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April 23, 2008

What are the top marketing priorities in a down economy? Part 1

A few months ago, a number of influential legal bloggers wrote to warn of a coming legal downturn, including Gerry Riskin, Larry Bodine, and Pat Lamb

Well now the downturn is here, and the blog discussion is becoming more pointed:  Exactly what should legal marketers do about it? 

I agree with the post by my LegalBizDev partner Tom Kane (see How To Be a Strong Marketer in a Weak Economy), that when business goes down, marketing should go up, or at least hold steady.  As Bruce Marcus eloquently put it:   “It’s true that when times are tough, it's easier to cut costs – including marketing costs – and to hunker down until it's over.  But that's like drilling a hole in the bottom of a flooded boat to let the water out. For a professional firm in an economic crisis, there's no place to hide, so learn to fight back.”

While many experts have written in favor of spending on marketing, this will be a tough sell to any business owner facing a financial squeeze.  As someone who has owned a business for the last 23 years, I’ve been squeezed a few times myself, both by broad economic trends, and by industry-specific challenges.  In some of these cases, I did the right thing and spent more on marketing.  But, I must confess, sometimes I gave in even when I knew better, and cut marketing expenses.

At law firms, dozens or hundreds of partners must reach a consensus.  Some of them never believed in marketing in the first place.  So I have no doubt that financial pressures will lead some law firms to cut marketing budgets.  I’d like to believe that the majority will be wiser than that, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

For today, I’d like to put aside the emotional question of how many dollars to spend, and focus instead on how to allocate the time and money you do have.  What are the top marketing priorities in a down economy?  That question remains relevant whether spending goes up, down, or sideways.

In my opinion, the answer is simple:  in a down economy, law firms should focus on increasing short-term marketing results and efficiency.  Long-term tactics that make perfect sense in times of prosperity – like developing a new brochure, or turning a good web page into a great one, or trying to build relationships in a new industry with expensive sponsorships – become much more risky when times get tough.  The longer the time frame until you can see a payoff, the more likely that people will quit before they get there.  And some tactics may even backfire when the economy turns.  Those expensive dinners and sports tickets that strengthen personal relationships when times are good, can make clients resentful when times are bad, if they think their lawyers are doing better than they are.  Forget the luxury boxes, and focus instead on providing more value. 

As I wrote in my January post,  The first thing lawyers should do in a recession, the best way to increase short term results is to focus on current clients. 

The discussion of marketing efficiency is particularly vital now because when billable time goes down marketing time can go up.  Non-billable time can be your most valuable asset, or it can be worthless, depending on how you use it.

Most of the lawyers I’ve met over the years are not efficient marketers.  How could they be?  They never studied marketing in law school, and many lie somewhere between skeptical and hostile about its relevance to the legal profession.

I’ve written before that business development is the hardest work you can do in a suit, because it takes a long time, and what works best varies from person to person.  There are no magical solutions.  If you want to know what works best for your practice and personality, you’ll need to spend some time experimenting and measuring the results.  And the most efficient way to experiment, is with the help of your in-house business development staff, or an external coach.  (If you’d rather work independently, see my list on Amazon of the top sales and marketing books for lawyers and our LegalBizDev Success Kit.)

It will also be interesting to see how the down economy affects each firm’s pricing and positioning.  When an item on The Current Downturn appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, some of the comments it generated were from inhouse lawyers who saw a silver lining, like the one who said:  “I think I’ll start pushing back harder when my outside counsel ask me for their usual rate increases.”

In a great post called In a Weakening Economy Will Clients Trade Big Law for Innovative Small Firms?  Susan Cartier Liebel described how consumers react to recessions by trading down from steak to chicken, and then spelled out some implications for small firms.  Her argument applies equally to mid-sized firms that can undercut large firms, and to large firms that undercut each other. 

I would also recommend Bruce Allen’s posts summarizing a talk he gave at the Harvard Business School Association on "Driving Success in a Down Economy - Marketing Strategies for Business Professionals."  Among his main points:

• Don’t Follow The Herd
• Don’t Spend Less, Spend Different
• Feed Your Clients Sunday Dinner
• Down-Size Your Offering
• Start Dating Your Clients All Over Again

I certainly can’t explain these points better than Bruce did, so read these posts.

My own advice will be summarized in a speech I am giving at a firm with over 1000 lawyers this Friday on “The Top Five Ways To Increase Your Legal Marketing Results In A Down Economy.”  They are:
1. Protect your clients and referral sources
2. Increase the perceived value of the services you offer
3. Refine your search for ideal new clients
4. Track your marketing time and activity
5. Spend wisely

I will write more about each point in the future, and expect this series to continue on and off for as long as the economy is down. 

Meanwhile, I also want to know how my legal marketing colleagues see these issues.  Do I believe coaching is especially important now because my company offers coaching?  Will those who specialize in web pages, advertisements or events have compelling arguments in favor of focusing on each of their specialties?  This morning, I will post this question on a discussion board for Legal Marketing Association members:  What are the top marketing priorities in a down economy?  I’ll let you know what they say.

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