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Vol. 37, No. 1

The social media evolution: How do you choose what’s right for your bar?

by Dan Kittay

Judging by some of the specialized programming on social media at recent National Association of Bar Executives events, there seems to be a growing consensus within the bar association community that Facebook, Twitter, and the like have a place within a bar’s arsenal of member/public outreach tools.

But there are also differences in how much attention bars think they should devote to the various social media platforms, both in how often to update content, and how much staff time to devote to the whole process. And when it comes to adopting newer platforms, opinions vary widely.

A recent post on the Listserv for the NABE Communications Section asked whether any bars were using Pinterest, a “virtual pinboard” that lets users “pin” images to their boards and share them with other users. The site, which had been invitation-only, recently opened itself up to all comers. Likewise, it had been used mainly for recipes, craft ideas, and other such subjects, but some users have recently been taking it in a different, less domestic direction.

Reactions to the post came quickly, and covered a wide range:

  • “Oh no! Pinterest? For us smaller bars, social media creates enough work already. Pretty soon we'll all have to hire social media specialists who do nothing all day but post, here, there and everywhere.”
  • “There's a lot of potential for Pinterest to become a good marketing tool for a bar association.”
  • “I certainly think that Pinterest has a place—and that it's an interesting medium. However, I believe in justifying a marketing/communications spend very deliberately and carefully—time or money—and I just can't see how Pinterest can be justified.”
  • “I do believe that all social media platforms can be extremely valuable to lawyers and [our bar] has implemented CLE programming just this year that has focused on putting the positive spin on social media versus the typical scare tactic presentations that lawyers often find themselves at.”

A similar post about Instagram, a photo-sharing service, also generated diverse comments about its usefulness to bars.

So, assuming that most bar leaders believe having some social media presence is a good idea, how do they decide which platforms to support, and how much time and resources to devote to them? And what about Pinterest, anyway? Below are some approaches your NABE colleagues are taking.

Planting the bar’s flag

For Danielle Boveland, there’s a practical reason for bars to have a presence on as many platforms as possible: “You want to control your name, so no one else will get it.”

When the Louisiana State Bar Association first looked into Facebook, it discovered that some people had already set up a community in the bar’s name. The same thing happened with Foursquare, a location-based social media service.

Boveland, the LSBA’s communications coordinator for online media, established the bar’s presence on those sites, and has done the same for others that become popular. She says it’s important for bars to do this, even if they aren’t yet going to actively maintain the presence.

As one of the few NABE members whose full-time job is dealing with social media, she updates Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+ for LSBA. The bar “likes to be out front,” she says. “[We] decided that, for social media, we were going to try to be cutting edge, and be where we saw the people going.”

Using Pinterest as an example, Boveland explains the bar’s reasoning. Given that a large majority of Pinterest users are women, and women make up 33 percent of LSBA membership, even if all female LSBA members followed the bar on Pinterest, it would only be 33 percent of the bar’s total membership. And even that relatively small percentage is larger than in reality; it’s highly unlikely that all or most women who belong to the LSBA are active on Pinterest. But the LSBA believes that the chance of reaching that segment of its membership makes the effort worthwhile.

“This is the way communication is going,” Boveland believes. “This is the way that younger lawyers prefer to receive their information. You have to be where they’re going.”

A two-way conversation

For Tim Eigo, editor of the State Bar of Arizona’s Arizona Attorney Magazine, the communication in the magazine’s social media efforts is definitely two-way. He oversees accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, which is a microblogging platform.

Eigo posts to Facebook once every business day, and to Twitter 10-20 times per day. Tumblr gets updated as he has interesting or lighthearted photos to post.

Rather than just distribute news about the magazine or association, he uses the communication, especially on Twitter, both to generate story ideas and to refine articles he is working on. People may suggest topics for articles or point him to information on a topic he’s writing about, which he says helps to make the article more comprehensive. Discussing the topics also builds interest in the upcoming issue where the article will appear.

The immediacy of Twitter interaction also appeals to Eigo. With a monthly publication, it’s rare that he can write about breaking news. With Twitter and Facebook, he can be on top of news, and then provide other angles in the magazine.

On the Pinterest question, he says that he hasn’t yet seen a compelling reason for his magazine to have a presence there, but as with any other platform, he is always open to considering it if a case can be made. “I do think it is our job, whenever possible, to lead,” he adds. “With any tool or product, our job is to vet things, and if it’s helpful, to use it.”

While he’s not ready to have a full-time social media employee, “we’re all going to see that, eventually,”  he believes. “It’s quite a ways down the road for most bars, but every bar must learn to become more nimble.”

