Social Media Brings Lawyers Back to the Future

H/T Amy Campbell’s Weblog (I threw in this video because it’s somewhat related to my post but more so for marketing to a company.  My post relates to consumer marketing.  Read on and you’ll see what I mean).

When it comes to social media, most lawyers aren’t first movers.  And in light of this recent Business Week piece warning businesses to beware the social media snake oil by new age gurus (who hilariously, use their own exposure to demonstrate the “value” of social media to prospective clients), lawyers’ cautious adoption isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.  But as the dust settles and social media matures, it’s going to find traction within the legal profession far more than anywhere else.  That’s because social media, if done right, takes us lawyer back to the future, to a time when lawyers had no other option for generating clients than through doing great work and building trusted relationships.

Before the Supreme Court’s 1977 landmark decision in  Bates v. State Bar of Arizona ruling that the First Amendment allows lawyer advertising, most state bars banned lawyer advertising as undignified and misleading to consumers.  So lawyers found clients either through some combination of (1) word of mouth referrals from satisfied clients or trusted colleagues, (2) by speaking at Kiwanis-type clubs, local business chambers and similar fora and (3) participation in church and community groups or charitable boards.

Though lawyers continued these personal-based marketing efforts, the post-Bates advent of the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, billboards and television commercials soon overshadowed these traditional techniques.  One of my colleagues who operated a small personal injury firm in Dallas, Texas noticed a significant decline in business in the early 1980s, after the effects of Bates made their way to his area.

In many ways, the Internet marketing that emerged in the 1990s were simply an online extension of Yellow Pages and television commercials: high cost, self-promotional campaigns designed to attract as many eyeballs as possible.  Initially, Web 2.0 social media applications seemed poised to follow, with shenanigans like once-reputable companies spamming blogs with comments to boost SEO, stolen blog content and using blog posts to smoke out accident victims, not to mention the misguided use of sheer volume of followers as a metric of social media success.

But underneath all of the hype, there’s a sea change brewing.  Technology is empowering consumers, giving them tools to educate themselves.  And they’re doing just that:  a recent Pew Internet shows that 61 percent of consumers sought out information on health issues online, and 60 percent said that online information affected their decisions on how to treat an illness or condition.  Likewise, a LexisNexis survey reported that 90 percent of businesses and 80 percent of consumers used web based ratings to inform decisions, and over half found ratings and testimonials both useful and reliable.

Social media offers the tools to all businesses to satisfy the information demands of today’s consumers.  But social media does not come naturally to most businesses which are more accustomed to building hype through mass ad campaigns than through building relationships through education and interaction.

By contrast, in the seventy or so years between the advent of bar regulation and Bates, lawyers had no other option but to market through education and word of mouth referrals, the same types of techniques that social media both facilitates and rewards.  So for lawyers, interaction through social media — answering questions, blogging, doing great work and sharing information — comes naturally.  More importantly, social media platforms are powerful enough to ensure that lawyers’ efforts to educate clients or build relationships with colleagues can compete head to head with the kind of advertising hype that put many good lawyers at a disadvantage after Bates.

For that reason, despite somewhat slow and somewhat inauspicious beginnings, social media will eventually thrive in the legal profession more so than in other industries — not because it breaks new ground, but because ultimately, it takes us back to our better selves.