Thursday, 19 June 2014

Marketing Successfully in the Post-Jackson Era

This article was first published in the Journal of Personal Injury Law and appears by courtesy of Sweet and Maxwell/Thomson Reuters.


The legal profession has been able to advertise since 1986. What was first a case of crossing the Rubicon for an instinctively conservative profession was quickly embraced and is now widely practised. But the Legal Services and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) makes it more important than ever to advertise effectively.

This article focuses on digital media and how traditional promotional methods should work in tandem with digital technologies to reach more clients, concluding with an examination of how to monitor and measure the success of work generation strategies.

John Spencer draws on his own experience over the past 30 years, and especially since the autumn of 2011- during which period the author rebuilt his practice from one which depended exclusively on referral fee based sources of work to one which, in 2014, generates 70% of its work directly rather than from referrals.

The legal and professional framework


Since 1986 it has been possible for Personal Injury (PI) practices to advertise, but with the implementation of Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on April 1, 2013, the necessity to market well and effectively has been brought home with renewed force. Indeed, in today's legal services landscape, to ignore marketing imperatives would be tantamount to commercial suicide. The welter of change to which the PI sector has been subject is as well-known as it is dramatic, involving the introduction of qualified one way costs shifting, the removal of recoverability of success fees and ATE premiums, the increase of 10% in general damages, a greater emphasis on proportionality of costs and the extension of fixed costs, as well as fundamental changes to the court's approach to case management and costs budgeting. Aside from all these factors, arguably it is the ban on referral fees (LASPO ss.56-60) which brings about the greatest challenge for firms having to 'self-generate' work for the first time.

SRA Handbook Front CoverThis article does not focus on ways to circumvent the referral fee ban through one of the avenues available, whether by forming an alternative business structure (ABS) or embarking on a joint venture through an ABS, or through arranging for the provision of 'information' which would enable the recipient to provide relevant services to the client through the client him or herself, or indeed through other methods.

Instead, it focuses on how to generate work directly through other marketing techniques. But aside from the referral fee ban, what are the relevant regulatory provisions that practitioners need to have in mind?
In marketing, as in all areas of practice, the 10 mandatory principles in the SRA Code of Conduct are pertinent and form an overarching framework for practitioners. Principles most relevant to marketing are to act with integrity, not to allow independence to be compromised, to act in the best interests of each client and to behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in the legal profession as a whole.

In addition, practitioners must comply with their legal and regulatory obligations. Outcomes from this part of the Code include ensuring publicity is not misleading, that charges are clearly and unambiguously expressed, and that unsolicited approaches in person or by telephone to publicise practices are avoided.

Taking code compliance as read, how should firms proceed to plan their work generation strategies?

Ethos and focus


Each practice should ensure that it has a clear position, established through focusing first on its clients and developed through engagement with all those working in its business. This will form the backdrop to the practice's business plan generally and specifically its business development plan. Never is it more important to have clarity in positioning than when communicating with the public. An established, clearly defined firm ethos will help establish priorities, for example whether the emphasis is local or national and which categories of injured persons and liability types are in focus (and in what order of priority). The ethos and targets will inform communication and advertising as will ancillary choices such as those with regard to sponsorship.

Existing clients are a goldmine of information. For instance they will inform the importance of reliable ancillary advice and home visits, as well as the sorts of information that injured people would like to be able to access through a firm's website. What questions they have, and in what level of detail they would like answers, can all help identify changes and enhancements to assist clients and potential clients. Clients will also reveal what matters most to them, perhaps the importance of their local community, and other issues which they see as a high priority. Each practice will have different dynamics to consider and will make different choices, but it is vital that there is this kind of engagement with clients. It is an ethical as well as a commercial mistake not to do this.

Traditional media


Traditional media should not be ignored, and the mix of media used will vary according to budget, locality, ethos and preferences. Digital resources simply provide new and more powerful ways of promoting a practice. There is still need to create written articles and comment, engage in conferences and be involved in and known around your community. Just as personal folders in Microsoft Outlook replace paper files, so the internet supplies the foundation for a relatively new and extremely powerful communication tool.

There remains the need have to have something to communicate which is consistent with the chosen ethos and focus and it must be credible. This remains core material for practices which now can reach so many more through digital technologies.

Moving away from referred work means that advertising in all its forms becomes vital. Through newspapers, radio and even TV, each practice will cut its cloth according to its budget taking account of its target audience. Consistency and core values become even more important here to ensure that practices are consistently presented; ideally, nothing should ethically jar.

Tomorrow’s Lawyers Book Cover

Digital media


Digital applications are the single most powerful tool with which businesses can communicate today.  Referring to IT in his latest book Tomorrow's Lawyers, Richard Susskind states:

"IT is now pervasive in our world. There are over 2.2 billion Internet users … and every two days, according to Google's Eric Schmidt, 'we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003'."


