Thursday, June 4, 2015

Someone’s Posted Negative Comments About Your Firm. Now What?

You work hard for your clients, spending countless hours trying to represent them in the best way you know how.  Most of the time… in fact, the vast majority of the time, your clients are extremely appreciative of your efforts. Some give you repeat business or send you referrals or post an online comment attesting to your legal proficiency.

But then, there are those times when someone determines, rightly or wrongfully that your efforts are not enough, that your turnaround time is too slow, that you made a mistake, etc., go online to a blog, or a legal directory or some other site to review, complain, criticize, and perhaps, even insult. Now when a potential client does an online search, up pops less than flattering content about you, your work or your law practice.

What should you do?

But before we address that, let me advise as to what you should not do… and that is, to let your emotions get the best of you. Social media and all the good and the bad that go with it are all part of the business landscape now. Hence, it is the wise professional who understands this and approaches negative comments with the cool, detached demeanor with which he or she would address any other challenge.

This means first taking the time to analyze the validity of the complaint.  If it is legitimate, the best thing you can do is publicly acknowledge the criticism and offer a way of making good on your mistake. Oftentimes, the best relationships are borne out of a problem or misunderstanding. By recognizing your part in the matter, those reading the posts will bear witness to the fact that you are trying to do the right thing – and are doing so in a rationale, calm and professional manner. In private, you may also wish to communicate with the individual who wrote the comment and offer to make amends.  You never know. You may just be surprised to see a follow up comment that is more “glowing.”

If the complaint is not legitimate, the process is not all dissimilar. While you do not necessarily need to concur with the post or the review, you should still convey your interest in resolving the matter. This is not the time to get defensive, but rather an opportunity to show that the interests of your clients are paramount to you. Again, the goal here is to offset the negative by communicating empathy.

A well-crafted response that takes the edge off the negativity is the right way to approach such matters. This is true even if the other party has resorted to nasty comments and name-calling. That being said however, it is generally not a good idea to engage in an extended “back-and-forth” online exchange with the other party.  Get across what you want to get across and then let it go. Otherwise it may take on a life of its own and blow up into an increasingly difficult problem.

Once you have determined the legitimacy of the complaint, addressed it publicly (and perhaps also in private), there remains another, albeit ongoing task to perform. In order to drown out the negative comment, it is always a good idea to generate positive content. Ask clients you know are satisfied with your work to post comments online. The more, the better. The rationale for this is simple. If you want you and your firm to be optimized online, you want it to be for good reasons. And few efforts are better for search engine optimization than content that is relevant and recent.

In addressing negative online ratings, evaluations or comments, it is really no different than addressing them elsewhere. Take an honest look at yourself, acknowledge (where appropriate) your role in the problem, convey understanding and empathy, and offer to make good. Then drop it.

One other thing… As with everything else, when dealing with these kinds of situations, common sense almost always applies.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Law Firms and Social Media: Deciding On Which Sites to Engage

social media sitesA few years ago, social media rose to the forefront as a viable marketing tool for law firms. Today, the decision to engage in such activities has become more complex, largely because there are so many more vehicles from which to choose. Hence, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss how law firms should go about the challenge of allocating resources towards this growing medium.

First, unless your organization has unlimited financial and human resources, it is important to focus on those platforms that are most likely to prove fruitful, rather than implementing initiatives in each and every one of them. This requires a true understanding of the nature of the firm’s practice areas, its target prospects and referral sources and the ways in which such targets consume media.

From our experience, by far the most effective platforms for firms engaging in B2B practices are LinkedIn and Google+ … the former for its wide network and business focus; the latter for its search engine optimization potential.  As I’ve posted before, LinkedIn offers a world of opportunity to connect with very specific target prospects – provided this effort is conducted in a disciplined manner and on a consistent basis. Google+ does likewise, but also tends to be favored in online searches because … well, because it’s a Google property.

Another good site for B2B firms is SlideShare. This platform allows you to do exactly what its name states – publish a PowerPoint presentation. Great way to convey information and/or expertise, though it’s not as popular as YouTube, nor as easy to integrate into an overall online program as some of the other social media sites.

For law firms that target the general public, it gets more complicated. Facebook is the biggest social media player of course and offers opportunities for the firm to highlight its wares. But it has also garnered a reputation as a more “chatty,” interpersonal vehicle. If your law practice is looking to start a Facebook campaign, prepare to get very creative in how legal topics can be communicated in easy-to-read, “bite-able” chunks.

