What advertisers can learn from ambulance chasers – and what they shouldn't

More spohisticated than you think

Question: How did the personal-injury lawyer get hurt in an accident?

Answer: The ambulance stopped suddenly.

Personal-injury and class-action attorneys are not exactly held in the greatest esteem.

But according to a report that New Media Strategies (NMS), based in Arlington, VA, compiled for the Institue for Legal Reform (ILR), they deserve respect for the sophisticated techniques they bring to digital marketing — though not necessarily for how ethically they apply them.

“Hi, I’m Joel Bieber”

It’s no surprise to anyone in Richmond with two eyes, two ears and a television in working order that lawyers spend heavily on television advertising. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they spend, less visibly, on digital advertising.

Trial-lawyer firms spend “millions of dollars [on] the creation and maintenance of  websites, Facebook pages, Twitter handles, blogs and YouTube channels,” NMS reports.

More than 800 of these law firms buy keyword advertising on Google Adwords.

At least 25 of them spend at least $50 million a year on it alone. I guess you have to when sponsored links for, say, “mesothelioma” run $80 a click.

Trawling for clients online

Keyword advertising is only the beginning. It leads to a network of what Ad Age calls “interconnected websites and social-media campaigns sponsored by the plaintiffs’ bar…that are little more than web-surfer flytraps designed to capture the personal contact information of potential clients.”

How those campaigns work is the result of one smart insight and a lot of sleaze.

The smart insight

Knowingly or not, the trial lawyers have taken a leaf from the public relations agencies’ book. The key to getting press releases placed in media is not talking about your brand and what it wants readers to see. Rather, it’s about giving information of interest to readers and their concerns that just happens to be related to your brand as a solution.

Law-firm digital advertising builds on this insight. It has one set of websites, etc., for people who’ve decided they need a lawyer and another whole set for people who have a problem and are just seeking information about it.

“Firms will often create separate online presences to capture both counsel-seekers and information-seekers,” notes the ILR, and good SEO can get them top rankings in Google searches.

There’s nothing wrong – and a lot right – about separate communications for counsel seekers and information seekers.

Counsel seekers neither need nor want to scroll through lots of information about whatever they’ve decided to sue about; they just need to see which lawyer might be best to represent them.

Information seekers, on the other hand, know they have a problem, but not necessarily one that’s worth litigating. To get right into a sales pitch for the lawyer would at best leave them ignorant and confused and at worst scare them away.

So far, so good. But now things start getting sleazy.

The sleaze

Too many law firms develop those information-seeker campaigns misleadingly. As the ILR reports:

These websites are positioned as patient support groups, medical resources, official government sites and even advocacy organizations. They often have official-sounding domain extensions such as .org and .us. While usually (though not always) disclosed in fine print that the sites are part of a marketing communication by a law firm, the content and visual aspect of the sites appear to be purely informational.

This is not only unethical, but may even be illegal.

Do what’s smart, not what’s wrong

Now, if you’re a local Richmond advertiser, you don’t have $50 million a year to spend just on Google Adwords.

But there are some smart marketing things you can do for next to nothing:

  • Recognize the difference between product seekers and information seekers.
  • Do separate ads, maybe separate websites, for each. Many host companies’ basic packages let you put up more than one site for the basic annual fee. (Though you’ll have to spend all of $10 a year to register a domain name for your second site.) If that sounds too intimidating, you can always add more specifically targeted buttons and pages to your current site.
  • Recognize that more of your readers or visitors will be information seekers than product seekers, so create your content accordingly. Talk about what their needs and problems are, and how your product solves them — not about your company’s general wonderfulness. See examples here, here, here and here.

And finally, while developing and naming your site, Twitter handle, Facebook page, etc., remember this: Conveying general information for your category is not only smart but also ethical. Passing it off as something from the government isn’t. It can get you in trouble – maybe enough trouble for one of those lawyers to come after you.