Accounting firms are spending more of their marketing dollars on sponsorships than on advertising, despite getting negative returns from sponsorships, according to a new study.

The study, from the Association for Accounting Marketing and Hinge Research Institute, analyzed spending data from 84 firms in the U.S. It found that sponsorships now account for a greater percentage of marketing dollars than advertising, in contrast to a 2013 study that found advertising in the top spot.

However, the new study indicates sponsorships yielded an overall negative return, requiring more effort than the market impact they delivered. While firms are trying different strategies and tactics, many of them haven’t yet settled on the right mix that achieves the desired results. Online and content marketing appeared to achieve better results than sponsorships and advertising. The Marketing Budget Benchmark Study compared marketing spending against organic growth, contrasting the marketing strategies of the fastest-growing 20 percent of the firms in the sample against the slowest-growing 20 percent.

“In drawing distinctions between high-growth and low-growth firms, the most striking difference came not in the size of the marketing budget, but in how differently budgets were allocated,” said Hinge managing partner Lee Frederiksen in a statement. “High-growth firms were much more likely to prioritize online and content marketing, and to call on outside and external resources. They were less likely to focus on traditional areas like advertising and sponsorships.”

The study also found that high-growth firms split their marketing spending roughly 50/50 between digital and traditional advertising, while low-growth firms spend 83 percent of their marketing dollars on traditional advertising vehicles. Focusing on some level of specialization delivers the most effective marketing return for dollars spent.

“In a competitive industry, we learned which marketing strategies are really contributing to growth-and which aren’t,” said AAM executive director Lauren Clemmer in a statement.

Advertising spending by firms

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Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of AccountingToday.com, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.