There's no sure formula to follow in weighing whether or not a blog will add clients to your firm, or revenue to your bottom line, but there's little doubt that blogging has become a valuable and trusted networking tool for professional services firm.

On May 3, the New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Association for Accounting Marketing offered a panel discussion on "Blogging for Clients: How It Works and Why You Should Care." While blogs (shorthand for Web logs) aren't yet a matter of course for accounting firms, they've long since outgrown their days as underground phenomenon and become important information hubs for navigating the Internet.

Kevin O'Keefe (www.Kevin.lexblog.com), whose company has found a niche building blogs for law firms and his helping clients get the basics of Internet marketing down, said that there's a lot of carryover between offline and online networking with potential clients. He said that the old adages of the FLEE acronym -- find (a potential client), listen (to their needs), and then engage and empower them, are the very principles a blog should be built upon.

"That's everything that a blog does," he said. "Ten years ago, that marketing occurred offline. But time constraints are changing things." O'Keefe said that studies have shown that more than two-thirds of customers conduct research online before making a purchase, and that 70 percent will go online during the firm selection process.

Susan Ward, director of marketing, and William Ward, partner, both of New Jersey's Carlin & Ward LLC, also spoke about their law firm's blog on eminent domain, www.njeminentdomain.com. Susan said the firm selected O'Keefe's company in 2004 to design and build a blog. The picked their topic because it was a subject no one else was touching where they had experience, and also knowing that a major case was about to be decided to by the Supreme Court, which would spark some wider interest.

William said they've been very happy with the return on the initial investment -- about $1,700 in startup costs and annual maintainance fees of $2,400. He's become a resource to reporters, who often automatically go online in search of sources for articles, and he has about 200 regular subscribers to an automatic e-mail that's sent out when he posts a new entry.

"There is a big time commitment," he said, estimating that his weekly posts, which are often lengthier, more scholarly posts that the traditional blog, take about three to four hours to prepare. "The most important thing though is that you can't start it and drop it."

For attorney Arnie Herz, his blog, www.legalsanity.com, started as a marketing tool required by a publisher considering a book proposal. Eighteen months later, with the site generating 55,000 page views and 25,000 visitors a month, he says his book is going to be self-published now. He spends about 10 hours a week posting, but notes that his audience -- mostly CPAs and attorneys -- are typically in and out, not having the time to read and peruse every posting. O'Keefe said that he can crank out three posts in under 30 minutes, usually quoting other articles and offering a line or two of comment and analysis.

Michael Rhodes, partner in charge of corporate governance at New York-based Citrin Cooperman & Co. LLP, launched a blog (www.corporategovernanceblog.com/) just over a month ago, tackling the corporate governance topic that no one else was exploring. Unlike the lawyers, he said that his site isn't built on providing new content. "Corporate governance is an area where there's a lot of news everyday," he said. "But the bits and pieces are scattered and there's wasn't an aggregator. This is one stop for people to go to."

The panelists agreed that making sure you've got the right topic, and enough time to commit to covering it, are the keys to getting traffic and creating meaningful connections with an audience. And Herz stressed the importance of making sure the reader's needs are always kept in mind; a blog can't be recycled press releases and marketing materials.

"In the blog world, you have to add value to people's lives," Herz said. "You don't do that by telling them how great you are."

Or, as O'Keefe put it, "The Internet is very democratizing. The people with good stuff get linked to. And the other people, you don't see."

Next Wednesday, I'll talk about the panelists' answers to concerns raised over liability issues, offer some resources to the technical issues behind getting a blog together (as well as discuss how a blog can help a firm's main Web site), and offer up some of my own thoughts on the value proposition of blogging.

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