Social Media for Law Firms: Maybe the Geezers “Get It” Better Than the Magpies

Apparently Wall Street Journal legal affairs writer Jennifer Smith was in a hurry to start her Christmas vacation last week when she slapped together a couple of headlines from other publications and called it a legal marketing trend for 2012. The thesis for the post was based on the comments of a professional speaker who derives his livelihood from pushing social media for law firms, and that big trend for 2012 is — wait for it — social media.

The link-baiting headline  for Smith’s story tellingly framed the issue in terms of trending topics, not the soundness of the underlying premise: “2012: The Year Law Firms Ditch Geezer Image And Get Tweeting.”

The case for law firms and individual lawyers to engage in social media is compelling — but so is the case against it. So instead of representing some sort of woolly-headed risk aversion, the decision not to push foursquare into social media — particularly the briar patch called blogging — is just as likely to be a well-considered strategic decision based on a clear understanding of the firm’s capabilities, and of client needs, behaviors and expectations.

As with most endeavors, you’re usually better off not following a course of action that you don’t fully support than you are proceeding without conviction. In the age of social media ubiquity, untended and orphaned blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages are more detrimental to your brand and marketing efforts than having none at all.

In a recent Social Media Today post headlined “Not Tweeting, and Not Feeling Guilty About It,” Liz Wainger noted:

“If enterprises don’t have the resources (time and energy) to engage on social media, or are unwilling to fully embrace social media, it is better to use other means to communicate until you do.  And for goodness sake, stop feeling guilty about it, and think positively about the ways you are engaging your stakeholders.”

So what are some telltale signs that shouldn’t (or aren’t ready to) launch or expand your social media activities — or that you should consider quitting:

  • Lack of an intuitive personal connection to the potential of social media - If you’re not “feeling it” even a little bit at the outset, you’re highly unlikely to work hard enough at it or be patient enough to give it a fighting chance of success. It’s not an acquired taste.
  • Lack of an intuitive connection to the potential of social media by your employees and peers - If you can’t accomplish what you need to without the participation of colleagues, you should not proceed if you have reservations about their buy-in and level of participation. You know that you’re in trouble when you’re told “All they need is some training.”
  • A pattern of starting and stopping - If it dawns on you that you’re going days at a time between tweets and weeks at a time between blog posts, it’s time to either recommit or cut your losses and shut it down.

It’s OK, really. Trust your gut and take on social media when it feels right. It’ll still be there.

Legal Blogging Reality Check: Suspicious Minds

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBmAPYkPeYU&w=480&h=390]

It is truly meet, right and salutary to regularly examine the marketing effectiveness of blogging by lawyers. Blogging is a not inconsiderable investment of time and mental energy, and it usually takes a long time to produce meaningful results, so it should not be initiated or continued unquestioningly.

Despite anecdotal evidence from some established legal bloggers and purveyors of lawyer blog services, there is not enough hard data on the effectiveness of blogging to support a general rule that all lawyers should have their own blog.

To its credit, the American Bar Association recently conducted a survey on the way individuals search for lawyers for personal legal matters. The survey found that only 15 percent of respondents indicated that they would consult lawyer blogs in making their decision. Most of the resulting commentary by legal blogging heavyweights focused on tearing down the survey methodology, and theorizing a case for blogging as an engine for positive word of mouth and its validation. But that discussion missed the much larger point.

As Adrian Dayton pointed out:

“The important piece of data here is that a significant percentage of of your average…clients are using Facebook, Twitter and blogs to find their lawyer.  Not to mention that fact that referrals are often requested and passed via these very same social networks.”

Words of Comfort and Support for Legal Blogging Pragmatists and Skeptics

  • Trust your gut. If you lack confidence, you will lack commitment; if you lack commitment, you will not succeed in blogging.
  • Focus on content first, then distribution channels. A well-designed, regularly updated website can be as, or more, effective than a blog. If you’re more proficient and comfortable with writing analytical long-form pieces — which are deadly in blogs — white papers and e-books available through your website or sites like JD Supra can be effective alternatives.
  • Twitter is turbo-blogging. Because it is a short-form, conversational medium, you can cultivate a meaningful following and form productive, reciprocal relationships faster and with less effort than blogging.
  • Make your mark in video. There are lots of blogs out there, but not so many video channels. If you are inclined to buy search terms, hot keywords are still plentifully available and affordable on YouTube.

My Picks for Notable Posts of the Week 10/08/10

I am a big fan of Jay Baer’s Convince & Convert blog, and this week’s “Six Timely Tips for Twitter Success” is a must-read, especially if your Twitter strategy lacks vitality. I particularly like the tip of scheduling posts to appear just after the top and bottom of the hour to catch tweeps as they check Twitter between meetings.

Dion Algeri at The Great Jakes Blog is on a roll about ways to improve the impact of attorney bios, and this week posted a pictorial spread of attorney headshots, annotated with what works/doesn’t work in each example.

Adrian Dayton combines Algeri’s insights with other interesting data points and SME comments in a broader argument for reconceiving the style, substance and role of attorney bios in “What’s Wrong With Your Law Firm Bio” on Above the Law.

