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Building an Accounting Website that Works – know what you want, and know how to get it

Managing a website design project can be a fun, challenging, and sometimes frustrating process. You’ll get unsolicited input from all angles, and you’ll likely be told a thousand different stories by local designers about exactly what the newest feature is that you just have to have, and why is will cost so much to accomplish what you need. Unfortunately, for many accountants and accounting marketers, they don’t go through the process very often, so anything learned from a previous go around is often either forgotten or irrelevant when it’s time to start again.

I’ve been involved in the process both with several of my own tax consulting practices and now helping CPA’s build sites that actually produce value to their organization. There’s definitely a right and wrong way to go about the entire process. If you know what your site should do, what you should expect from it, and exactly where the true value lies in the design and implementation process, you’ve got a very good chance of getting a superior site. The problem is, it’s almost impossible to know enough about web design without much experience. And most of the people with experience aren’t in the business of providing ideas that produce both excellence and value.

I’ll write a more detailed article soon about the process of building effective websites, but for this blog, let’s just focus on the two most critical requirements for successful build and implementation — Knowing what you want. And knowing how to get it.

Let’s start with what you want. Or if you don’t know yet, what you should want. Far too many accounting firms have a website that is nothing more than a brochure. It’s not just the small firms with small budgets either. I’ve seen firms that recently paid $25,000 or more for a website end up with little more than some images from a graphic designer and the musings of a professional writer that struggles to grasp accounting.

So what should your site do? Here’s just a few things your site should do.  Some of these will be obvious, some may not be:

  • Promote the image of your firm that you want the public to see.  Your site is the face of your firm to much of the public.  What does it say about your firm?
  • Serve as the 21st century yellow pages.  Let’s be honest, most people go to the web first to find the information they need.  Are they going to find you?  And if they do, what will they think?
  • Introduce your people and your services.  Seems simple enough.
  • Sell your services 24/7.
  • Generate qualified leads.  Emphasis on qualified.  Your site should attract the clients that you want and that you can best serve.  If you want to compete with HR Block for 1040 work, that’s easy enough, but if you have higher aspirations, you need to be sure your website is attracting the right prospects.  Many cookie cutter SEO content based sites can bring traffic, but it isn’t always the traffic you want.
  • Attract talented job candidates.  Your site isn’t just for clients and prospects.  How you come across to young professionals on the web will have a strong influence on the number and the quality of your applications.  If your site makes your firm look like it’s stuck in the 1980’s, you shouldn’t wonder why your applicant candidate isn’t up to par.  Your site has to show young job candidates an appealing place to work.  Even in an economy with plenty of applicants, it’s still critical to have the ability to choose from the best.  Those entering your firm today will someday be leading it.
  • Provide relevant and current information to your market.  As an advisor, your clients want to know you are on top of everything from opportunities to compliance.  Your site needs to show this.  Not say it. Show it. Search engines are rating sites based on both content relevance and new content.  Posting content once and leaving it for 5 years isn’t going to do too much for you.
  • Build your brand.  Again, your site is the face of your firm.  It’s message had better be in line with your marketing.
  • Establish and enhance the professional profiles of your people.  If properly setup and managed, your website and internet marketing can be a powerful tool for building up your people as subject matter experts in your community.
  • Leverage information.  If you have a real communication plan in place, you are spending time and money to generate content that is relevant to your clients and prospects.  Getting the most out of that information is critical.  Well-built sites and internet marketing plans allow you to maximize the reach of your voice across multiple mediums and channels.

That’s just a start.  Before you begin building a site you should have a detailed list of expectations.  You should understand how your site will work within your strategic marketing plan and how it will integrate with you communications plan.  Once you know what you want, all you have to do is figure out how to get it.  That’s the fun part.

Here’s some thoughts I sent to a marketing director who is getting ready to manage the process for her firm.  Once you know functionally what your site should do, here’s some executable ideas to get you there.