Twitter has become the platform of choice for many “thought leaders” hoping to generate followers. However, if you are looking to follow suit, be prepared to spend a lot – not in dollars, but in time. That’s because the most effective Twitter efforts are those in which “tweets” are posted several times a day. If you are not going to do that, Twitter may not be the best approach to take.

Next is YouTube.  This is another platform on which being active can help your SEO. It’s also a good way for conveying more complex information and/or highlighting content that is enhanced with a visual element.  But it does take some effort and time (at least to do it right). You also must decide whether to produce material that will appeal to a large number of people (in which case you may run up against many competitors and lots of online clutter) or develop very specific content, in which case, you may reach relatively few people looking for very particular kinds of information.

And then there are Pinterest, and Instagram. I confess that I have a difficult time not associating these more with my teenage daughters than I do with the legal profession., but then again, I might have said the same thing about some of the other platforms a few years ago as well. Both sites are visually oriented, so they are more likely to benefit law firms that can take advantage of this element (IP? Fashion law? Sports law?). Pinterest is probably stronger for SEO purposes, but not very interactive. Instagram is more interactive, but has only limited SEO value.


As with every other type of marketing vehicle, each social media platform has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. Based upon its objectives and the nature of the legal service being promoted, a law practice should be frugal in how it allocates its resources. This requires being honest with itself, not in how much time/dollars it wishes to devote to such initiatives, but in how much time/dollars it actually will allocate to these activities. Our experience has been that it is far better to engage in one or a few of the most promising platforms well, before overreaching to implement a wide variety of initiatives half-heartedly.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Florida Ruling on Attorney Advertising of Past Results: A Legal Marketer’s Perspective

The recent Florida court ruling striking the ban on attorneys being allowed to advertise past results has been perceived by many as a victory for those who claim such communications are a first amendment right.
 
I wouldn’t know about that.  I’m not an attorney.
 
But I am a legal marketer and from that perspective, Florida’s ruling makes great sense – first amendment rights aside.
 
Part of the reason that some might disagree is because there exists a perception that somehow advertising, by definition, is fake or misleading and that its audience will thus make decisions based upon false information. When we think of advertising for law firms, we picture attorneys screaming into a camera how they are going to make sure you get that to which you’re entitled. And doggone it, they’re not even going to get paid until you do! What could be better than that? 
 
However, the truth of the matter is that the goal of advertising is not to mislead, but to inform. For decades, attorneys were denied the opportunity to highlight why a prospective client should consider them for hire. Hence, that prospect had little to go on to make any kind of informed decision. In this light unfortunately, legal services can become commoditized. 
 
It’s a little strange that we don’t seem to have such concerns when it comes to content about attorneys that appear in articles, in magazines, on lists of “best” lawyers, etc. Yet, often times, these can be just as misleading. At least with advertising, the audience intrinsically knows that space or time has been purchased. Misleading information disguised as journalism is actually much more harmful, precisely when it is cloaked in a veil of “objectivity.”
 
That the claims made in ads should be regulated and monitored goes without saying.  Michael P. Downey, St. Louis, MO, chair of the rules and regulations subcommittee of the Section’s Ethics & Professionalism Committee has it right when he says, “Its good that lawyers can talk about past results so clients can make better decisions”  But he’s also right when he says “It (the ad) must be objectively verifiable.” And there is certainly nothing wrong with disclaimers stating that past results are not indicator of future success.
 
So congratulations, Florida. Great decision. Not just for first amendment reasons – but because it allows attorneys to distinguish their practice from others and thus is in the best public interests as well. Now, if only the last 5 or 6 states that don’t allow advertising on past results would jump on board the bandwagon…

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Minimize The Perceived Risk In Hiring Your Firm

One of the most important elements of the legal marketing function is reducing the perceived risk involved in the contracting of a law firm’s services. Personal injury law practices have intrinsically known this for years and is underscored by their assurances to be compensated, only when “you are.”  In the world of consumer goods, the provision of a “money back guarantee” provides much the same purpose. In such situations, the marketer and not the “buyer” assumes the risk.

In marketing legal services however, such promises are neither practical nor cost-beneficial. Yet reducing the perceived risk remains critical and, as noted below, there are a number of ways in which law firms can approach this task.

