by Richard Arney
As a stand-alone advertising tool a web site is poor. The internet is massive and the chances of a "surfer" finding and selecting your site from the hundreds out there is slim unless they are pointed in the right direction. Of course you can improve your chances considerably by understanding how search engines (e.g. Yahoo, Alta Vista, Lycos, MSN) work and design your web-site accordingly but this is only the beginning.
A recent survey discovered that of the money spent on promoting the average web-site only 7% was spent on search engine registration and a massive 73% on general media advertising. You only have to think of letsbuyit.com or amazon.com to imagine how many millions they have invested in telling you about their web-site and, most importantly, how to get to it. This is partly because there is only so much you can spend on search engines but it is mainly indicative of how difficult it is to advertise effectively on the internet.
The message is you need to advertise the existence of your web-site – on all your stationery and printed material, promotional gifts, advertisements and in your offices. Do not forget your fee earners and staff, get them to mention its existence at every opportunity. A good web-site is an excellent marketing tool if used correctly but you have got to promote it.
Now this of course pre-supposes that you have a web-site worth looking at such that both existing and potential clients or referrers can get some value from visiting it.
Probably the best way to answer this is to look at who is likely to visit your web-site and why. Typical users and uses are:-
§ Potential clients who want to know more about you but are initially afraid to contact you by traditional means because of cost (or their fear of incurring it)
§ Potential employees or partners who are researching the firm before applying for a job or attending an interview
§ Reporting on progress to existing clients or referrers
§ Anyone, client or otherwise, who just wants to contact you – web-sites should be much more up to date than a local printed directory. Whether by post, telephone, fax or e-mail your site should facilitate easy contact, preferably without obligation.
§ Obtain information or preliminary advice. Potential clients will be more likely to instruct you if they can see you are more than capable of dealing with their particular claim by getting some preliminary advice free
§ Obtain a quotation. Domestic conveyancing, in particular, lends itself to giving on-line instant quotations. It saves you a telephone call and you can trap some basic marketing contact details and some statistics on how many quotes you are winning.
§ Give instructions – on-line instruction forms for injury claims, wills, debt collection, etc are all possible and an excellent time save for the fee earner.
§ Potential business partners. An Australian firm may search the net for a suitable agent to handle an RTA claim for an injured Australian tourist hurt in England.
The list is by no means exhaustive and for commercial reasons I have held back a few ideas but remember, a web-site is there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and it is global. It is open when you are not and it can reach a far wider audience than you ever could by traditional media.
Furthermore, as Gerald Newman of the Law Society pointed out in a recent article the Internet offers small firms the opportunity to "punch above their weight"; many small firms have better web-sites than large ones. Whilst there is clearly a place for branding and a slick corporate image small firms can have inexpensive but effective sites (see www.wheadon.co.uk).
To misquote, the three main elements are content, content and content. More precisely it is inter-active content. On-line quotations, instruction forms, specific advice, client reporting, up to date news and links to other useful sites are all examples. A glossary of legal terms or "jargon buster" might also be useful.
The whole essence of a good web-site is to make it useful and interesting so that visitors will bother to "bookmark" it and come back to it again and again. If it has useful content then they will refer others to it.
Advice must be concise and to the point. It is no good reproducing lengthy manuals or texts which the visitor has to wade through. Advice must be easy to locate and precise. Some sites use "frequently asked questions" as a method of directing the user quickly to the right point. These FAQ's, as they are commonly known (computer buffs are big on TLA's – three letter acronyms), are fine if used correctly but you can go further. A much more concise and impressive response can be given using a kind of artificial intelligence interface. This is a rather grand name for a short series of questions (usually multiple choice) that refine the reams of hidden text to a paragraph or two of concise advice. A very simple example of RTA claim advice can be seen on the demo site at www.briefclick.com - try a few different combinations and see the difference in the advice.
According to a MORI poll commissioned by the Law Society in 1999 about half of the general public would use the internet for legal information on Accidents (43%), Employment (46%), Moving House (45%) and Consumer issues (55%) I would venture to suggest that this is a significantly higher percentage than would dare consult a solicitor direct for the same advice. Granted, you are giving some information free but if you can allay the potential client's fear of costs at the same time you stand a much better chance of securing a retainer.
Clearly not, they generally fall into four main categories:-
The basic site is often a low cost or even free site which is usually created by filling in the firm's details into a basic template that is translated into an HTML (web-style) page by the provider. They are generally inflexible but are better than no site at all. They are usually spoilt because the provider makes its money by covering your site with adverts for other products or services.
