How COVID-19 changed communications strategy  

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Think back to January or February of this year. The way that CPA firms communicated with their clients and employees looked a lot different than it does today. Too many CPA firms relied on paper communications and face-to-face physical interactions to get the job done. And even though it’s only been a matter of months since COVID-19 rocked our worlds, that truly old-school way of doing business seems like a lifetime ago.

When in-person meetings stopped and our go-to method of communicating with clients wasn’t possible anymore, a lot of firms got into the email game. Many other firms started using social media so they could reach their clients more easily. These changes were much needed, but how many accountants are still using digital communications in their marketing strategy? Do they even understand why it’s important to continue doing it?

In a recent conversation with Don Breckenridge, a partner at Marketing by Numbers and co-founder of Hatchbuck (now BenchmarkONE), he shared observations about changes in firm communications since COVID-19, and we talked about what we would love to see accounting firms continue to do as we look toward the future.

Subject line: Email is awesome

As a whole, COVID-19 forced all of us to adapt quickly in ways we never thought possible. Communication is one of those areas that a lot of accounting firms really neglected to do right. The in-person meetings we relied on to share information were suddenly not possible. Even in the best-case scenarios, those meetings were infrequent and only done on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 forced firms to do what they should have been doing all along — communicate better with their clients.

What we saw with COVID-19 was a lot of technical, complex information being released very quickly. The result for our industry was that firms finally stepped up their game and started emailing. But were they following Breckenridge’s golden rule? “Send the kind of email that you would want to receive yourself,” he said.

He advises firms to avoid long emails that would take 10 minutes to read. You want to keep it interesting — include links, use video, and make it easy for clients to contact the firm with questions.

There are so many reasons why email is here to stay. A quick Google search will tell you all you need to know about why email marketing is so important. It’s a core piece of most business’s communications strategy because it works.

The problem is that as the pandemic has gone on, we’ve seen client engagement on emails go down, explained Breckenridge. When there is always so much information, and nearly all of it is important, people started getting burned out with email.

Let’s get social

The other change we saw was that accounting firms were more present on social media. Fewer partners were pushing back on the idea of being on social because COVID-19 forced us to go where our clients were.

Social media and email strategy complement each other. Social is a great way to disseminate information and reach a wider audience beyond just the firm’s client base. It can draw contacts back to the website and hopefully collect leads, and it works really well with email when the firm has great content on its website. The two methods of communication work together something like this:

  • Content is published to social media;
  • Users click through to the website;
  • Website content is valuable and relevant; and
  • User signs up for e-newsletter.

While social is an absolutely effective and mandatory tool in the accounting firm communications toolbox, “email will still be the driving force behind capturing leads,” said Breckenridge. “Unlike social that has a timing element to who sees the content, email simply needs to get to the inbox (and have a catchy subject line to encourage people to click on it).”

Video is the future of communications

As firms have used more email and social in the last several months, what’s next? The worst is behind us in terms of COVID-19 legislation — we hope — and accounting firms need to be thinking how to use what they have started and pivot into a long-term communications strategy.

If video isn’t at the center of your digital strategy, you will not see nearly as much success with your communications. The future of communications is video, and Breckenridge agrees. “It’s a great medium because we can communicate fairly complex topics in an engaging way,” he said.

These are just a few of the reasons why:

  • It drives engagement and results in more calls and emails;
  • It helps to educate clients on services they may not know that they needed;
  • People are watching more videos online than ever before;
  • Videos increase landing page conversions;
  • People are more likely to purchase a product or service after watching a video.

People consume the same amount of information as if they read an email, but it’s entertaining, engaging and authentic. For firms that haven’t jumped on this yet, my question is why? It’s an essential piece to communications strategy that allows firms to take highly complex information and communicate it in a way that’s easy for clients to digest. Video engagement is trackable, too, which paves the way for better client conversations.

CRM systems ≠ practice management systems

Now, putting the pieces together — email, social media, video and the like — we need a system to keep track of who actually opens stuff, who watches the videos, who clicks on links in your emails, all that stuff. Accounting firms should be doing video, but it’s just as important to know whose eyeballs are on it.

Having a true sales and marketing CRM system is imperative, explains Breckenridge. But the thing is practice management software is not CRM software. Practice management software collects client data and organizes the contacts. Yes. CRM systems, on the other hand, track engagement, capture leads and generate actionable intelligence. Big difference.

Putting it all together

We have email, social, video and other types of content all being tracked in CRM software. Let’s put all of that into a firm-wide communications strategy, shall we? Here are some ideas: Turn the video script into a whitepaper. Break the whitepaper down into smaller pieces of content for the blog. Use the same content to create a downloadable guide, and use that as gated content. Then, look at all these different pieces of content and pull out quotes to use on social media. Of course, make sure the contact form on the website is easy to access and fill out.

As the CRM system captures leads, internal teams can qualify them and initiate smart, well-informed conversations with clients and prospects. Small firms and sole proprietors can do this too. This isn’t a communications model that only works for bigger firms.

Keep movin’ on

Looking ahead, what we don’t want to have happen is a step backwards. To be a valuable, trusted advisor, a firm has to be part of the conversation. When a client forwards their accountant something about PPP that they got from another firm, watch out because that tells me that the client is getting more relevant information elsewhere. Moving ahead, firms need to have a process around when they send out email so it’s not a haphazard system.

COVID-19 has created an opportunity for accounting firms to better serve their clients, build stronger relationships, and be more relevant for their entire business. As Breckenridge said, “Harness that opportunity!”

The worst thing we can do is nothing. Accounting firms need to stay in the game, stay ahead of their competition and stay in front of clients. The whole point of a communications strategy is to sell through education. Email was a great start. Let’s keep that going and evolve the communications strategy into something that really drives firm growth.

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Client relations Client communications Coronavirus