Online marketing 101: blogs and social networks (part 3 of 3)

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Hosting provider? Check. Website? Check. Advertising plan? Check. Now it is time to talk more advanced online marketing: blogs and social networking.

Starting a blog or participating in an online social network is more advanced in the sense that both require more time and a bit more comfort with online interaction. But blogging and social networking also offer new, more direct ways to reach potential clients.

A static website is just a fancy billboard or calling card. But a blog or a social network profile allow you to meet your clients before they pick up the phone to call or walk into your office. You can establish your ethos with people you have not yet met, so that when they have a legal problem, they are not calling a stranger, but someone they already know.

Many lawyers, however, seem afraid to say anything online (or in public) for fear that it will come back to haunt them. To this I have two pieces of advice: (1) stop saying things that might come back to haunt you; and (2) get over it. If you cannot get over it, then blogs and social networking are not for you.

Blogs

A web log, or blog, is just a journal where entries are displayed in reverse chronological order. People have been keeping journals since writing was invented; the internet changed the medium, but the concept is the same. Today, blogs like this one are an easy way for anyone to become a publisher. Blog subject matter ranges from news to commentary to creative writing and back.

Legal blogs, sometimes referred to as blawgs, have become more popular in recent years. Some resemble journals; the best help establish the author as an authority in his or her field. One of the most attractive things about blogging for me is that potential clients can “meet” me before they contact me.

Blogs are search engine darlings. By their nature, blogs are high in valuable content and frequently updated. This means that blogs get an enormous boost in the rankings. (For example, search for “served by a debt collector” on Google, and my article on what to do next is the first result. Or another popular search query, “speed equity system” returns my article on this dubious mortgage payoff program right underneath the program’s own website.)

So how do you start a blog? Easy. First, you need to set one up. This is easy. If you have ever opened up an e-mail account with Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, or any other site like that, you can set up a blog. Also, it is perfectly acceptable to have a .blogspot.com, .wordpress.com, .typepad.com, or other address; you do not need to host your blog on your own server. (You can, but you can start out at WordPress, for example, and move your blog later on.) Here are a few to start with:

I would recommend starting with either WordPress or Blogger. Both are free, and both are excellent blogging tools. I use WordPress for my home page and my two blogs, Caveat Emptor and Lawyerist. I used Blogger before, and liked it quite a bit, but switched to WordPress, which is more flexible and can be hosted on your own server, if you like.

Once set up, blogging is no more difficult than sending an e-mail. Set up a “test” blog first, so you can familiarize yourself with the system, practice making changes, breaking things, and learning what to do. When you feel comfortable, start your “real” blog, and take off!

A couple pieces of advice:

  1. Post frequently, on a schedule, or not at all. There is nothing worse than a blog that has not been updated in months. Post a few times a week or on a schedule (every Monday, the 1st of every month, etc.). If you cannot do that, blogging is not for you.
  2. Use tags to categorize your posts. This turns your blog into a reference library.
  3. Post helpful information so your clients learn something before they call.
  4. Set boundaries. Provide generalized information about the law; never advice about individual situations.
  5. Post a disclaimer prominently.

Social networking sites and web forums

Social networks have exploded in recent years. The “traditional” social network is something like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. Each user has a profile. The profile can contain personal information, photos, music, a mini-blog, and has a commenting system so that other users can leave comments on the profile, photos, etc.

LinkedIn and Plaxo are similar, but attempt to take the social network into the professional realm. (Plaxo and LinkedIn also offer valuable tools for tracking contacts and other information.)

More recently, many other websites have developed a social networking component. Twitter boils down the profile to the “what are you doing now?” section, and has spread like wildfire as a way to keep people up-to-date on your current events. Last.fm is a music website where you can see what your friends are listening to. Digg and del.icio.us are link-ranking and link-sharing websites that let you share the site or articles you are reading.

And so on.

Like a blog, the proliferation of online social networks allows individuals to create an online persona. Like blogs, this can be a way for potential clients to meet a lawyer before ever walking into the office.

I routinely compare my own “hit count” (the number of people who visit my home page) to those of other lawyers advertising on Google or with other search engines. The number of hits I receive is usually at least twice what they get. A lot of that traffic is visitors coming directly from one of my social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook.

If you are new to social networking, check out our Facebook 101 post.

Think of social networking as an online version of the networking you do every day with other attorneys and potential clients.

(As I was drafting this post, I learned about the MSBA’s OpenSocial network, mypractice. If you want to try out a social networking website while still staying close to home— assuming Minnesota is home—give mypractice a try. It has enormous potential for networking with Minnesota attorneys online.)

The trick to incorporating social networks into your marketing is to use them. If you do not interact with others, nobody will interact with you. Don’t be afraid to start up a conversation or look for potential clients and ask them to be your “friend.” Once they add you as their friend, they will automatically see your updates, profile changes, etc.

In addition, find the balance between being too casual and too professional. Sites like Facebook have privacy settings that allow you to hide some things—pictures of your bachelor/ette party—from specified people. Use those features to separate your college buddies from professional contacts.

What you are doing is selling yourself online. Tell people about recent successes, offer lessons learned, announce seminars you are teaching, etc.

In the interest of showing you what you can do with a social network, here are the social networks I use, linked to my profiles and RSS feeds:

As you can see, these each provide information. Readers of this blog might enjoy tracking the links I save on del.icio.us or seeing the blog articles I share on Google Reader. Those who want to know what I am doing in my practice (and sometimes at home) will enjoy following me on Twitter. Local attorneys should join mypractice for their own benefit, as well as to see what I am up to. Professional contacts should join Plaxo or LinkedIn to keep track of my contact information and to make it easier for me to keep track of theirs. Etc.

So now that you know what is out there, expand your marketing network online!

Thanks for tuning in to the three-part Online Marketing 101 series. If there are other big topics you would like me to cover (or things in this series you would like to know more about), please leave a comment.

More in this Series: Online Marketing 101

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  • daniel kang

    i find it quite odd that there is a side ad bar for Scientology. I would think a “blawg” would tack on advertisments that were law related.

  • Sam Glover

    So would I. I can’t imagine how Scientology relates to online networking, but I don’t pick the ads.