The problem of regulations
As a Digital Marketing manager, I deal with clients every day in professions that are heavily regulated. Accountants, investment advisors, medical professionals, and attorneys are a few of the businesses which must be very careful to ensure that their marketing campaigns conform to the rules.
Unfortunately, rather than studying and following the regulations, many attorneys give up on the idea and decide not to do any marketing at all.
The marketing efforts of attorneys within the State of California are governed by Rule 1-400 of the Rules of Professional Conduct (http://rules.calbar.ca.gov/Rules/RulesofProfessionalConduct/CurrentRules/Rule1400.aspx) and the Business and Professions Code Section 6157-6159.2 (http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=bpc&group=06001-07000&file=6157-6159.2). A reading of these rules reveals some simple, basic themes woven in among other more specific restrictions:
These are rules that every business should follow, not just attorneys. The fact that your profession has put them into writing shouldn't be a roadblock to marketing your business – just the opposite. Having clear guidelines can help you create a focused plan to guide your efforts.
Selling without selling (or breaking the rules)
The fact of the matter is that none of us like being sold to. The high-pressure TV pitchman asking if you've been injured in an accident knows that of the tens of thousands of people watching the ad, only one or two actually fits his client profile. Yet he continues to spend thousands of dollars pushing the ads out there in the hopes that one day the right person will pick up the phone and bring in the case that makes him millions.
When I'm building a marketing campaign for my clients, we take a friendlier approach. Two of my primary goals are to educate the target audience, and personalize the business. Both of these ideas build a bond between you and your online audience, without being pushy or running afoul of State Bar rules. This is how we accomplish that.
When you share some of the knowledge that you have within your field, you help the client understand more about what you do, and how it applies to them. This can be as simple as a Facebook post commenting on a recent news story, or a full article on your website explaining the nuances of a recent court decision.
Share media stories that relate to your field of the law. If a business somewhere gets caught in a trap that a good attorney could have helped them avoid, share the story as a cautionary tale. If a decision is made in high-profile case that affects your field, share an article with an explanation to your audience what the situation was and how the decision impacts future cases. Sharing links to stories like this on social media with a brief description of your own, is an effective way to show people that you are current and an expert in the law. Over time, readers will come to value your commentary as a "news feed" with items of interest from your specific field.
If you can write and share your own articles, so much the better. I encourage every business to have a blog on their website which provides relevant information about their industry, and attorneys are no exception. As clients or potential clients read this information, it positions you as an expert in their eyes and builds trust in your knowledge. Having these articles on your website brings in traffic from search engines, and creates content which you can share on Facebook, LinkedIn, Avvo, and other online platforms.
When you're writing, focus on your target audience. This isn't a legal brief. Keep things simple and understandable so that the average person can learn from what you're trying to explain.
Another goal we focus on with our clients is personalizing the business. Don't hide behind a corporate identity. Share what's happening in your office: the paralegal brought in cookies, somebody's kid graduated preschool, one of the partners spent time volunteering for the local legal clinic. Participate as an office in local charitable efforts. Support (or host) an event that benefits the community. All of these ideas change the online perception of your firm from a stuffy group of fuddy-duddy's surrounded by dusty law books to a group of real, caring, compassionate people who live real lives, love their families, and are active in their community.
This content can be shared on a social network or on your website. It works best if you do both. This makes great content for your blog, alongside the educational topics I discussed above. And social media is at its heart, social, so sharing real life will always work better than a sales pitch.
Some of you may worry that opening up like this is somehow unprofessional. You'll have to find a balance that is right for your firm. In the marketing world today, we're seeing a backlash against the impersonal relationships that we have with big-box stores and online shopping, back to the days when the corner grocer knew your meat order by heart. While that doesn't mean we're forecasting the demise of online shopping, it creates a special opportunity for the business (especially in a service-based field like the law) that can build personal bonds with their clients.
What does all of this accomplish?
Will business magically start rolling in your door tomorrow if you implement these ideas? Probably not. This is farming, not hunting. If you need more clients tomorrow, then there are other techniques you can use to accomplish that. (That's a topic for another article.) This is a long-term strategy focused on cultivating relationships and shaping the online conversation that people encounter when they find your business online. Whether someone follows you on a social network or they just come across your page when searching for information, the cultivated, curated image that you build of yourself and your firm online helps them form a positive first impression.
How do I make this happen?
None of this will happen on it's own. You'll have to work at it and be consistent. I recommend setting up a regular schedule for developing content. Facebook and other social networks allow you to schedule posts to be published in the future. It's much easier to sit down once a month, or even once a week to set up a few posts instead of having to do it each day. Keep an eye on the news and your professional sources for content ideas. Pay attention to the questions that clients ask you. If you're hearing the same questions over and over, it's likely that people are asking those questions online too. When you answer the questions on your website (in the form of an article), you draw traffic that will often convert to business.
If you don't have time to do it yourself, assign the task to someone in your office. Ensure that they understand the goals and have a clear picture of how you want your firm represented online. You should also make sure that they have time assigned in their schedule to accomplish these tasks.
At some point it may make sense to bring in outside help. A digital marketing firm can help you build a solid online strategy that incorporates your website, social platforms, search engines, reviews, and more to influence and shape the online conversation about your law firm. They can also take over the day-to-day work of managing your social presence and website, including writing and scheduling posts, creating articles, and handling social interaction.
Advertising regulations for lawyers don't have to be a roadblock. By focusing on your audience and what they want to learn, you can build a relationship built on trust and respect that will leave the TV pitchman in your dust, while still keeping the State Bar happy.