Brenda Howard (BH): It’s time to look to the future and see what’s ahead. The Internet “crash”, the closing of dotcoms and the laying off of IT workers has stabilized. People didn’t quit investing in Internet technology last year – but they were extremely cautious. More questions are being asked before dollars are spent and fewer people are going for all the bells and whistles.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Definitely. Some belt-tightening is probably a good thing, but I just hope people don’t overreact and go to the opposite extreme, cutting back too much on investments.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): Having an Internet presence is now a given, but, as we often talk about, it’s now essential to have a web site or Internet presence that really works for you. I believe that the big trend that we’ll see in 2002 is an increased emphasis on the “numbers.” What kind of traffic is the site drawing? Does it even reach the target audience? Can we measure whether the site is working in a meaningful way? In other words, I expect to see substance win out over form in Internet marketing.
BH: It would appear that people can tell the difference between “fluff” and the Internet technology that provides a solid return on investment (ROI).
DK: And that means both decision-makers and site visitors. Visitors to law firm web sites tend to come to those sites for the purpose of finding specific information that addresses their particular problems. Sites with extraneous videos, animations or other effects simply do not meet that need. Lawyers and law firms are increasingly realizing this and the likely result in 2002 will be an emphasis on a content-based and a content-driven approach. The most likely effect will be content-heavy sites for various practice areas of firms. Focusing on the specific information and other needs of clients will produce other effects and I know that Jerry has been writing lately about extranets.
JL: Yeah, because I think intranets and extranets will be a dominant trend this year, and over the next few years. It’s like Willie Sutton said about banks, “That’s where the money is.” On the simplest level, they can provide clients with housekeeping services, like access to billing data and litigation calendars.
BH: I agree. Intranets are very popular. I’m seeing an increased request for Knowledge Centers – places where reference material, firm policies, memos and other information can appear for use by the company employees. Dennis, do you see a trend towards using the Internet for internal purposes as opposed to the web site that the consumer sees?
DK: My firm developed an intranet several years ago. It’s great to be able to find policies and forms, get the daily announcements and even look for tickets and other items for sale all on the intranet without receiving any extra paper on your desk. Intranets tend to evolve and generate some interesting and valuable resources. The use of the term “knowledge center” is actually quite accurate. A trend I expect, and to some extent some firms have implemented this already, is the “personalized” intranet start page – much like a personalized My Yahoo or My Excite page – that puts relevant information at a lawyer’s fingertips.
JL: Advanced extranets provide more significant services, even billable services. There has been some reluctance by U.S. firms to do this in the past, because they have perceived a danger in cannibalizing or a perceived commoditizing of their services. British firms like Linklaters, Clifford Chance, Denton Hall, Hammond Suddards, Berwin Leighton and Kemp & Company have gotten ahead of U.S. firms. However, some more sophisticated U.S. firms, like Alston & Bird and Winston & Strawn have begun are beginning to see a number of advantages to this, and others are following.
DK: What will be the trend for fancy, but non-essential, animations and other techniques?
JL: I anticipate a “back to basics” trend for law firm web sites. The single best example is probably the use of Flash, an animation/multimedia program that is frequently used to add animated “splash pages” to web sites. Flash animations could be a wonderful addition to a Britney Spears fan club site, or a site promoting a movie like Lord of the Rings. Law firm sites have radically different purposes, and radically different audiences. In theory, Flash could be an enhancement, even for a law firm site. In practice, it is nearly always a detriment.
BH: Jerry, I agree. The trend is moving to simplification – for business sites. Even the designs are streamlined with fewer graphic images and a tendency to downplay the visual graphics over the actual information being provided. This is less costly and truly appreciated by the visitor to the site.
DK: I know people who can make a convincing case for the use of Flash, even for such things as animation, but the people who can do video and animation really well are fairly rare. It’s not part of the skill set of the usual web designer. As in any form of presentation, you want people to focus on your story, not how you tell it. With the rash of security issues with Internet Explorer, it’s now necessary to protect yourself by installing the latest versions of Internet Explorer with all critical updates. An interesting consequence is that you can now confidently begin to use design features that are available only in later browser versions. This will lead to some innovative use of XML, scripting and other effects achievable in later browser versions.
It’s an interesting argument,
but as a practical matter I’d still try to stay away from effects visible
only in later browser versions, unless they “degrade gracefully” (i.e.,
look acceptable even in older browsers).
Due to what he calls “Installation Inertia,” Jakob Nielsen recommends holding off on the use of new effects viewable only in later browser versions for “a year or two” after the introduction of a non-beta version. Unless the new technology offered serious substantive benefits, I’d tend to be even more conservative than Nielsen on this issue. Despite security warnings, a significant number of people never upgrade browsers. If I.E. 4.0 was the browser installed on their computer when they bought it, that’s what they will be using until that computer goes to the scrap heap. Even if the non-compatible users are “only” 5 or 10 percent of the audience, I don’t want to write them off.
