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In the past decade, social media networks have exploded in popularity, with 65 percent of all American adults using at least one social network, compared to just 7 percent in 2005. To be competitive in today's legal environment, law firms must have an online marketing strategy, and they ignore social media at their peril. However, jumping in to every social network available just because “everyone else is doing it” will not do. The social media world is very personal, and a clumsy approach can do more harm than good. Instead, your firm's marketing team needs a targeted approach to social media.

Incorporating social media into your existing marketing plan is not difficult. Assuming your firm's marketing team is already familiar with the demographics of your target audience and has measurable business goals in mind, then focusing your social media strategy involves two criteria.

For each social network the firm is considering using, ask these questions:

1. Is this network used by the firm's target audience?

2. Can the firm participate in this network in a meaningful way?

If a particular network does not meet these criteria, then it should not be a focus of the firm's social media strategy. Asking these questions helps to concentrate the firm's resources where they can be most effective. Let's look at these criteria in detail.

Use the networks your prospective clients use

Naturally, your firm should focus its efforts on the social media that are used by the type of people you want to attract as clients. This involves taking a look at the data on social media use, both raw numbers and demographics. For both sets of data, the Pew Research Center is an invaluable source.

Looking at raw numbers first, it's clear that Facebook is king. The ubiquitous social network is used by 72 percent of all U.S. adults who use the internet, or 62 percent of the entire adult population. The numbers for the other major social networks are all a step down from there. Pinterest is used by 31 percent of internet users, Instagram by 28 percent, LinkedIn by 25 percent and Twitter by 23 percent.

Frequency of use is another important data point in comparing social networks. Once again, Facebook is on top, with 70 percent of its users visiting the site every day. Daily users of Instagram make up 59 percent of the total users of that site. Twitter is at 38 percent, Pinterest at 27 percent and LinkedIn at 22 percent.

Beyond the raw numbers, it is important to examine the demographic data of the various social networks to see how they match up with what you know about your prospective clients. With regard to gender, Pinterest stands out for its appeal to women: the network is used by 44 percent of online women and only 16 percent of online men. When it comes to age, nearly all social media are used more by younger people, but LinkedIn is an exception, with a higher percentage of users age 30-49 and 50-64 than age 18-29. For people age 65 and older, Facebook is the big winner, used by 48 percent of internet users in that age group.

With regard to income and education, LinkedIn stands out again as the one major social network where use is directly proportional to both education and income. LinkedIn is used by 41 percent of internet users with an annual income of $75,000 or more, and 46 percent of those with a college or post-graduate degree. As income and education decrease, the percentage of people on LinkedIn drops.

For certain legal fields, it is also worth looking at smaller social networks with more specialized audiences. For instance, while Google Plus has never come anywhere near matching Facebook's numbers, it has a certain popularity within the high-tech world.

Once you have determined which social media platforms make sense as a place for your firm to connect with prospective clients, then you still must tailor your message for the forum and participate meaningfully with other users.

Participate meaningfully

Your firm's participation in social media is where the distinction between marketing and advertising is paramount. If the plan is to simply run advertisements, then the information on numbers and demographics of users — along with a well-designed ad campaign — would be all you need to move forward. But social networks are not that simple.

Because of the highly personal nature of social networks, advertisements and hard-sell messages come across as even more annoying than they are in other contexts. Your firm may have advertisements that perform well with, for instance, Google's AdWords program, which is based on users' searches and displays ads on websites they visit. These same ads may perform poorly on social networks. For users who want to socialize with family and friends, blatant marketing messages seem especially out of place. Instead, it's important to share content that is actually interesting or useful for people, and to participate in the community, without every message being only about your firm.

One mistake that law firms make when using social media is to treat every post or tweet as a free advertisement, and expect the content to spread. This is self-defeating. Users will not follow or “like” a law firm that clogs their social media feed with marketing messages, and with no follows or likes, no one will see the posts. These networks are social spaces first and foremost. Just as you would not begin robotically handing out your business card at a cocktail party, your firm should not make every message a hard sell. Instead, start a conversation, or better yet, participate in a conversation that is already happening.

On all social media, people respond more to individuals than to businesses, and to personal messages more than to official statements. If there are attorneys in your firm who enjoy using Twitter and Facebook, have them share a bit of their personality. Humanizing the firm will go a long way toward creating more interest on social media. This goes for the content of posts and tweets as well. Instead of looking at social media from the point of view of the firm trying to gain business, approach it from the point of view of users. People want useful and interesting information from reliable sources. A law firm is automatically seen as authoritative, so well-crafted posts along the lines of “Know Your Rights” and “What To Do If...” will be read. This is the beauty of social media — quality content gets shared organically by real users who find it useful. When done correctly, the “free advertising” aspect is real. In addition, when you have genuine followers sharing your content, then your promoted tweets and boosted posts will have much more impact.

Finally, your firm's marketing team should take care to tailor your message to the medium. LinkedIn is a professional network, so business-oriented posts are appropriate there, whereas Facebook users may respond better to human-interest oriented posts. If you have decided to focus some of your resources on Pinterest or Instagram, you should be aware that they are visual media. Professionally designed infographics conveying legal knowledge will do well on Pinterest; human-centered images do well on Instagram. If your firm has noticed that there are few well-produced factual videos by attorneys in your field, you may want to fill the gap on YouTube, but make sure you produce compelling videos that look great. Above all, if you are going to enter a social media space, commit to doing it right. You will be most successful if you know the medium well and participate meaningfully on a regular basis.

About Author

Brendan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content developer for law firms throughout the United States.

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