Math and marketing don't always have the most harmonious relationship, as marketers at accounting firms are well aware.

From large firms with whole marketing departments to small ones with a single professional, calculating an exact return on investment is a struggle, with a number of potential problems.

 

1. ART + SCIENCE

"Marketing is complex all across the board, and difficult for people to understand," acknowledged Leisa Gill, director of Tennessee Top 100 Firm Lattimore Black Morgan & Cain. "It's part art and part science, and you get in trouble when you try to make it a complete science."

Naturally, accountants better understand the science end of the equation, so convincing firm partners to follow the rainbow of logos and Web site palettes all the way to the gold of hard revenue numbers can be a tricky, but necessary, endeavor.

"Historically, some of marketing is perceived as the softer side of the accounting business," said Joe Rotella, chief technical officer of usability and Web design and development practice director at software solutions provider Delphia Consulting, who has worked with accounting firms on their online marketing efforts. "But the actual work is precise and calculated."

That work -- the strategic marketing plan governing the all-important pipeline -- must be communicated clearly and early to firm partnership.

"'Partner buy-in' means you've gone to them at the end of the process, as something to sell, to buy into it," Rotella continued. "You see their body language start to switch, and they sit back with crossed arms. If you've swam to an island and know it's great out there, don't convince them to swim out from there -- it's better if you start on the same shore, to discuss it and make a plan, not buy in at the end. [Marketers] don't appreciate the educational role they can provide in the firm. Most partners didn't go to school for marketing, so [the marketers] can help with awareness and a little education."

Rotella recommends, for example, a six-month marketing boot camp for firm leadership via pizza lunches, covering everything from search engine optimization to social media.

 

2. 1 =/= 1

Familiarity with this marketing framework will, at times, require partners to abandon linear solutions in favor of more complex equations.

"Marketing is typically not a one-to-one relationship," said Lori Colvin, partner and chief marketing officer of Top 30 California accounting firm Armanino. "Somebody doesn't just read a cloud paper and become a client, or attend a webinar and become a client. You have to look at it more collectively."

In other words, partners must filter some of these measurements through the more entrepreneurial perspective of a marketer. "They need that business-owner mentality," explained LBMC's Gill. "The accountant mentality [10 years ago] was, 'I'm going to spend $100, and want 10 times my return on that.' But that's not always the reality. We spend a lot of time in our marketing roles helping our firms understand that not every dollar begets another dollar or x times that dollar."

While not every ad campaign or marketing initiative will align with an accountant-friendly formula, the responsibility is still on the marketing team to calculate and communicate numbers where it can.

"Just with partners going into their legalese talk, we do the same thing," explained Katie Tolin, director of practice growth at Ohio Top 100 Firm Rea & Associates, which holds quarterly growth and motion report meetings between the principal group and the four-person marketing team to explain the latest metrics. "A handful of partners now know what search engine optimization is, but we're still trying to explain. We show it's important and contributes to the growth of the firm. We're trying to think like accountants, putting numbers to things wherever we could while deciding if it's still the best way to compute it."

 

3. INFINITE SETS

Those decisions have been a point of struggle for many firms, as they decide exactly which numbers, or key performance indicators, to track. Newsletter click-throughs, Facebook "likes," new clients via phone call? The KPIs differ by firm, though Tolin recommends focusing on between five and 10.

At Rea & Associates, the e-newsletter fills one of those vital columns in its Excel calculations. "Someone signing up for a newsletter is valuable to me; it maintains regular contact, and a chance to be invited in for a longer time," Tolin shared, adding, "The number of people that opt into the newsletter and you can track back to eventually becoming clients is harder. Fancy software helps you do that, but even if you don't have it, you can use old-fashioned Excel, and make lists and assign values."

Armanino does have the sophisticated technology, after adding marketing automation tool Eloqua to its Microsoft Dynamics customer relationship management software in the last year. The software allows the firm to track the behavior of every target and client that engages with the firm's marketing efforts, according to Colvin, ranging from downloading white papers to attending events. Through the system, Armanino can collect precise numbers and narrow its KPIs.

"In 2011, we produced 284 leads," Colvin explained. "In 2012, we produced 882, with our marketing efforts and Eloqua. We have almost four times as many leads generated by getting the right technology and the right marketing campaigns."

Additionally, the firm found that in 2012, 52 percent of Armanino's new clients interacted with marketing in some capacity prior to becoming a client. "We have been tracking that for three years, but now we're able to go down deeper with all clients that engage with marketing, look at recurring work, and see the number of what has recurred based on those new targets in the last three years," Colvin said.

