Home ShopTalk How-To Market Your Law Firm Using the Search Engines

How-To Market Your Law Firm Using the Search Engines

An ABA Legal Eagle “Google Connects” the New Era of PPC, CPA and ROI!

Conrad Saam has just come in from a chilly, 8-mile run, on a slate gray, Seattle winter day. The jaunt is actually a kind of A/B test, a trial run for another cold day coming up this February when he will take part in a long distance race in Wisconsin.

For the past six months, the legal search triathlete (Avvo, UrbanSpoon and Mockingbird), has gone the distance with another road show, visiting five American cities as part of a nationwide tour known as Google Connect. The run in this case was a series of five, all-day sprints designed to educate law firms on how to get the most mileage out of Google AdWords, organic search marketing and online analytics. For Conrad, it’s the “bird’s eye view” that matters most: how to achieve a viable, sustainable marketing presence online.

‘Coming in from the cold’ is an apt metaphor for the evolution of law firm marketing and advertising. Historically speaking, the legal industry is still thawing out from an ice age that kept frozen for decades the ability to advertise in any media. Not more than 10 years ago, law firms in Texas needed to file a copy of every blog post they wrote with their local bar association, advised Saam. Then, when he was marketing director at Avvo.com, the state of Florida forbid lawyers from creating a profile in the innovative legal directory because there were also user reviews appearing on the same page.

The melting point is not lost on Mr. Saam. As the founder of Seattle’s Mockingbird consultancy and the vice chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Law Practice Marketing Committee, Conrad is running head long toward the future of online marketing in all of its many forms. With this interview, the marketing “thought leader” passes the torch to you! 

Seattle24x7: Conrad, you recently returned from Austin, Texas, the fourth stop on your national, Google-sponsored “Whistlestop Tour” of marketing seminars for attorneys? Dubbed Google Connect, what’s it all about?

Saam: To be honest, Larry, if I could do nothing other than provide attorneys across the country with the knowledge and the tools they require to improve their online marketing, I would be more than gratified.

Google has created an accelerator program where they’ve selected a few agencies to train up and offer AdWords support in their particular market areas of expertise. I think the Googlers recognize that agencies have a different kind of appeal to AdWords marketers. Google is, after all, an engineering company, whereas agencies are focused on customer service and market specialization. Our agency was able to design a training program for the legal community in conjunction with Google support personnel. We created a day-long workshop — a very intensive, hands-on audit of a law firm’s online presence.

My hope is that this may someday become a class that is taught regularly, at least four times a year, through the ABA.

Seattle24x7: Have you found a knowledge gap in how law firms are working with programs like AdWords? 

Saam:  Here’s a telling example: Say you’ve been committing 20% of your law firm’s marketing budget with a pay-per-click agency for the last year and you have no idea what they’re doing. Is it money well spent? Are you getting good service? How would you know? Well, there’s a link in Google AdWords where you can view the “Change History” on your account and instantly see what has been done on your campaigns by your agency, specified by date and time. What improvements have been made? What fine tuning has occurred?

I can’t tell you the number of stories I hear from firms that spend $5,000 a month on AdWords and pay a $1,000 management fee and have no idea if their campaigns are working or not. We’ll go into their Change History and find out that not only hasn’t their agency made any changes, they haven’t even logged in for months! And it’s costing the firm $1,000 bucks a month which is 25% off of their ROI right off the bat. It happens all the time.

Seattle24x7: That would suggest that the “ersatz” agencies are not issuing Reports, at least not through AdWords? 

Saam: There’s no shortage of reports, of charts and graphs, being produced by various tools inside or outside of AdWords, but the small practice doesn’t know how to look at or interpret those reports. What’s important? What’s not important?  In the lawyer’s case, it comes down to: “Am I getting new business or not? Is my phone ringing more, and if not, what are the things that will make that happen?”  Social media reports are a prime example. You’ve got all these data points like Impressions, Follows and Likes, but none of those tell you that someone called you because they saw your Tweet on Twitter. Frankly, in the legal world, practically no one is hiring lawyers off of a Tweet.

Seattle24x7:  If there is any industry that is susceptible to “keyword cost” inflation it would appear to be the Legal profession. The cost-per-click for a term like “trial attorney,” for example, is among the most expensive in the entire search ecosystem. How can these costs be justified?

Saam:  There’s no question — you are looking at terms that can average between $50 and $100 per click in the P.I. (Personal Injury) part of the legal world, for example.  In criminal defense, keywords can run roughly $30-$60 per click. So, yes, these are some of the averages that can be found in a fairly large market. 

