Marketing director Maggy MacPherson, of regional CPA firm Beard Miller Co. LLP, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, recognized what few firms like to admit - her firm's Web site needs a lot of work."The site is not very user-friendly right now," said MacPherson, who is leading the redesign of a new site that at press time was scheduled for an October 1 launch. "We'll have a stronger message about the firm, our philosophy, and a new look and feel. It will be graphically interesting, but still simple and easy to use."

MacPherson said that the firm updated information in past years to the Web site, but never redesigned the portal, making it hard to locate information and therefore not as helpful to existing or prospective clients as it needed to be.

Web sites are one of the farthest-reaching marketing tools for CPAs today, and can't be thought of as an added feature any longer, said Tracey Segarra, marketing director for New York City-based Citrin Cooperman & Co. LLP. Without having an online presence, or with an outdated Web site, firms are seen as unprofessional and antiquated. The cost of building and maintaining a Web site is well worth the reward, and does not necessarily mean spending thousands of dollars if the firm finds the right designer.

"In this day and age, one of the most important - if not the most important - marketing tools to level the playing field for small and big firms are Web sites," said Segarra. "Both have the same space on a user's computer screen to wow someone. It doesn't matter if they are referred by word of mouth - the first place they are going to look is the Internet, to see if the firm has a rinky-dink operation."

Web sites as marketing tools is not a new concept, but there are still a number of CPA firms that have outdated or unprofessional Web sites, or none at all, said Greg Pearson, president of Williams Web in Chattanooga, Tenn., a Web designer.

"Rarely do I see one that's overly flashy," said Pearson. "But I see a lot that look like someone's brother's cousin's wife's son has done it for $12 and a skateboard. If a professional organization does not convey professionalism, it doesn't compel and draw in customers."

A site, developers agreed, is the first impression many prospective clients have of the firm, so professionalism is key.

Just as a CPA would not want a Web designer doing his taxes, accountants should not try to design their own Web site, said Kent Callison, marketing director at Joseph Decosimo and Co. PLLC, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Callison added that his firm uses its Web site as a marketing vehicle to put up "every single piece of marketing material" the firm has. PDF documents and information kits that are normally mailed out can be printed from their Web site. Callison said that this method is not only a low-cost marketing strategy for the firm, but also differentiates his firm from competitors whose marketing material is only given upon request.

Added features like Decosimo's marketing materials can be costly, and building a Web site should not be thought of as a small investment, MacPherson warned; nor is it a one-time investment. Updates are continuously needed to keep the Web site contemporary and professional, but shopping around for the right designer or marketing company should turn up acceptable costs.

Picking a designer

The most important aspect of finding the right designer is not picking the designer with the most experience or the lowest cost. The most important aspect of any Web designer is their ability to communicate with the firm's marketing director and grasp the firm's goals.

"If your Web designer can't speak to you in a language you can understand, there will be a lot of problems. Don't be afraid to use a designer from out of town, and don't feel like you have to use a friend of a friend," advised Callison.

The search for the right designer or marketing firm can be fairly easy. Designers and marketing directors suggested that marketing directors go online and research what professional services Web sites they like - without necessarily limiting that search to CPA sites, but rather viewing other portals, such as those of attorneys, banks and investment management services firms.

Calling the company to find out which designer they used, how much the site cost and how well the designer worked with the company can help sort out the designers who are best-suited for the CPA firm in need.

There are three things that the firm must make clear with the Web designer once the right one is found, said Robert Algeri, a partner at Great Jakes, a marketing company in New York.

One is what the firm does - what services it provides and in what geographical location. Then make clear who the clients are that the firm serves and potentially wants to serve. And be sure to make clear what sets this firm apart from competing firms. After this analysis is done and mapped out for a designer, finding the right design for the firm's Web site will be much easier, said Algeri.

"First, sit down and think about the business and what you want to accomplish, because it's hard to build a site without knowing that first," said Steven Gordonson, a vice president at AdvisorSites, a Web developer and designer in Westbury, N.Y. "If it's only a few pages and not well organized, you are not making a really good, gut-wrenching appeal to have this person as your client."

Tips for a good Web site

Once the designer is chosen and the three analysis points are met, there are still tips developers have for achieving an exceptional Web site.

* Do not overdo or underdo your Web site. Too little content, or too many flash images, make the Web site hard to understand and the mission clouded. Too many images can also create confusion as to where the eyes should first fall and what services the firm provides. Another critical point is to make sure the site is easily navigated.

* Make sure to include contact information. This is how the firm will ultimately gain new business. Not including a phone number on the home page can be detrimental in gaining new clients, and the same is true for the partner page - there should be a phone number or e-mail address for every partner listed. Professional photographs and well-written biographies for each CPA and partner will also help add a more personable and professional look and feel.

* Having a resource page keeps clients happy and informed. Also, articles on such issues as changes in tax laws, information on seminars or conferences, and resources for more information pertaining to your clients' needs keep the Web site and clients current.

* A database-driven Web site is worth the money, when the firm can afford one. Web sites where clients can search articles or the Web site in general, register for a seminar, and fill out a feedback form are highly desirable, said Aimee Glass, director of marketing at Dallas-based CPA firm Lane Gorman Trubitt LLP.

"We live now in an age when the first thing someone does to find out more information about a service is look to the Web," said MacPherson. "It's an opportunity you miss if you're not out there in some way. In some ways it's like being in the Yellow Pages - it's affirmation you exist. If you don't have a Web site, you are sending out the wrong message."

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