"Would You, Could You, Should You Blog?"

Flexible, low-cost Web logs are a formidable business tool.
BY EVA LANG

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
BLOGS (SHORT FOR WEB LOGS) are an information-sharing tool with many business possibilities. They offer commentary on a variety of topics with links to Web sites or other online resources. Low operating costs make blogging a great marketing and knowledge management option for small firms.

A BLOG TYPICALLY IS TEXT WITH few graphics. It can be created with blogging software that is free and simple to use. A basic blog requires no special technical skills.

BESIDES HELPING TO PUBLICIZE A FIRM and showcase its niche specialties, blogs can allow everyone in the firm to share information quickly or to track sales leads.

FIRMS CAN USE INTERNAL KNOWLEDGE BLOGS to help current employees work more efficiently and to get new hires up to speed quickly. As a repository of “institutional memory,” knowledge blogs can remind current employees of policies and procedures, link to documents employees need to read and document best practices. Team members can enter remarks to create a record of actions and decisions.

SO FAR THERE ARE ONLY A FEW accounting blogs. Most CPA blogs cover tax topics but there are a few in niche areas such as estate planning, business valuation and Sarbanes-Oxley.

TO CREATE A BLOG A FIRM WILL NEED TO select a blog publisher, create an account and start adding content. Bloggers must scrupulously adhere to the golden rule of blogging: “Thou must update frequently.” The door is wide open to new and innovative uses of this technology for accounting firms.

EVA M. LANG, CPA/ABV, ASA, is the Memphis-based executive director of the Financial Consulting Group, an association of business valuation and litigation support firms. A recent inductee into the AICPA Business Valuation Hall of Fame, Lang also is coauthor of Best Websites for Financial Professionals (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) and a frequent contributor to AICPA publications. Contact information can be found at www.gofcg.org/profiles/eml .

omic-sounding “blogs” aren’t a Dr. Seuss invention, though a Seussian opening might read something like this: A Blogville accountant was heard to say, “Should I blog or not blog? Should I blog today? Is it true they are tools with much to convey?” Indeed they are. Blogs (short for Web logs), which have been around for a few years, gained credibility during the 2004 presidential campaign when three Minneapolis attorneys used their Power Line blog to disprove CBS news reports about George W. Bush’s military service.

Interest in blogs as an information-sharing tool with many business possibilities has been growing. Fortune magazine called blogging one of the Top 10 Tech Trends in 2004 and the February 2005 Harvard Business Review cited it as one of the “breakthrough ideas for 2005.” There is even an international CEO Bloggers Club ( http://prplanet.typepad.com/ceobloggers ). This article will tell CPAs how blogging can advance a firm’s marketing, project management and research efforts.

Log On

Blog readership increased 58% in 2004.

Source: Pew Internet and American life project, 2005.

WHAT ARE BLOGS?
A blog is an online journal that offers commentary on topics ranging from the general (weather: www.capitalweather.com ) to the comedic (Dave Barry: http://weblog.herald.com/column/davebarry ) to the obscure (London Underground: http://london-underground.blogspot.com ). The Oxford English Dictionary added the word blog in 2003, defining it as “a frequently updated Web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary.” California attorney Denise M. Howell defines a blog as “a Web page so simple that its basic functions are well within the grasp of those who may have only basic technical ability.”

In general, a blog differs from a commercial Web page in two ways:

It is predominantly text with few graphics.
It is usually the commentary of a single author with links to Web sites or other online resources.

Knoxville, Tenn., CPA Brian Tankersley’s blog, www.briantankersley.com/cpatech , offers visitors links to Excel enhancements and Symantec virus updates as well as information about a range of technology products.

