Remember WebTrust, the program by which CPAs would certify various practices involving company Web sites? After six years on the market, there are finally more than 40 sites display the program's seal.

Well, that's 41 sites listed as bearing seals (not counting eSign Australia, which is really part of VeriSign, which also has a seal) and some of the links to supposed seal bearers don't work and other participating sites never seem to actually display the seal.

It was six years ago that the AICPA announced that more than 1,500 CPAs had been trained to offer the online assurance product, and before that AICPA president Barry Melancon predicted there would be more than 400 sites with WebTrust seals in a year when it was launched. Since then, WebTrust has been merged with its more successful sister SysTrust under the Trust Services umbrella.

The real issue here is not WebTrust---which is doing better with its more specialized WebTrust for Certification Authorities--but how new programs are brought to market.

Most recently, there is the AICPA's goal of getting CPAs into the privacy assurance business with its Privacy Framework. There's also the still-fragile Certified Information Technology Professional credential, which was given a reprieve when the AICPA Council refused to go along with a proposal to kill it, along with the other reprieved credentials--the Personal Financial Specialist and Accredited Business Valuation.

How does the AICPA extend the CPA brand? The basic issue is to get businesses (and originally consumers, with WebTrust) to think of CPAs in a different light, as people who are experts in the Web, privacy, or IT.

The answer seems to be that for any of these programs to have a chance, some group has to get behind them. They can't be marketed by individual firms acting independently because the message either isn't uniform or it just doesn't get out.

The AICPA itself provides one example with its Extensible Business Reporting Lanuage, which has fared quite well because of the formation of XBRL International which has many vendor members who have a stake in making XBRL  work. The same was not true for WebTrust and hasn't been true for CITP, although the volunteer effort supporting the technology program does seem to have had an impact.

I've felt the AICPA is on the right track in seeking to extend the brand because I suspect that outside of audit, the CPA label could easily become irrelevant. But without some kind of national, unified marketing program, it's hard to see how any program can gain traction, no matter its merits.

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