n 2019, Prosper undertook research into accountants branding, positioning and website design to gather a deeper understanding of how the industry presents itself online. With my research assistant, Megan, I looked at 500 accountants across London, Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire and in early 2020 I published the findings on the Prosper website.
Our research shows that many accountants have been slow to embrace the idea of differentiating via their branding, with the majority of accountants we looked at sporting blue and grey as their identity colours, verbatim positioning statements across the board and a distinct lack of imagination in naming conventions.
Without acknowledging the need for considered branding, or having a functional website, accountants, like any business, will eventually suffer and lose out to their better-positioned competition. However, I also recognise that these shortcomings might not always be apparent to the busy practice owner, or simply do not present themselves in an obvious way. Ask any practice owner when they last carried out an impartial brand and website audit to understand how they might be perceived by potential prospects, and for many, I think the answer will probably be 'when we last had our website built' or 'when we started the business'.
For firms that do not employ marketing managers to help them stay on the pulse; for owners that are busy working 'in the business' as opposed to 'on the business' or for those firms run by boomer generation partners who are not necessarily attuned to the fact that now, more than ever, brand differentiation is key to maintaining relevance in the marketplace, take heed. You will face challenges to keep your firm relevant, ranked and required, and these will stem from your branding, positioning and website performance, and also by how your competition approaches these same factors.
What do I mean by relevant, ranked and required? Is your firm relevant, especially to a new younger generation of business owners? Do you communicate with your audience via social channels, do you write about the challenges and offer solutions to the problems they face? When did you last post anything on your blog or social media channels? If your website says 'Copyright 2019', and your last blog post is dated 2018 are you looking a little inactive, or even lax? Are you still sporting a Google+ link on your website (you are?... get rid of it!)
Do you rank? How are you showing up in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)? Is your content organically pushing your website up the Google results pages? Are you posting content on social media that links back to your site? Don't forget that all-important Google My Business listing and those reviews.
Are you still required? The two R's (relevancy and ranking) come together to influence your third R. If 'relevancy' and 'ranking' fall by the wayside, you will, in time, be 'required' by fewer new customers and you may see existing clients moving over to companies who appear to 'go the extra mile', those who implementing time-saving processes for their clients or demonstrating how they help solve client problems with compelling case studies.
So the worst-case scenario:
You're not particularly relevant to a younger generation of business owners and entrepreneurs who are seeking a demonstrably modern accounting firm.
You're not ranking well (i.e. being found online) because you're not taking a proactive approach to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), or publishing original content.
You're not required because for the above reasons you are not competing with your competition who are confidently differentiated, constantly publishing content and thought leadership and showing their brand personality through social media.
So now there's a fourth 'R' that will need to be considered. Will you continue to be 'respected'?...
I believe that in the next few years we will see an upsurge in long-established mid-sized accountancy firms undertaking brand identity reviews or rebranding exercises in response to the following four distinct challenges:
Why would the millennial business owner choose you?
How are you communicating with them?
Are you illustrating with case studies how you help clients?
Are you portraying yourself as a modern company?
Is your website functioning properly on their devices?
Do your social media posts and blog articles demonstrate consistency and expertise?
How is your company known as a place to work?
What sort of impression are you giving about your firm culture and work-life and is this coming across in your social media posts or on your website?
Do you have a reputation for specific expertise or working within an industry sector that would attract suitable talent?
What softer factors are at play that would attract the right kind of talent?
Is social proof giving credence to word-of-mouth recommendations for your firm?
Where is your audience looking for recommendations?
People will ask for recommendations on social platforms. The nature of recommendation is changing, and forward-thinking firms will understand that their brand touchpoints will be seen by potential customers before they pick up the phone.
Writing and publishing your own original content as part of a wider brand strategy is an excellent way to differentiate your practice and provide value to your future and existing clients. Quality written content is impactful, long-lasting and provides substance and credibility to your social media and other marketing efforts.
Why marketing for accountants is irrelevant without considered branding and good positioning
Branding 'evangelist' Gerry Foster points out that "Branding is differentiating yourself. Marketing is getting people to see the difference".
Marketing takes many forms, from lead generation to social media advertising, to Google ad-words PPC to traditional networking and print advertising. Depending on your approach to marketing, and your belief in the efficiency of these marketing vehicles, you won't struggle to find a company or an individual that is willing to help implement these strategies for you.
But before jumping on the marketing train comes the other challenge that needs to be addressed: Brand differentiation. So what is it and why should that come first?
