aving a digital presence is now unquestionably an important part of doing business, but the trick is in how best to use it when the growing number of Web sites makes it harder and harder to get noticed. The Internet weaves words and pictures into interactive information accessible to a huge audience, and the sites it serves are many. (There were more than one billion Web pages on the Internet in 2000.) CPA firms need to learn some basics about applying Web direct marketing in a way that makes their sites competitive, effective sales tools.
To successfully market CPA services on the Web, you first must have a clear understanding of how your firm is distinct from the competition. Emphasize its unique capabilities as you use the technology to draw clients and readers in. Sharing valuable data that visitors can access readily is an excellent way to do this. A Web site becomes “direct marketing” when it has action-oriented text and graphics, promotional offers, data and devices that prompt reader response.
YOU'RE SPECIAL—TELL THEM
The basic strategy starts with positioning, a form of differentiation that can help create a perception about your business among clients and prospects based on your firm’s strengths. Positioning is central in all marketing and no less so on the Internet. Start by determining how your business is different from key competitors’. You know your marketplace, so to uncover ideas, answer questions such as the following:
Does your firm serve specific industries or focus on a business specialty (construction, fashion or retail clients; litigation, audit or tax services)?
Is your business built on a solid reputation, such as “one of the oldest, most respected small accounting firms”?
Is your firm a family business whose members offer a personal, solicitous approach?
Do you insist on achieving complete client satisfaction (staff turn projects around quickly; answer phone messages promptly; treat all clients as if they were the firm’s most important ones)?
Are your services more complete or comprehensive than your competitors’?
The idea is to focus on what clearly separates you from the competition and can be locked into the minds of your prospects and clients. Once you decide which qualities make your firm special, write the information out as a simple statement. Then use it as the framework for your Web site, publicity mailings and print and direct mail advertising.
Volvo is an example of a business that has used positioning well in its Web—and other—marketing. Its media tag line is “drive safely,” and it promotes its cars to families with children. As a result, Volvo has become identified with safety. CPA firms attempting direct marketing on the Web may need to take a few pointers from consumer approaches.
WHAT'S YOUR FOCUS?
Business consultant Al Ries, who with co-author Jack Trout wrote Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, says, “Smaller accounting firms usually compete best on the Internet when they lock in a solid position and focus on a narrow market segment or niche.”
For example, if you’re a CPA with experience in the fashion trade, you might determine your target by noting the following points about your practice:
Predominant specialty? The clothing and fashion wear business.
Client base? Mostly midsize clothing manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
Located where? Primarily in Georgia and the Southeast.
Clear field? Only a few CPA practices with this specialty in the South.
From these positioning notes, you could narrow your focus and write a statement such as: “The experienced CPA specialists for midsize clothing and fashion businesses in Georgia and the Southeast.”
Midsize CPA firms offering diverse services should go against instinct and base your direct marketing on core competencies aimed at three or four key segments at most. These might be professional or industry specialties or other niches for which yours is the go-to firm in your area. Few of the more than 60 CPA sites of the top 100 firms looked at for this article use this narrow-focus approach (or, strictly speaking, direct marketing).
Steer clear of making your firm sound like an ordinary commodity in your positioning statement. Clients respect CPA expertise and recognize there are accounting-skill subsets that can contribute greatly to the health of their businesses. “It’s analogous to a medical practice,” says Ries. “There are general practitioners and specialists. If you have a problem that needs special attention, your primary doctor may send you to a specialist. He or she not only will be highly trained in a specific area but will charge more, too.”
When you imprint a strong association in the minds of your prospects and clients, you create something marketers call “mind share.” Brands that have become synonymous with their products (Jell-O, Kleenex, Xerox) have successfully gained mind share. Try to position your firm based on uniqueness, strengths or specialties so that it’s the first one to be thought of by your targeted group. “Mind share is market share,” says Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
TELL YOUR CLIENTS WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR THEM
For greater impact, focus on your clients’ needs and interests in your Web message. Say little about the history of your firm or how wonderful you are; instead, tell site visitors how your services, experience and abilities can benefit them. Give your professional credentials and expertise, and introduce mini case studies to illustrate your client focus.
