It’s probably an understatement to say that the nature and impact of social media are not yet fully understood within the legal profession. So I want to try making two points in this article. The first is to explain to lawyers what social media actually is. The second is to go much farther and demonstrate that, at least in one respect, social media is virtually tailor-made for lawyers.
For more than a century, newspapers, radio and television have dominated public discourse, to the point that we collectively think of them as a colossal wave of content called the “media.” But that’s not accurate. Newspapers, radio and TV don’t create content — they distribute it. The word “media” actually signifies empty vehicles or containers used to carry something of substance. Reporters create content; radio playwrights create content; sitcom producers create content; newsprint, radio waves and TV signals don’t. The “media” are simply the mechanisms by which this content is profitably sold and efficiently circulated to the end user (at virtually no charge, thanks to advertising).
We need to understand Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in the same way: they’re media. None of these gargantuan social networks creates one ounce of content (and neither does Google, by the way). They distribute other people’s content to their users, and they’re working on essentially the same advertising-driven business model as newspapers and TV. The significant difference between “old” and “new” media is that in the latter case, the content’s consumers are often also the content producers. (Often, but not always: Hulu should eventually trump YouTube, for example, because more people want to watch professionally produced content than home videos of babies and kittens. And as the Bin Laden story illustrates, Twitter amplifies official news, but it doesn’t create it.)
Now, blogs are not media. Blogs are content. A blog is a one-person (or one-organization) publishing house with a narrow editorial focus, very low costs, and an extremely small number of authors. In terms law firms are familiar with, a blog is an electronic newsletter published on a web page and updated in real time. Your law firm can create and maintain a blog because your law firm produces content — principally through your lawyers’ expression of their knowledge and insights in their subject areas.
Your firm might be quite good at creating content (although 80% of what lawyers write and say could be written and said far more clearly and usefully, from their audience’s perspective). But your firm, in all likelihood, is not very good at distributing content. Your mail and email lists are small, and anyway, unsolicited content delivered through these media nowadays is very likely to be quickly recycled or deleted. And it’s not like you own a printing plant.
So you need a better distribution system for your content. Up until about five years ago, you’d have had to try getting your lawyers’ articles or insights featured in newspapers and magazines. But those media have very narrow doors through which tons of legal content is trying to squeeze; the entry costs are high. But then along came Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and suddenly you had a range of extraordinarily powerful and accessible distribution platforms within easy reach. Hundreds of millions of people collectively access content through these services every day, and you can add your content to these vehicles with tremendous ease.
So this is the first thing lawyers need to understand: they are content producers, but they are not content distributors. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are distributors, and law firms should channel their content (through blogs, newsletters, podcasts, videos, whatever) into these vehicles. When you hear someone say that “lawyers ought to be using social media,” this is what they mean (or what they should mean, anyway).
That’s the first point. Here’s the second: social media are actually ideal for lawyers, because both social media and law practices rely on the same functionality: the recommendation.
- Twitter lives and breathes through the ReTweet: a recommendation (through repetition or forwarding) by one user of insightful, funny, or important content in another user’s Tweet. The ReTweet rewards the creator of a high-quality Tweet with peer recognition and a wider audience for his or her information, but this only works because the ReTweeter’s readers trust his or her judgment and will pay attention to his or her endorsement.
- Facebook’s Like button, which was on zero websites when it first launched and is on 2.5 million one year later, is nothing but a recommendation engine: one user’s decision to lend his 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 of that recommendation.
- LinkedIn drives users’ desire for better career prospects through its Recommend function: if a direct contact in your network has recommended the work of another, that person earns instant credibility with you. But you don’t even need a specific Recommendation: just the fact that a person on LinkedIn is directly connected to your colleague or friend can provide at least a small degree of confidence in that person’s bona fides.
And the recommendation, as we all know, also happens to be the core business development tool of the legal profession. A potential client might come to you because she was dazzled by an article you wrote or an interview you gave. She might come to you because you were charming and approachable at a community event. She might come to you because your Yellow Pages ad was the biggest and yellowest.
But more often than not, a client comes to a lawyer because a family member, friend or colleague whom she trusts recommended that lawyer. It’s a truism that the best marketing a lawyer can do is to serve a client successfully and well; lawyers who accomplish that feat can and do expect new business to flow in through the client’s recommendations.
That’s what I think lawyers should keep in mind when considering how to use social media in their marketing and business development efforts. What powers social media and what powers legal marketing is really the same thing: the trustworthy recommendation. So you might want to think about ways to expand that common ground between your practice and the increasingly crowded and chaotic — but really remarkably simple — social media world.