Brenda Howard (BH): Most people think of their web sites only as new client lures. Potential new clients are certainly an important audience, probably the most important audience for many law firms. They are far from being the only audience you should think about.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Many web sites make it too hard to contact the firm or lawyers in the firm. While the worst sin is simply not putting contact information on the front page of a site, many sites do not include e-mail addresses, phone numbers or other contact information at places where you would want to contact them. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also a bad business decision and one of the most common mistakes we see on web sites.
Kennedy (DK): Kevin Thomason, the first professional web site designer for law firms in the country, did a fine presentation on this topic at ABA TechShow. The “many audiences” concept is a great way to think about your site and how to design it and structure its content. In preparation for our discussion, I jotted down 15 different audience categories that you might have for your site. Typically, a site is designed with one or two audiences in mind and that shows. Considering a broader range of audiences will improve your site and the results you obtain from your site. My list looks like this:
1. Existing clients
2. Potential clients
3. Former clients
6. Competitors and headhunters
8. People looking for speakers and authors
9. Law schools
10. Friends, relatives and colleagues
13. Bar regulators
15. Unexpected audiences
JL: Good list! Most of your audiences provide opportunities, and that’s what we should spend most of our time on. Before we move on, though, let’s highlight a few of the traps, starting with your audience number 5, “competitors and headhunters.” Not everyone reading your web site will be your friend.
DK: Opposing counsel will be looking for information about you or other material that might be useful to them. Headhunters will look at your associate bios to find candidates for job openings.
BH: Competing law firm marketers might be looking for information that would help them steal clients.
JL: Bar regulators are another category of visitor that could mean problems for some firms. Do you have something on their site that could attract unfavorable attention?
DK: Good points, all potential problems. Moving to the positive side, the opportunities, let’s consider just the case of a “client-targeted” site. Your approach will be different for bigger clients than it will be for smaller clients. What might be appropriate for clients in one area of practice may not work in another area of practice. Realize, too, that your approach to potential clients will be different than your approach to existing clients. Another category of clients is “former” clients. This category includes someone you may have done work for many years ago. When they remember your name for another legal problem now, you might want to make it easy to find you, such as by mentioning other firms that you’ve worked at.
BH: I hadn’t thought of that one, Dennis. Listing a former law firm would also add to the possibility that your site will come up in a search engine listing should someone type in the former law firm name.
DK: Sites that focus on potential clients must pay attention to client intake procedures. These procedures, if properly done, can even help with client screening. The Jacoby and Meyers site is a great example of that approach. They have a feature called “Instant Interview” that helps screen potential clients. Because the firm decided that potential clients were a primary audience, the site reflects design decisions that were made for that audience.
JL: The Jacoby and Meyers site uses sophisticated automation. It is well suited to their high volume business model. Their approach won’t necessarily work well for every law firm. A simpler “screening” method is to explain clearly on your web site the types of work you do. With this information, clients can screen themselves, saving you some hassles.
BH: Jerry, you are right about that. Simply listing the areas of law and a “case study” from each will tell a potential client whether or not they are on the right track.
DK: Law students, job seekers and even law schools routinely look for information on law firm sites and often make decisions about the firm based on the web sites. Some law firm sites were designed primarily for recruiting law students, often with excellent results. Unfortunately, some of these sites do not do a good job of addressing other audiences. There is a big drop off in the quality of the sites once you leave the recruiting areas. As a result, these sites can seem unbalanced.
BH: This comes from not having a “broad scope” when initially designing a web site. The original purpose may have been recruiting, but all sites need balance and should consider all potential visitors.
JL: Mark Pruner has suggested that to avoid confusing and/or disappointing these other important audiences, it might be a good idea to set up a separate domain name. For example, if your domain name is joneslawfirm.com, you might set up a domain name as jonesrecruiting.com or recruiting.joneslawfirm.com. If a potential client came to your law firm’s only site and saw only recruiting information, they might leave with a negative impression. That would not be a “client centered” site.
BH: That’s a great idea, but I’m not positive that the expense would be worth it. It might be better to make sure that the primary site is a true “portal” to all information about that law firm.
JL: A separate site wouldn’t make sense for most firms, but Mark’s idea could be a great idea for a few large firms.
DK: Lawyers with good content on their sites often find that journalists and freelance writers will contact them for interviews and quote them in articles. Journalists and freelance writers are looking for experts on a regular basis and they often use the Internet to find them. Similarly, seminar planners looking for speakers and editors looking for articles will look at sites to find speakers and materials. I think that both categories of visitors are good ones for your site. They are audiences that it makes sense to target.
Absolutely. Even if they don’t learn about you in the first place from your web site, there is a good chance that they will review your web site before deciding whether to extend an invitation.
