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Slow and steady wins the race

Online fun and games are not for the tax sector, says DANIEL SELWOOD

Shortly before Christmas, there appeared in the Portland Journal, a US newspaper, a column by John R. MacArthur. It was headed ‘I Won’t Hug This File – I Won’t Even Call It My Friend’ (that’s the paper’s misuse of an m-dash, not mine), and it began, ‘Long before I took myself off Facebook, I doubted the “revolutionary” potential of the Internet [sic]’.

The piece could easily have been dismissed as the clueless ramblings of a luddite (‘I never found email exciting’. Huh?) had it not been for the author’s pedigree: Mr MacArthur is the president of the highly-regarded Harper’s Magazine. He is a journalist of many years, and an author of three books about politics.

You might hope that he would use his big brains and his influence as a media doyen to help advance the industry to which he has given many years. That, surely, would naturally include developments – sometimes daring – of a digital kind. Sadly, no: John MacArthur, aged just 54, is a prudent words-on-a-page kinda guy, it would seem.

In his column, he joylessly added, ‘The energy devoted to the Net [sic] is an astonishing waste’. This from a media veteran in charge of a revered general-interest publication with an online presence; what opportunities he’s wasting!

We should be thankful John R. MacArthur chose to be a US journalist rather than a UK tax adviser. (Imagine: ‘I never found stamp duty exciting’.) He’d be a threat to the advancement of the industry’s online approach, which is already cautious and slow-moving when compared to that of other sectors. And that’s a shame.

It’s also understandable: tax is not a laughing matter (unless one counts the dry, humourless guffaw of an agent who has waited seven months for a reply to a letter to HMRC). Were a firm of advisers to publicly take its business too lightly, clients – many of whom are likely to be nervous about their tax affairs – would most probably take their receipts elsewhere.

So, when other sectors are playing in the sunny outdoors, tax is in its bedroom with the curtains closed and a big, heavy book open on its lap. Not for it such frivolous diversions as The Times’ new Word Nerd, which scrutinises a Twitter user’s most recent tweets to offer a rating of articulacy. (Taxation is ‘word-weary’. Not good. Must be using ‘tax’ and HMRC’ too often.)

It’s a little example of the sort of cute viral marketing in which the tax sector rarely indulges. Again, it’s easy to appreciate why not; what would a firm do? Invite visitors to enter their most recent income and outgoings, which would be turned into some kind of ‘Hey! Look at my tax liability!’ score that could be shared with the Twitterati? Hardly.

What then? I had a quick word with online marketing buff Jennifer Whitehead, who says a site can make people simply notice it, or it can do something that suits its brand. For that read, ‘Simply attract attention, or actually attract paying clients’.

‘When you’re looking for a tax accountant, you want someone you can trust,’ reckons Ms Whitehead. ‘Having a fun site is much less important from an adviser’s point of view than it is to have one that’s well-optimised so that search engines will find it’.

Old fashioned word-of-mouth is still the way for tax pros, who could try asking satisfied clients to tweet their pleasure or share links.

Encouraging sharing is the latest thing in viral marketing, says Jennifer, who suggests that advisers make themselves approachable by offering titbits of tax advice (such as those suggested in this column’s Engage! piece from November), which web users can easily share via social networking sites. (Readers may have noticed that the Facebook ‘like’ button is a ubiquitous feature of online editorial these days).

That’s some low-key viral marketing, that is. But it’s the way it’s got to be. An infographic (like the polished gems that spill from Information is Beautiful) might add extra character – or even a touch of beauty.

For example, a line graph of true marginal tax rates for the employed, the self-employed and the unemployed could be an eye-catching mass of colour and shape, one that might get passed around the web.

‘Anything like that involving research is great,’ says Jennifer, a journalist who specialises in online marketing and media, ‘but it’s not how people would choose an accountant’.

Nor would an advergame (branded game) be of use. Apart from being ill-suited to tax, an exisiting freebie would be old hat while a new offering would cost a lot to develop. Either way, the game would find itself up against the multitude of (possibly superior) alternatives already available for free.

A video viral, maybe? ‘I have a hard time thinking of how one would suit a tax business,’ says our guest expert, and she has a point. One struggles to see one of the big four running a YouTube-based campaign like the one Old Spice so brilliantly pulled off last year. (Sesame Street lampooned it with customary wit and had a viral smash, too.)

A clip currently – and furiously – doing the digital rounds is one for the US company GEICO, which, while infuriating, suggests the insurance sector is comfortable with being silly (at least in the States), leaving tax as the last major financial profession that is wholly conservative online.

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