The Golden Trio: strategy, content, and design

When it comes to design, you may have looked at a logo or a selection of images and thought (or even said) “I’m an accountant, not a designer. You’re the designers: you tell me what looks good.”

You trained and qualified as an accountant, you learned the accounting rules, you built your accounting firm. You didn’t train as a designer and it does make sense you’d feel less familiarity with “artistic” things. If asked to choose an image for a blog post, how would you choose? What looks good? Which font works best with that banner image? Does this website page “work”?

It’s tempting to pass off any understanding of design because it’s not your area of expertise. Design is not about “making something look pretty”. Anyone with some level of artistic skills can take some words or a website page and make it look a little better, at least on the surface. But what you know about design as an accountant helps you direct your marketing.

You may not be the one to sketch the artwork or take the photograph or design the website page, but when you understand the principles of good design, the marketing your firm puts out will be the best reflection of you and your firm. And that’s what good marketing is: a true and accurate reflection of you.

From your buyer’s perspective, the visuals register first. They get an instant impression of some kind. It could be subconscious – they don’t realise it, but they’re already making up their minds about the kind of person and accounting firm you are. How friendly. How human, how welcoming, how experienced. Whatever they’re looking for, they are evaluating from the moment they connect with you (or your team, or any other part of your brand) whether this relationship will be a fit. After they’ve made that connection, the design draws their eye to the words you want them to read.

So when you’re thinking about any marketing piece (an image, a social post, a website page), these three areas have to go hand in hand. They are the golden trio:

  • Strategy: the purpose (why you’re creating and sharing it)
  • Content: the message (what you’re trying to get across)
  • Design: the visuals (how it’s presented)

Each one affects the other. It’s not enough for a website to look good: the messaging has to be right. And the only way to get the message right is to spend time thinking about who your audience is. What they care about and why. As you strategically think about the content (messages), the subsequent design reflects all of that thinking.

All of this is so your buyer can engage with you and your marketing in the most efficient way possible.

We’ll look at these three in order.

Strategy: why you’re creating and sharing it

You don’t design a website by picking a nice looking WordPress template, and then picking some images, and then filling it in with words. Well, okay, some people do. Sadly, this is (still) how some websites are “designed”. The accountant picks a nice template from a list, the designer adds some branding and style. You may even be asked to write all the website content yourself, after the fact. Or they may give you content from a generic template, something written for…anyone. Any accountant, any audience. The problem is, “anyone” means no one. Good marketing divides. Its intention is to seek out and find those who are the absolute best clients for you: and to send everyone else away.

If your marketing isn’t dividing, or is for “anyone”, it’s not going to work well. Unfortunately, that means the website template you thought looked nice, the words you wrote based on what other accountants write on their websites, and the images you selected from a stock photo library are pulled together to a new website you think is amazing….but is it? You share it, and other accountants and connections tell you it’s good. When you compare it to your previous site, or other accountancy firm sites, you feel proud. Relieved, even, to have a shiny new site which isn’t as dated or ugly as your last one.

Over time though, you realise something is still missing. Although your site has had a slight lift, the core message is the same. You still have long boring services pages, saying the same as every other firm’s services pages. You still use all the standard words accountants tend to use. Your imagery feels like stock imagery, your call to action is a contact form or a free consultation, and the end result is roughly the same. You realise your site hasn’t been strategically thought out. It hasn’t been built around your unique client journey. It doesn’t reflect your true human style, your brand.

You, the accountant, have been asked to become a world class designer, strategist, and copywriter. You’ve hired someone to build you a website, and they have. But you’re the one who has provided two thirds of the design – the strategy, and the content.

Instead, you and your designers need to collaboratively work together on the integration of the golden trio. Instead of picking some “nice images” and a pleasant looking website template, your designers need to take time to think about the integration of content, design, and strategy. To consider your brand (who you are, who you serve, your values, your way). To consider the purpose of the designed item (a website page, a PDF guide, a book): what is it for? Who is it for? What one message do you want to get across? They think about the words involved in that message. And ALL of that comes together into how the item is designed.

Imagine you’re building a page on your website. Perhaps a “Services” page. Before you choose a Services page template and start filling in words about management accounts and payroll, stop to think. Why do you need a Services page? Is it because every other accountant or professional service business has one? It’s a reason, but it may not be a solid one for you. Everything you create needs to be something your audience wants and needs.

