I’ve been on a couple of calls recently in which the attorney I was talking to asked me this very question, “should I invest my marketing budget in SEO or in paid ads?”
On the surface, while it looks like a relatively straightforward question, there are a large
Let’s look at the typical attorney that reaches out to us. They either own their own firm or are a partner in law firm. They are looking to grow the amount of the leads from the internet and have a limited budget to do so. They have bounced around from various marketing agencies, multiple strategies, and still haven’t quite found the answer.
Most of the attorneys I speak to have used Google Ads before. Most of them have been burned by it. They usually say that they invested quite a bit of money and saw zero return.
The same can be said about SEO. They invested money in a line item called “SEO” and feel they didn’t see any tangible return.
With one or both of the tactics providing no return, what answer can we give to figure out if one, or both, are viable marketing strategies?
Let’s step back and try and figure out why the return on SEO and SEM were not enough to invest. Usually, the main reasons law firms don’t see a return are one or more of the following:
- Lack of proper tracking
- Poor optimization
- Lack of a goal-focused strategy
Lack of Proper Tracking
Let’s start with the first cause, lack of proper tracking. It should go without saying that it makes sense to track the effectiveness of any marketing effort that you do. That can be both online and offline. However, we oftentimes see issues in the efforts to track the ROI, or worse, no tracking whatsoever.
When running an SEM campaign, (SEM stands for search engine marketing, also called paid advertising) whether it’s Facebook, Google, or another platform, tracking is absolutely essential. You are paying money for traffic. Every single click, or impression, has a clear monetary value associated to it. You have the ability to track a whole host of metrics, such as visits, impressions, pages per visit, conversions, and more down to the penny.
The goal of any SEM campaign is to gain the most clients you can for the least amount of dollars possible. Unlike other forms of marketing, this is the most detailed breakdown you will find.
You can receive 100 clicks in a month from a Google paid advertising campaign and spend $5,000 doing it. If you do not properly set up tracking, and therefore have no idea how many clients came out of that effort, you might as well just take that $5,000 out of the bank and burn it.
You should be tracking everything you can: form fills, live chats, phone calls, text messages, and any other forms of communication you have.
You NEED to know your ROI.
This is where the next phase of tracking comes in. What is your optimal ROI? What is your ideal lead value?
Is $100 per lead a good value for you? What about $250? What is your average client value? If your client value on average is $7,500, a cost per lead of $250 might be great for your firm. It’s ~3% of your overall client value. Now, realistically not every lead will turn into a client. Let’s say one out of four leads turns into a client. Now you’ve spent $1,000 to get a $7,500 client. That’s 13% of the total value of the client. Maybe that’s a fine number for your firm. But if your goal is to spend about 8% of the total client value in the acquisition efforts then you either need to up the value of the client or lower the acquisition cost. Assuming your goal is an 8% acquisition cost, you now need to lower your cost per lead to $150 in order to maintain the proper margin.
This exercise is extremely important in understanding where the true value of any marketing strategy lies.
Now, if you can consistently keep your cost per client at $600 and your average case value doesn’t decrease, paid advertising is a great way to grow your firm. But unless you can track all of that consistently, you will never understand the whole picture. Your decisions should always be based on the data available to you. If you don’t have the data, you can’t make an informed decision. That’s why tracking is so important to understand.
From a pure numbers game, it’s so much easier to quantify the efforts of SEM versus SEO. While, the same tracking principles are the same for SEO, it’s really hard to get the full picture of the efforts of SEO vs. SEM.
With SEO, you are usually paying a lump sum over a period of time. For example, you invest $50,000 over the course of the year in order to increase the search engine position of the firm, which in turn should result in more clients. Your average case value is still $7,500, so you need 7 new cases from the SEO efforts to break even on your investment. Now, of course you don’t just want to break even, you want to grow.
Let’s say, for simplicity, you want to generate an additional $100,000 in revenue from SEO efforts. That means that you need to generate 20 new clients from the SEO efforts to do that.
The hard part about SEO tracking is that there are so many other variables. We don’t know exactly what someone searches to find you on Google. You could have met someone at a networking event, they have a legal issue a couple of months later, they go on Google and type in your name and go to the site. Once on the site, they fill out a form. All of your data readily available to you tells you that the lead came from Google, which may sound like it is a direct reflection of SEO efforts. But where is the value at? Do you value the initial introduction? Do you value the fact that when they Googled your name that they saw 25 positive reviews, read your attorney bio, went to three more pages on your website, then filled out a form?
As a marketer, I want to put the value on the work done to improve your online presence. But you also put out effort to ensure that client remembered you enough to Google you.
This is the attribution problem.
If you only attribute leads to the last interaction, you could be missing a bigger piece of the puzzle. Unlike SEM campaigns where you can look at every click, every visit, and tie it back to a specific search in Google, SEO is a lot harder.
That’s why when we talk about the value of SEO, we are forced to look at the bigger picture. Last year you didn’t invest anything into SEO. This year you invested $50,000 and received 25 more leads than last year. All things constant, you can attribute at least a large portion of those new leads to the SEO efforts.
Further, the $50,000 you spend this year carries into value for future years, compounding the attribution / ROI issue.
I wish it was easier to quantify the specific aspects of SEO to new clients, but it is a difficult problem that we, as well as other marketing agencies, still struggle with.
Knowing your numbers, having proper tracking in place, and transparency in reporting your numbers, allows both the agency and your law firm to understand the ROI of efforts.
