The Importance of a Web Presence
An effective web presence has become an increasingly important component of a tax or accounting firm’s marketing strategy. But with the emerging value of social media and search engine optimization, it’s often easy to forget how flexible, powerful – and essential -- a web presence can be.
Ideally, the communications of a firm with its many audiences is a balance of six elements. The web site is the foundation, and from this the firm is able to craft a social media strategy; a secure client portal; search engine optimization efforts that help the audience quickly find the firm and its resources; blogs; and a traditional media mix of print advertising, online advertising and other media.
Each of these has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Facebook, for example, is governed by its own set of rules for privacy and content. Search engine optimization requires constant attention as the search engines change their criteria and algorithms in an effort to keep their results relevant.
A presence on the Web likewise offers advantages and disadvantages:
- Accessible anytime and from anywhere.
- Establishes and reinforces the brand and mission of the firm.
- Inexpensive to own and operate.
- Flexible in a wide range of services – from software downloads and live chat to blogs and collaboration.
- Reach a broader audience.
Of these, the most valuable is the site’s flexibility to handle different missions within a single site, or spanning several locations.
- The site must be refreshed and updated on a regular basis.
- No control over who sees the information on a public web site – including competitors and disgruntled former employees or clients.
- Spammers, hackers and other security threats abound.
- Requires some knowledge of design and web programming.
Most often, it is this need for design and programming that makes it difficult to use the web site to its full potential. Fortunately, there are resources to help bridge this difficulty.
Building a Web Site
Whether you are building a site for a new firm or updating an existing site gone stagnant, four considerations will dominate how the site is designed and operated:
- Create a plan for the site. Consider what content will be made available there, how it will interact with the other five elements of communication previously noted, the mission of the organization, and a cost estimate for the design work involved. It is impossible to design the site to meet your expectations if you do not know what those expectations are.
- Decide who will be responsible for the site. Web sites need champions, and require management if they are not to stagnate. The responsibility for the site should be assigned like any other management task, and should be properly budgeted and reported upon to the partners of the firm.
- Decide who will design the site. There are really four options here. You can contract with a professional web design firm and get the very best and most capable site – but at a price. You can buy software like WebEasy Professional or Web Studio, which are far less expensive but carry a learning curve for whoever uses it. You can use the web-building program provided by your hosting service. Or you can simply hire a university student studying web design to design the site as a summer internship – paid, even if modestly.
- Decide how to define success. The greatest contributor to the decline of a web site is that we fail to define success. If the stated intent of the site is to present capabilities to clients – but success is measured in new business leads – the site will be mismatched with its mission and will lapse.
Outsourcing the Provider and Design
Large accounting and tax firms can afford and should use a professional design firm and a nationally-rated hosting service. Smaller firms – the more typical for the industry – don’t have the resources to afford such services. For these firms, there are 10 questions that need to be asked before committing to a contract for design and/or hosting:
- Does the hosting service also offer a web design system? This can be the easiest and least expensive way to get the web site up and running, and has the benefit that it is fully compatible with the capabilities of the hosting service. The only down side is that there will be a limited number of templates to choose from for the design. Study the templates in advance, and determine the total cost of design plus hosting.
- Who owns the design? Ownership is a critical consideration, because if the hosting service owns the template and copyright, the firm will be bound to that hosting service unless it chooses a complete re-design of the site.
- How steep is the learning curve? Designing the site can be fun and challenging – unless you also have a business to run and clients to serve. The paradox is that the easiest site builder programs are the most limited, while the best features require more time and attention. Know up from what you are getting into.
- How much do the modules cost? A typical web-builder system will charge a low entry rate for a basic site, but more for the modules that drive e-commerce, blogging, and other high-end services. Know the costs up front to avoid unpleasant surprises.
- How much support is available? No matter how interested and accomplished, the accountant building the site will run up against the ever-changing nature of the World Wide Web. At some point, it will be necessary to consult some level of support to answer questions and suggest solutions. It is helpful to know what is available, and at what cost.
- What is the total cost of ownership over 10 years for design and hosting? Some web hosting services use their design builders as loss leaders to have you sign with their services, or offer low first-year hosting fees that escalate. Get a 10-year average and total up front to compare services.
- What are the five-year financials for the hosting service? A very awkward situation is when the web hosting service fails to survive financially, and closes its doors in the middle of the night. The firm can suffer a catastrophic loss of its web site with no recourse to get its own content back.
- Who registers the web site and maintains administrative control? Many web hosting services offer to manage the administration of the site, automatically renewing it when due and handling routine chores related to keeping it running. Of course, this puts control of the web site in the hands of a third party, which can be disastrous if the web hosting firm is not stable.
- Is the site mobile-enabled? It is generally simple to build a web site that is optimized for access both by web browsers and mobile devices, but this needs to be integrated in the web-builder package and the hosting service. Make sure that your site is flexible enough to handle both.
- Does the site host other accounting firms? This is helpful to know, because it connotes some experience with firms such as yours. The only caveat is to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest between your firm and others on the same service.
A strong and effective web presence is the cornerstone of the firm’s communications strategy, but is not easy to do well. While larger firms can outsource the design and hosting of the site, smaller firms will have to make use of other, more economical resources. These are fortunately available with just a small amount of research.