Question everything. DO you actually need the page at all? Put yourself in the mind of the person coming to your website, to this page. Think of the creative agency owner, the person starting up their new business, the restaurant owner. How do they feel? What information might they be looking for? What questions will they have? The more you think about it, the more you may realise:

  • They already know they need an accountant. They’ve got a problem which has drawn them to see what you’re like and whether you could help them.
  • What’s listed is in accounting language and it may not make sense to them yet
  • Most of the services you offer are similar or indeed exactly the same as every other accountant website they’ve visited, so it’s all blurring together
  • Even if they did read every detail about what you’ve written on management accounts and bookkeeping and tax consulting, they still need to understand how your process works, what kind of experience you have, and whether they trust you to work with them on it.

After years of building websites for and with accountants, we’ve noticed the questions you get asked by prospects aren’t “So, do you do management accounts?” or “What is payroll?” Instead, they say (or feel) things like:

  • “I’m not sure what I need, but I have this problem” (ie, I’m running out of cash and I’m worried)
  • “I don’t need all the strategy and consulting, I just need….” (to get my bookkeeping sorted without stressing about it at the end of the year)
  • “I want to be able to retire / get offices / expand my restaurant / hire more employees”
  • “My business is expanding and my local accountant isn’t able to handle the work anymore”
  • “I’m confused about what services I need and how much they cost. I don’t know what to expect or budget for, and my mate down the pub said he only pays this much per year.”
  • “I don’t get how accounting quotes work, how the numbers are calculated, and what my choices actually are.”

You know people with these feelings and concerns. You’ve talked to them. You’ve heard them share these things. Imagine them in your mind, never having heard of you before or barely knowing you, coming to your Services page. This person is never going to look at a long list of accounting services they don’t understand, a page which looks literally exactly like every other accounting firm services page they’ve seen, and say, “Oh wow, I have GOT to get in touch with these people.”

Instead of creating a Services page because everyone else has one, and focusing first (or only) on the design of the page, think about the strategy. How might you answer those kinds of questions better, and bring in your brand so they feel they really know you? Now you’re thinking creatively. You’re being curious, and considering how to solve the prospect’s problem. This kind of thinking delivers other options:

  • A “how we work” page, explaining what happens first, what happens next, and what they do to start (fill in a questionnaire, book a discovery call, download a guide, watch a video).
  • A “client journey” page, showing you understand the journey they’re on as a person or business owner, and helping them identify where they are today and where they may be going. Your cornerstone graphic goes here.
  • A pricing page, giving as much information as possible to help them see the approach or methodology you use in pricing. This could include an explanation of the software you use, the calculations and where they come from, a demo video walking them through how proposals are created.
  • An FAQs page about everything they may be wondering – how to start, how the proposal process works, what happens first, what happens next, what’s required of them, what you do and when.
  • An About page which really helps them understand you. Something far more than “our firm was created in 1492 and has 14 partners and 26 team members and here are their names and pictures, people wearing suits and smiling fairly stiffly”. Instead, show some humanity. Share your values and explain why they matter. Tell the story of how the firm was created, and what your name means.

Your strategic thought process has led you to an entirely different page, requiring a different design and layout. It may even lead you to a whole new website structure. Your website needs to begin with your client’s journey. It’s not about your need to tell people about the services you offer. Your brand is not for you. Your website is not for you. And anything you design is not for you, either.

Once you’ve strategised the purpose of what’s being designed, and confirmed if it needs to exist at all (whether it’s a website page, a PDF guide, a mural on the wall, or a coffee mug), then you move on to the message. What is it you are actually saying?

Content: What are you actually trying to say?

When I am presenting or speaking for a very short period of time (five minutes, or fifteen minutes), it takes far more preparation than when I’m presenting for an hour. When I have a longer period of time, I can look for my words, go on a tangent and come back, adapt what I’m saying to the comments and questions of those listening. When I have only a few minutes, my words need to get to the point, fast. There’s no time to waste.

The same applies for the core message of anything being designed. Even if it’s a 40 page PDF guide, with many words, there’s still a theme message, a reason you are creating this content piece. The right message affects the design. And getting the message right can change everything about the design. As you prepare content to be ready for design, think about what you’re ACTUALLY trying to say:

  • How would you say it to a child? A five year old, or a seven year old?
  • How would you say it if you didn’t care what it sounded like?
  • How did you describe it to a new client?

Presume they’re not familiar with all the words and terms you are. This is especially true when it comes to names of services (the “Accelerator” could mean anything). Talk about what it does. What it enables them to do. The results they get.

