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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Expert Insight: Brian Strahle on Blogging, Creativity, and Coping with SALT Celebrity

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In this “Expert Insight” we interview Brian Strahle, author of the popular state tax blog LEVERAGE | SALT.  Strahle shares his (often humorous) perspective on what it’s like to write a blog, as well as tips and strategies for readers who may want to start their own blog. 

 Bloomberg BNA: Why did you start a state tax blog?

Brian Strahle: Back in 2008 I started reading blogs.  Those blogs were generally written by consultants or attorneys.  Those writers were usually small firms or solo practitioners using the internet to convey their expertise and connect with others who had the same interests or may need their services.  After reading those blogs for a few months, I did a search to find tax blogs or more specifically, state tax blogs.  There may have been a few tax blogs, but there weren’t any state tax blogs.  I am a creative person and have always liked to write.  In fact, conducting research and writing is one of the things I really enjoy about working in the state tax field.  I was also looking for a way to connect with potential clients and other tax professionals across the country.  Blogging gave me the platform and outlet to be creative, and connect with people I would not have otherwise met. 

Bloomberg BNA: You pepper your posts with personal details, and write a lot about how state tax relates to broader life issues. Why did you choose this approach?

Brian Strahle: I chose this approach because, believe it or not, state tax professionals or tax professionals (in general), are human too.  We aren’t just about the numbers or the law (at least I don’t think so).  I want to connect with people on a human level.  I didn’t want to just be a boring tax blog that talks about technical matters (I know, hard to believe people may think state taxes are boring).  I want to personally connect with my readers and develop relationships with them.  I also want to communicate or relate state tax issues and opportunities in an “easier” to understand format for non-tax professionals (business owners, CFOs, Controllers, etc.) that read my blog.  I am also hoping that by sharing information about myself, readers will feel more willing to comment or e-mail me and tell me about themselves or their issues.  It’s all about building relationships.

Bloomberg BNA: How has blogging affected your practice?

Brian Strahle: Blogging has allowed me to connect and help business owners, CFOs, Controllers and other tax professionals across the country that I otherwise would have never met.  Blogging has also opened up other writing and speaking opportunities.  Just to clarify, my blog is my personal blog and is in no way connected to the firm where I am employed.  However, if someone contacts me to provide state and local tax services, all services are provided as an employee of the firm where I am employed.

Bloomberg BNA: What is your favorite thing about blogging?

Brian Strahle: From an external standpoint, my favorite thing about blogging is connecting with other people, and learning how I can help them.  From an internal standpoint, my favorite thing is having an outlet to be creative and express my personal views about state tax developments.  I also enjoy the challenge of writing about life events and tying them to the state tax world. 

Bloomberg BNA: What type of feedback have you gotten about your blog?

Brian Strahle: I have received “thank you” e-mails from readers about how the information was helpful.  Readers have also said that when they did a Google search on their topic or question, that there wasn’t much out there.  They were thankful to find my site.  I have also received some “top accounting blog” awards from different organizations.  When I mention my blog to other tax professionals, some say:  “What’s a blog?”  Others may say, “that is cool, when do you find the time?”  Some readers have told me that they are amazed by how much information is on the blog.  When I mention my blog to people in person, I usually say:  “I write a state tax blog.  Please check it out and let me know what you think.  If you can’t sleep at night, just read my blog, it should do the trick” (that was a joke).

Bloomberg BNA: What is the most unusual thing that has happened to you as a result of your blog?

Brian Strahle: This is a hard one, but I guess the most unusual thing is when I went to a tax seminar and people recognized me from my blog.  They came up to me and asked, “are you Brian Strahle, the writer of LEVERAGE | SALT?”  The other interesting or unusual thing is when new clients or prospects (in our first meeting) will tell me that they know me from my blog.  Not sure if it’s unusual, because it happens often, but it is cool.

Bloomberg BNA: Is there something about state tax that lends itself to blogging?

Brian Strahle: I think so.  As I say on my blog, state taxes are deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.  There are 50 states and thousands of local jurisdictions with their own tax rules.  In addition, those tax rules change almost daily due to legislation, court cases and rulings.  Add federal legislation impact to the mix, and the state tax world is a never ending “river of change.”  Therefore, there is always something to write about.  The challenge is choosing the topic and the message you want to convey.  Remember, it isn’t just the technical, it’s the “so what?”  You must turn the technical into practical and actionable information.  When you get to the end of writing your post, you must pause and ask yourself, “so what?”  Who does this apply to and why should they care? 

Bloomberg BNA: What makes an issue worthy of a blog post?

Brian Strahle: I try to write about issues or opportunities that either apply broadly to a large variety of taxpayers and industries, OR have a major impact on a specific industry, regardless of the state.  Sometimes those issues or opportunities are state specific or apply to multiple states, such as trends, federal legislation, etc.  I haven’t focused on one state, but I have probably written more about states where I have been based, such as Minnesota, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Maryland.  Like most state tax professionals, I have experience with almost every state, so I didn’t want to force myself to only write about one state (although that might be a better marketing strategy).  The same can be send for what industry (i.e., technology, manufacturing, services, retail, transportation, construction, real estate, etc.) to write about.  I, like most state tax professionals, deal with a variety of industries, so I haven’t focused my blog on any one industry.

Bloomberg BNA: What are some things that other practitioners should consider before they start blogging?

Brian Strahle: If you are thinking of starting a blog, I think you need to ask yourself a few things: 

  1. Why would I blog?  You need to have a strong “why” or purpose. Because you will inevitably have times when you will wonder if it is worth it.  Blogs in general do not get much feedback or comments on posts.  This is even more true when it comes to tax blogs.  I think most tax people (if I can generalize) are afraid of risk or sharing their opinion in public, so we are usually very guarded.  You may not receive much feedback or at least public feedback.  Therefore, you will need to have a strong reason why you are blogging to keep you motivated to continue. (I think this is the main reason why people start and quit writing blogs.  It’s also the reason people start and quit just about anything).
  2. Do I enjoy writing?  Blogging is self-publishing.  Hence, if you like to write, it is a perfect outlet.  If you don’t like writing, don’t do it.  You need to be able to have fun with it.  Blogging should not be a burden; it should be something you enjoy, a creative outlet.  Don’t do it because you feel you should.  Do it because you want to.  Again, if you are doing it out of obligation, you won’t stick with it.
  3. Do I enjoy spending my free time writing?  We all have day jobs (or at least most of us).  Hence, you will have to spend your free time writing.  What other commitments will you have to juggle?  Will you make time to blog? 
  4. How much time do you have to commit to blogging?  When I first started, it took me longer to write a blog post, but I eventually developed my method for coming up with ideas and determining when I write.  I generally come up with multiple blog ideas just from doing my job each week.  I then usually write my blog posts on the weekend and schedule them to post throughout the week. 
  5. What do you want your blog to convey?  What states, issues or industries do you want to focus on?  Who are you trying to reach?
  6. Last, but not least – do I have something to say?

One more tip – if you do start a blog, write consistently.  If you want people to be a regular reader of your blog, you need to write on a regular basis, or people will lose interest (wait a minute, this is state taxes – why would anyone lose interest in that?)

By Melissa Fernley  

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