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Your 2014 marketing plan should focus not just on rankings, but on your law firm’s brandingyou’re your variety of lead sources.

At the end of each year, the tune “This Time Next Year” comes to mind. In the musical Sunset Boulevard, the song relates the thoughts of a group of fledgling actors as they share lofty dreams of the fame and fortune they will achieve by the following New Year’s Eve. The sentiments of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lyrics ring true to many as a new year peeks above the horizon. The turning of the year often prompts reflection about the past and future.

While you may not dream of landing juicy parts or turning screenplays into motion pictures, you too may the want thrill of looking back on a year of progress on New Year’s Eve—and thinking about how things can be even better by this time next year.

Whether you are achieving a case volume or financial goal, opening new locations or hiring more attorneys, associates and staff members in 2014, your ambitions are going to require marketing. Spare the clichés about the changing online marketing arena and the new ways people look for a lawyer; the shift from phone books to web browsers has been happening for decades.

Here are six elements that deserve your attention in 2014. Settle in, grab some coffee: there is a lot to cover before you will be ready for your closeup.

Forward-Thinking Design
When you look at other websites for inspiration, remember that you are looking into the past. Other law firms may have certain labels, features and styles that appeal to you, but implementing exact elements may actually take your design backwards.

During the creation process, your designer may propose some ideas that do not reflect the current norm in your practice area. Taking a chance on forward-thinking designs can improve your conversion rate and keep your website looking modern for years into the future. As a law firm, your marketing efforts should differ from those of other ecommerce sites or local businesses; you should work with a design team that has extensive experience in the legal industry. Trust their judgment and ask for research to back up their proposed designs. Of course, creative processes are collaborative. Get actively involved, and do not be afraid to request changes. But keep an open mind if your designer presents layouts that are not in line with those of your competitors. Instead, design for tomorrow's users.

Design Tips

  • Try something your competitors are not doing.
  • Be open to creative, non-traditional styles.
  • Ask your design team to back up their proposals with data on user behavior.

Search Engine Rankings
2013 has arguably been Google’s most contradictory year to date. The updates and changes of the past year have proven that the company is not above the implementation of profit-enhancing double standards. September's issue of the Bigger Law Firm magazine explored Google's link scheme guidelines. Recall Google's adamant “no link-buying” rules—except for paid listings in business directories like YP.com and Business.com.

The encryption of keyword data displays Google’s most recent deception. Previously, when users conducted searches while logged in to their Google account (which encompasses Gmail, YouTube, and other profiles), Google passed that data to Google Analytics and other statistics packages as “keyword unknown” or “keyword undefined”. Now, Google is encrypting all keyword data, whether a user is logged in or not. The company will not pass along any information as to which keywords brought a user to your site . . . with one exception. If you are a Google Adwords client, firms can still see which keywords were used to access their site through a paid Google Ad.

This, in and of itself, is not worthy of outrage, but the company’s explanation for restricting keyword data insults the intelligence of every website owner. Google claims that this move has been made to protect the privacy of people conducting searches on their engine. But, by that logic, a user suddenly loses their right to privacy if they click on a paid listing.

Even with all of Google’s changes, one thing remains true: you have to be there. When your target audience searches for keywords related to your firm, you have to compete, and you have to rank relatively well among the results. But in 2014, a big change is coming: your ranking is no longer the only game in town.

It is no longer acceptable to focus your entire online marketing strategy around Google’s perception of the quality of your website. With a twist of irony, giving a little less thought to what Google wants will actually help you achieve success with it. Instead, pay more attention to the best strategies for your firm's brand. What Google wants is for you to ignore what Google wants . . . while following its rules, of course.

For better rankings in 2014, your strategy starts with a keyword review. Update yourself on the keywords people are using to find attorneys. While Google may not share which keywords are used to access your particular site, they are still tracking the popularity of keywords in their Keyword Selector tool (which, unfortunately, is also restricted to Adwords subscribers).

The Keyword tool will help you and your marketing manager determine the best way to reach your audience. A keyword is not necessarily one word like “lawyer”, but also phrases like “divorce lawyer” and “Boston divorce attorney”. A keyword could even be a configuration of words you are probably ignoring: “I need a divorce”.

As people interact with programs like Google Now and Google Glass, they are starting to ask direct questions and make full statements. The keyword landscape is going to change.

What once was “Boston bankruptcy lawyer” is now becoming “How do I declare bankruptcy?” Google knows the location of your firm and the location of the searching user. As people become aware of that change, city or region names in keyphrases will become as necessary as pterodactyl repellent.

Search Engine Ranking Tips

  • Your ranking is just one part of your online marketing strategy.
  • Review trends to discover new keywords and retire outdated ones.
  • Optimize content for conversational searches, not boilerplate keywords.
  • Expect Google to change the rules.