When we work on the content for an accountancy firm’s website, the home page takes the longest. The process involves the most back-and-forthing amongst the content team (and the design team, and the client marketing managers, and everyone). This is where you grab the attention, make the statement. You do not use the incredible real estate of your website’s home page to say something bland like “Welcome to XYZ Accountants”. You don’t need to SAY a welcome, you  need to show it. You don’t need to repeat your firm name when it’s already evident in your logo and domain name. And your website is not for you. So the content for the home page message is about the people you’re talking to. Instead of “We are accountants to help you with all your finance needs”, be specific. Talk to your audience. Say “Accountants who know tech. We provide B2B Saas businesses with the professional finance team they need, but can’t yet recruit.”

The design: how do you show it?

When PF was first set up, we used outsourcers and freelancers to do design work. We talked with the clients, got to know them and their audience and messaging, and then hired someone to design what we needed. After a year or two we were spending so much on outsourcers it was more cost effective to hire full time designers, website developers, content writers. To begin to bring it all in-house and have a team working together on all client work.

When we did this with designers, the calibre of design level went up significantly. This was not because the freelance designers we had weren’t good (many of them were excellent) but because we were at last combining content, strategy, and design together in every conversation. Every communication. The whole team knows what this client is like, who they serve, what their style is. We talk about client projects as a team, so the content writer learns from the brand conversations. The marketing manager learns from the social media posts. And the designers learn from all of it.

So when one of our designers has a website page, or a PDF guide, or a social media image, or a mug to design, they know the whole story. They can access recordings, notes, and conversations with the client about who their audience is and why. About the values our client has and how they live those out. The way they speak, the interactions with their team, the quotes from their own clients. Our designers have seen what is posted in the “Kind words” channel by the team, seeing how they live out their values and the victories they’ve had. The designer sees far more than the words on a design brief: they feel who the people in this firm are, and are able to show it. The draft design is created, and reviewed, and discussed with the whole team. Further edits and drafts are made upon reflection, and discussed with the client. More edits are made and the design is placed where it needs to be, and often is reviewed again to make sure it’s doing what it was born to do.

That’s how good design works. It thinks about who this item is for, why it is created, what it is on earth (or a website or in an email or on a social post) to do. It considers the message and the words, and how those are visually supported. And it brings them all together in a glorious trio. This is the gift of design.

Good design is simple. You don’t need paragraphs of text with swooping graphics for a well designed website page: clean lines, white space, and a few words is enough. Unless you’re designing a comprehensive PDF guide, don’t crowd the design with lots of words. Get to the point fast. It’s much harder to come up with 5 words which get the message across instantly, than it is to write 500 words saying it in a roundabout way. It’s easier to ramble in a video for an hour, than to get your key points across in a one minute video. Simplicity is harder than verbosity.

If your design is merely a “nice picture”, or something you think is impressive, it isn’t necessarily good design. And the more you know about how these three work together, the more effective your design will be – even if it looks a little different than you initially imagined. Or than other accountancy firm websites or design work.

Having a good designer makes all the difference. Not everyone is ready to hire a full time marketing manager or team. That’s why PF exists: so you can have the beauty of an in house marketing team…without having one yet. Even if you’re not ready (or not sure if you’re ready) to work together with an agency like PF, you can still prepare. You can build a relationship with an agency or a designer so when you DO need good design, they already know you and are ready to go.

The golden trio (and good design) affects how people engage with your content.

Good design which you’ve thought about and fit with the strategy of your firm and brand helps your buyer make their decision faster, because you are:

  • More easily found. When a buyer sees something of yours, they’ll know it. Subconsciously, quickly. This is why it’s helpful on social media to have usernames which are similar, or profile pictures similar in style.
  • More trustworthy. Good design says you’ve invested time and effort (and money) in this. Early startups and those who aren’t ready or able to invest at this level will cobble things together or have someone do it cheaply rather than well. We’ve all been there. But the higher quality your design is, and the more consistent, the faster trust is built.
  • More quickly understood. Ideally the buying process is so clear, they don’t have to use extra brain energy to figure out what you’re trying to say. Good design reveals the core message clearly, and directs them to the one call to action you want them to take. It’s their choice whether they take that action, but any delay is on their part as they consider who you are. If the delay is on your part, because the design is confusing or not on brand, it could take them too much time to figure out what you’re really saying. And so they take no action at all.

The impact of the golden trio on your marketing is that everything fits, and your buyer doesn’t simply think “that looks nice”. They actually take the action you most want them to take, in the order you want them to take it, at the time you want them to take it. Good design isn’t about things looking pretty: it’s about strategy, content, and design which help your buyer decide.

Learn more about the golden trio and get feedback on your own firm’s design when you join Accelerator.