregory of Farrer mentioned a YouTube clip of a Somerfield manager (more details in Farrer’s paper on employment and social media)fighting with plastic bags – who was then dismissed.  The original video was viewed by 8 people, after the dismissal it was millions

To name a few.  The other day I was asked by a general counsel if I could rewrite their harassment and bullying policy to include social media – he had been on a course and was horrified at the possible issues, as were the board when he raised it.  I refused, unless I could first work with the board to understand social media – it’s no good having a policy that no-one understands or manages?

Before the dinner, Question and Retain had sent out the question being debated to around 100 professionals across the UK, through their PulseCheck.  The majority view (38%) was that social media is having quite an impact.  To get a copy of Annabel and Imogen’s summary of how they saw the dinner, please contact us.

My thanks to Farrer and fellow guests at the dinner.  It was an extremely important topic to debate and I was glad to be among so many informed peers. 

What do you think – is this an important subject, do directors and partners over 50 just have to learn about and manage social media?  Or is it OK to say this is an age thing and not relevant to directors?

We’d love your thoughts – please do leave a comment below.

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Written by Northern Lights


  • No – it cannot be an age thing! Social media is transforming how we do business – Boards of Directors cannot ignore how their customers are accessing their services – and talking about them. We all need to wake up!

  • You know my thoughts Victoria and yes I am over 50. Currently in the US visiting a “kindred body” and attending their conference from today. 5 hrs behind so breakfast here and already today had an interaction via Social Media re our June Houses of Parliament event, came across your excellent blog, and yesterday had a good discussion with someone I’d not met before about our two organizations and social media presence. I’m happy for others to remain oblivious whilst this 50+ (and some of my 50+ yr old staff) widen the gap!

  • Amusing – you reckon this is now our secret weapon. Or I guess we’d once say ‘our competitive advantage’! But I want it to be a full market so that we can engage properly (and of course be the ones to take early advantage as it gets going!)

  • we (the over 50s) are never too old to do social media, we are the wise old grey beards (some of us)with knowledge & experience to pass on to a younger generation & we can use social media to pass that knowledge etc on to a wider audience. Social media is a great place to find an individual with specialist knowledge who can help your business grow.

  • Thank you Catherine, Graham and Peter
    What great comments!
    Interesting that being over 50 is seen as a strength in social media – and certainly that supports our view that very few in their early 20s (often the ones that a CEO will put to run social media as they understand Facebook’) really understand strategic engagement – or risks.
    Great example Graham, of senior engagement. And perhaps you are right – we keep social media to ourselves as our secret weapon! Though we do still need a full market to make it work properly?

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