State CPA societies have created a virtual network.
A More Perfect Union
|By Richard J. Koreto|
Y our state CPA society probably has a Web site with the information you needas long as you stay in your state. But if youre a controller whose company is expanding into other states youll need sources of local online information. If youre a practitioner who uses the Internet to cross state borders, youll need the Web for statewide networking, regulatory affairs and practice management issues. All across the country, state societies are taking a variety of approaches to provide information and other services to members and the general financial community. See what your neighbors are doingeven if youre local and planning to stay that way, you should learn about other states so you can help your own state society site grow. (For links to all state sites, go to www.aicpa.org/states/info/index.htm )
WHAT TO DO?
AccountingNet, an online resource for CPAs, has worked with about 30 state societies in the creation or maintenance of their Web sites. Shane Gillispie, an AccountingNet cofounder and vice-president of business development, spoke about what a state society site can achieve online.
There is no one feature a society site must have, said Gillispie. Each society knows best what its member needs are. However, he did suggest four basic areas a site can cover:
- News from a brief daily bulletin on local business news to explanatory features on new IRS or state tax regulations.
- Research online libraries. A society can create its own database of state-related business information and can link to online research pages at the FASB ( www.fasb.org ) or IRS ( www.irs.ustreas.gov ).
- Products and services such as software or discounted airline tickets. Societies can link to local or national companies that sell what members may want.
- Community interaction between colleagues, using online forums, for example. Local job listings help firm owners and new graduates find each other. Referral services let a tax practitioner quickly find an auditor for a clients new company.
Overall, Gillispie emphasized the Internets cost savings: As more CPAs go online, Web postings can take the place of expensive mailings for newsletters and CPE catalogs. Publishing on the Web is like owning a printing press and the U.S. post office, he said.
The Journal looked at large, established sites and smaller, fledgling ones and discovered that even if societies arent consciously planning their sites around the four areas noted above, they usually address all of them. But how they meet their members needs varies with state size and geography.
Visitors to this site read about late-breaking national news right on the home page. The Colorado society site includes links to common national sites, like the IRS, as well as state-specific pages, such as the state revenue department. For members, theres a frequently asked question list covering membership requirements, peer review and state affinity programs. The site also solicits classified ads for both its Web site and its print magazine. We were already developing our site when the AICPA announced its state society Web site initiative program with Microsoft, said Liz Julin, the societys public relations manager. It was too good to pass up. (See Highlights, JofA, Oct.96, page 4.) Both the staff and members designed and programmed the site with the help of Microsoft training, and the staff handles maintenance entirely in-house. Colorado uses Microsofts FrontPage, a common Web design program for small to midsize sites, available for under $200.
Our main purpose is to be a 24-hour communication tool for our members, continued Julin. Do you need a state tax form at 2:00 a.m.? We have that. We even have links to other states sites for their tax forms. Julin said the society has big plans for expansion, including a members-only section with a member directory, referral service and possibly a salary survey.
According to Director of Communications Jennifer Morganti, the Nevada society had help from Microsoft, AccountingNet and Netcom, an Internet service provider. Nevadas site is still fairly new, but it has some interesting features and plans for the future. Already it posts a technology resource center with links to technology vendors members might want to do business with. Morganti spends about one day a week working on the site with FrontPage and hopes to provide current news for members. Many businesses are relocating to Nevada, providing opportunities for the states CPAs and the societys site. Id like our site to be useful to CPAs and their clients and employers, with general business information for relocating companies, said Morganti. She plans to add demographic data and descriptions of how to get business licenses in different counties, for example.
Dana Rubenstein, the Delaware societys executive director, is the sole staff member and thus has limited time for site maintenance. Nevertheless, Delaware was able to set up the site in partnership with AccountingNet. Initially, Delaware posted portions of its newsletter and subsequently added an online membership application and a link to the site that administers its CPE. For a while one society member donated his time to update it. When this became too time-consuming, Rubenstein brought it in-house to work on it as her schedule allows. Even with the time crunch, shes been able to post state committee descriptions and schedules and a description of federal and state electronic filing programs. Were planning some expansion, probably for this summer, such as a members-only section. We came up with ideas for additions by forming a technology committee of members. Ive passed these suggestions on to AccountingNet, which gives us our technological support. We also link to their general forums. Meanwhile, right on the home page, Rubenstein is soliciting e-mailed suggestions for the societys growing site.
Were proud that the Ohio societys web siteCPA.accesswas selected by the American Society of Association Executives as one of 250 world-class Web sites, said Clarke Price, the Ohio societys executive director. With just about every association having a Web presence, being recognized for the quality and depth of our site was a major compliment. Ohio also took advantage of the Microsoft initiative and designed the site with the help of an outside consultant. Today the staff maintains the site, using FrontPage. This especially large site posts a substantial news section, a member directory (just for other members) and peer review information. For the general public theres a description of what CPAs do and tax advice. Especially impressive is an online magazine for students, designed in fluorescent colors with bold graphics. It contains profiles of CPAs with interesting jobs and Uniform CPA Examination help.
We want to make the student magazine interactive, to help students get their questions answered, said Price. We recently started a general forum for our members and weve posted CPE class schedules we can update daily. Of course, all these features take time and personnel commitment. Price estimates the society Webmaster spends 25 hours a week working on the site; other staff members spend about 10 man-hours a week as well.
This year-old site is also a product of an AccountingNet partnership. We spoke with some other state societies and decided outsourcing was our best option, said Executive Director Jack Coppenbarger. Were happy with that arrangement. Currently, the site has an information desk for news and a search engine for all postings. Theres a CPE catalog database searchable by several fields. But we havent scratched the surface yet, said Coppenbarger. We want to grow. We want members to know this is a good resource, with more links and resources they want. The society uses the new technology of the Web to encourage members to participate in the traditional in-person society activities. Mississippi has realized that a Web site is not an end in itself; its about bringing people closer together by fostering communication. As it says on the site, pointing out the advantages of society activities: along with professional awards come personal ones. By putting MSCPA members in touch with others who share common goals, values and ideals, the MSCPA has fostered many lifelong friendships.
WHEREVER YOU GO
Does a states client pool consist of factories or farms, technology or tourism? Columbus, Ohio, by itself, has almost as many people as the entire state of Delaware. The opportunities and problems for each states CPAs, and CPA society, vary accordingly. With the Web, every state society, of course, has a chance to provide local assistance to its CPAs. Whats more, it can provide this help, as well as display its uniqueness, across the country and around the world.