Outsourcing generally makes the media headlines when a multi-million pound government contract hits the buffers, and we all moan when having to deal with an overseas customer contact centre where the quality of the phone line and the quaint accent of the operator combine to leave us frustrated rather than delighted.
In the legal sector, media coverage of outsourcing has mainly focused on the wave of legal business process outsourcing to countries far and near.
As firms have become more confident in the use of outsourcing, they have extended its use to an increasing number of non-core services, ranging from telephone answering to cloud technology services. This article is concerned specifically with the outsourcing of marketing activities.
Why outsource marketing?
Some marketing activities have always been outsourced. Few law firms are large enough to justify the employment of a full-time in-house graphic designer, website programmer or public relations specialist.
But more recently, cloud technology has allowed firms to outsource their entire marketing support service which also covers activities from planning and strategy through to newsletters and social media. And herein lies part of the rationale.
The largest law firms employ a team of specialists to undertake their marketing, but a small law firm would need to recruit someone who is capable of earning the trust of partners, who is experienced enough to create the marketing plan or manage an important tender, and who at the same time is prepared to roll up their sleeves and manage the nitty gritty of the client database and e-marketing activities. So one of the key benefits of outsourcing is that it provides small firms with access to the entire marketing mix with a team of support, rather than having to try and find one person with all the right skills.
Equally, as more firms have expanded through mergers or opening new offices, lawyers have become used to having certain support functions based elsewhere. So less fee-earner time is wasted in meetings, as people become adept at working from a distance. Your lawyers do not need to spend time learning about websites, search engine optimisation or blogging – unless they wish to.
There is the obvious advantage that outsourcing provides an alternative to employment with the associated costs and a contract can be terminated more easily than an employee.
But outsourcing also saves money on other overheads, including office space, IT hardware and software, recruitment and HR costs. It also has the flexibility to scale up for a particular project, such as a merger. Or you can scale down, for example, where a practice area ceases due to retirement or the departure of a team.
A survey by Grant Thornton, “Outsourcing: Driving efficiency and growth”, cited eight key drivers for companies deciding to outsource back office services. In order of popularity, these were:
- improving efficiencies;
- reducing cost;
- ensuring business continuity;
- better access to expertise;
- allowing staff to focus on core strategy;
- mitigating risk through using specialists;
- reducing staff headcount; and
- ability to cut outsourced staff more easily than employees.
Here are some examples of the circumstances which have prompted a law firm to consider outsourcing their marketing:
- A UK regional firm had joined a national branded network, and needed some help to implement all the activities proposed by the network and adapt these for more local campaigns.
- A niche start-up spun out of a top 50 law firm where the partners were used to sophisticated marketing support and wanted to outsource all their support services from the outset, allowing them to focus on building their new business.
- A US law firm which had a large internal marketing department needed a flexible resource in the UK that could work with the US marketing department to deliver communications in Europe.
- For a dispersed firm with solicitors working as independent consultants under a common brand scalability was an important aspect of their business model.
- A consortium of several overseas law firms needed a central marketing function to support their members.
Before outsourcing any activity, it is necessary to evaluate what you wish to achieve and which specific activities you need help with. A firm looking at outsourcing their marketing as an alternative to employing their first marketing executive may have a different set of needs to a firm with an established marketing team that needs support to launch or bolster a particular practice group. Marketing encompasses a broad range of activities, and partners may have different ideas and expectations of the type of support they need.
Reporting lines. Will anyone in the firm be able to instruct the outsourced provider, or do all requests pass through a marketing partner or committee? Some oversight is needed to monitor how the service is being used, and to ensure that only appropriate initiatives are being resourced. Also, there will need to be some mechanism for reviewing and prioritising work when demand for support starts to exceed the agreed supply level.
Quality control. Who will be able to sign off any content or printed materials? Depending on the size of a firm, it may be unwise that this should always fall to one person as this could result in a bottleneck.
Data protection. If the outsourced service includes handling any passwords, such as those for your website content management system or for social media accounts, what are the policies for security and change of passwords? If the service provider will have access to any contact data, such as via a cloud-based CRM system, or simply a spreadsheet of invitees for an event, then you need to ensure that they have adequate data protection policies.
Selection process. If you have mapped out exactly which services and outputs you need in advance, you will be in a better position to verify whether a potential provider has an established track record in providing those services. Make sure you ask to speak to two or three of their current clients, and check that they are performing the tasks that you require to their satisfaction. Before jumping into a full outsourcing arrangement, you may wish to test them on a discrete project first.
Research by MOOD International, “State of Relations in Outsourcing”, looked at what was important in a successful outsourcing arrangement. The most important factors, out of a maximum score of 10, were:
- transparency (8.7);
- understanding the business model (8.5);
- trust (8.2); and
- innovation (7.9).
Transparency. You will need to agree with your outsourcing provider how key information should be reported; this may involve some trial and error. One of the benefits of online marketing is that it is much more trackable than traditional advertising.
However, reams of stats on hits, likes and views may not be critical to your overall objectives. Simply tracking where every enquiry into your firm comes from is the best way to measure which marketing activities are producing the best results. But this is usually in the hands of the law firm, rather than the marketing provider.
Business model. Understanding the business of law, or at least professional services, is important in selecting a provider. The marketing of legal services revolves around know-how and content, so you should cert
ainly test the provider’s knowledge as part of the selection process. If they do not know whether an article on EMIs relates to a record label or a share scheme, you may find yourself having to spend time helping them up the learning curve.
Trust. A law firm is a collection of individual lawyers who are fiercely proud of their personal and combined reputation. Deciding to place their brand in the hands of a third party requires a huge amount of trust. In a world where a contract could turn on a comma, attention to detail is critical and it is vitally important to have quality control procedures to ensure that nothing can go out that might damage the brand of the firm or the reputation of any lawyer.
Innovation. Marketing techniques change all the time as competition forces companies to innovate constantly in order to maintain their position. While some of these new techniques work well for legal services, some do not and are simply the latest incarnation of the Emperor’s new clothes. If your outsourced marketing provider is working with other law firms then they will help you to identify best practice, including which innovations to embrace and how they may be adapted to your practice. You will not need to spend your weekends reading up on the latest marketing techniques (unless you want to).
Sue Bramall is Managing Director of Berners Marketing, providing marketing and business development support exclusively to the legal profession. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @Berners4Law.Tweet