The Challenge of Marketing Online
By Leonard Lee
Collectibles on eBay and books on Amazon aren’t the only things people are shopping online for these days. The Internet is an increasingly important resource for lawyers and law firms seeking to market themselves to prospective clients.
The potential for reaching prospective clients through online marketing is tremendous. Recent research by Thomson FindLaw found that more than half of consumers (56 percent) had a legal need in the past two years. The most common legal issues were personal finance, employment, traffic offenses, health care, real estate, personal injury, and family issues.
Percentage of Consumers with a Legal Need Within the Past Two Years
Personal Finance 44%
Employment Issue 31%
Traffic Offense 26%
Health Care 25%
Housing/Real Estate 20%
Personal Injury 18%
Family or Domestic 18%
Gov’t Assisted Prgms 17%
Community Issue 16%
Consumer Fraud or Defective Product 13%
Victim of a Crime 12%
Source: Thomson FindLaw
With more than three-quarters of the U.S. population now going online on a regular basis, the Internet represents a vast opportunity for reaching those people who are seeking counsel. But successful online marketing involves more than just throwing up a website and having an email address.
Finding and hiring the right lawyer is an inherently more complex transaction than buying the latest copy of Harry Potter. The circumstances of each case and the needs of each client vary tremendously. People are seeking highly focused information that applies to their particular circumstance.
Then throw into the mix the fact that the Internet is a big place—by some estimates more than 40 billion websites are out there competing for attention. The good news: people are out there looking for the services you provide. The key is making sure that they find you, and that once they find you, you can provide the information and resources they need to make an informed evaluation of whether they want to hire you as their counsel.
What are the challenges for successful online marketing?
What Are People Looking For?
When faced with a legal issue, people are increasingly turning to the Internet to find information and legal counsel. Thomson FindLaw recently studied how consumers are using the Internet to find and access legal services.
Of those people who conducted research on a legal issue, the Internet was far and away the most-used information source. Eighty-four percent of consumers who did research used the Internet, far more than those who relied on friends and family, libraries, or local bar associations.
More than half of people (57 %) researching online said they were satisfied overall in terms of the ease of finding information and the depth and amount of information available. That’s a higher mark than they gave other sources of information, such as referrals from friends and family. In addition, eight out of ten said they would likely use the Internet as a legal resource in the future.
People using the Internet to find legal resources tend to be, largely by self-selection, an audience of highly qualified prospects. One can reasonably assume that a pressing legal issue is what drives many of them to the Internet in search of legal information and legal counsel.
The FindLaw research bears this out. Nearly half (48 percent) of consumers who use the Internet for legal research subsequently contact an attorney, law firm, or legal organization. So what strategies can small firms employ to find and, more importantly, connect with the people who are seeking legal services online?
Building a Strong Website
The website is your firm’s flagship Internet presence. It needs to convey the quality service and legal expertise that your clients will receive.
A website with strong, well-organized content can be a powerful tool in presenting the types of information people are seeking. A lawyer’s expertise in a particular area of law is far and away the most important factor in choosing representation, according to the FindLaw research. It ranked more important than cost or personal recommendations.
Firm reputation and how many years the lawyer has been practicing were also listed among the criteria important to clients. These are precisely the types of information that can be effectively and efficiently presented in a website.
A website is more than just an online brochure. It’s an opportunity to put your best foot forward in what is likely your first point of contact for a prospective new client. More than half (56 percent) of consumers who contacted a lawyer or law firm contacted only one lawyer to try to resolve their legal issue. With a website, you can discuss what makes your firm unique, whether it’s a tradition of outstanding client service, specialized expertise in an area of law, an impressive record of verdicts and judgments, long-standing ties to the community, academic credentials, or association work that demonstrates in-depth knowledge.
Websites can also host client intake forms that can initiate the client evaluation process. Unlike a Yellow Pages listing or radio ad, a website can directly bring in new business and begin the lawyer-client relationship.
Search Engine Optimization
Strong placement within search engine results is essential, as search engines are the first online resource that most prospects turn to. Almost nine out of ten people searching for legal information or services start by using a search engine. Not surprisingly, Google was the overwhelming favorite (77 %), followed by Yahoo (44 %), MSN (20 %), and AOL (9 %), according to the FindLaw research. (Note: Internet users who access multiple search engines could provide more than one response.)
Other popular online resources included legal directory websites, government websites, websites focused on a particular legal specialty, law firm websites, and online Yellow Pages and other business directories.
Clearly, your website should be optimized so it will show up among the top rankings in search engine results. Given the complexity of search engine ranking methodologies, it’s advisable to use an experienced search engine optimization (SEO) expert with a proven track record. In addition, because search engine ranking criteria are adjusted frequently, your site optimization should be evaluated and adjusted periodically.
Online lawyer directories can be an important online marketing resource. Such directories and the legal information websites that house them are often a key online resource that consumers turn to when seeking legal help. In addition, they allow people to search for a lawyer using specific desired parameters, such as practice area, location, language, and even whether a lawyer offers free initial consultations.
Directory listings often start with free basic profiles as well as more thorough and elaborate paid profiles. Such listings provide an excellent opportunity to display more detailed information on your expertise and experience, and can also secure preferred placements within results listings.
With some of the leading online lawyer directories, the strength of their well-established domain names means that when a consumer uses a search engine, a lawyer’s directory profile will frequently rank higher in the results than the law firm’s own website.
Location, Location, Location
One out of every five people who are looking to hire a lawyer say that the location of the lawyer’s office is an important factor. Your search engine optimization strategy should make sure that, for example, if people are searching by location using keywords such as “Springfield divorce attorney” or “Redding estate planning,” you rank highly in the results.
And once again, effective inclusion in online lawyer directories and business directories is important, as people will often use those to search for a lawyer in close proximity to where they live.
Are you in practice areas, such as tax, family law, or estate planning, where the legal landscape changes frequently? Posting a well-timed article you’ve recently written on how new changes in, say, the estate tax could affect estate planning strategies can provide useful information and demonstrate firm expertise to both existing and prospective clients.
Similarly, an email newsletter to your client base can strengthen existing relationships and generate referrals and word-of-mouth marketing.
Study Best Practices
Websites such as LawyerMarketing.com provide informative articles, case studies, and tutorials on how law firms similar to yours are successfully leveraging the Internet to attract and build relationships with new clients. You can see current website designs and learn proven, effective strategies for marketing your firm online.
Leonard Lee is a marketing consultant who writes frequently on online marketing for law firms.