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Marketing

Be a Standout on the Web

Get your firm’s message across in the e-marketplace.

By Richard Siedlecki
April 2001
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
A WEB SITE IS A VALUABLE DIRECT MARKETING TOOL when it has action-oriented copy and graphics, reader involvement devices and promotional offers that prompt readers to respond.

FOCUS ON WHAT CLEARLY SEPARATES YOUR FIRM from the competition and can be locked into the minds of your prospective clients.

WHEN YOU IMPRINT A STRONG ASSOCIATION in the minds of your prospects and clients, you create something marketers call “mind share.” Brands that are synonymous with their products (Jell-O, Kleenex, Xerox) have successfully gained mind share.

YOUR WEB SITE WILL HAVE GREATER IMPACT if it focuses on your clients’ needs and interests instead of aggressively telling them how wonderful you are.

WEB SITES SHOULD BE INFORMATIONAL. Based on your positioning and market focus, present news, articles, facts, insights and helpful data that clearly show you are an authority in your areas of expertise.

TO COMPETE EFFECTIVELY ON THE INTERNET, your site should be ranked high by search engines and directories such as Google and Yahoo! Reciprocal links with other businesses can help achieve this goal. It also is useful to link to relevant government and nonprofit agencies.

Richard Siedlecki is an Atlanta-based consultant specializing in direct marketing via mail, catalogs and the Web. His e-mail address is sied@mindspring.com .

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.

Estimated Internet searches by consumers and business people each day: 150 million.

Approximate number of search engines: 3,500.

Source: The New York Times.

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.

CASE STUDY
The Benefits of Links

Carl Roth, CPA and partner of Roth & Spellman, New Milford, New Jersey, was involved in developing the firm’s Web site. The firm leases links on its Web site, but visitors to the site are never aware of the alliance.

Links include “Tax Tip of the Week,” “Business Tip of the Month,” “Financial Planning Tip of the Month” and a new link called “2001 Tax Guide.” There are also links to 16 different calculators, including one for IRAs.

Roth tracks the hits on the site but not the conversions to clients. His firm has been successful in getting new clients through a three-step process: The prospect first learns about the firm from another individual or an ad; the prospect locates the firm’s Web site to get more information; and, finally, the prospect phones the firm to explore a business arrangement.

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.

Ten Tips for Web Marketing Success

Keep these points in mind for a more effective Internet sales presence.

  1. Put a marketing executive in charge of your site—not a techie.

  2. Ask visitors to bookmark your site (if 2% actually do, you’re marketing effectively), and be sure to…

  3. Update your site regularly.

  4. Use a consistent presentation format to reinforce your firm identity on each page. Include your logo on each page (linked to your home page).

  5. Use easy-to-read type fonts that are not too large. A serif type (Times Roman) is easier to read than a sans-serif (Helvetica). So is type that’s upright (roman) rather than slanting (italic). For body text, use 12-point roman or larger (and more white space between lines than you think you need). It makes type much easier to read.

  6. Break up long paragraphs with subheads. This will help visitors scan your text and skip to relevant points. Subheads also improve layout. Always check spellings, grammar and usage.

  7. Keep visitors involved. Calculators, chat rooms and a forum for getting answers to questions will keep them there for a while. Have them push buttons, check off boxes, answer questions and click for money-saving offers.

  8. Include a checkbox where the visitor can request free weekly e-mail tips.

  9. Provide an internal search engine to help visitors retrieve key articles from your archive if the site has 100 pages or more.

  10. Promote your site everywhere—in ads, direct mail, publicity and on brochures. If you’re speaking at a seminar or conference, you might respond to a query by saying something like: “I hope I’ve answered your question. Our Web site features several articles on that topic.”

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.

Loads quickly.

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.

RESOURCE LIST
More About Web Marketing

You’ll find these resources of benefit to marketing your practice.

 
EDUCATIONAL WEB SITES

Promotion Base

www.promotionbase.com/

This is a highly informative site. Readers can pick and choose a wide variety of articles, such as “The most effective way to easily acquire links to your site,” “How to list your site with the major search engines,” “The complete guide to portal listings” and more.

Swiftfox Web Design

www.swiftfox.com

This Web developer offers a tip on linking from your site: To link to another site (or to a page that resides on another server), use a method called absolute linking. It requires a complete URL in the reference. The HTML code for doing this might look like this:

<a href = HTTP://www.swiftfox.com>

VISIT SWIFTFOX>COM</a>

This would display the phrase VISIT SWIFTFOX on your screen and when the user clicked the link, it would transport the user to the specific page.

 
SEARCH ENGINE MANAGERS

MetaMend.com
www.metamend.com

MetaMend will enhance your Web site’s search engine ranking. The company monitors and updates your site automatically for a low monthly fee.

ROIbot.com
www.roibot.com/r.cgi?IM7800nl101a

You can register every page of your Web site on all major search engines by using this sophisticated registering submission server.

WebPosition Gold
www.promotionsoftware.com

A software program that allows you to see if your company name, Web pages or Web site appears in the major search engines.

 
MAGAZINES

SAM
117 W. Micheltorena, Suite C
Santa Barbara, California 93101
805-965-5858

www.sammag.com

Brief, thorough articles on marketing, including Web site marketing, are available here.

 
MARKETING WEB SITES

About.com
http://marketing.about.com/smallbusiness/marketing/

This site can steer you to basic information, such as targeted marketing. Its General Resources/Articles link connects to a large collection of marketing articles and resources. Free subscription.

Larry Chase’s Web Digest for Marketers
www.wdfm.com

A subscription automatically links you to a list of other free e-newsletters you can subscribe to (or go to the newsletter list at http://www.wdfm.com/thanks.html ).

Jakob Nielsen/Nielsen Norman Group
www.useit.com

This Internet consultant offers a wide range of articles on Web marketing and keeping your site efficient and effective. Free subscription.

Wilson Internet
http://www.wilsonweb.com

Includes three free electronic newsletters you can subscribe to: Doctor Ebiz, Web Commerce Today, and Web Marketing Today. Check the extensive archive, too.

 
BOOKS

Business-to-Business Internet Marketing: Seven Proven Strategies for Increasing Profits through Internet Direct Marketing, 3rd ed., by Barry Silverstein. Maximum Press, Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Read about structuring direct marketing, creative plan execution, implementation and analysis and promoting products and services.

Guide to Marketing on the Internet: Getting People to Visit, Buy, and Become Customers for Life by Dan Janal. John Wiley & Sons, New York City.

Learn how to create your marketing message, do business-to-business selling online and earn lifetime customer loyalty. (Janal’s Web site, www.janal.com , has free articles.)

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Warner Books Inc., New York City.

How to position your business, find and use the competition’s weakest link and reposition the competition.

Guerrilla Marketing Online: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Earning Profits on the Internet, 2nd ed., by Jay Conrad Levinson and Charles Rubin. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York City.

Techniques for marketing online, plus ideas for marketing more effectively and successfully.

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