If you think there is room for improvement in your accounting firm’s marketing and sales effort, you’re in good company. A recent study by Broderick & Co., consisting of in-depth interviews with leaders representing 130 well-known professional services firms in accounting, law, executive search, management consulting, architecture, financial services and advertising, suggests that firms are seeking a higher return on their investment in marketing and sales. While nearly 80% of the senior managers ranked “branding, marketing and sales” as important success factors for their firm, only 50% gave their own firm high marks in those disciplines.
After more than 25 years of counseling CPA firms of all sizes and levels of sophistication, I’ve identified two common firm-wide pitfalls that account for the significant gap between marketing expectations and performance satisfaction: “tactical soup” and “failure to launch.” Tactical soup occurs when firms get bogged down in a flurry of marketing activity without placing enough emphasis on how it will help generate revenue and profitability. Failure to launch means that a firm is not effectively using existing marketing resources. By following these easily implementable rules, firms can overcome these mistakes and gain tangible business results from their marketing investment.
CHOOSE WISELY, AVOID TACTICAL SOUP
Each year, CPA firms invest significant dollars and hours maintaining a broad range of marketing tactics that may or may not demonstrate economic value. Often, the value of the activity gets measured in tactical terms—such as media exposure, website traffic, webinar attendance, email click-through rates, awards for civic participation and social media “Likes” and “Followers,” rather than by tangible business outcomes such as lead generation, conversion rates, acceptance of new service offerings among existing clients, or revenue per associate.
To overcome tactical soup, firms should perform a review of their current marketing services:
1. Put every marketing tactic under the microscope. If there’s no tangible connection between a current marketing tactic and bona fide business results, throw it out. Be ruthless in your tactical assessment and focus on marketing initiatives that demonstrate a direct correlation between activity and a measurable business outcome.
2. Calculate the value received from the marketing activity. Press releases and related media exposure is a good example of marketing activity that is often overrated in terms of effort vs. tangible outcome. Unless your firm has accomplished something truly noteworthy—like discovering the accounting profession’s equivalent of cold fusion—then the likelihood of your clients, prospects and referral sources actually noticing the media exposure and doing something about it, such as visiting your firm’s website or requesting an introductory meeting, is probably low. Exposure that’s largely based on firm achievements delivers no practical benefit to existing clients and may leave them wondering if such self-promotion will result in higher client rates and fees.
3. Schedule ongoing maintenance of the activity. Unfortunately, many marketing tactics are often one-off or plug-and-play solutions. Blogs and newsletters demand original, timely content. White papers and case studies become quickly outdated. Website effectiveness requires ongoing attention to visitor traffic analytics and search engine optimization. Webinars and public forums entail lead qualification and follow-up with prospects. Email and direct mail campaign accuracy depends on a reliable and accessible database. Twitter and Facebook must be updated regularly to stay relevant. Before embarking on these activities, make sure you have the time and resources to dedicate to their maintenance.
Some accounting firms avoid the pitfalls of tactical soup by being selective in the type and volume of marketing tactics they apply. More importantly, they identify a specific and measurable strategic outcome in advance of any tactic’s design or application. For example, in 2007 a New Jersey- based, 25-person CPA firm with an emerging practice among medium-size, privately held businesses sought to add a pharmaceutical company to its client list. Leveraging the life science industry background of one of its partners, the firm proposed and published a bylined article on Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) revenue-recognition compliance—a supply chain issue of great interest and value to pharmaceutical industry executives—in a leading life science publication with more than 35,000 print subscribers and an even greater number of online readers.
Instead of simply posting the bylined article on its website and adding article reprints to its marketing kit, this New Jersey firm understood three important considerations regarding the real value of media placement as a marketing tactic:
- The article’s content was not as valuable as the firm’s indirect affiliation with a respected pharmaceutical industry publication.
- On its own, publication of the article was unlikely to generate any viable, near-term new business prospects.
- For the firm to benefit from the credibility associated with publication of its partner’s life sciences expertise, it would need to proactively do something with it.
Now that its marketing toolbox contained what some might view as validation of its intellectual capital in a leading vertical trade magazine, the New Jersey CPA firm leveraged the value of the exposure. It used the article reprint as the cornerstone of a direct mail campaign designed to raise awareness of the firm and to initiate substantive conversations with CFOs at pharmaceutical firms matching the criteria of prospective clients it had targeted—in terms of geography, ownership, revenue growth, number of employees and apparent levels of sophistication.
The firm’s mailing included a hard copy, personalized cover letter to those targets, offering to provide a pro bono analysis of the prospect’s SOX exposure, which was followed by a courtesy phone call designed to measure levels of interest and to schedule an introductory meeting.
Over the course of this six-month campaign, which effectively combined two marketing tactics—media exposure and direct mail—the New Jersey accounting firm netted two new pharmaceutical industry clients. Instead of generating marketing activity for its own sake, it effectively applied specific marketing tactics to yield a predetermined business outcome.
USE YOUR ASSETS WISELY
Failure to launch occurs when a firm does not make good use of the valuable marketing assets it already possesses. One way to capitalize on current assets is to use the firm’s intellectual capital to get a foot in the door. To enhance your firm’s brand perception, focus on marketing strategies and tactics that stake out intellectual territory. Apply those ideas as the raw material to establish and nurture client relationships through face-to-face contact and meaningful dialogue with them. The marketing endgame is always to convert your firm’s ideas into revenue, not simply to be viewed as the smartest CPA firm in town.
For example, accounting firms typically invest considerable time and effort in securing and preparing for public events, industry seminars, keynote addresses, webinars and breakfast round tables. Regardless of the upfront investment, the intrinsic value and opportunities related to participation in public forums do not lie within the event itself. Consider the following:
- The event represents an implied endorsement from the sponsoring organization because of its vested interest in showcasing knowledgeable speakers. No organization will knowingly showcase a speaker who has no credibility or expertise in his or her respective field.
