Market Focus: Accountants: Play the Numbers Game
Accountants are the best of both worlds: As affluent consumers, they are a great target market—but they also influence the purchasing habits of millions of clients, making them doubly valuable as prospects and customers.
The Money Market
In the U.S., there are 425,000 certified public accountants (CPAs) who passed a certification exam. If you add in non-CPA accountants, that number is much higher: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accountants and auditors held about 1.2 million jobs in 2004.
The most popular segment of accounting is public practice: 134,000 CPAs own their own business or work in firms serving mostly small and mid-sized businesses, says Melissa Rothchild, vice president of marketing for CPA2Biz, the for-profit subsidiary of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Other popular segments are business and industry, government, nonprofit, and education. Within these segments, CPAs can specialize in anything from tax work to business valuation to mergers and acquisitions.
Many CPAs also do financial planning. “In our studies in 2004, only 34 percent of our audience was involved in financial planning, but in 2005, 47 percent of our audience did financial planning,” says Jack Lynch, advertising sales director of SourceMedia’s Accountants Media Group, which publishes Accounting Today, Accounting Technology, Practical Accountant, CPA Wealth Provider and SMB Finance, and hosts WebCPA.com. “I would anticipate that would probably be in the high 50s to 60 percent now.”
CPAs are an affluent and educated market. The vast majority have four-year degrees and, according to Lynch, his magazines’ readerships boast an average annual household income of about $134,000. The average age of a subscriber to an Accountants Media Group publication is 54, and 70 percent are male.
CPAs see themselves as trusted advisors. “They hold themselves up to a high ethical standard, being a steward to their clients,” says Lynch. As such, CPAs are very choosy about who they do business with. “They won’t sell themselves to a vendor if they think it will jeopardize their standing with their clients,” Lynch says. “For example, at one time, it was taboo for a CPA to collect commissions or even additional fees for doing financial planning, but now that’s changed. But when they do get into financial planning, especially the older CPAs, it’s a fee-based or billable-hour arrangement so they’re not perceived as trying to sell to their clients on a commission basis.”
Because CPAs are such trusted advisors, they influence many other consumers. “They’re more than their buying power,” says Heather Scarpero, director of Sage Software Accountants Network, an online network accounting professionals can join to get access to Sage accounting software products. “It’s how influential an accountant is to the small-business owner. Accountants have the ability to purchase for their own businesses, but they’re a true business advisor to small businesses, and small businesses depend on them for advice. That’s where they come into that influential role.”
Like many of their clients, plenty of CPAs are small-business owners themselves, so they go through the same trials and tribulations as, say, small graphic design firms or PR agencies. “They have challenges with hiring and retention, time management, workload compression [meaning there are certain times of the year when they’re swamped with work], and staying up-to-date with the latest guidelines and tax laws,” says Rothchild.
Accountants Spend Money, Too
Since many CPAs are small-business owners, they often buy office equipment and supplies, such as computers, computer peripherals, paper products and business-related magazines and books.
CPAs also are buyers of software, says Lynch, from time and billing software to contact manager programs. Because many CPAs’ clients also need products like payroll software and billing programs, some software manufacturers are targeting those consumers through CPAs. For example, “Intuit has set up a partner program for accountants so they can add another revenue stream to their firm in a consulting fashion,” says Lynch. “Once they become adept at using QuickBooks, if a client uses it and has an issue, the accountant can be a certified representative for Intuit and consult with the business clients, and bill them for those hours as well,” he explains.
Small-business owners like to bill themselves as “chief cook and bottle washer,” meaning they do everything from emptying the trash to building a business plan that will chart their business’s course for the next five years. However, no one is good at everything, so small-business owners typically need help in at least one area. According to Lynch, for CPAs (like many other business owners), that area is sales and marketing, and so they are interested in products and services that will help them attract clients. For example, The Rainmaker Consulting Group advertises its boot camp seminars that help CPAs bring in business via space ads in accounting publications, notes Lynch.
What’s more, because CPAs typically earn a high household income, and generally are sound credit risks, according to Michael Cerami, vice president of corporate alliances for CPA2Biz, they are “viable candidates for higher-end consumer products such as travel, luxury autos, financial services products, and other services that target an affluent demographic.”
Dialing for Dollars
All kinds of marketing channels work for accountants: phone, Web, e-mail and direct mail. “We try various methods of targeting accountants; when we do campaigns; they’re integrated campaigns with direct mail plus e-mail and phone calls as well,” says Scarpero. “Banner ads and ads in trade publications are other ways to target them,” she adds.
Cyber marketing may be a good way to go: Rothchild has found that response to e-mail and Web channels has increased dramatically over the last several years, and 60 percent to 70 percent of CPA2Biz’s new product orders now are coming in through its Web site. CPA2Biz now uses its other channels, from catalogs to e-mail messages, to drive prospects to the Web site to buy. It even has put its catalog online in a rich media format so prospective customers can flip through it on the Web.
Another fact CPA2Biz has discovered is that CPAs respond better to multi-item marketing than to marketing for single products or services, possibly because they’re so busy that they appreciate the convenience of seeing many products featured in one place. “We’ve transitioned to multiproduct communications,” says Rothchild. “For example, for a government education course, we’ll group 20 to 30 relevant titles together rather than one single product.”
When it comes to messaging, CPAs are more interested in substance than flash. SourceMedia’s Accountants Media Group does ad studies for its advertisers, and Lynch reports that the cool, eye-catching ads with a good deal of white space perform the worst. “They may get attention, but CPAs by the nature of their personalities want information,” he explains. “They like their ads to be somewhat text heavy. What they want to know quickly is what is your product, what it can do for them and how it can help them with their practice or help them make more money.”
When it comes to crafting your message, forget the features and stress the benefits. CPAs look for problem/solution marketing messages, stresses Rothchild. Instead of focusing on how your new accounting software comes with 101 new functions, figure out the challenges accountants encounter in their business and daily life and tell them how your product or service is the solution to their woes.
Credibility also is important to CPAs. According to Scarpero, accountants are price-sensitive, professional and literal, so Sage Software sticks to the facts in its marketing messages and uses testimonials from important people in the field to bolster its claims.
While CPAs like to consider a good deal of information on products and services before buying, they’re busy professionals and they want to see it fast. “One common mistake is not getting to the point quick enough,” says Rothchild. “You need to make the communications easy to scan and benefit-driven; you don’t need a lot of preamble.”
If you have a product that can solve a problem for a CPA—and you can communicate the solution quickly and thoroughly—you can count on CPAs to be a great target market.
Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.