Accounting software solutions firm AccountantsWorld has been producing a daily digest newsletter disseminating the top industry news for readers since 2003. Since that point, they have been testing to see how to best include branded content while still maintaining customer trust.
Read below to understand how the team grew content relevancy and then optimized its delivery to their audience.
AccountantsWorld customers are professional accountants across the U.S. who are working in public practice.
“Basically, accountants who have their own firms dedicated to doing accounting work for primarily small business clients and then also for individuals,” said Div Bhansali, Vice President of Marketing, AccountantsWorld, adding that there are about 200,000 such firms in the U.S.
AccountantsWorld was a pioneer in developing cloud solutions for professional accountants, with a goal of supporting their needs.
“We started in 2001. We designed software to handle professional accounting and professional bookkeeping as well. We also have a solution called payroll relief that allows accountants to process payroll for their small business clients, and then we have other solutions in our integrated bundle for document management, practice management and a lot more,” he said.
The bundle of seven solutions is meant to offer professional accountants everything they need for their practice, with the exception of tax software.
AccountantsWorld began its daily headline newsletter, which was in the form of an email digest, in 2003.
“The goal at first was really just to inform accountants about key news and trends in the industry. Digest emails are really common these days in every vertical, but in 2002, there really wasn't anything like that focused on professional accountants,” Bhansali said.
Over time, as AccountantsWorld developed one software solution after another, the founders realized that newsletter could also serve as the marketing channel for those solutions.
“There’s been a long iterative process of trying to figure out what's the best way to use it as [a] marketing channel,” he said.
The challenge with any integration of marketing into the newsletter is remembering that the content is what’s grown the list to begin with and balancing that. The list is currently up to over 90,000 accountants, and it’s vital to still deliver that valuable content but not alienate these subscribers.
“We try to make sure that it balances our two goals. I think informing continues to be really important. While accountants have a lot of different choices in where they can get their relevant industry information, the fact that 90,000 people continue to subscribe to our newsletter and open it periodically speaks to the fact that this is a source that they trust,” he said.
That balance comes in growing trust in the newsletter through a focus on news stories that are not self-serving in any way and don’t focus on AccountantsWorld at all.
On the other hand, growing the brand is extremely important, Bhansali said. AccountantsWorld was a very small company, when it started out, and continues to be a small company compared to some of its multi-billion dollar competitors.
“We've known all along that we can't advertise our way to significant brand awareness for our software solutions,” he said. “We really think of the newsletter as being a really free way to position ourselves as both an advocate for accountants and as a leading provider of software solutions.”
From that point, whenever people are ready to have a discussion about their software solutions, that brand awareness is extremely helpful, even if they aren’t aware of what the company’s specific solutions are.
Step #1. Place branding carefully among compelling content
The content for the newsletter is put together every week day by a product manager using a content management tool to find top topical stories from the Web.
The company also has a partnership with Forbes and with some other industry publications to use and link to those partners’ content.
In addition to those stories, some of the content is also regional, which is a functionality that subscribers can personalize. Subscribers have a personalized news page where they can manage their content.
“When [people sign] up to receive our daily headline news every day, they can personalize the content. So if they're in New York State, they can say, ‘I'd like to see content from the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area,’” Bhansali said.
Many days the newsletter won't have any content that's specific to a subscriber’s area, but having the option and including that content when it does come up builds up the personalized appeal of the content.
There are typically five articles in the daily newsletter, and alongside those are the “Top 5 Most Read,” “Tools of the Trade” (like business forms and letters), and an “E-break” for some levity. In addition to the content, there are also typically three to four ads that can be used to promote AccountantsWorld, its products or content, and even other companies.
One thing that has stayed essentially the same in the newsletter is the nature of the content.
“We occasionally have tried to include broader business content or content geared towards our small business clients. What we consistently find is that accountants don't really respond to that. They're not looking to us for that,” Bhansali said.
The content is really focused on what accounting practices can do to thrive and continues to be what people are clicking on and showing interest in, he added. Because of this discovery, although almost everything else has been tweaked over time, the content has stayed consistent.
One of the changes made over time was the placement and sizing of the advertising, which will continue to be tested in the future.
“We have a 728 x 90 banner on the top. We tested taking that out and giving ourselves more branding space up on the top. It didn't work well; we weren't making up those impressions and clicks elsewhere,” he said.
That top banner ad continues to perform well, he said, and they also have a 468 x 60 banner about a third of the way down the email.
“Eventually what we realized is [that] we did better when we partnered that 468 x 60 with another. Basically a twin text ad. So we have a visual ad and then text underneath it to help explain what's in the smaller 468 ad,” he said.
