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Build Trust and Add Value Through Legal Marketing: Principles to Follow During the COVID-19 Crisis

Marketing may seem meaningless in times like these, but it’s critical.

By Jay Harrington

The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to reexamine a great deal about the beliefs we held before life got turned upside down. And as lawyers and legal marketers, one of the fundamental questions we must grapple with is: What is legal brand marketing?

Marketing has always been a race for “more,” but as we recalibrate our priorities and take steps to shore up our businesses until the economy regains its footing, we are coming to realize that many of the things we were chasing when times were good now seem petty. More clicks, likes, attention, and interruption serve little purpose but have consumed too much focus because, despite their relative insignificance to the bottom line, they’re metrics that are easily measured.

The unimportance of these metrics was obscured by the bull market for legal services over the past decade. In a bull market, almost every decision, whether it’s about stock-picking or marketing resource allocation, seems like a smart one. But, as Warren Buffett once said:

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Low tide is upon us.

As Marketers, It’s Time to Dial in Our Collective Focus

What we do next is important. Marketing may seem meaningless in times like these, but it’s critical. First responders and those in the medical and scientific communities are doing unimaginably hard and heroic work right now. While our work pales in comparison, we must do our jobs better than ever before, and our collective job is to keep the wheels of the legal industry turning. We need to do our part to generate demand, keep the economy moving, and keep the legal industry strong.

Through marketing, we must focus on building more trust, generating more enrollment, and making more of an impact. Marketing, especially now, is not about being the fastest or loudest. Effective marketing is about providing more help to those you hope to serve.

Legal Marketing Principles During the COVID-19 Crisis

With all the demands on lawyers and legal marketers these days, spurred by shifts to remote-working environments and the rash of legislative and regulatory changes that must be processed, there is hardly time to pause. But pausing to think strategically about the best path forward is necessary. Things are changing so rapidly that we can’t lose sight of the need to adapt our marketing strategies. For every lawyer and law firm, the path forward will be different, but here are some principles to keep in mind.

1. Narrow Focus and Positioning

By most accounts, we are headed for a deep and painful recession. When demand contracts, the best way to remain relevant is to offer services to the marketplace that are not perceived as easily interchangeable. Accordingly, consider what you and your law firm do better than almost anyone else. As an individual lawyer, what discrete problems are you best equipped to solve and for whom? As a law firm, what practices are your core strengths?

It’s always a good idea to narrow your positioning because it reduces the number of available alternatives to what you offer. In a downturn, it’s imperative.

Organizing around your strengths is what I like to call the “locomotive strategy.” A single locomotive can pull 100 train cars behind it. The same principle applies with your practices. Goal No. 1 for every lawyer and law firm should be to survive this crisis, and survival requires hard choices. It means allocating resources to their highest-and-best use. From a marketing standpoint, it means organizing around your core strengths and making it unmistakably clear to the marketplace through narrow positioning what you do best.

2. Lead With Your Ideas

As the owner of an agency that provides thought leadership marketing support to law firms, the last two weeks have been remarkable. I’ve marveled at how firms, lawyers, and legal marketers around the world have rallied to analyze massive amounts of information related to the COVID-19 crisis, and distill it down into actionable thought leadership advice for their clients and the public at large. I have always believed that thought leadership marketing is the most effective form of legal marketing, but it’s going to be even more critical moving forward.

One of the major marketing constraints that lawyers have always faced is lack of time. Marketing almost always goes to the bottom of the to-do list when there’s billable work to be done, so it’s difficult to allocate time to non-scalable marketing activities like one-on-one networking. At least for the time being, forms of interpersonal networking are practically impossible due to the need for social distancing.

Ideas are what can sell a lawyer when she’s not there to sell herself. Thought leadership marketing is a method to achieve marketing scale and a means to give prospective clients a window into a lawyer’s expertise. Through consuming and evaluating a lawyer’s thought leadership content, prospective clients can determine whether their needs and the lawyer’s expertise align. Think of it this way: Your thought leadership acts as your agent in the marketplace of ideas. It is the only signal of expertise that can effectively represent you amid all the noise online.

People are scared. They’re uncertain. They need guidance. They’re searching for answers online. Now is the time to ramp up your thought leadership marketing. To make it more effective, specifically address the audience you’re focused on through your newfound narrow positioning.

3. Focus on Quality Over Quantity

One thing I’ve observed during the frantic rush to get client alerts out over the last two weeks has been a wide variance in the quality of thought leadership content being produced. There is a desire to be first-to-market, and speed is important if you’re hoping to grab attention. Speed, though, must be balanced against the need to produce high-quality content. Information is plentiful these days — wisdom, less so. Even if it takes you longer to publish, you will have a much greater impact if you’re addressing the implications of information, not merely summarizing it. For example, if you’re focused on a particular industry, end each piece with actionable advice that is contextualized for your specific audience.

Most importantly, amid the chaos of the near term, don’t lose sight of the longer term. In a crisis, everyone is focused on the need to survive. As a lawyer or law firm, you must address the urgency of the moment, but you must also help your clients see what’s coming next. To me, a thought leader is someone who considers the future with clear-eyed judgment and charts a course for others to follow.

In what seems like a (sobering) best-case scenario, this situation will evolve from a public health crisis to an economic one in which lawyers will play a leading role. Through marketing, start helping your clients think through the next set of challenges.

4. Be Nimble

It goes without saying that we’ve all had to adapt to new circumstances more quickly than any of us could have anticipated a few short weeks ago. Adjusting to the new realities of marketing is no exception. With face-to-face marketing no longer an option — at least for a time (and likely longer than most of us expect) — it’s critical to be nimble in how we get our marketing messages out.

Many law firms have built COVID-19 hubs on their websites, which is a great start. But firms must have plans to push this information out to the market more broadly. Many of my clients are having success supplementing their written content with multimedia campaigns to share information via daily videos, podcasts or interactive webinars. In some cases, they are using all three tools to get the word out. Their nimble efforts are positioning them at the forefront of thought leadership conversations, often resulting in media coverage that allows them to amplify their messages.

In addition, outside publishers — the traditional media and industry publishers — are stretched thin and trying to satisfy their audience’s demands for information. This means there are lots of opportunities to publish content on other platforms. In the rush to get content out, don’t lose sight of the fact that a little extra effort to find the right outlet (other than your law firm’s website) can expand your reach exponentially.

It’s Time to Step Up

Before becoming a legal marketing consultant, I practiced law. I started my career at Skadden in Chicago six days after 9/11. By 2009, I was running my own small firm in Detroit. Following terrorist attacks and financial upheaval, I have witnessed firsthand how lawyers, who are too often unfairly maligned, and those who work beside them step up in times of crisis to guide clients through turmoil. In the days ahead, the legal industry will play a leading role in guiding clients through massive challenges. All lawyers aspire to be “trusted advisors” for their clients. It’s time to earn that moniker, and a good way to start is to engender trust and add value through helpful marketing.

“You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.” — Warren Buffet

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Webinar: Legal Marketing in the Midst of the COVID-19 Crisis

View a free replay here of the webinar presented by Jay Harrington and Stefanie Marrone this week, regarding issues law firms, lawyers, and legal marketers need to be thinking about during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Illustration ©

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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