When you try to be all things to everyone, you run the risk of winding up as nothing to anyone. That simple truth still eludes many businesses and organizations that consider their target market to be “everybody” or think that they can survive with a “general” mandate in a relentlessly diversifying world.
When I was running a national lawyer magazine, we recognized that we simply couldn’t provide reasonable coverage of every type of law practice and every sort of law-related issue potentially germane to the readership. So we decided to focus on business and client service issues for law firms and to track developing changes in the marketplace. Our choice wasn’t any better or worse than any other; what matters is that we had to choose to concentrate on some areas and only occasionally touch on the rest.
A similar strategic challenge faces “full-service” law firms. We sometimes refer to such organizations as “big firms” or “BigLaw,” but I think that’s misleading: I’ve seen firms with as few as 30 lawyers and firms with as many as 2,000 both describe themselves as “full-service,” meaning they offer a range of legal services that meet the vast majority of marketplace needs. But here’s the problem: the more you try to do and the more markets you try to engage, the thinner you stretch yourself and the harder it is to identify just what you’re all about.
This dilemma is currently manifesting itself in, of all things, the debate over whether and to what degree full-service firms can use Twitter. My friends at The Lawyer newspaper in London started the ball rolling with an article about a marketing agency’s ranking of major UK law firms on Twitter. The agency’s report raised, but perhaps insufficiently emphasized, the unusual spectacle of Norton Rose’s 10th-place position in the list despite having Tweeted exactly zero times.
Brian Inkster’s The Time Blawg has an excellent summary of the enormous debate that has ensued among lawyers, marketers and social media advisors. The commentary on Brian’s post poses the fundamental question raised by the report: can a large law firm use Twitter at all? There’s a developing sense that the answer to that question is no, for a variety of reasons. My contribution is to suggest that a large (or full-service) firm faces challenges in using Twitter, but perhaps not the ones we might think.
Some commenters believe that big firms can’t use Twitter because a faceless corporate entity can’t engage with its followers: it can’t answer questions, participate in dialogues or otherwise affix a personality to the logo. I’m not sure I agree, because I don’t think Twitter is primarily an engagement tool. Using Twitter to have conversations is like standing at the front of a room with a microphone holding one-on-one discussions with individual audience members: everyone else has to endure one half of a dialogue in which they likely have little interest. Those who’ve experienced overly interactive CLE presentations will know what this feel like.
Instead, I think full-service firms struggle with Twitter precisely because they are full-service — their mandate is to be all things to everyone, or at least many things to many clients. Successful Twitter accounts are always about something in particular, whereas full-service firms are about legal services in general. Faced not with the problem of having too little to say but the challenge of having too much, full-service firms make the same error on Twitter that they often make in other marketing efforts: fear of committing to a narrative, fear of focus, fear of failing to regularly remind everyone that they’re available to do everything. As a result, the firm’s Twitter feed ends up focusing on the firm itself; hence the endless line of big-firm Twitter feeds that do nothing but link to the firms’ own announcements and articles.
The solution, I believe, is for a full-service firm to develop a range of Twitter accounts, each devoted to and operated by a practice or industry group. As I’ve written before, I think Twitter is a publishing vehicle, and as noted above, it’s difficult to publish coherently about a massive range of topics. But a practice or industry group can provide that level of focus and specificity, and as a result it will attract readers (aka potential clients) interested in that focus while still carrying the firm name and reinforcing the firm brand.
What the UK Twitter report didn’t point out, but should have, is that boutiques and smaller firms produce many of the best law firm Twitter feeds — not because they’re more “personal” and “engaging,” I believe, but because they necessarily pursue a narrow focus: they’re restricted in the type of work they offer and/or the marketplaces in which they offer it. That restrictiveness used to be a marketing drawback; nowadays, in a billion-channel long-tail market in which people can find precisely what they’re looking for, that focus and restriction has become a marketing advantage.
Full-service firms can copy that advantage by giving their practice groups (or preferably, industry groups, with a client viewpoint) the opportunity to develop their own narratives on Twitter, not to mention through blogs and other social media vehicles. So far, I’ve found only two full-service law firms that maintain practice group Twitter accounts: Winston & Strawn’s advertising law group and Perkins Coie’s privacy and security group (courtesy My Corporate Resource chart) — I invite you to let me know about other examples in the comments section. These accounts direct readers to interesting and useful information, sometimes their own and sometimes others’, exactly the way a good Twitter feed should.
Full-service firms can use Twitter effectively by harnessing the power of their practice groups to dive deep into a subject, engage readers on the specific issues that concern them, and demonstrate a mastery of the subject area at hand. Firms with many such niche Twitter feeds, in turn, will realize that they’ve found a way to explain to a 21st-century marketplace what “full-service” now really means.