From Novelty To Necessity

Pragmatic social media for lawyers

Originally published 2016

It wasn’t so long ago that having a website was a novelty for law firms. Now, it’s virtually a requirement. It’s something your clients expect as surely as they expect you to have a phone number and a law degree.

In fact, attorneys who were slow to adapt to this new standard found themselves at a disadvantage that many have never truly recovered from. Those who staked their online territory early gained a clear competitive advantage that extends to this day. Having an established domain conveys authority and visibility that cannot be bought.

In recent years, social media has undergone a similar shift from the novel to the essential. Consider a 2016 Thomson Reuters survey that indicated 84 percent of people use social media. That’s not just millennials, either. Seventy-two percent of baby boomers use at least one social platform, the most common, by a two-to-one advantage, being Facebook.

With that in mind, it’s important to come to terms with the reality that more and more potential clients expect you to have an established and active presence on social media. If you’re slow to act, you may find yourself as far behind the marketing curve as those who failed to build a web presence in the early aughts.

Social is not optional

Simply put, for many people (legal consumers included) Facebook is “the web.” Particularly with the recent rapid increase in mobile and portable devices, social media apps are often the primary lens through which consumers view the internet.

People expect your firm to be present and active in social media, and they make buying decisions based on that expectation.

Need evidence? In a recent FindLaw.com poll, nearly 45 percent of respondents indicated they use social media to evaluate professional services. And roughly 40 percent of the respondents to that same FindLaw.com survey said they would be more likely to use a lawyer with a social media presence. In short, consumers are actively using platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to find out more about the people and places they buy from.

All this can scare firms that have been slow to adopt a social presence. But if yours is one of them, there is good news. As an attorney, you almost certainly already possess all the skills you need to succeed on social media. You just need to learn to apply those skills to this new environment.

Everything you already know about connecting with people, developing networks, generating a positive word-of-mouth reputation and encouraging referrals will serve you well on social media. But to understand how to apply them effectively online, you need to understand why people care about and use social platforms.

That said, don’t leap to the conclusion that social media works the same way as face-to-face social interactions. Oversimplifying social media to that point is a quick path to rendering your social media strategy ineffective, or even doing real damage to your brand.

More than just baby pictures and old high school acquaintances

People are quick to dismiss social media as a bunch of chatter about nothing. But at its heart, social media is simply a new form of an old idea. It is a forum where people connect with their friends and peers. Yes, on social media platforms this often takes the form of photo sharing and stream-of-consciousness status updates. But it also results in trusted friends making recommendations to one another. If you start viewing social media as just word of mouth writ large, then you will have made a significant leap toward using it to your advantage.

Social media users look for these characteristics not only in the way they interact with friends but also in their interactions with businesses. These qualities of social media and social business interactions are notably different than the passive qualities of searching a webpage or watching a video.

And consumers see that difference as having real value. According to FindLaw’s most recent Consumer Legal Needs survey, customers shopping for legal services stated that the importance of these platforms has grown by 70 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Social media and legal consumers

More than a simple attitude change, consumers are drawn to social media because of several key qualities that you can use to your advantage:

1 They like its interactivity

2They like its immediacy

3 They like its performance

4They like its informality

It’s not a conversation

When considering the qualities mentioned earlier, you might notice that some of them conflict at least partially with one another. It’s in that conflict that businesses often get in trouble. For instance, when you post an item on Facebook or other social media platforms you may be asking for a response (interactive), but that means you’re being conversational (informal). Typically, social media interactions are rarely extended and may constitute little more than a statement followed by a reply or two.

Still, social media posts have a timely, of-the-moment quality (immediacy), which is part of their appeal, but such currency can belie the sometimes dangerous permanence of the medium. Seemingly inconsequential statements and quick replies don’t disappear the way, say, a chat log will. They are on the record, and they can remain public and visible days, months or years later.

There’s a world of difference between having a heated exchange with a dissatisfied customer through email and dealing with a similar challenge on your Facebook page. Long after you’ve forgotten the conflict, someone looking to hire a lawyer may get to see that exchange and consider it representative of how you run your business.

