November 01, 2018

Marketing

In Search of ... Lawyers and Clients (For 2019 and Beyond)

Micah Buchdahl

If you are old enough to remember the television series “In Search of” hosted by Leonard Nimoy, then you can probably recall many of the fascinating subjects that were covered each week, from the Bermuda Triangle to Bigfoot, from Martians to Amelia Earhart. The series had a successful run from 1977 to 1982. But, like anything search-related today, you can’t stay stagnant. The History Channel is rebooting “In Search of” with “a new generation Mr. Spock”—that would be Zachary Quinto—because Nimoy is no longer with us and, of course, what worked then probably won’t work now. And such is the case with search itself.

Of course now, we go “in search of” every day. And if we wanted to learn more about Jimmy Hoffa or UFOs, we’d simply go online. And if you are engaged in law firm online marketing, you know it goes well beyond old stuff like metatags, keywords and pay per click—to looking at concepts like geo-fencing, newsjacking and remarketing. It’s not your grandfather’s Google any longer—if that makes any sense.

Ancient Tactics Won't Do the Trick

Back in the day—circa 2005—BigLaw attorneys would eschew any thought of caring about search results. After all, their sophisticated, corporate, educated clientele would not be going online to find a lawyer. That’s ridiculous. And back then—a decade or so back—they were probably right. But that’s no longer true.

Whereas a failed BigLaw marketing vehicle (and multimillion-dollar expense) of client relationship management software could not accomplish the goal of eliminating the “who knows a good M&A lawyer in Des Moines,” Google succeeded in getting the client on the other side to ask “who is a good M&A lawyer in Des Moines” and look for a firm name or attorney that resonated. Having the content and visibility online to match the search will lead to business.

After having a cup of coffee with attorney Laurence Banville, a partner at Ag Conexus, a digital marketing strategies company in Philadelphia, I realized that I was deeply in need of an updated primer on “search”—which led me “in search of ... online law marketing strategies for today.” So I asked Banville and Justia CEO Tim Stanley—the guy I go to for the first and last word on anything in the online legal space—for an update on what works now and what will likely work tomorrow.

It Still Starts With Google

“Google is still king,” said Stanley, of Mountain View, California-based Justia. “Google Search is still the key to online marketing for law firms.” But the Google results and product offerings have changed rapidly to reflect a different end-user experience.

He points to the increase and importance of mobile search, which has led to a need for speed and having accelerated mobile pages for websites and blogs. Over the years we’ve shifted the online search focus from desktops to laptops, then handheld devices.

Mobile usage also has led to the increased importance of Google My Business/Maps in search results because they stand out on the mobile page. With limited screen space on mobile devices, getting into the Google My Business 3-pack on a search result page leads to more client contacts.

Stanley adds that answering legal questions on your website has also become important to be a Google snippet result or an answer in Google Voice search. On its search results page, Google has also increased the usage of snippets for answers to legal questions. These snippets really stand out in both desktop and mobile pages, and websites, and writing answers to legal questions has proven to be a valuable way to get new clients. Snippet results are also related to what Google gives in voice search on Google Home and Android devices—even though this technology is still in the early stages. If your law firm’s answer to a question on Google Voice is the response, the registered account holder will get an email with a link to the source material.

Google has continually massaged the lucrative AdWords market as well, adding more features (especially for the first or top few listings), one sponsored placement above the Google Maps 3-pack and new targeting features, with some law firms still bidding hundreds of dollars per click. Google will generate about $40 billion in advertising revenue this year, so you can’t really argue with Madison Avenue (or the online equivalent) on that one.

Facebook Is Your Friend

On the non-Google front, Stanley notes that Facebook advertising has also added numerous features that work in certain practice areas, including the ability to remarket on the Facebook platform to those who have visited your website. This can be especially beneficial since there are many practices that can no longer remarket with Google—such as personal injury, criminal, divorce or bankruptcy—because they are considered tied too closely with personal information (thus potential privacy issues).

Banville notes that Facebook can be used to move from an active organic and paid search strategy to more of a passive display ad strategy that positions content in front of someone who is not necessarily there to find a lawyer but instead matches certain characteristics and behavior of someone who is seeking one.

Geotargeting And Geo-Fencing

These “geo-” terms were not even part of my marketing conversation repertoire until this year. It is particularly prevalent in practices such as personal injury, medical malpractice and driving under the influence (DUI). I’ll give two different examples of how it impacts law practice marketing.

Your future client is arrested for a DUI on the side of a highway. He or she is still standing on the side of the road (or perhaps at the police station) when he or she immediately starts searching for an attorney. Expertise is great, but being really close by might be better. The results might be based on the proximity of the attorney office. So being able to appear nearby is sometimes an art form of its own.

The second example, geo-fencing, looks to be “found” based on client location, maybe on Google or Facebook—in a virtual “fenced-in” area or address that might be a hospital, mall or other area where there is a good chance that potential clients may exist. None of these examples involve “solicitation” because the client will find you and reach out—you just need to know how to be there.

A Shift From Active to Passive

“There has been a big shift in budgeting for ‘remarketing’ to those that have already visited your website or read your press release, as opposed to attracting the prospective client for the first time,” said Banville.

Some of the more recent audience-related changes involve creating look-alike audiences from people whom you have already converted on your website and advertising to a passive platform with further segmentation—increasing the probability that members of that audience are seeking an attorney.

Location, Location, Location

While Banville touts the importance of local optimization, he says that it is actually hyperlocalization of results by Google that gives smaller firms in the marketplace a fighting chance against the big ones. “We’ve seen firms establish offices in new locations, almost exclusively driven by the power of a Google Local search, where the firm’s central office may be too far away to be considered in the geographic space being targeted,” says Banville. Even organic results are getting some sort of localization treatment, changing up who gets those coveted first page views.

Newsjacking

I’ve written in this space about the “race for clients” and the speed in which people in need of counsel start the attorney search process. Recently, I sadly marveled at the way a deadly helicopter crash played out on the web. Within hours I saw the video post of the victims—happily waving at the camera—to another camera phone capturing the crash, and then seeing the law firm that was retained by one of the victims’ families—all in less than a 24-hour time span. It all happens that fast and plays out even faster. You wonder why the first thing you do when confronted by a life-threatening encounter is to turn the camera on your phone to video—but it appears to be the mentality now.

A walk on the floor of this summer’s American Association for Justice Annual Convention in Denver offered an exhibit hall chock-full of sophisticated online marketing offerings that would blow the mind of many law firms I work with. Banville mentioned the aggressive tactic of “newsjacking,” a modern-day version of monitoring your ham radio by catching accidents in real time and then publishing commentary online that quickly gets indexed—and may very well appear in front of the family members now in need of representation. Call it what you want, but in a competitive marketplace, you do what you need to succeed.

The Bottom Line

It is the rare few attorneys today who will question the need and viability of online “search” to their respective practices. How you do it and what you spend does differ significantly based on the area of practice, the clientele and, in some cases, the geographic space. But your takeaway should be as follows: If you are still doing today what you did (maybe successfully) five years ago, you are going to be lost in a time warp. The strategies are changing rapidly, and you’d do yourself a favor by looking for the next thing and not trying to catch up to the last one. Of course, that is easier said than done.

Micah Buchdahl

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, New Jersey, he is president of HTMLawyers Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Email him.

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