Professional Services Firms: Build Your Client Base with Time-Honored Web Site Best Practices
Let’s discuss web site features that all professional services firms should have, at a minimum. I’m talking mostly about law firms and CPA firms here, but this will certainly also apply (largely) to others within the more broad “professional services” category. This topic is somewhat near and dear to me, as the bulk of my corporate career was spent working with lawyers and CPAs.
Let’s take a look at a list of must-have web site elements for these firms. Then, below, I’ll discuss my rationale for including these items.
Essentials: The Most Important Web Site Elements
- A friendly, engaging home page as a front to your modern-looking, “responsive” (renders well on all devices) web site.
- An about us page with a company history
- Service specifications and industry qualifications
(well-developed and on-point)
- Team member bios / staff bios
(pics, full CVs, etc.)
- Contact information and an inquiry form
- An audience-building strategy (e.g., data capture / list building / autoresponders, newsletters, blogging, etc.)
- SEO infrastructure and strategy
- Social media integration
- A content management system running on a quality site infrastructure and hosting setup
- Secure site with SSL
Let’s talk about social media integration first. If you’ve ever spent time in a firm, you know that the rainmakers always rise to the top. Part of that talent for bringing in business certainly relates to networking — and social media is exactly that. (I don’t believe it will ever completely replace in-person networking. But, for many, it may come close.) Now, I realize that there are some who wouldn’t touch Facebook with a virtual 10-foot pole, and the thought of “tweeting” may make a lot of suit-and-tie types cringe, but keep in mind that there are professional social media networks such as LinkedIn.
If I were a law or CPA firm managing partner, I would require that all staff — from the receptionist up through myself — build out at least one decent personal profile (be it Facebook, LinkedIn, or something else) and attempt some level of interactivity on that network. I put it like that because, in my view, this is the kind of activity that should be encouraged from the top down. I’d direct the marketing and/or IT staff to assist everyone in building out their personal profiles, and the marketing department should also build out profiles for the firm itself. Of course, I said “integration,” not just “involvement.” So, I’d want to see the firm’s web site reflect such integration — likes, sharing, commenting, and flurries of activity being posted on the corporate blog.
A great, easy-to-use inquiry form was also on the list. Not every visitor will use it (and we’ll cover some alternatives in a moment), but it’s good to give people as many ways to contact the firm as possible. Also, people still tend to view professional services firms as somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. So, a nice inquiry form shows off a bit of tech savvy, if only implied. I’d also include calls to action on the site, pushing visitors to use that inquiry form whenever possible. This absolutely must be implemented with the knowledge and intention that a staff person will *always* respond (to every legitimate inquiry).
Service offerings may sound like a no-brainer, but service professionals often forget that, unlike product marketing, the service *is* the product. So, the more detailed you can be, the better. In marketing academic-speak, we call these the “intangibles,” and they’re absolutely critical. If you’re selling an audit or some type of basic legal service, the nonprofessional visitor might know absolutely nothing about what that service constitutes. So, there’s nothing wrong with getting down to basics and educating potential clients, if necessary. Google won’t mind it either, as they’ll have more to index (and your site visibility should improve). This is also part of what I mean, above, by “well developed, on-point” content. Another part of that ties into SEO initiatives, which are also plentiful for firms willing to put in the work.
Industry-based marketing is also mentioned above. I sense more firms are doing that over the past decade. I first encountered this back in my Deloitte days in the late 1990s, and have evangelized it ever since. If your firm has strong industry qualifications or boutique service specialties, it’s worth getting those items written up and published online (and of course also integrated with your proposal process, and other marketing where it makes sense).
Contact information means just that — offer a dedicated contact page with full office locations, maps, phone numbers, office hours, etc. For larger firms, this can require more thought and organization, but most small to mid-size firms can get away with a single, well-organized page. I don’t really talk much on this list about SEO, but if you’re with a one-office firm in particular, there are some handy meta markup tags to help Google locate your firm. And, speaking of markup, for any firm that really aspires to be a SEO pioneer, look into marking up your site with microformats. (See Schema.org. And, yes, you can do this if you use Wordpress, Joomla, or any other CMS.) (If your law or CPA firm has a site that does NOT feature microformat markup — even if you have a CMS — you’re missing out on some great Google juice!)
Company profile and history ties in with the same rationale as listing services — potential clients need to understand who you are and what you do. Frankly, a lot of established firms have histories that the senior partners (rightly) like to see on the web site, anyway. Keep the senior partners happy. They probably do a lot of stuff that, as a younger marketer, you think is outdated. And, between us, I think you’re right. But, keep them happy anyway. Besides, many clients also appreciate a well-written history.
