"Firms need to find ways to bring their clients into the loop," maintained James Bourke, shareholder-in-charge of firm technology and information technology consulting services for Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown, which earlier this year introduced a new client portal. "Firms have struggled with ways to bring their Web site to their clients. Outside of publishing firm brochures and newsletters, in the past there was just no reason for an existing client to visit.""The majority of firms simply use the Web as an expanded Yellow Pages ad or brochure," said Bic Wood, business and technology consultant with Austin, Texas-based Wood Johnson Heath. "A high percentage seems to use cookie-cutter templates and provide only minimal information. This is partially a lack of understanding of how the Web can impact their business, and partially a lack of a real market-driven focus within the firms. Your Web presence needs to reflect your ideas, your services and your value."

Going interactive

"It should come as no surprise that accounting firms are not in the forefront of the e-marketing movement," noted Kayte Steinert-Threlkeld, director of marketing with the Hartford, Conn., firm of Whittlesey & Hadley, writing in Best Practices: Accounting Marketing and Practice Development, from the Association for Accounting Marketing and sponsored by Lockhart Industries.

Nonetheless, she said that several firms have excellent interactive sites. She cited J.H. Cohn's site (www.jhcohn.com), which offers various niche industries a "business life-cycle" graph and pull-down menu that reveals the services offered by the firm. "In addition, visitors can also link to an industry snapshot, industry links, case studies, an online firm brochure about the industry, and a niche newsletter."

The site of Porter Keadle Moore (www.pkm.com) "actually talks to you," Steinert-Threlkeld said, as the video button accesses testimonials from clients themselves, and video clips have been added throughout the site. Other innovations include "casual" photos of the management team, and caricatures of each partner.

At Clayton & McKervey (www.claytonmckervey.com), the site has its own search engine, where visitors can search by key words or phrases throughout the site. In addition, invitations to quarterly events are sent via s-mail and e-mail, and almost all attendees register on the site. Potential employees can also submit their resumes online, and find out in advance if they're a good match for the firm.

Tax organizers online appear to be the most widely used e-marketing tool for firms. Sites that offer clients the ability to complete the tax organizer online include CPA Associates (www.cpa-associates.com), Weinstein & Anastasio (www.wa-cpa.com), and Clayton & McKervey. Nonetheless, those firms report that only a small percentage of the client base uses the online organizer.

Development over time

Good sites take time and work.

Wood said that the WJH site went online some seven years ago in a form common to first sites: predominately a brochure, with a focus on services overviews. Upgrades over the years included more information and links, more consumer-focused tax data, an intranet site and links to the vendor Intacct. Also added were the WJH Network of other professionals, so clients could get answers in the legal, insurance, real estate, and other fields, and, later, more tax and accounting information and notices about a monthly seminar series.

"In June, we released a major upgrade that once again addressed the look and feel, but also focused on more of a division of the site into the two complementary roles," explained Wood. "The 'WJH Information' portion of the site is essentially brochure-style information about the firm and our services. We moved, however, from using PDF versions of print brochures to the heavy use of Frequently Asked Questions pages. The 'WJH Access' portion of the site is the 'working' section for the client, with significant amounts of information about all aspects of the business available through pull-downs, as well as descriptive links."

The site provides a place for referrers to send their friends and associates, and added value through more working information, Wood said. "It also supplements our use of Web-based applications, including Intacct and ProfitCents," he added. "We've spent significant energy on making sure the site is listed in major search engines. We also use Google AdWords to increase our presence in Google-based searches."

All of the site development has been done internally, he added, further estimating that Web development and support has taken perhaps a fifth of a full-timer's time for each of the last five years. Hosting is $300 a month, and includes a T1 line with e-mail, and the intranet hosting is $100 per year. Other development tools run about $750 a year for upgrades over an initial purchase price of $1,000, and subscription data for tax and other information runs about $2,000 per year.

Turn on or turn off

Erin McClafferty, marketing and recruiting director for the Philadelphia-based firm of Briggs, Bunting & Dougherty, noted that a site can serve as a recruiting tool.

"A site alone will never convince someone to join your firm, but in this competitive recruiting market it certainly can turn them away. Students are accustomed to a level of sophistication regarding Web design, so the look and feel of our site embraces color, crispness and imagery that resonates well with a younger audience, while still maintaining classic appeal," she said. "The photography also helps communicate a key recruiting message. We also wanted the recruiting section of our site to go beyond an overview of benefits and available positions, so we dedicated a page to the BBD experience and used firm members' own words, taken from employee surveys that we do each month, to describe the experience."

The site, which recently captured an award at the annual conference of the Association for Accounting Marketing, was redesigned in some two months, and included using BBD's blue and orange. "Research showed that orange resonates well with a younger audience," McClafferty said, adding that the firm also added a "Go To" section in the navigation bar to make it easy for visitors to learn about BBD's areas of specialty.

