How professional services firms can become social media superheroes (Part 2)

By Neil Patrick

This is part two of my post on social media for professional services businesses.

In part one here, I presented the latest evidence from FTI Consulting which showed that professional services firms:
  • Lag behind other sectors in their utilization of social media
  • Are handicapped by compliance and regulatory obstructions, lack of understanding of how to execute it and difficulties in producing the necessary content
Nevertheless, most reported that they anticipated an increase in their use of social media in 2014. And critically, those that had already successfully implemented social media programmes reported not only higher numbers of new clients, but also a doubling of the average value of business generated.

To recap, the research asked 408 US-based financial advisors about their use of social media for business. They grouped respondents into the following 4 categories:

In the Wings (25%) Respondents who don’t use social media in business at all. However, they are active users of social media in their personal lives. For example, 62% of this group use Facebook, 33% use LinkedIn, 58% view or share videos on YouTube, 27% use Twitter and 24% use Google+.

Network Novices (38%) Respondents who use social media passively. They use it to build their personal brands, enlarge referral networks and connect with other professionals.

Connectors (17%) Respondents who use social media more actively to cultivate relationships with prospects and current clients.

Power Professionals (20%) Respondents who use social media to deepen business relationships by gathering information and disseminating thought leadership. Power Professionals are more than twice as likely as Network Novices and more than 60 percent more likely than Connectors to use social media for business on a daily basis.

In this post, I’ll look at how the most progressive users of social media in professional services are overcoming the obstacles and examine 5 keys steps to making this happen.

1. Demolish the obstacles

The FTI Consulting research examined what professional services organizations can do to move up the ladder from passive to active users of social media. Part of this research asked respondents what their company could do that would increase their usage of social media.

The results from this open-ended question revealed the most serious obstacles. The major barriers to successful social media use are very pragmatic: regulatory and compliance issues and a lack of training and content.

20% to 25% of respondents from all four segments were asking for modifications to compliance requirements. But regulatory constraint doesn't seem to be the problem per se. Rather, the primary issue pivots on an understanding of compliance policies. Moreover, these policies are often unhelpful because they were framed before the existence of social media. They are reflective of a different media age and the associated top down, command and control approach to communications which characterised it.

In the Wings respondents were twice as likely as Power Professionals to cite regulation as a hindrance. However, once respondents felt they understood compliance policies, they called for more training, content and social media marketing from their firm.

I would endorse this observation. Recently I was consulting with the marketing team of an established financial firm. They were keen to grow their social media activity. But they had one big obstacle. Every single item they wished to post online had to be approved first by their in-house compliance team. And this could take up to two months. TWO MONTHS! That’s an age even in the old world of marketing. In the digital age it’s an eternity.

The pattern is clear. The most progressive companies and professionals are coming to terms with regulatory boundaries and are learning how to use social media within the constraints. So for professionals to reap the rewards of social business, professional services organizations must tackle these three issues:
  • Modify or loosen policies as much as possible
  • Communicate and provide training
  • Invest in the creation of meaningful content

2. Trust your people and liberalise your policies

To help professional services firms take a closer look at their social media policies, FTI asked respondents to tell them which of 12 common LinkedIn activities their company permitted them to use. These activities ranged from passive tasks such as accepting connections and listing the company name in a profile to active outreach, including sending InMail and requesting recommendations.

More than 90% of respondents reported they could use LinkedIn at work at least to accept connections. The vast majority were allowed to accept and request connections and name the firm on a profile page. Some 70% were allowed to join LinkedIn groups.

However, the percentages declined for more active outreach activities. Permission to post content to groups had been granted to only 27% to 55% of respondents, depending on the segment. Permission to write or request recommendations ranged from 21% to 41%. However, at least 20% of respondents, said their company allowed them to engage in each activity.

This suggests that most social media activities are on their way to acceptance. While seemingly small, 20% indicated that every activity, from accepting connections to posting content, was permissible. We can conclude that liberalized social business policy is moving from a small cadre of progressive professional firms into the mainstream.

Interestingly, Network Novices - professionals whose use of social media is most passive - may be the group best primed for action. Network Novices are less likely than Connectors and Power Professionals to use social media for outward communications such as posting updates to their profile or to groups. Surprisingly, respondents in the Network Novices group were most likely to believe that their firm’s policies permitted them to do so - sometimes to an even greater extent than Power Professionals.

