This is a copy of my recent article ‘A giant leap’, outlining some of the key considerations for accountancy firms wishing to embark on or improve their digital marketing. It was originally published in Taxation magazine and if you have a subscription, you can read the original here. For those who don’t you can enjoy it in full below.
The Giant Leap
Generally speaking, accountants and tax advisors have tended to be skeptical about the benefits of marketing and digital is no exception. Previously, a perceived inability to attribute a clear return on investment has pushed marketing to the bottom of the business priorities pile.
But to give credit where it’s due, although many accountancy practices have made a leap towards understanding digital marketing better, just as many have yet to make the move. Stuck behind tired and unresponsive websites, syndicated news feeds and faceless branding, isn’t it time these firms sat up and focused their attentions towards the business opportunities within digital channels?
Times have changed. Fuelled by the surge in smartphone ownership and a desire to ‘do more with less’, the government is pressing ahead with its digital tax accounts strategy in a bid to save money and increase tax receipts. All taxpayers will be paying their dues online in real-time from a single tax account by 2020.
This appetite to capitalise on the digital opportunity is unsurprising, as just about everyone is online these days. Based on Ofcom research published in 2016, 88% of UK adults regularly use the Internet across a range of devices, with over 38% of users aged 75 or over. The gap between the age ranges of users has closed and there has been a 68.7% increase in Internet usage among 65-74 year olds since 2011.
The core target market of small business owners has traditionally been important to accountants and is growing very rapidly as more people become self-employed or form limited companies. The number of taxpayers who work for themselves has increased by 45% since 2000, reaching 4.8m people – that’s 1 in 7 workers. The proportion who are sole directors of their own limited company business – myself included, although I was an early entrant having started out 10 years ago – rose by 25% between 2014 and 2015. Given the planned reductions to corporation tax on the horizon, this is likely to increase further, despite the recent overhaul of the dividend tax regime. These consumers are most definitely online and it represents a lucrative opportunity for professional advisors to tap into.
Understand the prospective buyer
As the numbers of people who rely on the Internet to manage all aspects of their lives has expanded, so too has audience diversity. Understanding who the prospective buyers are, their demography and motivations, is essential to developing an effective digital marketing strategy. At the foundation level this involves profiling existing customers to identity their characteristics, differences and similarities, value to the firm and reasons why they buy your services. Using this data, personas of target consumers can be developed. For instance, here are three example personas for starters: 1)Erika, the high net worth individual who owns a second property in France, works in finance and has an iPad subscription to the Sunday Times; 2) Marcus, young serial entrepreneur who is building a property portfolio and attends summer music festivals and 3) Adam, a recently divorced owner director with a young second family and need for IHT planning using a family investment company.
Secondary data to bring these ‘characters’ to life can be added to enhance the customer information and provide more detail on habits and interests. The more data the better and livelier your digital marketing can become. Once these personas are identified, they can be prioritised in terms of value and a customer journey map created to identify how each client-firm relationship could typically evolve. This provides a foundation for planning marketing tactics to employ.
At the heart of every good digital marketing strategy is a decent website. In the case of accountants, this should ideally be one that clearly reflects the personality of your brand and firm, and which helps to differentiate your service from competitors. As part of my research for this article, I typed ‘accountants in south London’ into Google, to do a very brief analysis of the search results. Clicking on the results to visit the firms’ websites, over half of those listed had very similar looking websites, featuring tired stock images and clearly based on a template using standardised copy. They are functional and adequate to a point, giving the firm an online presence, but they fall short when it comes to developing a distinctive brand and starting to build trust with target consumers.
Even fewer of these websites were optimised for a mobile device, which made navigating their service offering a frustrating experience. Yet a large and growing proportion of the audiences they are aiming to reach – business and consumers alike – will be searching for services like theirs from a mobile or tablet. To attract attention and build those relationships, firms need to stand out in a crowded market. For accountants, this means investing in developing a strong and distinctive brand identity, that reflects the way they wish to be perceived by customers, the interests of their target audience, enables them to differentiate their offering and is easy to scroll using a mobile.
Aside from details of services offered, many of the websites also lacked a section providing any insights to the visitor, such as a blog. Marketing today needs to be helpful and for professional services companies, this means giving away information and advice. It’s a trend towards content marketing, which provides an opportunity to build trust and engage prospective clients as they live their daily lives. This content can also be used to support an SEO PR strategy and offered to relevant publications in return for publicity and if applicable, a backlink.
Content builds trust
Although very much a buzzword, content marketing is effectively a way of marketing to consumers through the exchange of information (content). By being useful and sharing their expertise, firms can attract the attention of new potential customers and over time, as a result of being useful, win their trust. With this comes the prospect of being on their shortlist when they are in the market for your service. In the case of existing customers, content marketing is equally relevant, by reassuring buyers of their decision to invest in a particular firm’s services and maintaining their loyalty.
For accountants, their content marketing strategy ideally needs to be segmented by persona type and include regular blogs offering advice on the issues that matter to those audiences to get the best returns. For example, focal topics that would appeal to the 3 personas already highlighted could include: best practice when taking shareholder dividends, the tax issues that can arise when employing a family nanny, or the implications of tax when divorcing.
No discussion about the benefits of digital marketing for accountants would be complete without a review of social media as a primary channel to share content and engage the relevant audiences. Today in the UK there are 32 million regular Facebook users and 19 million people regularly watch videos of all kinds on You Tube. Over 15 million people – a high proportion of which are business professionals – use Twitter to keep up to date with news events and 50% of the users on Twitter also visit the websites of businesses they follow. In case you need further convincing, 10 million UK professionals network using Linked In, there are 10 million (disproportionately female) users are on Pinterest and a further 12.6 million users of Google+, 70% of which are male.
These headline stats should be enough to demonstrate to even the most reluctant or reticent communicators that their customers are active on social media. Bear in mind that a quarter of the UK’s population are millenials, who will have grown up with digital channels and social media. It’s second nature for them to immediately check out any new business contact online and see if they are on social media. It is an essential channel for building your personal brand and that of your practice. If you can find a relevant way to interact with them that enhances your overall business strategy, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t interact with you and your firm too.
As a quick taster, here are some very simple ways an accountancy firm can be using 3 of the social media channels to win trust and influence their audiences:
- Properly complete your own profile page and invest in some decent portrait pictures that are personable and complement your firm’s brand identity. Ensure you are regularly updating your connections and ensure all senior staff members have equivalent profiles. There’s nothing worse than checking out a person and seeing they have no profile photo, incomplete information and 100 connections.
- As a minimum, encourage all staff to share the firm’s updates with their respective connections. Personally share additional free tax tips and advice blogs as relevant to immediate connections via Linked In Pulse. Aimed at your existing connections, this is one of the most powerful tactics you can employ to an already engaged audience.
Twitter and Facebook
- Find out which of your customers are on Twitter or have company Facebook pages. Actively follow / like them and monitor what they are doing. Be supportive, share and respond to their tweets and updates. Watch how they start to take note and reciprocate with your activity too. Their customers could be your potential customers.
- Set aside a budget to run highly targeted advertising promoting your most successful content. Minimise any wastage by specifying exactly who you want to reach based on already identified target persona types.
And there are many more tactics to consider for other social media channels.
For professional services firms such as accountants, digital marketing is effectively an opportunity to build relationships with targeted prospects and customers in real time and become their trusted advisor. It’s a huge topic and impossible to cover everything of relevance to an accountancy firm in such a short article. But I hope that reading this will spark an interest in learning more for those firms who have yet to develop an effective digital marketing strategy. And if you are thinking about a new direction for your business, digital should be at the top of your list.