How Yelp Is Upending Lawyer Ratings and Reviews

If it gives you peace of mind to continue investing time and money in “pay-to-play” and “claim your profile”  lawyer ratings and reviews websites, then god bless and best wishes. But the mind share these vestigial marketing tools– “basic boxes” to check – continues to command could be distracting lawyers — particularly small and solo general practice firms — from leveraging local word-of-mouth communities, Yelp in particular.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_yohVlVbEA&w=420&h=315]

Consider this quick-and-dirty case study.

As of this writing, a general search for “lawyers” on Yelp’s San Francisco community site turned up 5,557 profiles.  General litigation and estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg showed up near the top of the results page. His 63 reviews yielded a 5-out-of-5 stars rating. In a “Michael Blacksburg San Francisco lawyer” Google search, his Yelp profile was the first listing after links to his own website. A Super Lawyers link turned up down the page, but notably absent from the first page of results were links to “basic boxes”Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell.

Interestingly, a basic Google search for San Francisco immigration law firm Van Der Hout Brigagliano & Nightingale LLP – which had a 5-star overall rating based on two Yelp reviews — produced similar results. The top search result was the firm’s own website, followed by the firm’s Yelp profile.

Why Yelp Deserves More Attention from Lawyers

  • Yelp is the online ratings and reviews destination of first resort for service businesses - While it’s not necessarily a household name, Yelp has higher top of mind awareness with the general public than lawyer review sites. Ask an average person on the street whether they’ve heard of Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell or Super Lawyers and you’ll get blank stares. Heck, ask the average lawyer and you’ll likely get the same response.
  • Yelp has monster SEO clout – As discussed above, even a modest Yelp profile is easily found through a basic name search on Google. As of June 2011, more than 53 million people had visited Yelp in the previous  30 days. That compares with Avvo’s claim of 2 million unique visitors per month. Because Yelp is a multi-category site and Avvo is limited to lawyers and physicians, the sheer volume of visitors and the resulting flow of fresh content makes Yelp’s search benefits for members practically insurmountable.
  • Positive experiences in one service category means higher propensity among Yelpers to consult the site for other, unrelated service providers - In other words, finding a plumber or HVAC guy they like increases the probabilty that a Yelper will look for a dentist or lawyer there, too.
  • Yelpers trust other Yelpers - Every Yelp reviewer has his/her own ratings — even followers and fans — which factors into the perceived authority of their opinions. It’s also important to note that Yelp’s filtering and page rank algorithms favor the contributions of established users.

Have you established a Yelp business profile? What’s your experience been so far? Any advice?

Online Ratings and Reviews: Don’t Ask for Positive Comments

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard and read well-intentioned legal marketers recommend asking clients, legal colleagues and other referral sources for favorable comments on ratings and review websites like Yelp and Avvo.

While it might seem counterintuitive, asking for favorable reviews generally is unproductive and could actually discourage positive comments.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WjTaMZyS70&w=560&h=315]

Unlike asking for a referral, where the referer can act on the request privately and selectively, asking for a public, permanent online recommendation puts your professional contacts and clients on the spot. Implicitly you’re saying “I’ll be watching, and I’m expecting it to be great.” It’s a no-win situation insofar as you risk alienating your supporters and stifling positive word of mouth, and even if they do post a recommendation it likely will be a generic expression of approval rather than a helpful precis of your capabilities and character.

But don’t take my word, here’s what Yelp’s blog has to say:

Why would an online review site discourage review solicitation?

Two big reasons:

1. Would-be customers might not trust you. Let’s face it, most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers (read: yelpers) can smell from a mile away. No business is perfect, and it’s impossible to please 100% of your customers 100% of the time.

2. The solicited reviews may get filtered, and that will drive you crazy. Solicited reviews often get filtered by our automated review filter. Why do these reviews sometimes get filtered? Well, we have the unfortunate task of trying to help our users distinguish between real and fake reviews, and while we think we do a pretty good job at it with our fancy computer algorithms, the harsh reality is that solicited reviews often fall somewhere in between. Imagine, for example, the business owner who “solicits” a review by sticking a laptop in front of a customer and smilingly invites her to write a review while he looks over her shoulder. We don’t need these kinds of reviews, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when solicited reviews get filtered.

Yelp exists to connect people with great local businesses. We do this by providing people with as much trustworthy information as we can. If consumers don’t trust our content, people stop using Yelp, and everyone loses: consumers don’t have a resource they can trust to make spending decisions, would-be customers stop visiting your business listing.