BLOGS ARE ABOUT ACCESS
Low entry costs make blogging accessible to small firms, and a basic blog is easy to establish and to update, requiring no special technical skills. Blog services offer software to help you build a simple blog, and provide server space for free or for a nominal fee (see “ Starting a Blog ”). If you have a Web site, check with your current Web hosting service to see whether it offers blog hosting. You also can hire a design firm to create your blog on a Movable Type platform, as Roth & Co. CPA Joe Kristan did with Tax Updates (see “ Roth & Co. Hops on the Blog Wagon ”).

Once you’ve created a blog, you can add new postings as easily as you compose and send e-mail. Most blog services allow you to customize your blog by using design templates and by adding features such as news feeds that alert your readers to new postings. Readers then have the option to visit your blog to read the new input or to use an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) newsreader to automatically receive the information.

The www.vanilla-accounting.com/blog/index.php blog provides how-to guides to subjects such as key performance indicators, managing cash flow, budgeting basics, profit drivers and the business life cycle.

The Tax Guru blog at www.taxguru.net provides its readers with a subscription button that takes only two mouse clicks to add its news feed to the popular free newsreader Bloglines . Users of Bloglines can then read a digest of postings to Tax Guru and many other blogs on www.bloglines.com/myblogs .

Newsreaders relay content from sources other than blogs, too. For example, most major newspapers and networks, including the New York Times and CNN, make their news stories available for newsreaders. The AICPA uses RSS technology in the business valuation discussion forum to provide subscribers with notification of new forum postings ( http://bvfls.aicpa.org ).

A news feed is just one of many options you can choose when creating a blog. You also can limit access to the blog or open it to the public. You can choose to allow readers to comment on your postings, and create permalinks (“permanent” links) to specific blog entries. Link popularity, a measure of both the quantity and quality of other Web sites that link to a site, plays an important role in search engine rankings.

When it comes to Internet visibility, blogs have the advantage over Web sites. New Orleans–based law firm Gordon, Arata, McCollam, Duplantis and Eagan offers a comparative illustration of Web site vs. blog popularity. Its traditional Web site ( www.gamde.com ) is attractive and informative—and only 31 other sites link to it, according to Google. However, when Gordon, Arata partner Ernest E. Svenson started the Ernie the Attorney blog ( http://ernieattorney.typepad.com ), it quickly became one of the most linked-to legal resources on the Web—7,920 other sites link to it.

Starting a Blog
A hosted blog service can help you start blogging cheaply and easily. Depending on the service, you even may be able to post to your blog by e-mail. The software organizes your posts with the most recent at the top. The following blog services are good for beginners as they provide a free or low-cost combination of blogging software and hosting services:

Blogger ( www.blogger.com ). Owned by Google, this free blog service is the largest.

TypePad ( www.typepad.com ). A low-cost service for hosting and publishing Web logs and photo albums.

Square Space ( www.squarespace.com ). The professional design options allow you to set up a great looking blog or even a full Web site for an amazingly low price.

If you are ready to go beyond the basic starter blog, consider these design companies that create customized blogs:

Design 4 Results ( www.design4results.com ). Offers design and implementation of a Movable Type publishing platform site.

Sekimori Design ( www.sekimori.com ). Offers a wide array of services ranging from logo design to Web site development.

Blogs attract more links than conventional Web sites for several reasons. One is the culture, which encourages bloggers to link to each other. Indeed, most blogs include a list of links to other blogs, referred to as a blogroll. Ernie the Attorney links to about 30 other blogs in a section titled simply “Blogs I Like.” Most of those in turn link back to him.

Another reason other sites link to blogs is that blogs rank higher in search engines due to their frequent updates and their structure, which is easier for search engines to index than conventional Web sites are. And, finally, many blogs—such as Ernie the Attorney , with its crisp writing, eclectic mix of topics and the occasional literary trivia question—may be more popular because they are just more fun to read.

FCG blog master and author Eva Lang, CPA, tracks business valuation developments and presents a roundup of “blog wisdom” for the Financial Consulting Group Business Valuation Blog at www.gofcg.org/blog .

