The Social Media Advantage

A few years ago it might have been meaningful to ask if professional services firms in Australia were using social media. A quick scan of Australian firms today shows that at a minimum even the most social media shy of larger firms have some form of online engagement focused on recruitment.

Beyond this we find a mixed bag of blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook being used. Unfortunately it does not take long to find dormant accounts that have either been abandoned or were simply registered to secure the brand’s name on a particular social media platform. For the most part, the lacklustre efforts of local firms suggest that social media is yet to disrupt the basic operating or business models.

But is this in fact the case? Following an almost universal trend, many Australians working in accounting, architecture and interior design, management consulting, engineering and legal have also established their own online personal professional presence. The Australian Financial Review recently declared that in professional services:

Social media has added a new dimension to the creation and maintenance of personal brands. It acts like a steroid.

Considering the importance of personal relationships and reputation in professional service (at least in those areas yet to be automated), perhaps it should not surprise us that personal branding and relationship management is where the industry is being disrupted.

Earlier in the year – as part of my research into digital disruption in professional services – I tracked down Michael Bradley from Marque Lawyers and Lester Miller from Allens, who caught my attention because they were active users and appeared to be authentically engaged on social media. I wanted to know why they were bothering to build a profile for themselves and their firms.

It’s likely that you already know Michael Bradley from Marque Lawyers as he writes regularly for the ABC’s The Drum. He challenges the stereotype of risk averse lawyers avoiding social media and is forthright about his views online.

Michael explained how his use of social media fits more broadly into a strategy of how he has used the online medium to build the brand of his law firm.

Marque Lawyers started seven years ago with a one-page website, and it proved popular. It was a good learning experience for them and he realised that branding of professional services is no different from any other brand. Using the web and social media has allowed them to differentiate themselves in the market and he sees a clear link between this and increased media engagement.

What is evident from visiting Marque Lawyers’ office and talking to Michael is that this differentiation is achieved not simply by being online, but by reflecting the personality of the firm (their firm tagline is “Law, done differently.”).

Lester on the other hand works for a well established, but much larger firm that was started in 1822 by George Allen. Lester started to use social networks for professional purposes as another way to create new connections and build on existing connections, augmenting the traditional methods and mediums he was already using.

The effort to be engaged online professionally is greater than Lester originally anticipated, but over time he noticed that more people were contacting him via social media. He finds that when people contact him they will often mention an article he has written.

In contrasting the experiences of what are two very different firms, it is interesting to see what they share in common. Both Michael and Lester highlighted that there is a switching cost to becoming more social (for different firms it might involve changing culture, developing technology capability and the time that needs to be invested in doing it well). They both talked about encouraging others in their firm to engage online, either through writing or sharing content. They have also both chosen to actively engage online, rather than use social media passively to consume legal news and updates.

However, it is clear that while Michael has the ability to fully reflect his firm’s brand on social media, Lester is very much representing himself under the umbrella of his firm’s brand. As part of a bigger firm, this may mean that the switching cost is higher and return lower, therefore making it a less attractive strategy.

Michael also noted that the most popular content on their site are the profiles of their lawyers, which hints at the unchanging nature of professional services: it’s all about relationships and reputations.

In other interviews off the record, I have also been told that some local firms are actively using LinkedIn to help with business development. By watching the LinkedIn profiles of people in professional services this year we have certainly noticed that many are growing their networks, but they are not necessarily actively engaging in public. Even if we look at the higher profile brand ambassadors (such as those identified by the Australian Financial Review), the majority have little or no social media engagement.

Further research would no doubt help to confirm this, but the experience of these lawyers and other professionals I have spoken with does suggest there is value from participation on social media and in social networks for people working in professional services and their firms. However, looking across the broader social media landscape of professional services, there are so few people doing so in a meaningful way that the field for the moment remains open for earlier adopters like Michael and Lester to grab the advantage by engaging earlier than their peers.