It's a big question and the answer is multi-faceted, but to differentiate your brand is to allow your customers to understand what makes your accountancy practice different. What is it you do, and how do you do it that is different from the practice down the road?
Is your positioning statement particularly 'stand out'?
Do you specialise in an industry or service?
Does your website offer a positive or engaging experience for your viewers?
Are you writing helpful content and answering client enquiries promptly?
That's just a few examples of ways you can differentiate your accountancy brand, and there are others. Firms truly looking to stand out and win business over their competition will look at all aspects of their marketing mix; their social media presence, their content; their website; as well as their brand identity, to name a few.
And the reason that branding and identity should be considered before marketing is because otherwise what exactly are you marketing? The same services? A similar-looking logo? Are you saying 'we're an experienced pro-active firm of accountants who help businesses both large and small'? If you're offering the same services, using the same language, the same colour scheme, then you're essentially anonymous and people will not be able to easily tell you apart. As author Alina Wheeler asks in her book 'Designing Brand Identity' Why should they care?
The truth is the industry is changing and accountants will now need to recognise the role that branding will play in helping them solve the four issues outlined above.
Reader, perhaps you're a practice owner, or marketing manager who understands that recommendation now morphs into reputation and visa versa. You know that this recommendation extends to social proof indicators like Google and Facebook reviews and the experience your website delivers.
You're also aware that other firms in your area, who court the same prospects and offer the same services are not only making their first impressions through their branding ... they're also helping your firm make its first impression through their branding.
Was the central hub of your marketing (your website) chosen from a selection of templates, which then had your logo added to the corner?
Ultimately the thing to understand about branding is it precedes marketing and can lend weight to referrals, it's the first impression you make, and, done badly, the last. Opinions are no longer formed and solidified at the point of a handshake and a business card, but with your company brand touchpoints. Touchpoints which the prospect considers as they seek further evidence to back up the referral they've received or an elevator pitch you've given.
Maintain momentum in attracting search-savvy clients and why your brand and website needs to look right.
You may have profiled your ideal client in the past, allowing you to refine your marketing efforts and target the kind of customer that you want to serve. But the question lies in, how does your website or your social media posts (among other things) persuade that audience that you should be the firm they want to entrust with their affairs?
I'll come back to this point repeatedly, but are you making the right impression? If your website is not displaying properly on the viewer's tablet or mobile device then what is that saying about your firm? If that sounds trivial to you, consider that some 53% of people that visit your website for the first time will do so on a mobile device.
Do you have an SSL certificate installed on your website? Without this, many of your site visitors will be shown a warning on their screen as they try to visit your website. Our research shows that 37% of websites were not displaying as secure and 16% were not mobile-friendly. Make sure that from the very outset your website is making the right impression.
The copy and images on your website
Beyond the function of your websites comes the question of the content itself. Are the images you use full of cliches? Are they low res or perhaps too large, causing slow loading times? And the same question should be asked about your social media posts or other 'public-facing' aspects of your brand.
The standard and quality of stock photography on accountants websites is generally poor, even occasionally bordering on condescending. However, we've also found stock imagery on accountants websites that is tasteful, upmarket and portrays the company in question as true experts.
We found a distinct lack of variation in the language accountants use to describe what they do and for whom. It is understandable that there are only so many ways to describe your core services or proposition, however, some differentiation can go a long way. Accountants that really stood out with their positioning statements were those that niched in a specific industry.
Our research showed us examples of accountants that worked with various industry professions, dentists, musicians and start-ups. It is important to clearly state your positioning statement on your website, (and if you do niche or specialise then you can hone your copy and content to resonate with this audience). As well as using uninspired or samey language, frequently accountants positioning statements were lost through poor design choices, so the hierarchy of information was not clear or defined. You can read about commonly used phrases and word pairings in accountants positioning statements in our research.
Beyond the well-functioning website and a clear proposition, what else does, for example, the twenty-something e-commerce entrepreneur want from an accountant? A firm that will use cloud software, recommends complimentary accounting apps for their clients to use. A firm that is extremely responsive to emails, conducts video meetings via Skype or Zoom to save time (and the environment) and utilises platforms such as What's App. A firm that uses project management apps and Google Suite or who will answer a query quickly via the built-in chatbot or Twitter. Welcome then to modern expectations.