After discovering that its webinars and events have some of the highest levels of engagement with prospects, Armanino used those statistics to cater content to what's trending well. A well-timed article on the fiscal cliff, for example, garnered the firm's highest newsletter open rate ever, while a deployment with too much of a sales slant typically produces low open rates and a high number of opt-outs.

 

4. ABSOLUTE ZERO

Regardless of a firm's chosen KPIs, the crucial first step is establishing a baseline to measure these numbers against.

"Some folks who are claiming to calculate ROI, what they're really doing is counting a whole bunch of stuff," observed Delphia's Rotella. "I ask them what returns they're seeing, and they have so many page views, friends on Facebook, or new 'likes' on their [Facebook] business page but I don't think they really understand they are not really measuring the return... The first thing you really have to do is set your goals. Where [firms] fall short, is a lot of accounting firms have marketing campaigns that are ad hoc, with a shotgun approach, rather than a rifle."

Rea & Associates launched a new e-feedback client satisfaction survey this past tax season, which Tolin looks forward to using as a baseline for future annual feedback.

 

5. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE

The profession as a whole could use a more accurate baseline, as hard marketing data, especially related to online campaigns, is conspicuously absent.

"It took a long time to prove there was something to [social media] and we should invest time," Tolin said. "More people are coming up with metrics and measurements, but we need some sort of survey or benchmark comparison. Nothing exists. If I'm going to sell the idea to the managing partner but only a few success stories exist - the people doing it well are kind of quiet about it."

Tolin, along with Eric Majchrzak, shareholder and chief marketing officer of Arizona accounting and advisory firm BeachFleischman, did share their respective firms' online data with Rotella for a presentation he made at the 2012 Association for Accounting Marketing Summit on Web site ROI. The two marketers assigned dollar values to specific actions like registering for an event, and while Rotella multiplied that by Google Analytics statistics to produce hard numbers, he explained that his initial discussions with Tolin and Majchrzak were just as revelatory.

"Every firm has different goals," Rotella said. "They were surprised with each other on the phone, and it was a healthy, phenomenally collaborative process. We need to get more folks to work together to create benchmark data and share it."

Sometimes the dollar amount that Tolin and Majchrzak would assign for a specific Web site action would differ from each other by as much as a factor of 10, Rotella shared, causing the pair to reconsider what potential client behaviors their firm should value, and by how much. Rotella believes this kind of open dialogue, on a larger scale, would benefit the profession.

"It's a struggle, because folks are busy worried about how big a piece of the pie [they will] get, but maybe they can work together to create a bigger pie," he continued. "A rising tide raises all ships. Why can't we play with each other? There's not a dedicated curriculum out there for marketing for accounting firms with this budget, or this much money. There are lots of different ways we can learn from each other."

 

6. IDENTIFIED PATTERNS

As it currently stands, most firms must settle for learning from their own key performance indicators, which require a keen eye for trending data.

"It can get complicated way fast," Rotella explained. "Use Google Analytics and pick a couple of [KPIs] and look at the trends and start small. I work with a lot of firms, to build their Web site, that never used Google Analytics on their old site. And it's free!"

"I'm a big believer in patterns - every firm has a pattern," LBMC's Gill shared. "It becomes their differentiator; the kind of client base drawn to the firm ... You just have to look for it. Trends and patterns are really good indicators for strengths and weaknesses and can help differentiate from other firms."

Majchrzak is currently working to set BeachFleischman apart by transitioning the firm from strict quantitative marketing measurements to more qualitative numbers, a "value-based marketing" that he compares to the profession's current movement toward value pricing over time billing. The data will include new metrics like response time to a prospect's question on Twitter.

"I believe marketing, at its core, is about building preference, loyalty and ultimately client satisfaction," Majchrzak explained. "Aligning measurements with the ways clients define value at our firm -- client-focused metrics and specific, identifiable details that customers value in their experience with us. We will be measuring these types of things, on top of the traditional stuff."

 

7. TIME = MONEY

With so many possible metrics and methods of calculation, a firm's biggest marketing investment can be time. These improved methods -- selective measurement of KPIs, automated processes, efficient cross-departmental communication, data sharing between firms -- help streamline these valuable hours in a digital age when every one of them counts.

"If someone reaches out online, but you don't respond almost immediately, your chances of winning the work decreases substantially," Tolin explained. "Last week, it took us four hours to get back to a prospect, and by then he's already figured out [the answer to his question]. We have to adapt to new ways of business, and clients wanting to do business with us."

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