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April 1994

For effective promotion, 'make' news. (marketing accounting services) (The CPA Manager)

by Shane, Corinne

    Abstract- Accounting firms that want to generate new business and to have sustained visibility in the marketplace have little choice but to create their own publicity. Because the repertoire of promotional strategies open to accounting practices is often limited to advertising, press releases and the occasional speeches before business and community organizations, accountants have to find more proactive ways of making news. One strategy that should help capture the public's attention is an informal survey that combines direct mail and publicity techniques. The first step in this strategy is the development of questions related to business and relevant to the accounting practice. Questions that are interesting and properly designed tend to elicit interesting responses. The results of the survey may then be presented as a news story. Following up is an essential part of this strategy since it keeps the accounting firm in touch with the respondents.

These public relations/publicity approaches tend to be reactive, however--taking advantage of opportunities as they occur. And that may be quite sufficient for some firms. But the accounting practice (or individual practitioner) that is aggressive about seeking new business and sustained visibility in the marketplace can achieve much more with the application of imagination and verve. It creates its own news.

I am not implying an undignified stunt or any kind of empty ballyhoo. Creating news means to unearth interesting information and then disseminating that information.

News is information. Substantive information is appreciated by the media. In addition, it attracts the attention of prospective clients. One way to create news, ideal for accounting firms, is through an informal survey that involves a combination of direct mail and publicity:

* Develop a series of questions on a topic related to business and applicable to your firm. The questions, if properly designed, will elicit responses that, if properly qualified and quantified, will yield interesting findings that can be presented as a news story. Care must be taken so the questions presented (the information you seek) are not perceived as self-serving, but rather address the "big picture."

* Develop the "audience" for the questions--then tailor the questions for this audience. The people you want to question may be a very broad cross-section (which will make the survey statistically significant) or very narrow and specialized (which will make the survey significant to a narrow but influential audience). Ideally, the audience you will address will be largely new business prospects.

* After collating the findings anti presenting them in dramatic story form, you release this information to the appropriate media, crediting your accounting practice as the source. It is important that you follow up with those who responded to the survey, especially if they have the profile of a prospective client.

Creating the Questions

First, the objective is to obtain interesting and newsworthy information. Furthermore, the questions you ask must have some relationship to your profession. (Otherwise, why is your practice seeking this data? What authority do you have to persuade people to respond to the survey?) Finally, you will want to analyze the kind of new business you want to develop ... or your firm's specialties, if any ... and take it from there.

Some years ago, a Philadelphia-based company generated a lot of press through a series of surveys in which it solicited the opinions of executives on where the national economy was going, with an emphasis on consumer spending trends. Results of the survey were sent to business/financial publications, including trade magazines, as stories citing "X percentage of executives surveyed by the ABC Company, stated that..."

That same subject could still be put to beneficial use today by accounting practices. Questions could begin with:

Based on what you know of your own company's performance and the industry it serves, do you think the economy will grow/will shrink/will stand still next year as compared to now?" (Send to controllers and other finance VIP's of corporations in the firm's marketing area, both clients and non-clients.)

Or fragment such a sweeping question into components very pertinent to your practice:

* "What do think next Christmas will be like in terms of sales and consumer willingness to spend?" (Send to merchandisers by an accounting firm with a considerable practice in retailing.)

* "How do you think the travel season will shape up next season? What were bookings like this past summer, up or down? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Why?" (From an accounting firm specializing in the hospitality industry to a list of hotels and resorts...and the resulting story offered to an influential trade publication, such as Hotel Management.)

Firms with specialized expertise may have a particular advantage because they can focus on provocative surveys based on their own readings of industry barometers. Remember, the objective is to get visibility in areas where the practitioner has the best chances of finding new business. Thus, publicity confined to specialized media can be highly effective. On the other hand, a story engendered by the travel-related survey just suggested might prove a very viable story for The Wall Street Journal (Don't overlook regional business publications: A Chicago-based accounting firm could land a story in Crain's Chicago Business.)

Obviously, a topical and timely survey, as translated in a news release or an interview with the practitioner or the managing partner of the firm, will be much more attractive to the media than a story that could run almost any time because of its general nature.

One of the burgeoning accounting specialties right now is health-care management. With the Clinton Administration serious about national health insurance issue, I believe any kind of new information or informed consensus on topics such as "managed care" for one, or the opinion of professionals on the financial viability (or non-viability) of the Clinton proposals would be well accepted by the media, if based on "a survey of health-care professionals by TLC/CPA, an accounting firm with many clients involved in health care"

Such a survey could buttonhole healthcare administrators (from hospitals, HMO's, nursing homes...the people in charge of corporate benefit packages) with such questions as the following:

"Do you think the Clinton proposals are feasible? If implemented, what would you guess would be their advantages/disadvantages...administrative costs, paperwork, etc.? What do you rate as the best feature/worst feature of the proposals?" (Obviously, these questions would be refined by you, the expert -- the accounting firm sponsoring the survey.)

