Front and centre: Consumer-centric marketing
Are firms missing a marketing trick? Nicola Laver reports on the quest to nail effective methods to reach new clients
The consumer is king, so the saying goes. As lawyers, we know clients don’t always know what’s best for them as far as their legal problems are concerned – which is why they instruct a solicitor in the first place.
However, consumers are better informed than ever; they often have more than an inkling of legal issues are wrapped up in their problem and what they’re looking for in a lawyer. Yet there is a case for stating that potential clients are finding it increasingly difficult to find the right lawyer for their specific problem – for many reasons.
We’re long past the days of general legal practice and many of today’s clients need a specialist lawyer as opposed to, for instance, a ‘property’ lawyer (they need a litigation solicitor)’, ‘construction’ (they may need a contested construction specialist) or ‘family’ (what they need is a children or domestic violence specialist).
Practice areas are increasingly niche, which – on the face of it at least – makes it more difficult for some consumers to select the best lawyer for their needs. Add the fact that the UK legal market is saturated, this all makes for an increasingly daunting process for consumers requiring legal services
“Traditional methods such as doing an internet search and picking up the phone are long gone,” says Stefan Mitham, business development and marketing manager at Ashtons Legal. He says the firm is “experiencing a shift in the way consumers buy legal services”.
He comments: “If a consumer needs a lawyer, more and more they are looking at how the legal firm brand is perceived in the market place.”
Research confirms the issues: the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published its findings from a three-month review of the 2016 legal services market study. That study identified insufficient information available on price, quality and service to help consumers make informed decisions.
The CMA pointed to limited consumer understanding of the sector and consumer engagement with the sector remains limited.
In March 2020, the Legal Services Board busines plan (2020/21) set out its objectives, which included “making it easier for all consumers to access the services they need and get redress”.
The marketing challenges for firms are clear. But the firms I spoke with are not only proactively adapting their marketing drive to attract clients, they are also positively driven in their quest to find the most effective results.
We know the usual marketing strategies: new, unique website content, social media engagement and associations with related organisations and charities. And what’s universally accepted within the profession is that a consumer-centric approach to legal services is expected.
So what’s working and what’s not, particularly during the covid-19 era? Mitham says online reviews play a massive part in the decision-making process for clients, and Ashtons “takes this very seriously”.
Ashtons is far from the only firm to do so: London firm Summerfield Brown successful sued a former client for a libellous review on the Trustpilot review website. In February this year, Philip James Waymouth was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages. The outcome was welcome news for firms who rely on positive reviews to build their reputation and attract new clients.
Mitham says: “We have been working with Review Solicitors, and to a lesser extent Google Reviews, for a number of years now and this has played a big part in clients wanting to engage with us. We share client reviews internally, have a league table of how each office location is performing with regards our star ratings and use this as a platform to promote the value of external reviews and how they support our brand and raise our profile.”
Yet according to the CMA, “consumers appear to have limited trust in reviews and only engage with them to a very limited extent”. One question I’ve pondered is, with consumers being more informed, while also confronted with a hugely saturated legal services market – how can individual firms expect consumers to be able to select the right firm for their unique needs? Is it even possible?
“Great question,” responds Neil Lloyd, managing director at FBC Manby Bowdler (FBCMB). He says: “I’m a huge believer that people deal with people, but when that’s not possible due to covid or time is poor then I think customers have two options. One is to ask a friend (and we see a large number of referrals into our business on that basis); and secondly, to rely on reviews.”
This is why, as Lloyd explains, the firm started using ReviewSolicitors a few years back. “Our clients can leave reviews any time they like and our potential customers can get a really good flavour of the level of service we provide.”
The power of social media
Most firms harness the power of social media in their marketing drive (choosing the platforms that has the most reach), but not necessarily to the exclusion of local media or local community networking. Reaching out into the community is not only a corporate social responsibility (CSR) expectation for today but plays an important marketing function.
As Mitham states: “The local media are supportive of the firm and we share news via press releases. We have many sponsorship partnerships in our region and to share news of the good work we do in our communities.” But social media is important for his firm.
He adds: “Social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook… plays a huge part in raising our profile and we are active on all these platforms”.
Lloyd says FBCMB has made effective use of social media platforms (mainly Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) over the course of the pandemic. “The speed that lockdown happened in, meant we needed to reach the widest audience possible in as short a space of time as possible with our key messages – We’re Open and Here to Help… Social media gave FBCMB the channel that traditional printed media “couldn’t possibly compete with”, he says.
The ability of measuring data allows campaigns to be tweaked. “The feedback the analytics gave us allowed us to tweak the messages, or as we did more commonly, amplify specific messages. We were also able to run specific boosted campaigns in certain towns to increase our visibility”, adds Lloyd.
So what did these campaigns reveal? Client feedback showed that they “clearly had an impact”, but Lloyd willingly acknowledges the problems such data can raise: “Where we ask ‘how did you hear about us?’ it did show up some gaps in our digital customer journey.” So in response, the firm then worked with its PR agency, SEO provider and a new website provider “to ensure the lead generation is as effective as possible from digital sources”.