1. Branding
Unfortunately, although this is probably the most effective strategy, it is also the most expensive. People are comfortable with what they know and if they feel they know a company or a law firm (even if this perception is inaccurate), they are more likely to entrust their resources with it. “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM” is as true today as it was when some clever individual first coined the phrase. Businesses and law firms allocate large sums to positioning themselves in the marketplace and then reinforcing that positioning over and over again through hundreds of both large and small ways. 

2. Professionalism
“Professionalism” is a horrible term to use because it is difficult to define. It’s one of those things that we seem to know when we see it.  Or perhaps better said, we seem to notice a lack of it when we don’t. When representation of a law firm – be it through an individual, an email, or piece of promotional material is “sloppy,” incomplete, inaccurate, etc., we have raised the bar of perceived risk. After all, if one is less than attentive to how one’s own firm is represented, why should a potential client think that that attention will be any greater for him or her.

To illustrate this, think for a minute about the impact it would have if a vendor promoted its wares to your office and when prompted, could not produce a business card or a website address. The lack of such basic accoutrements of “being in business” would not necessarily mean the vendor was of a lower quality, but it sure would give that impression.

3. Transparency
It is important to give prospects an opportunity to “check you out.”  This is usually done through marketing materials, testimonials, client referrals, published articles, etc. The more forthright the firm is in how it promotes its wares, the more credibility it establishes. Even when the inevitable mistakes occur, an honest representation of these mistakes (along with an explanation as to how they will be addressed) can sometimes go a longer way towards a positive client experience than even one where no issues ever arise.

4. Getting Prospects to Know You Before They Make The Decision to Hire You
For any prospective client, the decision of which law firm to hire is a big one (as is even the decision to hire one in the first place). In fact, there are times when it can be downright intimidating.  Much of that is due to the uncertainty that goes with initiating some kind of legal action or procedure.  What’s rote for you is certainly not rote for them. Hence, the more you can do to make them as comfortable with you before the actual hire, the more likely you are to convert that prospect.

We have found seminars to be particularly helpful in this regard. There is a comfort that comes with being an anonymous person sitting in a room with other anonymous people.  No one knows (or cares) who you are and your problems are not for public consumption (unless you choose them to be). The seminar or workshop gives the prospect the opportunity to get to know whether or not they like you – before it really matters. By seeing you, hearing you speak, appreciating your grasp of the issues that are important to them, that prospect is getting to know you without he or she themselves being evaluated.

5. Implementing a Meaningful Marketing Mix
The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that the “medium is the message” and he was absolutely right. The avenues by which prospects are exposed to your message play a significant role in whether perceived risk is heightened or diminished. An article in the New York Times that highlights your expertise in a particular area of the law is infinitely better at building credibility (and thereby reducing risk) than is a billboard “down by the highway.”  A web site that refers to yours is likewise stronger than a pay-per-click ad. The aforementioned seminar can do wonders to reduce risk; less so for a booth at a trade show.

That is not to say that these other vehicles do not have a role in practice-building (that’s fodder for an article on another day). It’s just that some are specifically geared for reducing perceived risk.

I close by recalling how an attorney called us once for recommendations on how he might go about marketing his real estate practice. I suggested that he should start by creating a web site. (He didn’t have one at the time). The attorney balked at my recommendation, stating that in real estate law, he could not see obtaining clients in this manner. As much as I tried, I could not get him to understand that when it comes to marketing, converting a prospect into a client is but one element of many. And among those others is a pretty important one called… “Minimizing Risk.”


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Legal Marketing: Is There Still a Need for “Creativity?”

Anyone who has ever worked for an advertising agency, a marketing firm or any other type of organization where design and copy play such an important role, know that traditionally, one of the watchwords has been “creativity.”  Agencies sold their wares by highlighting how “creative” they were versus their competitors (a difficult premise to substantiate) and begged their law firm clients, to embrace their innovativeness.

There was a reason for this and it had a lot to do with the very nature of the marketing process. That process began when the firm took out an ad in a publication, produced a commercial or developed a brochure, etc. Of course their competitors did likewise, making it imperative that that ad, commercial, brochure, etc. jump out from amongst the clutter, “grab” the intended target and encourage them to take some kind of action. 

