Sponsored Stories: Facebook’s legal marketing breakthrough?

The last time I looked at Facebook for law firms, the network was still using “Fan Pages,” which I thought was a nice but not critical feature for law firm communications. Since then, the Fan Page has evolved into the ubiquitous “Like” function, Facebook has added about 100 million more members, and the site has shown signs of becoming something far more interesting to law firms: a legal marketing service.

Earlier this year, Facebook introduced a new feature called “Sponsored Stories.” The name is half-accurate: they’re certainly sponsored, but it’s a stretch to call them stories. Currently, in your Facebook news stream, you’re notified whenever one of your friends clicks the “Like” button on a Facebook page — or in fact, on any page anywhere on the internet (such as an article on CNN.com or at The Onion).

Nothing unusual there — part of the fun of Facebook is that you can point your friends in the direction of something interesting or amusing simply by “Liking” it. It costs nothing to Like and costs nothing to notice the Like, which is why most news streams are filled with Likes, and after awhile you stop paying much attention to them. Facebook has long wanted to leverage this sort of activity by its users, but it learned from its 2008 Beacon debacle not to automatically broadcast news of a user’s purchases to his or her friends. So it had to come up with something else. Now it has.

Facebook has hatched a plan to monetize the Like. “Sponsored Stories” offers businesses the opportunity to upgrade the impact of a Like, moving it out of the ordinary news stream and into a separate box on the right-hand side of the column. Every time a user Likes a product or service, checks in at a coffee shop or shoe store, or otherwise connects with a company that has paid to join the Sponsored Stories program, the box appears on the page of all of that user’s friends. In turn, if that friend Likes the Sponsored Story or the product behind it, that fact is posted to all of his or her friends’ pages, and so forth. This video explains how it works, and this Mashable article provides more details.

What’s Facebook up to? MIT’s Technology Review answers that question in an intriguing article titled, “You are the ad.” Some excerpts:

Facebook aims to be not just a place to advertise but an entirely new way to advertise — one that uses the power of social networks to create and amplify brand messages. In essence, the company is pushing a highly charged version of word of mouth, long seen as the most valuable of all marketing because people view friends’ recommendations as more credible than marketers’. …

“This is in many ways the Holy Grail of marketing: making your customers your marketers,” says [Facebook COO Sheryl] Sandberg…. “For the first time, you can do word-of-mouth marketing at massive scale.” To put it another way, when we use Facebook we no longer just view the ad; we become the ad.

What sets Facebook apart from online rivals, especially Google, is that its advertising is aimed not at influencing immediate purchases but at branding, something online ads have never done very well. “We’re not really demand fulfillment, when you’ve already figured out what you’re going to buy — that’s search,” explains Sandberg … “We’re demand generation, before you know you want something.”

This is something altogether new in the online advertising world, and although it’s off to a relatively slow start, “Sponsored Stories” taps into a very real facet of social networks: a genuine interest in what your friends like to read, use and do. Facebook is absolutely right that recommendations and word-of-mouth are the most powerful marketing tools, and it realizes that shaping brands — “demand generation” — is poised to pick up where traditional advertising (including Google’s search function) leaves off. If this works, Facebook can transform itself from a social phenomenon into a marketing juggernaut.

Why does any of this matter to law firms? Because personal recommendations and referrals just happen to be the way most consumers and small businesses (and a number of large companies too, I’ll wager) choose a lawyer. What did you do the last time you needed a lawyer in an unfamiliar area of practice for a personal matter? Most likely, you asked a friend or family member who they’ve used in the past or who they’d recommend. And when it comes to friends and family members, Facebook has about 600 million of them on hand.

So consider the result of a lawyer or law firm signing up for the “Sponsored Stories” program. The firm’s Facebook page already has a “Like” button, but the firm’s website and blog could add such buttons too. Every time a Facebook member “Likes” something about the firm, that fact is promoted to all the member’s friends.

Now, how many of those friends will be looking for a lawyer at that very moment? Vanishingly few — people looking for lawyers at a given moment are using Google. But those friends will all see the recommendation, will take note of the firm’s name, and will lodge that information somewhere in their cerebral cortex, theoretically to be retrieved when the need for a lawyer does arise — or more interestingly, will perhaps get them thinking about their own nagging legal needs. That’s demand generation, and that’s a very intriguing concept for a legal profession looking for new sources of business.

Caveats abound. Most midsize, large, and full-service firms would find little value in a service like this today (although in future, who knows the degree to which even the biggest corporate GCs will be using Facebook). As the MIT article notes, “Sponsored Stories” is in its infancy and hasn’t come close to Google’s ad revenue; the whole project might be abandoned if it doesn’t fly (although Zuckerberg & Co. seem deeply committed to it). Facebook itself has no guarantee of a long and fulfilling existence.

But the core of an extremely interesting concept for online legal marketing is definitely here. Good lawyers create relationships of trust and reputations for reliability with their clients. Personal endorsements from trusted friends are a very powerful tool for generating legal business. Any company that can connect these facts and create a relationship cascade through a social media platform should get the legal profession’s attention.

Comments

  1. Jason Wilson said:

    Jordan,

    Thinking about this, I’ll add the related concept of creating a memorable brand name. Brian Rogers mentioned this on the Three Geeks blog this morning, and I have to say that for a lot of mid-level firms, the practice of naming a firm after the last names of partners seems outmoded.

    @ 2:16 pm
  2. Great post–one problem I see, however, is that checking into a lawyer’s office or a law firm is different than Starbucks or the gym. I’m not sure that the general public are going to see attorneys for happy reasons: think bankruptcy, criminal law, divorce, PI. Would you really want to broadcast to your entire FB network that you have a legal problem? Something for law firms and attorneys to be sensitive about when sponsoring stories.

    @ 2:21 pm
  3. Jason, that’s a good point — I do think a branded name is going to become a significant marketing point for law firms down the road. The sooner we’re rid of Smith Jones Robinson LLP as the default naming structure, the better.

    Courtney, another good point. :-) You’re right, there are limits to the extent to which any law firm will ever be “liked,” upper- or lower-case. It’s a little akin to Liking a funeral home — there’s really no good time to interact with a company like that. But even to a lesser degree, I think some folks will be OK with it, and there’s always the option to Like a firm’s website or blog. What it really creates is tremendous motivation for the firm to really build a great FB page, which can be crafted to send very positive messages about the firm. Lots of possibilities here….

    @ 2:33 pm
  4. Simon Lewis said:

    To do well on FB, maybe lawyers need to work harder at not being seen in the same negative category as funeral homes or rather Susskind’s “ambulance at the bottom of the hill”. Instead aim to be more “likeable” as the “fence at the top of the hill.”

    @ 1:07 am
  5. [...] or her credibility to a person, place or thing via an endorsement. (It’s also the basis of Facebook’s advertising hopes, by the way). If your friend Likes something, you’re more inclined to give it a look because [...]

    @ 10:06 am
  6. [...] Sponsored stories: Facebook’s legal marketing breakthrough? considers a new advertising gambit by Facebook that might actually make sense for lawyers. [...]

    @ 11:54 am