CPA Growth Trends, Marketing

From Clicks to Clients: Digital Strategies that Drive Growth

Analyzing Digital Growth Metrics - Tablet Analytics

The accounting industry is undergoing a major digital transformation accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While traditional methods of growth will always be important, creating a digital culture and strategy is imperative to build scalable and repeatable methods of growth.

Many firms are investing in digital marketing tactics such as SEO, social media, paid ads and email marketing to attract new business, but most struggle with generating significant revenue through these channels.

David Toth, chief growth officer of Winding River Consulting, said the key challenge lies in the widespread focus on tactical execution without first establishing a comprehensive digital strategy and fostering a digital culture within the firm.

“By taking a more strategic approach  — one that encompasses audience identification, targeted outreach, conversion optimization, customer journey mapping — accounting firms can significantly enhance their digital performance,” Toth said.

The most important factor for achieving a successful digital strategy, Toth said, is to create a digital culture. Firms with a strong digital culture can prioritize digital as a fundamental driver of growth, conveying the message that “digital is an absolute must for us.”

How to Build an Organic Digital Strategy

Brandon Hall, founder and managing partner of Hall CPA, started building his business — unintentionally — before he left the consulting practice of EY. As a new real estate investor, he became an active contributor to the online real estate forum, Bigger Pockets, answering tax questions.

“Tax was a lot of fun for me, and people were so appreciative to get free advice,” Hall said. “I created a positive feedback loop on a daily and hourly basis that I was not getting at my job.”

Once people started reaching out and asking if he was taking on new clients, he realized he could build a firm from this strategy.

In addition to leading his CPA firm, Hall is the co-host of the Tax Smart Real Estate Investors Podcast (which gets 130,000 downloads each month) and manager of a Facebook group with over 16,000 followers. He is also the owner of Tax Strategy Foundation, a series of paid online courses created to help new real estate investors manage their tax strategy.

Hall says 95% of his new business comes through digital channels — without spending a dime on paid advertising. After identifying Bigger Pockets as a direct channel to his target audience and building connections, he started creating relevant content to educate his followers — all for free.

“A lot of CPAs won’t discuss detailed tax strategies publicly on blogs, podcasts or videos,” Hall said. “They generally charge consultation fees for this information.”

Hall’s strategy, however, is to give his followers in-depth tax secrets at no cost. Because tax laws are complex, most investors don’t want to handle their taxes on their own. So they hire Hall CPAs for the work. Meanwhile, the free digital resources bring more potential clients into his sales funnel.

Since 2017, Hall and one of his partners, Thomas Castelli, have produced a weekly podcast and video series and published articles. They’ve also built their Facebook community and leveraged Instagram and YouTube as channels to their audience. In addition, they’ve focused on search engine optimization (SEO) to help attract more investors who needed help and leveraged influencers by regularly appearing as guests on other popular podcasts. Their podcast, which brings in 100 to 150 leads per month, is their anchor.

“We release a podcast and video every single week (except Christmas) without fail,” Hall said. “Consistency is key for building a following. It has taken about a year and a half for our efforts to really gain traction and start yielding leads.”

While many firms turn away business that doesn’t meet their minimum thresholds, Hall believes that no lead is a bad lead. Real estate investors grow their portfolios and eventually get large enough to hire Hall. Until then, Hall’s team pushes these leads toward their Facebook community, their podcast and their paid courses created to help small investors develop a solid tax strategy. Their focus on education and building communities keeps these investors in their funnel until they’re ready to buy.

His advice for firms wanting to create a robust digital strategy is to remember that “people buy from people.” Find someone in your firm who’s extroverted, loves creating content, enjoys educating people, is comfortable with public speaking and engaging with prospects and clients. Help them build a personal brand and create a digital strategy, and then compensate them for these efforts.

Using AI to Streamline Content Production

The challenge of creating content to build a robust organic strategy can seem insurmountable for many marketers and accounting firms. When Hall was building what he calls “the machine,” he spent at least 20 hours per week on content production.

His advice for established firms interested in creating a digital strategy for a particular niche is to identify the appropriate channels and then assign different people to each channel. So collectively, for example, a firm could spend four hours per day on content, with those hours divided among three people (and scale that as needed).

Some have found that artificial intelligence (AI) helps reduce the time spent generating content. Paul Boechler, business development and marketing manager at Virtus Group based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is leveraging ChatGPT Pro for this reason.

Boechler creates prompts around keywords, asking ChatGPT for article outlines that identify headings and subheadings that would “likely” rank high on Google. (He found that ChatGPT doesn’t work in absolutes, so “likely” is a better prompt.) He then requests 800 to 1,000-word articles based upon the outline, specifically requesting the use of original content to avoid plagiarism. He also uses prompts to better reflect the firm’s tone, language and target audience.

“By leveraging AI we get draft articles that are 40% to 60% complete, which saves our accountants hours of work,” said Boechler. The firm’s subject matter experts then edit the articles using their own words to create original “human-generated” content for their SEO strategy.

How to Succeed with Paid Digital Ads

Sean Smith, the CMO of Schneider Downs, worked for advertising agencies for 20 years before transitioning to public accounting and has leveraged his experience to create a multi-channel paid digital strategy that’s driving real growth for his firm.

Similar to Hall, Smith’s focus is on creating high-quality, relevant content. Schneider Downs creates whitepapers, engagement surveys, informational videos, on-demand CPE eligible webinars and more. However, he primarily connects with his audience through display advertising — programmatic and within targeted publications (local business journals, industry-specific journals, etc.) — and social media advertising.

“Our objective is to get our target audience to our website and reward them for their attention by providing great information,” Smith said.

And their efforts are paying off. More than 400 people downloaded the firm’s whitepaper on the R&D tax credit alone, which resulted in new clients and revenue that far surpassed what they spent on advertising.

The firm takes a multi-channel approach to advertising because their audience isn’t in just one place.

“I’m the CMO of Schneider Downs and I’m also a foodie. I love to eat out and make beer. I’m also a sports fanatic and I listen to a lot of music,” Smith said. “Think about all those places someone could reach me with ads.”

Smith and his team use LinkedIn to target their audience by serving ads for a particular niche service or gated piece of content (for example, their whitepaper on R&D tax credits and their proprietary lease software). They’re also reaching this audience on other websites through display advertising that promotes their services and highlights case studies.

“Taking a brand awareness-focused approach to advertising tends to produce higher quality leads when they ultimately convert on our website because they’re curious about learning more about the firm when they click through. When we promote specific content, such as whitepapers, we get more people leaving fake emails because they’re interested in the content, but not in our firm and our services,” Smith said, noting the exception of LinkedIn.

Smith explained that digital advertising through these channels must be targeted and frequent to achieve success. That, along with rewarding website visitors with valuable educational information that keeps them coming back, are key elements of his success.

Tying it Together

Marketers play a critical role in getting firm leadership’s support to elevate digital to the strategic growth level and help create a digital culture within their firms. But as Toth says, this comes with the challenge of overcoming how marketing has been perceived over time.

“Marketers need to have conversations with firm leadership about their role within the firm,” said Toth. “Are they going to be a marketing team focused on the more traditional expense line item? Or are they going to position themselves as a growth leader within their firm and elevate expectations to get a seat at the table?”

About Stacy Dreher

Stacy Dreher is the marketing director for James Moore & Co., a CPA and business consulting firm with five offices throughout Florida. She has over 15 years of experience developing growth strategies for professional services firms and building teams and systems to effectively execute them.

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