What is absolutely critical is that the law firm understand the value of a new client and the acquisition-cost-per-client.  For example, if my cost-per-acquisition (including my maximum CPC bid) is any more than 1/3rd of the value of that client then that means that at least one-out-of-3-days a week that I go to work for that client I am working to pay Google. A great many law firms are paying $9,000 a month in AdWords yet they don’t know what a client is worth to the firm. The value of the client, the cost-per-acquisition cost and the conversion rate or the percentage of leads who become clients is the AdWords’ calculus that makes it all work.

Seattle24x7: So you don’t think that using AdWords is beyond the reach of the small, one-or-two person law firm?

Saam: To me, AdWords is actually more critical for the small firm than the large firm. That’s because, while a small firm may never build the kind of broad, organic profile that can compete with the large firms in a given market, they can compete right away in the AdWords environment.

Let’s say you’re one of four immigration practices in the nearest fifty miles, and of those immigration lawyers, only one of them advertises. Boom! Your budget may be $1,000 but you probably couldn’t spend that in an entire month.

Conversely, let’s say you’re a Personal Injury practice in a competitive market like Seattle where the minimum keyword cost averages $50 dollars per click. Well, you can’t make any real decisions about the success or failure of a campaign unless you have 100 data points or clicks. So now you’re looking at a $5,000 budget. That is the cost per entry.

The bottom line is that we’re talking about “pay-per-click” which means, first of all, that the marketer defines the first word in that equation — the word “pay.”  How much you pay is controlled by you as the advertiser. AdWords is only cost-prohibitive if you don’t do it intelligently. Your bid may not win every keyword auction, and that may not be a problem even for lawyers who like to win. 

             “AdWords is only cost-prohibitive if you don’t do it intelligently.”

Sometimes, if you bid for and win first place at the top of AdWords for a search term like “car accidents,” the ROI for that transaction is going to be negative. The goal is to find places where the “pay” piece of the expression doesn’t cost so much. You have to be creative about it, and you have to remember that you or your agency is in control.

Seattle24x7:  What kind of Google Ad Extensions are you recommending to law firms to optimize the effectiveness of AdWords? Callout links? Geo-targeting? Click-to-call extensions? 

Saam: I am happy to provide a number of examples. But before I do, the first fundamental is that you need to find out what works for you in your marketplace. Every market has its unique characteristics.

Let’s start with Call-Only campaigns. The user is on a mobile device and the only time your firm pays for the ad is when the user actually connects with you on the phone. That’s brilliant!

Next, and this is something that very few people seem to know about, you can do demographic targeting by income on AdWords under the Locations tab. That’s a smart way to focus your pay-per-click budget on only those people who can afford your services. 

Expanded Text Ads are now rolling out and will become the default ad format for 2017. It’s like getting a bigger billboard for no extra cost. The incremental cost is zero.

Next, an AdWords advertiser can make concentric location bid adjustments based simply on where they are physically located. An interesting statistic is that 43% of people hire lawyers based on proximity.  Not where they went to school…not how shiny their mahogany desk is…or their age, but how close you are to them! 

When you apply that to AdWords, that means that someone who is across the street from the law firm will convert at a higher rate.  In contrast, someone who is across Lake Washington from me will have a lower conversion rate. So you create bid adjustments (sweetening the bid by say 20-30%) based on concentric circles around your firm’s physical location.

Seattle24x7: Optimizing AdWords PPC could now be considered an essential practice, and a competitive advantage.

Saam: You want an unfair competitive advantage? Do languages correctly! We took over an existing campaign in Texas where the previous agency used Spanish keywords, but had an English ad that stated ‘Hablo Espanol’ at the end of it. But the ad clicked through to an English language landing page and when you called the firm, the person who answered the phone spoke English!  Why would you even bother running Spanish keywords in the first place?

If you want a foreign language person to be immediately comfortable with you, here is the way to do it, using Spanish as an example: The keywords should be in Spanish, the Ad should be in Spanish, the Landing Page should be written by a native Spanish speaker, and then when the searcher makes that phone call, the person at the other end of the line doesn’t answer in English, they answer in Spanish. You will convert 90% of the audience if you are the only clickthroughs in the native language.

Seattle24x7: Recently there was a dustup in legal marketing circles about the power of Websites vs. Blogs. Where do you come down on the issue?

