Social Media: Shiny Object or Killer App?

July 28th, 2009 by Steve Latham Leave a reply »

shiny objectWhile preparing for an interview I was reviewing questions I received from the journalist. One question was “how does your firm leverage social media?” It seems that social media is the latest shiny object that is on the wish list of most brand marketers.  Yet if you ask them why they need it, you’re likely to get a pithy, high level response such as “because we want to engage and interact with our customers.”  Ask how they plan to do that and you’ll often get blank stares.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of social media and I believe it is a killer app for many companies. This is especially true for professional services firms like mine.  At the same time, I frequently see a lack of planning, coordination and understanding of how to best use social media to achieve marketing objectives.  So now let’s go back to the opening question…

How do we use social media? We work in an industry where the cobblers kids (sans shoes) run rampant.  And for the most part this is fine; we can be great media planners and campaign managers, even if we don’t do a lot of advertising ourselves. However, when it comes to social media, I believe we have to lead by example.

If you are reading this, you may know that I blog, twitter, slideshare, facebook, link in, stumble, digg and tag things that are delicious.  Yes, it takes time, but I enjoy it. But above all, I do it because it creates value for my personal and agency brands. Through my investment in social media, I’ve expanded our network of partners, booked speaking opportunities, built awareness for our brand and generated several new client opportunities.

Social media can be a great platform for most businesses.  But as a professional services firm, social media offers some additional benefits that one could argue make it a killer app for marketing purposes.  In my world, the #1 benefit of social media is that it provides a platform for demonstrating thought leadership.

It’s important to remember that social media is a platform, not a message.  While awareness and visibility are great benefits of social media, they don’t build your brand.  You can get great visibility with a flurry of self-promoting posts and annoying solicitations for your services, but you aren’t building credibility.  You can use social media to connect with business acquaintances, recruit employees and show the world that you are a forward-thinking firm, but it probably won’t matter to clients. In my opinion, the true value of social media for professional service firms is the ability to demonstrate thought leadership on a large scale that gets even bigger if you have something unique and valuable to say.

Here’s another way to look at it: any firm can hire a web site copy writer to create a compelling message that says who you are, what you do, how you differentiate and why clients choose you.  While this used to be a key factor in engaging visitors, clients do not make decisions based on your home page. Case studies are great but we all know they present an air-brushed image of the results you produced for a client. On the other hand, a blog or tweet stream provides a relatively unfiltered view into how you think and how you act.  If you routinely produce strategic insights, unique perspectives and practical knowledge that are perceived to be of value to your clients, you can establish credibility and thought leadership in their eyes.  Clients hire consultants, agencies, bankers and lawyers because of their people.  Social media enables you to build your brand by showing off your greatest assets in a way that is much more transparent and authentic than it used to be.

In the past we relied on the static html, flash intros, polished copy and powerpoints to educate clients on who we are and how we can help them.  Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Slideshare, LinkedIn and others now offer us a much more effective and efficient means for demonstrating thought leadership, regardless of your size, budget or location.  It’s not often that those of us in client services can point to a competitive advantage that we enjoy over other types of businesses.  But in a world where clients are seeking knowledge, insight and trusted advice, the social web gives us a unique opportunity to show them what we have to offer.

I’d love to hear from other service providers on this topic.  Comments are welcome!

Steve Latham
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  1. Generally speaking, Steve, if “any firm can hire a web site copy writer to create a compelling message,” I wish more of them would do so: I’d be taking my vacations in places where little or no English is spoken.

    Your contention that social media is the killer app is a good starting point for discussion. I’d tend to emphasize relationship-building rather than “only” brand-building. In either context, though, a social medium does constitute the message. A thought leader is socializing his/her approach to a particular group of clients or prospects.

    “Killer app” implies that social media is the only answer. It’s one answer, one that’s perfectly suited (as you note) for professional service firms that think to use intellectual muscle power in place of money for message dissemination.

    Thanks for raising this topic.

  2. Sudz Khawaja says:

    Excellent writeup, I couldn’t agree more. In a world where there is so little differentiation between commoditized products and services, social media provides a new medium to differentiate one’s offerings from a competitor’s.


  3. Josh Gray says:

    You said it Steve:

    “In my opinion, the true value of social media for professional service firms is the ability to demonstrate thought leadership on a large scale that gets even bigger if you have something unique and valuable to say.”

    And key to remember here is that when using social media there must be a value proposition. The messaging needs to be clear and straightforward. The reader must have a good idea of what they hope to learn from your content or the entertainment value that it holds from the first 5 words.

    Just remember to kids: talking to folks on social media is like trying to spoon feed a Chihuahua on crack. The first spoonful has to be good or they are gone. Getting great engagement is about being engaging.

    Fun as always to get your perspective Steve. Thanks for the great read!

  4. Steve –

    Great stuff and you do a fantastic job of putting things in perspective.

    While I agree with you wholeheartedly about ‘thought leadership’, we have historically utilized social media to deepen relationships with potential clients. Within our first 2 months of tip toeing in social media we generated about 20K in new sales. I attribute part of this because we broke down the barrier and let people ‘see behind the screen’.

    Thank you!

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