Want to Market to COIs? Educate Them

If you don’t already have relationships with COIs, then you need to develop a marketing strategy that allows you to get in front of this coveted group. That is because COIs—or centers of influence—can really help you grow your business. COIs are the fellow professionals, such as CPAs and attorneys, who are in day-to-day contact with the potential clients you want to work with. By building mutually beneficial relationships with COIs, you can expect ongoing client introductions and referrals.

But to get those introductions and referrals, you need to develop your COI network, and to do that you need a marketing strategy. One such strategy is to develop a continuing education (CE) program. The group or groups of professionals you are targeting most likely have a CE requirement. By developing your own continuing education program, you can offer value to those professionals while highlighting your expertise at the same time. This is the first step in developing a lasting referral relationship.

Getting Started

Creating a CE course sounds like a great marketing idea, right? But where do you start? The first thing you need to do is to become an accredited CE provider. Each state and profession has its own requirements, so this step will require a little research on your end.

For purposes of this article, we will use the example of creating a continuing professional education (CPE) course for CPAs. If this is the avenue you decide to pursue, you could contact your state board of accountancy, which may or may not be able to give you clear guidelines for your state. We recommend a different strategy, which is to visit the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) website and join the National Registry of CPE Sponsors. By joining this registry, your program will be in accordance with nationally recognized standards. With this approach, there is a clear application process with defined guidelines regarding CPE sponsor requirements to ensure that you are in compliance. To start your application process, you can visit the National Registry of CPE Sponsors webpage: www.learningmarket.org.

The application process will require you to develop your entire program, including policies and procedures, prior to submission—a process that could take you several weeks or even months. On the positive side, by the time you are approved, your entire program, from invitation to certificate of completion, will be finished. The initial application will cost you $965 the first year for up to 15 programs, meaning you can offer 15 different topics an unlimited number of times in a one-year period. This gives you a lot of flexibility. You can create programs on a variety of topics if you wish to present to the same CPAs more than once.

Once you have one program approved, you are not required to submit additional programs for review. As long as the additional programs follow the NASBA Standards and Program Sponsor Requirements, your program will be approved (assuming you have been approved for the National Registry of CPE Sponsors). You can also choose various forms of delivery methods, including group-live, group-internet based or self-study. Group-live is the best option since it allows you face-to-face time with CPAs. If you are looking to develop relationships with CPAs outside of your local area, group-internet based may be something to consider, though development will be more extensive and there is an additional fee for review. Self-study defeats the purpose of using the CPE course as an introduction to CPAs, so you should avoid this method of delivery.

Marketing Your CE Program

Once your program is approved, you can start approaching CPAs about your course. You can offer the course in your office, at CPAs’ offices or at another location. Start with CPAs you already have relationships with and ask them to invite other CPAs from their firm. If you really want to entice CPAs to attend, offer lunch or continental breakfast as part of the presentation. Generally, early morning or lunch presentations are best attended. One credit is given for every 50 minutes of instruction, and a presentation lasting an hour and 40 minutes is usually ideal. The two credits that CPAs will earn make the course worth their time to attend, but the class does not take up too much of their day.

If you do not have any CPA contacts, you can try direct mail or direct email. Purchase a list of CPAs in your geographic area, and start sending invitations. Direct mail usually receives a response rate of only 0.5% to 1.0%, so send enough invitations to get the attendance you want.

If you have a large number of CPA contacts, you may want to offer the same program each month to a different group. If you have a limited number of CPA contacts, you may want to offer a different program each month to the same contacts to deepen the relationships. You will have to test out a couple of strategies to see what works for you. Just remember to be conscious of CPAs’ busy season when you are scheduling CPE programs. February through April is usually out of the question. Mid-August until mid-October can also be a bad time as deadlines for corporate and individual tax return extensions approach.

Show Your Expertise

The key to success using this strategy is to offer a program that will leave a lasting impression about your area of expertise. Use the presentation as an opportunity to position yourself as a subject matter expert in a specific area of expertise or niche market. The next time your CPA contacts come across a client with the particular need or situation you addressed, they will know exactly who to refer the client to.