All this noted, you can use these seemingly conflicting traits to your advantage. When you keep in mind that your social interactions create a record for all to see of how you engage with your clients, you can play a role that will build trust. You can leverage social media as a way to encourage referrals from, and build business with, those who already know you.

Social is about trust

Social platforms of one kind or another have existed for centuries, and while there’s obviously no direct historical analogue of Facebook, the idea of building trust and credibility through shared experiences, values, or sentiments is far from new. In some ways, business-to-customer interactions through social media are tapping into the very old idea of simply working with someone you like and trust.

In 2015, FindLaw conducted a survey of legal consumers to better understand how they act and interact online, and there were clear signals of the growth of social media as a deciding factor: where 35 percent of consumers said they have looked up a lawyer on a social network such as Facebook and 43 percent said the same of LinkedIn.

In a separate Thomson Reuters 2016 social survey, 54 percent of all respondents indicated they’d be likely to hire a lawyer with an active social presence. If you isolate that to millennials only, the number jumps to 72 percent!

This happens faster than you might think. To see just how quickly legal consumers find and assess attorneys, check out our white paper, Your Next Client Wants To Hire You – Now!

What’s important to note is that these consumers aren’t talking about finding a lawyer through social media. They are talking about an in-between step, a consideration step, where they know who you are, but they don’t know if they like you yet. They are trying to decide if they trust you, and they don’t want to do that by hearing what you say about yourself (on your website) but by seeing what you say when speaking to people like them (in social interactions).

You already have the skills you need

We’ve talked about what social media is, why people like it and its unique status as a social institution. Now it’s time to explore how you can use your existing social skills online to actually attract business.

Three basic behaviors that will lead you to good social media decisions:

  1. Be authentic
  2. Be engaged
  3. Be human 

Be authentic

Social media users have become increasingly aware and skeptical of overly promotional or inauthentic posts. They are eager to hear other people say good things about your firm but have little patience with you spending all your time saying great things about yourself. This is, at its core, why people come to social for consideration in the first place, instead of simply visiting your website.

It’s not just that potential clients want to feel confident in how great a lawyer you are. More important, they want to like you. They come to social channels because those ventures tend to be sharing spaces where they can get a sense of your firm’s personality and culture. Such information is markedly different from the details of how many cases you’ve won and what law school you attended. In fact, respondents to FindLaw’s 2015 U.S. Consumer Legal Needs survey placed factors like trust, honesty, and empathy as being more influential than an attorney’s win/loss record or alma mater.

In researching this paper, we talked to several attorneys who’ve succeeded in leveraging social for their business. All of them stressed the importance of tempering self-aggrandizement. They mentioned how the posts with the most positive responses were the ones that demystified or humanized the firm. A picture from a partner’s 20th anniversary rings truer than a press release on the results of some big case.

At the same time, attorneys need to stay conscious of the environment and the permanence of the medium. Charlie Rittgers from the Cincinnati law firm of Rittgers & Rittgers points out that you have to be open to revealing the personality of your brand, but not to such a degree that you run off potential clients. Just as in all social settings, there’s such a thing as having too much personality, or providing a little too much information about yourself.

Here are a few more things to consider when pursuing “authenticity” in social media:

  1. Blatant self-promotion often backfires. Celebrate your successes, but be selective and avoid making them all you talk about.
  2. Know your brand and stay authentic to it.
  3. Take a measured approach to communication. If you tend to be highly reactive or strongly opinionated, speak with extra caution. Remember to align your message with the needs of the clients you’re trying to develop.
  4. Particularly for owners of smaller businesses, personal brand and professional brand simply cannot be entirely separate. You may have to spend more time lining up your personal interactions with your business persona.
  5. Avoid highly controversial discussions. Again, these posts will remain for people to see years from now.

Be engaged

The best way to succeed on social media is to be active in it. We live in a world where people frequently reach out to and engage with businesses on social media because they want and expect a more personal and interactive experience.

We’ve seen firms that create content for social media, publish it, and rarely look back to see how it performed. Few things would look worse on Facebook or Twitter than a potential client reaching out to your firm through a comment or post with no reply from you.