Saam:  There are those who believe that people will not trust a Website because they suspect it has more to do with marketing, but they will trust a blog because the posts are narrated and the blog can be a more interactive experience. The depth to which that blanket characterization is true, well, I would disagree with vehemently.

From an SEO perspective, it is absolutely vital to win the link-building game with whatever content is being published. There are few vehicles that do a better job driving links than blogs. But, of course, a blog and a blog’s functionality can also exist on a Website, offering the best of both worlds.

Search is a complex, multi-channel issue and law firms need to be proficient at understanding all of its components in order to be really good at it. 

Seattle24x7:  What is your recommendation regarding the use of “long tail” keywords in AdWords or for SEO? In the new AdWords protocol, low volume keywords are often  designated as ineligible for showing. Clearly, the legal industry has a massive amount of specialty or technical terms.  For starters, can you give me a working example of a long tail keyword that gets results?

Saam: I wrote a post on this the other day and I was using an example that may seem absurd, but it is very real. Do a search for lesbian car accident lawyer in Atlanta. You will get results for that! You’ll get organic results for that. You’ll get paid results for that. I believe that it was lawyers.com that had literally optimized a whole bunch of their sites specifically for gay-friendly terms. In legal, the volume of content, especially long tail content, is enormous, in fact, there’s so much content, it might even be considered a problem,  

However, the real problem arises when you don’t have enough data to make informed decisions. For instance, you’ve got a $1,000 budget and this ad group of long tail keywords is going to get clicked on once a year. With that scarcity of data, it would take ten years to get ten clicks. So you can’t figure anything out. 

In the AdWords space, the way we handle this as an agency is that we do our analysis across all of our campaigns. So that we can research a “car accident” long tail phrase, whatever it might be, across the 50 or so campaigns we are running for multiple clients. It’s sort of a blunt instrument but it allows us to look at enough data that we can work smarter with keywords further down the long tail. 

Seattle24x7:  A daunting issue for marketers who want to “dip their toe” in the water and try AdWords is the amount of time and budget it takes to really learn anything, such as how well it works.  If you don’t have a sufficient test budget your ad circulation is limited and your clickthrough rate will be low. That means your Quality Score will be negligible and  the minimum bids required will be set quite high.  In other words, it seems like these days you have to buy your way into Quality Score by spending enough so that your ads get enough circulation to give you a decent clickthrough rate.

Saam: You are 100% correct. You do have to buy your way into Quality Score. For a smaller size law firm, you should be prepared to test AdWords for at least six months, and if you can’t be in it for three months, you probably shouldn’t jump in the water.

Here’s a related issue most firms overlook: Jumping from agency to agency can be perilous if the new agency starts the process all over again. All of a sudden, you’ve lost all of your performance history so you have to build your Quality Score from square one. We’ve seen this time and time again. You’ll talk to a firm and they’ll say,” We’ve had four different agencies on this.” We’ll look at their AdWords account and it looks like they’ve only been running for six months. How do you have four agencies in six months? “Well, we hired someone and then someone else started over!” they explain. Every time you start over again your ROI takes a dive.

The important point here is that you should always maintain your AdWords history. Your account is owned by your business, not by the agency. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Seattle24x7:  To “close the loop” on lead generation and analytics, what do you advise for conversion testing?

Saam:  We look at three primary online behaviors or “conversion events” for our clients as service-based businesses: a Phone Call, a Form Fill or a “Chat.” Some law firms are also experimenting with Texting. In each case, we focus on the most appropriate implementation of the conversion events so that they give every user the easiest, smoothest path with which to contact the firm.

I’ll give you a very obvious and tactical example. If you’re on your mobile device and you can’t use your mobile device to call the company whose web site you’re looking at on your mobile device they’re not doing a good job at converting you. All of our clients have persistent, sticky phone numbers on their Web site, whether you are scrolling or clicking between pages, the phone number is always present.

Live text chat is also a huge factor in conversion. Nine-times-out-of-ten it is very poorly integrated. You need to be careful that the chat interface actually helps the user and doesn’t annoy the user or block their view of your content. The business model for chat providers is typically “pay-per-chat,” so the chat window may be too intrusive. 

There are three flavors of Chat. There is the Automated Chat Bot that will get you as far as it can in prompting you to fill out information. Look at Alaska Airline’s Virtual Assistant named “Jen” as an application of Artificial Intelligence that is extremely well done. Then you have the outsourced third-party link to an operator screening a chat at the intake of a legal case. Finally, you have the person at the firm who is available. To me, the best conversion alternative is usually the person at the law firm who can converse with you intelligently.

