BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES FOR SMALLER FIRMS:
Tactics and Tools for Competing on Any Budget
To stay competitive in a rough economy, it is essential that smaller law firms aggressively promote their services. Easier said than done, right? Not necessarily. Raising your firm's profile needn't require superhuman effort or a lofty budget that will have your accountant breaking out in hives. There are numerous strategies that can be put into play for next to nothing. They include revving up your online tactics, bolstering your interactions with clients and referral sources, and integrating some inexpensive yet sophisticated Web tools that will help you stay on track. Here's a look at some of the tools that you can use in your marketing mix to get a wicked competitive advantage.
Essential Online Tactics
Most law firms these days, solo practices included, have a Web site. If you're not like most law firms in this regard, it's time to jump on board— today. Having a Web site where potential clients can view at least your profile and a description of your practice is almost as essential as having passed the bar. Still, even with all the sites out there, what many firms fail to do is update their sites on a regular basis—"regular" meaning daily or weekly, not once a year when you finally manage to find a free moment to do it.
Freshen up your site by creating new keywords and title tags and adding brand-new content and news. This will not only help boost your firm's visibility in search engines, but it will also leave visitors with the impression that your firm has a strong desire to actively engage with clients. What to do in creating new content for your site? Don't simply pontificate on the law itself—discuss the day-to-day, practical impact of the law on a typical client's business or life.
The same advice on focusing on the client's perspective holds true when writing articles for online publication elsewhere. Placing articles on the Web, where you have a huge potential audience, is a great way to highlight your position as an expert in your field.
Not already known as an expert? Don't let that fact stop you. Pinpoint an evergreen issue you know backwards and forwards, or a controversial legal topic that's been in the headlines. Offer bylined commentary wherever you can—on blogs, in online newspapers' op-ed sections and via e-mail to reporters who cover the relevant topic. This tack has the potential to lead clients directly to you, and also to produce articles that you can forward to future prospects as validation of your expertise. The bottom line? Clients want niche experts, not legal generalists.
Also in the writing vein, why not develop a well-written blog tailored to your firm's target audience? Then make it a point to update it at least once per week with a timely, informative new post. You may decide to have several lawyers contribute, or to funnel posts through a single designated attorney. Whichever method you go with, commit to it so that viewers know what to expect—with blogs, consistency is key. Put a highly visible hyperlink to the blog on your firm's Web site, and also include a link to the blog in the signature line of firm members' e-mail messages. In time, other bloggers will link to your blog, bringing in additional viewers as well as potential clients and media opportunities.
Another tip for your Web profile: Join online directories such as Avvo.com, Lawyers.com and local legal listings, which are popular destinations for small businesses and consumers seeking representation. In addition to your firm's contact information, you can typically include a lengthy description of your practice in the listing— and reap a good return on your investment. (That's especially so if the listing is gratis!)
Also, are you sending an e-newsletter to clients and contacts on a routine basis? If not, it's time to get on that. Compared to regular newsletters, these cost far less to distribute and are more likely to actually be read by recipients. Your e-newsletter need not be a fancy, multipage affair—simply include brief recaps of any significant recent cases and events your firm has been involved in and useful tips and advice for prospective clients. Always include contact hyperlinks so that readers can easily get in touch with your firm.
In addition, produce webinars on topics your firm's clients and prospects care about. You'll spend much less than on a live presentation, and it will assist in marketing your firm's lawyers as leading authorities. A one-time investment in a good video camera is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential benefits of this genre.
Offline Strategies for Reaching Out
Of course, not all marketing and business development efforts need to—or should be—conducted through the Web. Here are some "low-tech or no-tech" tips for differentiating your practice from the rest of the pack.
- Start each day with this re-minder: "It's all about the clients!" Dedicate the first 10 minutes of your day to planning how to touch base with yours in any way that you can.
- Subscribe to a few key clients' industry or trade association magazines to learn more about the clients and their needs. If applicable, consider writing an article or advertising in these publications.
- Share articles you think would be of particular interest to your firm's clients. If you write an
- article yourself, or are quoted extensively in one, then don't think twice about sharing it. Remember, every client wants to think of their lawyer as the expert. E-mail a brief note along with the article's full text (not simply a link) or copy it and send it via snail-mail.
