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An attention-getting marketing strategy.

The marketing and promotion of CPA firms present strategists with a unique challenge. Theoretically, the task should not be that difficult since CPAs have a well-defined "product" and a large and ready market for their services. Many strategies, however, have not been effective.

MARKETING CONSTRAINTS

In marketing professional services, strategists face certain explicit and implicit constraints.

Professionalism. Marketing efforts must be designed and implemented conservatively, within the professional and ethical constraints set forth by the American Institute of CPAs. Consequently, many traditional means of promotion, such as certain mass media advertising, outdoor advertising, discount coupons and so on, are unacceptable. Direct marketing strategies, such as networking or telemarketing, must be implemented with care.

Interest. CPAs must attempt to communicate with a consumer market that views their services as more of an obligation than a benefit. To get necessary information across, whether as straightforward business advice or as part of the firm's promotion, written copy must be interesting, concise and relevant to readers.

Differentiation. To the general public, all accountants perform essentially the same functions--some just charge higher fees than others. After all, what claim can one accountant make over another? That documents will be prepared on time? That the client will receive personalized attention? That confidentiality will be maintained? These claims are all too common and thus may have a diluted effect on a client's decision.

Budgetary constraints. Every firm has some limit on promotional expenditures, so the strategy chosen must be targeted carefully to the firm's current marketing objectives.

The trick is to identify a cost-effective and professional marketing strategy that will retain existing clients, attract new ones and encourage referrals by communicating an image and information in an interesting, unique manner. That's a tall order--and therein lies the challenge.

MARKETING OPTIONS

Different marketing strategies meet CPAs' needs with varying degrees of success. Here's a rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of several methods and a discussion of one successful strategy.

Public relations can offer firms credibility by portraying them as experts in a given area, thereby establishing a professional public image. Unfortunately, media coverage must be earned, which means the firm must be involved in what the media consider newsworthy activity. And to be consistently newsworthy throughout the year is difficult, particularly for new or small practices.

Many firms have developed brochures to detail partner and staff credentials and describe firm services. However, brochures can be used only once and used alone are not particularly effective for building a referral base or attracting new clients.

Some firms provide informative newsletters to existing clients. This strategy is unquestionably professional and can be implemented at a relatively low cost. But while newsletters are very effective in maintaining regular contact with existing clients, they tend to fall short when it comes to attracting new clients or building referrals. Also, many are geared more to CPAs than to clients and contain too much information.

Other CPAs have tried their hand at direct-mail marketing, which comes the closest to meeting all of the marketing objectives while remaining within professional and practical constraints. Although direct mail can be quite effective, the results can fall short of their potential if the program is not implemented properly.

ONE DIRECT-MAIL OPTION

A good direct-mail program should achieve many of the benefits CPAs seek in marketing efforts:

* Maintain regular contact with clients throughout the year.

* Share pertinent tax and accounting information with clients.

* Develop and project a unique, professional public image.

* Encourage referrals and attract new clients to the practice.

* Carry a relatively low budget.

* Be adaptable for both individual and business clients.

One successful program that meets these goals involves postcard mailers, each of which focus on a single accounting or tax-related issue, such as S corporation election, computerizing accounting records, the tax audit, yearend tax tips, etc. The cards can be used to break down a complicated issue, remind clients of deadlines or discuss new laws.

On the front of the card is a somewhat serious cartoon; on the back is brief but informative copy on the selected topic. (See an example below.) Each set of cards should be customized to introduce subject matter appropriate to the firm and its clientele and to project the firm's unique image.

COST AND BENEFITS

Depending on the quality of the artwork and on printing costs, production of a single set of 750 custom-designed cards printed in black ink only on good quality linen paper costs about $490 per mailing ($.65 apiece).

The program requires the services of at least two outside professionals in addition to the typesetter-printer. The firm would need a professional artist to custom design each cartoon and prepare camera-ready artwork for the printer. It would also require a copy writer, who should have some familiarity with accounting, to choose topics and prepare the final copy in terms laypeople can understand. Fees for these services, as well as typesetting, printing and sales tax, have been included in the estimate given. Once the cards are produced, the firm need only affix postage and mailing labels for clients and targeted prospects.

As with any investment, the cost of a marketing program must be compared with its long-term profit potential. For example, a very conservative purchase response rate of .5% on a single mailing of 750 (or 3.75 new clients) would cost roughly $130 per new client, which seems a small price to pay for a client the firm may have for many years.

OPENING THE CAMPAIGN

A firm should start by preparing a schedule of topics for the first year and introducing the campaign in a letter to existing and prospective clients. Mailers are sent monthly following the introduction. New prospects are offered a limited sampling. (Generally, a series of three cards is appropriate.) Established clients receive the mailings year-round.

The strategy is based in part on the typical office practice of tacking up favorite cartoons on the wall next to one's desk. If the cartoon and information on the card are chosen wisely, there's a good chance these cards and the firm's name will begin receiving prominent attention throughout the firm's target market. Referrals come in because the cards are passed around the office they're sent to and finally take a permanent position on someone's wall.

The program should be run for a full year because many of its benefits accrue over time.

AN INNOVATIVE PROGRAM

The accounting profession is becoming increasingly competitive. Firms that succeed will take an active role in planning and implementing marketing strategies. An innovative direct-mail program can be an effective way to distinguish a firm and promote its services to existing and prospective clients.

L. Jean McCracken, MBA, director of marketing, Marketing 101 Incorporated, Delray Beach, Florida, discusses a professional and effective marketing program.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:McCracken, L. Jean
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Words:1122
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