The Form-fill and Texting conversion events are more or less self-explanatory.

Seattle24x7: Let’s slide over to the topic of SEO. The recurring trope in the marketplace is “Content, content, content.” But you and I both know that without earning credible links to a Website’s content, including authoritative backlinks and links from relevant communities, the content “tree” that “falls in the forest” may never be seen or heard. Would you concur that what you call “Advanced Link Building” is still the number one ranking factor in organic search?

Saam:  I think about link building every single day. As a matter of fact, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think our agency is better at link building than anyone else out there in the legal space. I also think that most SEO agencies don’t even do what I would call actual link-building. The reason I call it “Advanced Link Building” is that link building to most people means going out and buying a couple of links. (Yes, it still happens although Google will penalize for it). Or they’ll get links that simply have little to no value from irrelevant sources. 

Let me give you an example of something that is legitimate, and powerful: There is a local law firm in Seattle that represented a teacher from a Catholic school who became pregnant and she was not married. She got fired! Now most SEO’s wouldn’t even notice that this was a case their client was handling. Point one being that you need to be involved in your clients’ business. Point two is what can happen if you have a client who is interested in sharing information and is willing to think outside of the box. Looking at this particular case, the knee jerk reaction for an agency might be to consider sending out a press release. There is a much bigger opportunity for link building.

Our link building concept is amazingly simple. We have a concept called “Anchor Content,” and we have a concept called “Raving Fans.”  Anchor content is something that lives on your Web site and nowhere else. It’s something that is so interesting that people want to link to it and read it!  I am not talking about the banal pablum from yesterday’s newspaper. 

The second thing that you want to have is the Raving Fans.  They might be Michigan football fans. They might be feminists in the community (in the case of our pregnancy discrimination lawsuit). They might be a reporter or a child safety advocate. Whomever they may be, we can find them online and they have a presence.

What the advanced link builder does is take the Anchor Content and connect it with its avid fan base. It is the beautiful melding of content marketing, social media marketing, and PR.  The anchor content could be a blog post, it could be a video, it could be a study, or a Public Service Announcement (“Don’t Text and Drive).” 

In one case, we took the data from a study and made it available in Excel only from the client’s Website.  This is what we call Advanced Link Building.  In full disclosure— it may not work all of the time or every time. Sometimes the public may not find the content as interesting as we might believe it to be. But it is worth doing, and worth repeating. Because it is the one thing that can change everything.

Seattle24x7: How did the employment discrimination case you mentioned galvanize its advocates?

Saam:  We were able to create very link-worthy anchor content in this particular case.  In this instance, we created a Petition on the law firm’s web site to have the teacher reinstated. Then we went out to women’s groups, among others, and asked for their support in linking back to the petition. 

Seattle24x7:  I’m hearing you say that the concept relies on the kind of law firm who is willing to take a stand and be comfortable in the PR space?

Saam: Yes, you need the client to be willing to try something new and different. Another topic that is ripe with possibilities. Why don’t we have law firms holding their local police departments accountable for not killing black men in this country? Why isn’t there a local law firm who is the watchdog for what’s going on with the local police department? It’s not like there aren’t people who care about this. There is very meaningful content to be written about this. Why isn’t this content being created?  We have yet to find a firm that is willing to push the envelope on this.

Seattle24x7:  This composite of content marketing, of public relations, of social media, social activism, video and PSA’s says to me that Search has gone beyond PPC and SEO to an “Omnichannel” method of marketing. Search is now squarely in the mainstream of online marketing.

Saam:  Correct. This is why our Google Connect Tour is an online audit, not of SEO or PPC, but of a firm’s overall online marketing presence.  Search is a complex, multi-channel issue and law firms need to be proficient at understanding all of its components in order to be really good at it.  For one firm, Retargeting works, or PPC works, or SEO works, or Email works. But it’s not just about content, or technology, or the platform, or the blog. It’s about all of these things working together.

I heard a very sagacious comment a few years ago that SEO was becoming the back cover of theYellow Pages phone book, where only the really big firms who have the budget can actually get in the game. I thought to myself, “No, no, no, it will never turn that way.” Well, it’s totally turned that way! 

I advise clients: don’t spend your money with me ONLY on SEO. Put it into AdWords. Law firms can get in the AdWords game tomorrow, or in some cases, in the next ten minutes.  Of course that means that the firm needs to be really good at converting. When the phone rings, they need to pick it up! [24×7]

Conrad Saam is the founder of Mockingbird.

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