Tax season. Are your eyes bleeding yet? Does your back ache from hunching over your keyboard? Don’t worry, friends. It’s just about over.
If you’ve looked up from your spreadsheets lately, you’ll notice a new avenue more and more accountants are using to talk about our favorite season—social media. Many of your colleagues are offering advice to their consumers through the platforms of LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and more (we LOVE #QBOChat on Thursdays).
Of course, there’s a reason that so many accountants have taken to social media en masse. These platforms offer unprecedented access to a wide audience of new potential customers.
But, all this social media talk begs an important question. What are the rules when it comes to social media ethics for accountants? Is it appropriate for accountants to offer tax advice, or any financial advice, over social media? And how do you do so in a way that achieves your goal (to gain more clients) and stays within legal and ethical guidelines?
Before you start consulting on Form 1099’s in 140 characters or less, let’s wade through some of the grey areas of appropriate social media use for accountants.
Create More Questions than Answers
No matter how you go about using social media for business, it will require time and energy. And the purpose of that energy is of course to attract new customers for your business. So as you go about using social media for business, keep in mind the end goal, and don’t give away the store.
Consider offering blogs or short posts with useful but vague tax advice pertaining to different situations. However, you’ll want (and need) to create caveats for different circumstances that would change what advice would be appropriate.
This will create in your audience more doubt and more questions, which they will hopefully reach out to you to answer. That process of opening more questions and seeking answers is what brings your social media audience further down your sales funnel.
Keep in mind, once a prospective customer does begin to ask more specific questions, you’ll want to take that conversation offline, or at least out of the public forum.
Things can get tricky when you attend a popular social media “meeting” like a Google Hang Out or a TweetChat, which are often billed as a chance to ask accountants questions. This is a GREAT opportunity for promotion and networking, but which each and every question- be careful of legal and ethical concerns unique to accountants.
Legal and Ethical Concerns
As you consider how and whether to offer tax advice on social media as a professional accountant, keep in mind potential ethical trouble spots that may come up.
While the American Institute of CPAs doesn’t offer specific guidelines regarding accountants’ use of social media as a business platform (yet!), there are certainly other areas of the AICPA Code of Ethics, as well as other professional codes of ethics for accountants across the world, in which social media related issues could come into play.
For example, be wary of creating any unintended client relationships, and be sure to hold the confidentialities of your current clients in utmost confidence. Social media ethics can be tricky because there are an infinite number of ways an interaction could occur, and a limitless number of “types” of interactions.
Use of Disclaimers
Most accountants are already aware of the importance of disclaimers and use them ubiquitously in emails and written documents. In social media, as in all other communications, you want to make sure that your audience understands the spirit and intent of your messages, and that you have all necessary legal clarifications to avoid unintended consequences.
In social media, however, the use of disclaimers can be tricky—especially on a platform like Twitter, where character limits make it nearly impossible to offer a disclaimer with every post. Consider posting a short disclaimer or a link to a full legal disclaimer within the “about” section of your profile page to clarify your intentions.
Of course, we’ll end with a disclaimer of our own. We’re not lawyers, and we can’t know all of the particular legal and code of ethics guidelines that may exist for your company, your state, or any CPA organizations you may be a part of. So talk to a knowledgeable attorney about your use of social media and the wording of your disclaimer to be sure you’ll be bringing in more business and not more headaches.
Personal vs Professional Accounts
When you are on your professional Facebook account (your business page), you should be extra careful and answer only the most basic, black and white questions that relate directly to your practice, your policies, or other business-related questions. For straightforward questions like “When are taxes due, does anyone know” consider responding from your personal social account.
When it comes to “advice” oriented questions, where the answer is what you think they ought to do, it’s probably best to refrain, and instead invite them to submit the question to you via email.
What do you think?
How do you use social media to promote your business? Have you ever offered tax or other accounting advice on social media? Share your experiences in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.