Based on how your CPA firm is positioned in the market (and its niches), the Web site should highlight the advantages of the firm’s specialized services. Ideally, the presentation should consist of short paragraphs that lead into bulleted copy. It’s important to keep the copy brief and informative and have a visual format that’s easy to understand. The CPA sites in exhibit 1 and exhibit 2 offer a broad menu of services, but they are fast-loading, have short, clear paragraphs, drop-down menus and an uncluttered, consistent graphic format.
To maintain a client point of view, use a “you” rather than “we” approach to tell your story. Here’s how the text might weave together the prospective client and the advantages of using your firm: “Our capital-raising efforts can save you time and help you learn more about the many financing options other than bank loans available to you. Talk to us and you’ll learn about our 25 innovative methods for raising debt and equity capital that can help you expand into new markets, get the equipment you need and launch products fast.”
HAVE BENEFICIAL WEB CONTENT
Your Web site gets an enormous marketing advantage if it offers useful data, such as news, articles, facts, insights and information—preferably showing that you are an authority and specialist in certain areas. Zero in on tips, techniques, ideas and tax-saving methods. Present it all in a friendly, one-to-one style. Pack the site with helpful content, and visitors will return.
This puts your firm’s name in front of potential clients again and again. CPA firm Carlin, Charron & Rosen LLP’s home page has a “Links” link that takes you to sites ranging from government to legal, life-style, auction and dental information among other categories (see exhibit 3 ).
The best way to develop external links to information is by establishing alliances with one or more related businesses, business consultants, universities or government agencies. When a visitor to a CPA’s Web site clicks one of these links, he or she connects with the partner site. It provides the visitor with the information but appears to be part of the CPA firm’s Web site. Work with your site developer if you want to build in a function that takes the visitor from the linked site back to the CPA site.
SEARCH ENGINE RANKINGS
To get attention and compete even more effectively on the Internet, your site should show up on search engines and directories such as Google and Yahoo! One of the ways the engines find your site out of the multitudes is to count the number of links to it. When numerous professionals and marketers link to your site, they are, in effect, recommending it to visitors. The more links, the higher your site is “ranked”—that is, the higher the probability of being tagged by search engines and directories.
To accomplish this, create an ongoing alliance with other Web site marketers and professionals with which you will trade links. Your site’s links take visitors directly to your marketing partners’ sites, and your partners do the same for you. Also:
Offer information links. For example, you can offer links to government sites (Department of Commerce, Federal Reserve, IRS, SEC, Small Business Administration) and club and association sites. (Except for government sites, you must get permission from Web site owners before you link to theirs.)
Share your expertise. Develop partnerships with sites by supplying them with something they can use, such as original content for articles or electronic newsletters. A small publisher of business books might welcome your articles on tax-saving tips in return for attribution or a link to your site.
Keep key content up front. The first 200 to 300 words on your home page are critical for search engine submissions. Here you must clearly focus on positioning your strengths and key services. Search engines have their own methods and formulas for ranking a Web site listing. Most drill down only about two layers to locate and index Web content. If vital information is too deep within your site, prospects and even clients may not find it using search engines, so keep key content at the first two levels. For example in the hypothetical Web address www.richardsiedlecki.com/file3/marketing/direct/retail/, many search engines would search only as deep as “marketing.”
Use search-listing services. These can help save time (see “Search engine managers” in “More About Web Marketing,” below).
KEEP YOUR SITE SIMPLE AND FAST
Since confusing sites turn off visitors, yours must be easy to use. Be sure your site:
Is intuitive and simple to navigate.
Has buttons that are descriptive and easy to locate.
For example, if you have a “newest services” category, your visitors should be able to go to that page quickly. Don’t bury an important category three or four clicks deep.
Speedy access is very important. Most visitors won’t have high-speed modems or DSL services, so use photos and special graphics only when necessary because they delay loading.
Include key information about your firm, especially multiple ways to contact you (phone, fax, e-mail and street address). Offer online and offline human contacts. Visitors should be able to “talk” to a human being, via either e-mail or phone.
A Web site based on profitable direct marketing methods will increase your success rate on the Internet, no matter what your budget is. What stands out is how you compete based on your market positioning, your target niches, the usefulness and simplicity of your Web site and its consistency of presentation. On the Web, the size of your office or staff isn’t important.
Be a Standout on the Web
Get your firm’s message across in the e-marketplace.
BY RICHARD SIEDLECKI
April 1, 2001