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Written by Norman Clark
Published: 17 November 2015
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Most small and mid-size law firms are missing great opportunities to improve their visibility and communicate their competitive advantages in increasingly competitive legal markets. These firms might have thought about how to use electronic publications, such as newsletters, client alerts, and electronic guides, to extend the reach of their marketing message; but they have rejected them as something that works only for larger firms.

They are mistaken. This article focuses on the most basic electronic publication, the newsletter that is distributed by e-mail.

Newsletters have a particularly bad reputation in many law firms. The two most frequent comments that my colleagues in Walker Clark LLC and I hear comments are:

Like most myths, each of these comments are based to some extent on fact.

They are too expensive and time consuming.

It is true that it can take a significant amount of time and staff resources to write, edit, and publish a good newsletter. This is especially true if, whenever they hear the word "newsletter," some of your partners still envision a printed four-page or eight-page glossy document. Even with the great publications capabilities available today, electronic newsletters still require lawyer time to write. However your firm's lawyers are already carrying a large number of potentially great newsletter items in their heads. The secret is to tap that knowledge reservoir in an efficient way.

A serious, ongoing electronic publications program requires design, editing, electronic publishing, mailing list management, and reporting, all of which take time to do well. The notion that it takes almost one full-time staff person to to do this in-house, even in a small firm, is not very far from the truth. This causes small and mid-size firms, especially, to assume that a robust electronic publications function is beyond their reach. However, you also can outsource these functions to firms like Walker Clark LLC and have a complete electronic publications strategy for a small fraction of the cost of having an in-house staff member doing the job.

Nobody reads them.

Nobody?

It is true that a majority of the recipients of your electronic publications probably will not read them. The average opening rate for newsletters from professional services firms is approximately 16 to 18%. The average for Walker Clark published electronic newsletters typically is between 23% and 30%, depending on the type of publication and its subject matter. These reported opening rates tend to be a little misleading, because some e-mail software does not report an e-mail as having been opened if it is viewed only in a preview pane and then deleted. Our best estimate is that these "unopened viewings" might increase the reported opening rate by up to half. Even then, an actual viewing rate of 45% (based on the previous 30% opening rate) is not exactly a stampede of readers to your newsletter.

Contrary to widespread myth, most recipients -- and especially clients -- do not regard good law firm newsletters as a nuisance. Among the mailing lists that we manage, fewer than 1% of newsletter subscribers who had previously agreed to be on a mailing list request to be removed. Our best estimates are that fewer than 3% of the newsletters end up in a "junk mail" or "spam" filter. Good newsletters get attention.

Some law firm partners say that this is not a high return on investment, but remember that the investment that you make in each newsletter is microscopic, and the returns can be significant.

The "return" can be quite significant if you understand the best role for electronic newsletters in your firm and measure the results realistically. Newsletters typically should perform three functions: (1) to be seen; (2) to be read; and (3) to lead the reader to other resources, such as your firm's website, that present in depth your firm's expertise, capabilities, and competitive advantages for clients. We consider achieving even the first of these three objectives as a worthwhile return, especially for relatively small firms whose capabilities that are not well-known.

So the goal is not that a reader will see an article and immediately engage your firm (although that happened to our firm recently). Instead, it is to sustain an ongoing flow of communication with your clients and potential clients, even when your firm is not actively engaged in a matter.

You should want to convert a mailing list on a spreadsheet into an electronic community of clients and potential clients who see your firm not just as a provider of services, but as a resource. This is why every law firm should not limit itself to just one newsletter, but should publish a suite of them, tailored to practice areas, industry sectors, and, in the case of firms with international practice, specific foreign legal markets. 

The truth is that interesting, informative electronic newsletters will be read, and they can lead the readers to your website and other in-depth marketing communications. The most important investment of all, in order to achieve these results, is the investment of thought: a clear understanding and communication of information that is important to your clients and prospective clients in a way that demonstrates how your firm, whatever the size, is the best choice.

And now for the cliches...

Sometimes cliches can be true, and this is the case for electronic newsletters.

Electronic publications can, indeed, help level the playing field in any legal market, whether for retail, "high street" legal services or most sophisticated corporate and commercial matters. They are an excellent way for smaller firms to attract attention, create interest, and build rapport with clients and potential clients who might otherwise assume that only a larger firm has the expertise and service delivery capabilities that bigger, more complex matters might require.

The can also help a smaller firm cast a larger competitive shadow in the market, not only by demonstrating high levels of expertise and service delivery, but also by suggesting how the smaller firm might be the best choice for some clients.  

As Walker Clark LLC has advised small and mid-size law firms worldwide on strategy and marketing tactics, we have observed that the firms that compete most effectively -- even in rapidly changing markets into which bigger international firms have entered -- have well thought-out cost-effective electronic publications that keep them visible and competitive. Not even the smallest firms and solo practitioners can continue to assume that these low-cost high-yield tools are not for them.

Norman Clark

 

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