Accounting website design and marketing – 10 tips for CPAs

Web Design Basics for CPA Firms

vortex-accounting-website-design-tipsIn a recent post, I offered design and marketing tips for law firms who may be considering a website redesign.

Accounting is another professional services industry where strategic web design thinking can make a difference in how visitors perceive the firm.

Even if a large part of your new business comes from referrals, the motivation to embark on a redesign could be any number of factors:

  1. Outdated information or web design interface
  2. Incompatibility with smartphones or tablets
  3. A new competitor in the marketplace
  4. The suggestion of an important client
  5. The addition of new services and expertise
  6. Other evidence that your services are not being marketed effectively

Accountants are typically more involved in the day to day activities and operations of their clients’ businesses than an attorney would be. Clients may look to accountants to improve operations, review policies on financial procedures, identify opportunities to take advantage of exemptions and reduce the exposure to taxes, and manage day-to-day accounting needs. An accountant’s consulting services may be on-going in nature or performed on a periodic basis.

If you are a partner in an accounting firm, and convince your team that it’s time update your web presence, it’s looking at the websites of other CPAs to get ideas and see what your peers and competitors are doing is a natural first step. If you are a large national firm with several offices and CPAs where intranet/extranet is critical, contracting the services of an IT consultant in developing a RFQ or RFP to select a graphic design firm may be helpful. Smaller firms and independents may call peers for a referral or search the footer credits of their favorite websites as the site functionality may be more limited.

Whatever the case, the accountant in charge of the project should also focus on the most important aspect of any web design project – content and inbound marketing.

Having an functioning online presence for your accounting firm is not enough. Here are 10 tips to help generate more traffic and market effectively online.

Tip 1: Understand and articulate your greatest strength.

There are many accounting firms who are generalists and handle everything from returns to business planning to setting up and teaching Quickbooks. Other CPA’s may have a specialty and offer boutique-type services targeted towards elder care, estate planning or otherwise.

Rather than trying to appear to be all things to all people, it makes sense to go through the process of building “buyer personas” to understand and articulate the ideal content for your website. Buyer personas are psychographic profiles enhanced with demographic data. Buyer personas will help you understand client pain points, challenges and needs. Persona development helps you to focus your messaging.

Tip 2: Develop a plan for inbound marketing and SEO

Developing buyer personas will also help identify the keywords and search phrases your potential clients are using to find accounting firms like yours.

A well-constructed plan for SEO should include KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) and include an analysis of popular keyword search trends used in your area of accounting. In terms of keywords, using “Google’s Suggestion” feature is a great way to get the ball rolling quickly.

While being a listed online in accounting sub-specialty association directories can be valuable, you’re often an unwilling victim of alphabetical sorting. If your firm name starts with a “S” for example, potential clients scanning listings may never get to your name. Even so, it’s important to take advantage of listings by making sure all forms are accurate and complete.

You should create a list of the most popular keywords and phrases and integrate those terms thoughtfully into your site and blog content.

The most basic SEO should include keywords strategically placed in Page Titles, Meta Descriptions, page content and alt tags. You should avoid keyword stuffing and other “Black Hat” approaches as the penalties from search engine providers are severe.

Website content should be feature and benefit-oriented. Blog content is most effective when it helps answer questions and offers solutions.

If your services are primarily offered to your local area, it’s critical that you have an up to date Google+ page. Google+ author and business data can be easily integrated into your website as part of the SEO program.

Accounting firms should also take advantage of YouTube videos to boost search ranking and help make your site more “sticky” When people spend time to watch a video, it’s more likely they’ll explore other parts of your site and become engaged. Video content that complies with AICPA licensing standards can be used to explain:

  • Business valuation
  • Business planning
  • Exceptions or rule changes
  • Basic Accounting procedures
  • Sound business practices
  • …and more

Potential and existing clients are using online search to find helpful content. You should strive to have your firm ranked highly for search keywords and phrases your ideal clients/prospects are using. To ensure your plan is working, define specific goals and measure your progress on a regular basis.

