For law firms, word of mouth continues to be the principle generator of work. Firms historically tried to leverage its power using “thought leadership” marketing, through “offline content” such as newsletters, white papers and articles. Today, however, this is no longer enough.
Target audiences have moved online, expanding the reach of word of mouth to the multitude of web channels. The challenge this presents firms is that they need to do more than just have an online presence. They need to be active, contributing content to the right online space, at the right time, to be consumed by the right people.
Many firms have invested in their website as the “mothership” of their online presence. Others are already creating content, promoting it using web channels such as blogs and e-newsletters, and sharing it through social platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.
Despite these efforts, firms are still all too frequently disappointed with the results, bemoaning a lack of leads generated. What can firms do to turn this around and make their online efforts work? Here are some thoughts on how to approach websites and content for maximum business impact.
Like most business assets, the website is an investment you expect to yield results – only of worth when it performs. So firms need to treat their website like a business. If you are not getting results, establish the obstacles and remove them. Consider the following key areas:
As a typical consequence of designing a site and considering it “job done” for 4 years, the majority of law firm sites have a generic look and feel, blending into the online legal landscape. There is little difference in terms of visuals or the analogous use of vague language. This results in a lack of differentiation, poorly-executed messaging and, significantly, a failure to ensure the site best meets the needs of the site’s users (ie your target audiences). This may be for a whole number of reasons: tight budgets, stretched resources, protracted consultations, delayed decision-making. But as the stakes involved with digital engagement have become higher, firms need to recognise that managing their website and getting the most out of it is a continuous business process.
Other industries such as retail invest heavily in understanding and measuring the benefits of user experience of their sites. Retailers continually “tune up” their sites to optimise online sales through A/B, multivariate testing and behavioural targeting (a process by which a website can be tested to ascertain which content or creative variation produces the best improvement in the defined goals, whether that be visitor registrations or completion of a checkout process). These are effective and immediate methods to increase sales volume, improve conversion rates and boost lead generation by enhancing customer journeys and experiences. Law firms need to take a leaf out of the retailers’ sites and focus on improving site navigation and page layout, promotional copy, calls to action, landing page layouts, home page design and forms. They need to test to ensure it all works, on an ongoing basis.
For example, one of the biggest weaknesses with law firm sites is the structure of the service line section, often displayed by how the firm is structured internally. If we take a look at DWF’s website we can see that “Debt Recovery” services are listed as: Services for businesses > Banking & Finance > Debt Recovery (as with many other firms’ sites). Is it intuitive for a prospective commercial client with low- to mid-level experience of purchasing legal services to navigate under “Banking & Finance” when their problem is – “another company owes us money”? Testing and integration with keyword and search analysis would help to direct a more user-friendly structure.
Shoosmiths’ new website shows Debt Recovery directly on the home page as a listed service. Straight in, no drop boxes. The landing page then gives the user 10 segments of debt recovery to choose from. Although the design of the site isn’t entirely inspirational, Browne Jacobson puts visitors at the heart of its site, with a clear home page navigation box entitled “let’s talk about you”, the structure of which is based upon the client’s need, and the content written using the user’s language, ie “I simply want a list of your services”.
Most firms ignore SEO, resulting in law firm websites failing at the most basic level, particularly in comparison to other market sectors. Search engine optimisation is important to your website and your content. Modern search engines like Google and Bing are great at providing relevant results to users and are the primary method of navigation for most users. The use of keywords or key phrases helps users find what they want, and understanding keywords will not only enable firms to target users who show an interest in their services, but will also have some effect on where that firm ranks in organic search results.
According to research from compete.com, 53 per cent of people click on the first result in the organic search. The second listing in organic search gets only 15 per cent, the third 9 per cent, the fourth 6 per cent, dwindling all the way down to 4 per cent to round out the top 5. Some firms may see that as a reason in itself not to bother, but others will flourish if they can motivate themselves and make the investment to achieve higher rankings.
Successful SEO is a delicate blend of a number of activities. Techniques include relevant search titles, meta descriptions, relevant back link building, effective use of keywords and providing high quality content. Some site architectural activities are highly specialised and require experts but in most cases firms can self-educate using the many quality SEO resources on the web such as SEOmoz and Search Engine Land. The fundamentals are very easy to understand and a great starting point is Google’s own SEO Starter Guide.
If your firm’s site cannot be found by search engines, or your content cannot be “crawled” or “indexed”, you miss out on incredible opportunities available via search. Firms must invest something in SEO; whether that be time, budget or a combination of both.
Much like you probably use your smartphone to check emails, Twitter, Linkedin etc, so too do prospects and clients. We are all using a variety of gadgets and devices to go online, to consume information and to stay connected, so firms have to adapt to meet the requirements of the different smartphones, tablets, netbooks and e-readers etc. Accordingly, websites need to be mobile-friendly: a clean and efficient site design that fits a small screen, includes big, finger-friendly buttons, and has limited scrolling and pinching – and of course a “click to call” button.
Also, as mobile internet goes hand-in-hand with the increased prominence of location-based marketing, firms need to harness location-based marketing via mobile applications, social networks and targeted paid advertising platforms such as Facebook and Linkedin.
Unique content is vital to online success, but the reality is most firms simply aren’t geared to capitalise on content marketing; having no content infrastructure, schedule or internal publishing skills.
The benefits of content marketing, as a process of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, engage and acquire a clearly defined target audience, are great. Firms can strengthen their brand and credibility by creating content that delivers value to their clients, fostering loyalty, increased spend and ultimately sharing their experience with others. Firms can also achieve better natural search rankings and social media presence and make more measurable conversions by driving powerful content.
Unlike advertising or marketing campaigns, which are ephemeral, good content has a long shelf life. It’s an asset which “keeps on giving” via direct traffic from links and indirect traffic from improved search rankings. To reap these benefits, law firms have to create content that is “valuable”, “relevant”, “engaging”, “exceptional”, “inspirational”, “unique” and of course “beneficial to share”. A challenging brief maybe, but firms need to get this right. Poor content will result in poor impact; it won’t generate traffic; few will link back to it; it won’t be socially shared; and ultimately, better natural search results will not be achieved.
Lawyers often write with excruciatingly formal address, technical jargon and passionless dictation. This may work for legal communications, but content marketing is about real conversations addressing real problems and providing real solutions. Producing content in a more conversational tone doesn’t need to be considered an informality – more of a way of connecting with your audience on a human level.
Infuse content with passion. Sometimes you have to pick sides on industry issues, but present them clearly, examine both sides – form conclusions, ask readers what they think.
Often the greatest challenge for firms is developing content that appeals to their audience; avoiding the risk of sending out “directionless” material. Content should be of benefit to your audience. If you target your audience on Twitter – what topics are currently trending with them? Check traditional and online news outlets for industry news. What are your contacts talking about at networking events? What are the industry bloggers writing about? Ask your current client base – what business problems are they looking for answers for?
Firms need also to bear in mind that content has moved on from just words and pictures to all forms of media: video, audio, games, apps, services, virtual goods etc. Online video, in particular, is seeing explosive growth and becoming interactive both for advertising and engagement purposes.
Where firms are seeing little return on their online efforts, it’s not an option to give up. It’s more likely that something is flawed and in need of repair or attention. Firms need to manage their online assets such as websites and content as a continuous business process, or run the risk of blending into the background or, worse, being left behind.
Graham Laing of Rokman Laing is a freelance Chartered Marketing consultant specialising in strategic marketing management and digital marketing for professional service firms.