Last year, the team started including a "sponsored by" button near the top, which functions as a sponsorship of the top story.
“Sometimes we're offering that to our advertising partners as an additional placement for their brand. A lot of times we're using that for our own products as well, which is what we're doing this week,” he said.
Another consideration was how much AccountantsWorld branding should be in the email. After all, brand recognition is a basic goal for the newsletter. An aspect of that is product selling, so throughout the past two years, that has taken the form of content marketing, with banner placements going towards promoting free webinars and ebooks.
This is a gradually iterative process, he said, so “it has taken us a while to figure out how best to promote [banner ads] in those spots, what the best calls-to-action would be, and then also what ads work well with each other.”
Lately, he said, they have been testing using three straight ad placements to promote the same webinar versus using one to promote a webinar and using another one to promote an ebook or something else unrelated.
“We're starting to get some interesting data on synergy … between those. I would say that doubling up on advertising for the same piece of content might actually be something that's looking really promising for us. It's still preliminary, but we're really pleased with the results,” he said.
Step #2. Provide a clear funnel path
A common ideal path for a customer, Bhansali said, is someone who has been reading the newsletter for a while to see a banner ad for an ebook, with a title like “Three Ways to Grow Your Practice without Adding Additional Staff,” or “How to Build a Profitable Payroll Practice,” that would be appealing and download it.
“You trust that we're bringing you interesting things so that you're opening our newsletter on a consistent basis,” he said.
Most ebooks are seven to 10 pages and easily digestible, he said. On the last page of the ebook, there is a follow-up call-to-action, which will typically be a webinar or landing pages to learn more about AccountantsWorld products.
Webinars are typically 50% conceptual and informational and 50% demonstrating how AccountantsWorld solutions will solve problems.
“You attend [a webinar], and you're interested in having a sales conversation. At that point … Our sales team contacts you, and that leads to a trial of one or more of our solutions,” he said.
That is a fairly typical path that people take and one that Bhansali and his team have specifically laid out, he said.
“Over a third of our new sales are people who have clicked on at least one of our banner ads in our newsletter before they ended up buying. So the newsletter ends up being an important step, whether it's for an ebook or webinar or directly for a product,” he said.
If a customer doesn’t express interest in a product right away, he said, the team has follow-up nurturing emails they send out to webinar attendees and those who have downloaded an ebook.
“That’s another opportunity to see if there might be other complementary content you're interested in, see if we can put a case study in front of you,” he said. “Or at the very least, try to get you from being a newsletter subscriber only, to also being a LinkedIn follower for us.”
Step #3. Work with your full testing range
Bhansali and his team have two different ways of testing. The first is a daily A/B split test.
“The other thing that we can do is, we have a pretty good idea at this point of the consistency of our open rate across the five days of the week. We put out the newsletter Monday through Friday, and we haven't found very much difference in terms of the demographics of who's opening on different days,” he said.
Since they are seeing a fairly consistent number of opens and have history that shows a consistent profile of who is opening day by day, they utilize the full sized list of 90,000 and run a test on Monday and Wednesday versus Tuesday and Thursday. Then, switch it up the following week to make sure there is no day-by-day bias.
“At other places I've worked before, I always focus on running really, really clean A/B testing — the way that you're taught in marketing theory and in marketing courses. But I think from a practical sense, we have the ability to get such great scope with 90,000 people receiving email that I like to take advantage of that scope as much as possible,” he said.
Because of this, his preference in most cases is to run a split test on alternating days over the course of the week and to track patters that way, rather than running them on an individual day.
Step #4. Develop content that will appeal to common concerns
AccountantsWorld has partnerships with Forbes and a few other industry publications that are specifically geared towards accountants. They will send along stories ahead of time that might be interesting to each publication’s audience.
“They'll let us know the day before, and then our product manager will get that put in place on the morning of. Typically, he's organizing these stories in our content management tool early in the morning, and then we'll launch any time between 8:30 and 10 a.m.,” Bhansali said.
One of the things that he and his team have realized, he added, is that “accountants tend to be an early crowd in terms of looking at emails,” as they get into the office earlier than many other B2B professionals.
Given that finding, it is important to get the newsletter out no later than 10 a.m., so that it reaches readers either as they’re starting their day, or at least by the time they take their first break of the day.
Once the top stories are organized by a designer and a marketing manager, they also work to place ads in the email, which are typically decided two to three days beforehand.
