Lawyer marketing has been around for quite a while, albeit in radically different forms. We’re going to take a look at the history of the practice.
It’s interesting how views of professionalism have changed. These days, law firm marketing is about getting the word out about your legal services. Fifty years ago, it was a different business. Strangely enough, 150 years ago, it was relatively similar to how it is today. Here’s our loose timeline for this article:
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Legal practice in the USA has had a back-and-forth relationship with advertising. Some of the first evidence we have of the ethics of lawyer marketing goes back to the first Bar Association code of ethics. The Alabama Bar Association explicitly mentioned newspaper advertisements as being proper professional conduct in the 1880s.
Why is that important for internet marketing today? Well, first, it establishes a basis for communication about legal services between attorneys and the general public that goes back over a century. Second, it was an important point in the oral argument for one of the most influential modern cases about lawyer marketing: Bates v. State Bar of Arizona.
Bates v. State Bar of Arizona was a supreme court case in 1977. It concerned a rare — rare in those days, at least — type of legal practice. Bates’s firm was a volume practice that provided affordable service to people above the poverty line but, in the words of the advocate for the appellant, “below the level of affluence which the regular users of the legal profession enjoy”.
The Arizona Bar disciplined Bates and his partner for taking out a newspaper ad. The firm subsequently took the matter to court, and the rest is history.
Bates set the standard for modern legal ads. The internet turned that standard upside down.
There was a proliferation of newspaper ads, mailers, billboards, and even bus benches emblazoned with lawyer ads. Television ads for personal injury and class action practices became late-night standards.
These were all static forms of advertising. For example, you can’t change a newspaper ad once it’s printed — the best you can do is publish a correction in a subsequent issue. They were also passive. You published a message and waited for the exposure to generate leads.
The internet changed the game.
Simple websites were the earliest substantial forms of law firm marketing online. However, the first firm to launch a website is a matter of some debate. Some sources cite Heller Ehrman in 1994, while others claim Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti in the same year. Heller Ehrman also claims the honor of purchasing of the first advertisement ever sold on the internet, bought from the company which became America Online.
For reference, 1994 was the year that the first major graphic internet browser was released. It was basically the earliest any non-engineer and non-academic would have been surfing the nascent web. Suffice to say that attorneys got in on the action just as quickly as any other professional.
As more people and organizations began to use the internet, the way we used it changed.
Specifically, people started using search engines.
In the early days of the contemporary internet, you would typically need to know the direct address of a website in order to find it. You might also depend on links provided by your internet service provider or by software that you purchased as a hard copy.
Lawyers had limited options in this setting. If you wanted to drive traffic, you could hand out floppy disks that linked to a website, publish your web address in print media, or advertise with ISPs. A little later on, with the rise of webmail in the mid-90s, you could run email campaigns.
Then came Google with its natural language search engine. Normal people (i.e. not computer engineers or professional researchers) could now go online with a general idea of what they wanted — and, miraculously, find it relatively easily.
Soon after Google joined the fun, the way people advertised changed. With nearly everybody using a single website to find information, Google’s search engine results page gradually became some of the most valuable online real estate in the world.
What made it even more attractive was the fact that internet searches are essentially people telling you what they want. It was a marketer’s dream. You had an opportunity to get information about your service directly in front of people who were looking for it right at that moment.
Look at the search engine model in contrast to a classified section in the newspaper. When you take out a classified ad, everybody who buys that day’s issue of the newspaper gets a copy. When you take out an ad with a search engine, only people who are actively searching for information about lawyers will receive a copy of your ad.
After the dot-com crash around 2000, the web made a comeback around 2004 with higher levels of interactivity and media-rich content. Most importantly, this was the beginning of the massive adoption of web-based service platforms.
Most of what we know as the internet started around 2004. We started seeing video and music streaming platforms (before, people would download media to watch later). Of course, this meant that attorneys could now post informational videos or easily add audio content to their websites.
Around 2004 was also the time that social media began to take its current form. Facebook’s first iteration was that year, for example. MySpace started the year before. However, most attorneys — and most people, for that matter — didn’t take social media seriously for a few years at least.
For the rest of the article, we’re going to time-warp forward to more or less the contemporary internet. We will look at how attorneys are using the tools available for marketing online, and how this is an evolution of advertising for law firms.
One of the major contemporary trends is people seeking out information on social media as well as search engines. Some tend to trust this platform more, especially since there is interaction with people they know in real life. Studies have shown that this makes them more receptive to advertising messages. There are many useful tools in social media marketing, among them:
One of the sea changes in the internet was the popularization of the smartphone. Internet phones had been around for a while, but the number of data points about users continued to increase. Not only did online service platforms know a general location (that’s part of a basic internet address), but they also could know everything else the phone could sense and that the user was willing to share.
With accelerometers, cameras, microphones, thermometers, and multiple types of antennas, you could collect a lot of information. Beyond that, people logged in to their devices with accounts that were tied to their personal identities.
The upshot of all this is that natural language search got a huge data quality boost. For example, when people asked their phone, “Where do I find a good divorce lawyer?” the search engine application could know who’s asking and where they are. This changed the way attorneys advertise on a fundamental level.
With web services continually collecting and cross-indexing people’s identities, actions, and interactions, we’ve developed massive data sets. Technologies such as machine learning (artificial intelligence) process these multi-dimensional, complex sets and return real-world analytics.
Contemporary online law firm marketing uses these data, either behind the scenes or built right into advertising platform features. Here are some of the ways that complex internet data comes into play:
Lawyers have always been at the forefront of internet marketing — it’s past time to put this technology to work for your firm. Contact us at Forward Lawyer Marketing to get started with the latest, most competitive tools available.