  • Make the site dynamic — new, relevant content gives users reason to visit your site and helps with SEO.
  • Make the site social — this will bring people to your site and will promote it’s visibility.  Integrating the site with your LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook accounts is useful.  If you aren’t involved with these yet, it might be time to get your feet wet.
  • If possible, include content that tells the story of Why?  The What is the same for most firms.  It’s hard to present your case for doing a better audit.  The site needs to explain why.  This is done not just through words, but through the look and feel as well.
  • Understand your ideal client when designing the site; ensure the site will resonate with clients that fit that profile.
  • Balance your content — develop with SEO in mind, but don’t sacrifice the look and feel of the message.  Accounting SEO is not competitive enough that you need to produce awkward copy to be highly visible.  There are better ways to ensure maximum visibility.
  • Make sure your developer understands the functional requirements of your site, how you plan to use it, and what you expect it to accomplish.  (This can sometimes be a chore, as very few local designers are up to date with professional service marketing.)
  • Pick the platform that is right for you.  Make sure that you’ll be able to effectively control your site to accomplish your goals.  A site you can’t control is worth about as much as a downloadable brochure. There are plenty of options available that will allow you to keep your site current, leverage information (newsletter, blogs, etc.) and easily keep new relevant information on every page.  (WordPress, Joomla, or a PHP site with a custom content management system is what we usually build.  I really think the open source solutions can work quite well and save a lot of money at the same time.  If you have a bunch of extra money sitting around, Hubspot provides a robust solution that is easy to use.)
  • Have modifiable  content areas on your front page.  It’s not hard to do.  Your message can change.  Important events happen that your clients need to know about.  I like having an image slider on the front page to rotate images and messages that will resonate with readers.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at the site of any top 10 firm.  This is not expensive and it’s not hard to do.  If anyone tells you it is, I wouldn’t continue the conversation much longer.
  • Plan for multiple media formats.  There’s nothing special that you need to do.  Just know where you’ll be able to fit new content. I like video on a site, I think that done correctly, it can add a lot of value.  Be sure your design is versatile enough to effectively display future content.
  • Have a blog developed and integrated into your site. Even if no one in your firm wants to blog now, being ready to handle that and integrating it with the design up front will make things easier down the road.  A blog can be a very valuable tool for SEO, leveraging of information, and raising the profiles of your people.
  • Don’t overpay! Understand what is a commodity and what is value added.  Knowing what your site needs to do functionally, understanding its use within your marketing  and communications plan, designing for visibility, and creativity are value added.  Actual coding is very commoditized and should be priced accordingly.  I’ve seen a few firms pay $30,000 for what could have been easily accomplished for half of that amount.
  • Don’t let your developer do anything that locks you into using them for modifications.  This is an all to common tactic that web developers use.  If they can create a reason why no one else is capable of managing your site, they don’t have to compete on price or efficiency for modifications.  There is no legitimate reason any accounting website needs to be tied to a single developer.
  • Set your site up correctly.  Many sites designed by local marketing and design firms have fundamental problems that cripple site visibility before they even get started.  I’ve recently seen sites with no sitemaps, no unique page names or descriptions, and repetitive content throughout the site.  Three glaring problems that simple shouldn’t happen.  Once your site is complete, it’s a good idea to have someone with the right resources run an SEO Crawl on the site to ensure that you don’t have any mistakes and that there’s nothing structurally limiting.

I’m working on turning these observations into a road map of sorts that can be followed to help manage the design process.  Don’t be overwhelmed by the process.  You can certainly get a great result for a good price if you understand what you want and how to get it.  Or you can always work with a firm that specializes in finding and delivering value and excellence to accounting firm and has the experience to deftly guide you through the process.  I can assure you, if you find the right partner, it will cost less than you think and you’ll get more than you imagined.

Steve Brunson
About the Author
Steve is a leader in the CPA / Accountant Marketing industry, and is a well known figure and speaker throughout the US. Steve works diligently to ensure that every action Catalyst takes moves its partner accounting firms closer to reaching their business development goals. He does this through every point of the process from strategic planning to implementation to measuring results.