“We’ll then capture that information straight into our case management system which, for certain work types like conveyancing, will then kick off the legal process,” adds Lloyd.
Crucially, any firm’s entire marketing drive must, to remain effective, be monitored and measured closely. As Lloyd states: “I think the challenge for our marketing team and PR agency is keeping the message fresh and working with our SEO provider to ensure that the marketing we do answers questions that customers are asking – and that’s the beauty of working, with the likes of Facebook and Google who provide the analytics to help us reach our audience.”
Through the shop window
Firms must not neglect their websites. They are your shop window, the introduction to your firm, “your flagship”, says Fiona Martin, director at Martin Searles Solicitors in Sussex. They are the opportunity – in perhaps a few seconds – to attract a potential client’s attention before they navigate elsewhere.
“It sets out your values, your team and your expertise”, she emphases. “Making sure that you invest not only your money but your time in writing fresh content which is relevant and useful and showcases the work you do well.” She enthuses how prospective clients often compliment the firm on its website and its content (which is written internally).
At Ashtons Legal, its website is “constantly” being updating with details of the services it offers and the expertise of its lawyers, says Mitham. “We need to ensure it is fresh, current and appealing… Digital marketing is at the heart of our client reach.”
The power of search
And so, he explains, with the assistance of an external website consultancy to assist with SEO, the firm itself is responsible for writing content that is “relevant, topical and on point to our clients’ needs” – thus ensuring its content ranks “well and high on the search pages”.
The strategy is working. “The increase in our SEO strategy (both resources and marketing spend) which has seen month-on-month increase in leads generated from 2020 compared to 2019”, says Mitham. “By ensuring we have the right content online, when customers are searching for a specific legal service, whether that is a residential house purchase or a change in a company’s terms and conditions, Ashtons Legal appears front and centre.”
Qamar Anwar, managing director at claims management company First4Lawyers, points out that search marketing, whether through organic or paid activity, is an area law firms really can engage the consumer depending on their product choice, knowledge or purchase position.
He explains: “The tone and style of search terms will indicate if they are in a learning or purchasing mode and it is essential that you then aid that consumer by targeting landing pages to them that support their particular need.
“For example, someone searching ‘how to’ or ‘how do I’ is likely to be in the research phase, and therefore needs to be presented information that helps them understand your expertise whilst subtly selling your proposition. More direct searches and repeat searches by consumers indicate that they are moving down the purchase funnel and you need to be presenting that you have authority to match their immediate needs.”
That said, he highlights the fact that anyone proactively looking for legal services means they have a need. “Law is a distress purchase in the majority of cases, for example, people need a lawyer to help with probate, or a personal injury”, he observes. “People don’t browse for legal services, it’s not an impulse purchase. Therefore, you need to invest in the specific marketing activities that ensure your brand appears when they are looking for your services.”
Martin believes that people are, today, far more likely to spend time researching who they will instruct. “They will ask legal questions and then see who has shown their expertise by answering clearly and concisely, avoiding legal jargon”, she observes.
“They will also contact you to find out how you would approach their problem, what your costs are likely to be and whether they could work with you. Your prospective client is interviewing you for their work and they will instruct the person who knows their area of law, is clear about the next steps and the cost and who builds rapport and trust.”
A personal affair
Mitham believes ‘personalisation’ will continue to grow this year. “We know this is where we will stand out in a saturated marketplace. Reputation in any market is key if you are to succeed and it is not different in our industry, especially when the market space can become full, as well as new entrants coming into the market. Client feedback, testimonials, case studies, events and our staff all help to enhance the reputation of the firm.”
I ask him if he sees any tension between the effectiveness of law firm marketing; and the demands of informed consumers today. Can marketing be a losing battle given marketing is essentially a generic exercise?
“I think a law firm has to really understand what it is the client wants and it is up to the law firm to deliver that specific service”, responds Mitham. “Gone are the days of ‘one size fits all’, law firms have to adapt their services so the client gets the outcomes they want, a win/win. Like all law firms we have a CRM system that records all leads we receive that are then distributed to the relevant legal team to start the engagement and instructions. We use our lead data to make informed decisions on how we adapt our marketing plans to win more work from a specific client base or sector.”
The pitfalls to watch
Lawyers are not lay people and they are not legal experts. Or as Anwar puts it: “Law firms are from Mars, customers are from Venus.”
He adds: “Time and time again our research shows law firms have a disconnect between what consumers are looking for. Law firms are resisting getting under the skin of the consumer to understand what is driving their decision-making process.
“For example, recommendations don’t carry as much weight as firms think. It’s nearly always about being seen in the right place at the right time by the consumer.”
Anwar confirms that clients are “more switched on” and often know what they are looking for and for that reason, it’s “important to understand how they think and what they are looking for”.