"Fonts, text positioning, amount of text, and full white background were planned carefully to achieve a clean, balanced presentation," she added, "and contact information for areas of specialty and careers is available in several pages on the site." The firm also registered an additional domain name for use in marketing to mutual funds, and the site launched immediately before a large investment company industry conference.

Portal of opportunity

WS+B's portal is accessible to clients with a click of a button on www.withum.com. The link is to a secure site hosted by GoFileRoom, and the vendor's ClientFlow app is the engine behind the portal.

Five years ago, WS+B first implemented GoFileRoom as its document management application, Bourke said. "Since then, we've been accumulating a tremendous amount of client-related documents in electronic format." With the current emphasis and concern with client confidentiality and privacy, he added, firms such as WS+B are faced with coming up with secure ways to transmit confidential information to clients.

"We've been accumulating compliments from clients to use in some marketing pieces related to our portal," he said. "Our clients enjoy being able to view documents online, 24/7, via a secure link. Some ask us to scan other, non-accounting-related documentation and store it in the same fashion."

"We decided to launch in the middle of February, because we felt that a technology this important just could not wait until after tax season. We did a Web-based lunch-and-learn with our staff in all six of our offices, introducing the technology and showing them how to market it to our clients," Bourke said.

The firm recently launched a marketing campaign introducing this technology to industry-specific media, regional media outlets and clients. "We're planning on expanding some of the features of this technology, and turning it into a two-way stream of data," he says. "Under this model, we'd then be accepting client documents via our portal, directly from our clients."

Greeting different visitors

Greg Fredette, managing developer at Portland, Ore.-based Saturno Design, said that his company recently launched a site for the Seattle firm Peterson Sullivan (www.pscpa.com).

"They wanted to provide visitors with a more content-rich experience," Fredette said. "One of their challenges - and a challenge for all professional service firms - is to provide an experience that will appeal to any kind of visitor. One can't build a distinct site for each niche industry and type of visitor, but it's possible to use a relational system to create collections of information that appeal to specific industries." This can be accomplished using a relational-database-driven site, Fredette pointed out.

Web technology also enables firms to offer simple tools on their sites, and extend technology to clients and partners to strengthen relationships.

"In keeping with this theme, we developed a couple of things for Peterson Sullivan. First, one of the firm's goals was to more effectively promote and manage an e-mail marketing campaign. We provided a system and a process that included tools to create and manage the alerts and articles sent to their subscribers. Subscribers can visit the site at any time to manage their subscriptions, choose which publications they wish to receive, and choose the format they prefer. Each e-mail sent to each subscriber contains a link to the 'Manage Your Subscription' page, and the site will remember each visitor automatically and greet them by name, so they do not have to log in when they visit," Fredette said.

"Second, the firm is promoting events online using their site and e-mail invitations," he continued. "Again, the e-mail invitations and online presence are integrated. Clicking a link in an e-mail invitation will take the invitee to a registration form online. Using this form they can register to attend, indicate payment preferences, or make special requests. Again, the site is capable of knowing who each visitor is automatically, and providing content specific to that person."

That's similar to the personalized greetings on such sites as Amazon.com, Fredette pointed out, and professional service sites can do the same.

QuickBooks angle

Bonnie Nagayama, president of McWilliams & Associates (www.4luvofbiz.com), in Moraga, Calif., uses the Internet to provide Web-based training, and sends out an e-letter to more than 2,000 clients and prospective clients. She also has subscribers who pay for additional content.

"About 25 percent of our revenue is from Internet-related sales," she said. "Our focus is

to help the accountants and QuickBooks Professional Advisors better support their clients. For this reason, we needed a way to pass along information, as well as provide an easy way to find tools and products."

That information is available in such forms as a weekly tips-and-tricks newsletter, a knowledgebase, e-reports, teleclasses, details about live events, and pages devoted to QB add-ons. McWilliams also has a QuickBooks Bookkeeper Online Test in beta now, designed to provide managers with a baseline QB knowledge of potential and existing bookkeepers.

Think ahead

"Think about the site two to five years from now," Nagayama advised. "Don't limit your vision to the sales cycle, but expand it to include what needs could be served for employees from the perspective of hiring and employee manuals, and what needs could be served for customers. Create this list even if it doesn't seem realistic, then sort the list so that you know what needs to happen first, second and so on, then just get started. Armed with the list, you can choose technology that can grow with you."

And don't always go with the cheapest solution, she added. "You can have someone get a template-type site up for you, but if you don't have control of the site, you're tied to that developer. Make sure you get and use your own domain name. You can also have someone do all the design work for you, but there still needs to be someone in the firm who has some knowledge of how to fix basic information."

"Think about how online access could better the process for staff and clients," she continued. "Would FTP technology make it easier for clients to provide data? Would an online calendar make it easier for clients to schedule appointments? Would an e-newsletter make it easier to provide information to clients, and keep you in their mind on a regular basis? All of these are pretty easy, not costly, and provide a starting point."

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