This is a very fair question that we’ve been asked quite a bit in the past. Although, these days we’re more often asked: “I used to get a lot of my business from referrals, but that is drying up. How can I start getting new business from online marketing?”
A couple of years ago we wanted to better understand how people find a lawyer when they are presented with a legal issue. We surveyed over a thousand consumers and the data was very clear: people still rely on family and friends for a referral.
UPDATE: With the release of the 2019 Clio Legal Trends Report at the Clio Cloud conference last month, we still see that almost 60% of prospects rely on referrals to find a lawyer. Note that there is an overlap of about 16% of people who start with a referral then switch to searching online. This still matches up very well with the research we did a couple of years ago.
Searching online was also very popular, but it seemed referrals weren’t disappearing anytime soon— or were they?
The data said referrals and word-of-mouth was still strong; but as we spoke with law firms across the country, we started to hear a different story. Law firms were telling us that they are not receiving as much referral business as they had in years past.
When we went back and reviewed our clients’ law firm website analytics data, we saw an interesting point surface.
As a law firm cleans up their web presence online for their branded search—searches made on an attorney’s name or the name of their law firm— their web traffic increased.
They just cleaned up the results on the first page when searched on their law firm or lawyers’ names.
No fancy SEO for competitive keywords, no paid traffic on Google AdWords, not even a big change in the content on the website initially. Just a clean-up of directory listings, some social media pages, and gaining several reviews.
That minimal effort led to more traffic to the firm’s website and more phone calls/leads for the law firm.
How can that be?
These firms were early in their process with us; they were not yet ranking on big competitive keywords like “divorce lawyer” or “car accident attorney,” but their traffic had a statistically significant increase.
I even remember a call one of our Strategic Account Managers had with a particular client … this client was excited their phone was ringing more and was assuming we were over-delivering by having them ranked in under three months.
We told them they still were not ranking on the first page for the targeted practice areas we agreed would take about 9–12 months, but, in fact, we were able to see a majority of the traffic driven to their website from the search engines was when someone was typing the lawyers’ names.
The client was left to wonder why they were suddenly getting more people looking for their firm when nothing else had really changed except some of the directory listing cleanup and a few reviews that we encouraged them to gather from clients.
Here is an example:
Figure 1: Tronfeld West and Durrett site traffic from June 1–September 30, 2016, before their new site launched.
Figure 2: Tronfeld West and Durrett site traffic after new site launch, from October 2, 2016–January 30, 2017.
Tronfeld West and Durrett had 2,229 sessions from June 1–Sep 30, 2016 (see Figure 1). From after the site went live on October 2, 2016 to January 30, 2017, their sessions were 3,364— that is a 50.92% increase in traffic—which can really only be attributed to branded search work like directory listings, reviews, and very basic on-site SEO.
While looking at this data, one of our analysts reminded us about the survey GNGF conducted that I referred to above.
In that survey, we also asked the question, “When do you visit a law firm’s website?” and provided a few different options.
A key takeaway from that survey was a significant majority of people were visiting the law firm website before they contacted the firm or met the lawyer for the first time.
The answers to that survey question even led us to state at CLEs:
“the importance of your law firm website was as important as your office, lobby, receptionist, etc. because it is the first impression many people have about your law firm”.
While we still feel quite strongly about the importance of appropriately positioning your brand and carrying that into a quality law firm website, what our analyst asked the team was, “How are people getting to the law firm’s website?” That was obvious, most people are going to Google and searching for the lawyer or firm name.
What our analyst pointed out was that when searching the lawyer or firm name, if things aren’t set up right, you may not find the website or even any information about the lawyer. Even worse, if left unmonitored, sometimes the search results could include old phone numbers, old websites, or include a past negative review you may not even know you had.
The first thing we always do when working with a new client is clean up the information showing up on the first page of the search engines for the key lawyers and the law firm names.
