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As law firm marketing has matured over the past few years, more lawyers are asking about its ROI — return on investment. On the one hand, it is heartening that lawyers and their firms are focusing on marketing metrics. It shows that they have enough faith in the process to realize that there ought to be a return on investment. But what sort of return? The current focus on ROI betrays the legal profession’s fundamental misunderstanding of the marketing process. It also betrays a mechanistic perspective: “If I put a $100 in this slot over here, will I get $200 back from that slot over there?” There are a few things wrong with thinking like that. First, marketing is not about direct return. It’s about fostering the conditions that will allow direct return to happen. It’s about getting enough of the right people in the right frame of mind so that they will be receptive to the idea of buying your services. Sales is about direct return. Marketing is about establishing your place in . . . well, the marketplace. Second, marketing is not about guaranteed return. It’s all about risk — risking time and money in the hope that you’ll be given more and better chances to start selling. Marketing is not a tactical activity, but a lifestyle. Sort of like the “Jurassic Calendar” cartoon by Gary Larson, where a dinosaur looks at his “to do” list every day, and reads the same thing: “Kill something and eat it.” Marketing requires constant reach and repetition so that buyers think of you when they get ready to buy. In particular, marketing persuades them to think about you at the point when their needs match the strengths you’ve communicated. You cannot sell an institution without marketing it first. It is a cost of doing business, and often a larger amount than most law firms want to spend. According to Mark Greene, managing director of the Brand Research Co., law firms as a group spend so little on overall marketing (compared with their corporate clients, who operate in more mature markets) that in most cases the costs of accurately measuring the marketing investment are actually greater than the costs of the marketing itself. As a rule, an expensive instrument is required to measure a small change; ergo, the less you spend on marketing, the more you spend to measure it. Make no mistake. Law firms should measure everything that they can measure. But to place one advertisement or a few stories and then ask, “Where is the ROI?” is like asking someone to marry you after the first date. You have not earned the right to ask. PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE By and large, no law firm in the world spends enough money on marketing, let alone public relations, to measure the return on investment. Law firms spend enough to measure name recognition and reputation, but not enough to determine if these changes have resulted in the desired reaction by the target audience. “That’s chiefly because, statistically, valid research is relatively expensive compared to the still rather modest amounts most law firms are spending on branding and advertising campaigns,” explains design consultant and “branding” maven Burkey Belser of Greenfield/ Belser Ltd. Even large firms with relatively robust advertising budgets find it hard to measure the effects of their branding campaigns. Brand Research recently reported that less than 5 percent of randomly selected Fortune 500 executives, unprompted, could recall any of five leading law firms as providers of specified common legal services. Here, actually, we are touching on a most instructive paradox. Law firms are putting the cart before the horse. They should not even be thinking yet of spending considerable sums of money on measuring ROI until they have spent significant money on something to measure — name recognition, or branding, or differentiation, or whatever it is you want to call it. The heart and soul of marketing is to be a known quantity in the marketplace. “I’m not into throwing money out the airplane door, but this new buzz about ROI as a be-all and end-all is just so much distraction from the greater issue of law firm brand building,” says Diane Hamlin, chief marketing officer at Fenwick & West. “Sure, we should analyze, test, measure, and evaluate. And then make changes. But ROI needs to be one of the available measurements and tools, not the all-consuming buzz saw we push everything through in hopes that some phantom number we like will emerge to validate our work.” Real marketing is an investment, not a cost. Think about what that means. Every dollar invested in marketing should produce a larger return. If marketing works for you like it does for your clients, why would you ever think of cutting a marketing budget while trying to increase profitability? Instead of worrying about whether marketing dollars are paying off, firms should focus on determining where to invest, at what levels, and for what purposes. CREATE PAVLOVIAN REACTIONS How effective can marketing be? Why is Santa Claus wearing Coca-Cola’s red and white colors? That is the legacy of a 1922 advertising campaign to fight declining winter sales. Diamonds as engagement rings? A DeBeers advertising campaign at the turn of the century. Mother’s Day? Wanamaker’s. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Montgomery Ward. The universal ritual of blowing out birthday candles? A Kodak moment. Marketers invented these emblems of everyday life to sell products, but professional services can achieve comparable marketplace ubiquity by triggering Pavlovian reactions among their own potential buyers. A client thinks safety and security, and one law firm or four select accounting firms come to mind. A client thinks pit-bull aggressiveness, and another law firm or accounting firm comes to mind. Successful marketing is so successful that, in the end, it is invisible. We embrace the message and never question the authority of its source. Yet law firms approach marketing — with a few bold exceptions, such as Howrey & Simon and the late, great Brobeck Phleger — so tentatively that all the seams show. People who have trouble marketing really look like they’re marketing. To be truly invisible, marketing must also be integrated. Think about how you buy. A single marketing event does not influence you. You don’t buy a new Mercedes because you’ve seen the car once or read an article. It is the combination of all approaches — market research to identify the target, advertising to support the decision, public relations to build trust, a highly trained salesperson who often recognizes your needs before you do — working together to encourage and support the sale. A law firm that advertises one year, then stops and tries a little PR or market research the next, is marketing in fits and starts. Fits and starts are always visible, painfully so. If you could measure the ROI of any fractured approach, you’d find a meager yield indeed. REACH AND REPITITION There will never be a straight payback basis to marketing. It is about creating an environment to make selling easier. When asked why Coca-Cola spent nearly $500 million on a sponsorship deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, senior Coca-Cola executive Steve Heyer identified his reasons: “One of the core values of Coke is optimism,” said Heyer. “We do so much to activate local communities around the things we do — to build connections, whether it’s cleaning fields so there are ballparks for kids or making investments in teaching kids how to read. All those pieces come together under the banner of what the NCAA is about. “You’re going to see a series of programs emerge that won’t just look like 30-second spots in the Final Four. . . . That full marketing program is really aimed at making people care more about our products. If we do that right, we will get an in-store return volume, a brand return, which is equity-based.” Reach and repetition are the key. The jump from product to services is not always a clear one, and product marketing certainly does set a different agenda than services marketing. But the commonalities are as important as the distinctions. In both cases, marketplace familiarity and trustworthiness are absolute values that cannot be measured by the statistician’s slide rule. Richard S. Levick ([email protected]) is president of Levick Strategic Communications. Larry Smith ([email protected]) is director of strategy. A variation of this article will appear in the forthcoming book The Complete Guide to Marketing Your Law Practice, 2d ed., edited by Jim Durham and Deborah McMurray (ABA LPM section).

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