“We typically are offering webinars to accountants two to three times per week,” he said, on varying topics, including one called “The Expert Webinar Series,” where they bring in nine to ten experts a year to speak to the audience about a mutually interesting topic.
“All of those webinars put together, we're typically looking at about nine to ten webinars that we're doing per month. So our ad placements on [the newsletter] are one of the primary ways that we draw attention to those webinars and get people signed up for it as well,” he said.
Ebooks have been a more recent development for the team, he said, having kicked off that process about a year ago.
“This year, it's been one of our primary goals to develop written content that people can download. It is primarily informational and then has a little bit of an advertorial spin on the final page or two,” he said.
With four ebooks developed this year, the team has seen over 5,000 total downloads, and it has proven to be “a really good source of leads prospecting as well. Daily headline news is one of the primary drivers towards our ebooks as well.”
When developing content like an ebook, the team looks at the pool of 200,000 firms that do public practice across the U.S. and write with the expectation that the content is going to be interesting and relevant to at least more than half of the audience.
This is often done by addressing common problems that accountants in this area will face.
“Many accountants face an issue where their clients will make bookkeeping errors by using software that's built for small businesses … and then those bookkeeping errors get sent across to the accountants, and the small business just says, ‘You're the accountant, go fix it,’ and the accountants spend a ton of time — inefficient time — having to clean up those errors,” Bhansali said.
One of the ebooks called “Cure Your Client’s Pain and Yours Too” focuses on how to offload that bookkeeping work from small business clients and have the accountant handle that work themselves less expensively. To date, he added, there have been about 2,500 downloads of that ebook.
Step #5. Experiment with your audience’s preferences for social sharing
Accountants are probably slightly less active on a daily basis in professional social networks, Bhansali said, and are mostly like to email things to each other (e.g., forwarding AccountantsWorld Daily).
While accountants are consumers of content, he said, “they're not necessarily looking to disseminate themselves and share with other accountants. But they really love getting this newsletter in their email box and then forwarding it on to three other people in their office right away.”
An attempt to get this content to an audience led to an interesting “a-ha” on LinkedIn through which the team has seen a great deal of success.
“Facebook and Twitter — we've been doing that for a while, and to be honest, we're okay on it, but it's not a huge source of clicks for us or a huge source of branding. LinkedIn, on the other hand, has been just a homerun for us,” he said.
AccountantsWorld had fewer than 1,500 LinkedIn followers a year ago when the team started actively posting, and now it is up to over 18,000.
“What we found is our daily headline newsletter and our LinkedIn profile and company page really complement each other well because we can put a lot of the same types of content out there. We can promote a lot of the same content in terms of webinars and ebooks and events that we're doing or will be attending,” he said.
They’re able to reach different audiences from there, and the team treats [LinkedIn] as a second daily headline news. Over time, they gain followers who can organically share content that accountants are interested in.
“[Our audience] is already on there, and then when they see content that can help their practice grow, they just respond to it in a really amazing way,” he said.
Bhansali said he believes the engagement rate for LinkedIn was 12 to 15 times higher on a per capita basis as compared to any of the brand’s other social networks.
“We continue to post elsewhere. We don't want to miss an opportunity to reach a few people, but LinkedIn has been the real volume driver for us from a social perspective,” he said.
“I think we had a couple of insights that might sound a little counterintuitive to the way that marketers like [ourselves] typically think,” Bhansali said.
Something newsletter readers appreciate and trust is that they don’t draw a high distinction between regular content like top stories, versus the content marketing advertising.
“We make our content marketing really relevant to a large portion of the people who are opening up and reading,” he said. “From their perspective, they're opening that email up on a daily basis in order to be informed.”
Whether they’re getting that information by opening up a top article, or downloading an ebook, he said, either way readers are getting what they expected out of the newsletter.
“That's been a really great insight for us, that as long as we maintain and respect the trust that our readership has put in us and don't try to put manipulative content in front of people with content that's overly sales-y, we can see good clickthrough rates on our content marketing just as we do on our top stories, which typically have nothing to do with us,” he said.
According to Bhansali, the list has grown eight to 10% over the past year and is currently at over 90,000 subscribers. The list has primarily grown organically, and the focus now is to maintain and keep readers’ trust through the content provided.
“There's significant impact to being able to do email marketing, even to people who aren't necessarily in your core decision-making target, number one. Many people will work their way up from being staff to being decision makers … so if you can maintain a year-over-year relationship with them via email, that does eventually pay off,” he said.
Producing this newsletter has been “really gratifying to get good content out there, and it's also really impactful for our business as well,” he said.
See stories like this onstage at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017
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