Why the ABA Survey Gets it Wrong on Blogs

Let me ask you a question: Where are you more likely to buy a car, at a Superbowl commercial or at your local auto dealer? Given that most people would say auto dealer, it follows that Superbowl commercials must not be effective at selling cars, right?

Of course not. The question, as phrased, makes no sense. You can’t buy a car from a TV commercial. Do Superbowl commercials help sell cars? I don’t know, but I do know that the above question doesn’t help me figure out the answer.

Now consider the recent ABA survey that concluded that consumers do not rely on blogs to find a lawyer. If you’ve missed the debate about this, start with Kevin O’Keefe’s post, making sure to read the comments from Will Hornsby and Kevin’s replies, then read this post from Carolyn Elefant, and then this one from Scott Greenfield.

Here is the question the ABA survey asked: “If you needed a lawyer for a personal legal matter, how likely would you be to use the following resources to find one?” Among the resources listed were webistes, directories, social networking sites and blogs.

Just fifteen percent said they were very or somewhat likely to use blogs. It follows, therefore, that blogs are ineffective as tools for client development, right?

Of course not. The question makes no sense. No one would “use” a blog to find a lawyer, just as no one would “use” a Superbowl commercial to find a car. A blog is not a selection tool. It is not a directory. It is not somewhere anyone would go to “find” something.

Kevin has it exactly right. “Rather than looking at blogs and social media as something new,” he writes, “look at blogs and social media as accelerators of relationships and your word of mouth reputation.”

The lead conclusion of the ABA survey is that the first place people turn when looking for a lawyer is to a trusted source. If this is news, it’s right up there with “Dog bites man!” Two years ago, I wrote here:

The goal of all legal networking, I believe, can be summed up in those two words: trusted relationships. Just as consumers buy brand names over generics, legal consumers hire the lawyer their cousin recommended and corporate counsel retain firms based on colleagues’ referrals. In each case, what sways the decision is trust.

A blog, as Kevin suggests, is a reputation accelerator. Not every blog is. It has to be well done. It has to have thoughtful posts. It has to offer insight. I’m not talking about the blogs that are nothing more than SEO engines.

It is rare that a potential client will call a lawyer and say, “I’m calling you because you have a blog.” It is far more common, however, for a potential client to call a lawyer who blogs and say, “I’m calling you because I researched lawyers online who handle this kind of law and found frequent references to you.”

Trust is an amorphous and highly subjective concept. A blog is certainly “no magic bullet,” to borrow Scott Greenfield’s words. A blog can, however, provide substantiation for why you should be trusted. As I wrote in that post two years ago:

Online networking is no different than traditional networking – if you overlook the fact that it is plugged in, supercharged and global in reach. When done right and to full effect, social media tools add rocket fuel to all of the ways lawyers traditionally get new business. They support client referrals and recommendations, they support peer referrals and recommendations, they take in-person networking beyond physical limits, they strengthen alumni relationships, they simulate conferences and publishing by enabling you to highlight your knowledge and expertise, they even allow you to respond to RFPs.

Social media are a set of tools for broadening and strengthening your network of trusted relationships. Used properly and effectively, social media will enhance your reputation, strengthen confidence in your “brand,” and broaden your professional and personal networks. All of these combine to give others a reason to trust you – and you them.

Dare I say, even Scott Greenfield has had his reputation enhanced through blogging. I have no doubt that he is a superb lawyer. But how many people who know of him today had ever heard of him before he started blogging? Would this New York lawyer be “of counsel” to a San Diego law firm if he had never had a blog?

Blogging is a powerful tool for building your reputation. As with Scott Greenfield, you need to have a foundation to build on. Blogging won’t make you a great lawyer or even let you pretend to be one. But if you are a thoughtful lawyer with knowledge and insight to share, blogging lets you do that on a level far beyond that of any other publishing platform.

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19 Responses to “Why the ABA Survey Gets it Wrong on Blogs”

  1. shg says:

    But how many people who know of him today had ever heard of him before he started blogging?

    Before blogging, there were 12, but they were all good, hard-working, bill-paying criminals. I’m now up to 15, including you, Ed at Blawg Review and Adrian Dayton. Only Adrian has any serious potential for needing my services, but I doubt he has the ability to pay.

    Seriously, as to blogs being “reputation accelerators,” that’s a double edge sword. I’ve read plenty of blogs, as have you. Within my niche, criminal defense, my unscientific calculation is that 50% are reputation killers (I would rather refer a case to a brick), 30% are reputation neutral (I would trust him to second seat me and get the coffee order right, provided he didn’t tell me any of his idiotic war stories) and only 20% made me think, “hey, this guy/gal knows his stuff, and I would turn to him/her if I was ever in need.”