Consider how your communication stack, the tools you use to speak with or reach out to new customers, may help you. By letting your customer know that you are happy to communicate via video or WhatsApp may be appealing to time-poor business owners, and attract new prospects and new talent alike. Examples can include Zoom video conferencing, Skype, and WhatsApp.
Where appropriate, documents and projects can be managed via Google Docs, DropBox, Monday and Slack. Not forgetting, of course, the numerous MTD compatible accounting apps such as Zoho Books, Quickbooks, ClearBooks and similar.
Of course, this software will require a learning curve, and most accountants will lean towards a few 'tried and trusted' methods. There is, of course, the argument for email and telephone to help keep a record of what is said and when, but if you can help your clients and yourself save time but still offer a quality level of communication then everybody wins.
Attract a new generation of talent by embracing employer branding.
The other issue accountants (and other professional service industries) face is the need to attract younger, and/or specialised talent. Methods to reduce staff turnover and maintain morale are another topic altogether and not one that I would try and cover here, but to attract talent to your firm, you must be proactive in cultivating brand awareness and embrace the concept of employer branding.
What do I mean by employer branding? Consider if someone would be interested in sending a speculative CV to your firm. What do you do to portray your company as an attractive, happy and desirable place to work? How are you showing that to your public? Here are some ideas:
An amazing example of brand differentiation that I should imagine has worked wonders for attracting staff is the firm Cooper Parry. Their fantastic website features a page called Life at Cooper Parry, which is all about what a new employee can expect, and how they will be supported and nurtured.
There are a wealth of softer factors at play here, that stretch far beyond the standard 'salary and holidays' package. When companies portray their human sides, their personalities, and put on a smile this can reap rewards. If your branding and tone of voice are still very 'blue and grey' and a tad conservative, then you may struggle to attract the forward-thinking young talent you're going to need in the years to come.
Understanding that word-of-mouth recommendation is no longer the deciding factor for people looking for experts.
American marketing and research company Hinge published statistics that show 81% of prospects will view a firms website before they decide to contact them, and 52% of buyers will rule out a business before speaking with them.
This point harks back to Challenge One and also leads to Challenge Four. You need to be found in search, you need to make a good impression through your website experience. Additionally, your social reviews and social proof should add credibility to the referrals that are being made about your firm.
If you do receive a negative review, reply with positive language, say that you are sorry your service didn't meet the reviewer's expectations on this occasion and invite them to contact you to see how you can help them further.
Remember, reviews on Google My Business are in the public domain, so it is important that you acknowledge them and demonstrate a pro-active approach with any less than happy customers. Our research shows that 57% of accountants utilise Google reviews, and the average number of reviews per practice is 7.5.
Embracing content marketing and publishing content aimed at your audience, niched or otherwise.
Are you consistently producing and publishing content that resonates with your audience and posting this on your social channels? Writing an original blog is a great way for you to demonstrate thought leadership, and although this comes under the remit of content marketing, this activity will allow your audience to form an opinion of your brand and allows you to develop a reputation as an expert.
The most common social media platforms for accountants are Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter, but you also need to consider where your audience will be, so if you specialise in accounting services for interior designers, for example, consider what platforms they will be posting on (hint... in this example, it's probably Instagram).
Original content is a powerful tool, bolstering your reputation and giving your social media efforts real substance. Today, the smart accountancy firm will understand the requirement for content marketing, and start publishing content that is helpful, knowledgable and free. Yes, free. Give it away, you'll be surprised at how this can shape the opinions of your firm.
When we talk about the word 'content' we are referring to things including:
Short free guides to help your customers make decisions or choices
Your content should be of value and, except for Linkedin articles, should be available directly on your website. You will find some accountants' websites feature a 'Resources' page that offers downloads of their eBooks and guides.
Your blog page (or, as I prefer, your 'Insight' page) should be reserved exclusively for your written expertise. This is not the place to share your office party photos, meet the team profiles (a separate page for this is recommended), or even your latest news. Any content that is not strictly opinion should be directed to your social channels. Blog articles should also be shared to your social channels of course but the blog article page itself should not be diluted with non-expertise content.
In a nutshell: Reserve your blog page for expertise only but allow your social media feeds to show the 'human' side of your firm, as well as your blog articles. Remember, a client or potential employee will likely look at both of these before they reach out to you.
In the book 'Epic Content Marketing' author Joe Pulizzi talks about companies Lego and Red Bull commenting "Red Bull is a publishing empire that just happens to make energy drinks... Lego is a publishing empire that also makes plastic bricks'. These companies understand how their reputation can spread via content that appeals to their wide audience demographic, and they purposefully produce content that appeals to each subsection of their audience.
