A company website can be a simple display of credentials, loaded with content and interactive functionality, or somewhere in between. For accounting firms, a business case can be made for any level of website complexity, but no matter how simple or complicated the site is, certain elements must be there. Without these four, a firm is likely to squander opportunities to gain new clients, impede its client retention efforts, and diminish its brand authority.

1. Credibility Elements

Unlike most companies, an accounting firm can’t parade its client list across its website to demonstrate its competence. Nevertheless, a firm must find ways to establish credibility, so that new site visitors will have the confidence to make an inquiry. Strong credibility-building options include:

• Mentions of honors and awards given to the firm or personnel;

• Mentions of firm personnel quoted in the press;

• Links to articles in major publications written by firm personnel;

• Details on the education and accomplishments of personnel;

• Information about the firm’s stability and growth, such as years in business, acquisitions, number of offices.

2. Authoritative, yet Engaging Content

Another major website challenge for accounting firms is to strike the right balance between technical accuracy and readability in their content. The first step in settling on a writing style is to understand the target audience. Firms specializing in corporate work with Fortune 500 companies can use a more formal and technical style than ones specializing in middle-market individual accounting services.

In general, a simple style that is as free of jargon as possible is more suitable to the web. Website visitors tend to scan rather than read, and the faster they can absorb the message, the more likely they are to stay on the site and explore. Thus, to make content as engaging as possible:

• Break up text with subheads that convey important points in plain language.

• Keep paragraphs to five or fewer lines.

• Include links to more detailed information, for site visitors doing serious research.

• Use graphs, charts and other visual design elements to convey complex ideas.

3. Rock Solid Contact Options

Unlike many businesses, accounting firms cannot make eye-popping offers to lure in inquiries; no one would be too keen on working with an accounting site touting its going-out-of-business sale or huge discounts for new clients. Since offers must be low-key, accounting websites must have far-better-than-average handling of contact forms and phone numbers. Specifically:

• Forms must be simple—the fewer required fields, the better.

• Forms must have a security statement, assuring visitors their information won’t be sold or given to third parties.

• Form fields must be large enough for mobile users, and the entire form design must be mobile-friendly.

• An email response must be sent immediately to all users acknowledging receipt of their inquiry and explaining what will happen next, and when.

• The firm phone number must be prominently displayed in the header of every web page.

• For mobile design, the phone number must be locked in at the top so it is always in view as users scroll and have click-to-call functionality.

4. Technical Must-Have Features

An accounting firm website needs to attract new clients, but also (and this is unlike many businesses) needs to appeal to current clients, because they will come to the site for information, perhaps on a regular basis. If the site is difficult to use, current clients as well as prospects are at risk. Usability issues to focus on:

• Page loading speed: Nothing frustrates visitors more than slow loading.

• Mobile-friendly design: Mobile Internet usage exceeds desktop usage, and the gap is widening.

• Intuitive site navigation: How easy is it for visitors to find the information they need? Test navigation with real subjects to evaluate.

If your website handles these four areas properly, you have laid an excellent foundation for online marketing efforts, client relationship building and new business acquisition. From there, you can confidently add to the foundation as time and budget allow.

Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is director of content strategy at Straight North, an internet marketing agency in Chicago that specializes in search engine optimization, pay per click, and web design services.