Pay-Per-Click Diversification
Pay-Per-Click (PPC) marketing has its place, and the strategy is definitely worth integrating into your 2014 marketing plan. But again, Google Adwords is no longer the only game.

If you want exposure for certain, specific, hard-to-achieve keywords, paying for each click will help you get it. But once someone clicks on your Ad, what happens? Do you send them to a conversional, simplified page featuring a contact form and testimonials? Do you send them to your home page? Do you immediately engage them with a pop-up chat request? For all three questions, the answer is “maybe”.

Each market and each audience is different. Sometimes, a landing page is the best way to convert your PPC traffic. Some audiences respond better to more content-packed pages of information. Pop-up chat boxes can improve some conversion rates, but they have also been known to destroy conversion and increase bounce rates. PPC is trial by expensive fire.

Your PPC manager should start with what generally works best (target keywords, target ad groups, concise landing pages, manually set bid maximums and just one or two networks). After one or two months, they should make some changes, modify the campaign, test landing pages against standard pages and expand to other networks.

Go beyond Google and consider Yahoo and Bing networks. Then, target audiences on Facebook and Twitter. If your firm is business- or employee-focused, LinkedIn ads offer impressively precise targeting. All of these networks are PPC. Some, like Google, Yahoo and Bing are based on searches (keyword-based), while the social networks’ PPC models are based on user activity, interests and credentials.

Long-Term or Short-Term?
PPC measures are sometimes seen as temporary, designed to drive targeted traffic to your law firm while your efforts towards search engine optimization are underway. But an expansive PPC campaign can do so much more.

A PPC campaign can reach people who are not searching directly for a lawyer. These potential clients may be reading an article related to their potential legal case, or talking to their friends on Facebook about a current event that can trigger an ad for your law firm. They may be in a demographic on LinkedIn that fits your firm's target audience. When you think about PPC beyond keyword bidding, you can use the strategy to attract clients who would never have discovered your firm by search.

Whether you test the waters or commit to a long-term, multi-network PPC strategy, you are at least guaranteed to increase name recognition. PPC campaigns only cost you money when someone clicks. In between clicks, your ads are landing thousands of impressions with searchers—and impressions alone are beneficial to your overall marketing goals.

Local Marketing (Not Just Google Local)

Local marketing is so much more than worrying about your position on the map in Google’s search results. In fact, after reviewing nearly 70 law firms’ websites spanning various practice areas and regions, Bigger Law Firm discovered that approximately 10 percent of their traffic originates from local directories.

To clarify, a “local directory” is not a directory that exists solely for your town. These websites deliver local business listings for communities across the country. Sites like Yelp, Yellowpages.com, Citysearch and Angie's List are all there to connect people with the businesses near them.

You can help your Google+ Local ranking by maintaining consistent data in many local directories, but remember to think outside Google. These directory websites collectively send you 10 percent of your traffic. They reach hundreds of millions of people each year. Your local marketing strategy should include some big networks, small networks, legal networks and aggregates.

Aggregates
An aggregate is a network that feeds other networks. Acxiom, LocalEze and Infogroup are all aggregates. You should see if Acxiom has your law firm's data. If they do, you can easily claim it and update it for accuracy. LocalEze charges businesses several hundred dollars annually, and, as such, may not be necessary to your marketing strategy. Infogroup’s “Express Update” tool is free, and an upgrade to Premium status offers you more control, across more sites, for a more reasonable $59/year. Express Update Premium is a fairly sound investment for your firm.

You can also claim individual listings on the networks fed by these aggregates (e.g. Yahoo, Bing, and Yelp), but you should still update your aggregate profiles to ensure that they contain accurate contact information across most networks.

Big Networks
Most of your traffic will come from Citysearch, Yelp, Manta, Yahoo Local, Bing Local and Local.com. With a service like Yext, you can claim these profiles and monitor reviews for $800-$1,200. As local, targeted directories become aware of their worth (both in their traffic delivery and their effect on Google+ Local rankings), they will charge you more for listings. As such, you need to allocate a budget for premium local listings in 2014.

Small Networks
Smaller, local networks are worth reviewing. Generally these networks are “hyper-local”, meaning that they only serve your region. This differs from a big network like Local.com, which serves local results to all localities. Make sure the small networks you find are reputable (and not just selling links). If they have a strong local following, and if legitimate consumers reference them when looking for services, then you may consider spending a small percentage of your budget on their listing fees. Don't expect small, hyper-local directories to do a lot for your search engine rankings. Their value is in their potential client base.