- Consider co-authoring an article with a client or co-presenting a speech at a trade association meeting. The benefit? You'll develop a stronger bond, potentially resulting in a more satisfied client—and future referrals.
- Strengthen and expand your referral network by building relationships with noncompeting lawyers, bankers, accountants, financial planners and consultants.
- If you can't easily recall the last time you attended a professional event, you're clearly not going to one often enough. Set aside a couple of hours each month—yes, calendar this—to assess your network and locate upcoming events that will help you expand your network of potential clients and referral sources.
- Identify a trade or professional association that attracts your ideal clients or referral sources. Join and offer to write articles, give talks to members or assist in any other way that you can. In other words, become a high-profile member.
- To increase your name recognition, try serving on a nonprofit board of directors. Identify a half-dozen organizations that sincerely mesh with your career or personal interests, speak with at least one current board member at each, and once you've homed in on a top pick or two, find out what it will take to become a board member.
- Each month, deliver a small seminar over breakfast to a small group (7 to 10) of your best referral sources and prospects. Tech-savvy? Toss the seminar online as a live webcast while you're at it.
Free Tech Tools That Can Really Help
So, how can you and your team effectively follow through with all these activities? The Internet has scores of inexpensive yet sophisticated tools that can help. Here are ideas for lawyers and law firms looking to be more productive marketers, including some favorites for collaborating on and tracking efforts, capturing content for your Web site and presentations, garnering media exposure and more.
- Buzzword is a must-have if collaborating on documents is a key part of your work life. No more e-mailing proposals and reports around for review with the usual results of confusion and version collision. Your document resides on the Web with only one copy that can be shared by multiple collaborators, with changes and comments viewed in real time.
- Co-op makes it a snap to stay connected with your co-workers without disrupting them. Use it to post updates, ask questions, share links, track time and share daily agendas.
- CyberAlert offers up a comprehensive list of free and low-cost press release distribution services compiled from various sources. While none offer the in-depth distribution of fee-based services like Business Wire, you’ll find that they’re absolutely worthwhile nonetheless. At the very least, using these services will boost your firm’s profile in Internet searches.
- Evernote is a memory tool that allows you to make “note” of anything you want using your desktop, the Web or your phone and its camera, and easily retrieve it later. The company’s technology even reads text in photographs and recognizes handwriting, converting both into files you can search for later.
- Free Conference Call allows you to record phone meetings, consultations and teleseminars—and turn them into easily downloadable audio files.
- GatherGrid is your go-to tool for scheduling a meeting among multiple parties—or maybe that small group seminar you’re planning for your best referral sources. You simply title the event, indicate the time slots you have available, and send a link enabling others to respond. It takes about 30 seconds to poll everyone, gleefully rendering the traditional series of endless back-and-forth e-mails obsolete.
- Google Alerts is invaluable for tracking stories about clients and prospects, their industries, your competitors, your own firm and much more—and it’s a breeze to use. Enter any number of separate keywords or phrases that you would like searched on a regular basis, and you’ll receive e-mail updates of the latest Google results based on your choice of query or topic. You can customize the content you want searched under the categories of News, Video, Web, Blogs or Groups.
- Google Reader allows users to subscribe to their favorite Web sites so that new or updated content lands in their e-mail inboxes the moment it’s posted. You can organize the content by subject matter and choose to share items with a list of contacts, as well as add your own notes to your shared items. In short, Google Reader offers a much more efficient way of sharing content than adding to the stream of e-mails already flowing through most inboxes these days. Another plus: Using one of two related apps, Google Gears (http://gears.google.com) or Google Chrome (www.google.com/chrome), enables you to read content when you’re not connected to the Web—a great way to catch up on your reading on those cross-country flights.
- Help a Reporter Out is a mailing list—but don’t let an old-fashioned connotation prevent you from joining one of the most helpful free PR resources there is. Sign up and every day up to three e-mails will land in your inbox, each containing 15 to 30 queries from journalists eager to connect with suitable sources. It works like this: Journalists submit queries on the Web site, the queries are compiled by a human (you’ll never see spam), and then they’re distributed to list members. What’s in it for you? The chance to hook up a reporter with a knowledgeable insider at your firm. Maybe that insider is you.
