The future of marketing: Thriving in a digital world

For decades, the marketing strategies of many CPA firms have revolved around tried-and-true elements such as obtaining referrals, making the most of an office’s physical location, and promoting practitioners’ skills through community involvement. The internet era is changing that marketing paradigm—and quickly. Many firms will have to rethink their strategy and place more emphasis on digital techniques such as social media, content marketing, and online video.

Many practitioners consider these digital marketing practices impersonal and find making changes to their marketing strategies a daunting challenge. Yet the shift is a vital one in a world in which many clients will first discover a firm, and assess its offerings, online rather than through an in-person referral.

The good news is that, in some ways, digital marketing isn’t much different from the traditional networking, relationship building, and client education that CPAs have always used. Social media and content marketing can complement, not compete with, referrals as a method of winning new business. They simply expand the pool of potential clients.

Firms that have a strong online presence—and ones that carefully cultivate their online image to appeal to their target market—are more likely to entice prospects to contact them. As a recent survey by branding and marketing firm Hinge revealed, more than 80% of customers visit a website before they even speak to a firm.

Sometimes, firms are reluctant to dive into digital marketing, reasoning they can get all the business they need from referrals. But, as Sarah Johnson Dobek, president and founder of Inovautus Consulting, noted, you can only reach so many people through referrals, whereas you can cast a much wider net with digital marketing. « With referrals, you only reach one individual at a time, which can limit your growth, » she said. But with digital marketing, you considerably broaden the number of prospects you reach, whom you can then work to convert into clients.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Dobek calls social media a « must » for various reasons. « It’s a great opportunity to establish credibility, to gain support, and to network and build relationships, especially if you understand how online communities work, » she said.

Which social networks should you be using? LinkedIn is frequently cited as the most vital. « You can do so much on LinkedIn: generate leads, do research on prospective clients, and keep current on what’s happening in the world of accounting, » said Barry MacQuarrie, CPA, consultant and IT director at KAF in Braintree, Mass., and founder of SocialCPAs.com. « It also keeps your name in front of people and helps you stay relevant to your clients. People are always telling me, ‘That piece you posted on LinkedIn was great! Thanks for sharing.’ « 

Twitter, on the other hand, is best for giving people information, such as answers to questions, in real time, and for directing them to content on your website. Facebook is well-suited to softer content that shows the more human side of your firm, such as holiday party pictures or mentions of the volunteer work you do.

Though these are general guidelines, your client base should determine which social networks you use, said Jason Blumer, CPA, founder and chief innovation officer of Greenville, S.C.-based firm Blumer Associates CPAs PC. He focuses more on Twitter than on LinkedIn because that’s what his clients—design, development, and web firms—typically use.

Financial planning firms do need to be aware of SEC regulations that limit what they can post on social media, though, as Dobek pointed out, these regulations were recently loosened. (More information about the guidelines is available at sec.gov.)

Firms also need to understand, she said, that social media isn’t a magic bullet. « You’re not going to sell services on social media, » Dobek said. « It’s a gateway that lets you connect with other people, so that you can meet them offline and identify the opportunities. »

CONTENT MARKETING

One of the biggest marketing trends in the accounting world right now, experts say, is content marketing: using original content such as blog posts, white papers, ebooks, presentations, and videos to draw potential clients to your website and increase their engagement with your social media channels. « There’s been a huge adoption of content marketing recently, » Dobek said. « More and more firms are investing in it, and it’s something I’m trying to convince my clients to embrace. »

Content marketing is a great fit for accountants, Dobek said, because clients are basically buying CPAs’ knowledge and experience. Having strong, useful content builds your credibility with clients, improves your ranking on search engines, and differentiates you from competitors.

Having a wealth of good content can help you convert referrals into clients, said Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., managing partner of Hinge. « Firms think all the people who are referred their way are giving them business, » he said. « But referrals are made that they never know about because potential clients aren’t contacting them. »

Frederiksen said firms should include consumer-education materials on their websites to help prospects who arrive via search engines to understand their services. « Create content that helps people with the challenges they’re facing, like retirement or doing their taxes, » he said. « Write a guide, record a presentation, or make a video that tells consumers things they need to know. » Blumer, for example, uses various forms of media to educate his core client base of small creative agencies, including videos, online courses on business strategy, ebooks, a blog, and two podcasts called the THRIVEcast and The Businessology Show.

As with social media, content marketing by itself won’t win you business, but it can help draw potential clients into your orbit, as Sophia Bera, founder of Gen Y Planning, explained. « Clients find me through Google searches, » she said. (Bera’s marketing efforts made her the top Google result for the query « financial planner millennial » as of this writing.) « That, or they read a publication I was quoted in. They find my website, sign up for my newsletter, and, if they decide I’m a good fit, schedule a prospect call. »

Though content marketing is effective, don’t expect it to work like traditional referral marketing, Blumer cautioned. « Most of our leads come through our website, but we don’t always know how they found us, » he said. He also observed that it works best as part of a long-term strategy. « It won’t get you clients now. It’ll get you clients next year, » he said.

Dobek agreed. « What we tell accounting firms is that when you start marketing, it’ll be nine to 18 months before things start to change, » she said.

BUILDING A BETTER BRAND

When done correctly, digital marketing can help your practice become stronger and more focused. To successfully market online, you need to understand your audience: the services they need and want, what motivates them, what they worry about, and the words and images that speak to them. And, in defining who your ideal clients are (and are not), you’ll likely gain a better understanding of what your firm is all about.

Blumer’s website and content marketing materials are perfectly pitched to appeal to his core client base of web and design agencies. The irreverent copy he uses, such as describing the CPA as a « rainbow-colored force to be reckoned with, yo, » won’t appeal to everyone, but that’s exactly the point. As he observed, « You can’t build a brand until you know who you are. »


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