    If I were to consider the cost/benefit of trying to figure out who’s reputation was enhanced, my bet is that I would do better with a dart board. Or asking somebody who knew a little more about the subject and relying on his recommendation.

  2. Not sure why the ABA even used Harris Interactive to poll for this data. They should have just asked for Scott Greenfield’s “gut” percentages that are clearly a more credible measure.

    Enjoyed your article Bob, nice work.

    • shg says:

      Because the ABA is awash with spendthrifts, throwing good money after bad when I could have told them whatever they wanted to know at half the price.

      Speaking of spendthrifts, Adrian, save your money. You never know.

  3. Anne says:

    Seeing as how Scott is a criminal defense lawyer in a state I rarely visit (and, when I am there, I try to be on my best behavior!), I can safely say that I never used Simple Justice to find a lawyer.

    I have used his blog for other purposes — to help me learn and think about criminal law issues, to use on my own blog (which was started as and continues to be a labor of wonky love), and to connect with one of the more interesting people in the blawgosphere.

  4. Will Hornsby says:

    Bob, thanks for taking the time to read the ABA survey and share your views on it. As you know, I generally respect your views, even though I don’t always agree with them, as is the case here.

    I think you’ve mischaracterized the survey question and then concluded your mischaracterization does not make sense (and indeed it does not). The survey asked people how likely they are to use the online models as a resource to find a lawyer, not how likely they are to use the models to find a lawyer. Just like people might use the car commercial as a resource to find a car, they might use various online models as resources to find a lawyer.

    I hope that we can agree that blogs, which provide the type of interactivity we are using now, are one of the platforms with the capacity to build communities without geographic boundaries. Like social networks, listservs and to some extent twitter, blogs have the capacity to create relationships, develop bonds and further trust among those who join these communities.

    Here’s part of the irony in this discussion. You and many others have criticized the survey because it states the obvious, but no one is doing a very good job of focusing in on the issues that emerged that are not obvious. If particiaption in blogs (and other social interactive models) has as one of its purposes to create trust and if people want to turn to a trusted source to select a lawyer, why are so few of them interested in turning to social interactive online sources, which includes blogs as just one model? Fairly high numbers of people are interested in turning to sites that rate lawyers, which I think is a trust issue, but not so much with any of the interactive models.

    I think you know that I am dedicated to the use of technology to provide legal services and appreciate the change in the landscape that has unfolded since we were both a little younger. Therefore I, frankly, was surprised at how low the enthusiasm was for these models. The report offered up a few suggestions about why this may be, which is also discussed in my conversation with Kevin, but no one, in my mind, has done a very good job of looking at, thinking through and articulating why the survey found what it did.

    So, Bob, I ask you to revisit the survey, reject your premise that the survey question makes no sense and, even if you choose to answer this as a hypothetical, let me know your thoughts on this dilemma — If a large percentage of people would turn to a trusted source to find a lawyer for a personal legal matter and blogs are a way that lawyers demonstate that people can trust them, then why do so few people consider blogs to be a resource when looking for a lawyer?

  5. Ariel J says:

    I would also question the validity of a survey about the web that only leverages participants with landline telephones.

  6. I think you should also point out a few factors that would mitigate the criticism of this particular survey.

    This survey was not done by the ABA as a whole, but by a particular standing committee that is “charged with the mission of expanding access to legal services for those of modest and moderate means, who have incomes and assets too high to qualify for legal aid and most pro bono services, yet lack the discretionary resources to afford full traditional legal representation.” (Implicit in that is obviously that they’re talking about civil law.)

    The committee’s mission has little to do with the business client or in-house lawyer who may spend months or years developing knowledge of the network of lawyers who might be interesting to hire when the right situation comes up. Blogging and other means of online networking and marketing are clearly of value in that case (and, to your point, that is a value that is still oft unrecognized). (And, remember as well that the blog alone rarely leads to hiring, but rather it’s often the first notice to a client of a lawyer’s capacity that will later be followed by other due diligence by the business client to confirm what the blog appears to say about the lawyer.) Those lawyers, and those clients, however are not the subject matter for this survey.

    Further, while I think the value of the online networking discussed above is much more proven in the business law context, its value in the delivery of legal services involving strictly personal civil matters to persons of modest means is frankly hardly proven at all. That blogging and such would be of relatively small value to the targeted clients here makes perfect sense, as often these decisions are made by clients who often have little prior contact with the legal field in the heat of a crisis. If I’ve just been sued for my dog ruining the garden of my neighbor, and I’ve never had contact with the legal system prior to this, Twitter’s not the first place I’m running to for help. I’m calling my friend who I know went through a lawsuit two years ago and asking him who helped him out. And, the survey bears that out.

    Maybe there’s a case to be made for the value of blogging and other social networking in the area that this Standing Committee focuses on, but I’ve yet to see a case for it that is anywhere near as strong as the case to be made for blogging (and such) for business clients.

