What has been the outcome for an association that made social media a part of everything it does?
By Jeff Lee
THE MARYLAND ASSOCIATION OF CPAS (MACPA) HAS A LOT OF COMPANY in the social media realm. The association lists a couple dozen accounting and finance blogs in its blogroll alone, and many of its members have their own social media presence.
It wasn't always this way.
"When we first started in social media, there weren't a lot of accounting and finance folks out there with us,” says Bill Sheridan, CAE, e-communications manager for the 9,000 member organization, which serves the professional needs of CPAs in Maryland. "Sometimes it seemed like we were screaming into a void.”
By creating goals for the association's social media efforts from the outset and by incorporating social media into every aspect of the organization, MACPA is a leader for its members on the Web, providing them a place to interact and build relationships online, and showing them how they can use social media tools in their own businesses.
MACPA first began looking seriously at social media in 2006, Sheridan says, when the association launched a daily blog called CPA Success, which covers topics ranging from accounting and finance to broader business issues such as management, human resources, and customer service.
To make sure the association got it right, the publishing team began with a simple question about the organization's social media efforts: What do we want to accomplish? Did we want to increase membership? Or form relationships with people? Answering those questions made it easier to decide what forms of communication would best suit their needs.
"First, we want to inform our members and keep them up to date on what's going on in their profession, the issues affecting them, and why we think those issues are important to them,” Sheridan says. "We were interested in an alternative form of communication to our members that would allow them to join the conversation.”
A blog was a great solution because it provides real-time communication, and allows users to interact with each other and as well as the association. Naturally, it was initially easier to build a readership than it was to build a conversation, but Sheridan says the interaction has grown over time.
"Depending on the issue we're talking about, we get some incredibly thoughtful responses from our members,” Sheridan says. And in building the conversation, MACPA discovered a side benefit. "Blogs have helped establish us as thought leaders in this particular arena and as a place our members can turn to for answers,” he adds.
After its first successful social media endeavor, MACPA expanded its social media efforts to other outlets to continue building relationships and reaching members through their preferred methods of communication.
Tom Hood, the association's CEO, had heard a lot of buzz about the virtual space and Second Life, and MACPA was interested in using it for education. The virtual network has allowed the association to hold courses for credit online, eliminating the need for attendees to travel. Presenters can upload a slide show and communicate with attendees through chat or voice. Add in Second Life's three-dimensional environment, and CPAs have found virtual education to be a remarkably lifelike experience.
Further, the association began offering podcasts in 2007 and set up presences on Facebook and Twitter in 2008 and 2009.
The biggest challenge to building a presence on these networks is time, Sheridan says. "There's a misconception that because the tools are free, it's a snap to sit down and get started,” he says. "It takes a lot of time and commitment. Social media is all about relationships, and as with any relationship, it takes time to build trust and value. You have to nurture your networks by sharing information, resources, and advice that your friends find valuable. Do that over time and you'll build that trust. It doesn't happen overnight.”
To overcome that challenge, MACPA has made social media a part of everything it does. "It really has to be ingrained in everything you and your organization do,” Sheridan says. "It starts with a conversation with everyone involved. Find someone on your staff who is an evangelist for these tools, who understands the potential and wants to make it work. I would grab onto that person and make them a key part of your social media efforts going forward.”
Sheridan says one thing he wishes he could spend more time doing is participating in more of the conversations that others are having via social media. "I wish I had more time to contribute to the all of these great conversations by leaving blog comments or replying to all the people on Twitter who are posting things that are valuable to me. Those conversations are vitally important. One of my goals is to clear up a little bit of time to join more of these conversations.”
While there is more work to do, Sheridan says the association has been extremely pleased with the relationships the organization has built through all of its social networks.
"We've connected with a ton of really smart people who are willing to share valuable ideas and resources with us,” Sheridan says. "We've made some amazing connections with people we never would have met any other way.”
As it turns out, MACPA's blog was included in a list of the 75 best business blogs in 2009, and the organization has received a great deal of press and accolades for its work in Second Life. But what Sheridan is most proud of is that MACPA is among those who are helping CPAs carve out their own space in the social world.
"Now they're out there and they're figuring out how to put these tools to use to benefit their business and their clients,” Sheridan says. "It's been extremely rewarding to see them take the leap.”
Jeff Lee is manager of communications, UNITS Magazine, National Apartment Association, and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Final Proof Committee. Interested in submitting an article or an article idea to Final Proof? Contact Carla Kalogeridis. Writing for Final Proof is great visibility in the association publishing world and an excellent way to give back to your fellow members.