Legal Directories
Directories dedicated to the lawyer-client connection are necessary to your practice’s advertising. Major networks like Lawyers.com, FindLaw.com, Avvo, Nolo and HG attract considerable consumer attention. Some legal networks may offer full-service marketing plans, including websites and blanket search engine optimization. However, some “search engine optimization” services consist of little more than a place in a company’s directory. Skip the all-in-one solution and just purchase a directory listing. If a directory is exclusively for full-service marketing clients, you can assume they aren't attracting any consumer traffic. They are not worth the investment.

Remember, local directories can generate leads and quality links to help boost your search engine ranking and complement your Google+ Local profile. But networks that deliver leads, not just links, should be your top priority.

Knowledge Sharing (FAQs and Q&As)

Knowledge-based marketing is the future of content marketing, and its potential will grow even more in 2014. Here at least, Google didn’t make the changes; consumers are behaving differently. Now, knowledge is power.

More people are searching with questions. Search terms like “lawsuit work injury” have become “Can I sue my employer for an injury?” Certainly, Google has helped make this shift into a viable marketing tool; the engine now ranks websites based on the location of the business and the location of the searcher. But regardless of Google’s impact, today’s consumers simply want to find their information with question-based searches.

To rank well in response to questions, build a library of useful questions and answers on your website. “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) or “Question and Answer” (Q&A) articles are valuable for two reasons. First, they add pages of content to your site. And yes, the size of your website matters. Google may officially deny it, but most high-ranking firms have at least 100 pages of content. Second, FAQs act as low-traffic, long-tail keyphrases with considerable conversion rates. While fewer people may search for “Can I sue my employer for an injury?” those that do are more likely to convert to a lead than a user who searched for “work injury lawyer”.

By having many FAQs on your site, you can bring in all kinds of question-based traffic. But make sure the content is truly useful. Pairing common questions with pithy, yes-or-no answers will just add junk to your site and will earn your firm no favor from either users or search engines.

Content Amplification

Whether you know it or not, you have probably read an amplified article. Go to any news website, from USAToday.com to Bloomberg, and you will see thumbnails at the bottom of each story with news “from around the web”. These articles are paying for their placement through networks like Taboola and Outbrain.

These networks currently work best for businesses with nationwide audiences, but they are starting to test geotargeting. Soon, you will have the ability to pay for these advertorials to appear for readers in your city, or in the limited areas where you practice law.

Content amplification can really benefit your firm. Here is an example.

You place an article on your website with a really catchy headline, like “5 Mistakes that Make Your Will Worthless,” or “Is Your Lawyer Losing Your Injury Case?” A little mixture of topical relevance and hyperbole goes a long way for content amplification features.

Someone reads an article with some relevance to the topic, they see your recommended article and they click on it. In most cases, the process will cost less than $1, far less than keyword-based, pay-per-click marketing would.

Now, you have a visitor reading your catchy article right on your website. These can become very popular, serving two purposes.

1) Generate leads.
2) Generate likes. Now that the visitor is on your site and reading your content, they might share it on their social networks.

Content amplification isn't just for news. Go social and give your Facebook updates a Boost.

Facebook's Boost allows a user to pay to give a particular status update more exposure. Select a budget of $15-$60, and for the next day or so, your post will be displayed to a relevant audience. Relevant audiences are determined by the demographics you give Facebook and the social network's ability to place your content in front of the right people.

In September of 2013, the Virginia elder law and estate planning firm, Hook Law Center, won an Outstanding Website award from the Web Marketing Association. They announced that they had won the award to their fans on their Facebook wall, and then paid Facebook for a Boost.

The average update on Hook Law Center's Facebook page reaches over 100 readers. They have a healthy following and respectable reach. So, what was the reach for their Boosted article? A couple hundred? A thousand? Try 5,046.

By pushing the announcement to a wide audience, they garnered more followers, which in turns helped with the continuing marketing efforts of the firm.

Content amplification can bring home readers when you have big news. You can engage social network followers or use catchy headlines to attract a new audience of people—people who are not searching the web, looking on local directories or asking questions. It’s the powerful cherry on your market saturation sundae.

Facebook Boost has impressive targeting potential, but check in with Taboola and Outbrain later in 2014 to see how their geotargeting efforts are progressing.

Closing
By this time next year, you may not be a blockbuster celebrity or have your Martin Schoeller photograph on the cover of TIME. But with forward-thinking design, enhanced local marketing, diversified pay-per-click strategies, knowledge-based marketing, content amplification, and a small shift in the way you think about online marketing, you can get and win new cases to become a celebrity in the eyes of your vindicated clients.

The red carpet is rolled out. Potential clients are weaving problems that will require your solutions. It's a new year and the cameras are rolling . . . ACTION!

About Author

Jason Bland is a regular contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine covering legal news, tech related litigation, and marketing strategies that effect highly competitive practice areas.

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