Implementing the Survey

Developing questions and fine tuning the survey mechanism is only one- third of the promotional equation. There are many firms whose business is surveys and demographics/psychographics that would be happy to take on the job for a fee. However, you may wish to do the job yourself. Based on my experience with accountants (and may I emphasize I am not one), this is an orderly, thoughtful species. I believe the questions an accounting firm puts together on its own initiative will, for the most part, achieve the results desired. There may be some redundancies or biases that a marketing consultant could eliminate. But, we're talking about informal surveys--off-the-cuff polls of the kind of people the practitioner or accounting finn deals with every-day--surveys that will build on the practice's authoritative interpretation of findings. In many cases, this makes for a stronger story for the media.

Today, most firms have experience with direct marketing, sending out brochures, and sales pitch letters. In implementing the kind of publicity-generating survey we're discussing, it is important not to make the mailing appear as an "introduction to our firm and what we can do for you" or general new business pitch.

The basic vehicle for the survey, rather, should be a short and polite cover letter from the practitioner or managing partner to the survey respondent asking for his or her cooperation in a survey that will provide useful guidelines in developing long-term business strategies. Anonymity is assured (an important point) but you may go public with overall results of the survey.

With the cover letter is the survey--the questions should be largely "yes" or "no" checkoffs with space for comment--and a response generating mechanism--a postage-paid reply card or envelope.

Like most direct mail solicitations, much of your mailing will go into the "round file." If, however, the questions are provocative and interesting enough, chances are there will be a substantial enough return to justify the survey and the story it turns into.

Who to Send To?

You can either buy a list from a professional list house or create the list yourself. You must be realistic about the number of people you want to reach, based on such criteria as the industries you are interested in approaching and how wide a marketing area you are equipped to cover. Most practices do not have clientele distributed across the nation so you might want to develop a list that is broken down by regions and targeted to a specific kind of audience (such as an SIC code).

You can also purchase lists from trade publications--lists that are segmented, covering the markets from which you hope to derive new business. And you can develop your own lists by going to a library (or sending an intern or junior associate) to research the multitude of business-related directories in existence. It's important that the mailing go out to specific individuals and not to "President" or "Controller" or "Director of Marketing" or "Occupant."

The Follow-Up

Remember that follow-up is the main objective of carrying out the survey in the first place. Assume you sent out the survey and received enough responses to warrant a publicity effort. Here's what you do:

* Analyze respondents in terms of new business prospects.

* Send them letters thanking them for their cooperation and inquiring if they have any questions or want to know more about the survey or your firm. Include with the letter a brochure or other selected sales material, if available.

* Do not limit this follow-up to one shot. As the survey is refined into the vehicle you are going to send to the media, write respondents again and inform them of the consensus the survey has revealed. Again, thank them for contributing. In six months or so, you may want to write the respondents again, reminding them of their participation in the very useful survey and suggesting the possibly of getting together. (Because they're so knowledgeable and informative, and it would be fascinating to talk to them.)

The other part of the follow-up is the publicity. Results of the survey will be collated and summarized statistically, and turned into a news story. The release will have a thoughtful and attention-getting lead, basic summary of overall survey findings, some interesting quotes from respondents who were willing to comment, and an interpretation by the accounting practice based on the firm's or practitioner's seasoned experience and expertise. The story will position the practice for attribution as the sponsor survey. This release will be directed to the appropriate media, with an invitation for a first-hand interview of the practitioner or managing partner. Discreet follow-up by phone after a reasonable length of time will seek to ascertain if the recipient in fact did get the release and has had a chance to think about it. As with the survey itself, the release should be addressed to specific reporters and editors, not titles, so there is a name to follow up.

Who will write the release? Who will contact the media? Some big firms have full-time in-house professionals or have a continuing relationship with a public relations firm. If you're a single practitioner or a small practice, you can do the job yourself if you think you're a strong writer or you can advertise for freelance writing help (perhaps a journalist who also would be able to handle the whole survey from start to finish). Or you can talk to a small public relations firm that would be willing to work on a closed-end "project" basis, according to a satisfactory fee-plus-expenses arrangement. The public relations agency does not have to have previous experience working with accountants, as long as you're satisfied that it has well documented promotional expertise and media contacts.

Corinne Shane is president of Shane Associates, a full-service public relations and marketing firm located in New York City.

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