HOW CAN BLOGS BENEFIT CPAs?
Lawyers have quickly adopted blogs, but what does this tool offer accountants, relative novices to the medium (see “Resources”)? Blogs can help CPAs enhance the marketing and knowledge management functions of their firms.

Marketing. Blogs provide a low-cost way to reach a desirable market segment—the affluent and well-educated—and woo them as CPA clients. One way to approach this is to integrate a blog into your marketing plan, so it works with your existing Web site and newsletter. (Roth & Co.’s Kristan refers to his Tax Updates blog as the “first draft” of his newsletter. All stories in his weekly newsletter going to more than 2,000 recipients first appear in the blog.) Besides helping to publicize your firm and showcase its niche specialties, blogs can allow everyone in your firm to share information quickly on current developments and to track information on sales leads.

Caveat: A business blog that isn’t updated frequently, that contains inaccuracies or that is poorly written can do more harm than good. Don’t commit to blogging unless you are sure you have the time and talent on staff to oversee a blog that enhances your firm’s reputation. The time commitment for writing entries, gathering and incorporating related links and responding to comments that users may leave on the blog can be substantial.

Knowledge management. CPAs may find value in a blog as a knowledge management tool. Firms can use blogs to help current employees work more efficiently and to get new hires up to speed quickly. As a repository of “institutional memory,” knowledge blogs can educate new hires, remind current employees of policies and procedures, link to documents employees need to read and document best practices. Blogs maintained by vendors that market to CPAs (Quickbooks’ http://quickbooks_online_blog.typepad.com , for instance) alert staff to new developments and training opportunities.

Internal knowledge blogs, sometimes referred to as k-blogs, are becoming mainstream business tools. Each team member can enter his or her remarks to create a record of actions and decisions. Blogs make it easy to document projects so that all team members are better informed. Knowledge blogs also can serve as a venue to help telecommuting employees stay more involved or for departing employees to leave knowledge behind.

Accounting firms that install accounting systems for clients may find internal blogs useful to manage those customer projects. Notes about updates, timelines and problems encountered with installations can be posted on a blog for the team to review. For more information on using blogs as knowledge management tools in a professional services firm, check the Excited Utterances blog ( http://excitedutterances.blogspot.com ), which focuses on knowledge management issues in law firms.

Philadelphia attorney Peter B. Nordberg, who covers expert witness issues, publishes the www.daubertontheweb.com blog, with information about the law of evidence after the Supreme Court’s Daubert decision.

ACCOUNTANTS WHO BLOG
So far there are few accounting blogs, and a fair number of the existing ones cover taxes. In addition to Tax Updates, there is the Tax Guru ( www.taxguru.net ) blog, where Arkansas CPA Kerry M. Kerstetter answers tax questions and posts links to tax-related stories (and the occasional cartoon) in the news. Russ Fox, CPA, of Clayton Financial and Tax, California, comments on tax news in his Taxable Talk blog ( www.taxabletalk.com ). Stuart Levine, a Maryland tax attorney, analyzes cases on the Tax & Business Law Commentary blog at http://taxbiz.blogspot.com . Trish McIntire, an enrolled agent (EA), incorporates her own experiences with links to tax news on the Our Taxing Times blog at http://trishmc.typepad.com .

Perhaps the most visible nontax accounting blog is the Financial Accounting Blog at http://accounting.blogspot.com , which posts current items relevant to financial accounting and finance. Other nontax accounting blogs include

Confessions of an Accounting Bum ( http://accountingbum.blogspot.com ).
CPA Firm Technology Blog ( www.briantankersley.com/cpatech ).
CPA Sense ( http://cpasense.blogspot.com ).
Internal Auditing Blog ( http://iia.blogspot.com ).
The Analyst’s Accounting Observer Weblog ( www.accountingobserver.com/blog ).
The Tech Gap ( www.thetechgap.com ).
Vanilla Accounting ( www.vanilla-accounting.com/blog/index.php ).

