The way professional services firms use social media is changing rapidly. Not so long ago, these channels were seen at best as a distraction, and at worst a significant reputational risk to be carefully controlled.

Today, professional services businesses are rapidly recognising how powerful social media can be in making their business stand out and grow. And, of course, how vital it is to safeguard their digital brand and reputation.

There is a growing number of examples of firms ‘doing social’ really well. Grant Thornton ignites regular debate amongst its 17.6k Twitter followers and clearly invests significant time and effort into managing its digital brand. Clyde and Co. publishes new and relevant social content on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

We have moved on from brands being worried about social being a time waster or a platform for employees to post inappropriate content. The biggest danger facing brands today when it comes to social media is the consequence of ignoring the huge opportunities these channels offer, while their competitors forge ahead.

Creating stand out

According to McKinsey, “professional services firms, more so than other businesses, are innately social organisations.” Yet for the most part they have been relatively slow to embrace social media. Consumer-facing businesses all now make significant investments in social and have developed sophisticated processes for using these channels to their full potential.

The reason why social is such a good fit for professional services firms is because their unique structure lends itself perfectly to creating and sharing different types of content with others.

This structure can best be described as a pyramid. At the top is the firm, positioned to create and deliver business-wide messages.

The next layer of the pyramid is sectors and practices, where relevant issues, topics and insights can be explored and shared and digital reputations embedded within specific communities.

Finally, the base layer is the individual, the firms’ most powerful social media ally. Individuals provide firms with a powerful dimension to strengthen their reputation and open up further networks. Decision makers and influencers are also more likely to connect with individuals than brands which leads to networking opportunities, personalised conversations, and new business opportunities for the individual and the wider firm.

This structure is ideal when building a social strategy, as each layer provides the firm with a different and new opportunity to create and relay content, but essentially all the layers fit and work well together as a means of conducting research, accessing trends, projecting messages and building awareness.

So how can social specifically be used by professional services firms and why does it matter? The twelve points below show the key benefits and priorities that should be considered when building a social strategy.

1.Content is King: It’s important the firm, practices and individuals are joined up about how they are producing content. If roles and responsibilities aren’t clear, content can become sporadic and not very engaging, and at worst, non-existent. Look at audience need, trending issues and market activity and create content that people will want to consume and that will help you increase your engagement.

2. Driving awareness: At each level of the pyramid, social activity enables the firm and its employees to increase recognition and expand their reach. But awareness is nothing if it doesn’t result in buyer consideration, so it’s vital that key messages and values are delivered eloquently and consistently via these channels.

3. Getting engaged: Social is immediate and reactive, allowing all parties to ask and answer questions and express opinions succinctly and quickly. It’s also a great way to start or extend relationships with individuals and organisations.

4. Education, education, education: Social media enables individuals, practice areas and the firm as a whole to distribute knowledge, thought leadership and expertise through commentary on external issues and by distributing tailored content.

5. That’s entertainment: Firms can and should be using social channels to express their personality. Social is a less formal channel than others, so comments can be short, sharp and even witty, as long as the tone is appropriate and the content is relevant.

6. Valuable insight: Social is an excellent research tool, allowing firms and employees to gather valuable information on the preferences, activities and opinions of their target audiences and competitors.

7. Share and share alike: Social gives firms the chance to create and relay content, thoughts and advice on an individual level, from a practice perspective and on behalf of the firm as a whole opening new networks across the board.

8. Lead generation: As with any marketing activity, the end goal of using social media must be oriented towards growing the business and raising awareness. Getting in front of prospects with tailored insights, sharing client testimonials and news of successes and awards will all help drive new business forward

9. Making a connection: It’s in the name. ‘Social’ activity enables firms and their employees to develop, nurture and grow relationships with people, organisations and networks.

10. Drive traffic: It’s vital to link up social activity with other channels, and to use social channels as a way of directing audiences to other touchpoints such as your website or downloadable content.

11. Broaden your reach: You can use social media to take your events to a wider audience than those who are able to make it to the venue. You can use email, your website and blog to build an active and engaged social media following.

12. Search for new talent: Think too about how social media can help your recruitment process, as it is now an important channel for attracting talent from graduates to senior managers.