How to Leverage Your Review Site Profiles and Encourage Reviews Without Directly Asking

A better way to derive value from your online ratings and reviews AND to motivate professional contacts and clients to recommend you is to let them know where to find your profiles. Display badges on your blog and website homepages, email signature and social media pages that link directly to your profile on Yelp, Avvo and other ratings and reviews websites.

Again, from the Yelp blog:

The power of word-of-mouth is that folks generally trust recommendations when they occur as part of an organic process.  There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD]. It’s the difference between actively pursuing testimonials and simply creating awareness of your business through social media outlets.

The latter allows consumers to vet your online reputation without feeling like they’re being solicited. To an established Yelp community member, a reminder of your Yelp presence can act like a dog-whistle prompting them to share their feedback about your business with fellow Yelpers.

How do you monitor and manage your online reputation via ratings and reviews sites?

Ratings and Reviews: How to Respond to a Negative Comment

As a general rule, it’s a poor idea to publicly respond to negative comments on online ratings and reviews sites with anything beyond 1) an expression of regret that the commenter did not have a good experience and 2) an invitation to discuss the matter directly offline.

Why?

  • You’re highly unlikely to change the commenter’s mind.
  • You’re in effect inviting another negative post and/or argument.
  • Criticizing dissatisfied clients/customers and self-justification don’t come off well.
  • There’s rarely a clear upside.

One of the few occasions when a detailed response to a negative comment can be highly effective is when:

  1. The original less-than-flattering comment is clearly intended as a helpful critique, AND
  2. You’ve addressed the issues raised in the comments in ways that will benefit all current and potential customers/clients, not just the commenter.

I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed recently by the response of an Austin food wagon operator to a comment I posted on Yelp about my experiences with his business. My main beef (so to speak) was that while I loved the food, the wagon had few options and was often out of main ingredients, which made it hard to justify driving across town.

The response was pitch perfect:

Hi Jay,

I read your review and I thank you for your kind words.  We have been working out the issues with the running out of food and so far, everything has been working out perfectly.   It is my hope that we have everything you desire, each and every time you visit us, though limited space and unpredictable traffic flow can often throw us a curve ball, so far we’re staying ahead.

I hope you will give us another shot sometime in the future as we’ve expanded the menu to include Eggplant Parm and Turkey Pastrami specials, with several new ideas in the works.

Should you have any concerns about “do they have…today?”, please feel free to call before driving out this far at 512-516-3660.  If you do come back, please ask for me, it would be a [pleasure] to meet you.

Thanks for your time, your kind words, and your continued support.

Sincerely,
J.K. Bellucci
All City Subs

It’s a textbook model of an effective response to a negative comment because:

  • It opens courteously and maintains that tone throughout,
  • It acknowledges the issue,
  • It expresses the proprietor’s values and commitment to customers,
  • It lists specific steps taken to address the situation,
  • It respectfully offers a helpful suggestion for how to avoid the issue in the future, and
  • It closes graciously.

After that, I’d be an a** if I didn’t go back again.

Bar Associations: Most Trusted Brands for Lawyer Searches?

I’m a HUGE fan of Lifehacker, probably the most followed blog on tips and downloads for getting things done. A post this week on “How to Find a Reputable Lawyer” got my attention both for what it said and what it didn’t say.

Consulting with ABA and state/local bar associations and using their lawyer referral services was clearly the main recommendation:

“Both the American Bar Association and various state and local Bar Associations offer search and referral tools to help you find legal representation based on the type of lawyer you’re looking for. Bar Associations aren’t able to help you directly, but they can give you wholesale listings of practicing and certified lawyers who specialize in your subject area. They won’t help you make the subjective decision of whether or not a lawyer has a track record of successful litigation or charges fairly, but they’re a great place to start narrowing down your search if you don’t have anywhere else to start.

“Additionally, look for lawyer’s groups and legal aid groups that specialize in the type of issue you’re facing. Some of this involves web searching, but you can find a lot of this information by calling your state Bar Association. Even if they can’t make specific recommendations, they can direct you to professional groups of lawyers who specialize in different areas, like health care law, employment law, and more….

“Don’t hesitate to check your local bar for more information on the specific lawyers you plan to speak with, and don’t hesitate to ask for and then check on those lawyers’ references before making a decision.”

The only other online resources suggested had a distinct access to justice/legal aid bent– LawHelp.org, ProBono.net and Nolo.