‘Who am I trying to reach?’

When many bars started using social media, they tended to post association-centric items, such as reminders of upcoming events and programs. That’s still a part of what most do, but, like Eigo, more social media mavens are seeing the value in making the experience interactive, where members get a chance to communicate with the bar, as well as receive information.

Carissa Long was in at the start of the Indiana State Bar Association’s social media efforts, and has helped shape them to allow for two-way communication. “We really try to keep it interactive, and we want to show our members that we are there to converse with them, and not just push information at them,” says Long, the bar’s director of public relations and social media. “Our members tell us that they appreciate that we are not just pumping out information to them.”

The ISBA uses Facebook as a primary way to post news updates and photos, and does not stick to a set schedule of posting. “Not all of our posts are about us,” Long notes. “If we get something that’s timely, we don’t limit ourselves by saying, ‘We’ve already posted on Facebook two times today.’ We try to go with what’s timely, and we don’t hold on to very much.”

As for Pinterest, Long has a wait-and-see attitude. While she uses it personally, she’s not sure that enough ISBA members are using it to justify spending a lot of time maintaining a presence for the bar. It comes down to her having enough time, she says, and whether the potential payoff is worth the investment.

At the Boston Bar Association, Communications Director Bonnie Sashin says decisions about social media platforms should be made like those for any other communications effort: “Who am I trying to reach? With what message, and to what effect? Who is our audience?”

The BBA’s answers to those questions led to using social media in a less member-focused way than at many other bars, but still with the purpose of helping the membership.

“I look at social media platforms to see who’s using them,” she explains. “Not necessarily lawyers, but people who lawyers want to influence.” On Twitter, for example, there are many reporters and editors from the Boston Globe, as well as many legislators with whom the bar might interact on certain issues. “We need to reach people like that,” Sashin notes, “because we do a lot of public policy here.”

Twitter works well for sharing links to articles, and items such as amicus briefs the bar has filed, Sashin says. She uses Facebook mostly for images, to show the “human side” of the bar. And she’s a fan of blogging. “You control it, and you can measure” how successful it is by counting page views, she explains.

Sashin believes that “you don’t sell memberships on Twitter.” Instead, she says, by enhancing the bar’s reputation among influential people, the use of social media increases the perceived value of membership, and therefore leads to member attraction and retention. And if she decides at some point that Pinterest has a constituency that she wants to reach, the BBA will set up shop there as well.

A coordinated effort

The Bar Association of San Francisco has several accounts on Facebook and Twitter that are run by different departments, and that post news and bar-related information on a regular basis, says Ann Murphy, the bar’s director of communications and public relations.

Many of their postings contain bar-generated content such as journal articles, and information about members. The different departments also try to coordinate when there is a special event that they particularly want to call attention to, such as a recent half-price dues promotion. Social media has also worked well for getting volunteers for events.

Murphy says a recent look at the main BASF Facebook page showed that a large percentage of the more than 1,000 “likes” were from nonmembers, which she views as a good opportunity to provide membership information to potential members.

BASF faces the same time constraints as most bars that don’t have full-time staff devoted to social media. This led bar leaders to decide that Pinterest, for the time being, wasn’t as likely to produce the results they want from a social media platform, given the time they would have to invest in making it successful. The bar is next planning to devote effort to enhancing its presence on LinkedIn, which it sees as a more business-focused site.

What’s most important?

For smaller bars with smaller staffs, the decisions about social media become a matter of necessity, in some ways. “You want to do everything you can to reach every possible member or potential member,” says Isolde Davidson, membership and communications director at the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Bar Association. “[But] I can’t see a bar with a small staff like us being on the cutting edge of trying the next thing. I can understand why a big bar might.”

The MCBA has Facebook and Twitter accounts that get updated regularly, mostly with association-related events, as well as some local legal news. The same information appears on both platforms.

One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with developments in the social media world, to know what people are using and to be able to adjust efforts as needed. “You have to listen. You have to talk to people,” Davidson says. “You can’t stay in your own cubbyhole.”

She has looked at Pinterest, she notes, and has decided that for now, it is more important for the MCBA to maintain and possibly beef up its current social media efforts.

Do what works for your bar

While these bars have differing approaches to how they handle social media, all who spoke with Bar Leader agreed that they adopted the approach that worked best for their bar, and that it might not be workable for others.

“You have to see if a platform fits into what you want from social media,” says the LSBA’s Boveland. “It’s a bar-by-bar decision.”