Every time I talk to a partner at a CPA firm for the first time, I hear the same comments: “We don't get new clients from our Web site. They all come through referrals from other satisfied clients. Our business growth is mainly word-of-mouth.

They then tell me that Web sites do not help them acquire new clients; they are just something they have to do. So why are the second-most visited pages on any professional Web site the firm leadership or bio pages? Your Web site has actually become a critical part of developing new clients from referrals.

How does a Web site support the business development process? When someone searches for your firm on Google, you need to consider not only search engine optimization to make sure that your firm appears high in search results, but also what I call REO - referral engine optimization.

There are three primary ways that prospects use search engines and firm Web sites in the vetting or qualifying process. This process is similar to how you qualify prospects: cold, warm and hot.

In a cold search, the prospect is using a search engine to locate a product or service with no other reference. They may type in "business valuation Minneapolis" or "tax planning Philadelphia." They are looking for a certain type of knowledge, location and professional who might look like an "approachable" or "experienced" advisor.

In a cold search, SEO is important because keywords and Web site content and links to other sites will help your site line up with all the cold prospects searching for you. There are lots of ways to build a Web site with good coding, links and content to support cold search. You could spend a couple thousand dollars, or up to10 times that.

However, as we know in business development, a warm or hot prospect is a much stronger bet for closing a sale. Warm prospects are those who have a referral to your firm. (They have probably received three to five referrals to various firms.) Before they commit to calling and taking time to meet with your firm, they are going to look up your Web site, bios and other information. They will weigh the impression it makes against those of the other referrals they have received. Then they decide who to call first. If your Web site is not REO-friendly, you lose and never know it.

Your hot prospects also use your Web site for decision-making. They may have already met with you, and there is more than one decision-maker who will seal the deal. Now they're digging deeper - comparing your team bios against the competition, checking out your connections on LinkedIn, reading your articles or press clippings. How do you stack up against another firm in your branding and messages? Do they match how you talk about your firm?

 

REO MEANS BUSINESS

How do you know if some of your prospects are contacting you or calling you in for a second meeting based on some aspect of your online presence? First, you could ask them. Ask if they visited your site, what they looked at and how long they stayed. What made them stay longer? What made them click off?

You can also find out by tracking the number of hits to your bio pages and home page and firm page. You can survey clients regarding the parts of your Web site that they visit most. You can ask your referral sources if they point prospects to your Web site - and if they don't, why not?

If you're not on the first page of Google results when a visitor types in your firm name or the name of a firm leader, it's likely an SEO issue. If you have ever had a referral source ask you if their client called - and the client didn't call - it could be a failure of REO. Are you losing potential clients that you don't even know exist?

Do a little research on how your current site is being used by your referral sources and prospects in the decision-making process. Maybe it could use some REO. AT

CPA firms need referral engine optimization to gain business development value from their Web sites. Some of the most important factors for REO include:

A clean home page that offers messages about competitive difference and easy navigation. This is the landing page that determines whether or not a prospect or RFP committee member will be convinced to investigate further.

Sophisticated, content-rich bios with professional photos that showcase the CPAs' experience as well as interests and personality, and possibly articles by them and news about them. If a cold or warm prospect doesn't connect with your people online, they may not call.

Informative niche services pages that are like mini-sites in terms of content, additional resources and bios of CPAs for that service. They communicate credibility and speak directly to a prospective audience, "warming them up" for that phone call.

An engaging firm story or history that talks about what it's like to work there, the experience for clients and the firm's core values. This attracts prospects and also candidates.

Resources created by the firm that present its knowledge in different ways, from PDF brochures to podcasts or videos. Prospects are attracted to different ways of gathering information.

Testimonials or client success stories that talk about the client experience through actual clients. They can be named or described by industry segment.

A unique and branded Web design that moves away from cookie-cutter template design. These days, similar Web sites communicate to prospects that you are just a commodity.

 

Wendy Nemitz is the founding principal of Ingenuity Marketing Group (www.ingenuitymarketing.com), which focuses on the people of professional services, including CPA firms. Reach her at (651) 690-3358 or wendy@ingenuitymarketing.com.

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