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Nov 05 2010

Professional services firms and social media

A few weeks ago, at a Social Media summer event (on using Facebook for brand engagement) at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the differing levels of social media adoption in different market sectors was discussed. Initially, the debate focused on the differences – if any – between business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to- business (B2B) approaches to social media (incidentally, earlier this week I read an interesting blog post: Seven myths on B2B use of social media – thanks to Gemma Went for the tip).

The conversation then turned to how, even within B2B, there are distinct differences in how different types of organisations are deploying Web 2.0 tools and techniques. I mentioned examples of professional services organisations within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector – design firm HOK (post) and construction manager Mace (post), for example – who are beacons of enlightened practice, but I added there were many more professional services businesses which still tended to block some, most or all social media platforms.

At the end of the meeting, Scott Addison introduced himself to me and promised to send me a copy of his MBA dissertation, Anti-Social? An Exploration of Social Media Effectiveness for Professional Services Marketing, completed at the Cass Business School in London. Since then, we’ve also met up to talk more generally about PR, professional services firms and social media – and he has generously allowed me to talk about his qualitative research, in which he interviewed representatives of 11 different law, accountancy and marketing services firms, plus an AEC consultancy. The following is my summary of his key findings and recommendations.

Research findings

While the importance of social media platforms for communication and engagement was widely acknowledged, Scott found there was little consistent use for business development purposes; “At present, its primary use is for intelligence gathering and prospecting, with relatively little effort to engage in direct, two-way dialogue”, he said.

There was limited understanding in many firms of the role or purpose of social media and a lack of clear objectives about what those firms wanted to achieve; as a result, “the potential value of social media engagement has yet to be demonstrated or understood”. Interest in social media, though, was growing, with some firms actively looking to learn more about the tools and the potential benefits. But perhaps the biggest question concerned “whether social media networks are an appropriate channel for external engagement or whether current and potential clients are even present within them?”

Identified intangible benefits included increased visibility, enhanced reputation, or potential for greater reach for word-of-mouth marketing for a firm’s thought leadership. More tangible and measurable benefits included increased web traffic or enhanced Google search page rankings. Given the existing importance of face-to-face interaction in professional business development processes, Scott’s interviewees did not identify any impact on trust, but he suggested: “increased visibility and more diverse and accessible communication channels can serve as powerful antecedents to the development of organisational trust”.

The biggest concerns regarding social media were identified as: potential reputational risk, a lack of control of both the message and the medium, and the internal resources required for engagement.

Recommendations

Scott developed five recommendations as a result of his research, which I have paraphrased as follows:

  1. Get in the game – Professional services firms need to understand their target audiences, and their existing engagement with social media platforms for professional purposes. Assuming social media is relevant, marketers need to be clear about the objectives and about what success will look like. If nothing else, as a minimum, firms should be using social media and other online channels to gather intelligence.
  2. Develop experts, not peers – For business development benefits, maintain an “asymmetry of expertise” between the firm or its individual employees and the target audiences. By continuously demonstrating their knowledge and command of the field, experts can reinforce or enhance the external reputation of them and the firm, and help develop organisational trust.
  3. Focus on quality – Firms must strike the right balance between the quality and quantity of content and conversation, promoting perspectives and experts, but ensuring it remains relevant to audiences.
  4. Establish rules – Establishing guidelines for social media engagement among employees and experts to ensure consistent presentation of the firm and its brand, but allow for flexibility and “individual voice.”
  5. Resource adequately and incentivise – Effective social media engagement requires  adequate internal resources: people, time and content. Steps must also be taken to address concerns regarding billable time and lack of direct financial return (for example, Scott suggests including social media engagement in the scope of allowed – or expected – non-billable time for fee-earners, particularly managers or business development people tasked with promoting external visibility).

My view

I started my PR and marketing career in the construction professional services sector, spending 13 years in that field (both in-house and as a consultant) before moving into construction IT, so the apparent unease of some of Scott’s research subjects is familiar – it’s just that the tools and techniques have moved on. I recall senior partners’ dismay at the erosion of the ‘old boy network’ (it was then even more male-dominated than now, of course), and their disquiet about actually having to market their expertise professionally through PR, literature, direct mail and events – and, later, during the mid 1990s, additionally through websites and e-newsletters.

I think little of what Scott discovered or what he recommends will surprise anyone with professional services marketing experience. Professional services businesses have often been conservative in their approaches to PR and other forms of promotion (indeed, some individuals won’t just need educating about social media, they may also need to learn about the whole area of marketing). While promoting the personal ‘brands’ of individual experts may well appeal to the people concerned, I think organisations’ marketers will also need to:

  1. select their candidates carefully
  2. ensure a good alignment and balance between their personal brands and the brand/reputation of the firm itself, and
  3. provide adequate support and feedback on their experts’ efforts.

(Having just completed his MBA, London-based Scott Addison (LinkedIn profile) is now looking for a new management role, ideally in corporate communications in a professional services organisation – where, no doubt, he would be great at helping deploy social media into the PR or marketing mix. He is also contactable via email.)

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