Website


The website is the shop window of a practice and it must be right. If the shop window is wrong, people will not visit. The ethos, approach and philosophy need to be accurate and therefore credible and clearly explained. This needs to be consistently presented across all aspects of the website. Services need to be clearly explained, contradictory services should be avoided; if this is not the case there needs to be a focus on something other than service type to avoid contradiction. For example, a practice specialising in both claimant and insurer PI work may have a core value around excellent and fearless professional representation whatever the issue at stake, whereas an exclusively claimant practice can take a more unequivocal claimant-campaigning position if it so chooses. Visitors to sites need to be comfortable with where they have landed, and confident they will be well looked after. Advice needs to be relevant, clear and concise.

Moreover, potential client visitors landing need to be converted to be clients. Technologies like conversion analytics and heat maps to show where visitors tend to focus can help inform where an invitation to provide instructions might be most effective; it will also reveal areas of lesser interest to visitors. To most visitors external accreditations and kite marks are important, as are (perhaps more surprisingly) photographs of premises.

Pay per click


Pay per click is a method of advertising on a search engine when a user types in a certain phrase. But unlike most other forms of advertising payers only pay for the click once someone has interacted with it.

Pay per click became very expensive in the immediate aftermath of the referral fee ban in April 2013.
Prices have settled somewhat but it remains expensive and each enquiry generated through pay per click may cost several hundred pounds or more. Pay per click is a bidding process where quality and price are relevant. If a practice is perceived to be of greater 'quality' it will pay less for a search term. This is another reason for firms to invest time and resource in optimisation in that it will improve its quality rating and consequently reduce the cost of pay per click. To increase scale will also reduce the cost of pay per click. However, I focus on quality in looking at optimisation.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)


In the United Kingdom, Google has 88% of the search market, with its closest competitor Bing/Yahoo having around a combined 10% of the rest. In the United States, Google is less dominant, having around 70% of the market. Maximising the impact of a practice through optimisation when people use search engines is important, especially so with Google given its dominant market share.

While pay per click advertising can get services onto Google, the majority of the content on the results page is still made up from organic listings. Organic listings appear on merit and what Google judges to be the most relevant content for what a web user is searching for.

Optimising content to try to rank higher in search-engine owner results, known as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), is a long-term project, whereas pay per click provides quick and early wins. A practice can also calculate fairly accurately, once its strategy is established, what its pay per click spend will yield in terms of enquiries; this is not so with SEO. SEO is about quality content, and refreshing, reviewing and continually working to improve the number of visitors received. For a successful SEO strategy it is important to engage as many people working in an organisation as possible in the process.  There are different challenges with pay per click: it is expensive, and the lower the perceived quality of content the more expensive it is.

There are, however, dangers with SEO and organic listings. Search engines like Google are becoming increasingly strict. They want genuine websites that offer the most value and relevance, and without any manipulation. They regularly develop and change their algorithms (the rules which the search engine uses in order to rank pages), and are making concerted efforts to eradicate manipulation. Constant vigilance is required to avoid falling foul of their policing through optimisation strategies. In essence, optimisation must be genuine rather than seeking to enhance reputation falsely - which is what the search engines are trying to prevent.

Search engine policing


As stated earlier, Google is the overwhelmingly dominant search engine, and for this reason I use it as an example. However, the principles in operation will equally apply to other search engines.

Google monitors approximately 200 signals from web pages when deciding how to rank them in its results. This process is largely done automatically and algorithmically by constantly trawling web pages to determine which is the most relevant to display in relation to users' searches.

In theory, this means that pages which are the most relevant and offer users the most value will rank above those that offer less. Google details its ranking principles in its Webmaster Guidelines which sets out how pages should be built in order to provide users with the best experience.

But as with any rule, there are those who will seek to bend and even break them. For this reason, a large part of the guidelines relate to 'Quality Guidelines'. If a website breaches them then the practice will run the risk of a Google penalisation.


Google can and does take manual action on websites where it spots anything untoward, either with regard to unnatural links or otherwise trying to 'trick' Google or its users. Examples would be websites that hide text, that copy content from other websites or generally try to deceive users.

There have been a number of solicitors' practices which have been delisted following action by Google.

Rather more famously, Interflora's website was apparently delisted for a period of time after it was discovered that the company had financially incentivised bloggers to talk about and link to its website. The number and quality of links to a website is a key factor that Google takes into account when ranking websites.

Attempting to manipulate these links can result in severe penalties and manual action.


Complying with search engine guidelines


The SEO agency needs to be trusted implicitly. Due diligence and referencing is essential. Practice members need to speak to the agency and those people specifically allocated to its account. A firm needs to share its plans and hear its agency’s ideas and vice versa. There needs to be clear understanding of the practice ethos and business. Practices need to be satisfied that their agency’s ethics are sound. Return on investment needs to be evaluated and understood. It needs to be known how the agency intends to raise profile online; if any of this sounds like it is easy or too good to be true then it probably is.

