Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Accounting firms - Get strategic or risk getting lost

Get strategic or risk getting lost was previously published in The Bottom Line, Mid-September 2013. 

Options.  They can swing doors wide open or gamble resources away.  They can inspire us to act with urgency or be the cause of indecision and procrastination.  
The options to market an accounting firm have exponentially increased over the past fifteen years.  Most are thanks to the internet.  But, creative ways of using the internet to generate interest for seminars and other live events has multiplied offline marketing options as well.  And with the ensuing online clutter, some strictly offline marketing activities, such as direct mail, have experienced recent renewal.  

Tempting as they might be, the options to market an accounting practice don’t usually deliver on the promise of success, without a strategic approach to filter them for fit.  

What follows are essential components to the process of assembling a strategic marketing plan:

As with a business plan, a marketing plan needs to support short and long-term financial, strategic and lifestyle practice development goals.  There are, however, considerations that extend beyond those typical of a business plan, including: establishing desired image, attracting qualified recruits, generating media coverage, extending referrer networks and building a specific area of interest or client profile.  

One of the most challenging aspects of developing a marketing plan is defining a firm’s market position. This is essentially the firm’s unique and valued difference. For some accounting practices, market position may be built into the basis of their operations.  But for most, analysis is needed to establish clarity about standout strengths and to ensure that the firm’s promises don’t simply mirror those of its peers.

Target market
Prioritizing a subset of a target market helps to position the marketing plan for success on multiple levels.  From websites to seminars, the content of any marketing activities that speak directly to the needs of a specific audience, and referral market, are more likely to resonate.  As well, it’s simpler and more cost effective to choose marketing activities that reach a specific group, rather than casting a wider net.  

Competitive set
If marketing decisions are made in a vacuum, they run the risk of being predictable and cookie cutter.  Market research about direct competitors can reveal where, to whom and how other accounting practices are marketing their services, down to the detail of language style and marketing promises.  Faced with this information, a firm will almost always be able to go yet one step deeper with its own analysis and decisions about target market, market position and marketing activities.  

Business environment 
In order to stay relevant, the marketing plan needs to be reviewed against changes in the business environment on a regular basis.  Since the recommended duration of the plan is annual, most changes aren’t expected to impact the details of the current plan but, rather, will provide inspiration for subsequent years. By way of example, recent developments in today’s business environment include: professional branding, widescreen website design, micro sites, micro blogs, apps, mobile and browser compatibility, self administration of websites, changes to Search Engine Optimization, new social media marketing sites and tools, newsletter segmentation strategies, video marketing and new approaches to networking.  

Marketing activities
Between advertising (online or off), direct mail, public relations, speaking engagements, websites, Search Engine Optimization, social media, blogs,  newsletters (digital or print), networking and events, the list of marketing activities to choose from is long and it's getting longer. Choosing begins with finding options that align with the firm’s goals and its target audience.  But the most fitting activities will also align with the talents of the team participating in the ongoing implementation of the plan i.e. based on interest and inclination to network (online or off), speak and write.   Finally, marketing activities require a third tier of alignment.  They need also to align with each other, where each activity is positioned to amplify success because it has a place in the overall chain of events. 

The budget to market an accounting firm depends on many variables, including the size of the practice and the stage within its life cycle.  An ongoing marketing spend also depends on specificity of target audience, complexity of service offering and list of marketing activities.  To develop professional materials for the first time, however, a disproportionately high, one-time investment should be expected.  If this period coincides with tight cash flow, foundational pieces could be phased in over months or even years.  The ability of a firm to maximize return on its marketing investment will be based on three factors: reach (ease of access to the desired growth market), frequency (repeated messaging directed at the same audience) and impact (the degree to which the firm’s professional identity and its marketing messages resonate with its audience).  

There was a time when marketing plans extended for a five-year period.  But in order to stay nimble and responsive in a fast paced world, it’s recommended to consider the long-term broadly and plan for details on an annual basis.  To facilitate connection with clients, referrers and even search engines on an ongoing basis, it’s also recommended to market continuously, rather than just during the slower accounting months.  With planning and coordination, many marketing activities can be developed well in advance and scheduled for release throughout the year.  Consideration needs to be given, however, to allowing for real-time marketing activity, including social media, networking and, possibly, writing articles or giving seminars that respond to news or other time-sensitive updates. 

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
More that ever before, marketing plans need to be reviewed and revamped on a regular basis, against actual performance and changes in the marketplace. This process is essential to building continuous improvement into the plan.  KPIs can be informative in this regard, if the right factors are being measured.  For example, there are many tools available to easily measure website traffic and, at first glance, this indicator may seem to be obvious and useful.  But without a sense of whether the profile of the website visitor matches that of the firm’s desired growth market, this indicator will be of limited value.  Finally, generating results will also depend on the firm’s ability to balance the knee jerk reaction to prematurely implement change with the discipline of follow through and commitment.  

Beyond filtering options in order to improve marketing investment and facilitate a firm’s ability to meet its goals, the value of this planning process is in taking the heat off the sales process, from the generation of leads through to closing.  A strategic marketing plan can help to ensure that an accounting practice is findable, by the right audience, efficiently and effectively.  Most importantly though, when it is founded on authentic messaging that resonates, by the time prospects pick up the phone, they usually are highly suitable and highly interested.

- Sandra Bekhor, Toronto
President, Bekhor Management

Small to mid-sized firms are invited to learn more about our Toronto-based, CPA, accounting, investing and actuarial firm marketing and business development services.


Donna Crowley said...

I am not in Canada, but I saw a reference to this article on Linked In. This is a great article, very helpful, and broad enough to help me in Florida as I begin to learn the in's and out's of marketing a new tax & accounting business. Marketing still seems a bit ethereal to me, but you offered some solid points that help me gain a substantive understanding of it.

Toronto Marketing Blog said...

Thanks for your feedback Donna. Ethereal is a great word for marketing when you're just getting started! I'm so glad to hear this was helpful for you.