The Interesting Parts of the ABA’s Legal Technology Survey Are What It DOESN’T Say

Annual surveys make good (read: popular) copy, but unless they have insightful scope and keen survey instruments, those reports frequently turn out to be incomplete social science of limited practical value. Survey formJudging from the ABA’s press materials and Adrian Dayton’s summary, the 2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report: Web and Communication Technology” unfortunately follows that pattern. It appears to tally surface-level indicators of social media participation, but does not drill down far enough into that data to reveal meaningful, useful information.

Isn’t it time that legal marketing got past the “gee whiz” bandwagon stage of social media participation and started seriously studying its application and effectiveness?

The ABA’s “Book Briefs” blurb cites the following top-line findings:

“When asked whether they personally maintain a presence in an online community/social network such as Facebook, LinkedIn, LawLink, or Legal OnRamp, 56% of respondents answered affirmatively, compared with 43% in the 2009 survey and 15% in the 2008 survey.”

What does “maintain a presence” mean? Does it still count if they signed up for an account but have not updated it for weeks or months? How frequently do they post to or update each profile? Also, what does “personally” mean?’ That they write and post the content themselves, or that the account pertains to them personally (as opposed to their firm) and their marketing staff helps?

“The highest percentage of respondents report maintaining a presence in LinkedIn (83%), followed by Facebook (68%) and Plaxo (18%).”

Again, how frequently do they visit these sites, what do they do while there and what specific results is that participation generating? Much has been made of data indicating lawyers spend more time on Facebook than on LinkedIn, but that in itself is a poor predictor of its efficacy as a marketing platform unless you have data on their primary activities and expected benefits from that participation. There’s a lot of non-business stuff to do on Facebook; not so much on LinkedIn. In marketing parlance, you have a more “intentional” (there for a specific purpose) and “qualified” (likelier to be receptive to what you’re selling) audience on LinkedIn than Facebook. Participate in Facebook if it works for you, not just because it has buzz momentum and all the cool kids are hanging out there.

“Respondents in the 30- to 39-year-old age group are the most likely to report that they maintain a presence in an online community/social network (77%, compared with 72% in the 2009 survey), followed by 68% of 40- to 49-year-olds (compared with 58% in the 2009 survey), and 50% of 50- to 59-year-olds (compared with 35% in the 2009 survey).”

What useful conclusions can be drawn from that? It appears to be a fairly typical adoption curve by age group. Either confirm that or identify unexpected findings and tease out their meaning.

“Large-firm respondents are the most likely to report personally maintaining a presence in an online community/social network (63%, compared with 57% in the 2009 survey and 13% in the 2008 survey); 52% of solo respondents (compared with 37% in the 2009 survey and 15% in the 2008 survey) maintain such a presence.”

Now that’s interesting! Did they bother to mine the data for reasons why that might be? Maybe because large firms have marketing staffs to help “maintain a presence,” while solos lack the time/resources OR don’t anticipate sufficient near-term ROI to justify that investment.

“The most common reason respondents report for maintaining a presence in online communities/social networks is for professional networking (76%), followed by socializing (62%), client development (42%), career development (17%), and case investigation (6%). Three percent chose the “other” category.”

Aren’t socializing, client development and career development just broad and overlapping aspects of professional networking? More concrete options like “speaking opportunities,” “reputation and awareness,” “client leads” and “new job opportunities” would have yielded cleaner data, and ”professional networking” could have taken the place of “other.”

“Far from being a time waster, nascent efforts at social networking are yielding fruit. Ten percent of respondents report that they have had a client retain their legal services as a result of use of online communities/social networking.”
Actually, that conclusion irks me the most because the data to support such a conclusion clearly isn’t there. To make such a determination you’d have to know how much time respondents put into social networking, how many direct leads those activities have yielded, how much of total new business is attributable to leads from social networking and how much the resulting client engagements were worth. Even the credible and creditable Adrian Dayton fumbled this data point, saying “While 10% may seem small, it represents a dramatic shift in law firm attitudes towards social media.” No, it reflects client behavior, not law firm psychology.

What if a lawyer who responded affirmatively to that question spent 10 hours a week on social media last year and got only one matter, but it represented nearly half of his billings? Then yes, that’s certainly not a waste of time. Conversely, what if another respondent, this one working at a Big Law firm, spent the same amount of time on social media participation, also got one retainer out of it, but it only amounted to less than five percent of his total billings? He might have gotten more — and more lucrative — leads after doing a free CLE session at a bar event.

Here’s another way to look at it: How “dramatic” would it be to learn that 10 percent of respondents report that they have had a client retain their legal services as a result of use of Yellow Pages advertising?

Legal marketing has thrown its lot in with social media for many good reasons, but also for some bad ones — uncritical acceptance of and enthusiasm for generalized, anecdotal data chief among them.

I’m willing to allow that the additional data and analysis I’m looking for might be found in the full report, but at $350 per copy ($300 for members), I’m not going to take that gamble based on what’s been reported so far.