What this analyst so smartly connected was the reason the website traffic initially increased without the more complex and expensive SEO and/or paid advertising, was that people were already looking for the firm based on referrals.
What we did was simply help the referrals find the law firm when they were searching for it. As one of our law firm clients said, “We helped protect their referrals.”
Law Firms: referrals are not dead, but the process for a law firm referral reaching you typically starts with a web search.
We are confident receiving referrals is still the most powerful technique for building a successful and sustainable law firm. But the process has changed.
Only ten to fifteen years ago, a prospective client referred to your firm would either:
- get your phone number and address from their friend
- be given your actual business card
- actually look up your phone number in the phonebook (remember those?)
The phone call and subsequent office visit was your chance to leave a good first impression. Now, however, referrals are checking you out without you even knowing it. They are not calling or dropping by the office; instead, they are first researching you online.
Here is a scenario how we see referrals working these days:
Larry owns a company earning $8 million per year in gross revenue. He and his business partners are splitting up the organization over a dispute about the future of the company. While at a barbeque, Larry asks his friend, Cheryl, who runs a large company, if she knows any good business attorneys that may be able to help with his situation. Cheryl tells Larry about a matter she faced several years ago and how her attorney, Kandi, really helped.
Instead of waiting for Robert to return to his computer at work to send Kandi’s contact information, Larry easily takes his phone out of his pocket and opens up a search browser, typing Kandi’s full name into the mobile device. What appears is something that may look like the following:
Seeing Kandi is well regarded through reviews, Larry clicks on a link to the website. Kandi’s law firm has information on their website speaking directly to the problem Larry is facing, so he clicks on the live text chat option and asks them to schedule an appointment for the next week.
Armed with just a name, today’s consumer will search for you or your firm on Google; check review sites such as Facebook, Google, or Avvo; and, of course, visit your website—well before they even think about calling you. If they don’t like what is seen during the search, they may never call you. Maybe you don’t have reviews, and the firm just above or below you in the search results has a lot of positive reviews. Or, maybe your site looks like a basic template that could have been designed in ten minutes using tools from GoDaddy or Wix.
At the end of the day, even though you have done a great job for your clients and built a strong referral network, you are likely losing referrals due to a poor online presence.
LAW FIRMS: IF YOUR WEB PRESENCE IS MISSING KEY PIECES, YOU ARE LOSING REFERRAL BUSINESS YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YOU HAD.
Paying close attention to the details of your web presence helps you mitigate possible losses to your referral business.
This is not to imply you need to spend hundreds of hours or $200,000 a year on your web presence. Rather, you need to dominate the first page of Google search results when someone searches for you or your firm, have a mobile-ready presence, and provide social proof demonstrating you are a trusted source for legal counsel.
It’s important to know what information is tied to your name on the internet.
When Googling the name of one firm during an audit, they were appalled to discover the fourth return on page one of Google for one of their partner’s names was “[Lawyer Name] child sex offender.”
You can imagine the look of horror on his face when we had to break this news to him. No, the attorney was not a sex offender—it was merely someone else who had the same name.
We only bring this up to stress the importance of owning page one for your name or at least ensuring there isn’t any disparaging information on the page.
If there is, do not panic. You will have to work a bit harder than most to build online profiles, obtain reviews, and improve your web presence. Eventually, you should be able to push that information off of page one of Google. By adding more positive associations to your name and/or firm, the inaccurate listings and negative reviews will weaken.
Referrals are a strong driver of new business for many law firms.
We often tell lawyers to start their online strategy by focusing on their branded keywords to protect their referral business.
It would be disappointing to lose a referral you didn’t even know existed because they were not able to find information about you online, or because the information online did not match the perceived quality based on the great comments from the person who referred you.
More ways to learn about how to grow your law firm with online marketing:
- Check out our upcoming Facebook live sessions
- Grab a copy of our best-selling book Online Law Practice Strategies
- Schedule a 30-minute consultation audit with one of our legal marketing experts
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