By Gale Crosley, CPA
The Supreme Court’s 1977 decision Bates v. State Bar of Arizona allowed lawyers to advertise their services, opening the gate for CPAs to enter the world of marketing. In Bates, the justices held that advertising was a type of free speech and as such, was protected by the First Amendment. Many CPAs believed that marketing would enhance their firms’ visibility. “The more people know about us,” the thinking went, “the more they’ll like us.”
Unfortunately, this pretty good idea has suffered from 30 years of sometimes poor execution. Instead of a supportive component to help firms sell and grow, marketing has too often been used as a substitute for the more fundamental elements of the rainmaking process.
It’s easy to identify some kinds of waste – a plate of uneaten food goes in the garbage, or lights are left to burn overnight while everyone is asleep. But when it comes to marketing, it can be a harder task. Typically, marketing waste appears as a collection of disconnected tactics.
Firm ABC wants to promote its employee benefit plan audit capability. It does this by sending out a couple of hundred letters about the service, the benefits, etc. The firm staff member assigned to this project feels good that it was “done,” but no follow-up (phone, email, in-person) occurs and the tactic gets next to no response.
Here’s another example. XYZ’s partners decide that prospects are looking for a greater degree of sophistication in their CPA firm. So a 5-color brochure to convey “sophistication” is designed, written and printed. With only a vague purpose in mind, benchmarking the value of the investment is all but impossible.
A low-value approach I’ve seen many times is an attempt to gain insight into client perceptions. To that end, SmithJones Accounting commissions a market research study. The costly undertaking reveals that the firm is perceived as “reliable,” “responsive” and “technically competent.” Such an assessment does nothing to differentiate Smith & Jones from all the other reliable, responsive, and technically competent firms in its space. A few partners read the whole study, everybody else skims the executive summary and nothing changes.
The subject of low-yield efforts would not be complete without a mention of the formerly tried and true generic banker and lawyer get-togethers. This is a “meets minimum requirements” strategy for several reasons, including the fact that there are simply no longer enough bankers and lawyers to go around. It’s also true that today’s more “niched” market requires industry and sector focus. Putting all your eggs in the generic banker/lawyer basket is wasteful when there’s a better way.
Try These, Instead
Why waste time and energy on stale tactics when you can strategically select and implement ideas that work?
Display your thought leadership to potential clients
The best way to do this is through writing and speaking. Although many CPAs do not picture themselves as public speakers, many of us can communicate strongly through the written word– especially if you commission a professional writer to help convert your ideas into writing. Write for your own newsletter, prominently display your articles on your website, or use them as a follow-up to business development meetings. The cost of writing and distributing an article is dramatically lower than the cost of paid advertising, and gaining the attention of the target audience can often be considerably higher.
Don’t worry about getting published in magazines or newspapers. First get an inventory of issues-based articles on the shelf. Placement by others comes much later, after you’ve proven you have something compelling to share.
Focus your attention on industry niches
The most basic lesson of marketing is to identify and pursue a target market. Do this by gaining visibility in the sector through thought leadership and finding ways to innovate your services. Today’s smart money is on using strategic channels to get your services known to the people best likely to want them. This can be done by linking up with an association, another provider, a publisher, or even a competitor. This approach will yield you far more than an over-priced lunch with a generic banker. Strategic channels are often hidden, but reveal themselves once you spend time, observing and researching an “ecosystem” or market.
Worked for Him
Recently a CPA asked me to help him improve business. He had been “marketing” himself for a few years to local lawyers, and talking himself up at cocktail parties and the Chamber of Commerce, but he wasn’t getting very far.
I suggested he identify specific buyer groups that he’d like to target. During our coaching session, I learned that this buttoned-up accountant used to play guitar in a rock band. This was my first hint that he would find a creative set of clients the most rewarding.
He came up with four niches that interested him: nonprofits, law firms, theater arts, and industrial design. He worked to develop each through research calls, and eventually gravitated to industrial design, which didn’t surprise me. He attended professional conferences, began reading and writing in leading industry publications and focused on meeting people in the field. Today, his practice is off and running, with a niche developing in industrial design, a creative and interesting field. He has truly “found his people.”
He wrote me with thanks and said: “I have learned more about my practice areas through research calls that help me and my clients. I also learned that I love doing the interviews. I like meeting people and gathering information -- there’s always something to learn and a new connection to be made.” There’s also money to be made.
What do you think? Are you ready for viral, vital marketing that reaches out to targeted individual, industries and social networks to tell your story? I urge you to try.
About the author
Gale Crosley, CPA, was selected one of the Most Recommended Consultants in the INSIDE Public Accounting BEST OF THE BEST Annual Survey of Firms for four consecutive years, and one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting by Accounting Today magazine for two consecutive years. She is founder and principal of Crosley + Company, providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. She brings more than 30 years of experience, featuring a unique combination as a practicing CPA in two national accounting firms, along with significant experience in business development in the cutting edge technology environment with such firms as IBM and MCI. For more information, visit the website at www.crosleycompany.com or contact her at