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Does AccountingWEB get SaaS?

AccountingWEBLet me start this post by saying I'm a big fan of AccountingWEB (in the UK, I don't particularly follow the US edition).  For the accountants in business and in practice or anyone interested in the sector it's one of the key resources to read - they cover everything from tax to technology, but it's the deployment of technology and innovation within the profession that is my particular interest.  The fact that it has blog like capabilities where you can easily comment on articles is great.  The Any Answers section has been a great resource over the years, where accountants or anyone can ask questions (anonymously if they want) and get direct advice from the community.  Like any online community they are subject to the 90-9-1 rule, where 90% of the audience just lurk and consume, with 1% doing most of the talking.  The recent major revamp of the platform has smartened things up very nicely, dramatically improved the search mechanism (which for a period before was almost useless), and added discussion groups which have the potential to be a good forum for debating some of the key issues.  They have 63,000 90,000 subscribers (it's free to  register, but more on that issue later).  As a SaaS accounting provider aiming at this sector AccountingWEB is one of the first places I consider spending some of my marketing budget for advertising and lead generation campaigns, and I know if you ask the other cloud and online service providers selling to accountants and SMEs (via their accountants), they would say the same thing.  My worry, though, is do they really get the SaaS and Cloud topic?  Are they following, when in my opinion, they should be leading?

On Wednesday I attended an AccountingWEB Fringe event, hosted at their Sift Media sister company's BusinesCloud9 Summit in London.  The idea, set up by John Stokdyk and Andy North, was a kind of focus group with accountants in practice getting together with many of the UK's SaaS accounting providers to discuss the barriers to adoption of this new technology.  I think this was/is a great idea and I got a lot out of the session.  However, I believe a big opportunity was missed.  Andy and John invited four accountants.  They specifically excluded anyone who had already made the jump from an existing conventional product to one of the new cloud providers.  Two of the accountants we met were servicing their clients online, but using a mixture of traditional QuickBooks and Microsoft Office hosted by a third party provider.  In terms of collaboration with their clients they were emailing files back and forth or using an FTP site to exchange data.  Very different from the latest tools in online accounting or online collaboration.  We definitely learned something, but the sample of 4 specifically invited practices was too small for John's initial article headline  conclusion "Accountants bring Cloud summit down to earth" and first line which says:

"The Cloud accounting industry faces a long campaign to convince the accounting profession to adopt web-based applications according to a small group of practitioners"

I get that tabloid style headlines with negative spin increase the probability of your article being read.  As a blogger I'm trying to learn some of those lessons in journalism for my own writing.  But to spin that message on a selected sample of 4 is, in my opinion, wrong and I believe John drew the wrong conclusions from the session in any case.  I was very pleased to see him say in the comments later:

"I may have committed the journalist's sin of simplifying the nuances of the meeting into a few superficial paragraphs"

Part of the rules of engagement of the session for the vendors present was "no selling".  On one level that's fair enough, but actually it hampered some of the discussion.  When the accountants were listing what they wanted from a SaaS product (stability of the vendor, speed of response, drill down like QuickBooks, ease of reporting, export to Excel, VAT done correctly, ability to edit transactions with audit trail, and bulk data entry), most of the vendors were, like me, biting their tongues or rocking backwards and forwards on our chairs in demented fashion,  because most of us do all that.  Either we should have elected a spokesperson to talk generically about what we SaaS accounting providers can do, or even better, had some of our customers in the room to explain why they made the jump from legacy products like Sage 50 and QuickBooks to an online approach.  This was the opportunity that was lost.  The focus group should have included the whole spectrum of views, but particularly accountants like Richard Messik of Vantis or Philip Woodgate of Goodman Jones (or a Xero, Liquid Accounts, KashFlow, Liberty Accounts or FinancialForce.com customer) who understand SaaS and Cloud and why it was worth jumping the barrier.  Similarly, there should have been some contrarian views from an ultra conservative practice who wouldn't touch the Cloud with a barge pole.  We'd learn something from that too.

Actually, when I take a step back and look at AccountingWEB, there are a few things that confuse me.  They have an archive of very good content, but it's hidden from Google behind a membership wall.  It's free to subscribe, but the sign up process still puts plenty of people off joining.  They should change the approach.  People would still join to enable commenting and to get their Newswires (email newsletters), but an open approach would increase their audience and discoverability of their content through search.  

On another tack, I'm acting chair of the Intellect SaaS Group.  This is a vendor trade group to promote the SaaS topic to UK businesses that started from informal meetings 18 months ago between some of the competitors in the room at the Fringe meeting.  We formalised in to a group covering the whole SaaS space.  Our first deliverable is a free 20 page document - "The Business Case for Software as a Service" (available in hardcopy if you mail me, or for download here).   I would have thought this would be just the sort of thing that would be both newsworthy and useful for the AccountingWEB readership, but so far I haven't been able to get John's attention, with numerous emails and calls.

Then when I look at the material on AccountingWEB around the SaaS and cloud topic, I don't see any real thought leadership.  Maybe I'm being harsh, but it feels like the writers are following what is going on in the profession, rather than leading on the real innovation, efficiency and cost savings that can be made using a SaaS approach.  Take a look at Richard Messik's post just after the recent Softworld in Accounting show to see how the proposition can be put elegantly and in jargon free words.  

Of course Dennis Howlett has chimed in with two takes on the same topic.

I understand that Sift Media as a whole, across their 12 publications, has around 600,000 members/readership.  I couldn't attend all of their BusinessCloud9 Summit, but from the people I spoke to there I know the exhibitors would be delighted with the quality of the 400+ audience attendees as potential prospects for their Cloud solutions.  But like all media companies they are struggling with the new world of publishing, community and user generated content.  They are challenged with the changes affecting their advertising revenues and how they monetize what they do.  They serve two masters, the vendors who advertise and buy their data for lead generation campaigns, and the readership they target.  At the moment I feel AccountingWEB has the balance wrong in this particular area of their technology coverage, and I'd like to see a lot more content and thought leadership around the SaaS and Cloud topic.   A follow on focus group event on the barriers to adopting online accounting with a more balanced selection of accountants is a must.

UPDATE: I've just been in dialogue with Richard Messik.  He tells me he was originally invited to the Fringe meeting by John, but then that was overruled because they wanted non-SaaS users on the panel.  He wanted me to make it clear there was nothing sinister about it!  However, we're back to the opportunity missed even more.

UPDATE: I was contacted late yesterday by Stuart Lauchlan, who is just becoming Head of Editorial across all Sift Media publications.  He wants to meet next week and explained he wants to "lay down some good Cloud thought leadership guidelines and initiatives".  Excellent news.

UPDATE: John Stokdyk has commented and in the process corrected me - article updated to reflect that AccountingWEB has 90,000 members (my 63,000 must have been from a while back).