Sixty-five percent of people in need of legal representation begin their search for an attorney on the Internet, according to a 2009 report in the New York State Bar Association Journal. How difficult is it for these potential clients to find a particular firm online and, once they do, are they motivated enough by what they find to take the next step and contact that firm? Some lawyers embrace online marketing and do it well, while others make mistakes that cost them clients, money and time.
Lawyers are highly educated and trained to write for the courts, where complex legal jargon is expected and well understood. Writing for the Web (and for prospective clients) is an entirely different animal. A law firm administrator should consider asking his or her nonattorney friends whether they find the law firm's site content easy to understand and compelling. If the answer is "no," the firm should consider hiring someone with experience writing for the Web. An experienced writer can help the firm communicate with prospective clients more efficiently and effectively, as well as include a strong call to action. Experts can also improve a firm's positioning on search-engine results by incorporating keywords into the copy that are relevant to the firm's practice and that prospective clients are most likely to input into search engines.
A law firm's website is the centerpiece of its online marketing efforts. It tells the world who the firm is, what it does and why it does it well. If a firm builds it right, the website can create a favorable impression of the firm, while generating quality leads. If a firm has developed a website that clearly describes its capabilities in terms of client needs, but no one is calling, it should try a couple of quick fixes that could get the phones ringing. A firm should always put its location and phone number prominently at the top of the website. It should include a strong call to action that will motivate prospective clients to call, such as, "For a free consultation, contact us now." Not fancy, but it works.
Additionally, law firm management should recognize that it can be intimidating to call a law firm, so it should include a contact form right on the site for prospects to fill out so the firm can contact them. Again, the firm should put this high up, above the fold on every page. If a firm has a good message on its website, those three simple steps should provide it with a noticeable lift in response. It shouldn't cost much or take a lot of time.
Search-engine marketing encompasses all efforts to promote a website or business online within search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. There are two ways to employ search-engine marketing: through search-engine optimization, which works to improve a website's rankings within the body of search-engine results, and pay-per-click advertising, which allows the site owner to place sponsored messages along the top and right side of the main search-engine results. Lead activity (phone calls or e-mail contacts) increase by 45 percent when search-engine results are coupled with a pay-per-click campaign. See iCrossing Search Synergy Report, March 2007, www.slideshare.net/iCrossingDe/search-synergy-report. A law firm should hire an outside agency with expertise to help it establish a comprehensive strategy; then it should test it relentlessly and measure results.
A law firm administrator might see a few examples of high-ranking websites within an outside agency's portfolio and believe that the search-engine marketing (SEM) agency is good at what it does, but he or she would need to do further research before bringing an agency on board. For example, are the high-ranking websites ranking for the "best" (most traffic/leads) keywords? Are the high-ranking websites ranking for the right keywords for the law firm's marketing strategy? What is the SEM firm doing to drive higher rankings? Is it a breadth of SEM work or is it relying on only one tactic, thus putting the entire firm's SEM eggs in one basket? Finally, and most important: Is the agency employing legitimate and ethical practices to affect ranking? A firm should remember that, if it hires the agency, it is representing the law firm's brand: If the agency uses black hat (shady, unethical) tactics, the firm will have to deal with the fallout.
DON'T EXPECT IMMEDIATE RESULTS
Business owners who are unfamiliar with how search-engine marketing works tend to expect results in a matter of days. Law firm managers shouldn't get discouraged just because the phones aren't ringing off the hook after a couple of weeks. They should consider testing an SEM program on just one area of practice before investing the firm's money in all of them. From there, the firm can adjust and expand as needed. It should set reasonable goals and establish effective processes to track all phone and e-mail inquiries generated from the campaign. If a firm commits itself to the program, it will reap the rewards. Results from search-engine marketing take time; the firm will need to be patient. Typically, it will see results from a search-engine optimization program in approximately three to six months, during which time performance is monitored and the program is tweaked for optimal results. Although one can see immediate results from a pay-per-click program, it takes about one to three months to set it up properly.
In the legal services business, in which people work very closely with their attorneys, it is crucial for a firm to incorporate a video on its website so that potential clients can see who they might be hiring. The vast majority of U.S. citizens are accustomed to viewing online video, and including at least one video on the site can help bring a firm to life for prospective clients. An effective online video can also increase a firm's exposure on search engines, and adding the video to YouTube, legal directories and other video distribution sites can extend that reach. A firm should create a professionally produced video that runs up to two minutes and includes an actionable invitation to connect with the firm by phone or e-mail. It should include three key messages within the first 30 seconds, as viewers might not retain any more than that. A firm should measure pre- and post-publish statistics to identify page views, downloads and other metrics to determine how well the video is performing.
Each month, millions of people visit online legal directory sites to find information and local lawyers who can help them confront a pressing legal concern. That's why a paid profile on one of these sites should be part of a law firm's marketing strategy. The more information a firm includes about its expertise, the better. The firm should make sure to include information that is critical to prospective clients, such as years of experience, areas of practice, languages spoken, office hours and payment options. A firm should include a compelling tagline that can set it apart from others. Establishing a profile on one of these sites will drive more qualified leads to the firm.
A firm should make sure to tailor its tagline associated with search-engine sponsored results and sponsored links to the area of practice and geographic region the ad is targeting. For example, an ad for bankruptcy in Chicago should have a different tagline than an ad for personal injury in Dallas. Likewise, for sponsored results, the landing-page URL for the "view website" link should also be tailored to each specific ad. Ensuring that the taglines and landing-page URLs are distinctly relevant to the ad will present a better experience for the user and will increase the potential for more leads -- and better-quality leads.
LEVERAGING RATINGS AND RANKINGS
Ratings are critical to driving new business in the digital age. Lawyers need to understand that "buyers" of legal services are turning to the Web in record numbers to research lawyers and read online ratings and reviews that include peer assessments, as well as client feedback regarding a lawyer's legal ability, cost, perceived value, ability to communicate and other factors. If a firm has established a favorable peer-based rating through a credible, third-party ratings resource, it should make sure that rating is featured prominently on its website and encourage satisfied clients to post reviews of the firm's performance on matters no longer before the courts. If the firm gets negative feedback through one or more of these sources, it should use that as an opportunity to assess weaknesses in its approach and as an opportunity to address the concerns of potentially unhappy clients. A firm is going to get reviewed, rated and ranked whether or not it actively pursues these assessments, so it's better to engage and leverage positive reviews to the fullest.
Lawyers are notoriously slow adopters of new technologies, but the general population is blogging, tweeting and flocking to sites like Facebook and LinkedIn by the millions. Limited time and resources make in-person networking more difficult than ever. However, involvement in social media offers limitless opportunities to find, connect and engage with prospective clients. If a law firm administrator is unsure how to start or needs help refining an approach, he or she should talk to an expert with a proven track record in helping lawyers leverage social media for business development. Then he or she should spend the necessary time up-front establishing concrete and reasonable goals.
A social-media expert can help a firm decide whether it should devote time to creating a blog, establishing a presence on one or more professional networking sites, setting up a Twitter account or all of the above and more. Social media are collections of "communities," each with its own culture and rules of conduct. A law firm administrator should take some time to observe and learn before throwing the firm into the mix. Once a firm does jump in, it should do so in the spirit of connecting with and helping others in the community by providing useful information. It should avoid any overt sales pitches. Business inquiries will come as the firm establishes trust and credibility in various online forums.
Debra Regan is a vice president at LexisNexis -- parent company of Martindale-Hubbell and Lawyers.com -- where she helps lawyers attract new clients with website development and search-engine marketing/optimization services.