Blogging’s contrarians

As sure as thesis breeds antithesis, blogging’s popularity within the legal profession is drawing some to question its value, mostly with regard to marketing.

Last week, Dale Tincher, president of the Web development company Consultwebs, published a thoughtful piece, Law Firm Blogs – Hip or Hype?, in which he said that the majority of law firm blogs are “a significant waste of time, money and credibility.” Kevin O’Keefe followed with a point-by-point response to Tincher’s article. Then today, TechnoLawyer circulated an article by Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer Joe Hartley titled, “A Contrarian View of Legal Blogs.” (Unfortunately, I do not see Hartley’s article available anywhere online.) Hartley’s article makes several interesting points, leading to the conclusion: “A well-written piece in your firm’s library of available articles, composed without the pressure of immediate deadlines, will serve your firm far better than following the blogging crowd and joining the cacophony of loud voices and empty content.”

The synthesis, I believe, lies in neither overstating nor understating blogging’s value. In fairness to Tincher, it is not accurate to call him a contrarian. His message is more cautionary, urging law firms to plan before jumping on the blogging bandwagon. “I believe that law firm blogs can be very effective if developed as part of a cohesive overall marketing campaign,” he writes. Earlier, he says, “If your vision is to develop a blog and quickly attract a significant number of cases, you will be disappointed.” Tincher urges that, for marketing, “a blog should be coordinated with a Website, articles written for periodicals and other proactive promotional approaches in order to succeed.” O’Keefe responds that blogs are Web sites — that most Internet users can’t tell the difference between a well-designed blog and a Web site — and that blogs do bring in new business and revenue, even without other marketing.

Both Tincher and O’Keefe make many valid and important points. I don’t mean to trivialize either article by overgeneralizing their conclusions, but I strongly agree with what I take to be Tincher’s basic point: Blogging is not for everyone and you need to assess whether it is right for you before you leap into it. Even if it is right for you, do not exaggerate what blogging can accomplish as a marketing tool. Sure, O’Keefe is correct that some lawyers report getting business from blogging, but far more will tell you otherwise.

To my mind, what you can realistically expect from blogging as a marketing tool is:

  • You will achieve higher search-engine rankings. This is important. Firms pay good money to search-optimization consultants looking for precisely this outcome. A consumer who searches for a trademark lawyer on Google will find Marty Schwimmer right there at the top of the rankings. Marty didn’t pay anyone to optimize his site to get that result.
  • You may achieve broader name recognition. Certainly, you will become better known among bloggers and legal gearheads. But while bloggers many become better known among a certain national and even international community, they may remain virtually anonymous among the local community in which they practice. Blogging is more effective for certain types of practices than for others.
  • You may be able to enhance your standing as an authority in your field. This may lead to other opportunities to publish or speak.

I hope TechnoLawyer will point out to me if Hartley’s article is available on the Web somewhere. He makes some points worthy of debate. However, his ultimate conclusion — that a library of articles on a law firm’s Web site will serve your firm far better than a blog — is simply wrong. A library of articles has value for showing your firm’s capabilities, but a library will not draw visitors to your site with anywhere near as much certainty or power as a blog. To the extent that marketing on the Internet is about attracting visitors, a blog will dramatically outperform just about any other method there is.

Blogging is not the be-all or end-all of legal marketing. It is, however, highly effective for raising one’s visibility and stature on the Internet. That heightened visibility often leads to ancillary benefits with marketing value of their own. The greater your visibility, the more likely you’ll be found. The greater your stature, the more likely those who find you will retain you. In the end, that’s all there is to marketing.

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  • Thanks for a good summary and thoughtful analysis, Bob.

    I believe a weblog might be a very good way to inform clients, colleagues and the public about items in your firm’s Library — especially new items, with links to other relevant materials.

    I believe that the proliferation of weblogs will rapidly lead to diminished marketing “returns.” As David Weinberger said so well at Joho Blog recently, there are far too many of them for anyone to keep up, even with RSS aggregators. With fewer links being generated from one weblog to another, search engine results may also become less remarkable.

    As usual, I wish the blog-cheerleaders (especially lawyers with a financial stake in their spreading) would cool the hype and stick to facts and reasonable expectations.

  • Nice post Bob, very well spoken & eloquent as usual.

    Big concern I have is that many people’s views on the marketing power of blogs is developed by having a blog that was not focused on marketing one’s practice or that they are listening to folks who have not done a good job marketing via their blog so assume it’s the medium’s fault. Use a tool wrong and of course it will not work. One of the big fears I have is that when Martindale & FindLaw begin offering blogs they will be border line junk that will not work for marketing. The result is the thousands of lawyers who buy their stuff will conclude blogs do not work for marketing and they’ll poison the market.

