The City of Toronto owns over three million trees and wants Toronto to be known as “the City within a Park”. The Canadian Women’s Foundation has invested over $40 million in over 1,200 community programs and women’s shelters across Canada, to help women escape poverty and violence.
How do I know these things? Word of mouth. I’m on the board of an organization that receives funding from Toronto Parks & Recreation. The representative who comes to our board meetings is enormously talented at telling us interesting stories about the work of her department—stories we want to repeat. When I was on a committee of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, their then volunteer coordinator knew exactly what stories to tell us that would keep us motivated to help. I was particularly moved by the story of the woman who had been a Vice-President of Human Resources in her native Poland, but on emigrating to Canada the only work she could find was picking worms at night. Every night she told herself this could be the last time. She eventually got help to start her own business from a beneficiary of CWF’s funding programs.
What do these stories have to do with law firm marketing? They are excellent examples of word-of-mouth advertising.
Everyone says word of mouth is the best advertising, but few talk about how to put words in mouths of influential people—or what those words should be. It’s pretty simple, really: give influencers a compelling story to tell. The story doesn’t necessarily have to be about you or your firm, but it must definitely be about the need for your services.
Examples of Compelling Stories
Let’s say your practice is wills and estates. You want people to know that they need to revise their wills from time to time. That’s not a very convincing sell without a compelling example. So, you describe the distraught client whose widowed father died without revising the will he made before he remarried. Now you must tell your client that the will is invalidated by the marriage; your client may stand to lose to the new wife everything your client had expected to inherit, from her father’s investments to the family china and photographs.
Or perhaps you’re a business lawyer serving owner/managers. You network regularly with other professional advisers and you want them to spread the word about how important a shareholder agreement is. You tell them the story of two entrepreneurs who started a business in their garage and built it into a thriving enterprise. One now wants to bring in his brother-in-law to run operations while the two partners seek new markets for their existing products. The other wants to expand into a different area and is actively seeking passive investors. Neither trusts the other’s instinct; they’re at an impasse and stand to lose everything they’ve built.
Or maybe your field is business immigration and you’re having a tough time convincing other business lawyers that you can help them solve problems for their clients. So, you tell them the story of the CEO crossing the U.S./Canada border to sign a merger deal that has been months in the making. Now every i is dotted and every t is crossed—but the CEO gets stopped at the border in relation to a decades-old drug-possession charge. No signature, no deal.
What Makes a Story Compelling?
The stories that are the most effective in marketing your services are those that describe problems clients didn’t know they could have, like the outdated will, the absence of a shareholder agreement, or inability to cross the border to finalize a business deal.
Other types of stories that lawyers usually have in abundance are about little-known solutions to familiar problems, or unexpected consequences to certain actions (or inaction).
Do these stories have to be about your clients? Not necessarily, although it’s always more convincing when you can say you solved the problem. A compelling story must be about:
- a situation that arises relatively frequently,
- which could affect the people that your listeners care about, and
- where the solution is a service that you provide.
The above examples are all stories I created for clients from their descriptions of their clients’ typical problems. No confidentiality issues, no permissions needed.
A true test of a compelling story is whether it makes you want to say to your contacts, “Hey, did you know that….” and whether it makes them respond with, “Wow, I didn’t know that.”
The call to action must, of course, follow if any business is to be developed: “If you have clients in this situation, they need to… [insert action here]. We can help by… [insert solution here]; please give them our contact information.”
Where, When, and How Should You Tell These Stories?
Wherever, whenever, and however you can. A story told verbally to a network of professional advisors can be written up on your website, used in a presentation to an industry group, included in an information package to prospective clients, be the subject of a newsletter article or a blog post, etc., etc.
Your marketing people can help you tell your stories in a compelling way, repurpose them, and package them attractively—but only you know what those stories should be.