Many CPA and accounting firms have taken the leap into the world of Web site marketing through search engine optimization. Though the mechanics of the optimization process have been well-documented across several print and online publications, there has been little discussion about the business-development process for Web site-generated leads, which do differ from the more standard lead.

"The biggest differences are in response time and method," said Katie Tolin, marketing director at Rea & Associates in New Philadelphia, Ohio. "While it is completely acceptable to return a phone call within 24 hours, that may not be soon enough for a Web inquiry. The expectation of the prospect is that you'll respond much sooner - perhaps not immediately, but most definitely the same day."

That quick 24-hour-or-less response rate is expected by a prospect, agreed Sarah Johnson, a marketing and social media consultant in the Chicago area, who added that not only do these prospects want time to process the information because they are still in a research phase, but they also want to be in control of the information and communication flow with the firm.

"While contact is important, stalking them via traditional methods doesn't always work," she explained. "Giving them options will be important."

Still, though Web site leads continue to bring in prospects, validating their importance still remains challenging for some. For Lori Jamail, marketing director at McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy in Houston, the partner perception is different for an online lead than for one that is more standard.

"Standard leads are 'important,'" Jamail said. "These are real relationships in the eyes of our partners, and they can usually gauge the length of the sales cycle because of the relationship they've built - whereas electronic leads are faceless and are perceived to want something for nothing."

As a result, at Jamail's firm, which she describes as "old school," more traditional marketing methods such as direct mail, networking and phone calls are given top priority and are instantly followed up on. It's a different story with a Web site lead.

"When I provide a partner with an electronic lead, generated through an e-blast or even the online 'Contact Us' feature, I have to keep on them to follow up," she said, "to the point that I started making the first contact myself so that the partner felt the lead was more substantial."

 

FIGHT THE INITIAL PHONE URGE

With Web leads, it's about the prospect feeling empowered and in control. While they may be testing the firm on its response time, the person making the inquiry controls the situation, impacting the interaction with that potential client, according to Tolin.

"The first thing you need to do is send an e-mail back," she said. "Even if you have a phone number, fight the urge to pick up the phone. Acknowledge you got the message. Maybe address something they put in the inquiry and suggest a phone call as a next step."

Traditionally, said Tolin, a marketing person would conduct thorough research on the prospect; with a Web-generated lead, a little cursory research is done before sending e-mail. The upfront investment is less than with a traditional call.

"This does mean that you will field some inquiries that just don't match what you have to offer, but the ones that do pay off make the whole process worth it," Tolin said.

Depending on the firm, the sales cycle process may differ. In Johnson's experience, the timeline may be the same as with a more traditionally generated lead - anywhere from one month to one year. Yet, at Tolin's firm, the lead times are often in the middle - in the two-week range.

Tolin pointed out, though, that making first contact may take longer than anticipated. "Oftentimes, if you acknowledge and e-mail the same day, set up a call for a few days later, you can close pretty quickly," she said. "Chances are these people aren't interviewing five different firms before making their decision, and being the first to respond is often an advantage."

Ultimately, responsiveness and understanding where the prospect or lead is in the buying cycle are two primary factors in managing Web site-generated leads. "We make an assumption that because someone requests information they are a prospect," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, until they are qualified, they continue to just be a lead. Understanding how to communicate with that lead is the key to moving them to a prospect. Also, understanding that not all your leads will move to a prospect is normal."

Tolin agreed: "The early bird gets the worm. A first impression means a lot. The prospect went to your site and liked what they saw enough to contact you. Now you must wow them with speed and show that you understand their issues."

 

Brian Swanson is a principal with Flashpoint Marketing, a marketing and lead-generation company focused on serving the accounting profession.

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