Does most of your business result from Web sites? Or does most of it come from referrals? If it comes from referrals, as a lot of CPA firm business does, almost every potential client will still check out your Web site before giving you a call.Does yours grab and hold a visitor’s attention, making them want to read on? Studies show that you must win your visitor’s attention in less time than it takes to blink an eye, so dull, boring Web sites with extraneous information and poor graphics are a definite turn-off.

Take a look at your site. Put yourself in the visitor’s shoes. What would you want to know about your firm that you can glean in an instant? What is your purpose in having a site? What do you want it to achieve? Ideally, you want your Web site to function as a powerful marketing tool that sells and informs potential clients.

Most important, remember that practically everyone is in a hurry, so any potential client worth having is going to want information completely, concisely and quickly.

Below are a baker’s dozen of pitfalls to avoid.

1. Always make sure that you yourself register your domain. Don’t entrust a programmer or an employee to do it for you, as they can easily register it in their name, with themselves as administrator, and your Web site becomes their property, not yours. Any future changes, additions or deletions will have to be done through or by them. You lose ownership and control. Savvy as I like to think I am, it happened to me.

2. Your home page is your calling card because that’s where most visitors land. It should include a précis of your practice. Don’t waste time or space by using the word “Welcome,” as it means nothing because it’s so commonly used, and a cluttered, wordy page can turn away a good client.

3. Graphics are often a turnoff to visitors. To be meaningful, they should tie in with text. If stock art is your only option, make sure it communicates a message that sets you apart from competition. If you can’t afford original artwork, there are reams of stock art to choose from. An in-depth hunt is bound to turn up something that gives you your own unique look and ties in with your text.

For one of our clients, we used the header, “Stand Out!” Poring over hundreds of pieces of stock art, we found a color photograph of a group of executives’ legs and feet under a conference table. Each pair of feet was clad in wing tips. But it was the one in the middle who wore orange bunny slippers that stood out and made the point in the text.

4. Don’t be tempted to use flash images. By the time the flash pictures load, chances are your visitor has already left the site. In other words, flash takes too long to load and isn’t worth the extra cost for a CPA firm, as it is expensive. The bottom line is that it detracts from the time and attention a visitor would give to your message. Flash is superb for entertainment, hotels, travel and restaurants, but not for CPAs.

5. Make sure that your navigation system is easy to follow and doesn’t use a lot of sub-navigation topics that could get your visitor confused and lost.

6. Don’t forget to consider how a visitor reads your sight. Eye tracking visualization studies indicate that Web visitors read sites in a definite F-shaped pattern, starting with horizontal movement across the banner and first paragraph. Superficial horizontal movement continues across the second paragraph, scanning, instead of reading text. Lastly, visitors tend to scan vertically down the rest of the page. Translation: Your home page is scanned rather than read, underlining the importance of graphics married to text, which must be clear, concise copy. Your secondary pages are also scanned, rather than read. Succinctness is key.

7. Ancillary or secondary pages should explain in greater detail what’s on your home page, with examples, if relevant. If your home page is not concise and to the point, the visitor won’t bother to navigate to secondary pages and they’ll go unread. Again, writing must always be clear, succinct and easy to read. Avoid the temptation to put more than one or two paragraphs on a page.

Contact information should appear on every page, as opposed to a single contact page at the end of your site. The hurried visitor won’t bother to take time or effort to go back and forth to the contact page. If he has a fast question, the firm’s readily accessible phone number, e-mail address and fax number that appear on each page will be helpful.

Secondary pages should contain:

* Although mission statements are trite and outdated, you may want to develop a slogan that appears on top of each page of your site. Or if you still want a mission statement, make it short and to the point.

* A history of your company.

* A list of branch offices.

* A description of what you do for each category of client.

* Published articles by or about your firm or its members

* Partner biographies. What each partner does professionally should precede their education and personal information. Most clients don’t care where or when the partner went to school — what they care about is his experience and how it will benefit them.

* Privacy and non-disclosure statements.

* A contact page.

8. Many Web sites contain a lot of fluff — adjectives that take a lot of space and mean nothing. They’re self-promoting, self-serving, self-seeking — in short, lacking in credibility. What’s important is not what you say about yourself, but what backs up your experience or what others say about you.

9. Many CPA firms also serve as investment counselors. In such cases, it’s preferable to have a separate Web site for the investment advisory business. Since, as an investment advisor, the firm has to conform to the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, the NRS and ERISA, wording of conformance, or actual quotes from these documents, should be included on the site. Omitting such wording can be unintentionally deceptive to a potential client.

10. Beware the cookie-cutter look. It’s a total turnoff. Too often firms or organizations that churn out Web sites will give you the same look and feel as your competitors. Don’t be afraid to stand out and be different. That’s how you’ll get noticed — and visitors will want to know more about your firm.

11. Beware of background color. No white print on bright red or royal blue. It’s hard to read and is the fast road to visitors tuning out.

12. Accounting, like law and medicine, has changed over the years. We’ve entered the era of specialization. Many potential clients aren’t aware of the boundaries or definitions, so a description of your area of specialization is important.

13. Don’t forget that you’re in a personal service business, and nothing is more important to a client than knowing that you’re to be trusted — whether it’s a high- or a low-net-worth individual or a corporation, or even a mom-and-pop business in your neighborhood. Communicating trust and credibility in an accounting Web site is of primary importance.

Remember that your site must be designed to meet your potential client’s needs, not yours. When you put your client first, your client will put you first.

Margot W. Teleki is a partner at CopyWrite Marketing Group (www.copywritemarketinggroup.com). Reach her at (973) 377-8871.

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