Imagine you’re visiting a service’s Facebook page and you see several posts asking for advice or help, some of them months or years old, with no reply from the business. Divesting yourself from a business mindset for a moment — one that might be sympathetic to the time commitment of following through with replies — and thinking only as a customer, how would that look to you?

It probably wouldn’t just make the business look disengaged, but it would also undermine the authenticity of their presence on Facebook in the first place.

For better or worse, social is a highly interactive environment. It’s why people use it, and interaction is what they expect from you.

Here are some things to think about as you attempt to “be engaged” online:

  1. Not all engagements have to be big. Sometimes it’s plenty to respond to a question with something like, “That’s a great question. The best way to answer you is probably with a conversation. Feel free to call our firm, and we’ll find someone to get you the information you need.”
  2. Don’t let negative comments bother you. They can actually work in your favor, but handling them is important. Stick to the ideal of being authentic, but also make sure your response is measured.
  3. In many ways, responding to people is more important than creating new content. Remember the point here isn’t to expand keywords for search visibility. It’s to develop a network and demonstrate good practices for others to see.
  4. Don’t forget about old posts. A new comment on an old post is just as valuable as one on a new post.
  5. Post content, blogs, images and so on, in the context of encouraging people to engage with you. Actively ask people to reach out, leave a comment, drop you a line and make other requests. And do it using natural language.

Be human

Last but far from least, being “human” is perhaps the most important idea to keep in mind when using social media to cultivate your network. One of the biggest reasons people flock to social networks to interact with businesses is because they’re actively rejecting the filtered, often mechanical experiences of dealing with customer call centers, automated phone lines, form emails, and junk mail.

Bringing that same distant corporate approach into this medium will lead you nowhere.

If you want to develop your customer base, expand your network, cultivate referrals, and generally grow your business, then you can’t get rid of the I’m-your-lawyer-not-your-friend mentality fast enough.

In our conversations with attorneys, the consensus was that the most effective engagements are quite often the ones that have the least to do specifically with the law. Your future customers are often more likely to be moved to act by news of a lead counsel’s sponsored kids’ softball team and their recent win than the dollar value of your latest case. If you want to demonstrate care and participation in your local community, include a picture of yourself at the town hall food drive instead of simply using the town name as a keyword for better search performance.

Being human may mean you’ll need to be conscious of both your personal and professional social accounts and set aside the notion that they’re entirely distinct and separate. It’s a hard truth to accept, but particularly for smaller, community-focused firms, your customers expect you to share some part of yourself with them before they share their personal needs with you.

If it helps, think of it like placing a picture of your family on your desk but directed to people looking for and considering services through social media. Little actions like this can make a huge difference. They humanize you.

Consider the following advice as you show more of your “human” side:

  1. Use plain language as often as possible. People think of legalese the same way they think of “corporate speak,” as an artificial way of speaking that’s designed to obscure.
  2. Learn to take pictures at events, and don’t hesitate to share them. Your social media posts don’t need to be deep or extensive. A quick photo of you and friends or colleagues at an event can generate some of that humanity.
  3. Pull back the curtain on your office and staff. Share pictures from a recent birthday celebration or shared lunch break. Create a sense of accessibility around the people your clients will be working with.
  4. Vary your posts across a spectrum of topics and types. Repeating a single subject or type of post again and again will quickly feel artificial and uninteresting.
  5. Share things you’re interested in, even if they’re only tangentially related or even irrelevant to your area of practice. They shine a light on your humanity.

By taking these ideas into consideration and making a commitment to be active and engaged, you stand a great chance of generating positive responses. But, of course, positive posts won’t pay the bills, which leaves us with perhaps the most important questions to answer:

  • How do you integrate social media in a way that is effective for your business?
  • How do you identify the value of a social media exchange?
  • How do you even make the time for this?

Social media as a business tool

To understand why your “social network” is important, just replace the word “social” with “business.” It’s likely that as you’ve grown your business, you’ve found the value in building a robust network of colleagues, professionals, happy former clients, and resources. Social media has become one of the best ways to extend, foster, and retain that critical network.

