The Controversial Link-Building Practice That Google Will Not Penalize Your Law Firm for Using
BY Tony Chiaramonte
Often, law firms prefer to play it safe with their online marketing strategy for fear of scaring off potential clients. This is reflected in the language law firms use on their websites, as well as the topics of the blog posts. However, if there is one thing that gets people talking, especially in today’s high-conflict society, it is controversy.
Controversy stokes conversation, for better or worse. Not only that, but it can also drive customers to make – or not to make – purchases. More people than ever are basing their purchasing habits on their own personal beliefs, and how the beliefs and actions of businesses conform to their perceived identity. Indeed, according to a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of customers worldwide either buy or boycott a brand based on the brand’s stance on social or political issues. In the United States, those aged 18 to 34, as well as those who make a higher-than-average income are the most likely to make purchasing decisions on a business’s stance on a social or political issue, with 69 percent of respondents claiming to do so. For the risk-averse partners out there, this may be exactly the reason why many avoid discussing controversial topics in firms’ online content. However, there is a growing body of support for the idea that taking a stand on certain social, political and legal issues is an effective link-building strategy.
Just as controversy sparks conversation in person, it has the same effect online. It is for this reason that almost all presidential candidates are active on multiple social media websites and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for ads on these platforms. The internet also gives people who may not otherwise feel comfortable making their voice heard a way to make their beliefs known. Thus, when people see something controversial, they frequently share it with their friends and family members, giving the content greater exposure. In some cases, a post goes viral, which occurs when a post gets 40,000 hits within a period of four hours. Naturally, all this sharing generates a lot of backlinks for the original content.
Law firms, in particular, are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this link-building strategy because many of their clients are dealing with shared legal issues. Law firms may be able to more easily identify an issue that concerns most or all of their clients, and take a public stand on that issue. Depending on the practice area, many firms will be able to determine how a shared legal problem might translate into a particular stance on a social, political or legal issue. Doing so can humanize firms and show prospective clients that the firms’ ideals are in line with their own. In today’s belief-centered buying culture, shared belief may be the determining factor that triggers a phone call or click-through.
The Potential Risks of Taking a Stand
No marketing strategy is without its risks, and publicly taking a stand on a controversial issue is no exception. Taking such a position will inevitably attract “trolls,” who will delight in posting inflammatory comments and, in some cases, wage counter campaigns against a firm. Attracting trolls is not so much a downside, as the attention trolls bring as they share a firm’s controversial content with fellow trolls can help with link building. Not to mention, attorneys who practice in a related area may very well have superior knowledge of the issues and may be able to use this as an opportunity to showcase their wit, ability and even good humor. Of course, attorneys should avoid looking petty or vindictive, and should remain professional in all responses.
While negative attention is not necessarily a drawback to taking a public position on a controversial issue, it is time-consuming. Vigilance and consistency are also crucial. Otherwise, a firm’s social media pages may be flooded with unanswered comments, giving off the impression the firm bit off more than it could chew. The bottom line is that taking a stand on an important issue may not be wise unless a firm has the resources needed to follow-up and see the campaign through to the end.
Know the Audience
A law firm needs to know its audience before publicly taking a stand on any important, controversial issue. Firms should thoroughly research the topic and strategically plan how to go about making their position known. Naturally, this will be easier for some law firms than others, depending on the firm’s practice area(s). A firm’s inability to accurately assess the beliefs of its client base runs the risk of isolating potential clients.
Once these issues have been identified, firms must determine how their audience thinks about that issue, as well as other related issues. In some cases, it may be helpful to take the analysis a step further and consider how the feelings of an audience translate into voting habits. Many firms will have an idea of what their potential client base believes are on an issue. However, there can be no substitute for actual data, if it is available.
As mentioned above, many law firms, depending on their practice areas, will have a good sense of how potential clients feel about a particular social, political or legal issue. For example, a criminal defense attorney may feel comfortable taking a stand on general criminal justice reform issues without fear of isolating their clients. Similarly, an estate planning attorney can likely identify certain news issues of importance to their older clients.
Firms should thoroughly think through an issue before publicly declaring a position. Some issues that may seem ripe for a controversy-based link-building campaign could end up isolating an important portion of a firm’s client base. For example, a criminal defense attorney who occasionally represents police officers in criminal matters may choose to avoid taking a stand on any matter that could be seen as being anti-police or anti-law enforcement. Similarly, estate planning attorneys who cater exclusively to wealthy clientele may consider taking a different approach from an estate planning firm that represents lower-income clients.
Most firms will have a concept of which matters are important to their audience, however, for firms that represent parties on both sides of a potential dispute, such as employment lawyers, it may be challenging to find an issue. If a firm cannot confidently identify an issue that the vast majority of its audience will be behind, it is better not to take a stand.
Staking a Position
When an issue has been identified and the firm’s position clearly articulated, it is time to get the firm’s message out there. Lawyers should be careful in how the post or press release is written, to maintain the firm’s professional image. However, the content should also be approachable for the average reader and not overly technical or legalistic.
Taking a stand in silence will expose the firm to risk from critics without positioning the firm to benefit from any buzz created by its position. By creating a campaign that is centered around the issue, firms can raise awareness and make sure that important people in the community are aware of the firm’s position. Along those lines, firms should specifically identify and reach out to known social media influencers who are involved in the particular issue the firm is discussing, as well as any people of local interest, such as politicians or other public figures.
Planning Is Key
As with most online marketing efforts, planning is key when it comes to implementing a campaign around taking a public stance on a controversial issue. That said, with the right perspective, and enough research into firms’ audience and their beliefs, law firms may be able to increase their backlinks significantly, and overall exposure, by taking a stand. Of course, firms should keep in mind that a controversy-based link-building campaign is a specialized strategy that will not work for all firms or practice areas. However, when done right, firms will increase their search engine presence as well as brand loyalty.
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