Data capture and list building. These are essential elements because, aside from your current clients, building a subscriber base or regular audience can be slow-going for a firm. In fact, there are still a lot of firms on the Rolodex system (yes, I’m speaking of actual physical Rolodexes), so it may be even tougher to get started. But, sooner or later, you’re going to wish you had a strong electronic communications tool to beam out important news and other materials. It’s not going to be enough to simply sign up for Constant Contact and pop a form onto your site, though; you’ll need to orchestrate a concerted effort to build out your list. More about that in another article, I think, as most firms are probably doing it wrong.
I used to think a CMS was unimportant for a small to mid-size firm. But, with the rise in SEO initiatives and Google’s reward for good consistent content, I think it’s beneficial to reach out to the staff for content creation, if they’re willing to do some of it. There’s almost no reason, these days, to prevent professionals from having the ability to publish information themselves whenever they want. After all, I said above that they should be networking as well. So, why not give them a blog? They can then post articles and share them online. Many firms offer other services via their sites (e.g., client access), which can have an effect on things like CMS choice. In the end, this should always be a marketing-driven decision — not, for God’s sake, an IT decision.
Privacy policies and Terms of Service documents are considered good SEO practices. Within professional services fields, they’re also best practices in terms of proper regulatory compliance. All firms have different disclosures they deem necessary on various media. Fortunately, there’s usually a site footer area that’s perfect for such things that you have to have, but that no one will likely ever read. Do it once and get it on there.
So, we’ve all signed onto the whole online networking concept, correct? I’m dying to hear from any naysayers on that front… I think most firms have fairly decent team pages. The better sites have individual bio pages for each professional. This would be a natural place to put each person’s social media profile information. Team pages also provide some serious opportunities for creative displays. A thorough marketer might consider elements such as whether the photos should all be uniform (e.g., same backgrounds firm-wide) or if they should be similarly Photoshopped, or perhaps something that reflects the firm’s specialty. For example, if you’re a boutique firm specializing in construction law, perhaps that informs the headshots in some creative way. (Keep in mind that individual team pages are a nice place to also store other handy items, such as high-res photos that the press might use.)
On a related note… If properly setup, a CMS could even allow not only blogging for each professional, but also administrative access to freely edit certain other web site pages (such as their bio). As a marketing professional, this would take a bit of time and training to setup, but there’s nothing quite as liberating as allowing people who want to write and edit their own stuff to actually do so. It’s really a marketer’s job to provide such empowerment for those who request it.
Analytics are ultra-useful for a firm. I know that’s a broad truism for most businesses, but professional services firms are usually somewhat more high-stakes in terms of marketing. Clients tend to be larger and longer-term than they are for other businesses, which makes marketing more imperative and potentially lucrative. Analytics provide us with insights such as audience demographics, keywords, and much more. The key question is: How can you leverage analytics to build your client base? Again, I’ll save that for a separate business development article.
Finally, let’s touch on the SSL issue quickly. For most sites, for normal functionality, SSL is not required unless you’re an ecommerce site or if you’re asking users to login for things. However, as we’re working within a professional services context here, note that the concepts of trust and assurance are paramount to your client base and reputation. As such, it’s worth the small extra expense to get an SSL certificate for your web site, as the green lock on the URL for your firm perpetuates the perception of security that is vital to client relationships. (You’ll also get perhaps a small bump in the organic search listings for your trouble. No guarantee there, but evidence suggests Google rewards SSL sites a bit — and every bit counts.)
Those would be the top items, in my view. Certainly, there are other elements and highly important considerations (online utilities, intranets, client portals, recruiting and career areas, etc.), but I think those are the absolute top ones in terms of essential elements.
In terms of the best opportunities, I’d probably say video marketing is among the better ones for professional services, still untapped by the majority of firms. Another would be original content creation versus embedding various guides and calculators, which many firms do. This is convenient for clients, but not great for SEO, as 99% of that is content that appears on thousands of other sites (because it is embedded from the same source).
In any case, I’ll wrap this up for now. If you feel I’ve left anything off, please let me know in the comments! I’d love for this article to grow with other suggestions.
I’ll also leave you with a further resource. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to update your web site, the following may help you know if it’s that time.
Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Business Photography — Man Taking Notes” by Mark Lord (Flickr, Creative Commons).