As accounting firms feel more pressure to enter the digital realm, they are seeking more experts inside it, for both internal and outsourced marketing manpower.

In an informal March 2012 survey, the Association for Accounting Marketing asked 59 members what tasks they outsourced. Web site design and Web site development were the top two jobs, with roughly 71 percent and 69 percent of members, respectively, reporting it as something that their firm always outsources. Graphic design followed with 41 percent of respondents, while 27 percent always outsource SEO, and 22 percent always outsource digital newsletters.

The resources and talent that firms utilize range widely, from whole ad agencies to consultants to one-project jobs. Katie Tolin, marketing director at Ohio public accounting firm Rea & Associates and vice president of AAM's board of directors, has found success in multiple approaches.

After two years of paying a monthly retainer to a public relations/marketing agency, Tolin decided that she "did not see the true benefits in that relationship," so Rea & Associates ended the partnership and eventually accomplished more by adding another marketer to her staff of three.

Then, last December, the firm hired local agency Spaner Marketing Communications to manage its rebranding campaign. As opposed to the disconnect the firm experienced with the previous agency, Spaner "truly is an extension of my marketing team," Tolin said. Other external members of Tolin's team include a graphic designer, search-engine optimization consultants, and the company that built the firm's Web site.

As many firm representatives reported in the AAM survey, Web site creation is often the first, and most crucial, step in a firm's online marketing plan. Timothy Allen recognized this after he joined South Carolina-based regional accounting and consulting firm WebsterRogers last June as director of practice development.

The firm subsequently hired Indianapolis public relations agency Catalyst CPA Marketing Solutions for an online image reboot that is expected to launch in mid-April of this year. "[The old Web site] doesn't look like an accounting firm Web site should look in 2012, let alone 2011 or 2010," Allen explained. "We created new pages, graphics and functionality, so now it's a lead-generation and educational tool."

Additionally, the revamped site will be more dynamic and take advantage of WebsterRogers' regional leadership, according to Allen, "positioning the firm from a messaging standpoint and its commitment to the state."

Making sure your firm is positioned appropriately online is where SEO comes into play. Rea & Associates' SEO consultant concentrates on the more complex parts of online optimization that the firm cannot handle in-house, including link-building, on-page optimization and keyword research.

 

THE OUTSIDERS

Particularly in the research stage, whether undertaken to maximize SEO or rebuild a brand, external contributions are often necessary.

"We wanted someone with an outside perspective, especially when it came to branding," Tolin said. "We joke that we all drink the Rea & Associates Kool-Aid; we're all fans of the firm and we needed someone who wasn't to bring in from the outside, who could say, 'Here is what clients told me and what we should do with it.' ... They can [also] bring best practices from other industries."

The divide is less clear at Skoda Minotti, an Ohio CPA, business and financial advisory firm whose marketing strategy is handled by its in-house full-service agency.

Skoda Minotti Strategic Marketing was officially established in February 2009, after servicing the accounting firm, and some of its clients as a value-add option, since 2006. Its services now include brand marketing, online marketing and a variety of strategic marketing programs.

But before Skoda Minotti spun off this marketing arm, the team met some CPA resistance. In 2006, the firm brought in advertising professional Jonathan Ebenstein, who, as its new managing director of marketing services, would help introduce a new firm brand the next year. "After we launched the brand, everybody got it," Ebenstein said. "There was an uncomfortable feeling walking the hallways until that time. Now there was credibility from CPAs that work there, that hadn't seen the return on investment, hadn't seen anything yet. When we launched -- there was a major internal launch to do it - they were on board from that point forward."

Still, Ebenstein stressed the importance of getting people from all levels of the firm on board even earlier than the reveal. This is where an objective outsider can control the process and blend various viewpoints. "It's critical, when you do any kind of branding, that everybody in your firm, from the partner to the receptionist, is involved in the process," he said. "The managing partner lives in a penthouse, he has one view, different from the staff accountants on the first floor. There are different perspectives because of what we do, and to not include staff accountants and their opinion, you're just in a room with a bunch of partners coming up with a brand. You're not going to get buy-in that way."

 

FULL INTEGRATION

Once staff -- and clients -- have bought into the firm messaging, the marketing team can run with it, in many different directions.

Since Rea & Associates' new brand is young, Tolin is still working with the firm's agency on total saturation, encompassing everything from training brochures to article templates to financial statement covers. Concurrently, she's collaborating on new digital strategies.

In addition to the paper newsletters and print ads the firm continues to distribute (in part for its Amish client base), Spaner Marketing Communications helps Rea with online video: writing scripts, arranging shoots and editing footage. The agency also wants to try new lead-generation and market-nurturing strategies that have been successful in other industries.

These tactics will join another marketing element that Tolin has witnessed as relatively new and trendy in accounting: content generation. "Lots of [firms] are using [outside consultants] for ghost writing," she explained. "Right now, everything is about thought leadership and content marketing: white papers, articles. I have heard of more people outsourcing thought-leadership creation, and we as marketing people can market that across multiple channels."

While Tolin reports this strategy as still mostly project-based among her AAM peers, a few firms have joined her firm in hiring someone internally for the job. "We were paying someone to write articles for us, and then we hired another member of our staff to generate content internally," she elaborated. "Another firm did the same thing, added a writer to the staff and said it was the best hire they ever had. It's beneficial to have that talent in-house."

Firms deciding between outsourced or in-house hires would be advised to dip their toe in the water on a consulting project-by-project basis. After all, new pools are forming every day.

"You should have a good working relationship with the [marketing] firm," Tolin advised. "Even if you don't have a marketer on staff, you [should] have a partner that understands the business and the industry who can work with the agency as well. Maybe they can't brainstorm marketing, but they can say how clients might view something. You can't just outsource and walk away; you have to be instrumental in what they are working on."

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