Should Law Firms Advertise?

In my column about content marketing, I described it as: “relevant, useful information consistently provided to a specific audience” and likened it to the opposite of advertising. Does that mean that advertising is irrelevant and useless?

Done poorly, yes. Done properly and targeted to the right people, no.

In the average law firm, if there’s a firm marketing budget, it’s lean and includes everything from event tickets to holiday cards. Lawyers may or may not have individual business development budgets, which they guard jealously for pet projects that they’ve always done—without tracking results. The firm might still be running a Yellow Pages ad that it’s run for years—again without tracking results, or updating the ad. A clever salesperson calls individual lawyers directly to sell ad space in a ‘Best of the Best’ directory where the lawyers are listed. Instead of passing the call to their marketing department (if they have one), they agree to purchase an ad, involving their marketing department only after deadlines for special positions and other benefits have been missed. A dominant client wants the firm to take an ad in the program for its favourite charity gala, so something is hastily cobbled together and a chunk of the marketing budget disappears.

Marketing anything—anything—without tracking results is wasting money. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it. Do your clients still find you via the Yellow Pages? Likely not. At the very least, a Yellow Pages ad could probably be converted into an online ad, the effect of which can be measured very precisely. Ad space in directories is a highly negotiable commodity, but you’ve got to know what and how to negotiate. Why are rising star corporate/commercial lawyers wasting their time on that when they have seasoned marketing pros in their back office? Taking an ad in your client’s program isn’t advertising, it’s sponsorship. The relationship with the client may be well worth the investment, but don’t kid yourself that the ad is going to bring in any work, because it’s a one-off.

OK, rant over. Advertising does have its place in the legal marketing mix, especially for the more ‘retail’ legal practices that have wider target markets, such as wills and estates, family law, residential real estate, and personal injury. But even these firms should think carefully before spending marketing dollars on advertising, because effective advertising demands targeting, reach and frequency, all of which can be expensive. Targeting means that the advertising vehicle is seen by the people you want to reach. That means defining your ideal client (more about that in another column). Cost is usually the deciding factor: exclusive audiences are valuable and are priced accordingly. Reach is the number of people exposed to your message; frequency is the number of times they’re exposed.

When deciding how to spend advertising dollars, here’s one of McCaffery’s Maxims: frequency trumps size every time. Back in the day when print was a more dominant advertising vehicle than it is today, I had a business law client that had selected a quarterly venture capital magazine as its target audience. Ad space was pricey, but there was no ‘wasted circulation’: every reader was a potential client for the practice. Some members of the group were in favour of making a big splash with a full-page ad, but the budget would stretch to only one a year. I recommended that they run a quarter-page ad in each issue.

Why? Because advertising messages sink in on repetition. You may notice something the first time you see an ad, but you’re not sure what. The second time you see it, you may remember that you’ve seen it before. The third time you see it, you might remember the name or some other detail. Then when you see that name or detail elsewhere, you register that you’ve heard of it before. That’s when advertising starts to work for you.

So When is Advertising a Good Idea?

The more specific you can make your ad in its target and its message, the more effective it will be.

You might be launching a new name for a merged firm, a new practice group, or a new office. The first thing you should do is undertake a direct communications campaign to all contacts, from clients to suppliers. You can boost the campaign’s results if you can find an advertising vehicle that reaches your target audience at a reasonable cost and has a way of measuring results. But remember that people don’t read ads, they glance at them. Your main message should be readable at a glance. New office? Where? Phone number?

Or you might be promoting an event to a specific audience, such as a seminar for accountants or HR professionals. Such a defined group will usually have several advertising channels. Results are especially measurable if registration for your event can be done online, clicking through from the ad.

Search engine marketing and ads on social media can be particularly effective for such practices as personal injury, wills & estates, residential real estate, and family law. In fact, all online advertising allows very precise targeting and very swift changes. But you have to know what you’re doing; the online advertising field changes daily and is a minefield for the unwary. Get professional advice from an agency or consultant that’s experienced in selling professional services.

When is Advertising a Bad Idea?

Advertising should be part of an overall marketing plan, aimed at achieving a specific goal. As shown above, it works best when it’s reinforcing the other things in your plan. If it’s the only thing you’re doing to market your practice, it’s not doing enough for you to be worthwhile.

One of the things you want advertising to do is differentiate your firm from your competition. Law firms are infamous for always asking their marketing people “what the other guys are doing”. The worst reason to advertise is because the firm down the street is doing it. You’ll end up not getting noticed.

I’ve already said that if you can’t measure the results, you shouldn’t advertise. So how do you measure results? First, by knowing as precisely as possible how many of your target market will be exposed to your ad. I get a lot of queries from clients who’ve been approached to advertise on start-up websites purporting to reach their target audience. These sites are too new to have a track record, so we actually have no idea how many people will see my clients’ ads—and therefore no way to measure results. A more costly but proven site that can provide verifiable numbers of visitors, or a publication that has an audited circulation, would be a much better buy.

Finally, advertising is costly, but how much is too much? There’s the inevitable sticker shock when comparing prices and the knee-jerk reaction is to go for the lower-priced options. But are they really lower priced? Let’s say two advertising vehicles have a similar reach, but an ad in Vehicle A costs $1,000 and one in Vehicle B will set you back $2,000. If only 25% of Vehicle A’s audience are the people you want to reach while 80% of Vehicle B’s audience is your target, Vehicle A is actually costing you more.

The takeaway from all of this? Invest your time in defining your ideal client, then let the professionals advise you on how best to reach that client.

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