How to Leverage Social Networking

When the IRS announced in June that it would launch a review of tax return preparers, the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) spread the word to its members with a news item on the association Web site. But it didn’t stop there. The association posted the IRS news on its Facebook page and blog. The story made it into the MACPA feed on Twitter, the microblogging site. Visitors to the association’s LinkedIn page found the information there as well.


MACPA could be considered an early adopter of most things social networking, having explored everything from MySpace to Second Life. Tom Hood, the association’s CEO, sees establishing a social media presence as a valuable tool for building business relationships. In an interview with the JofA, Hood recently made the case for social media as a strategy accelerator, discussed what has worked for MACPA, what might rise to become the next big thing, and how CPAs can get started. Here are excerpts from that conversation:


JofA: Talk about how the association is using new media and social networking and what the objectives are.


Hood: Social networking and social media tools, for us, actually have become a strategy accelerator. The interesting thing about the social media stuff is that it allows you to connect to people, make more relationships, and do things faster than we’ve ever been able to do things before. So for us it starts with our association strategy, right? Our association is there to enable our CPAs to survive and thrive in rapidly changing times. That’s essentially our purpose. And we think about that in three major themes. Connect, detect and achieve. So the social media tools have actually lowered the cost of participation, so that we can actually connect to more members faster and cheaper than ever before.


We’ve used Facebook and Twitter (see “CPAs Embrace Twitter,” on page 30) and MySpace and LinkedIn and Second Life, blogs, podcasts, wikis, you name it. And some people would say, “Well, why are you doing all that?” And the answer is,we’re trying to meet the members where they are. So instead of making them come to us, which is the old association model, now we can go to them.


It started with us trying to connect with the new generation. So we read all the research about the new generation using social media, so that’s what pushed us to say we’ve got to be relevant to them. Once we got into it, we started finding all of our members in all these different spaces.


JofA: Is there a strong business case for CPAs to blog, use Twitter and Facebook?


Hood: CPA firms are all about people and relationships. So if you’re about people and relationships, social media is just another dimension of that relationship. People keep thinking about it in terms of technology, and it’s not. It’s really about the connections you make.


So we’re actually seeing CPAs on Twitter, we see them on Second Life, and in all of those places, they’re doing the same things we do in real life, which is connecting to people, building a relationship, establishing trust, sharing, collaborating, serving customers, helping customers. So the business case is, if you want to increase the number of connections you might have to customers, then you should think about those tools. We’ve seen examples of CPAs doing amazing communications using blogs (see “Tax Practice Corner: Blogging for a Better Tax Practice,” page 56).


JofA: What are some of the risks CPAs might face using social networking for business purposes, and what strategies can be used to mitigate the risks?


Hood: I would start out saying the benefits far outweigh the risks. I would put the risks in three categories. One, there’s a security risk. Any of these open social environments are tricky from a network security perspective. So your network folks have to really watch that. Second would be abuse by employees or people in your organization. So setting policies on appropriate personal or business use is [one] way you can mitigate that risk.


And then the third one is image, or public relations. The thing about social media is that everything accelerates. So if you get out there and people are saying bad things about you, it could get even worse. Now the flip side of that is if you’re not out there, you won’t even know what they’re saying about you, and you won’t even have a chance to respond.


So the strategy should be: How can I engage that criticism and respond to it in a respectful way that says that I’m listening? If you can actually do that, the research says that you’re going to win customer loyalty.


JofA: What social media tools have had the best results for your association, and which have failed to live up to your expectations?


Hood: The ones that have had the best results for us clearly have been blogs. That’s by far the top one. Second would have to be Twitter. Facebook and LinkedIn would probably tie.


MySpace would be the one where we’ve really not found many members or even young people. It seems to have kind of migrated to a high school tool. So we’ve not used MySpace a lot.


It’s not really a social media tool, but we use podcasts quite effectively using iTunes and things like it to broadcast out. We’re starting to play around with wikis.


Second Life has probably been one of the other top ones for us. We’re now offering one or two programs a month, continuing education-wise, and we’re able to get speakers from all over the country and abroad to bring to our members. So it’s really become a low-cost, innovative way of getting leading-edge topics to groups of our members. That’s been fun, and we’ve also made some huge connections with the accounting education community.


JofA: What lessons have you learned from your use of Second Life that you can apply to new tools such as Twitter?


Hood: We’ve learned from member feeds that members can be pretty adventurous and actually enjoy some of the social media. Second is power-friending. The real thing you learn in Second Life and you learn in Twitter and these other things is the notion of listening, finding out who’s there, making those connections, and then you connect to their connections. So every time you meet someone, you start talking and you might find out who they know, and you make a connection there, and your network begins to build. That’s called power-friending in the social media world.


The third thing that we’ve learned is that you have to be flexible. It’s constantly changing, and [there are] new things coming all the time. Pay attention, have conversations, watch what’s going on.


JofA: How can CPAs measure success or return on their investment of time and resources?


Hood: We have not calculated specific costs for our social media efforts. But we know that the cost of communicating by social media is a lot cheaper than physically connecting. I think gauging success would have to start out by measuring what I would call input. How many connections are they making? CPAs always go to the return on investment notion. Actually, I think that’s the wrong metric for social media. I think the real metric is return on attention—the number of conversations you can have with prospective clients, with existing clients, even with your own staff—cutting through the clutter and getting that attention and talking about meaningful things.


Are people commenting on your blog, for instance? Are they re-Tweeting your Twitters, are they moving your kind of post or comment along to other people? That’s an example where you’re doing something meaningful from a community standpoint.


JofA: In the blogging/social networking areas, what’s going to grow, and what do you think might be short-lived?


Hood: Twitter is growing, probably at one of the most rapid paces there is in the social media world, and personally, we’ve found a tremendous use for that tool. Facebook continues to be a dominant social media tool, so I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon. LinkedIn is clearly establishing itself as kind of the professionals’ Facebook. Blogs are just great communication tools.


I think the other thing we’re seeing is video. You’re going to see more and more video blogging, or more and more video commenting. There’s even a new thing called 12seconds, where people are actually putting out a 12-second video and popping that out like YouTube. So I think you’re going to see growth in video and that kind of sharing area more and more. I also think wikis, as a mass collaboration tool, will become more mainstream in the next few years.


JofA: Are there any other new social networking sites or tools that have impressed you?


Hood: Other social media things that we’re watching would include Ning [see] and some of the private social networks. For us, it’s about what can we do to increase connections to our members at the lowest cost. We’re also looking at paid tools that would integrate with our association management system that might end up being integrated social networking.


Another cool one is this new genre of social media sites that allow you to post across different sites. So for instance, it used to drive me crazy that I really want to update my LinkedIn, my Facebook, my Twitter. Now there’s a service called [see]. You can actually add any social networks you want on there, log in, and then it will post across all of those for you.


JofA: How does a CPA get started using a social network?


Hood: I would say the answer is to start small. So go out there, set up a profile, get on these social networks, and then step two, listen. Don’t start throwing a lot of stuff out there right away, just watch some conversations, make some friends, talk, find out what the conversations are, and then begin to add to those communities. And then step three would be to continue to experiment and have fun.


So once you get good at one, grab another one and try that, and pretty soon you’ll find what you really like the most.




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