- The audience attending the event represents a small fraction of those you are attempting to influence, and key decision makers often are not present at public events.
- What’s done to promote the firm’s endorsement from the sponsoring organization—in advance of and following the event—can be more important than what occurs at the event itself. Simply issuing a press release, or posting the event’s slide presentation on a website, will not adequately address the opportunity.
The managing partner of a New York-based, eight-person CPA firm—following his presentation at a regional bar association’s seminar on law-practice-related tax, compliance and compensation issues—sent highlights of his remarks, with a brief cover note, to all the members of that regional bar association, whether they had attended the seminar or not.
This CPA firm’s follow-up marketing effort, which combined the bar association’s implied third-party endorsement with its managing partner’s thought leadership in practice management, resulted in new relationships with three law firms that had not attended the seminar. That’s effective leveraging of marketing assets.
DEVELOP A WRITTEN STRATEGIC MARKETING PLAN
How and why an accounting firm applies specific marketing tactics should be reflected in a written plan that articulates goals, timetables, cost, responsibilities and means of evaluating program effectiveness. To help establish tangible business goals for your marketing activities, ask these questions:
- How many new clients is the firm seeking to attract?
- What type of new clients or average billings does the firm want?
- When does the firm want them on board?
- What services will the firm provide for them?
- How will the firm grow these relationships over time?
A firm will be capable of selecting appropriate marketing strategies and tactics, allocating necessary resources and measuring program effectiveness only if its goals are specific.
Surprisingly, many firms do not take the time to create and work from a written marketing plan—ensuring focus, consistency, momentum and accountability. This is contrary to the counsel most CPAs provide to their business clients regarding the importance of documentation and measurement.
UNDERSTAND MARKETPLACE MOTIVATION
An effective marketing strategy should be guided by two prevailing conditions of business-to-business marketing (even if the target audience includes an individual):
Buying cycles are opaque. It’s difficult to predict when a prospect will be looking to select a firm, so a marketing plan must be designed to drive top-of-mind awareness with clients, prospects and referral sources. To address the market’s lack of transparency, accounting firms should establish an internal direct-communication discipline to consistently remind clients, prospects and referral sources (in a manner that is not self-serving or overly promotional) of the firm’s value proposition, intellectual capital and availability. This discipline must involve direct, insightful and helpful communication with target audiences, and should be applied at least quarterly. Although this level of consistency is typically not achieved through newsletters, blogs or webinars, CPA firms can apply those tools to maintain brand awareness if the content is original and interesting, and if the tools are designed to foster two-way interaction with its audiences. One large Pennsylvania CPA firm, for example, uses its quarterly newsletter to feature interviews with CEOs of client companies on a range of topics. The firm uses the newsletter itself to build deeper long-term relationships with its client base.
Fear drives decision making. To overcome the market’s ongoing desire to avoid risk, accounting firms must position themselves as a “safe choice” with decision makers. Learn to sell on an “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic” basis. Rather than telling prospective clients what you have done for similar clients, engage the prospect in a substantive discussion of the specific situation, challenges and goals. This consultative approach demonstrates the CPA firm’s expertise on a firsthand basis and establishes greater trust. For more on extrinsic vs. intrinsic selling, read “How to Buy/Sell Professional Services,” by Warren J. Wittreich, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1966. Although this article was published 45 years ago, it demonstrates the long shelf life of good ideas.
A CPA firm’s marketing sophistication must be supported by relentless client focus to foster retention, and to drive referrals through word-of-mouth—the most cost-effective means of business development.
By establishing thought leadership based on its intellectual capital, creating a communication discipline that delivers tools designed to build credibility with target audiences consistently, and ensuring its tactics facilitate opportunities for the firm’s professionals to sell on an intrinsic basis, any CPA firm—whether it’s a two-person shop, a regional multi-office practice, or a national organization—will achieve a significantly higher return on its marketing investment. More importantly, the marketing function will be empowered to drive key business metrics in the future.
CPA firms often make two common mistakes when approaching their marketing strategy: They become bogged down in a flurry of marketing activities without stopping to evaluate the tangible benefits of those tactics, and they fail to adequately employ existing marketing assets.
Firms that want to initiate or revitalize their marketing program should start by scrutinizing existing marketing activities and determining the value that each activity brings to the firm.
Eliminate activities that aren’t delivering a payoff for the firm. Instead, focus on marketing activities that will bring value to your firm through business development and building client loyalty.
Don’t mistake tactical results such as media exposure, website traffic, email click-through rates, and social media “Likes” and “Followers” for tangible business outcomes such as lead generation, conversion rates, and acceptance of new service offerings among existing clients.
Capitalize on intellectual capital to get a foot in the door with prospective clients. For example, when a firm member presents at a conference, use that opportunity to reach out to related target audiences following the event by leveraging the presentation’s content as a hook to engage prospects in a meaningful conversation.
Learn to sell “intrinsically” to demonstrate your firm’s expertise on a firsthand basis and establish greater trust with prospective clients. Effective marketing facilitates the engagement of prospective clients in a substantive discussion of their specific situation, challenges and goals.
Gordon G. Andrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner of Highlander Consulting Inc. in Princeton, N.J.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Kim Nilsen, editorial director, at email@example.com or 919-402-4048.
- “Expand Your Horizons: Niche Marketing Success Stories,” April 2008, page 56
- “Make Direct Marketing Pay Off,” Dec. 2007, page 38
Use journalofaccountancy.com to find past articles. In the search box, click “Open Advanced Search” and then search by title.
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