Conspicuously absent from this how-to guide were references to lawyer search stalwarts like Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, Super Lawyers and Lawyers.com. They’re free, too, and certainly would be likelier than LawHelp.org to show up in a Google search when researching such an article. So it looks like an intentional omission.

Why?

My sense is that the cost of legal representation — real and perceived — has transformed access to justice into a mainstream consumer issue, and bloggers/journalists writing for a mass audience sense that. In that dynamic, the traditional role of bar associations as impartial brokers comes into higher relief — and creates a great marketing opportunity to promote member services and increase participation in bar programs.

Glass Houses: Applying “The 11th Commandment” to Professional Services

Though he did not invent the phrase, Ronald Reagan was the most famous proponent and practitioner of what’s commonly referred to as “The 11th Commandment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

While initially coined to address political campaigns, the precept is directly applicable to branding and perception management in business as well. The underlying premise is that public attacks and denigration originating within a group ultimately undermine the group itself by giving credibility to similar attacks from outsiders.

Apparently Shawn McNalis at Atticus, a practice management education and training organization for attorneys, is not a believer. In a blog post this week on Attorney at Work, McNalis advocates for taking advantage of out-of-work and underemployed legal marketers to do admin work:

“You might be able to hire a college student part-time or as an intern, or try delegating marketing tasks to a paralegal or receptionist on your staff. But keep in mind that right now the job market is filled with skilled legal marketing professionals who are out of work because of the recession. Be sure to look at the more experienced marketers—you might be surprised at the quality of help that’s available.

Isn’t that analogous to the very thing law firms hire practice management coaches to help them with? Dissuading bargain-hunters and countering misperceptions about the value of attorneys’ expertise and professionalism?

Just for fun, let’s replace “marketers” with “lawyers” and “practice management consultants” in McNalis’ recommendation and see how it plays:

  1. “You might be able to hire a law student part-time or as an intern, or try using LegalZoom. Right now the market is filled with skilled lawyers who are out of work because of the recession. You might be surprised at the quality of lawyers willing to bill at steeply discounted rates.”
  2. “Keep in mind that the internet is filled with excellent  free practice management and lawyer coaching advice. Be sure to do a Google search and read and watch as much practice management content as you can before considering paying a consultant for training.  You might be surprised at the quality of lawyer coaching that’s available for free.”

Just sayin’…

The ROI of Legal PR: There’s Still Value if You Look for It

Just a short meditation today…

I’ve been involved in a LinkedIn group discussion thread that has veered into calls for comparative ROI data on the range of social media marketing platforms — Facebook vs. Twitter vs. LinkedIn vs. blogs. Conspicuous by its absence from that discussion is the comparative value of traditional media relations. Although online social media has eviscerated traditional media, law firms still spend not insignificant amounts of time and money chasing trade press, local print and broadcast outlets and — the Holy Grail –  national publications and news programs.

As I’ve written before, apart from trade outlets, media relations for law firms is a low probability proposition at best. And even when you do get a good mention or score an interview, how much is that worth? Whatever your reasons for pursuing a media relations strategy, there are steps you can take to improve your odds of garnering general media coverage while streamlining effort and reducing costs:

  • Calendarize your opportunities: Your odds of getting included in a story are significantly higher if you time and customize your pitches for holidays and annual events (Tax Day, back to school).
  • Have bulleted content and a media relations — not website — version of your bio ready for opportunistic pitching: “Top 10″ lists — the actual number of items can vary –  are a staple of what now passes as news. So if a local or national story concerning your practice area breaks, you can immediately send you media target list some ready-to-run content instead of calling up to explain why you’re a subject matter expert.
  • Pitch trend stories: Use your handy dandy “Top 10″ lists to sell your feature story ideas.
  • Pitch morning shows instead of news programs: Morning shows feature extended interviews, while news reports just need soundbites.
  • Focus on trade media outlets that also post their content online for free: Online content that requires a subscription cannot be readily added to your site, publicized or shared. Nothing galls visitors more than slamming into a pay wall when they click one of your website or Twitter links.

How much time/money do you spend on media relations? How do those efforts compare with your social media results?

Brave New Business Cards

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American Psycho Business Card Scene (Lip-Sync) from Joel Mellström on Vimeo.

When Heather Morse recently asked, “Is the business card dead?” my initial thought was, “Yes, for many years now — but a tough zombie, likely to endure for a long time.” Her point — and I think she’s spot on — is that physical addresses printed on physical media are increasingly irrelevant at business gatherings now dominated by mobile devices and online social networking.