- Jing allows you to capture any image on your screen, mark it up using a basic text box, highlighter and a few other tools, and zap the results to others. You can also record a commentary up to five minutes long. It’s a great tool for anything you want to weigh in on and share with your team, from a competitor’s Web site to a graphic for an RFP response. You can also capture and add voice comment to videos.
- Jott is the next best thing to a personal secretary when it comes to staying on task and getting your thoughts on paper—wherever you happen to be. Sign up for an account and when inspiration (or, say, the need to send yourself a reminder about a networking event tomorrow) strikes, call 866-JOTT-123 and record a voice message. The message is saved as a voice file and also transcribed into text. Check your Jott account whenever you like to retrieve your files, thoughts or plans for the days ahead. You can also send Jott notes to yourself (and others) via an iPhone application or on Jott’s Web site.
- Mesh is for professionals who heave a sigh in response to the question: “Do you regularly use a desktop computer, a laptop, a cell phone or multiples thereof?” If keeping track of various documents (and deadlines) seems an exercise in futility, try this application, which enables you to synchronize files across all your devices and access the files from any of them.
- PBwiki provides on-demand collaboration for managing projects and sharing and storing documents. Have a new employee coming on board? Point him or her to the wiki for an instant debrief on everything from office policies and procedures to a client’s history and the firm’s marketing strategy. A wiki is an extranet without the expense of an IT department.
- PDF Download converts any Web page (as long as it’s not protected) into a PDF file—an indispensable tool for creating press clips of your online coverage. To use it, download it to your browser of choice, including Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari or Google Chrome.
- Premier Survey provides a free, hosted application for conducting Web and e-mail surveys. It is loaded with features that other companies charge for, such as unlimited and multiple question types. Use it to check up on your clients’ satisfaction or perform market research of various kinds.
- Remember The Milk is a Web-based app that lets you create as many to-do lists as you need; share, send and publish tasks and lists with your contacts; and get reminders via e-mail, SMS and instant messenger—all helping to keep you organized and on track in your business development schedule even when (or especially when) you’re on the move. Useful features include color-coded priorities, time estimates, unlimited notes attached to any task, archiving and the ability to print your lists.
- Your PR Pitch Sucks isn’t for the faint of heart, but face it—even a seasoned pro could use a fresh pair of eyes (and perhaps some very candid advice) once in a while. Expert members provide feedback on your pitch and, for a fee, you can take advantage of a 24-hour turnaround service.
- Zamzar converts images, documents, music and videos from one format to another. Simply upload a file (up to 100MB), choose the format you’d like it converted into, and enter your e-mail address to receive a link to the converted file. Zamzar stores all converted files online for 24 hours. To convert bigger files, and get a virtual storage space so you can access them anytime, you can shell out anywhere from $7 to $49 per month.
- Zoho CRM is an on-demand customer relationship management system, and it costs nothing for up to three users. Getting started is easy. You can import contacts from a CSV file, and from there you can maintain as simple or complex a program as your situation demands, from generating CRM and marketing reports and forecasts to utilizing dozens of other related tools. Additional users and features can be added for $12 to $25 per month.
Making Everything Count
As you consider a plan of action that includes some of the tactics discussed here, keep in mind that more marketing doesn’t automatically equal more results. Look at return on investment per effort. And recognize that some business development activities can’t be measured by traditional figures and forecasts. The value of relationships, for instance, can be particularly difficult to measure. However, it’s indisputable that building and maintaining good relationships will result in business over time.
Do all you can to find out which of your marketing strategies is having an impact. Whenever you bring in new clients, remember to ask how and why they chose you over your competitors. Track this information and use it to measure your efforts and gain still more new clients.
And now for one last but essential bit of advice: Now is not the time to cut back on your marketing budget or your efforts. Many firms’ knee-jerk reaction to tough times is to hack here first. Instead, pledge to make every penny count by adopting some of the suggestions outlined here, and you’ll wind up with a wicked competitive advantage.
About the Author
Nick Gaffney, a lawyer and former journalist, directs the San Francisco office of Infinite Public Relations, where he designs and executes strategic communication programs for professional services firms.