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How will social media benefit professional services firms?

Ben Pindar posted this on

In a major new piece of research, Northern Lights has ranked Yorkshire’s leading law firms based on the strength of their online presence and asked how are law firms winning business online? As part of the research, Communications Director Ben Pindar met with more than 30 law firms to gauge their appetite for social media and seek their thoughts and advice. Here he shares their insights and the findings of the research.

Ben Pindar landscape

This research began when an advisor told me a “silent giant” – a £30m turnover business with no real exposure to the major law firms – used Google to find a law firm that could help him plan for an exit.

Granted, this may be a rare case, but it got me thinking about how law firms and other professional services in Yorkshire are evolving to make use of a wealth of new online tools to generate leads, promote their brand, demonstrate their expertise and, crucially, win new business in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

In the months that followed I’ve travelled hundreds of miles around the county, spent hours staring at acres of data and had comments ranging from “Google’s a load of rubbish” to “social media has transformed our business”.

The truth is that it’s a mixed bag out there. Many firms are only beginning to get to grips with social media and blogging while a few have stolen a march on the competition and are already winning new business through these online channels.

Research_findingsPerhaps most interesting was the number of firms who had either invested, or were investing, in a new website. Around 60 per cent of those I spoke to recognised their website had to be much more than just an online brochure and had to be a portal for clients to engage with them and understand their people and their values.

Here, I aim to share these opinions – both good and bad – and deliver some of the advice I received from the law firms who very kindly gave up their time to take part in the research.

‘Social media is too time consuming and too scary’

The biggest obstacle I came across during the research was the lawyers themselves. Most said the fee earners were too busy to spend time on social media or write blogs and, in many instances, said they were afraid of giving away their IP or making public mistakes.

The perception of social media was also a major issue. Many firms said their lawyers simply saw it as a waste of time or something for teenagers.

Gemma Rutherford at Addleshaw Goddard said: “We see LinkedIn as a very important tool but we find it very difficult to get lawyers involved. They are scared of engaging with people publicly.

“We are working to change that mindset – we show them their clients and the people they want to target are on there and how LinkedIn can be used to approach them and engage with them. However, the fear factor is a major issue, many see it as a burden and the big challenge is to demonstrate the value to the fee earners.

“It’s about showing how it will help to increase traffic and generate leads – it then becomes a no-brainer.”

Irwin Mitchell’s Melanie Parker echoed that sentiment but said social media was rapidly growing as a valuable tool in the firm.

She adds: “Personal relationships are a massive source of lead generation and social media has an increasingly important role in that. We use it to maintain contact with clients and those we meet.

“The hardest part is generating content – our lawyers are maxed out and don’t have the time. There is also a perception issue about how much work will come from search. We work to make it easy for partners and show how they can become thought leaders around key specialisms and in our target markets.”

The key to encouraging social media use is about demonstrating the value – not only to the fee earners, but also to clients. By showing that it can become a tool for generating leads and enhancing relationships with clients, lawyers quickly understand that it can become a time-saving tool rather than a burden.

When target clients are found on social media, you can quickly identify the issues they face and then share a blog you’ve written about how to overcome those issues. By giving them genuine insights, you help them address a problem while also starting to develop a trusted relationship.

Fi Khan at Nabarro says: “Social media allows us to demonstrate our credibility and showcase our expertise. It allows our fee earners to publish timely content and share their opinions with clients and targets.

“We’ve helped to improve engagement by providing advice and training for the partners – we’ve shown them what’s involved and, most importantly, how they should use it.”

‘Our new clients won’t use Google to find us’

Social media and blogging is a crucial part of improving your Google ranking and getting found for key services and specialisms. However, as many lawyers argued, most corporate clients won’t search on Google to find a legal expert – most will come through recommendations.

While this is true, most will still do some online research before making contact and social media and blogging are a crucial part of maintaining your brand.

Caroline Black at Walker Morris told me: “The big corporate will research, but won’t search Google for a suitable law firm. However, we see it as a tool for positioning our brand in the market and demonstrating our expertise. It’s all about positioning the firm and enabling people to understand our offer.”

Tim Halstead at Shulmans agreed and adds: “We need intelligent search results. It’s important that we appear in specialist areas and that our brand reflects that.

“We’re still not seeing new business from Google searches and I’m not sure that will happen any time soon. However, we need to show our personality and expertise and that’s why we’ve invested in our website and are looking at blog content using videos.”

Research shows that 97 per cent of people now do online research before making any buying decision. Put simply, you have to carefully manage your online brand and social media and blogging plays an absolutely integral role in that. If a possible new client can’t find you on Google – only 8 per cent ever click on page two – you could miss out on a lucrative deal.

‘Social media and blogging won’t win us any business’

Lupton Fawcett Denison Till have invested heavily in social media, blogging and their overall online presence. Unsurprisingly, the firm topped our poll and by a considerable margin. Since the table was compiled, the firm has also announced record profits.

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Managing partner Richard Marshall says: “Your online presence is now much more than a brochure – it’s a device for creating a funnel of work.

“We use social media and blogs to create calls to action, make it easy for people to find out who we are, what we do and how to engage with us. Crucially, blogging has generated fee earning enquiries and is turning into work.”

Another top performer was Clarion Solicitors and they too have worked hard to encourage partners and staff to write blogs and create active social media profiles. Managing Partner Mark Burns said: “Social media and blogging has added real value in terms of marketing support and in helping us to meet like-minded businesses. It has been hugely valuable and it’s given us a real competitive edge in the market. It has generated leads and has been integral in winning new business.”

A host of other firms said social media had been hugely important in allowing them to become thought leaders in key areas, while others described how they had used social media to break into new overseas markets and new sectors.

Professional services industry will benefit most from social media

Social media isn’t going to become the prime channel for generating new business, but it is a crucial tool in that mix. As such, it should be part of the overall business strategy and senior management should have a clear understanding of where it will add value and where it adds risk – don’t be tempted to leave it to a junior member of the team.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of social media is its ability to break down barriers and create clear channels to the decision makers.

John Holden of Gordons says: “We need to show we have great lawyers with a great track record and our online presence enables us to do that. We need to be telling our story to the decision makers and that is what social media is for.

“Winning business in the legal industry is about getting into the room and talking to people – social media breaks through the departmental barriers and gets you in the room you need to be.”

While social media has been big news for almost a decade, the B2B market is still forming and developing and that means law firms can still seize on the opportunities it presents.

For law firms, social media is all about demonstrating your expertise, creating valuable and trusted relationships and positioning your brand. If you still don’t see the value, don’t just take my word for it.

In a recent piece of research by the McKinsey Global Institute they concluded: “The professional services industry has the greatest potential of any industry to see huge return-on-investment benefits from social media.”

That’s because professional services are all about relationships. To have any relationship in today’s ever-changing world, you need to be social.

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