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If you’ve been fretting over the state of law firm marketing, you have cause to rejoice. A recent survey of the AmLaw 200, titled Marketing Hope 2009, found that there’s a planned uptick in some marketing activities on the horizon for the coming months.
Conducted by Greenfield/Belser Ltd. and The Brand Research Company, the survey asked marketing leaders the following nine-part question to gauge how top firms are intending to invest some of their marketing dollars in today’s climate:
In the next year do you expect to:
1. Rebrand your firm?
2. Conduct branding or image research?
3. Redesign your Web site?
4. Invest in Google AdWords?
5. Overhaul your print collateral?
6. Invest in social media?
7. Redevelop your recruiting materials?
8. Invest in client loyalty interviews?
9. Do anything really innovative or radically different for your firm?
They could reply yes, thinking about it, not sure or no. The survey participants were leading marketing professionals in their firms, with the average size of respondents’ firms at almost 500 lawyers. The median firm size was 373, with eight respondents in firms under 200 and seven in firms with 1,000 or more lawyers. Firms were widely distributed geographically, with heavy clusters in New York, Washington, D.C., Texas and Georgia. So how did they respond? Let’s break down the numbers and associated trends. (See Figure 1.)
Capturing Clients’ Opinions
Most respondents (92 percent) reported that they’re thinking of or definitely conducting client loyalty interviews. While there are firms out there that are still resistant to speaking frankly with their clients about how to best serve their needs, this response rate represents a significant maturation of the industry. Thank goodness the window in law firms is finally open for the most important job in marketing—to lean out and breathe in the fresh air of client opinions and concerns. Few substantial businesses go to market without market research, a business basic that has eluded law firms for, well, nearly ever. But the survey results tell us that law firm marketers are more sophisticated and alert to competitive differentiation than ever before. Score!
“Talk to your clients. Get the attorneys out from behind their desks and get them talking face-to-face with their clients.” Director of Marketing & Client Development (250-lawyer firm)
Exploring Social Media
Also at the top of the to-do list for respondents (92 percent) is investing in social media. As defined by Tim O’Reilly, the Web technology maven who coined the term, social media means “a platform spanning all connected devices.” Law firms are currently busy creating Facebook, LinkedIn and Wikipedia pages, Twitter accounts and practice blogs. And they’re starting to dip their toes in the Google AdWords water, too. (More on that later.) But few—if any—are full in. Show us a coordinated Web presence that is integrated and maximizes Web design and functionality plus search engine optimization to exploit all of the above. We’re not seeing it. On the contrary, marketing teams that have been decimated by the current recession seem unsure where to put their strained resources or spend their time, and as a result, many programs are disjointed and tactical, rather than coordinated and strategic. Now is the time to run a bit faster and get ahead of the curve. This is the discussion everyone needs to have.
“… let’s just say that social media plays a big role [in our radical or innovative plans] and I am having a blast.” Head of Business Development and Marketing (250-lawyer firm)
Overhauling Print Collateral
In the meantime, despite all the social media brouhaha, the next item on law firm marketers’ agendas (54 percent) is to overhaul their print collateral. Hurray! Could the typical firm print collateral be any worse? Let’s look … nope. It’s pretty much just words, words, words. Here’s a rule of thumb: You’ll have no buyers willing to read your stuff if it’s written about you and not about them, and it’s not presented in a way that creates a dialogue. Try thinking of your print content as a salad bar. Instead of just piling on the garbanzo beans (words), create a balanced communication diet with charts, graphs, maps, tables and diagrams. Lose the iconic, meaningless images (e.g., petri dish=biotech practice).
By the way, the answers we received suggest that “print collateral” actually means “content.” So think format agnostic when calculating how that content is to be delivered. A PDF sent via e-mail might be more appropriate than a brochure via FedEx. In any case, the emphasis has shifted from modes of delivery to the primacy of rich content delivered through any vehicle.
Redesigning the Firm’s Web Site
The value of a compelling Web site cannot be overstated. So it’s good news that next up in priority for respondents is a redesign of the firm’s site (50 percent). Our 2007 survey of the AmLaw 200 Web sites showed a depressing sameness to many of the sites: Useless pictures (cityscapes, courthouses, etc.) splayed across the top of the page with three columns below them: a definition of the firm in column one; news about the firm in column two; and highlights in column three. As a result, the all-important home page utterly fails to differentiate the firm. Here are three guidelines for law firm sites:
Now go look at your Web site. Does it get a passing grade?
It’s somewhat surprising to learn that so many firms (48 percent) are retooling their recruiting materials in the current climate. This when it seems like you could just hang a “For Hire” notice in your window and sign up whomever you wish. On the other hand, the race for the best and brightest never ends. These firms may feel that, given all the flux in the marketplace, now is the time to upgrade their associate pool. No one could argue with that!
Rebranding and Image Researching
Some respondents plan to initiate a rebranding effort (30 percent) or research their firm’s brand (25 percent). This suggests that not all law firms have crawled into a cave waiting for the economy to thaw. Clearly some believe that branding and market research are effective exercises that may help a firm stand apart from others. And indeed, earlier research into failed firms ( Why Firms Fail, Why Firms Succeed, conducted by Greenfield/Belser in 2003) showed that not only were the successful firms united under a strong brand identity, but also that lawyers who simply felt their firm had a differentiating brand were more likely to increase revenue.
Investing in Google AdWords
Marketing professionals are now seeing the value in this online investment (31 percent). Good. Finally. Print advertising has tanked, and advertising agencies have been among the hardest hit by the recession. Advertising will return in force sooner or later, but print will see a declining share as online advertising ramps up. The challenge ahead for law firm marketers is to identify the changing nature of their buyers’ media consumption. Google AdWords is a growing option, allowing firms to run ads that are displayed when Web users search on one of your keywords. You can also choose to have your ads displayed on related content sites in the Google network. But hmm, since there are many millions of Web sites out there, the critical question is: Where to start?
Even beyond that, success with Google AdWords is no slam dunk. Home-grown efforts, in our experience, are neither well designed nor well executed and subpar sales leads are the result. Success takes time, patience and not a little skill.
The final question in the survey—“Are you doing anything really innovative or radically different for your firm?”—resulted in an interesting suite of answers that did more to define “radical” in the legal marketing context than “radical” in marketing per se. (See Figure 2.) For example, one respondent told us that “create industry teams” as opposed to client teams was radical for the firm. Innovative moves in other firms included “Significant shift in development and use of competitive intelligence” and “Collaborative marketing/business development programs with clients.” Mrs. Gump might declare, “Radical is as radical does.” Actually, we drew the most hope from the marketer who responded “Confidential.” Maybe that individual really has something up his or her sleeve?
“We have the attention of attorneys. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity.” Head of Marketing (230-lawyer firm)
Fortunately, there is life after Lehman Brothers and the panics and declines across the market over the past year. Law firm marketers are making concrete plans for reaching out and cooking up new business, even though in some cases they have to do it with one hand tied behind their backs. (Read slashed budgets, decimated staffs and gun-shy partners.) Many firms and lawyers now seem to realize that their business development and sales efforts cannot be successful without strong support from marketing. And that’s a cause for hope among true believers in marketing.
“In order to execute with excellence it takes much more creativity, so these challenging times should actually be some of the most dynamic for marketing professionals.” Head of Marketing (1,100-lawyer firm)
Burkey Belser is President and Creative Director of Greenfield/Belser Ltd., a brand design agency focused on professional services marketing. He is an inductee into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame.
Sue Stock Allison is Managing Director of The Brand Research Company, headquartered in Washington, DC, and a former Chair of the Legal Marketing Association’s National Research Committee.