It got me thinking, though: We now have the technology to cure that form of zombie-ism. But not only that, the new incarnation would be even better than before, able to do much more than transmit contact information.

The flavor of the moment is QR codes — those pixellated postage stamp-looking violators (i.e. graphical elements that “break” the overall design) increasingly showing up in printed and online advertising. Originally developed as an alternative to bar codes for supply chain and other commercial tracking applications, QR codes have metastasized into social media.

When photographed by smartphones loaded with reader software, QR codes automatically link to Web-based information. While massively useful, in most advertising for professional services QR codes look like weird, unsightly gimmicks. But in simple layouts — like business cards — they make perfect sense.

While the first impulse for may would be to embed vCard info on the business card QR code and call it good, I think that leaves too much opportunity on the table — like using a PC as a typewriter. Why not use the business card QR code to access a purpose-built microsite that includes links to the cardholder’s bio, white papers, presentations and videos?

Here’s what patent attorney Steve O’Donnell has done:

“My business card has a QR code on it. If someone wants the card, they’re more than welcome to keep it, but I’ve also had people scan the code (which takes them to a small mobile site created just for this purpose where they can send me an email, get a vCard, visit my full site or see my AVVO and LinkedIn profiles) and hand it back to me.”

And think about the money you could save – production costs, shipping, storage – if you eliminated printed collateral by creating an online .pdf library that could be accessed through a business card QR code. Your business card becomes a virtual trade show display that you carry in your pocket. No more worrying about expensive brochures getting thrown away before they leave the exhibit hall.

Put another way, the printed business card was the world’s first mobile branding application. Why not bring it into the digital age?

How Do You Rate? How Much Should You Care?

Why do lawyers still invest time, money and attention in rating organizations like Martindale-Hubbell, Am Law, Avvo and Best Lawyers? I certainly don’t question the veracity of the satisfied customers featured on their sites, but I’ve yet to find persuasive affirmative evidence about their value to a broad base of practice types and firm sizes.

My working theory for their enduring pull on lawyer egos, attention and budgets is that it’s due to inertia and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt). Fear that there’s inaccurate and/or unflattering information about them out on the Interwebs, uncertainty over what would happen if they stopped ”claiming” their profiles and adding the rating badge to their website homepage, and doubt about alternatives. In other words, a defensive strategy with an unclear, uncertain chance of upside.

It’s not just me wondering. The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 also is looking into what makes them tick.

If the only time you pay attention to your profile on the various lawyer referral sites is when it’s time to renew a subscription, that should raise a red flag.

The hermetic secrets of their rating methodologies aside, lawyer “finder” sites just don’t seem on their face to add value in today’s social networking-driven marketplace. Unlike consumer ratings and reviews for simple purchases, professional services ratings and reviews are only credible if the seeker already knows, likes and trusts the reviewer. That’s why people looking for lawyers usually ask other lawyers or friends who know lawyers for recommendations. LinkedIn and state bar association sites are much more suited to that purpose.

When clients ask me whether it’s “worth it” to spend time and money on profiles, I walk them through some basic ROI questions:

  1. Have you gotten leads from ratings sites?
  2. How many, and over what period of time?
  3. What percentage of those leads turned into actual engagements (as opposed to tire-kickers, price shoppers or individuals unable to pay)?
  4. How much were the resulting engagements worth?
  5. Were they profitable?
  6. Do they generate more profitable business than other marketing activities/lead channels?
  7. Could you put that time and money to more productive use elsewhere?
  8. What do you think is likely to happen — not might, likely — if you did just the minimum to maintain basic profile information?

Even if you decide not to pay ”finder” sites for the ability to embellish and/or actively manage your profile, it’s still wise to make sure that the information the site compiled on its own is current and accurate. Better safe than sorry.

Back to Basics 2.0: Online Networking Brings Law Firm Marketing Back to Its Roots

Lawyers were the original kings (and queens) of networking and referrals — what we today call word-of-mouth marketing. It’s in your professional DNA — cultivating connections through clubs, civic organizations, alumni groups, local/state/national bar associations. Those membership organizations knew that their fortunes relied on their talent for enabling professionals to connect and network. That’s why so much of the innovation in law firm social media is being driven by entrepreneurs who are re-creating that model online.

