Online social networking offers new ways for law firms to connect with their target audiences when considered as part of a wider online strategy
“It used to be that without a website you did not exist. Now if your website does not rank in Google you do not exist,” says Maria Cabral de Sousa, managing director of Lisbon web development company Softway. “But more than this, companies need to think strategically about their entire web profile, about the types of audiences they wish to target and even how they engage with new medium like social networking.”
Firms need to take a considered approach to what type of information they wish to convey, how and to whom it is presented. Different strategies may even be applied to different stakeholder groups: existing and potential clients, recruits and the market more widely, she believes.
“In the commercial world, firms need to be able to differentiate themselves. But a challenge can often be how to present a consistent institutional message, to target key audiences, and bring out lawyers’ individual personalities.”
The internet is about contact, information and personality, says Cabral de Sousa. A firm’s website may be the first form of client interaction, but many firms still struggle to present their values and expertise clearly.
“The ability to access information easily, whether through partners biographies, directory rankings, or deal lists and press coverage, and to obtain key individuals’ contact details, for example through vCards, is fundamentally important,” she says.
An emerging issue also is the amount of institutional knowledge firm’s wish to present to clients, and whether this is through a website, extranet or even shared intranets.
“Firms can manage the amount of information clients have access to and how it is shared through different web interfaces aligned to existing back office content or document management infrastructure. A fundamental first question however, is how much knowledge do firms want to share and with whom,” she says.
An extension of this ability to interact with clients and to use the internet for business development is how firms engage with social networking sites, which, believes Cabral de Sousa, presents new opportunities so long as firms take an intelligent approach.
“Some firms consider social networking sites a distraction and even block their lawyers’ access to many. But there are always ways around this and arguably it is a waste of valuable IT resources trying to keep track of them all.”
Instead, firms should consider the reasons to embrace social networking – to encourage lawyers’ involvement and to see them as another channel to help promote strategic and business development goals, she says.
“Lawyers, as professionals, are among the best at networking. Much of their business development is not done over a desk, but in meetings, seminars and conferences. Arguably, the profession should also be among the best at capitalising on the online networking possibilities.”
Firms should however ascertain whether they want to present an institutional face – for example on sites such as Linkedin or Xing – or take a more casual approach, through sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
“The ‘degrees of separation’ theory that underpins these sites is a powerful argument for engaging with them – enabling lawyers to connect directly and indirectly to fellow lawyers or clients, to join industry, practice or special interest groups and to engage with them,” she says.
Networking offers a communication medium beyond mere emails and websites. Firms may even use them as a channel to publish deal news, to highlight their rankings success, or to publish information on events, seminars, or even recent hires.
“You have though to approach different sites in different ways. You cannot focus on all of them equally, so ultimately you have to define your positioning. It can be useful therefore to look at how other business sectors already use them, how user interaction is evolving, and even where the new opportunities lie.”
With almost a decade’s experience, including working with many of Portugal’s largest law firms, Cabral de Sousa knows that engaging with new technologies may not always be comfortable, but to demonstrate you exist it is often more productive to swim with the flow than against the tide.