Internet Roundtable #31: How Can E-Mail Newsletters Help Market Law Firms?

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable

Jerry Lawson (JL): Law firms from large, like Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobsen to small, like Nelson and Wolfe allow clients and potential clients to subscribe to newsletters delivered by e-mail. There is even a new business named eLawMarketing that specializes in hosting such newsletters. What’s going on here?

Dennis Kennedy (DK): It’s an inexpensive and simple means of making regular and targeted contact with your clients and others. You can provide helpful information and keep your name in front of clients, without the expense and bother of postage and printing. Owners of successful sites will often point to the importance of a newsletter in building the site’s popularity and effectiveness.

Brenda Howard (BH): It’s also great because the potential client actually requested the information. When someone chooses to receive information from you, they are automatically more receptive to your message.

JL: Greg Siskind’s pioneering Visalaw.com site is one of the most successful and most imitated in the country, and deservedly so. During a demo of Greg’s site an audience member asked him “What is the single most important page of your Web site?” The answer came without hesitation: “The subscription page for my law firm’s e-mail newsletter.”

BH: I can understand his response completely. The e-mail newsletter allows him to keep in touch with existing clients and build relationships with potential clients.

DK: And they can be powerful tools on any number of levels. They can drive traffic to your site. They can reinforce areas of expertise or interest. Checking the number of new subscribers you get when you run an ad or get a mention of the newsletter in an article can provide you with important quantitative measures of the effectiveness of other marketing.

JL: I see “push” as the single biggest benefit of e-mail newsletters. The main problem with a conventional Web site is that you have to rely on clients and potential clients to remember it and to visit it. A few years ago, a technology called push was touted as the answer to this problem. It would deliver Web-type content automatically to Web users who had downloaded viewer technology and subscribed for particular content. That type of technology never delivered on the lofty promises made for it.

BH: The beauty of e-mail newsletters is that they provide all the benefits that push technology was supposed to provide, plus a major additional one: No need to persuade the people you are trying to reach to download and learn to use special viewer software. Everyone you are trying to reach already has and knows how to use an e-mail program.

JL: Right. Every newsletter subscriber gets a regular reminder of you and your law firm, and the services you provide.

Permission-Based Marketing

JL: E-mail newsletters are a form of what is known as “permission-based” marketing. That phrase has become something of a marketing buzzword. What does it mean, exactly?

BH: When someone requests information, they have given their “permission” to receive information from the law firm. This is also known as “opt-in” marketing. A potential client has agreed to receive information from your law firm. Again, this is much more effective than sending out information to people who didn’t request it or sign up for it.

DK: Dennis, there’s quite a bit of emphasis placed on getting new clients, but I’ve also found that an e-mail newsletter is a great way of maintaining a great relationship with existing clients. It keeps your name in their minds on a regular basis and when they need your service again, they are more likely to come back.

Other Advantages

JL: E-mail newsletters are more timely and cost less. You can format and deliver a full-color e-mail much more rapidly than you can format, print and mail a paper newsletter. And the cost savings are significant. Holland and Knight saved thousands of dollars by weaning subscribers of their print newsletters to the e-mail version. One of the ways they encouraged migration was by including electronic subscription information in every copy of their paper newsletter.

DK: Believe it or not, I know of firms that have recently turned their internal e-mail newsletters into full-color print extravaganzas. How in the world is that an effective use of resources or technology? It’s difficult for law firms to invest the required resources into producing a high-quality, professional looking print brochure. Most law firm printed material looks, frankly, like it was done by lawyers. With e-mail newsletters, you can use plain-text, HTML or PDF versions depending on the control you want to have over the layout and display. All are perfectly acceptable. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument in favor of spending the extra money and time on printing and postage for print newsletters.

JL: E-mail newsletters have tremendous advantages, but personally, I’m not quite ready to write off paper newsletters. “Different strokes for different folks,” right? If you have the resources, and it is cost effective, offer both. Getting the balance right can be difficult.

Purposes of E-Mail Newsletters: Existing Clients

JL: I see three main uses of e-mail newsletters. Let’s talk about each in turn. The first is: Regularly reminding existing clients and of the firm and generating new business from them is likely to be the biggest benefit to most law firms.

DK: Gaining and retaining your client’s attention is key. That’s why providing a newsletter with solid content and reasonable marketing is the way to go. Highlighting useful developments, new approaches and legal issues that should be addressed will keep you on your client’s mind much better than a slick advertising piece. You want to have your clients pick up the phone and ask you what they need to do to implement the suggestions you made in one of your newsletter articles. Clients might even suggest topics for the newsletter.

BH: Every newsletter is an opportunity to educate and empower existing clients. It can increase your client’s confidence level of your firm’s ability.

JL: It’s just another thing that causes clients and potential clients to think of your firm as the experts in a particular area, the ones they want to hire when “their future is at stake,” to paraphrase one firm’s marketing slogan.

Purposes of E-Mail Newsletters: Attracting New Clients

JL: The second purpose is attracting new clients. It requires a somewhat different approach.

DK: You can’t use a site you can’t read, right? This is a problem more often than you might think. For example, fonts look smaller on Macintosh screens than on Windows screens. If you specify an 8 point font when designing a page on your Windows computer, it may be readable to you, but too small to be legible on a Macintosh computer. It’s more considerate to readers to use the general “large, small,” etc. font size tags than to specify point sizes.

