How eMarketing can help your firm

Accountancy firms can gain a demonstrable marketing advantage in today’s competitive environment by creating a well-designed website, and having an integrated eMarketing strategy.

And eMarketing efforts such as websites, extranets, email and search engine marketing, ideally integrated with all offline marketing activities, can provide a surprisingly high return on investment.

So what makes an emarketing strategy work?
The internet is a place for finding information in a proactive manner; so it has proved frustrating for those used to using passive techniques such as banner advertising.

But knowledge-rich organisations can use this environment for eMarketing in a myriad of ways. And with users actively searching for information, great benefits can be gained by marketing information at a niche or granular level.

In simple terms, don’t market the fact that you are a great accountancy firm and compete with every accountancy firm around. Instead, market your unique selling points, such as specialist services, vertical markets or distinct geographic area.

Back this up with additional information published online. It’s cheaper than printed marketing literature.

This information can then be used to cross sell services to existing clients. Using a website in conjunction with email newsletters can increase client communication, again at significantly lower costs than using posted newsletters.

Using email newsletters
With email newsletters, clients register and specify their areas of interest. Periodic emails are sent automatically which contain the specific requested information. These automatic email marketing systems have an initial capital cost of less than £4,000 – less than the revenue distribution costs of many printed newsletters and much more potent.

Delivering personalised, niche information through an extranet can also be a very effective emarketing technique. This direct client communication, which a client has to log in to use, will be rejected unless there is a perceived benefit to the client.

Alternatively, an organisation can create micro-sites covering topical aspects of accountancy. By using these on a regular basis, users will gain trust in the larger organisation – and view them as an authoritative body when they actually look to employ an accountancy firm.

These sorts of niche marketing techniques also make a firm’s website easier to market to search engines. It is easier to attain Top 10 rankings for a specific term rather than, say, ‘London Accounting firms’.

If niche and narrowcast digital marketing is more effective and no more expensive than broadcast marketing, then why is it not used more often? Well, it can take more planning, and requires greater consideration the whole digital strategy. However, that planning can pay off.

Marketing your unique selling points or specialist services
Contact details and a location map are obviously useful, but one of the key reasons business-to-consumer companies have been so successful online is that they sell a tangible product 0 the ‘apples and pears’ approach. However, a firm offering services rather than products can still ‘commoditise’ its services.

A casual visitor is more likely to understand – and therefore be tempted to purchase – a ‘packaged’ service. If users feel a ‘security in numbers’, they will trust that what they are buying is a tried and tested service and not feel the need for a face-to-face meeting.

The firms that have been most successful online are those that have created ‘products’ that can be easily understood and purchased by the casual visitor.

Some of these are simple to understand, such as the completion and submission of an individual’s tax return for a set fee. Others are extremely sophisticated, for example Linklater’s Blue Flag product and CMS Cameron McKenna’s Law Now service.

Another good example is McBrides’ Car Tax Calculator.

Originally developed as a ‘sticky’ area of the McBrides Accountancy website, the calculator proved so successful – including a full review in the Financial Times – that it is now commands a £9.99 subscription fee.

How often you should update your website?
This largely depends how easily it can be done. If you have a static website that needs large amounts of in-house design time or liaison with an external agency, a content management system (CMS) is a good idea. A CMS will allow you to quickly change content in a ‘copy and paste’ manner.

Although certain search engines will use the regularity of updated content as a key variable in their ranking algorithms (see below) it is more important that the content is updated at a frequency to suit an individual firm or practice.

If useful content can only realistically be added to your site once a quarter, then stick to that – just don’t call your news area ‘hot news’ or something similar.

What about search engines?
Obviously, even the best website in the world needs to be easy to locate, so in addition to marketing, you must address the issue of search engines. The days of simply adding some reference data to the code known as ‘meta keywords’ are long gone.

To ensure that your site ranks highly with the search engines, you must first choose relevant strategic key words. These must be based on the market you wish to attract to your site.

It is more productive to choose a key phrase of two or more words for each relevant page. For example, if you specialise in taxation, consider key phrases such as: ‘personal taxation’ or ‘international taxation’.

Using ‘taxation’ only will increase the level of competition, and reduce your chance of appearing at the top of the search lists.

A search engine will determine relevancy of your site in regard to key words by following rules (algorithms) regarding the location and frequency of key words.

All search engines can determine the popularity of a page by analysing how many links there are made to it from other pages. Some major engines use this as a means to determine which pages they will include in the index.

Having the depth of content on your site that attracts links from other sites will not only increase visits through the link, it will also boost your position in some search engines rankings.

Another important factor is the frequency with which pages are updated. Search engines will give higher rankings to pages which have been updated recently which is a further impetus for refreshing content on a regular basis.

Using sponsored links
Another option to consider with search engines is to invest in paid for or ‘sponsored’ links. For example, if a firm decides that the term ‘personal taxation’ is extremely relevant to its business, it can effectively buy the use of the term from a search engine.

When a user searches for ‘personal taxation’ and a list of relevant results are displayed, a link to the purchasing firm is included in the results.

The purchase of these keywords is done through specialist companies and is effectively a continual auction, as the more desirable the search term required the more expensive it is going to be.

Margaret Manning is chief executive officer of internet development company Reading Room

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