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Vol. 44, No. 3

Meeting members where they are: Bars make smart use of mobile technology

By Dan Kittay

Most bars recognize that a sizable portion—if not a majority—of their members use a mobile device to communicate throughout their day. What may be less clear is how to best reach those members, and prospective members, through those devices, so the bar fits into the member's workstyle and remains a relevant part of their careers.

Interviews with bar staff and legal consultants and service providers revealed four areas where bars are trying to connect with members in the mobile space: website optimization, social media presence, mobile apps, and texting. Some methods are more successful than others, and all require some planning to have a chance at reaching the intended target.

One content fits all sizes

On whatever device you're using to read this article, it should display in an easy-to-read format, the result of the website's ability to "respond" or adapt to the device that's accessing it and to show the content in an optimized format. For Sam Glover, having online content be responsive is "table stakes" for bar associations.

"Whatever information the bar is providing, whatever engagement it is promoting and facilitating, should be friendly on a phone, tablet or computer," says Glover, the founder and editor in chief of Lawyerist, which helps small-firm lawyers build and sustain their practices.

The vast majority of bar associations, large and small, have adapted their websites to be responsive, according to the ABA Division for Bar Services 2018 State and Local Benchmarks Survey: Membership, Administration and Finance. Ninety-one percent of integrated state bars, and 88 percent of their voluntary counterparts, feature mobile optimized sites. Local bars check in at 77 percent, according to the survey.

Having content display properly on a mobile device so it engages mobile users involves more than reformatting the words and images to fit a given screen size, says Gyi Tsakalakis, president of AttorneySync, a digital legal marketing agency.

The content itself should be designed for the mobile user, Tsakalakis says; people who are accessing the content from their mobile device have different expectations than they might if they were on the desktop.

"If you're commuting, or at lunch, or at a motion hearing waiting and just thumbing through your phone, the time you have to consume content tends to be a little shorter,” he explains. “Make sure you can grab their attention quickly. They can bookmark it or save it for later."

How fast pages load on a mobile device is a key factor. "People on a mobile device don't always have the same speed connection as they might if they are plugged in at work,” Tsakalakis says. “Pages need to load really fast, usually in about a second."

Tsakalakis and Glover agree that it's not necessary to have two different versions of your website, as long as you've designed the mobile and desktop portions with the understanding of the likely mindset of the person accessing them.

What about texts?

Texting is another widely used function of mobile phones, and some bars have been tempted to add that means of communication to their arsenal. The Colorado Bar Association had been exploring using texts as a way to alert members to things such as weather-related cancellations of events, confirmation of event registrations, and reminders to pay their dues, says Heather Folker, director of communications and membership for the CBA and the Denver Bar Association.

While the idea is still under consideration, Folker says she is now exploring developing an app for the bar, which would include push notifications, serving the same purpose as texting. The app would also allow access to other bar features and services. Members could opt out of the notifications if they wished.

Watch out for social media missteps

Having a presence on social media is a popular way for bar associations to try to show up on members' mobile devices. While most sites can be accessed through desktops or mobile apps, third-quarter 2019 figures from online statistics repository Statista show that 76 percent of Facebook users access the site at least some of the time on their phones. For Instagram, it’s 83 percent, and for LinkedIn, 54 percent.

While "lawyers as a profession use social media less than the general population, most lawyers do use social media," Glover says. "The question is, 'Is there a way that a bar association can build and have a relevant and engaging presence on a social media platform?'"

A key way to do that, he advises, is to engage with people in the way that they prefer to interact on that platform. As an example, Glover says that if a bar is advertising CLE programming on Facebook, some may find that useful, but people often come on Facebook to check out their friends’ photos, talk about their weekend plans, and brag a bit.

“I think the trick for the bar association that wants to be active and engaging on social media is to think about what the persona they're going to bring to it is,” he says, “and to put somebody in charge of managing that persona and engagement."

Glover cites an old meme featuring actor Steve Buscemi appearing on a 2012 episode of "30 Rock." Buscemi is attempting to go undercover in a high school, and walks up to other students and says, "How do you do, fellow kids?" Sometimes organizations such as bar associations can project that type of image on a site such as Facebook, Glover says; "The trick is to find a way to engage on that platform in a natural way."

Glover says it's fine to promote CLE and other programming on the social media platforms, but if you haven't previously engaged members to follow you regularly, your marketing is not likely to be effective. "The reason that you are on a social media platform, being interesting and engaging and relevant, is to attract a following,” he says. “Once you're connected, now you have an audience of people you can market to. You can't do that if no one is listening to you."

Exploring Instagram

A number of bars report success from their social media efforts, including on platforms that tend to be heavily accessed via phone. The Dallas Bar Association uses a mix of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to connect with its members, says Jessica Smith, the bar’s communications and media director. Events that lend themselves to interesting photos get posted to Instagram, with occasional overlap to Facebook and Twitter. The bar creates Facebook events for CLE programming or luncheons, and finds that people share that information on their own pages, helping to spread the word.

"It's another avenue of communication,” Smith says. “People looking at it may not be the same ones who are reading our newsletter." Many posts receive likes or comments, which tells Smith that people are reading the content.

Recently, there have been discussions on online forums for members of the National Association of Bar Executives about whether Instagram in particular is a good choice for a bar association. The Iowa State Bar Association is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, and has been considering adding a presence on Instagram, says Melissa Higgins, the bar’s communications director. (Higgins participated in a discussion in the NABE Communications Section online community and subsequently spoke with Bar Leader.)

"Our concern has been, 'Do we have enough visual content?'” Higgins says; also, with the ISBA having an "aging demographic," she has wondered whether there will be enough interest among members to justify the time spent in maintaining the account. With encouragement from its Young Lawyers Division, the ISBA has decided to "bite the bullet" and add Instagram to its social media portfolio.

"It's a platform that's getting more and more popular, especially with the younger demographic of members that we're trying to engage more,” Higgins explains. “The younger generation of people just aren't joiners as much, so you need to get a little more creative in the ways in which you engage and interact with people who are your members or could be potential members."