Software: the battle is on

It’s not every day that a market worth half a billion dollars comes up for grabs. But that’s the game in small business accounting software in 2013/14, as customers move to cloud-based accounting.

Tech marketing veterans recognise the importance of the moments when customers move to a new and different way of doing things. Windows let Microsoft’s Excel replace Lotus 1-2-3, while a new generation of browser technology let Google’s Gmail erode the domination of Microsoft’s Outlook and Hotmail.

Former Xero country manager Leanne Graham, now CEO of GeoOP, predicts that in small business accounting, too, “a clear industry leader … will come out ahead of the market”.

Pete Sanders, general manager of Reckon’s business division, recalls “the old days [when] MYOB had 60 per cent while Reckon had 40 per cent”. He adds: “Obviously, the new players in the market have changed that dynamic.”

So, the six major players – some old-timers, some upstarts – are fighting for their lives. And a huge prize awaits the winners.

At Saasu, one of the two new participants, chief marketing officer Rhys Taylor estimates the market he’s fighting over in Australia to be worth “$500 million conservatively” each year.

Xero Australia’s managing director, Chris Ridd, comes up with a similar figure, based on an “addressable market” of 1.2 million customers providing average revenue of $30 a month.

Xero, of course, is the emerging player all the rivals are watching. Its revenue has roughly doubled in the past year and its shares are valued at more than $1.7 billion. Ridd describes the market as “hot, hot, hot”. Long-time players like MYOB and Reckon, with annual revenue growth of 6.8 per cent and 7 per cent respectively, know they have to react.

Industry commentator and businessEEz director Margaret Carey is watching the market heat up. “Reckon is coming in with its Reckon One product, trying to claw back market share,” she says. She also notes US software giant Intuit is taking back the QuickBooks brand from Reckon and selling QuickBooks Online to try to take market share from Xero. CCH, owned by Dutch publishing giant Wolters Kluwer, is trying to gain a foothold, too, with its iBizz package.

And then there’s MYOB, still in the enviable position of having more than one million customers in Australia with an existing MYOB product – and a national sales force of 80 employees. But MYOB Accountants Division general manager Adam Ferguson acknowledges the company is in transition. “Eighteen months ago, less than 5 per cent of our sales were through our online products,” he says. “Today, it’s probably 30 per cent. If l project forward another 18 months, it’s probably going to be closer to 90 per cent.”

MYOB has a new ‘hybrid cloud’ product, AccountRight Live, that it hopes will maintain its dominance of the sector.

Graham notes that the marketing battle between these vendors will cost many millions of dollars. Reckon, the one player to discuss its marketing spend with Public Accountant, says its marketing costs were just over $2 million for both 2011 and 2012.

But the money won’t just go into advertising the product directly to its users. Says Graham: “Vendors are moving their marketing spend to a ‘co-op’ model by helping their accountant and bookkeeper partners market to their clients – because nine times out of 10, their clients will accept their software recommendations.”

Ridd points to this as a key element of Xero’s marketing strategy. Xero pitches its product as ‘beautiful accounting software’ and runs national roadshows for accountants and their clients three times a year so people can touch and feel the brand. It also offers products and services to accountants free of charge so they can move their practices to the cloud. “lt’s a very disruptive approach to how the software market for accountants has worked – until now – and one thing that’s really driving our growth,” says Ridd.

Carey agrees. “They’ve gone through accountants, and everybody gravitates to Xero because it’s the product they hear about … Xero has done a lot of clever marketing.”

Saasu has taken recommendation marketing even further, keeping its ad spend low but gaining market share by using what it calls “service as a sales channel”. Saasu’s Taylor says most of the company’s business comes from referrals and “we continue to grow 5 to 10 per cent monthly in this way”.

Saasu has also focused on social/online channels, developing its network of tech-savvy business owners, accountants and bookkeepers and fostering the development of add-on products that extend Saasu’s capabilities. Besides advertising online, Saasu also runs a cloud conference and attends technology events such as Accountants’ Technology Showcase Australia (ATSA).

Reckon’s Sanders says Reckon is now investing in online media, and it, too, is focusing on social media, with its potential for open dialogue with customers and potential customers. Reckon also spends on national roadshow events, an annual conference, client briefings, advertising in publications that span both traditional and digital mediums, and other events. No longer able to rely on the QuickBooks brand, it must build up its own brand quickly.

At MYOB, Ferguson also has events in his sales and marketing mix – a national roadshow, tax seminars (some with attendances of more than 1,000 accountants), educational training sessions and a recent webcast with television presenter David Koch. MYOB has also bought into the Responsys digital marketing platform, suggesting more focus on digital marketing.

It’s unlikely all six major players will thrive in such a tough competitive environment. Marketing alone will not decide the survivors. But it will certainly make a difference.

Update: At 30 September 2013, 49 per cent of all new MYOB product registrations were for its two cloud accounting solutions, the web-based LiveAccounts and the cloud-enabled AccountRight Live. 

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