The second problem that I often end up uncovering is the lack of optimization of both SEO and SEM campaigns. This also includes the failure to understand what services were being provided.
There is actually a guideline by Google that requires agencies handling Paid Advertising accounts for clients to be transparent in their activities, reporting of metrics, and full disclosure of their fees.
Google states: “The agency may not disclose how the advertising budget is allocated. Make sure that you get an official copy of your agreement in writing.”
They also state: “You have a right to know, at a minimum, the number of clicks, impressions, and cost of your Google ads.”
If your agency is not giving you information regarding your campaign, hiding their fees, or promising you guaranteed results, you should find a new agency.
That being said, I strongly believe that unless you have a SEM expert on staff, you should not do your own search engine marketing. There is simply too much effort, time, and in-depth knowledge of the platforms that are required daily, weekly, and monthly. Not fully understanding what you are doing could cost you thousands of dollars in wasted spend within the first month alone.
That being said, definitely pick your agency carefully, as we’ve taken over many SEM campaigns that, to put it mildly, were completely screwed up by an agency.
Failure to Optimize = Money Down the Drain
When it comes down to the most basic level of success, search engine marketing campaigns provide a very clear understanding of ROI. Failure to properly optimize a campaign will cause that ROI to be too low, leading you to think that SEM doesn’t work.
For example, an attorney comes to us asking why their paid advertising campaign isn’t producing clients. When we took over the account, we found that the law firm was spending upwards of $5,000 a month on keywords containing the words “pro bono.” Yes, they were paying Google money for clicks when the person clicking the ad wasn’t looking to pay for legal services!
By adding 1 negative keyword, we saved the law firm $5,000 a month.
This is a very basic optimization technique that should not be missed. This example shows you just how easy it is to waste money. When you get calls from people looking for free services, and are spending money to get those calls, you can see how attorneys feel like they aren’t getting the ROI on their paid advertising.
The same thing can be said about SEO. While not as readily apparent as SEM campaigns, not properly optimizing your website has long lasting effects on your search visibility. The difference between SEO and SEM is that when you optimize your site for SEO, it takes months to see the effects. When optimizing your paid advertising campaigns, the effects are presented immediately.
If you are trying to improve your organic position, and your title tags aren’t optimized, your content isn’t optimized, your website is not mobile-friendly, or it loads slow, you won’t budge in the rankings. Once the site is optimized, it might take 6–9 months to get a full picture of the results.
Like SEM, lack of transparency in the optimization efforts for SEO are a huge problem. If you don’t know what your agency or in-house specialists are doing, how can you properly gauge the results? If you are paying an agency $2,000 a month for SEO, you better understand what you are getting.
Lack of a Goal-focused Strategy
This concept of transparency and proper optimization easily flows into my next point, which is the lack of a goal focused strategy.
If you and your agency don’t understand and agree on what the end goal is, how can the agency properly optimize your marketing efforts and how can you properly track the results?
Here is a great example.
You task me with going through your site, the data in analytics, and other web properties with the purpose to get more leads. You practice criminal defense in a mid-market city. I look through all the data, all of the content, and come up with a plan to increase leads. In my research, I find that sexual assault is an easy win. The level of competition is low in the area, you have some good content on the topic, and already have a couple natural backlinks referencing content on your website. I optimize the site to capitalize on sexual assault and bring in 5 new leads a month for the first 2 months, then I bring in 8 new leads the third.
In our conversation, I explain everything I did to bring in the new leads and ask if those leads turned into cases. You get upset because you don’t want any sexual assault cases, you want more DUI cases.
Now, while I did my job in increasing your leads, there was a lack of an agreed upon goal. I executed my strategy to the best of my ability and it got us both nowhere.
After the meeting, I go back and do more research on DUI in your market. I find that you are ranking on the third page of Google and the competition is pretty fierce in your market. You need a ton of fresh content, a strong backlink strategy, and some paid advertising to capitalize and grow leads in this market. I explain that we need to increase the SEO budget to accommodate for the new work that needs to be done. You are worried that the increase in SEO budget will cut into the margin for the DUI cases and can’t afford to increase the budget.
We are at a standstill. Neither of us communicated up front and asked important questions relating to the goal.
How many new leads can be considered successful? What do you want these leads to look like? What is the average case value? How many leads does it take to turn into one paying client? What is your margin that you are trying to hit? What is your overall goal? Is it revenue? Profit? Margin? New hires? New office location?
These are all questions that should be considered before entering into any formal agreement of services. With all those questions answered, I can come to you confidently with a plan to meet those goals. From there, one of two things happen. Either you retain my services and we both work in a transparent fashion towards those goals OR you can’t justify the cost associated with the services. If you can’t justify the cost for the services we either need to revisit the end goals and adjust them, reset expectations, or simply have to part ways. Either way, we are both better off for having the conversation.
At GNGF, we don’t ever want a law firm to spend their last dollar on marketing. We also don’t want to provide marketing services to a firm who does not want to be involved in the marketing efforts or is not willing to have tough strategic conversations.
When you set your goals for marketing, you will find it’s easier to quantify the efforts being set forth. Instead of analyzing every data point, like total visitors, click through
Conversations become easier, reporting becomes more transparent, and the work done becomes more tailored to your needs.
As you can see, it’s not a question of should I do SEO or SEM, but what is my goal? Your goal will dictate what the best option is at that time, as well as what option is best down the road.
All these factors need to be considered before deciding where to invest your time and money. But, when walking through everything we just discussed, you should be confident that your decision will produce the right results for your law firm.