A handful of law school professors maintain accounting-centric blogs. Paul L. Caron at the University of Cincinnati College of Law edits the TaxProf blog ( http://taxprof.typepad.com ). James Edward Maule of the Villanova University School of Law comments on tax law in the Mauled Again blog at http://mauledagain.blogspot.com . Daniel Shaviro at New York University Law School covers tax and budget policy, as well as contemporary U.S. politics and culture, in his blog Start Making Sense ( http://danshaviro.blogspot.com ).

A few blogs are springing up in niche areas. Chicago attorney Joel A. Schoenmeyer publishes the Death and Taxes blog ( http://jas-law.typepad.com ) and Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law, maintains the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog ( http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/trusts_estates_prof ). Those pretty much corner the market on estate planning blogs. There is at least one blog devoted to Sarbanes-Oxley, Inside Sarbanes-Oxley ( www.insidesarbanesoxley.com/sarbanes_oxley_blog ). Developments in business valuation are covered by the Financial Consulting Group Business Valuation Blog at www.gofcg.org/blog .

RESOURCES
AICPA Resources

Conference

TECH 2005: The AICPA Information Technology Conference—Celebrating 25 Years
June 27–29, 2005
Bellagio, Las Vegas

For more information about AICPA resources or to register, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the AICPA at 888-777-7077.

Professional services blogs

Of the few blogs devoted to marketing professional services firms, most cater to law firms. Because the challenges of most CPA firms have similarities to those of other types of professional services firms, accountants may find these three blogs useful:

Larry Bodine’s Professional Marketing Blog ( http://pm.typepad.com/professional_marketing_bl ). Bodine is the North America regional director of the PM Forum, a global organization of 3,000 marketers in law, accounting and management consulting. His blog addresses many business development issues professional services firms face.

Real Lawyers Have Blogs ( http://kevin.lexblog.com ). This blog, operated by Kevin O’Keefe, offers insight into the topic of blogs and Internet marketing. His company, LexBlog, offers an affordable and quick turnkey blog “package” for professional services firms.

BW Price’s Marketing U ( http://bwprice.blogs.com ). This blog, operated by Barbara W. Price, senior vice-president of marketing and business development, Mercer Capital Management Inc. of Memphis, offers marketing tips with a focus on actionable “how-to” information.

Litigation blogs

Law-related blogs, where attorneys post comments on cases and offer opinions on legal news, may be useful resources for practitioners who offer litigation consulting. The Blawg Web site (http://blawg.org) has a searchable directory of legal blogs. Some legal blogs of note include

Bag and Baggage ( http://bgbg.blogspot.com ). Musings of Denise M. Howell, a California appellate and intellectual property lawyer.

Corporate Counsel ( www.thecorporatecounsel.net/blog/blogindex.html ). A securities law blog maintained by Corporate Counsel magazine.

May It Please the Court ( http://mayitpleasethecourt.net/journal.asp ). A blog of legal news and observation.

Blog 702, the Official Blog ( www.daubertontheweb.com ). A blog published by Philadelphia attorney Peter B. Nordberg, who covers expert witness issues.

PDF for Lawyers ( www.pdfforlawyers.com ). Ernest Svenson’s companion blog to Ernie the Attorney.

Blog search tools

The blogosphere is rich with good content that can be difficult to locate. Some popular blog-specific search tools that can help with your research efforts are

Blawg Search ( http://blawgs.detod.com ) searches legal blogs. See also www.blawgrepublic.com , which provides a digest of the latest news and commentary from the legal blogging community.

Bloglines ( www.bloglines.com ) has tools to publish blogs and share news feeds in addition to its blog search feature.

Feedster ( www.feedster.com ) has a search tool for blog news feeds.

Technorati ( www.technorati.com ) publishes a list of the 100 most authoritative blogs, ranked by the number of sources that link to each, in addition to its search feature.

