This is part one of a two-part series discussing marketing a law firm on the Internet. Part two will discuss how to drive users to a firm’s Web site.
Every legal professional is cognizant of the fact that the Internet is expanding every day. The media reports on the latest e-venture and how technology companies fared on the stock markets daily. Based on current trends, the media’s fascination with the Internet is justifiable. Industry reports indicate that more than 40 million Americans are now using the Internet consistently. The number of users is growing at an incredible rate even today. Within a few years, the Internet will be as common as a television or VCR in every household.
Unlike a few years ago, law firms can no longer afford to dismiss having an Internet presence in lieu of other marketing strategies. The Internet is quickly becoming the premier marketing medium due to its flexibility, long-term value, and relatively low maintenance costs. Because of these qualities, it is difficult for any firm to justify not making a modest investment into the Internet.
Not every Web site will generate new business, however. The reality is that as more law firms establish an Internet presence, law firms must begin to develop more effective Web marketing strategies. The days of posting a poorly developed Web site and getting valuable client leads are gone.
Today, only a law firm that integrates its Internet activities into its overall marketing plan will reap any benefits. That is the issue tackled here. What must a law firm do to establish an effective Internet presence? The short answer is solid design, consistent maintenance, and effective cross-marketing. This article will discuss the first two elements, design and maintenance.
Content is king
Give users what they want to know, not just what you want to tell them.
An effective site design is the foundation for any Internet marketing plan. Before firm members begin to debate what color and graphics to use, the firm must develop two missions. The first mission is its marketing mission. An effective site will convey the values a potential client is seeking. The more popular themes are knowledge, trustworthiness, courtesy, and professionalism. The firm must also decide to whom it is marketing. It is not realistic to try to appeal to every group. The business should instead work to define its strengths.
Once the firm’s leadership decides on its marketing mission, it still must pause before delving into the aesthetics issue until it develops its information mission. Many legal Web sites make a fundamental mistake in that they neglect to consider the nature of the Internet medium. Specifically, people surfing the Web site will come to a law firm’s site for a few straightforward reasons: a) by accident; b) directly by typing in the site’s domain name in order to find contact information; and, c) through a Web search engine or directory in search of knowledge.
Law firms too often treat Web sites as glorified brochures. They will publish sites that profile each member of the firm, their practice areas, and why they are better than everyone else. While it is important to include this information, it is important to meet the user’s needs too. Besides supplementing the firm’s marketing mission, it develops goodwill. As many have stated previously, “content is king!”
Keys to a complete Web site
There are several pieces to a balanced Web site. First, basic contact information is vital. Inexplicably, many legal Web sites bury this information on a difficult-to-find page if they bother to include it at all. A well-designed page should have contact information on every page and should have a page dedicated to contact information. A simple form allowing a user to send a message to a firm is a definite bonus.
When discussing practice areas, law firms should avoid a simple list. Rather, the firm should detail its experience as well as define what each practice area actually is. It is a mistake to assume that a user will understand what a firm means when it states that it practices personal injury or family law.
Every site should also include attorney profiles that summarize the attorney’s background and then offer a separate detailed exposition. Any time an attorney publishes an article, the firm should seek permission to reprint the article on the firm’s Web site. This is also true for firm newsletters or internal firm summaries of important cases or legislative events and how they impact a certain industry.
A firm site may also have a “trophy” page. In this section of the site, a firm can highlight significant achievements. If the firm has had appellate victories, it can link to the reported decision. The firm may also include press releases about major events or articles highlighting the firm’s success. It is important to remember to attain permission before reprinting an article.
Finally, it is a good idea to consider dedicating a portion of a firm’s site to external links. It is now possible to direct people to other resources without them leaving your site. A well-developed list of legal links also serves a firm’s research needs. Again, this helps bring users back to your site while satisfying their quest for knowledge. However, be careful not to link to your competitor’s site!
Write for the Internet
Regardless of everything else, edit your site to work within the Internet medium. A person viewing a Web page scans the page for information. It is best to avoid long narratives or wordiness; rather, break up dense ideas into paragraphs of no more than seven sentences. It may be more appropriate to separate an idea into smaller pages to allow the viewer to isolate a piece of information.
Lastly, read everything once the site is online. The programming language for the Internet, HTML, converts some characters, creating incoherent sentences. For example, an apostrophe created in Microsoft Word often changes to a question mark in HTML. More importantly, a misspelled word or grammar mistake will destroy the firm’s credibility. This may seem obvious; however, there are numerous examples of poorly written legal Web sites. Furthermore, it is important to use fonts consistently and to avoid exotic typefaces. If the user’s browser does not support a particular font, it will resort to its default. This may cause a page to appear erratically. Arial and Times New Roman are always safe. A Web site is an opportunity to make a long-lasting impression on a potential client. No one wants to create a long-lasting impression of incompetence.
Clean, professional presentation
There are a few fundamental guidelines for deciding what visual properties the site should have. Obviously, the site should be appealing and unique. There are numerous cookie-cutter, brochure-style sites littering the Internet today. The site’s appearance should be professional, not as if a high school student put it together. To be effective, a law firm’s site must rise above the din.
Conversely, the user is looking for information, not theatrics. While a nice graphical layout and clear navigation buttons are invaluable, each page should take no longer than 30 seconds to load. Otherwise, the firm risks frustrating the user and losing his or her attention. Further, it is best to avoid vivid colors because they tend to glow and obscure text. Finally, make sure it is possible to print the page. A dark background color prevents a user from printing.
Additionally, users despise horizontal scroll bars. Every page should fit on a typical user’s 17-inch monitor screen at 800 x 600 resolution. Also, visitors will quickly leave if a site forces them to endure a long download. While a well-orchestrated video presentation on a particular subject is a wonderful idea, it is best to give the visitor the choice of viewing it.
Lastly, and most importantly, it is vital to provide a sound road map. For example, the first page must provide a clear layout of the site’s offerings. If a visitor cannot navigate the site in a matter of seconds, he or she will move on to the next site. Any page of significant size should include internal links that allow the user to jump to a certain section or back to the top of the page. In short, the goal is a professional presentation that is easy to read and navigable.
The best things in life are cared for. There are many ways in which a firm’s site can accidentally frustrate a visitor. A surefire method is neglecting a Web site. Sadly, this occurs often. Viewing a few legal sites reveals “firm news pages” in which the most recent event occurred months ago. Attorneys leave a firm, yet their profiles are still on the site for months. Worst of all, many links do not function or they lead to an “under construction” message that has not changed for many months.
In order to be an effective marketing tool for a firm, the business must commit to supporting the Web site as a marketing program. This requires the firm to update the site consistently to keep it fresh. An ideal schedule is to do so quarterly. Any longer than six months is simply asking to lose the visitor and wasting a valuable marketing tool.
A Web site can be an effective part of any law practice’s marketing plan. It is essential to remember, though, that it is an element of a marketing plan. Few firms can afford to rely on a Web site to market itself. Conversely, a Web site can bolster a firm’s image faster than other mediums due to its flexibility and relatively low cost. The keys are providing what the user wants, creating a consistent, professional image, and maintaining the site to avoid Internet decay.
The next part of this series will discuss how to bring people to a law firm’s wonderfully designed Web site and how to keep them returning in the future. It will specifically address the mystery of search engines and driving Web traffic to a firm’s site.
David Wilson is a St. Paul attorney and chief executive officer of JD Technologies & Consulting Inc.