He says firms have to accept that time and money must be invested. “This comes back to analysing your data, finding out where your clients are coming from, what drove them to you and why they then chose you, and then investing in the tech to reach them.”
Mitham concedes: “We all know that it is harder to attract new clients than it is to obtain repeat business from existing clients. Account management is a passion of mine and seeing a client grow with us, buying multiple services across our firm and receiving the same great service is the holy grail of key client management.”
But Anwar does not think people are necessarily more astute about their legal problems, though they can certainly identify they have a problem.
“Selecting the right firm, as with most of the purchasing decisions we make in our lives, comes down to engagement”, he says. “Is the website informative? Do you come across as knowledgeable and empathetic, essentially is it sending the right sort of signals?”
He points to simple things like including case studies, testimonials and benefits of using your law firm, which firms often overlook but are vital when making you stand out above the competition.
“Once you have done this, then the second part of that engagement comes when they make contact with you”, he says. And act on it. He reminds firms to make sure calls are returned, otherwise clients will not engage with you. “Make sure you deliver,” he emphasises.
Anwar challenges firms to react and respond, not only to the service clients need but also where they are in their buying journey. For instance, “television and broader above the line activity is often out of reach for many smaller law firms but supports wider awareness campaigns where there is higher demand for particular products such as conveyancing, will writing or personal injury”.
So, how can firms truly understand what a client is looking for in a solicitor/firm? Anwar says: “Firms aren’t and shouldn’t be restricted to a generic form of marketing. They have access to the widest possible array of marketing channels, including those that allow you to really refine your targeting. Facebook and Google paid search, for example, allow you to profile your clients extremely effectively.”
The best referrals emanate, without a doubt, from previous or existing clients (what we know as recommendations) but they are not, by any stretch, the only valuable source of referral. The smaller firms, to which Anwar refers – as well as larger firms – can attract new clients via other forms of referral (think, for example, of highly respected injury claims referral organisations on which many firms rely for new instructions).
But Martin seems sceptical. She says: “Word of mouth referrals from a previous happy client with a similar legal issue is the strongest endorsement.” She adds that the firm has always “stayed away from advertorial and paying for referrals”.
It’s her view that if a firm’s services are excellent, there’s no need to pay a third party for a referral. “Why pay for a referral and put work and money into another business when you could put this time and money into your own website?” she ponders.
But the CMA’s 3-year review findings suggest such an approach loses sight of the reality that clients do rely on referrals. It said there is evidence showing that consumers continue to rely heavily on factors such as a personal recommendation and third-party referrals as opposed to a directly searching for and comparing providers.
Further, evidence from the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) Tracker Survey 2020 suggests that consumers generally rely on recommendations and referrals rather than direct search activity.
Being open to referrals may present a valuable opportunity for new business for smaller firms who lack time and money to match the marketing campaigns of their larger counterparts; and other firms whose marketing resources have taken a hit in recent months. There have been firms furloughing their marketing staff and cutting their marketing budgets because of the financial impact (a move likely counterproductive for the firm’s bottom line).
The covid-19 impact
Helen Hamilton-Shaw, member engagement and strategy director with the LawNet network, acknowledges that resources are a challenge for marketing. “With BD and marketing teams under pressure”, she comments, “it is even more important that firms take a SMART approach and focus on whatever is delivering the best results.
“Being client centric is key; defining your ideal client and really understanding their issues and what they need can open the door to more effective marketing activity.”
LawNet has, she says, noted an important shift within member firms “towards maximising the value of their human resources first and foremost. They recognise that business development is a combined effort between marketing and fee-earners and that they need to make best use of the skills base”.
This, she emphasises, includes identifying the business development skills within teams, carving out individual roles, training to develop new skills and being strategic in recruiting to fill gaps when hiring new team members.
And it’s all becoming increasingly personalised, she observes. “So, for example, we see some member firms creating different marketing strategies for different teams, to maximise the mix of skills in the team when set against the team’s target market, so everyone is working to the firm’s advantage.”
Also as a result of the pandemic, LawNet has seen “considerable demand during the last year for digital soft skills training, such as helping fee-earners understand how to raise their profiles online and engage with digital opportunities, such as LinkedIn”, says Hamilton-Shaw.
Looking to the future
Mitham says: “Marketers want to push the envelope to try new initiatives (as long as they are well thought through and within budget).” He encourages his team to try new things in collaboration with the legal teams. “If it doesn’t work”, he adds, “then we have tried and then we refocus our efforts onto new ideas.”
Anwar’s top tip is: “Understand your data, understand your return on investment. Don’t just assume you know where your clients come from. If you invest the time in analysing that, then you will be able to effectively market in the future.”
Sadly, there is no holy grail of law firm marketing. But as LawNet’s Hamilton-Shaw observes: “A strong marketing strategy, with excellent client targeting and follow up, delivers better results and a more cost-efficient option to those who are focused.”
Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and a non-practising solicitor