CREATE A BLOG
To get started with a simple business blog you can sign up with a blog publisher such as Blogger or TypePad (see “ Starting a Blog ”). Blogger, owned by Google, is a free service that allows you to set up a blog quickly using its design templates. TypePad is a fee-based blog publisher that offers more features for modest prices starting at $4.95 per month.

For more robust enterprise-level tools for internal blogs, look to companies like Traction Software ( www.tractionsoftware.com ), which specializes in collaboration and knowledge management for program teams and intelligence units. Once you select a publisher, you can customize your blog with the tools it provides and start adding content.

As you begin, keep in mind these tips from blog consultant Debbie Weil for creating an effective blog:

Start with a topic you’re passionate about.
Concentrate on short, frequent entries in your blog.
Let yourself go as a writer and allow your authentic “voice” to emerge.
Use correct grammar and syntax.
Purposefully organize the content of your blog.
Post a new entry at least once a week, preferably two or three times a week.
Include your key contact information on your blog.

Technology professionals, journalists and lawyers have embraced blogs. Blogs are just catching on in the accounting profession, and that means the door is wide open for CPA firms to create new and innovative uses of this technology. There is a huge opportunity for accountants to enter this area.

CASE STUDY
Roth & Co. Hops on the Blog Wagon

W hen Roth & Co. PC of Des Moines, Iowa, formed in the early 1990s, the partners had concerns common to many small accounting firms: How do we grow our practice? How can we market effectively on a small budget? The partners, who had come from then-Big Six firms, wanted to continue to do “big-firm marketing,” albeit on a small-firm budget.

Joe Kristan, CPA, Roth & Co. director of taxation, assumed responsibility for developing a marketing plan for the firm. He quickly realized that relying on a high-quality, full-color, printed newsletter as the core of the marketing program was an expensive proposition. He decided to produce the newsletter in electronic format and send it out via e-mail. That worked well, but he continued to look for ways to keep the content fresh and to differentiate the firm. He seized upon blogging as the solution.

Kristan started the Roth & Co. Tax Updates blog ( www.taxupdateblog.com ) in 2001 by adding a page to his Web site that he updated daily with the latest tax news. (While a Web page can function as a blog, most bloggers find it clumsy—and it is nearly impossible to maintain if you don’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with html programming.) Kristan switched to a specialized software called Movable Type ( www.sixapart.com/movabletype ), which is designed to automate the process. To get a professional look in keeping with a big-firm image, he hired Sekimori Design, designers of Power Line, to make sure the blog had a look and feel consistent with the other Roth & Co. marketing pieces (see “ Starting a Blog ”).

Kristan likens reading about tax law to “dining on sawdust,” so he strives to make the postings to Tax Updates interesting and humorous. He focuses on practical and helpful items for his clients and stays away from areas—such as cross-border mergers—that he knows will not have broad appeal. He looks for human interest and tries to emphasize Iowa-specific stories. One recent posting on illegal tax-avoidance schemes begins, “Like the emergence of daffodils and the return of the robin, the blossoming of permanent injunctions against flaky tax preparers is a perennial sign of the spring.” Postings such as “Procrastination and Penury” and “My Home Equity Loan Is Deductible. Isn’t It?” give valuable advice to readers.

Roth & Co. says its blog works hand-in-hand with its newsletter. “It gives clients a comfort level that we’re on top of things, even if we aren’t a national firm,” says Kristan. It has led to other marketing opportunities, too. One fan of the blog e-mailed some of the more interesting postings to his brother-in-law, the editor of the local paper. Impressed, the editor asked Kristan to write a monthly column, which he has done for more than a year.

Kristan estimates that the time he spends on his firm’s newsletter and blog is roughly equivalent to playing a round or two of golf. So while his partners may build relationships with clients on the golf course, Kristan uses a comparable chunk of time to reach the approximately 250 people who read his blog each day during tax season. Fore .

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