The Marketing Issue

Marketing: Replacing Face-to-Face in Business Development

Micah Buchdahl

A year? A year! For most of us it has now been a full calendar year since face-to-face business development was a thing. We’ve learned to shift, pivot and redirect time, energy, money and resources toward a revised strategic plan.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve spent many a day at my desktop “attending” one-, two- and three-day virtual conferences. You don’t accumulate frequent flyer miles, hang out in a hotel lobby bar or frequent some cool restaurants in fun cities. Instead, you run into your kitchen during a lunch break, possibly pop a beer at your desk during the “virtual” happy hours and wave to your long-lost colleagues over Zoom.

My last in-person meetings were the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, followed shortly thereafter by a meeting of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I often think that if I knew Austin and South Florida were last hurrahs that I might’ve behaved just a little badly. Not a lot, but definitely some.

So, while I shudder when people refer to our revised lives as a “new normal,” I’m hoping that the coming months allow a shift back to in-person opportunities. Because while none of this is an excuse for not marketing, there is simply nothing to replicate the in-person when it comes to personal and business relationships, and the networking that goes with it.

If a pandemic hit prior to the advent of social media or, heaven forbid, the internet, I’m not sure what advice I could have provided in altering an attorney’s marketing and business development strategy and planning. But luckily, I don’t have to. The reality is that the vast majority of your business development game plan should’ve remained intact over the last year.

Operating In Different Comfort Zones

In some parts of the country, certain “rules”—both written and suggested—have dictated social behaviors. But if there is one thing that I’ve found over the last year, it is that everybody has their own comfort zone—and respecting it is critical to your future relationships. When feeling out your business contacts for possible social gatherings and get-togethers, make sure you know and respect their comfort zone. The reverse should hold true as well—don’t feel forced to change your personal or household’s rules because a client or contact has a different philosophy.

After a year, there can be great opportunities to schedule lunches, golf outings and in-person face time with contacts who might previously never had the time. But I’ve found that comfort zones vary so much that you can’t assume anything. But also, don’t assume that a little in-person is off the table.

Less Time, Less Cost

While I lament the lost in-person face time, there are counterbalancing upsides that actually allow you to increase visibility and participation while saving you time and money. I reminded a young associate with small children at home that taking on an additional, high-profile ABA appointment was a big win for her. We were cutting out travel time and lots of expense, shrinking lost billable hours and family time while still taking a leadership role that now amounted to a few hours of prep, phone calls and Zoom instead of perhaps three or four days. The virtual meeting landscape actually allowed her to participate more, not less.

This has been a constant refrain of mine, especially for young lawyers who feel the stretch and pull of getting work done, maintaining a personal life and making the sacrifices that come with various organizational appointments, activities and conferences. The bottom line is that many can do much more in this environment than the previous one.

Most Marketing Is Business As Usual

At a time when “canceled” is often the word of the day, most of our day-to-day marketing activities have not really changed at all. Our professional organizations and associations have merely pivoted the in-person while maintaining the usual periodicals and related activity.

You don’t need a rocket scientist or marketer to remind you that maintaining visibility through social media channels is not only alive and well, but more important than ever. For consumer eyeballs, Facebook and Twitter are booming. On the business side, the reliance by corporate executives and professionals on LinkedIn is often a daily activity versus an occasional stop when time allows. Together with Zoom, social media is the other core outlet for “touching” your network and keeping relationships going.

Providers of content (thus, the opportunity for content marketing) are being inundated with proposals for articles, webinars and podcasts by lawyers that now have both (1) increased time to work on them; and (2) the feeling that this is the best way to keep their name and the law firm name front and center.

Can you even imagine marketing your practice in times like these without the internet? Not only for web access, but the ability to continue generating content through websites and blogs, getting found through search engine optimization and other paid platforms. Again, little change here in the last year.

Navigating The Virtual Conference

For the registrant, I’m hoping that there have been some important lessons learned when it comes to remote conferences. In the fall, I attended numerous two-to-four-day virtual meetings and conferences. While, yes, those meetings would’ve been in Chicago, Los Angeles or Disneyland, the fatigue of being at a desktop, at home, for months on end left little patience for six hours of agenda items with a virtual social event at the end (when I’ve long turned off the computer). I would expect many of them to tighten things up in the near term. Another great struggle for attending our conferences is blocking the time and treating them with the same respect you’d treat a client meeting on your Outlook calendar. Yes, your kid might barge into your home office demanding lunch. But trying to focus and treat the time blocks as if you were in the convention center or hotel ballroom will allow you to get more out of the experience.

There is also the evaluation of sponsorship opportunities for law firms at these meetings and conferences. In some cases, you are not getting much bang for the buck in terms of branding and recognition. In others, there may be much larger and wider audiences that will see your firm name in lights. But the evaluation of cost, benefits and exposure is shined under a different light, for sure. While I’ve cut down on sponsorship spending at firms, there are still good ones to be had. And tying them to social justice or community causes is never a bad thing when times are rough for some.

Predicting the Future

Last March, I authored an article titled “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Law Marketing” for our sister publication, LP’s monthly webzine Law Practice Today. At that point in time, I compared things to the financial crisis of 2008—and the change in law firm staffing and spending on marketing in the aftermath. Besides the fact that I had no idea what was really coming down the pike, one of my comments proved quite accurate—“while I’m certainly no economist, I have to believe the coronavirus will bring repercussions in the coming months and years, as corporate belt-tightening and other economic factors again make marketing a critical component of a law firm’s success in the 2020s and beyond.”

As it has turned out, for every law firm engaged in belt-tightening, there is another that benefited financially from the world turning upside down. Corporate real estate may be down, but corporate bankruptcy has gone through the roof. Family law attorneys have stayed plenty busy, while some general practitioners have really felt the pinch. The bulk of my suggestions in this column come at a relatively low to no cost. There is no excuse for losing visibility. It is just shifting focus. And, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind,” so make sure if it is not face-to-face, you are still in touch and engaged with your network. 

Micah Buchdahl

Attorney

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. micah@htmlawyers.com

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