Positives and Pitfalls of Social Media Marketing

07/31/2013
Published in the final edition of Lawyers USA, 7/31/2013

The use of social media — whether it includes blogging, a LinkedIn or Facebook page, a Twitter post, or any number of other new iterations — is perhaps the most effective, low-cost marketing channel for small and solo law firms today. However, it can also be a fragmented time-waster if not diligently applied and integrated.

Social media sites are "broadcasting" in the purest sense. They may reach a few potential clients, but they also reach many more people who don't have the slightest interest in a given lawyer or law firm. And the firm is paying for all those disengaged listeners, in terms of the time that consistent online marketing requires.

Thought leadership

At its most effective, social media used in this way can help you create a reputation as a "thought leader" in your practice area. Blogging or active Twitter feeds, in particular, will likely increase the number of calls you receive from reporters, who are extensive searchers of blogs and other social media tools for sources; and this frequently leads to an increase in the number of speaking invitations attorneys receive. It's all-important for one reason: visibility.

Establishing an online reputation can lead you to write articles for local and national publications in your field; write a commercially published book (the gold standard of marketing success) for the equivalent of third-party endorsement (only someone important would appear in a commercial publisher's venue); speak at conferences; create teleseminars; create a video; do podcasts; refine and improve your website; and/or send out an electronic newsletter.

These are only a few of the communication channels a lawyer can use to create client relationships. Law firms and lawyers that use social media this way have better marketing through more web visitors, inbound links and indexed pages. The more your target market sees your name and knows who you are, the more likely they are to call you. And calls are the benchmark for marketing success.

Adequate return

Without measuring social media marketing efforts by the specific number of contacts made, clients added and billable time gained, a firm may not be getting an adequate return. Social media results are in fact measurable in certain ways — for example, a follower count on Twitter, the number of "likes" on a Facebook page or the range of connections made on LinkedIn. These measurements, however, merely indicate the opening of contact with potential clients.

Lead generation and new business secured from those leads are the only valid ways to determine whether social media marketing works. Attracting more followers and online connections is worthwhile only if they lead to in-person meetings. Online marketing has to produce new files and new revenue or it is not an effective business development tool.

Making frequent tweets or Facebook or blog posts and answering responses to them can definitely take time. Let's say it's just two hours per workweek. If we assume 50 workweeks per year for ease of calculation, and two hours per week and $200 per hour billable value for an attorney, the calculation is $20,000 of billable time. It's essential for that time to provide a return on investment, as defined by these measures:

  • Do constant follow-up by responding to inquiries and incorporating posted material into articles, speeches, client updates and so on. If you are making the effort, make maximum marketing application of it beyond the social media itself.

  • Incorporate social media into your daily professional routine. Occasional posts are simply not effective. Establishing a regular posting routine keeps you engaged with prospects and ensures that your content is fresh.

  • Don't give away the store on a blog or Facebook page. The wisest course is to suggest your firm's knowledge and capabilities rather than to display detailed information and allow your followers to make full use of it.

Ethical caution

In social media marketing, attorneys must keep the rules of professional conduct in mind.

There are many concerns about whether social media activity is freely available information, or is advertising controlled by the Bar. The American Bar Association's Commission on Ethics 20/20 Working Group on the Implications of New Social Media recommended in 2011 that social networking should not be used for "real time electronic contact" to solicit clients and should be viewed as general communication to educate potential clients.

But "education" is in the eye of the beholder. As an example of what can happen, the Virginia State Bar in 2011 charged a lawyer with professional misconduct for talking about his own completed cases on his blog, claiming that it violated client confidentiality and disregarded ethics rules, which required an advertising disclaimer stating that results depend upon factors unique to each case.

The lawyer argued that his blog had only personal commentary, that the information posted was disclosed during public trials, was accurate, did not violate any confidences — and was not advertising. The State Bar disagreed, the lawyer reluctantly posted the disclaimer, but he still sought vindication in the courts. He got it in 2012, when a three-judge panel ruled that the disclaimer was necessary but that a court decision on the public record was not confidential, so the lawyer could write about it.

This controversy raises a valid question about regulating lawyers' use of social media. It is one thing to regulate for truth and fairness in promotional statements, and to restrict hyperbole so as not to create false expectations. It is another thing to say how the communication can be framed. Bar associations seek to regulate lawyers in ways that other governing bodies do not attempt for such professionals as doctors and accountants. The losers are small firms and sole practitioners — and those clients who would benefit from learning about them through social media. As far as the ultimate concern of the client, as well as legal ethics, the quality of legal service and not the degree of salesmanship and promotion should be what is important. And that is what your social media communication should convey.

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