    • shg says:

      I note with some bemusement that there has yet to be a single study or survey that provides empirical evidence to support the proposition that social media, particularly blogging, is a material aid in business development. Plenty of anecdotal evidence, though cutting both ways, but zero empirical evidence.

      And yet the adherents of the faith believe, and assert it as if there could be no question that it’s true, taking comfort in the absence of proof to the contrary, nitpicking efforts at empirical analysis or claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary in a slice of buttered toast.

      For some it’s a religion. For others, it’s a paycheck. For still others, it’s a wasted account payable. And the answer is no clearer than when the discussion began.

      • First off, the anecdotal evidence is pretty strong. I’ve worked in legal media for 25 years. I’ve had a ringside seat to all sorts of efforts by lawyers to market themselves — pretty much all of which had no empirical evidence to support them. Until the advent of blogging, never did I see lawyers have anywhere near this degree of success in raising their profiles. Anyone who’s been paying attention the last few years can point to lawyers who have catapulted their careers through blogging and other online activities.

        As for empirical evidence, it’s hard to come by. Many lawyers don’t keep records of how clients came to them and those who do don’t share that information. But there is at least secondary empirical evidence available. We can look at the impact of a blog on Google rankings and website traffic. We can look at how often a lawyer gets calls from the news media. We can look at how often a lawyer gets speaking invitations. There are these secondary measures.

        • shg says:

          Interesting that you bring up things like news media and speaking engagements. I used to do a lot, doing regular legal commentary for Fox, ABC and MSNBC. I stopped because it was killing my practice, clients not calling because they thought I was too “important” for their case because I was a TV guy. This was in the 1990s, before blogging. It was a fiasco.

          I also did a good amount of speaking, mostly CLEs. My reviews were always excellent. My referrals non-existent. The people I spoke to needed the work themselves. They were happy to call me to seek advice, but there wasn’t a chance in hell they were looking to share the business.

          I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last week. Did you notice, Bob? No? If you had, would it matter? No? It didn’t matter to anyone else either. And 2 seconds later, it was forgotten by all.

          All the way down the spectrum, the “benefits” raises have been there. They were false gods then, and yet they are now elevated to mythical status, as if the guy on TV is getting all the business. Another myth to be shattered. All the secondary measures are ego boosts, but not business makers. If that’s good enough for some, great.

          As for me, I prefer not to dwell in self-delusion. Whenever Kevin calls me a “thought leader,” I throw up a bit in my mouth. Are we that desperate for unwarranted self-esteem that we need to pretend that secondary measures and self-aggrandizing names are a substitute for, or perhaps better than, reality?

  7. [...] has a been a lot of discussion recently about a seemingly flawed ABA survey discussing the value of blogging versus other ways of generating business. I didn’t even [...]

  8. Nicole Black says:

    Great observations Bob. I just handed in my Daily Record article (to be published on Monday) and I reached very similar conclusions. Unfortunately I didn’t see your post before I handed it in, so I didn’t reference it in the article, although I mention other blog posts. When I re-post the article online I’ll include a link to this post.

  9. [...] Last time it was about Twitter conversations. This week, it’s all about the blawg. Specifically about Why the ABA Survey Gets it Wrong on Blogs. [...]

  10. mark says:

    “If particiaption in blogs (and other social interactive models) has as one of its purposes to create trust. ”

    Is it?

    For many lawyers, they aren’t even thinking that deeply, IMHO. In PI at least the blog is a way to provide information. Slanted information, managed information, or raw information. Sitting here it’s impossible to “create trust” when a person stumbles on my site and spends 2 minutes on a post at the high end.

    A Blog to me is not about trust- instead it’s a snapshot or peek around the curtain about the lawyer. While my blogs have generated calls and those have in turn been transformed into clients, not one person has emailed me and said “read your post, send me a contract.”

    I will tell you this: If the ABA – which lost me as a member a few years back – says blogs are in essence a waste of time, I say “quit your blogging.” B/C it works for me, and the less competition the more I like it.

    If those who choose to comment on this blog post laugh at those who blog, I say, keep up the criticism, perhaps it will discourage lawyers from blogging.

    And don’t visit http://www.ageorgialawyer.com

  11. Larry Green says:

    What most lawyers know about marketing would not file a thimble. Thank God for the small number who do get “it” and are marketing leaders.

  12. Christopher says:

    Interesting. Does Blogging work as a business development tool, or a credibility enhancer? Isn’t enhanced credibility a business development tool? Quantify the value of the enhancement? THAT’s the rub, isn’t it? How do you get a baseline? Stop blogging, and count new clients? Start blogging…but how do you know the source of the client? “You were referred to me…” is one thing. “You were referred to me and I checked out your blog, and felt comfortable enought thereafter, to call…” is a whole different thing.

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