The early bird
By Sue Bramall
Sue Bramall challenges firms to focus now on their post-covid-19 marketing plans if they want to thrive
This is the third recession that I have worked through, which gives a big clue to my age.
A recession is characterised by two successive fiscal quarters of negative economic growth. Looking back at the financial crisis in 2008/2009 and the recessions of the early 1990s and 1980s (I was not employed during the latter), it struck me how each of these lasted five fiscal quarters (or 15 months). That’s quite a steady trend.
When the UK went into lockdown on 27 March 2020, many firms quickly drew up a three-month emergency marketing plan. Their priorities were to let clients know they were still open for ‘business as usual’ – even if not much was ‘as usual’.
Some teams, such as private client and employment, were too busy to think about marketing. For other teams, work simply ground to a halt. One of the big challenges firms faced was an influx of enquiries from people seeking free advice and no means to pay.
It has become clear that covid-19 is not going anywhere soon, so marketing plans need a structural overhaul to ensure they are fit for purpose in this new world for at least 15 months. Global management consultants McKinsey & Co predict a time frame into mid-2022 for professional services to recover; and into 2024 for other sectors such as the arts and hospitality.
So, it is important to set time aside and look beyond the current environment – remember, Brexit is just a few months away – to see where things could lead and how your marketing plan needs to change to support your business strategy.
Start by reviewing your objectives to determine whether these need to change. Perhaps one of the sectors you planned to target has lost its allure. Maybe you’ve realised you had too many eggs in one basket; or you have seen an opportunity that you’re ideally placed to exploit.
Marketing is all about spotting opportunities for new business and taking advantage of them. Where there is change in any direction then there is opportunity. Consider how innovative pubs have been in switching to ‘click & collect’, opening village shops and, most recently, erecting marquees in carparks to increase capacity.
Most importantly, make sure your objectives are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed.
Avoid loose woolly objectives like: ‘Grow work in the environmental sector’. How much do you want to grow – 5 per cent or 50 per cent? Ensure you can easily identify whether an objective has been accomplished (see fig 1).
People management has been a strain as firms have had to furlough staff, then bring them back part or fulltime to balance workloads. Staff safety has also been of critical importance as offices start to reopen.
Meanwhile, lawyers have had to adapt and work in new ways from home, coping with unreliable wifi, limited space and home-schooling responsibilities. The priority has naturally been on business survival rather
than business development.
As offices start to reopen, social interaction among colleagues will be much reduced; and this brings risks, such as a return to silo working and ‘my client’ thinking instead of ‘our client’ or ‘the firm’s client’.
Opportunities for innovation are also reduced – many great ideas have been sparked during a casual conversation rather than in a formal meeting. Online meetings can often cover little more than a status update, with little time for freewheeling conversation.
Pitching an idea in an email can appear lacklustre without the enthusiasm of face-to-face meeting; and risks outright rejection compared to an informal sounding which might be accomplished over a casual drink or a sandwich. To avoid stagnation, firms will need to find new ways to encourage and harness creativity.
Your brand is built on the behaviours of your staff. Clients evaluate a brand from the accumulation of experiences and touch points. It will be a challenge to create and maintain a sense of belonging, common values and shared identity when some people are working in the office and some at home.
One issue highlighted in the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement was how hard it was for some lawyers to get a shot at interesting work (and consequently career development opportunities) if partners repeatedly delegate work to the same familiar assistants. Similarly, marketing resources can be held close by a favoured few – yet this is a time to call for innovation and encourage everyone in the firm to contribute their ideas.
One idea I have enjoyed is that of a random coffee trial (see the article by knowledge management guru Hélène Russell for the background) although my random coffees have not been a trial at all, as I have met some really interesting people and expanded my networks as far as Ukraine. This idea can work just as well within a law firm as a way to build new connections and fresh thinking.
If your firm does not yet have personal business development plans for each lawyer, this might be a good opportunity to introduce them. It’s vitally important to ensure that individual activities are aligned with the firm’s strategic business development objectives, so each lawyer must be aware of them before they are asked how they can contribute (see fig 2 for a simple example).
Client contacts and events
Just as your firm is facing massive change, so are your clients. It is important to stay close and keep your contact database up to date as some companies will go out of business or have to restructure. Sadly, some people will lose their jobs and whether these people return to you for legal advice down the line will depend on how well your relationship stands up.
While client hospitality is not an option at the moment, it is important to ensure you are maintaining and building new relationships. Partners have commented to me that they have been operating with little support as all associates and assistants were on furlough, so have been too busy to do much other than focus on the work on their desk.
Other firms which have switched their events programme to webinars have commented that attendance has been much improved over face-to-face events, both in numbers and reach. The costs are much lower without any venue or catering to budget for; and getting interesting speakers from further afield has also proven easier.
However, the return on investment in any event is the relationships which are sparked and built during the pre-and post-event networking sessions. Without these opportunities, hosts need to be more diligent about following up with anyone who raises a question in the chat; and creating personal dialogues by email or telephone.
Conference organisers are keen to continue in business; and while conference venues will suffer, third-party network events are moving online and there are opportunities for firms to negotiate a good deal.
One firm which works regularly with US law firms has started running ‘brunch & learn’ sessions with those US firms, and while there was no reason why they couldn’t have done this before, coronavirus has given them a nudge. Previously, they would have met these introducers at big legal conferences and had to fight for attention with other lawyers. Now, they are in the law firm’s board room (albeit on screen) with an exclusive audience.
Nearly all digital
For firms with the cash, now is a good time to negotiate any marketing expenditure. Advertising expenditure was already in decline and many advertisers have cancelled campaigns for products and services they could not sell.
Traditionally, branding, design and marketing budgets suffered in a recession as it was seen as an area of discretionary spend – something that could be handled inhouse. While you can easily put off a rebrand project or cancel a sponsorship, it was not a good idea to stop online marketing at a time when nearly everyone is on the internet.
Online advertising has seen the cost per 1,000 impressions fall and trends in the ‘cost per click’ flat or down, resulting in a return on advertising spend that is higher than usual.
Firms with a strong website and digital marketing strategy fared better than most when the economy went into lockdown.
After a few weeks, it soon became obvious which firms were genuinely active from looking at their news feed. The government provided a steady stream of announcements which clients needed to know about; and these firms ensured this information was passed on promptly. Firms that were able to keep pace with the news stood ahead of their competition and were noticed by clients and fellow professionals.
Meanwhile, firms whose last news item was an announcement on 24 March saying ‘business as usual’ sent out a different message as time went on.
Some firms struggled during lockdown because they furloughed marketing staff but had no one else inhouse who could upload items to the website, create emailers or share posts on the social media accounts.
It can be tempting to decide to do everything inhouse, but it is a waste of valuable time for a fee-earner to write an article for your website which is not optimised for internet search engines and, consequently, does not get seen.
If your online presence was not at the core of your marketing strategy before covid-19, it needs to be going forward. Consider what your digital offering looks like, how enquiries are handled, how information is gathered and clients brought on board.
Fit for the future
While the duration of the previous recessions was similar, their characteristics were different – as was the role which marketing played in coming out of each recession.
Speed is not a word that often springs to mind in the context of the legal profession, but in the case of marketing the early bird often catches the worm. Firms which adapted their processes quickly, kept an eye out for opportunities and were nimble in their marketing have been noticed in their communities and are bouncing back quicker.
Next year and beyond will be testing. But a firm with clear objectives, a cohesive team and strong marketing can survive and thrive.