Social Media: the Ultimate Business Development Tool or Huge Waste of Time?

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the recent Futures Conference hosted by the College of Law Practice Management, of which I'm proud to be an elected Fellow, and American University Washington College of Law.  I was joined by Steve Matthews, founder and principal of Canadian-based web marketing company Stem Legal, and our session was moderated by Dan Pinnington, Director at PracticePro, the Canadian-based Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company and editor-in-chief of the ABA's Law Practice Management magazine.  Presumably I was invited to participate because I grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario, just south of Ontario, so I'm an honorary Canadian! We were challenged to provide practical feedback on the use of social media in a law practice.  What are lawyers doing well?  What can they do better?  Is the whole Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/blogging game a huge waste of valuable time, or can it actually aid in the development of new business?  We covered quite a bit of ground, but I'll provide just a couple insights here from my remarks.

Is Social Media overhyped? Of course it is.  Many pundits speak of social media as the panacea, the solution to generating new business when all other efforts have failed, or in lieu of any other efforts.  It should come as no surprise that those touting social media as the best answer to all problems are those who tend to profit from social media.  Consultants and vendors who offer services in this space tend to over-promote.  Needless to say, as a former legal management consultant and now a vendor whose organization offers social media tools, I have some standing to make this claim.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water, as it were.  One reason why social media is so compelling to so many is that is indeed effective in many ways.  Can social media be both overhyped and under-utilized?  Sadly, yes.  At its core, social media are merely tactics, tools to be used to further one's strategy.  Any business, law practice or other, should have a clear and rational view of which clients to target, which services to offer and how to reach these potential clients.  Much of professional services marketing involves creating awareness of your offering and demonstrating expertise in the subject matter, and social media can be a multiplier in these efforts.  A good analysis of social media will measure whether tools such as Twitter, blogging, Facebook fan pages, a robust LinkedIn profile and the like will have the potential to reach more of the target audience.  And if so, will it provide a conduit for the lawyer to demonstrate credibility.  If we can establish which social media tools can be helpful in this regard, then it's a question of cost -- can these tools generate a greater return as compared to alternative investments, say, sponsoring and speaking at client industry conferences, or authoring articles in traditional media, and so on.

So many lawyers haven't embraced social media because they're dazzled by the technology, or jaded by the noise -- silly games on Facebook or celebrity bloviating on Twitter, for example -- so they fail to properly assess whether these tools can be helpful.

Should a lawyer keep his or her business and personal social networking separate? Without question, lawyers should recognize that their political rants among like-minded friends on Facebook, if made public, may turn off potential clients with different political views.  Similarly, potential clients or employers may find the Spring Break pics from five years ago an exercise in poor judgment.  Unfair?  Of course.  The plain truth is that there's a blurring of the lines between our professional and personal personas.  When I opened a Facebook account it was intended for close friends and family only.  But like you I have a number of close friends in my professional life and they were natural additions to my community.  As time goes on, acquaintances slip in until suddenly one's network is full of distant acquaintances or, in many cases, particularly with the younger crowd, complete unknowns.  Today's youth tend to make connections as flippantly as my generation used to trade phone numbers.  You may call, you may not, but there's no harm in passing out your number.  All of which is to say, you can try really hard to separate your business and personal personas but through your own actions or through the actions of your connections who have less rigor, you will very likely expose more of your personal life than you probably intend.

So be sensible.  Mom's rule about keeping mum if you have nothing good to say applies here.  That doesn't mean you can't engage in harmless tomfoolery, bantering with pals or posting pictures of your kids, but treat such actions as you would a business trip at a sunny location where you stayed a few extra days and brought the family, knowing that some clients would be doing the same.  Act is if a client or potential client is watching, even inadvertently.

But don't overlook the simple truth that buyers buy from people they know, like and trust.  Buyers, like potential friends, size you up pretty quickly and make decisions on whether they'll like you based on a number of factors, only some of which are your subject matter expertise and accomplishments.  This is a tough lesson for lawyers trained in logic:  I went to the right schools, I've earned numerous professional honors, I have domain expertise in the legal issues you're facing, so naturally you should hire me... and so what if I contribute to a political party that rejects all of your political beliefs.  On the other hand, all other professional credentials being equal, a buyer might hire the lawyer who seems family-oriented, is clearly proud of his hobbies and who has an opinion or two about whether his team should have gone for it on fourth down or kicked it away.

For more insights on my social media involvement, see my discussion of what social networks and resources I find valuable.  Also, one of my favorite legal peeps, Ron Friedman, is also a Fellow of COLPM and live blogged our panel discussion, so check out his thoughtful insights here.

Also, for an excellent practical guide to incorporating social media into a law practice, run, don't walk, to buy Jayne Navarre's social.lawyers: Transforming Business Development (West Publishing, 2010).  Jayne is a veteran legal marketer, former Board member of the Legal Marketing Association and a consultant I've turned to for advice time and again.