Brenda, what trends do you see in Internet marketing?
BH: Jerry, there’s been a slow down in Internet marketing as a whole. Advertisers have cut back the dollars they have spent in previous years. In addition, they are demanding solid “proof” of success of their advertisements. I’ve been subscribing to Media Post’s daily newsletter for years and the past year has been dismal. Several different Internet marketing companies have shut their doors and others are struggling. All is not lost, though. Law firms should continue to market their sites through the tried and true methods. Dennis, can you remind us of a few?
DK: I’m a big advocate of a “portfolio” approach to marketing. What I mean is an approach that balances risk and reward in a diversified way where you mix conservative and aggressive approaches. I do agree that we will see a return to tried and true Internet methods. There’s still nothing that works for driving traffic to your site better than simply including your URL in your publications, advertisements, stationery or other written materials. Simply asking the owner of another important site to add a link to your site on their list of resources is another great technique. I’ve always felt that publishing an electronic newsletter may be the best way of all to drive traffic. All of these can ultimately produce better results than a search engine based strategy. The one trend, though, that has become clear with search engines is that it definitely makes sense to pay the $200 to get your site added to the major search engines if you want to be sure that you are on a search engine.
JL: Another trend this year will be increased interest in usability. Jakob Nielsen’s book Designing Web Usability was the first out of the box, and deservedly attracted a lot of attention. Recently many other good books on the topic have appeared, including The Art and Science of Web Design by Jeffrey Veen, Web Site Usability Handbook by Mark Pearrow and Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. This emphasis is well justified: It doesn’t help to have a site that looks good cosmetically if visitors can’t use it easily.
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.
BH: Even with all this information, some people still do not get it. Law firms should make sure that their site is being created for their users and not as a vanity site for their own law firm. Unfortunately, if they don’t catch on soon, they will lose these visitors to competitors who do understand usability. The new year will bring us sites that are faster and easier to use.
DK: I have a colleague with who I tend to jokingly say “I hate to turn into Jakob Nielsen again, but . . . “ whenever I see anything where no one seemed to pay any attention to usability. Researchers have now learned enough about how visitors use sites to have generated some very useful information that we all should try to take advantage of. More important, though, is the idea that all sites should take advantage of some kind of usability testing, preferably by external users. I definitely see that as an emerging trend. The biggest problem I see in law firm web sites is that they are designed and organized in a way that makes sense for an internal audience (focus on departments, status as partner or associate, and the like) rather than what a outside person coming to the site for information might actually find useful.
The organization problem you
describe is endemic. Most lawyers are not “market oriented” and have a
hard time thinking like a client would think.
The last trend I see is even more specialized web sites. “Narrowcasting” makes sense for law firms. One of the more interesting specialized sites is the Flowers Law Firm. They handle legal problems of “sex workers.”
BH: The specialized approach has always been successful. Users want to find the “expert” information on the Web and creating a site that specializes in a particular area gives one a sense that the person/law firm behind the site is such an expert.
DK: I will definitely agree with that because my firm’s intellectual property department (of which I am a member) is finishing up work on a content-driven specialty site that will provide information on a variety of areas of intellectual property law. This approach reflects the fact that people use the Web to find information that is relevant to the particular problem they have. Think about it – if, for example, you are involved in genomics and have a legal questions, would you rather go to a site called “The Bioinfomatics Law Resources Page” or go to www.yourlawfirm.com, sit through a flash animation, then drill down through practice areas to see if they have any useful information, rather than marketing brochure material, on that site?
JL: This is one of those “state the question and you know the answer” situations, and you’ve stated the question well.
BH: Even though the Internet has slowed down and fewer dollars are being spent, people should not be discouraged. Technology still has a place in attracting customers, simplifying business process and improving client relations. We should move forward into 2002 cautiously, but we should continue to move forward.
DK: Keep in mind a diversified approach. Don’t be too cautious. Lawyers and firms that move aggressively in the next year in trying web initiatives, especially initiatives their clients are interested in (hint: check what they are doing on their sites) will set them up for the changes to come. The one comment on the Internet that has always resonated with me is that we all overestimate the short-term impact of the Internet (e.g., the dot-com bubble) but we all underestimate the long-term impact of the Internet. I do believe that in 2002 we will see some law firms and lawyers doing some very cool new things on the Internet, so you’ll want to keep an eye on what your competition is doing.
JL: I agree completely. Don’t fall into the trap of equating, perhaps unconsciously, the value of tech stocks with the value of technology as an asset to a law firm. Putting too little money into technology for your law firm today could be just as big an error as investing your life savings in Pets.com two years ago.