As an example of this way of thinking, consider practices like those demonstrated by the Cincinnati law firm we mentioned earlier. The partners at Rittgers & Rittgers have turned their social media interactions into a strong business development strategy. Charlie Rittgers even goes so far as to identify social media as the firm’s primary business networking medium. He and his colleagues don’t spend a lot of time with quarterly updates, big email lists, or expensive events. Instead, his firm develops contacts (and keeps connected to them) through Facebook.

Contrary to how some attorneys think, Facebook is not a frivolous waste of time. Charlie Rittgers and many other attorneys will tell you, it’s a uniquely powerful platform for fostering and communicating with a cultivated network.

Developing your brand through social

One of the hardest things for firms involved in social platforms to accept is that these interactions are far more about brand development and validation than lead generation. In the vast majority of cases, in the absence of paid campaigns, the people who visit your social space have already heard about you from someone or somewhere else.

Facebook is not Google; it’s not a place prospects go to start their search for an attorney. Ask yourself whether you’ve ever started seeking a product or service using Facebook’s search tool. Facebook is where consumers go to learn more about or to interact with an attorney before making a buying decision.

Many attorneys and businesses of all kinds presume that their social efforts are part of the discovery phase, where they help support efforts to make their firm visible to users who may not already be aware of the firm. Though social may support this from a secondary perspective — a strong social presence can help lend credibility and authority to other lead-generation activities — unless you already have a very well-known brand or you’re supporting efforts with a strategic paid campaign, it’s unlikely that social platforms will provide a lot of lead-generation lift.

But social media isn’t built for starting the search. It’s there to close the deal.

In digital marketing parlance we use the term “branded search” to describe search queries that target a specific business as opposed to broad industries. It’s the difference between searching for “a lawyer” and searching for “Smith and Smith Law Firm.” This is the kind of search that people are completing in the key research and consideration phases, and they’re the type that businesses usually get through Facebook. People finding you on social media have already heard of you — possibly through referral or by finding you online or seeing an ad — and now they want to find out more about you.

Branded searches are incredibly valuable and usually convert into business at roughly twice the rate of their generic counterparts. According to FindLaw’s 2015 consumer survey, branded traffic converted at 10 to 15 percent as opposed to the baseline of all traffic, which converted at between 6 percent and 8 percent.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re shopping for a car. After some initial searching you find a car dealer and a type of car you want to buy. You go to the dealer’s lot to look at the selection and perhaps take a test drive. But when you arrive, the lot is empty and the showroom is a ghost town. There may still be a way to buy your car from this dealer, but are you going to do that? Probably not, because you were unable to complete the validation and research phase of your purchase.

When one of your potential customers comes to Facebook to find out more about your firm and they find you haven’t posted anything for two years or that you don’t even have a social presence, they’re having a similar experience.

The reality of the internet today is that if you do not have a social media presence, or your existing one looks like a ghost town, it’s highly likely you’re losing business.

So, what do I post?

We started this paper saying that you already knew everything you needed to know to create an effective social presence. We’ve also explained that the purpose of this social presence is to help potential customers develop a sense of trust and confidence in your firm. It’s in the marriage of those two ideas that you’ll find the answer to the question, What should I be posting on social media?

The reality is that there are relatively few wrong answers to this question. Talk about subjects that you care about, ones that align with the way you want your brand to be seen. Use the social skills and other qualities that make you a good lawyer to put the spotlight on an array of ideas, topics, events, places, and people that will support your firm’s humanity, accessibility, and trustworthiness.

Launching a social media practice needn’t fall on you alone. Look around your office and find the people who enjoy and understand social media. Get them involved, and get them to help tell the story of your firm. If your firm doesn’t employ anyone who fits that mold, consider hiring someone part-time who has the skills to help you build a Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn profile and presence. Educate that person on your brand so that they can effectively respond to and interact with your audience.

You don’t have to do everything all at once, particularly if you’re new to social media. What is important is starting and committing to the process. Like those businesses who built a website before everyone else, start with what you can, adding along the way as you learn more about what makes your social media presence effective. The only truly wrong answer at this point is to ignore social and hope it goes away.

That’s simply not going to happen.

Leverage social media for your firm’s success

Engage and connect with more potential clients via social media.

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