PRACTICE 21

March 2002

CPA Websites: A Maturing Marketing Tool

By John Elfrink

In recent years, CPA firms have scrambled to establish an online presence. Initially, many considered websites to be little more than an expensive and splashy way of listing services offered by the firm. They had few specific expectations other than the occasional new client. The Internet and e-commerce have grown at a staggering rate: From 1996 to 1999, business-to-consumer e-commerce rose from $2.6 billion to $13 billion. Likewise, business-to-business e-commerce, including transactions over extranets, jumped from $42 billion to $109 billion during the same period. It is estimated that 120 million Americans are currently online and at least 100 million access the web once a month.

The number of U.S. companies actively engaged in online buying and selling has increased from less than 600,000 in 1999 to over 2.5 million today. Web hosts and application service providers have made it easier for companies to outsource their e-commerce operations. Projections for worldwide business-to-business e-commerce by 2003 range from $750 billion to as much as $10 trillion, in part due to differences in definition of e-commerce. The Internet has changed the way that information is collected and disseminated. Almost every company, educational institution, governmental agency, and not-for-profit organization now has their own website. CPAs and other professionals believe that the Internet can be effective in generating new business.

Advertising and marketing are viewed differently by CPA firms of different sizes. Smaller CPA firms tend to advertise in brochures, local newspapers, and the yellow pages. Larger CPA firms can supplement these efforts with more expensive marketing tools such as websites and event sponsorships directed toward increasing public recognition and building brand image. Many CPA firms are looking outside the profession for marketing ideas and are exploring the potential of the Internet.

Longitudinal Study

As a follow-up to a survey previously reported in the June 1997 CPA Journal ("Internet Marketing: Evidence of a Viable Medium"), the authors conducted an e-mail survey of 444 CPA firms with websites. The response rate was 20%. Respondents were asked a series of questions about the following:

The information gathered from the 2000 survey can be compared to the authors' 1996 data to see how objectives and perceptions change over time and with experience.

Why Maintain a Website?

The earlier survey indicated the following seven common objectives for a CPA firm's website:

Exhibit 1 illustrates the importance respondents placed on each of these seven (for 1996, six) objectives. The scale ranged from 1 (not important) to 5 (very important). The current study indicates that CPAs believe the image of their firm is still the most important reason for keeping their website. General curiosity, however, seems to have been satisfied; that objective has fallen to last in the ranking. Although finding local clients is still important, serving current clients has become more important. Attracting nonlocal clients remains less important than other objectives.

Maintaining Websites

The cost and time commitment necessary to maintain a website are an important consideration. The median monthly cost of maintaining websites was only $50 for those surveyed. Over half paid less than that amount, and 10% reported no incremental monthly cost. The highest reported monthly cost was $750. Nearly half (45%) of the respondents rely on an outside vendor to service their websites. Updating their website is important to the approximately 20% of the respondents that do so at least once a week. Over 67% of respondents refreshed the information on their websites monthly or longer. More than a quarter (28.0%) of those surveyed reported more than 500 hits per month for their sites. Surprisingly, one-third (32.0%) of respondents did not know how many hits their website was receiving.

Changes in Perceived Value

Both the 1996 and 2000 studies showed that CPA firms thought their websites were less than effective in meeting most of their objectives (Exhibit 2). Respondents rated their websites' ability (on a five-point scale) to meet the objectives described earlier. In all but one category (general interest), websites' effectiveness improved from the 1996 survey to the 2000 survey. Nevertheless, only two categories, improving the firm's image and better serving current clients, were rated as effective (rating of 3 or higher).

Overall satisfaction remained high in 2000 (Exhibit 3). Only 4% of respondents were either somewhat or very dissatisfied. The mean satisfaction rating (5 being very satisfied to 1 being very dissatisfied) remained virtually unchanged (4.13 in 1996, 4.12 in 2000).

Changes in Home Pages

The primary purposes of a firm's home page are generally to introduce users to the CPA firm, present an accurate picture of the specialties or services offered, and offer an index to the entire site. An analysis of the home pages of CPA firms in 1996 and again in 2000 shows increased sophistication and a gradual expansion of the information available.

The thorough content analysis in 1996 found that a large majority of firms' home pages displayed a telephone number, an e-mail address, and a mailing address. Other components included in a majority of home pages surveyed were a listing of firm specialties, a fax number, and hyperlinks to other useful sites.

The 2000 examination of home pages shows a greater emphasis on listing services or specialties, a more comprehensive array of hyperlinks, and a more accessible firm e-mail directory. Sites also showed an increased emphasis on graphics and professional staff recruitment.

Implications

The change of objectives and perceptions over time suggests a growing maturation of CPA firm websites. Although image remains the most important goal of respondents, client service is number two. The results indicate that the web has changed from an item of curiosity to a multifaceted business tool.

Although the tangible benefits of the Web are difficult to quantify and document, length of experience with a website seems to breed satisfaction. Only 27% of firms new to the net were very satisfied with their site. Conversely, 47% of firms with four or more years of experience were very satisfied.

Effectiveness of the web for CPA firms still leaves a lot to be desired. Its ability to attract new clients remains unimpressive. Efficient data transfer is expected to provide a major improvement in client service, but those surveyed indicated that these benefits are yet to be realized.

The performance of CPA firm websites falls short of their stated objectives in certain areas. One-third of respondents do not know how many hits their site receives each month. Likewise, a large number of firms outsource the maintenance of their website and update only sporadically. If firms are truly concerned about their image, an in-house webmaster making regular updates and providing valuable data to an electronic marketer would seem to be appropriate. Outside providers should provide more than technical assistance; they should contribute analysis and advice.

CPAs effectively using the Internet see websites as another tool to address current practice issues. Websites have demonstrated that they can improve and speed communication with clients through e-mail and electronic transmissions. They have also proven to be useful in supplying information to potential employees. CPA firms not on the net need to seriously consider taking the plunge. E-commerce is learned best by doing. Experimentation is relatively inexpensive and has the potential to be very rewarding. As one CPA responded, "It is more important to not be without a website than it is to actually have one."


John Elfrink, PhD, CPA, is chair of the department of accounting at Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Mo. Editors:

Editors:
Thomas W. Morris
The CPA Journal

Anthony H. Sarmiento
The CPA Journal


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