Offers may be received from websites or agencies wanting to sell links to the firm's website, blog or even promising more followers on Twitter and Facebook. Many of these are trying to exploit search engine algorithms and if their covert efforts are discovered it will be apparent that they have done more harm than good.

There are organisations which operate solely to sell advertising on a so called 'churn and burn' basis.

These organisations set up a suitably and appositely named website and then set about selling sponsorship to firms, businesses and individuals who will be interested in instructions or workflow from such an organisation. However, the reality is that there may be little traffic to the website and their only goal is to sell potential sponsorship packages for 12 months.

Not all website listings and sponsorships operate in this way and some may add genuine value. For example, many people still use Yell.com and having an enhanced Yell.com listing may be valuable when attracting local clients. But when offered sponsorship of this type which apparently might be useful in attracting potential clients firms need to do due diligence to ensure there is likely to be a return on investment.

Social media 


The number of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ etc) is ever-increasing and practices should have at least a basic presence on each major social networking site. Use of social media can range from publishing news items and content to taking part in discussions or engaging with clients.

Social Media Landscape chart

Each network has its own technologies and audience, but it is important to develop a social media strategy that includes as a minimum:
  • who in the practice is responsible for social media and interacting with each social network;
  • what content is to be placed on each network;
  • if individual lawyers are to use their personal accounts for business purposes; and
  • ensuring guidelines and a framework is in place.

Visitor conversion and client retention


Once a practice has acquired visitors to its website it must then turn these visitors into clients. Once a firm is instructed, tight risk assessment procedures need to be in place. A dedicated and well-trained initial client liaison team may be the best way to ensure that potential clients are looked after and secured.

Over-worked practitioners are not always the best at converting and then retaining clients. It is beyond the scope of this article to say much more on this, other than to emphasise the importance of enquiries converting to instructions for your firm in meritworthy cases which clients wish to pursue.

Measurement and monitoring


There are various ways to measure effectiveness in marketing and there are no absolute answers to what is right or wrong. There are below set out some suggestions for areas to scrutinise.

Web content should be monitored, likewise the creation of blogs, articles and other content, including content on social media. It is important to have a clear and effective policy to ensure good content is generated which is useful to enquirers and clients. It is imperative it is accurate. Any opinions expressed should, where appropriate, be suitably caveated.

Content must be consistent with a practice's culture and ethos. Non-lawyer as well as lawyer input can be appropriate. Writing does need to express personality, which can be an area of difficulty for lawyers, for whom care and precision of expression rather than personality are more natural.

Some practices, according to size and resource, may employ PR agencies and again measurement and engagement is vital.

With digital agencies content should be monitored, so too the exposure that they gain and the traffic they generate to a practice's website. Agency performance should be scrutinised for evidence of the agency's appetite and quality of new ideas and targeting and general 'nose' for a good idea or opportunity.

Each practice will make its own decisions regarding what it chooses to review and measure, but the following might usefully be considered:

Organic performance:

  • what search terms a practice is aiming to rank for and progress towards achieving these rankings;
  • amount of organic traffic to the website;
  • visitor conversion rates, i.e. the number of site visitors versus the number of enquiries made;
  • client retention rates, setting an appropriate period or periods for measuring and evaluating this; and
  • the quality and quantity of links to websites; as mentioned earlier not all links are beneficial.

Pay per click:

  • keywords, the most relevant search terms for services that are being targeted;
  • Impressions, how often advertisements are shown;
  • clicks, how often advertisements are clicked;
  • cost per click, and what a practice is willing to pay for a targeted visitor; and
  • cost per enquiry, how many clicks have been paid for to generate an enquiry.

Marketing and financial:

  • work generation;
  • cost per enquiry;
  • cost per converted and retained case;
  • abandon rates;
  • billing rates;
  • risk rates by case category; and
  • case acquisition cost by type, to take account of any disbursement write offs, both fault and no fault.

Conclusion


It is a regrettable fact of life that such is the intensity and uncertainty of change that even for the excellent there is no guarantee of success. Forecasting is, at best, an educated guess. Time alone will tell how successful a firm's marketing strategy, digital or otherwise, has been.

Following the implementation of LASPO as well as rapidity of technological change, the dynamics and cost of acquiring work are now very different - especially to how they were back in the days when law firms were prohibited from advertising. The fees which can be earned for every type of Personal Injury work have altered, and for some types of case the alteration is dramatic. Changes are compound and cumulative and cover recoverable fees, procedure and process, not to mention increased client competition fuelled by the increasing prevalence of consolidation through the availability of ABSs.

Add to all this the need for most to invest in wholesale new procedures and processes, and training and retraining, and one can readily conclude that these are very uncertain times. However, the vast majority of practitioners are highly motivated and determined people, who will hopefully survive and, indeed, flourish. In order to do so is, though, they need to embrace the brave new world and ensure that the firm is at the cutting edge of digital marketing.