Web marketing at top of the list for firms’ information delivery

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership] November 28, 2020

Now is a great time to reset the profit strategies of law firms – and one of the best places to start is by keeping clients and other stakeholders informed about things that matter, writes Rob Knowsley.

The pandemic has dominated the landscape and practice-management writings for too long. I suspect we’re all getting tired of hearing about it. We need to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is!

Nevertheless, COVID-19 has cast further strong light on the fact that many of Australasia’s small legal firms (which make up the massive majority of all legal firms) are not particularly profitable business enterprises. Many do not actually make any real profit at all after allowing for a reasonable notional or actual salary for what the principals do. As many of my clients have attested over the years, they could have been making significantly more money as an employee of another law firm, without the worry and the risks.

I fully understand that there are law firm principals who do not see it as important that their firm be profitable, and many are indignant about others discussing small law firms and profitability in the same breath. This article is not for those folks.

Marketing more important than ever

Drawing on my 45-plus years’ experience in looking for some practical guidance for small firm principals, I have settled upon the importance of marketing. Principals must make time to ensure it is done well, cost-effectively and as part of a business strategy to keep team members productively busy as they help the right sorts of clients, year in year out.

Forget all the disruptions and tribulations of the pandemic so far, and plan for a long and indefinite period of COVID-Normal to come. If the virus is ‘beaten’ by a vaccine sooner than we expect, how will you be worse off by having more work than you anticipated? Now is most certainly not the time to hunker down.

Keeping existing clients, potential clients, referrers, influencers and gatekeepers well-informed about things that matter to them is helping them, and it builds a strong, reputable brand. It is a key element in professional marketing.

Allocating and applying the right resources – mostly time (including principal time) and some well-directed funds – will drive up levels of enquiry in the fields of law in which the firm provides services. The demand is there in the marketplace … as all small firms succeeding with this strategy will attest.

Normal conversion skills will ensure more paying work, but many firms also have room for upskilling. Pushing a fraction harder with effective marketing will ensure sufficient enquiries are generated while also giving firms confidence that they are not entering into engagements with prospective clients who are not willing to pay proper fees, in full, and on time.

Pushing a fraction harder again will allow a greater percentage of future fees to be set with real confidence, creating value in services that clients demand – and to which they are entitled – while at the same time improving profitability.

It is a very simple proposition that a small legal firm, currently doing little more than keeping its doors open, uses up a lot of energy to create a modest amount of revenue that all goes to expenses. Such a scenario can be energy-sapping, and downright deflating, if principals cannot identify simple strategies to fix the problem.

The first important realisation has to be that, provided future additional revenues are not obtained at very poor returns on investment, almost all of every extra dollar will be earned past the firm’s unique break-even point, and thus be mainly profit. Not 5 per cent profit, 95 per cent.

Firms that start to get a few key fundamentals right beyond break-even are almost universally delighted at how easily strong improvements can be achieved, and how quickly the available cash situation improves. Properly managed, it becomes both a very energising and repeatable process.

It does take a little application of time by firm leaders but, frankly, firms that most need to reset on strategy will already have the available time that is not currently being wisely invested.

Web your friend with information distribution

Given word-count restrictions with these articles, I will choose just one area of marketing in which to make my point.

Principals who have not noticed skyrocketing use of the web to obtain information since the beginning of the pandemic must have been deeply asleep at the wheel. The web, therefore, provides a bigger opportunity than ever before to get a good part of a firm’s information distribution strategy working effectively.

Each firm is unique and marketing strategies should be designed accordingly, but from the trenches rest assured that, for a huge volume of firms, more and more potential clients are looking for information on the web. They need to find your helpful information online, or they will almost certainly make enquiry somewhere else.

It behoves focused law firm principals to make themselves aware of some basic rules of the game, and to arrange for the firm to play by them. At the same time, they should be fully aware that the rules change frequently.

Principals need to keep their eyes and ears open, their antennae up, read the right material, listen to podcasts, and watch short ‘how to’ videos, all of which is provided by experts working in the field every day who share information to help you.

They are doing for you what I am suggesting you need to do for your audiences.

As lawyers, firm-leading principals only need to understand the basic principles of the opportunities being presented. That leaves the day-to-day detailed application, experimentation and results analysis to skilled-up team members within a forward-looking firm, or to independent experts retained as trusted advisors who are clear communicators and who can demonstrate cost-effective results.

A good example of how this works can be seen with the emergence of Google’s featured snippets, the pieces of information that appear at the top of Google’s search results. They provide answers to the search query based on relevant content from top-ranking pages. Many readers will have an understanding as to why listings high up in the top 10 search results for a particular word or phrase are important to the volume of traffic to a website.

A while ago, Google decided that it could assist its users by putting a featured snippet even higher up on the first page of its search results, with it being ‘featured’ above the list of remaining suggested sites. The algorithm used to provide a snippet for users is certainly not available or transparent, but Google does provide some explanation itself when it chooses a snippet, and there are experts capable of assisting with your experimentation. They can also help you analyse the effectiveness of your changes in website page content format, and the website traffic volume changes that result.

User experience tends to confirm that featured snippets are the ‘go to’ for many of them, and websites with featured snippets for key words and phrases do experience more traffic to the page links in the search results. This is the case, despite the fact that due to how Google rates the quality of the information on sites, almost all sites that gain a featured snippet will have featured somewhere in Google’s top 10 sites anyway – whether the featured snippet is provided by Google, or not.

Building an increasing portfolio of featured snippets for key words and phrases important to your relevant practice areas requires expanding while holding on to what you are already getting!

As with so many things in life, being in the game is one thing, but being in the game with cost-effective, satisfactory results requires more than just passing involvement and the investment of funds.

To sum up:

  • Done properly, marketing is good for all your stakeholders … and for you.
  • It is multi-faceted, but each facet need not be particularly complicated.
  • It can be exceptionally professional if it is based on the dissemination of clear, helpful, relevant information for each target audience.
  • It can be the cost-effective saviour of a firm where just a small amount of extra work, wisely selected and priced, can push a firm from the edge of the precipice at break-even, where losses have ceased but profits aren’t created, into the financially healthy blue sky beyond.

This is in the best interests of all the firm’s stakeholders. Almost all principals have the time to plan the strategy change needed, and drive it forward with continuing strong leadership, with time being a commodity in extra supply for many firms as we head deeper into COVID-Normal.

Rob Knowsley is the principal of Knowsley Management Services. He is a high-performance coach and facilitator with four decades of experience that has been dedicated to assisting law firms and their individual lawyers and managers as they seek to maximise their return on investment from reasonable inputs of time, money and other resources.