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Startup marketing techniques for lawyers – Part 1

05 October 2018 - By Damian Funnell

Law firms can make awkward marketers. Like an overdressed dad trying to hang with his teenage son and his ‘homeboys’, a lot of firms are too traditional and too formal to market themselves effectively.

It wasn’t that long ago (in the late 90s, maybe?) that Simpson Grierson made nationwide news by launching an advertising campaign. At the time this simply wasn’t the done thing. Other than in the Yellow Pages, respectable law firms supposedly didn’t need to advertise, relying instead on reputation and word of mouth.

Things have come a long way since then. Reputation and word of mouth are still hugely important, of course, but in an increasingly competitive world many firms have found that they can’t rely on relationships alone to bring clients through the door.

So they advertise, but the results can be old-fashioned (print ads, anyone?), overly stuffy and generally cringeworthy. Often these ads are unoriginal and indistinguishable from each other. ‘We’re really rather friendly and here’s a list of our services.’ Yawn!

There are some exceptions, of course. Take Arnet Law’s 2016 print advertisement in The Post (a community newspaper covering Franklin and north Waikato) entitled ‘Negotiating with an a**hole?’.

This was guerrilla marketing at its best. The ad would have cost next to nothing and, let’s be honest, probably wasn’t noticed by many. That is until someone complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (complaint upheld), resulting in an out-sized reaction, a bit of buzz and subsequent exposure in the (albeit mainly legal) press. Best of all, the language and tone of the ad, and the subsequent ‘nanny state’ reaction of the ASA, would have resonated well with Arnet’s largely rural client base.

Startup marketing techniques

While I’m not advocating everyone takes out ever-so-mildly offensive ads in the hope of stirring up a bit of controversy, there are lessons to be learned from this approach.

Even for large law firms conventional marketing can be a complete waste of money. I know of one firm that spent over a hundred grand last year on various types of conventional ads without getting one identifiable lead as a result. The few calls they did get were for criminal matters that they couldn’t help with, so they spent over $100K for the privilege of telling a handful of drunk drivers and petty thieves that they’d have to go elsewhere for representation.

In this two-part series we’re going to look at some of the innovative strategies that technology startups use to market themselves cheaply and effectively, often with spectacular results. While not all of these techniques will be right for your firm, there are likely to be at least a couple that could work well for you.

For further inspiration I thoroughly recommend the book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, a seminal guide to startup marketing techniques.

Find your market, identify your differentiator

Before you do anything it’s important to figure out who you are marketing to and what the key messages are that you want to convey to them. What differentiates your firm to your target market?

Many firms fail to do this important first step, which results in unfocused, generic advertising that is ultimately ignored by the customer.

Arnet Law got this right with their ad. I doubt they had to do a lot of market research to figure out who their target market was or how to appeal to them. I’m guessing that they knew this innately and it may be that you do too.

When doing this step it is important to be honest with yourself. I’m sure that most firms would consider themselves to be friendly and easy to deal with, for example, but is this really how your clients view you? Even if you are, does saying so differentiate you from your competition, who are likely to be saying the same thing?

Find your voice and hone your message. Make sure you’re authentic and that your message resonates with your clients. Once you think you’ve got it right then test it out with your existing clients – ask them to be brutally honest in their assessment and feedback. If your message doesn’t resonate then go back to the drawing board – there’s no point trying to market your firm if the message is going to be ignored.

Try, test, rinse, repeat.

Traditional marketing campaigns require significant up-front investment and usually require you to commit fully to the campaign before you know if it’s going to work or not. All too often this means you may have wasted your money before the first ad has run.

The startup marketing playbook takes a much smarter approach, one in which we run a series of small, inexpensive tests to figure out what works (and what doesn’t).

Remember to be clinical in your assessments. Forget soft, immeasurable terms like ‘brand recognition’ and ‘customer goodwill’. For the startup marketer the only thing that really matters is the return on investment from your time and from your marketing dollar.

Document your test strategy – it doesn’t have to be ‘War and Peace’. A page or two will do. Write down what you are testing, how you will measure results and how you will define whether it is successful or not. Focus on hard benefits, such as new leads, new clients, client re-activations or additional revenues attributable to the activity.

Also, remember that successful marketing strategies usually don’t remain successful forever, particularly if your competition starts doing the same things you are. Google Adwords was a great idea 10 years ago when not many law firms were using it, but it’s probably a waste of money for most firms now that it’s so popular.

So keep testing the things that you are already doing, as well as the new stuff. If you can’t measure a direct benefit from the activity then there probably isn’t one. Be ruthless in your assessment and in your decision-making (no sacred cows!) and remember to maintain a pipeline of ideas so you’re always testing something.

Focus on ideas that will have an outsized impact and/or that will help to promote your firm even after the campaign ends. Traditional ads run only for as long as the budget allows, whereas methods like using engineering as marketing can be like gifts that keep on giving, generating exposure for your firm well after the campaign has ended.

In this issue we’ll look at content marketing and how you can use it to promote your firm. Tune in next month for examples of other startup marketing channels.

Content marketing

Many firms are already familiar with the concept of content marketing, as they have been publishing papers, research notes, blog posts and other such information since time immemorial. This content helps reinforce the reputation of the publisher and of the firm and can serve as a useful marketing tool, particularly when a client is looking for expertise in the particular subject matter.

Startup marketers use content in the same way, although it’s how they produce and promote that content that sets the startup apart.

Startup marketers ensure that there is a steady stream of content. Quality should be high, of course, but a large number of shorter articles beats the opposite every time.

A regular supply of articles gives you more opportunities to publish and promote your content, generally resulting in more eyeballs and more effective marketing. If you are going to publish content on your website then you also need to demonstrate that you are competent and committed enough to have a regular supply of it. Having a blog/news section that only has a handful of articles from a few years ago is not going to impress anyone, so either be committed to a content strategy or remove the section from your site altogether.

When publishing content don’t just dump it on your website and hope that someone finds it. Get out there and tell people about it! Tell your staff about it and get them talking to clients about it. Post about it on your Facebook page and tweet about it. Drop into relevant newsgroups and other forums and let them know about it. If the content is particularly well written and/or newsworthy then try contacting various publications and letting them know – editors are often hungry for interesting content that they can use to fill empty columns.

Forget about publishing agreement templates and other such ‘DIY’ material, as it’s been done and it’s counter-productive. Once I’ve got the template there’s no motivation for me to come back.

Instead think about producing content that’s informative and useful, entertaining and that displays personality.


Damian Funnell damian.funnell@choicetechnology.co.nz is founder of Choice Technology, an IT services company and panaceahq.com, a cloud software company. He has a long-standing involvement with the legal services industry.

Last updated on the 5th October 2018