Lawyers are still not entirely sold on the cost/benefits of blogging, Facebook is problematic on several fronts, and Twitter — well, that’s still a bridge too far for most. But LinkedIn? That’s a no-brainer. It’s a one-stop search shop, identifying potential connections based on schools, jobs and organizations listed in you online profile. Once connected, you can cultivate those connections through automated updates and group conversations.

Avvo and Justia help individuals connect with lawyers and legal information — the love child of classified ads and self-help books, on steroids.

Membership directories are traditional, familiar and intuitive — and even easier to use and more valuable now because of advanced search functionality. That’s why we can expect to see law schools, alumni associations and bar associations coming on strong with networking, educational and referral tools.

Columbus Explores Online Social Marketing for Lawyers

Update: The State Bar of Texas recently rolled out its new site design and user experience. The site’s architecture cleanly and evenhandedly reflects the duality that all bar associations face: providing optimal value and utility to both members and the public.

(Originally posted 4/23/2010) In yesterday’s post about online social networking and word-of-mouth marketing for lawyers, I commented that bar associations were likely to leverage their credibility and experience to create innovative services for members and the general public.

John Sirman at the State Bar of Texas kindly directed me to the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association’s ColumbusLawyerFinder.com site, which was created to provide a reliable online source of local lawyers and Ohio legal information.

I spent some time on the site last night and this morning, and found it to be a very good user experience. If cultivated and publicized properly, it could develop into a formidable marketing platform. It has a lot going for it.

Easy to use: There are just two large tabs across the top of the home page: “Find an Attorney,” which sorts and searches by various criteria, and “Legal Tool Kit,” which offers printer-friendly lists, questions, links, and information about legal issues. Each tab has the same 15 practice categories in the dropdown menu (e.g. “D.U.I./Criminal and Traffic Defense,” “Small Business Law and Litigation,” “Family Law, Divorce, Support and Custody”), so one click gets you to directly to the page you need.

The attorney profiles are standard “tombstone” fare, but they include a nice personalizing touch through the Q&A format ”Get to know me” tab. Lawyers can add color and context to their profiles by including answers to questions like:

  • Why did you decide to become an attorney?
  • What experiences (work and personal) help you to be a better attorney?
  • What makes your law firm unique?
  • Describe your ideal client.
  • What made you choose your primary area of law?
  • Describe your personal interests and hobbies.

“Business casual” look/feel: It’s clearly a professional site, but the Twitteresque appearance — the bird image, the “mod” rounded sans-serif type in loose blocks against a white background — helps makes the serious content feel accessible and not intimidating.

Local: No one wants to have to drill down through a national — or even state — search menu to find a local attorney.

Trustworthy: Come on, it’s the bar association. Even the most brazen hucksters and charlatans likely would not try to screw around with the bar. A link on the home page takes you directly to the criteria used to screen participating attorneys

To be listed on Columbus Lawyer Finder, attorneys must meet high standards:

  • They must be in good standing with the Ohio Supreme Court and be free of any pending disciplinary investigations or proceedings.
  • They must alert the Columbus Bar Association if they are notified that they become the subject of a professional investigation at any time in the future.
  • They must be approved by the Columbus Bar Board of Governors.
  • They must be a Columbus Bar Member.
  • They must carry at least $100,000 in professional liability insurance for all areas but Injury and Accidents which must carry at least $500,000.
  • They must agree to use and provide a written fee agreement to every client.
  • They must agree to participate in fee arbitration with a client if necessary.
  • They must show a personal commitment to professionalism and sign the nine “Commitments to Clients.”

Those commitments are:

  1. To treat clients with respect and courtesy.
  2. To handle their legal matters competently and diligently, in accordance with the highest standards of the profession.
  3. To charge a reasonable fee and to explain in advance how that fee will be computed and billed.
  4. To return phone calls promptly.
  5. To keep clients informed and provide them with copies of important papers.
  6. To respect my clients’ decisions on the objectives to be pursued in their case, as permitted by law and the rules of professional conduct, including whether or not to settle their case.
  7. To work with other participants in the legal system to make our legal system more accessible and responsive.
  8. To preserve the clients’ confidences learned during our lawyer-client relationship.
  9. To exhibit the highest degree of ethical conduct in accordance with the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The biggest drawback, of course, is the lack of user-generated content like ratings and reviews. Some moderated conversations for the general topic would be interesting, too.

I wish them good luck, and I look forward to seeing how the platform evolves in Columbus — and is emulated elsewhere.