BH: I agree. Another thought is to rotate articles in each of the issues. For example, you can have a complex article one month and then have an article addressing questions asked at a first consultation appointment the next month.

Purposes of E-Mail Newsletters: A New Profit Center?

JL: The third purpose is the most difficult, and I suspect that very few firms are trying it at this point. A newsletter could be a profit center in itself, not just something that attracts new clients, but something that generates revenue for the firm.

BH: Turning a newsletter into a profit center has been difficult because the Web audience really does expect to get information for free. The tide is changing on this issue and more of the informational resources have a cost. However, I don’t know that I would start charging for information any time soon.

DK: Consultants and other professional services firms have done this for ages. Give a taste for free and then sell the audience up to a special “insider” high-priced newsletter. Or, collect the newsletter articles into booklets or books to sell. I have a few more ideas and more details, but I just wanted to give people a taste of what might be possible.

Potential Pitfalls

JL: What are the downsides to using e-mail newsletters?

BH: There is an investment of time in creating the content and publishing the newsletter, but it’s minimal compared to the cost of a print publication. In addition, the content can be “re-purposed” as an article or tutorial that resides on the Web site permanently. Since the client has requested the information, it’s a win-win situation for both sides. Dennis, can you think of any down sides?

DK: Fighting for attention in the recipient’s inbox. In the blizzard of spam that most of us get these days, it’s difficult to sort out what’s deserves our attention. Also, think carefully about the idea of “permission marketing.” What are the reasonable bounds of the “permission” that you have? Be careful not to exceed those bounds. It’s reasonable to send the initial newsletter to existing clients when you launch the newsletter, or to send a sample to new clients or potential clients, it is very presumptuous and off-putting to subscribe anyone to your newsletter without them requesting a subscription.

JL: Definitely. I think lack of focus is another potential problem. Don’t just get the vague idea newsletters are good, and dash out to start one. Think carefully about the audience you are trying to reach and what you have to say to them. Or should I say “audiences” that you are trying to reach? The most successful newsletters are probably those with a definite focus. For example, Fried Frank Harris Shriver and Jacobsen has over 20 different e-mail newsletters, on topics from Aviation and Biotech to Public Finance and Telecommunications. It’s another example of the power of an idea we’ve discussed before, “Narrowcasting.”

DK: Also, if you don’t have good content, are sloppy or can’t make your deadlines (like those twice-a-year “quarterly” newsletters some firms have), an e-mail newsletter will just make you look bad.

JL: Some law firms try to finesse this by obtaining canned newsletter content from third party providers. Canned content may or may not fit with the firm’s marketing strategy.

DK: As with all Internet marketing efforts, success comes with commitment.

BH: Excellent point. As with any marketing effort, you really do have to be ready to invest the time.

JL: Right. If you are not willing to invest what is needed to put out a quality product, you may be hurting, not helping your firm’s image. A final drawback is the danger that your newsletter will be perceived as unsolicited commercial e-mail, or “spam.” You can lessen this risk by exercising care in how you solicit subscribers, a topic we’ll talk about next month. You should also include instructions on how to “unsubscribe” in every issue of the newsletter.

Privacy Concerns Raised By User Trackin

JL: One big advantage of e-mail newsletters in HTML format is that you can track how many e-mails in a given campaign were opened, how many times readers clicked on a specific link, and the identity of subscribers who read each article.

BH: This technique can be used in either Web pages or e-mails in HTML format. This is accomplished by including a link to an image - frequently a tiny, almost undetectable transparent dot. These are sometimes called “Web bugs.” Software similar to that used to track Web page visitors is then used to analyze the number of requests for that image and related information. A FAQ at the Privacy Foundation Web site has more information, and there is a demo at Privacy.net.

JL: Clearly this information is useful for marketing. I wonder if it is a good idea to gather the information, though, since there could be some negative effects to being labeled insensitive to privacy because you use “Web bugs.” What do you think?

BH: It’s the latest tool in e-mail newsletters, but it’s the same technique that has been used on the Web for years. Web pages have “cookies” and e-mail in HTML format has Web bugs. Personally, I have never gotten too upset by folks tracking information for “trend” analysis. Amazon.com knows that I purchase mystery novels and I appreciate the fact that they track this information and offer me the latest mystery novels as suggestions when I arrive on the site. The Web bugs are providing the same type of data for targeted marketing. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t misuse this information in the future. Dennis, how do you think others feel?

DK: WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! Privacy advocates really hate “Web bugs” and the name should give you a clue. Web bugs are commonly used on Web sites and not very well liked. How common? Check out the Bugnosis tool at http://www.bugnosis.org and see how many Web bugs are used on sites you commonly visit. There’s a legitimate concern that Web bugs can be used to gather more information than you expect. In my opinion, it’s better to use other ways to get feedback on how your newsletter is being used.

JL: Your views on this issue are very different. I agree with both of you! Analyzed rationally and objectively, Brenda’s comments make sense. In this context, it’s not that big a deal. However, nowadays there is such a backlash against invasions of privacy. People are angry, and deservedly so, about things like telemarketing and spam. This anger means that privacy issues may not always be analyzed in a rational and objective manner. This is an area where I would tread cautiously.

Anyway, sounds like we have a consensus on two conclusions: E-mail newsletters have big potential benefits for law firms, and the drawbacks can be managed. Next month, we’ll consider the most effective ways to implement e-mail newsletters.