[IMGCAP(1)] Don’t pretend that your practice’s Web site is a minor obligation to be thrown together and slapped up on the Internet never to be dealt with again. As the populous becomes increasingly Internet savvy, so too does the accounting profession. Proper Web site design does not require a lot of money, but it does require smart construction. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Avoid Chest Thumping

There is generally not a great variety to the services that accountants provide from firm to firm. Everyone does tax, audit, and consulting. The right question is not “what do you do?” but rather “how and for whom?” Visitors to your Web site know what your services are, that’s why they’re there in the first place. Therefore, the practice of leading with your services is a surefire way to have a generic Web site. Clients don’t really care about what your practice does, they care about what your practice does for them. Avoid tooting your own horn. You can do that later in conversation with the client.

Focus on the Client

So if it’s not about you, then what do you put on your Web site? The answer is that you put as much content about your clients on your Web site as possible. Identify your targets and zero in on them. Write specifically about their concerns. Write what you can do about those concerns (briefly, you don’t want to write a how-to manual). Write about less obvious financial pitfalls in their industry. That last one is particularly useful because if you scare the pants off a client about something they didn’t foresee, you are automatically in an authoritative position to fix it. The more specific you are, the better.

Focus on a Few Buyer Groups and Be Specific

You may feel that paring down your targets would limit you and your opportunities. However, in terms of growing your practice, the opposite tends to be true. Generic Web sites are a dime a dozen. You will not be as successful with your Web site as you should be if you try to boil the ocean. Pick your largest buyer groups. Pick a couple smaller ones you’re hoping to grow as well. Get more specific with them than you think necessary. Be as precise as a surgeon with a scalpel. Targeting buyer groups like this enables you to find a niche and have those clients come to you first. If you try to use a general catch-all style of Web site, then those clients will instead go to whichever other practice makes it clear that they have a niche in that industry. This is why radio stations only play one kind of music. If you try to put Iron Maiden, Mozart, The Beatles, Garth Brooks, and Puff Daddy on the same station, you will wind up with no listeners.

Engage in Thought Leadership

The more you can directly connect with your visitors on contemporary issues, the better. This doesn’t mean just writing a few articles for your quarterly newsletter. This means active and ongoing commentary on problems faced by your targeted buyer groups, as well as possible solutions. Frequent writing, posting of articles, and blogs are just a few ways to get that ball rolling. The more you put your voice and insight into the marketplace, the more weight your name will carry. Take every opportunity to distinguish your point of view from everyone else’s. Use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and/or other social networking tools. If you don’t know what any of those terms mean, research them. Make your Web site a place not just to showcase your business, but also a platform to get your voice into the marketplace.

Craft a Visual Message

Every decision you make with your visual design adds up to a composite message sent to your Web site’s visitors. This message is delivered to your visitors before they read a word of text. Even with the best content in the world, a poorly crafted visual message can be a disaster. The first thing you need to do is determine what message you want to send:  Are you the one-stop-shopping big corporation who is best prepared to have whatever accounting service a client could possibly want? Perhaps you’re the hefty regional firm looking to establish yourselves as a model of efficiency and professionalism. Alternatively, you can be the small, scrappy, personable firm looking to add that personal touch and create a decades-long business relationship. Pick a bunch of graphics that support that message (or another of your choosing). No one graphic tells your story, so think of each one as a tile in a mosaic. Pick the right tiles, and the big picture will be clear. Your visual message is the business equivalent of how you dress on a blind date. Figure out what your message is, and then make everything fit that message. Pick a proper color palate, an appropriate physical layout, and the right graphics.

Keep your Web site Current

There is nothing more embarrassing than reading a Web site talking about the ramifications of “the newly passed Sarbanes-Oxley law.” It is crucial that your Web site reflect the current marketplace. Make sure that you have articles written and posted frequently. If you’re blogging (and you should be), make sure you don’t let your blog fall stagnant. When writing about contemporary issues facing your clients, make sure that you update those pages as new problems/solutions emerge and other ones fade away. Your Web site is an active, dynamic tool, not a plaque set in marble.

If you look at the Web sites designed by the top firms with the largest marketing budgets, you’ll see all of these principles being followed, among others. The good news is that if you’re creative, you don’t require a boatload of money. All of these ideas are possible to implement with limited budgets. Be creative, be smart, and get working on that Web site.

Jeff Crosley is a recent graduate of Ithaca College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His experience includes marketing and Web site design for several CPA firms around the country. He can be reached at jeffcrosley@gmail.com.