Tomorrow’s successful accounting firms will combine research-based marketing strategies with deep knowledge of tools new and old, and a willingness to take well-considered risks.

Originally printed in the November/December 2019 Tennessee CPA Journal.

As 2020 approaches, the most important thing for accounting firm leaders to know about successfully marketing themselves in the future is that digital technology has changed everything – and nothing.

It is undeniable that the number and variety of digital strategies and tools keeps exploding, and the role of chief marketing officers and their teams is rapidly changing as a result. We’ll examine some of those trends a little later in this article.  Marketing has been transformed from having a limited role as the branding and advertising arm of accounting firms — and other professional services — to a core driver of success.

But some things have not changed and may never: Marketing is all about knowing your clients and what they need or want, then devising a smart strategy to persuade them of your value in filling that want or need. Implementing a list of 22 brilliant, but unconnected, marketing ideas will never outshine 10 well-considered tactics born of an intentional research-based strategy.

The excitement surrounding new digital tools that offer the potential of knowing and reaching clients in ever-more powerful ways is totally understandable, and clearly digital will be key in the future. But it is not the only solution and excitement over the tools can be just one big distraction without strategies growing out of fulfilling that core marketing mission.

Testimonial Icon
“Firms that conduct systematic research on their prospects and clients grow three to 10 times faster and are up to two times more profitable than peers that don’t pursue research.”
Results from studies on the impact of research conducted by Hinge Marketing.

Tomorrow’s successful marketing programs for accounting and professional services firms will combine research-based thinking with comprehensive knowledge of tools new and old that can drive those strategies, as well as a willingness to take well-considered risks.

In this new world, accounting firms with lagging investment in that kind of strategic approach may find it difficult to grow and/or become an acquisition target on less-than-optimal terms.

Four areas to consider during your marketing strategy preparation in 2020.

1. Research and analysis rules, from beginning to end

Technology has opened the door for firms to serve greatly expanded geographies and specialties, which in turn has changed some of the specific types of information that need to be gathered from and about clients to effectively serve their needs. But that specialized information still falls into four traditional buckets, all of which must be filled to create strategies that drive growth:

  • Your marketplace
  • Your audiences
  • Your competition
  • Your firm

The quality and quantity of research that a firm undertakes is a growing factor in success. With ever-more data available and ever-more sophisticated tools to analyze that data, accounting firms that make smart strategic decisions about what data they need to drive growth are increasingly gaining advantage. As markets become more and more accessible, well-selected data can make all the difference in deciding which opportunities to pursue and how to pursue them.

Similarly, at the back end smart choices are needed about which analytics should measure success and justify the further investment to separate winners and losers.

It is all about knowing your clients and what they want or need, then persuading them of your value in filling that want or need. It is relationship building 101.

2. Watch what I do, not what I say

It is an old truism that the easiest, least expensive way to grow is to get more business from existing clients, and there is still truth in that. But clients are increasingly unlikely to retain their relationship with you, let alone grow it, without a superior customer experience, from their first contact with you even before they are a client to their everyday work with you many years into a relationship. Likewise, the process of bringing them into the fold as a new client must provide a preview of what their experience will be should they give you their business.

This approach means a radical change in focus for marketing. While messaging is still quite important, the ultimate test for creating and delivering on the brand process is more what you do, and less what you say.

For example:

  • Clients, and potential clients, want you to show them how well you understand the needs of their business and the markets they operate in by proactively bringing them data-based strategies to increase revenue or reduce expenses.
  • They want you to show them how you are, or can be, their trusted adviser, not only by understanding their business, but also by understanding them as people and providing advice that reflects that understanding.
  • They want you to show them that their needs, not your firm’s, come first. A good example is insuring that your technology allows clients to work with you in a simple, frictionless manner on their terms not the firms.

