“Mobile” and the future of your tax practice

Today, I want to discuss a little bit about mobile technologies and how it relates to the future of your tax practice, particularly in regards to marketing.

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In case you haven’t noticed, mobile technologies are all around us, and they’re growing more powerful every few months. The whole world of “mobile” is becoming more and more important to all businesses, and ignoring this trend is, in the long run, a bad business decision.

I should point out that this particular application of the word “mobile” has nothing to do with making your business itself mobile, as in allowing you to travel and work simultaneously. That’s a whole different discussion.

“Mobile” refers to how consumers interact with each other and businesses from their mobile devices. In many ways, the mobile era is closely connected to the social era.

Over the past few days, I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading studies and statistics regarding the current state of mobile, and it’s quite fascinating.

First of all, it’s simply astounding how many people have and use cell phones. I was intrigued to discover that I am NOT actually the last American without one. Market penetration in the U.S. is 86% (Pew Research). In some countries, cell phone market penetration is nearly 100%.

Second, it’s amazing how many people have smartphones. Smartphones make up 58% of the U.S. mobile phone market (comScore). That’s 137 million Americans walking around with smartphones. Android is the largest platform, controlling 52% of the domestic smartphone market. By manufacturer, Apple controls 39% of the smartphone market, followed by Samsung at 21% (all data from comScore).

Things to start look even crazier when you throw in tablets. The tablet and laptop market, together, has been larger than the desktop computer market for several years, based on number of units sold. The gap between mobile computing and desktop computing is expected to grow bigger in the coming years. Currently, sales of smartphones and tablets are more than double the sale of desktop computers (Business Intelligence). BI predicts more than 350 million tablets will be in consumer hands by 2015.

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The presence of all these mobile devices leads to an obvious question: How much are people actually using them, and HOW are they using them?

Two of the most interesting stats that I came across are that 51% of U.S. smartphone users regularly surf the web from their phone. Even more interesting, however, is the distribution of web traffic. In March 2013, Adobe did a study of 1,000 web sites with massive volumes of traffic, and discovered that 8% of web traffic to those sites was coming from tablets, and 7% from smartphones. I realize that leaves 85% coming from desktop and laptop computers, but it’s still a telling number, and expected to grow rapidly (some say exponentially) in the next two to three years.

Another amazing statistic has to do with the web surfing habits of individuals with mobile devices. I found one study that showed that, of smartphone users that do use the web from their phone, doing so accounts for 38% of their actual web time in a given month. That number is also expected to rise.

So what are all these numbers trying to tell us?

Basically, it’s this: If you don’t already have a mobile presence, then it’s time.

Creating a mobile presence doesn’t have to be all that complicated. For those of us in the tax profession, it’s unlikely that the cost of creating an iPhone or Android app would be worthwhile. You can do so, of course, but the real question of what to put in the app obviously arises. You could create an app to distribute your client newsletter or other content, but I doubt it’s worth the effort (email is still your best friend in that department).

If you have a great idea for something in the tax, accounting, or legal realm that would make for a good app, then by all means look into it.

Even more important than having an app, however, is having a mobile-friendly web site. I’ve recently become aware that this is a fatal flaw in my own web sites, and something I’m working on correcting. Your clients and potential clients should be able to view your web site from their mobile device these days. I think it’s reached the point where it’s beyond being a nice thing to have, but is now a requirement for any business.

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In order to make a mobile-friendly site, you have a couple of options. First, you can have a completely separate web site that loads when your system detects that the user is using a mobile browser. This web site is completely optimized for mobile use, and offers limited functionality and on-screen info compared to a full sized web site. The second approach is to use what is called a responsive web site, which will automatically adjust itself for best viewing on whatever size device it’s being viewed on.

Discuss with your web developer the options for adding a mobile site to your existing site, or making your existing site responsive. If your web site is run from the WordPress blogging software, like all of my sites are, it’s actually fairly simple to introduce a responsive WordPress theme to your site and fix the issue that way.

Another thing to consider is your client portal. Can clients send you documents via their mobile devices? In other words, can they snap a photo of a document and upload it to you via your mobile-enabled client portal? This is a growing consideration, and one worth looking into.

In the not to distant future, I can see this being a bigger issue. Already, 1040-EZ filers can use a simple app to complete their entire tax return for free just by taking a photo of their W-2. There are also distance tax preparation services that allow users to upload all their tax documents from their mobile device or from the cloud. These services already exist, and will grow in popularity as time goes on.

The immediate applicability of mobile may be strange to consider for a tax practice, but it is necessary to consider regardless. Even if it’s just changing to a responsive WordPress theme, you must take into consideration the technology trends that your clients are using, and make it convenient for your prospects and clients to find you and connect with you, through mobile and social technologies.