Marketing in the accounting industry has an interesting, and fairly short, history. It is not unusual to find partners who still remember when it was against AICPA rules to advertise, market, directly solicit or even participate in competitive bidding. Virtually non-existent for most of the 20th century, accounting marketing has evolved at a rather slow pace even since the rules were changed with the Bates ruling in 1978.
While most firms of all sizes have now introduced some sort of marketing effort, it’s often met with skepticism and even frustration from the old guard. Partners still grumble about the dollars spent on marketing and marketers regularly, and patiently, field questions about the lack of immediate return on investment. Unlike most industries where marketing is considered an investment, many in the accounting profession see it as an optional expense, and one where the payoff is hard to measure. Much of the benefit is virtually unquantifiable: how do you put a value on strong branding, goodwill or respect? Even more challenging, how do you measure such intangibles?
At the same time, the number of ways that firms can market themselves has grown substantially in the last decade, moving from a purely push (one-way) approach to one that can now include a variety of pull (two-way) tactics as well. The addition of things like social media, blogs and search engine optimization has greatly expanded the way that firms can reach their audiences. This explosion of options has overwhelmed many firm partners and their reaction is often tinged with suspicion that these newfangled methods will not work or be a good investment of their time and money. Here’s where generational issues tend to arise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to older partners complain that the younger generation just doesn’t want to sell. Sometimes this is true, but usually it is more a matter of the younger generation lacking a clear set of expectations to meet, not having the training they need and not being allowed to use the tools with which they feel most comfortable. Additionally, it is not uncommon for a firm’s marketing strategy to be more “fly by the seat of our pants” than one that follows a carefully constructed, strategic plan. A chaotic approach makes it especially hard for the younger, less experienced team members to contribute fully.
The answer to this and quite a few other issues is that accounting firms need to look at marketing differently, viewing it as the strategic investment in firm growth that it is. To get started down a more productive path, consider adopting these approaches:
- Identify your differentiators: Delivering great work, having wonderful employees and being a “trusted advisor” to your clients are not differentiators. These are the price of entry in today’s competitive market. Take the time to figure out what makes you truly unique in your clients’ eyes and build your marketing efforts on that.
- Create a strategic marketing plan: Ideally, this plan will not just include the tactics you will use to increase awareness and add new business, but it will also take a big picture look at your firm, its services, its competitors, the market at large, ideal clients and your objectives. Until you understand your place in the ecosystem, it is hard to create a plan that will return results. So take a step back and discuss who you are as a firm, who you want to reach and then talk about the best way to do it.
- Include your managers and even associates in the planning process: Ideally, everyone at your firm will be involved in your marketing and business development efforts. As we all know, you will get better buy-in and more enthusiasm if representatives from various levels of the firm are involved in creating the plan. These younger staff members will have great new ideas for ways to reach your audiences, and by adding those to your more traditional efforts you will win in two ways. First, since people have individual preferences for how they like to receive their information, you’ll be reaching more potential clients by expanding the number of tactics you use. Secondly, your younger staff will be excited about the fact that the methods they embrace, social media in particular, are now part of the firm’s overall plan.
- Train, recognize and reward for greater success: It’s not enough to involve your younger staff in the planning; you need to give them the training, tools and time to implement their part of the plan. Invest in training them on things like how to get the most from networking efforts, how to turn social media into business development and how to recognize opportunities and turn them into new business. Recognize successful efforts and have the staff member share how he or she did it. Set up systems internally to reward new business, including financial compensation. Once the laggers see their peers’ success, they often decide to jump on board too.
Keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for everyone. And that’s okay too. As long as your message is clear and consistent, it really doesn’t matter how it is delivered…just that it is. The more you share your marketing objectives and involve everyone at the firm, the more quickly you will see that return on investment and increase in revenue that everyone wants.
About the Author
Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk is president of bbr marketing, a firm that provides marketing strategy, implementation and outsourced services to professional services firms across North America. You can learn more by visiting www.bbrmarketing.com.