At LBMC Marketing, we have focused much on the clients’ pathways to purchase, and the expectations along that journey. We work diligently to stay at the forefront of innovation by highlighting client wants/needs and then packaging or creating services/products accordingly leveraging technology to meet the clients where they are. We are continually using data to keep abreast of our clients’ needs and how to meet them. And we are constantly exploring new tools, such as voice search and Alexa, that add value to the journey/relationships.

Show clients how well you understand their business by proactively bringing them data-based strategies to improve their business.

3. Some key elements of a digital strategy

An effective digital strategy has many potential tools at its disposal. We won’t go into all of them here, but the following elements should be top of mind:

Your website

A strong website is critical to the success of most businesses, and all the more so for accounting firms. It is the center of gravity for the firm’s on-line presence that effectively projects its core marketing resource, its expertise. Research shows that more than 80 percent of prospective clients check out a potential provider on its website, often before ever making contact.

Compelling content that drives leads through the sales funnel is clearly extremely important. Sometimes less well-considered by accounting firms is the power of website design not just to improve usability across all platforms, including mobile, but also to influence users’ perceptions of your business and intuitively differentiate it.

And lastly, the importance of search engine optimization – the process for increasing the chances that your site will be found by those searching for a partner — cannot be overstated. Simply stated, on-site SEO ensures that your site emphasizes the use of words most often searched by people looking for services like those you provide, while off-site SEO relies on links from other sites to yours.

Social media

A strong social media strategy is no longer optional. The Hinge Marketing research shows that 60% of prospective customers check out potential service providers through social media – more than those who use formal referrals and recommendations as an information source.

Social media can be a highly effective tool to support key firm activities:

  • Networking – Aids your team in making and nurturing contacts critical to business development
  • Content promotion – Provides a cost-effective method to guide prospects to the content that demonstrates your expertise.
  • Search engine optimization – Social media is a prime venue for the off-site SEO mentioned in the previous section.
  • Research – Want to understand a prospect better? Check out their social media streams.
  • Recruiting – Social media is key to shaping the perception of your firm by potential job candidates.

Marketing automation, CRM and lead nurturing

Technology is constantly evolving in this area, which at its heart is about tracking sales and marketing activity for individual clients and prospective clients and getting the right content to the right person at the right time. CRM – customer relationship management — software is the tracking mechanism, and marketing automation is the process that leads them through a carefully constructed path that builds a relationship and steadily warms them to doing business with your firm.

These tools are table stakes for cost-effective marketing, and careful consideration of the right tool for your firm is essential in a somewhat dizzying landscape of products.

A recent 2019 Marketing Technology Landscape report indicated that we’re now up to 7,040 solutions.

More than 80 percent of prospective clients check out a potential provider on its website, often before ever making contact.

4. The role and organizational status of marketing

Clearly, marketing and communications departments in accounting firms have, or should have, moved way beyond their traditional roles of handling advertising and press releases. Besides engaging in digital marketing to clients and potential clients, they should also be involved at the very least in recruiting messaging as well as operations via their work in shaping the experience which is basically delivering on the brand promise.

These new roles have moved marketers and communicators from the firm’s periphery to its core, and as such they need a seat at the decision-making table with other top leaders to provide the best value.

Their increased responsibilities also require new, and in some cases, different resources. Investments are needed in technology essential to their work, particularly in integrating systems so they all work together. New skill sets are required as well.

At LBMC, we have strategically hired experts based on skill sets versus accounting experience, not only because of the tight recruiting market for those with accounting backgrounds, but also because the firm will likely benefit from innovative thinking from other industries. We have also in-sourced some key positions like a Content and Media Relations Strategist, with a goal of finding the exact right expert who will be solely focused on our needs. In addition, we hired some Marketing Generalist who are not just tactical implementors rather they are directing activity based on their knowledge of trends and data insights. And finally, we have built a team that is no longer simply reactive — rather we want to be trusted advisors bringing growth ideas and strategies to our firm’s C-suite as true marketing experts who know our client.

Marketing should be a trusted advisor bringing growth ideas and strategies to the firm’s C-suite as true marketing experts who know the client.