    In 1996 I started marketing on the Internet to market a small firm I had just started after leaving a firm I was a partner in for 14 years. I knew nothing about the Internet or technology. I was a country lawyer in every sense of the word having grown up and practiced in the rural Midwest. I read a couple books and attended a Internet marketing seminar in Monterey. I concluded very quickly that Internet marketing was all about conversations, the exchange of information and establishing relationships with people. (sounds like blogs)

    So I set out on the journey of meeting people and establishing relationships and leaving bread crumbs behind so people could find their way to me if they decided they had the need. I did it by answering a few questions a day on AOL’s message boards (questions on personal injury, medical malpractice, workers compensation & distressed employees). Not advice – just info and left a signature line with my web site. Then I archived the Q & A’s on a nice looking Web site designed with Frank Lloyd Wright blue print look.

    Boy did the people come – in the thousands. And the thank you emails came in every morning. I had reached everyday people in a real way. I was establishing a relationship with people whose questions I had not answered. They were faced with a similar plight and loved the down to earth talk they read. Took less than an hour in the am for me to do.

    In a few months we drew regional and national recognition for what we were doing. People in Wisconsin contacted me to take their case. They found me on search engines as content was there or in message board discussions via other people talking about us. Local people contacted us to handle their cases because they heard of us via discussion offline. The people who contacted us to represent them were not some tech geeks – they were average people who found there way to a computer to look for help.

    Now, that took us learning how to update a Web site each am (had local college marketing intern making $5 an hour doing it). I knew nothing about technology but from years as a trial lawyer and representing average folks & small businesses I related to people on the net in a way that was very moving for me. I loved the feedback and thanks from people who I would never meet. It may me proud to be a lawyer. It got my juices going to really want to help people – something I am not sure I had experienced since the first day of law school.

    10 years later I do not see lawyer Web sites doing what I was doing without any great time and expense on my part in 1996. But in November 2003, when I saw blogs and what lawyers were writing and doing via blogs, it was like ‘hot dam’ – this is what lawyers have been waiting for. A way to have a conversation, to exchange of information and establish relationships with people. Whether you can do that on Web sites or not, the fact is it is not happening. With blogs we make it happen. That is good stuff no matter how you slice.

    As lawyers we should be champions for social improvement, we should be reaching for the stars in ways to help people (consumers or businesses) and looking for every opportunity we can get to improve the image of our profession. Say what you want about blogs but I’ll put my money (I have) that lawyers empowered with this new found medium can address the needs of people looking for help, enhance their reputation by doing so and improve the image of our profession by marketing in a way that is terribly constructive and upbeat.

    I almost wish blogs did not get all this hype. Hype always generates pessimism and skepticism. Plus as lawyers we get paid lots of money by clients to be skeptics and be untrustworthy. But it is what it is. And representing a few underdogs along the way, I’ll remain passionate in my belief that blogs – done well from marketing standpoint (not always done) will beat the heck out of other forms of Internet marketing. And with people coming to the net in droves for information, beat the heck out of offline marketing.

    In the not distance future most lawyers will use a personal publishing platform to communicate with folks. These communications will be streamed to a Web site via RSS by separate category feeds to be displayed on designated pages on the site. The content will also be syndicated out to other aggregators/portals for an audience the lawyer may want to reach (no more begging people to republish articles – update your blog and the stuff is fired out and up elsewhere). We’ll then have a blend of Web sites, blogs and RSS. At that point the hype about blogs will have been swallowed up in a new of way networking, building relationships and having conversations – marketing at it’s finest. Lawyers who will have risen to the cause will be rewarded.

    May sound nuts but only 6 or 7 years ago lawyers thought Web sites were nuts and would only reach a geek or tech audience.

  • David and Kevin both make valid points in their comments. To my mind, both support the basic proposition that one should plan carefully before leaping into blogging.

    David fears that the proliferation of blogs will lead to diminished marketing returns. There is no question about this. Two years ago, there was value in simply launching a blog. No more. To me, that translates into opportunity — the best blogs will still rise to the top of the heap. And that is all the more reason to plan carefully before you launch. It is not enough simply to blog, you must blog well.

    Kevin’s concern is that those who misuse this tool will assume it does not work. The very reason a firm would want to hire someone like Kevin is because Kevin does know how to use this tool. Again, its proper use requires forethought. You need to define your goals, your topic and your audience, and then decide how best to execute.

    As someone who has observed lawyers’ use of the Internet for way too many years, I watched and can attest to Kevin’s success in marketing, as he describes. I have enormous respect for his knowledge and achievements. While I do not agree with everything Dale Tincher says in his article, I strongly believe he is correct that lawyers who launch into blogging without careful advance planning will be wasting time, money and possibly credibility.

  • I agree with your comments, Bob. “All lawyers should blog all the time” makes no sense. I am particularly skeptical about the value of blogs for larger firms. You also have to _have something original to say_. Frankly, not everyone — even some talented lawyers — does.

  • If you already have a reputation as well as a great team, a need to blog is not really there. However, firms blog because they want to keep visitors informed on and ongoing basis. I do recommend blogging for that reason.