An Online Image Campaign

A CPA looked beyond the numbers for a great opportunity.

An Online Image Campaign

T he Web site of Schwartz Cohen & Co. in Phoenix contains articles by its partners and a description of the firms business valuation services. It provides links useful for accountants, such as Internal Revenue Service regulations and corporate Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Interspersed with all this are cartoons on almost every page, links to David Lettermans Top 10 Lists, "News of the Weird" and an Italian cultural site sponsored by Ragu ("You shouldnt surf on an empty stomach"). The site is idiosyncratic and some of the links are bizarre, but it brings in as many as 10,000 visitors a month, some of whom become the firms clients.

Schwartz Cohen actually inherited the site from Carolyn Sechler, one of the first CPAs to have a place on the Web, who started it three years ago as a sole practitioner. She later merged her practice with Schwartz Cohen, becoming a partner and the sites "Webmistress." Since then the site has grown and continues to undergo frequent changes in both its useful data and "lighter side."

The home page ties in with the American Institute of CPAs image campaign: The title reads "Beyond the Numbers: The Website." The visitor there is in the "Whirled Wide Headquarters" [ sic ] of Schwartz Cohen. The firms services, and the Web site itself, are described very briefly and accompanied by eye-catching typefaces and cartoonlike caricatures. "People are coming through fast," said Sechler; "theyre thinking fast, so you have to convey messages quickly. There are image people and word people; I try to reach both."

Spread out over the extensive home page are many links, with descriptions. A "high finance" list is marked by a slot machine icon, travel links by a parachutist. Many pages offer an e-mail link to Sechler. "Carolyn Sechler is responsible for the content and editing of this site so keep her posted (she loves this stuff!)," reads one e-mail link. "Comments, questions, flames, fumes, praise, dismay and all general reactions to this Web site should be addressed to our cheerful Webmistress." Sechler strongly believes even the smallest firm needs to use the Internet at least for e-mail, because its a great way to communicate with clients. "I receive about 40 e-mail messages a day," she said.

One reviewer wrote, "If Henny Youngman was a CPA, this would be his site."

"Lets ease into the heavy business stuff gradually," reads the home pages introduction to the humor section. Included is a link to a Web site with a virtual dog: visitors can plug in a simple equation and the dog will bark the answer. A virtual office section includes an essay on a virtual law office, among others.

The more "serious" link section has nine parts. Again, the useful and the entertaining are mixed together, and Sechler has written a description of each link.

  • Travel includes guides to Arizona and Italy, "the virtual pub" and a map for any U.S. address.
  • Business and pleasure has guides to Arizona restaurants and golf, some recipes and a movie guide.
  • Health care links to a variety of sites from the Yahoo search engine health section, Harvard Medicine Web, professional health associations and EMS humor.
  • Not-for-profits (NPOs)(or "Free Associations") links to the Non-Profit Times, the Foundation Center and Thoughts on Fundraising.
  • News includes the Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times ("official newspaper of the San Andreas Fault," reads the description), CNN Interactive and the London Times.
  • Directory for clients and others is a mixed bag of the local, such as the Arizona Society of CPAs (whose site Sechler also developed) and the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, and the generally helpful: "Yucky homework helpers" leads to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Law includes links to law libraries, lists of legal conferences and lawyer jokes. (This section is marked by a shark icon; almost every other linked group has a caricature somewhere on site.)
  • High finance contains links to information about credit cards, a portfolio tracker and a list of companies and their quarterly reports.
  • Accounting provides useful links for CPAs: The IRS home page ("Taxpaying tips for the Television Generation"), a mutual funds tracker, major software and hardware manufacturers, accounting publishers and Federal Express. Fun stuff at the end includes Walt Disney and ESPN.

When asked about her collection of links and the irreverent cartoons and comments, she said, "Were not number crunchers; were people. This site and its links reflect what our firm is. People come to our site looking for something and say, This looks interesting. Sometimes they get in touch with us and become clients." Sechler said her site reflects the Web community. "We want to integrate ourselves within the Web; we are not an island, by ourselves in the Internet."

Initially, Sechlers Web site was just a way to communicate inexpensively with clients and to keep her name in their minds. "I wanted to at least provide useful links for clients, to make research more efficient and less expensive."

Sechler uses more than her links to market the site. She writes articles and speaks, which leads to more online visits, which leads to more articles and speaking engagements. She receives 10,000 hits a month during the height of tax season and at the end of the year and 5,000 a month the rest of the year.

Sechler taught herself hypertext markup language (HTML) and used programs such as Web Edit, HotDog Pro and Front Page, all of which are about $100 or less. She said there were free programs on the Internet if you had the patience to look for them. All the graphics came from a CD-ROM of clip art at low costshe said she used one art source to maintain stylistic consistency. The firms Internet service provider (ISP) normally would charge $150 a month. However, because she is a value-added reseller for the ISP, the fee is waived.

In the future, Sechler plans to set up online mailboxes on the Web site, where clients, using a password, can electronically drop off tax information, for example. Also, she wants to get her clients on line. "When they have Web pages, I will link to them and they will link to us, and to each other. Well all benefit."

Name: Schwartz Cohen & Co., P.C.
Personnel: 40 professional and administrative
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Type of client: Health care, not-for-profit, closely held businesses
Services: General accounting, business valuations, planning and tax services, technology consulting


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