Because a lot of accounting advice can be more compartmentalized, applying inbound marketing thinking represents a big opportunity.

CPAs can add specialized calls-to-action, landing pages and forms associated with content offers to your web presence. These techniques will help drive more traffic to the site and build engagement with prospects and leads. Inbound marketing also includes the use of email campaigns, automated follow-up, and tracking to move prospects along the sales funnel.

Tip 3: Experiment with Pay Per Click (PPC)

Set aside a budget to test results gained from pay-per-click ad programs (PPC). Pay-per-click can go a long way to helping you be found more easily and combat the challenges of industry directory listings. Even though there is evidence that organic search listings get more click-throughs, the top listings on the first page of search results (paid) command attention and increase brand awareness. If a potential client is looking for a very specific solution, and your PPC ad speaks to that need, you may find a high value new client much more quickly than with organic SEO efforts.

Tip 4. Focus on quality content that matches search

What determines quality content? More than a catchy image or headline that gets read or shared, it’s content that helps answer people’s questions, illuminates complicated issues and dispels myths.

As a CPA, you may believe that your specialized knowledge is not to be given away freely. This is a valid concern, but writing a blog, or commenting on a post does not require that you “give away the farm”.

You can help others and still create demand for your services. The average length of a blog, or white paper is rarely enough to fully address every aspect of a particular issue.

As a CPA, you should strive to create a content strategy around your unique practice areas and skill sets. For example, if your specialty is tax and estate planning, what information would a high net worth individual be looking for? What phrases would they use to find that information? The goal is to align your content with their queries.

If your practice and services are primarily suited to local and regional work, your content should include keywords, city names, addresses that help the search engines categorize you accurately. You should also consider ensuring that the primary online local search services like Yellow Pages have current data and include the right keywords. As mobile usage grows, the search engines are syncing the location of the user with location of the best content match. For example, if you’ve used a smartphone to search for a local gas station or restaurant, you understand the value of targeting website, blog and PPC content for local search… even for professional services such as accounting.

On the other hand, if your firm offers specialized accounting services suited to clients nationally, then you want to consider targeting content for regional, national or even international search.

High value content means everything, so if you’re using the primary real estate of your website (a home page for example) to present a photo of the firm’s office space or group portrait of partners, without communication a point of difference or unique service, a website content review and evaluation is in order.

Tip 5: Make sure your accounting firm’s message is plausible

When an individual or organization begins the process of choosing an accountant, the CPAs experience, specialized knowledge, referrals and trust can help to put potential and existing clients at ease. This is different than an attorney, where fee structure and a track record and history of successful outcomes is highly valued.  In addition, the personalities of the accounting firm, their biographies, firm fee structures, and the involvement of associates vs. partners may also play a role in the client’s decision-making process.

Occasionally, firms will want to present their accounting practice as taking “a new approach”, or that “their practice does things differently”. While these concepts may be a clever way to set a firm apart from competitors, it also raises the issue of credibility.

Test your messaging on existing and potential clients to ensure it speaks to their primary concern. Your web designer should be able to create mockups to test assumptions.

Tip 6: Hire a reputable web “development” firm

In today’s market, it’s fairly easy to find firms or freelancers who can create stunning pages using code and the latest Photoshop tricks. The look and feel (user interface) of your website is actually only a piece of the design process. Many web designers leave the most basic SEO work as an extra, or ignore it altogether.

This trend has given rise to “SEO specialists” who promise to makeover your site and get your firm to first page of a particular search engine’s results within a few days or weeks. The question is not if you can get it to Page One…the question is for what set of keywords and phrases. These specialists could be using the right techniques, but may not be investing enough time in learning about what makes your accounting firm unique.

