(Note—This is the second in a series of posts taken from my recent presentation to attorneys and legal professionals at the DRI conference in New York.)

In my last installment, I discussed the genesis of legal marketing and the creation of Womble Carlyle’s successful Winston the Bulldog brand-building campaign.

But times change, and client needs evolve. Outside counsel must adapt. What worked 20 years ago, or even five years ago, isn’t the solution businesses are looking for in today’s marketplace. That includes how law firms approach client development, marketing and branding.

Two years ago, we looked at whether or not mass advertising was the right approach when it was costing us a large sum annually to do image advertising during a global economic crisis. Also, we wondered if the lighthearted tone to which Winston had evolved was appropriate when the world had grown extraordinarily serious. Finally, we had become aware that the execution of the brand up to that point had been mostly about one-way, outbound messaging at a time when the world was moving to dialogue.  Is our branding delivery model still right, we asked? 

Web 2.0 innovations, such as Twitter, You Tube, Facebook and LinkedIn, have completely changed the dynamic of buyer-seller relationships. At Womble Carlyle, for example, we shifted a significant amount of money and staff hours we were spending on advertising campaigns into social media outreach.  Dialogue, not monologue.

If one is willing to make the effort – and please believe me that it is not possible to properly conduct social networking by surrogate – social networking creates the pathway into the conversation with clients, potential clients and referral sources. It is a great way to build credibility, get into and stay in the conversation, increase personal visibility, and to craft and implement a personal brand, which is to say, social media provides you and me the opportunity to express ourselves as individuals.  Not just as lawyers or law firm employees, but as people with unique interests, styles, strengths, approaches and peccadilloes.  It is said, and I believe it, that buyers are more likely to purchase products and services from individuals whom they know and like.  This is a promise of social media. 

Personal branding is, of course, a worthy endeavor in and of itself.  But from the perspective of the head of a sales and marketing organization, the value of social media extends far beyond that.  Posts to social sites, particularly these days when those posts direct readers to blogs or videos – feed the voracious search engine algorithms.  They drive traffic to the Web site, which – in an era in which we no longer advertise commercially as extensively as we once did – is our primary and nearly sole conveyor of the brand. 

I refer a lot to research.  I rely extensively on research from BTI Consulting, which conducts extensive interviews with the buyers of legal services.  BTI research shows that the most important way that buyers find and engage lawyers is via peer-to-peer referrals.  BTI shows that the second most prevalent means that buyers use to find and engage lawyers is via search engines.  And so, in 2011, all branding roads — both personal and institutional – point to social media.  We have only begun the journey, but for the foreseeable future, law firm branding and social media walk hand-in-hand down this pathway.  Second only to peer-to-peer referrals, this is how law firms will be found, and how lawyers will be identified and engaged.

In addition to the four popular social media outlets I mentioned previously, other Web 2.0 venues of value in the legal marketing profession include JD Supra, Lexology, Legal OnRamp, the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Web site and our own in-house blogs. We make sure to establish an ongoing presence in each of them, and we update them constantly. A constant stream of fresh content is key in the fast-moving world of social media. I recently read one social media expert who said that a blog doesn’t become relevant until it accumulates a critical mass of 52 posts, or one post a week for a year. If one is going to participate in social media, one must be active to be effective.  Of course, I mean personally active.  Social media with its personal branding overtones is not something that can be delegated, although, granted, law firm media departments pump plenty of social media content out on behalf of the firm. Their efforts, however, speak to institutional branding.  Beyond that generalized approach, an opportunity for lawyers is more in the personal branding arena. 

An extension of social media, and one that we at Womble Carlyle are just now beginning to explore in earnest is video.  We all grew up in the era of television.  It is difficult to imagine life without the personalities that have emerged in this medium.  Since we are so accustomed to it and since it is such an integral part of our lives, it is hard to believe that we are only now beginning to adopt it in earnest.  But, let’s face it, video is one of the key ways that we have been communicating with one another for decades.

Thus, at Womble Carlyle, we are making extensive use of Web video, and recently hired a video producer to assist in these efforts. Thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras and do-it-yourself production software, one doesn’t need access to a television recording studio to produce relatively high-quality videos. Perhaps we can thank YouTube for creating an environment in which consumers of digital media would rather see timely and sometimes-raw communications than polished but dated ones.

Finally at least for now, at Womble Carlyle we have implemented an internal social media network named Socialtext, which allows us early adopters to collaborate and share information in real time. For those who don’t know about this and other similar collaborative tools, it is like an internal Twitter.  Throughout the day, we post signals, which are the SocialText version of Tweets, to keep one another posted on what we’re working on.  I’m old enough to remember the advent of e-mail, not to mention IBM Selectric typewriters and telefaxes.  I’ve lived through a few turns of the evolutionary wheel.  I’ve got to comment that the move from e-mail and other traditional digital communications seems to me as powerful as did the move from hard-copy mail to electronic mail.  Already, because of external and internal e-mail, I have witnessed a decline of perhaps 30% in my e-mail traffic, replaced by communications via social media. 

The nature of all of this, just as it was when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg created moveable type, is to improve the accessibility and speed of communications.  Several hundred years have passed since the first King James version of the Bible was “mass produced,” but the innate human thrust is the same – a desire to share and to learn.

For many years, even decades now, communications has been easy.  Now, with the advent of social media, it is even easier to communicate, broadly, contemporaneously and continually.  The privilege of communications brings with it the obligation to do so.  Today, it is more critical than ever for outside firm attorneys to communicate directly with in-house partners, clients, potential clients and industry leaders.

All of these developments in communications have enhanced our capability not simply to make, and maintain, contact with others, but also to enhance the client experience.  Perhaps it is emblematic of the times, but a key extension of social media and other digital communications is in the arena of client satisfaction.  Digital media support the ability of providers to ensure the satisfaction of buyers at all points along the buying chain. 

The new model is one of back-and-forth communication, of listening to the client’s needs and responding with solutions that meet their particular needs. It is a model based on client service.

The unfiltered feedback from customers that social media provides is golden in the business world, as responsive companies can meet customer needs and build brand loyalty in real time.

Law firms, led by their marketing departments, need to have a place at the social media table as well. Taking our cue from the business world, we need to listen to what our clients are saying about the legal service they receive, and engage them with valuable information and solutions to their problems. Check out what your clients are saying on Twitter, Facebook, company blogs and other social sites, and respond.

It isn’t enough to simply believe we are providing outstanding client service – we must talk directly with clients, learn what they need and ask “How can we improve?” Legal marketing departments need to play a leadership role in ensuring that such conversations are taking place, and that the right questions are being asked.