In order to attract new business through their Web sites, CPA firms need to get personal, by catering to the needs and habits of potential clients.
This starts with clear navigation and easily visible contact information.
"When I go to a site, I want to see who am I and where do I belong?" said Michelle Golden, president of marketing consultancy Golden Practices in St. Louis, who rates Web sites on her blog, at goldenmarketing.typepad.com. "It's not good if someone goes to your Web site and they have to stagger around and click a bunch of places. Make it simple."
This design simplicity should shadow "relevant and personal content," said Golden, especially in the two most trafficked parts of a CPA site: the people and career pages.
As part of her firm's recent site redesign, Lori Colvin, partner and chief marketing officer at San Ramon, Calif.-based Armanino McKenna, worked with focus groups and found that almost everyone checks out a firm's Web site before meeting with its management or employees.
The people page biographies, in particular, should provide an adequate window into the firm. "Most firms' bios are very light and don't tell the practitioner's story," said Golden. "They should be beefing up bios and making them rich. It doesn't have to get too personal, you don't have to get deep, but you should give hints and clues as to why you've chosen the career path you've chosen and the impact of the work you've done."
Brian Swanson, director of marketing and business development at Florida-based Daszkal Bolton and principal at Flashpoint Marketing, agreed. The people page, he said, "gives a taste test for the knowledge of a firm, and a more human element."
Swanson points to CPA and business advisory firms Freed Maxick & Battaglia PC in Buffalo, N.Y. (www.freedmaxick.com), and Maryland-based CPA firm Naden/Lean LLC (www.nlgroup.com) as two whose Web sites not only accomplish this, but have taken the personable tone to another level with social media integration.
Freed Maxick includes an online chat feature where questions can be quickly asked and answered. "It's a grand slam in terms of real-time communication," said Swanson.
Armanino McKenna uses social media on its site's career page, which Colvin cited as the firm's most popular section. It is marketed toward Millennials, with both blogs and video content.
Both are features that Golden agrees about highlighting. "People read the blogs, and they get a little bit of that person's personality," she explained. "The blog really takes it a step further."
Blogs are another way to build out a firm's people section. "You can write from the heart," Golden continued. "Show your philosophy, thought process, humor and general nature. [Clients] will feel more of what it might be like to work with you."
LIGHTS ... CAMERA ... VIDEO
Video can deliver whatever intimacy written words might lack.
"Integrated video is where it's going, though I haven't seen a lot of that," said Swanson. "People can see a partner bio, and then see the partner talking about a topic relevant to their service."
Whether or not firms want to get as high-tech as embedded video content, the key word to keep in mind is dynamism.
"A Web page that's always the same is not going to help you that much," said Golden. "The whole Internet has changed in regard to content - from static to dynamic. We're in the knowledge business, so we should show an idea of our knowledge. The best way to do that is online."
And the best way to communicate it is through clear language. This means eschewing an overly technical perspective in favor of one that properly addresses the needs of the clients, said Swanson.
According to Golden, it also requires firms to enter the new millennium. "Most CPA firm sites contain the same text they had in their print brochures in the 1980s," she said. "We know that people don't respond to that kind of brochure fluff text anymore. People now want stories, facts - for you to tell me how you've changed a business like mine. Get rid of your 1980s text!"
When firms list their services, they should limit descriptions under each service to one to two paragraphs, with no more than four on a page, said Swanson.
Some firms, of course, have the opposite problem. "So many firms put what they do, but no additional discussion," said Swanson. "There's no way to validate if you do a lot of these things or if it's something you throw on a page."
Text isn't the only element requiring greater forethought. Swanson cited inappropriate imagery as a problem that he sees with many accounting firm Web sites. He advises against clip art and crazy word art, adding that there are many places on the Web to get generic content.
"Remember that a Web site is the visual representation of your firm. Don't put anything there that you wouldn't put in your office," he said.
With the increasing number of ways and reasons for clients to view CPA sites, how do firms track success?
Colvin described her firm's career page as receiving "good marks," but how did she measure this beyond basic Google Analytics?
Colvin and her firm hired search engine optimization experts to better track Web site statistics and "drive organic growth." It allowed Armanino McKenna to see what new, real traffic could be driven to the site and which popular sections the team should spend its time enhancing.
Before utilizing these complex metrics, however, firms should remember the two basic tenets of a good Web site - personable, audience-focused content and easy navigation - even before delving into more buzz-worthy social media.
"The key is to start slow and design a Web site so that it can be expanded," said Swanson. "Expandability is key."
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