Qualities that you can consider when researching web design firms for your project:

  1. Research and Creative Brief process are used to define goals
  2. Content Strategy as a priority
  3. Ability to create a Site Map of content and navigation
  4. Understanding of your business model
  5. Custom tailored design solutions instead of off the shelf templates
  6. Content development services – writing and design
  7. SEO and search marketing are used as an integral part of the project
  8. Programming approach is based on need and functionality
  9. Hosting fees are separate from development costs
  10. Can scale project team and process to project size
  11. Inbound marketing expertise – generating leads through online activities
  12. Stability, experience, responsiveness

Tip 7: Beware of the “template” approach

There are web design and build services that specialize in serving accounting firms. Over time, they’ve developed high value experience at quickly understanding what your firm may want and need. In addition, some of these firms have built vast content libraries on virtually every topic a client will want to know about.

The trouble is that they’re offering content that has been duplicated for other accountants with a minor word or firm name changes. You may not be getting the full value of a website design or SEO work if you are automatically publishing stock content to a blog or your website. Stock content may be more effectively used in email marketing where attracting a new audience and SEO is not an issue. The other main concern with web firms that specialize in serving accountants is whether or not your site is being built in a proprietary content management system that requires monthly or annual subscription fees. These systems are typically very stable, but what happens if you decide to move your site or the web firm is sold and you don’t like the new management, fee structure or services? Consider the trade-offs if you have to build your site from scratch as part of the process.

Some web designers may offer an off the shelf template solution to help control design costs. The reality is that:

  • The savings may be minimal
  • The template may restrict the layout of content
  • Manual updating later may add costs
  • Modifications may be difficult
  • Templates generally are not exclusive – your website may end up looking eerily similar to another firm’s.

Tip 8: Continually update and add content

Developing content for inbound marketing purposes takes at least 10-15 hours a week for a small to medium-sized business. Why? Because search engines index content on a regular basis in an effort to deliver what people need and want.

Strategically adding branded content will increase your chances of being found by your ideal clients through online search. Firms who believe that “they are busy enough” or “don’t have time” need to consider that their competitors are making the time and seeing results.

Internet marketing consultants suggest that you can reduce this amount of time by redirecting your efforts to commenting and posting in social media and even “scraping” content from other authors. The idea is that you are leveraging someone else’s work by sharing valuable content and building your brand as a trusted adviser. This strategy is effective in some cases, but nothing is as powerful as generating original high-quality content.

If you are publishing a newsletter, consider adapting the same content to a blog or presentation that can be shared on SlideShare. Longer articles can be broken up and sub-sections can be expanded to help simplify publishing online content on a regular basis. A professional inbound marketing consultant can help you create a content strategy that will drive more traffic to your site and help to generate prospects and leads as well as close new business.

Successful accountants are usually busy, and so the idea of spending time developing content as opposed to working projects is not practical. To solve the problem, CPAs can consider outsourcing the writing (there are plenty of freelance writers who have accounting knowledge), adding in-house staff, or making content development an regular responsibility for new associates.

Tip 9: Evaluate your efforts on an on-going basis

Once your site is launched, it is important monitor the effects of your work with an analytics tool. Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools provide insights about site traffic, page visits, bounce rates, search queries and more. It doesn’t take more than a few weeks to start to see trends and opportunities, and allow you to identify problem areas such as duplicate page titles, meta descriptions and broken links. You may be able to contract with your design firm for monitoring and analysis services. If you’re working towards higher rankings, depending on your search terms, it can take several months and the on-going addition of new content in order to see results.

Specialized online marketing tools such as Hubspot’s inbound marketing dashboard can help you manage content distribution and get detail on website visits, prospects, leads and customers to quantify your efforts.

Tip 10: Look for areas to improve

In the service industry, maintaining your online visibility is an on-going activity. If you are monitoring your site through an analytics setup, you are learning about content that is working well or needs improvement. It’s easy to see the traction you get with a blog or email campaign that is on target, and then build on those successes.

Need assistance?

For more information on accounting website design and marketing, SEO and inbound marketing, give us a call or read about using online search to identify a design or inbound marketing firm.
About the author: Tom Weinkle is a founder and partner of Vortex Communications, a graphic and website design firm who offers graphic and WordPress web design, build, troubleshooting and training services along with search optimization, social media and inbound marketing services. Based in Miami, Florida, Tom has over 25 years of experience in visual communications for the healthcare, medical, law, accounting, software, financial services and banking industries.

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