The brochure site is probably the most common amongst solicitors today. As the name implies it is an on-line version of the firm's brochure. Content tends to be of an advertising nature rather than informative and content . The site may have a Flash® movie at the start but otherwise the pages tend to be static (i.e. no moving pictures or graphics). Content, as always, is important and the firm should take as much care with this as they would with the printed version. Information should be organised logically in a structured hierarchy so that the visitor can reach the required point quickly. The benchmark is the three-click test, you should be able to get to any page within three clicks of a mouse. Whilst brochure sites clearly have a purpose they are not generally very informative in terms of advice or information and lack interest and inter-activity with the visitor. Many brochure sites could be much improved by adding a few inter-active pages.
The inter-active site is becoming increasingly popular as firms begin to recognise the limitations of their existing site. You will have guessed by now that this is the format that I favour. Make your site interesting and useful. Careful use of moving graphics can make it visually more interesting although their use should not be overdone.
The key is providing useful and bespoke information. Up to date news and legal information can also be displayed on the site using free "news feeds" and hyperlinks. Be careful to ensure that these are new "windows" so that the user is returned to your site when they have finished.
Offer on-line instruction forms and advice but also offer a paper or e-mail alternative. Some potential clients, and for that matter some solicitors, are adverse to entering personal information into internet forms. Personal data should ideally be obtained by using a system known as secure socket layering (SSL) – denoted by a padlock symbol at the bottom right of your screen – the system normally used for enter credit card details. However, offering the option to download and/or print out the form instead so that it can be completed offline and e-mailed or posted back is a sensible precaution so that all sectors are catered for.
The e-commerce site is a full blown on-line "shop". jungle.com and amazon.co.uk are well know examples in the U.K. The legal services industry does not currently lend itself very well to this type of site because of the nature and complexity of the advice and services provided. Some firms have created on-line will drafting and sales (using SSL and credit cards) and others have produced a range of on-line legal documents such as terms of sale or employment contracts. These can be sold hand-in-hand with telephone advice. A couple of large city firms have created on-line advice forums for specific clients and another has an advice area which is funded through a premium rate telephone line. Whilst it may be difficult and time-consuming to set up on-line legal advice if Prof. Richard Susskind is correct (The Future of Law, 2nd edition,1998, O.U.P.) all legal services are going to be delivered electronically in the future whether via the net or via advice kiosks. The main stumbling block is finding a way to finance the huge task of building the necessary knowledge database and infrastructure required to deliver such a service.
1. Identify your target market. Just over 9 million people in the UK use the web (Guardian 3.5.00) with an increase of 20% last year. It is no longer a domain of just children and "anoraks" , over 87% of users are adults with some 46% being in the 25-45 age group. The over 55's (known as 'silver surfers') only form 10% of the market
2. Identify the services that you wish to promote. Gear the look and feel of your site to the specialities you are promoting. If you are a specialist RTA firm then make that clear. Fill your site with relevant information , links to other connected sites – insurers, MASS, your LEI's and appropriate charities and support group such as Headline.
3. Get your domain name now. If you can buy your exact firm's name then do so now. As some MASS solicitors have found out to their cost, domain names are selling fast. They are now very cheap too so register as many different versions of your name as possible – it makes it easier for a surfer to second guess your web-site address and get to you quickly avoiding search engines entirely. Buy both the .co.uk and .com extensions if you can. Most UK users will try both but .com is more universal.
4. Make content interesting/different/useful. Not wishing to labour the point, use inter-activity as a focal point.
5. Create reciprocal links to other sites. As mentioned already provide links to other relevant sites and try and make them reciprocal, i.e. that site has a link to your site as well.
6. Keep it up to date. A well designed web-site can be built on a small database and each page is built 'on the fly' from information in the database. This means that the web-site can be kept current by simply updating the database requiring no programming knowledge. A further advantage is that the code is removed from the displayed web page making it harder for someone else to copy. Keep the content up to date and accurate. This goes not only for the legal content but your address and staff details too. A London firm displaying a 0171 number for instance will be want a 0207 number now.
7. Market your site Now you have a useful site mention it to everyone and put it on all your literature.
8. Evaluate statistics Look at the site statistics and see where the enquiries are coming from and going too. Avoid the temptation to display a visitor counter on your web-site – it's generally regarded as "naff". Keep that statistic hidden – if you cannot resist doing it at least start the counter at 10000 or so as being visitor number 3 is not altogether going to impress.
9. Update Search Engines. Although I have played down the importance of search engines you do need to re-visit this periodically to ensure you stay at the top of the list. Not all search engines allow resubmission but many do in certain circumstances. Not all engines work on submission, others look at the content of your pages, so reviewing how these are displayed if you are not getting the hits you are expecting can be worthwhile. A review every three to six months is practicable.
Richard Arney is solicitor and former MASS committee member who is now a Legal I.T. Consultant. Back To Top
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