3. Communicate and train people to give them confidence

Companies need to communicate their policies clearly and make sure employees understand the content. Effective communication of policy bolsters social media use and also prevents its misuse.

Communication should be anchored in training and education. With the exception of In the Wings, respondents from all segments are asking for more training in social business skills and information about best practices.

Given the hectic schedule of most professionals, on-demand training may be the best choice for their firm. For example, companies can provide pre-recorded webinars on complex topics such as social business strategy or simple fact sheets covering straightforward issues like LinkedIn usage policies. Ideally, professional services firms would offer training, best practices and sample content on a single platform so professionals easily can access what they need as they need it.

4. Create and share pertinent content

A growing number of experts are warning about social media fatigue. As a tsunami of content hurtles around the globe, they assert that the bar for getting noticed is rising, arguing that creating fresh, compelling content is becoming more and more difficult.

I would partly dispute this argument. It is applying the old world marketing model which scales vertically by expenditure to the new digital world which scales laterally through peer to peer endorsement.

Put another way, if your audience is well targeted and engaged, then you are not fighting it out to gain attention from a largely disinterested audience. You are successfully engaging with people who know you and are interested to hear what you have to say. It doesn’t mean you can settle for substandard or sporadic content, but I think this alleged threat is over-stated.

Of course as the volume of content shared expands, so the finite capacity for your audience to consume it comes under pressure, but this is more than compensated for by the nature of social networks which amplify your reach through the process of sharing content they like.

Nevertheless the requirement for sound content at the core of social media remains a challenge for firms who are already stretched. There’s no short cut to the production of great content. However, once a firm understands that this is a sound marketing investment (and that compared to traditional marketing is relatively low cost), the investment needed becomes much easier to bear.

5. Choose your platforms with care

Although respondents view LinkedIn as their primary network for social business, the number has declined slightly. In a study conducted in 2012, 90% of respondents said LinkedIn was their primary business network; in 2013, the number was 80%. This fall has coincided with the growth of the Linkedin userbase and the attempts by Linkedin to drive up user engagement and revenues. Inevitably this more diverse membership and commercialisation of the platform has resulted in some reacting negatively to these developments.

30% of respondents said that if their firm allows them to use it, Facebook would be the best platform for brand building. Twenty-seven percent see Facebook as the most desirable tool for improving the effectiveness of their network. For cultivating prospects, Facebook would be the platform of choice for 33% of respondents.

I wonder if this apparent endorsement of Facebook is skewed by the respondents’ personal experience of social media platforms however. As one of the earliest and still the largest platform, Facebook is familiar to most of us. But neither this fact, not its scale mean it is automatically the most suitable platform for business users of social media. Personally I feel it is not the best environment for a professional services firm to be seen in. It may be fine for restaurants and travel businesses, but accountants and solicitors...?

Although these percentages are lower than those of LinkedIn, respondents were slightly more likely to say that Facebook was the preferred network for nurturing existing relationships. On every dimension, In the Wings respondents gave higher marks to Facebook than they did to LinkedIn. 

In conclusion

Social media has huge potential to change the way professionals communicate with their clients and build a positive reputation. Although regulatory compliance and brand reputation remain issues, the most successful social media business users have already overcome these concerns. Their next challenge will be to further develop businesses social media skill and expertise. And critically, this research demonstrates that social media investment and expertise does find its way to the bottom line.

The time to act is now. Social media isn't a fad and it isn't going away. It is reshaping the very essence of how the world communicates and it is the most powerful development in human communications since the invention of the printing press. And whilst the social platforms allow almost instant communications, the results are far from instant - social media success is a marathon not a sprint.

You can try to survive with 20th century approaches if you like. Personally, I prefer to seize the limitless opportunities of this new world.

About the Research

The FTI Consulting research was based on a survey of 408 U.S.- based financial advisors, conducted in July 2013, in conjunction with Putnam Investments. The sample was drawn from a proprietary research panel of financial advisors maintained by FTI Consulting Strategic Communications and from panelists provided by Harris Interactive.

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared here:

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