28 March 2012 By Northern Lights
Earlier this month, we were invited to speak at the Yorkshire branch of the global Managing Partners’ Forum. What are the issues worrying heads of professional firms? Where do they see the opportunities in social media?
The aim of the forum is to bring professionals from different firms and sectors together to introduce and discuss thought-provoking and cutting-edge best practices.
Having spent the last year telling senior professionals ‘Why you can’t ignore social media in business’, it was refreshing to find managing partners hungry to understand what the opportunities and threats are for them and their firms.
Here is what sparked the most lively debate amongst forum members.
Personal profile vs firm profile
Most professional services firms are now starting to engage in social media at a corporate level – usually driven by the marketing team or enthusiastic graduate interns. But the issue of individual partners using social media in a personal capacity to build their own profile divided attendees at the forum.
Some felt that it was too risky to put the reputation of the firm in the hands of individuals with their own views and interests. Others were of the belief that ‘people engage with people’ and that to get the most out of social media, professionals need to take as much of a personal approach as they do with clients in the ‘real world’.
Whatever your view, there are likely to be key people in any firm whose personal reputation is hugely valuable to the organisation as a whole. What if that reputation is damaged by public backlash to a high profile case? Look at how individual bankers have been vilified by the media!
We took the Managing Partners’ Forum members through a case study of a client who works on high profile football administrations and showed how using blogging and Twitter we helped to position him as an expert and address negative comments from fans. We were able to manage the message and completely turn around what now comes up in a Google search for his name – and therefore the potential for him to win future business in the sector.
Quantity vs quality
Much of the cynicism around the business benefits of social media from B2B professionals is that the success stories tend to be about volume – number of likes, followers etc – rather than about tangible outcomes.
One of the senior partners at the forum summed this up by saying: “B2C marketing is about simple messages to large numbers, B2B marketing is about complex messages to small numbers.”
Just because there are 845m people on Facebook doesn’t mean it is the right place to build business relationships. Your social media strategy should be part of your business development strategy. Saying ‘we should be on Facebook’ is the equivalent of handing flyers out on the street about your niche area of expertise – it is unlikely to reach the right audience.
On the other hand, you could give a senior partner the freedom to engage in high level conversations with those interested in their niche area of expertise via Twitter. This way, they don’t have to speak in the firm’s corporate ‘voice’ and it allows them to build relationships with potential clients they may not have otherwise come across – and demonstrate their expertise to a much wider audience. The very public nature of these relationships is only a threat if they are not taken ‘offline’ at the right moment – but this is simply a case of partners using the same discretion as they would in other similar circumstances.
Employee ‘access to’ vs ‘use of’ social media
The burning issue for all managing partners when it comes to social media is how to control what employees are doing and saying online. There are countless examples of employees putting their foot in it with confidential client work on Facebook or publicly slating their employer on Twitter.
Professional services firms’ policies have, up until now, largely focused on employee access to the internet and social media channels. As a result of fear and lack of understanding, many simply banned access to social media in the workplace. If anything, this approach is in danger of exacerbating any underlying threats to your firm’s reputation from employees using social media in their own time – or under the desk on their smart phone!
Paul Thomas, Senior Manager, Digital Communications and Social Media at Grant Thornton UK gave a presentation at the Managing Partners’ Forum about how the firm has moved their employee social media policy from being about ‘access to’ to being about ‘use of’.
The use of social media for business purposes is not only permitted but encouraged at Grant Thornton. They don’t give strict guidelines for exactly how to behave when using social media in a professional or personal capacity. This takes away the fear of new technologies. The policy simply mirrors the firm’s code of conduct ie if you wouldn’t do it offline with everyone watching you, don’t do it online. This two minute video sums it up perfectly.
This approach has empowered people – from graduate interns to managing partners – to do some fantastic things with social media including finding and recruiting the best talent off the back of the ‘spilling the beans’ blog and being one of the first to comment on the budget via its youtube channel.
In fact, they have found that giving partners the freedom to embrace social media and creating ambassadors throughout the business that they can emulate has meant that they have intuitively done it in a way that supports the firm’s overall brand.
Work vs play
As one senior partner pointed out, using social media for business purposes doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Just as golf courses and shooting ranges are often a hot bed of new business opportunities, so are special interest groups online. Your interest in a particular type of music or football team might help you strike up a conversation with someone that is a potential business contact.
Whilst it isn’t advisable to post comments and photos of your children on your ‘professional’ Twitter account or tell the world what you are having for dinner, the odd mention of something that you have a personal interest in will show that you have a personality. After all, people like to work with people they genuinely like and can have some ‘banter’ with.
Social media presents both risks and opportunities for professional service firms. As a managing partner, can you afford to ignore something so fundamental to the future of your business? The true power of social media can only be harnessed if it is addressed at the most senior levels and made an integral part of your business strategy.
In a year’s time, we won’t be talking about social media; it will just be part of how we communicate in business.