After more than a hundred years of paper-based communications with its members, five years ago the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) decided to go digital, launching an online community for interactions with its 138,000 members and the public.
Like many professional and trade associations, it was relying heavily on printed communications and wanted to see if introducing social media would help it connect and engage better.
Five years later, the ICAEW Community is a thriving hub of activity with almost 80,000 registered users, close to 10,000 posts and 15,000 comments.
Earlier this week, I spoke to John Pearce, head of the core resource unit at the ICAEW, who has led the project from the start, to find out what impact it has had on the work of the Institute and what lessons had been learned.
The most effect has been felt by the ICAEW's 'faculties', which bring together members with interests in specific areas such as tax, insolvency, non-profits and so on. This was very much in line with the original goals the ICAEW's leadership had for the project.
"The chief executive recognized the Institute itself is a network of like-minded professional people and this would enable that to happen online," said Pearce.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a community of chartered accountants, the most active area on the site is about tax. Alongside news snippets of interest posted by the Institute's tax faculty team, members can post questions or seek advice about tax issues. This area is open to the public as well as ICAEW members, although site registration is required to post comments and view certain pages.
Giving faculties an online home has made it possible to move much of the Institute's content online, especially in areas such as financial reporting, which has a private community within the site where faculty members can download and discuss content. As well as saving money on printing and distribution, some areas of the site have provided revenue opportunities by partnering with third-party content providers.
The online platform has also completely changed the administration processes of the Institute's many committees. Instead of mailing out agendas, papers and other documents, these are posted to private areas on the site. The ability to post comments and questions helps clarify points and advance discussions so that the meetings themselves are more productive.
The technology, which is operated as a cloud service by a third party, meant that the Institute was able to launch the community without a big upfront spend. Much of the initial effort went into generating content and engagement when the site first launched.
"We got some people engaged pre-launch and had a content plan for the initial few months," said Pearce. To set the tone and help drive traffic, some of the early contributors were paid for their participation (coincidentally, one of them was diginomica's own Dennis Howlett). Their remit was not merely to post content but also to respond to comments and build engagement.
At first, members were not posting questions about accountancy, that came later. "It starts off with practical questions, for example, 'Does anyone know a good payroll package?' or, 'Who has had this type of problem?'," said Pearce. "As people get more used to it they can ask more technical questions, especially in the more specific communities."
Prior to launch, Pearce recalls extensive, ongoing discussion about the risks of putting the community on public display and whether comments should be moderated before publication. In the event, such fears proved groundless. "No one ever tried to abuse anyone and the worst you got was people trying to sell stuff," said Pearce.
"It helps that we're a professional members' organisation. Not everyone on there is a member, but people that are members are conversing with their Institute and their peers and there is a tone attached to that," said Pearce. "Everybody approaches it with a professional code [and] if the community is large enough it will moderate itself."
Owning the community
In the intervening years, public platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn have emerged that also offer community functions, and the ICAEW has presences on these sites. "We're very happy with the idea we sometimes have to go where our audiences are and engage with them there," said Pearce. But it's not the same as having a separate community platform with the ICAEW's identity and culture running through it.
"There is a certain level of comfort from having an environment that we can control as opposed to external communities like Facebook that feel a lot more public," said Pearce.
"It's much easier for us to integrate the Community with our corporate site," he went on. There's also a tendency for staff to engage more with members on the Institute's own site, whereas on LinkedIn discussions are more peer-to-peer and often go off on a tangent.
Adapting to digital
Embracing social media and digital communications channels has meant taking on cultural change and building up new skills within the organization.
"With web and email there is a way of writing," said Pearce. People must learn to be more concise as recipients tend to scan emails and web pages rather then reading them carefully.
"If you're going to be writing an email you have to write more catchy copy," he said. "Those skills can also be useful in getting your point across on Twitter in 160 characters."
People must also learn to engage in conversation rather than trying to use digital as an old-school one-to-many medium.
"Long term engagement and not just one-way communications is still something we're working on in pockets of the organization," Pearce told me. "It isn't just, 'We're going to start selling you an event so we're going to start tweeting about it.' We have to be interested in what members are saying to us as well as what we want to say to them."
Digital is the trend
"The website is now our primary means of communication with members," said Pearce. Email is the most frequent mechanism bringing them to the website — the Institute's tracking shows that 90 percent have clicked on or opened an email in the last six months. More and more members are requesting digital rather than traditional communications.
"In terms of adoption, the majority's first preference for communication is digital methods. I don't think [our members] are particularly different from the population in general."
Having said that, there's still a significant minority sticking with the old ways.
"It's a very diverse profession," said Pearce. "Some segments are very engaged — they're getting lead generation from their activities and are very supportive. Others don't see the value and prefer to have their print publications."
The ICAEW has been named one of the finalists in EuroCloud UK’s Best Business Impact Award, which diginomica is supporting as media sponsor. The winner was announced at an event in London yesterday.
David Terrar, whose company D2C implemented and manages the community platform for ICAEW, is a board member of EuroCloud UK.
Disclosure: As media sponsor of the EuroCloud UK Best Business Impact Award, diginomica is publishing case studies of the three finalists. The author serves unpaid as chair of EuroCloud UK and vice-president of EuroCloud Europe.
Photo credit: Exterior of ICAEW building courtesy of ICAEW, John Pearce picture by @dahowlett