Does your practice subscribe to an automated 'newsfeed' or 'newswire' service on your website? As you already know, some of this exact content is sitting on many other accountants websites - such as your competition's - and therefore does nothing to set you apart. It also harms your Google rankings because it's verbatim duplicate content. Are you aware of this content being read on your website? It certainly doesn't count as insight or even a blog. Possible content for social media slow-days? Sure. Content that gets you noticed and remembered? It is not.
The term 'newswire' also seems a tad antiquated. 'Industry news' sounds better, or even just 'News'. But regardless, no one really comes to your website to read up on the latest newswire update, do they? My point is this, the money you spend on subscribing to a feed that is perhaps more interesting to yourself than to your audience could be spent on producing more specific and helpful content for your audience.
If you are a firm that has decided to niche in a specific type of business, then tailoring your content specifically for that audience can have great power. I won't discuss the pros and cons of niching your accountancy practice here (suffice to say that I am a firm believer in doing so) but to skip ahead, and demonstrate the effectiveness of producing content that is created especially for your target audience and not a general audience, let's assume you have.
Here's an example: You're an accountancy firm specialising in helping busy restauranteurs run profitable businesses.
Let's make some assumptions about your target audience:
1) They work long hours and are therefore time poor
2) They love what they do and have a passion for food
3) Their businesses are often made up of a partnership of two or more directors
4) They have a high-stress environment with above-average staff turnover
What sort of accounting firm will they be looking for?
First the obvious:
A firm that comes across as capable experts
A firm that seems modern and 'on the ball'
And what about this?:
A firm that will use cloud software, recommends accounting apps for their clients, conducts video meetings, and who are extremely responsive to emails to save their clients time.
A firm that is publishing specific and helpful content for restaurant owners
What sort of content or resources could you publish that might work for them?
Cashflow tips for restaurant owners
A guide to VAT in the food industry
Understanding and allocating core roles in a business
How to hire and motivate junior staff
Thinking outside the box, how about:
A restaurant review, or a rundown of your favourite eateries in your town... because now you're really talking their language.
Now, imagine each of these items above is a free downloadable PDF guide on your Resources page, and for each resource, you've written an accompanying blog article. You are of course sharing this content on your social media. And because restaurants are on Instagram, you're posting on there too.
So you're writing valuable (even niched) content and by this very act, you are creating value for your audience through your social media feeds and website. You've differentiated yourself and increased relevancy and ranking. This means you'll now be required and respected.
Some of the topics and advice I've covered here can, of course, be applied to any industry, it boils down to branding, positioning and marketing. At Prosper, I am a fan of the concept of content marketing as a pre-cursor to other marketing efforts and I'm also a great believer that businesses should niche their services.
Vertically niching (i.e. targeting an audience) allows you to develop a deeper focus, reduce your competition and provide more value to your clients, and for accountants, this is no different. But perhaps, (in the face of the evidence) accountants and other professional services need to recognise the importance of branding and brand differentiation a little quicker.
Like it or not, accountants do operate in an industry where consumers can often not determine the benefits of one practice over another. Behaviour, perceptions, tradition and even an unwillingness to invest in ways to differentiate your practice have led to a sea of sameness. The argument can also be made that some of the web and design agencies being paid to provide these services for their accounting clients simply not deliver on the branding front. Not all, of course, we have seen (and listed) some stunning accountants websites but perhaps some wider industry insight would be of benefit. But I would say this wouldn't, hence why we spent weeks and weeks putting our research together.
However, as we see at Prosper, from young business owners we work with starting their business in modern city co-working spaces to those we work with abroad wishing to rebrand from the name upwards, we notice a positive shift.
There is a new generation of professionals in this space who want to attract business owner clients with the same values as themselves. We also speak with long-established firms who recognise and embrace the idea of differentiation and seek to achieve it.
Professionalism, size and years of experience are absolutely not mutually exclusive to vibrancy, culture and staff attraction. What we know is this: although there is work to do in the branding space for accountants, practice owners are embracing the idea of change, both inwardly and outwardly.
As business owners and customers alike, we are bombarded with information hundreds of times a day, the core purpose of social media is to gain our attention, and at the heart of purposeful branding is deliberate differentiation. When accountants combine their efforts on these fronts, we will see a shift in the way the profession looks and is perceived. Here's to the firms who are embracing the new 'r', r for 'ready'.