But with the coming of the digital age, a lot has changed, including the fact that the marketing process is now so often initiated by the prospect. This is particularly true online (the vehicle of “choice for many, if not most firms) where, instead of being “grabbed,” that prospect is now “seeking” information about the firm – usually with the prompt being driven by “need,” rather than traditional marketer “creativity.”  Further, those organizations that do “jump out” on line do so because they are at the top of the search engines. This is unfortunate as that ranking is more a function of a) links to other sites, b) use of keywords and c) volume of content than it is of the firm’s ability to convey its reason for being and the benefits it provides.

With “content” and “relevancy” now the new watchwords, is there still a place for “creativity?” The answer, I believe, is that while clever words and pretty pictures may have lost some of their luster, “creativity” still is a critical component of any legal marketing initiative. Often, this is at a more macro level than it is at the single execution of a web site page, an email blast, a pay-per-click campaign, a public relations program, etc.. It requires getting into the prospects’ shoes more completely than ever before and developing the offerings, practice areas and niche expertise of individuals with very specific needs. Being “creative” with “content” and “relevance” means knowing your potential clients better than your competitors and applying that understanding to both the materials you develop as well as how you disseminate that material. I am frequently amazed at how much law firms develop certain content and then fail to deliver that very same content in a multiplicity of ways, when all it would require is the touch of a key or a click of a mouse. Knowing how to “creatively” use the myriad of online and offline tools, and to do so cost-effectively, has become essential.  

Examples? A seminar can be videotaped and turned into a webinar which is then promoted via press releases, e-newsletters to the firm’s contact database, email blasts to a targeted list, social media posts, etc. Following the event, that webinar is then also archived on the web site and posted on Youtube. All of this is done using mostly the same content and will probably cost the firm relatively little.

Another such example is aligning the firm with a specific cause and promoting itself around that cause. For one PI firm, our agency recently implemented a “no texting while driving” campaign aimed at local high school juniors and seniors. Similar initiatives can be implemented across a myriad of other relevant causes.

I would be negligent if I claimed that today all “creativity” is or should be of a “macro” nature.  There are certainly instances where this is not the case.  A pay-per-click ad campaign must be carefully constructed within the very tight character limitations mandated by the search engines.  Similarly, one of the most often neglected aspects of an effective e-newsletter or e-marketing effort is the subject line. Rather than something haphazardly thrown together, it should be considered a “headline,” vital to prompting email “opens.” In fact, it actually requires more “creativity” in the traditional sense than the print ad, direct mailer, or television commercial, because it must prompt an action in just a few words – and with no visual element to augment it.


The net takeaway of all this is that while the ways in which legal marketers can show their creativity may be changing, the continuous need for that creativity in order to facilitate firm growth, remains unchanged.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing for Your Audience Versus Just for SEO

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which I discussed how strictly adhering to search engine optimization guidelines can, at times, do more harm than good. This is because by focusing too emphatically on specific search terms we sometimes risk alienating visitors to the site who may be looking for content not related to those keywords.

Today I would like to address another concern regarding an overemphasis on SEO. Too often, many law firms (and many businesses in general), perceive their web site to be a tool used to generate new business. This is fine and is, in fact, one of the ways in which a quality web site can serve a positive function in the firm’s business development efforts.  

But it is not the only one. Any purchasing process involves both the generation of potential new customers as well as converting those prospects into clients. A web site is not just a lead generation tool—it is also a conversion tool. As such, it is visited by prospects for information about the firm, its areas of focus, its attorneys and also to get a sense of the very essence of the practice.

When content is developed that focuses too heavily on having the “right” keywords appear the “right” number of times in the “right” places, we lose sight of what we are actually trying to do – sell the site visitor on the merits of our organization. This requires a writing style that understands the target audience, that is user-friendly and that underscores the firm’s benefits. When we do not do that, we run the risk of falling into traps exemplified by the admittedly exaggerated line, “Smith & Jones are divorce attorneys who focus on divorce and assist those individuals going through the divorce process to get through that divorce process smoothly.” 

While Google and the other search engines have learned to account for such extreme examples of trying to get keywords into the content as often as humanly possible, the point remains the same.  There is a fine line between writing for SEO purposes and writing to the needs and interests of the reader. If you don’t focus enough on the SEO elements, you risk losing new visitors. Focus too much on the SEO and not enough on what you are saying (or how you are actually saying it,) you risk losing prospects. Copy written in a format as highlighted above will almost certainly not convert educated, high net worth prospects into clients that family law firms so often seek to obtain.

