The fashionable embrace of social media

Twitter phoneIt is interesting to observe the evolution of the use of social media within the legal sector. It seems to have gathered pace to the extent that only a small minority of firms will not claim to be "embracing" it.

It is now commonplace to see the increasingly sophisticated law firm marketing departments working their magic and coming up with some very polished and professional output. We are now seeing regular "best use of social media" categories at the ubiquitous legal awards, regularly attracting the big name law firms.

However, what seems to have happened is that social media has been thrown into the marketing “toolbox”, to be treated in the same way as brochures, websites and newsletters. This approach betrays a misunderstanding of the whole concept of social media and misses out on the huge value it can offer.

From a consumption perspective social media is a unique, highly-customisable, personal digital space for each of us. We can choose who to follow and not follow based on unique personal preferences as to what we want to see in the context of what we have defined for ourselves as the purpose of this channel.  It is flawed to assume social media is a place for generic marketing messages. Social media evades the rules of the standard marketing textbook and requires rules of its own.

At the risk of stating the obvious, social media is supposed to be social. This means conversation, interaction, dialogue and sharing. It takes two (or more). It requires listening skills. There is little evidence of these, even in the award-winning feeds.

There are vast missed opportunities here. First, in a world where buyers of legal services have to try ever harder to distinguish between numerous “expert”, “commercial” “client-focused” and "collegiate" law firms, quality of social interaction emerges as a precious differentiator.

They say culture is how people behave when nobody is watching. On social media somehow nobody is watching, yet anybody or everybody could be watching at any point in time.  It demands authenticity and exposes the superficial. The former can generate genuine trust in a distant observer, one of the precious currencies capable of motivating the purchase of something as significant, yet heterogeneous as legal advice.

Consider this in the context of the widely researched and reported trend (certainly in the commercial sector) towards hiring individuals and not firms. Consider also the rise of the use of social media by corporate buyers in “listening mode” as key part of their purchasing decision-making process.

Additionally, there seems to be a distinct lack of activity on social media by groups of individuals within firms, in concert with the firms themselves.  Such an approach would enable the expression of a firm's messages coloured with individuality, another potentially powerful recipe for authenticity and trust.

I suspect the reason why this is not happening (I should point there are a (very) few honourable exceptions) is not because this is a unique and revolutionary observation by the writer of this piece. It may have more to do with law firm culture. A pervading discomfort with the concept of individuals being able to speak freely on behalf of their organisation to a wide and unknown audience, in case they say something untoward or "off message" (whatever “message” is). This to me points to leadership failure. If you cannot articulate your brand and value effectively enough to partners and employees to be able to empower them to communicate freely, then you are not leading. If you do not build understanding and trust across your organisation as to what your values are, or the freedom to express individuality around this, you have to ask what the point is of being an organisation at all, much less a “collegiate” one.

There is much to make one wonder whether this legal “embrace” of social media is simply a case of following fashion and being seen to be “with it”, or whether there really is any genuine recognition of its unique and growing value.  It is surprising to see this significance missed on such a grand scale.

 

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