Some law firms try to enhance their chances for invitations by including a section of their web site labeled as a “Speaker’s Bureau.” This ties into a concept we discussed in a previous column, “Validating Your Web Site: How Can Web Sites Gain the Trust of Potential Clients?” As usual, the URL is in the bibliography below. I call the technique of boosting key rainmakers through your web site “building cults of personality.” Most law firms don’t even try to do this, because of internal politics, and a perverse, misguided notion of egalitarianism. However, building stars who attract clients to your law firm can be a powerful strategy for those that can surmount the political hurdles.
BH: Excellent point, Jerry. Internal politics aside, highlighting a subject matter expert or a talented speaker can only benefit the law firm.
DK: Sometimes people are just looking to find you. In the best cases, it’s family, friends, former colleagues, classmates and the like. They like to see what you are doing and how to get in touch with you. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the direct marketers who are only too happy to use the contact and other information on your site to send you unsolicited e-mail.
BH: The direct marketers are the worst. It is the pitfall of your own marketing. As bad as it can be, it’s a price that has to be paid and a compliment to your own marketing efforts. If direct marketers can find you – so can potential clients.
DK: I’ve always been surprised by how international the audience of my web site is. If you track those numbers, you might find it worthwhile to consider a version of some pages in a different language. I’ve noticed that I try not to use U.S. specific examples in my articles these days because I am aware of the potential international audience. Several of my technology articles are now reprinted on a law portal site in India called Indlaw.com and I’m not sure that would have happened if I had kept a U.S.-centric approach.
JL: International visitors will be more important to some law firms than others, but if your practice area is such that you could benefit from international visitors, then it makes sense to consider them when designing your site.
BH: The cost of multi-language sites is a factor. The more common languages can be translated at a fairly low cost, but others are quite expensive.
DK: Another great thing about the Internet and technology is that it has enabled people with a variety of disabilities to use your site. It’s important to give some thought to color schemes that would not be usable to color blind people, alternative text descriptions for graphics and video and easy-to-use navigation alternatives.
JL: Accessibility to handicapped visitors is an important topic worth a whole column in itself. Brenda, do you have any key tips that could hold our audience over until we get to that column?
Most definitely. The Federal Government requires that all of their Web sites be handicap accessible and I just finished working on a site for the Department of Justice. The best place to start is to test your current site using the Bobby Test
(http://www.cast.org/bobby/). You can type in your Web site address and they will provide a free report on how well your site will be viewed by handicap accessibility software.
Sites will rate poorly if they are framed sites, sites containing Flash or they use Java scripts to provide information. These are three problematic tools that have been used by many web designers. If you do not want to re-design your site, the most economical solution is to provide a “text only” version. Text can be read by Braille software and can be read by persons who cannot hear a multimedia presentation.
DK: Finally, many sites have found unexpected audiences. For example, you might put up some information about your dog and links to information about the dog’s breed and suddenly find that your site has a significant audience of dog fanciers.
The advantages to gaining such an audience are probably not instantly obvious to everyone. One advantage that comes to mind is gaining new links to your web site. Some search engines will rank your site higher if many other sites have built links to it. It helps more if the other sites are from links that are sources of potential clients, but any links, no matter how humble the source, can boost your ranking. The moral? Don’t sneer at all those Chihuahua lovers out there!
The other potential advantage is serendipity. It’s not exactly likely, but you never know when a potential client may share your affinity for just that type of dog. They even may need a lawyer to handle a dog-related case. You never know.
BH: Jerry, I know of one software site, SmartMax (http://www.smartmax.com), that used images of endangered species as part of their design. This came from their interest and support of a non-profit organization. They decided that it wasn’t “professional” enough and changed the design. Their customers complained to the extent that they put the original design back in place. If your law firm has an interest and supports a non-profit organization, it might not be a bad idea to show that interest. I don’t know that I would incorporate it as part of the design, but SmartMax gained customer loyalty with their design.
JL: This type of tactic won’t work for every law firm, but for a few, approaches like this could develop into a competitive advantage.
DK: The idea is to begin thinking about both the audiences you want and the audiences you actually have. Considering the multiple audiences can help you have an effective, multi-purpose site.
There is a lot more we could usefully say about this topic, but I’ll close out our discussion by adding one final category to Dennis’s excellent list of law firm web site audiences: alumni of your law firm.
When it comes to audience analysis, out of the box thinking can pay off. The prestigious Cravath law firm in New York provides a good example of this. Like most big New York firms, Cravath has a high turnover rate. Unlike most firms, Cravath turned this into an asset by focusing on an unusual audience: lawyers who had left their law firm. These lawyers constitute one of the firm’s key assets, its network of well-placed potential referrers of new business. Cravath decided to make this network more valuable by dedicating a section of their web site to an extranet for alumni networking.
BH: Not every law firm is situated to take advantage an alumni strategy like Cravath’s. However, every law firm that is willing to think creatively can improve its web site by focusing on the concept of multiple audiences.