In many ways, this has become a very critical part of legal marketing in the 21st century. The degree to which your firm moves more in one direction versus the other needs to be carefully thought-through and should be a function of the type of practice areas in which your firm is active, the sophistication level of your target audience, the culture of your firm, how the percent revenue generated from different practice groups breaks out and the nature of the “purchasing” decision making process of prospects in your firm’s areas of emphasis. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Thinking Small: Niching Your Practice

If you have absolutely unlimited marketing dollars at your disposal, then read no further.

If however, your law firm is like most, then making the most out of limited resources is an essential strategy. 

There are many ways in which to do this of course, but one way often resisted by law firm management is seeking niches for the practice’s offerings. In suggesting this, I am referring to a strategic approach that actually seeks to narrow, rather than broaden the number of target prospects.

Before we get into the “How,” let’s first discuss the “Why.”

Effective marketing involves gaining exposure. In most cases, gaining such exposure is an expensive proposition – be it in hard dollars or in human resources. Obviously, some firms are better able to fund exposure-generating initiatives. For example, a personal injury law practice may inundate the broadcast airwaves simply because it can. Another firm may rule the page rankings on Google and other on-line directories because it has managed to allocate the manpower to consistently generate new content and establish new links. Yet a third firm consistently finds ways of getting its attorneys on the pages of major newspapers and interviews on network television because it has paid high-powered public relations professionals to do just that.

Firms that own a greater “share-of-voice” have a much easier time generating the kinds of exposure that generate revenue. Unfortunately however, they also make it that much more difficult for the “little guy” to play in the same arena. While its true that a small personal injury practice can run a television campaign just like its larger competitor, the fact that this effort will be drowned out by a much larger media budget often makes such an initiative futile at best.  Instead of generating more clients, it simply drains whatever precious financial resources the smaller law firm has. Similarly, a search engine optimization program that lands a firm on page twenty is not even worth the effort to get there. And that PR campaign? Public relations, more than most other marketing tools can, at times, be risky.  Your story idea, your pitch – they are all at the mercy of editors, producers, etc. 

The problem that many law firms have is that they seek to be a big fish (or even a medium fish) in a big pond. Sometimes it is far wiser to be a larger fish in a smaller pond.  Most successful firms that do so have found a way to establish a niche for which they are specifically known. Their pool of prospects may be smaller, but amongst that pool, they enjoy heightened levels of awareness.

There are many ways in which to find and create that niche. Take a person who has suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident as an example. That person may very well not research “attorneys” or even “personal injury attorneys” when seeking a lawyer.  Instead, that individual may well seek out a lawyer who truly understands the ins and outs of spinal cord injuries. Similarly another practice may focus on brain injuries, while still another on birth defects.

Becoming the one who “knows” inevitably provides one with a leg up. “Type of injury” is just one way to niche a PI practice. There are others.  One can also niche by “Cause of injury.” We see this in promotions for practices that focus on motorcycle injuries or truck accidents.

Segmenting the community is yet a third means of niching. Having a full grasp of the needs, wants and habits of a particular ethnic or national group is a good way to not just generate exposure, but also create to an atmosphere of goodwill and understanding.

Finally, there’s geographical niching. Limiting your marketing efforts to a confined area allows you to leverage your human and financial resources. Now you do become the “big guy,” albeit in a smaller setting.

The whole concept of niching is not just for the PI firm.  It is applicable to just about any other practice area. Some of this involves “drilling down” to a sub-topic within a topic. We worked with one firm with a strong corporate litigation department that asked us to promote its understanding of the much more specific area of independent contractor law.  Another criminal defense practice sought to focus its efforts on bullying. When the issue of domestic partnerships arose, one firm sought to emphasize its understanding of that topic in its consumer outreach.

Yet another way to leverage a niche is to identify industries with which the firm has experience. Being a corporate litigation law firm conveys one thing. Being the corporate litigation firm for energy companies conveys quite another.

If you have tremendous resources, by all means, go out there and “shout” your selling points.  If however, you do not have such resources, don’t try and shout so you won’t be heard. Rather, go out there and shout – even if it’s to a smaller crowd.

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