Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.
Q: How Do Web Sites Differ from Television Ads for Marketing?
Jerry Lawson (JL): This is one of my favorite topics. I believe that confusing web site marketing with television marketing is probably responsible for many of the worst law firm web sites. An expectation, possibly almost subliminal, that web sites should act like television shows probably accounts for many of the most common design blunders–slow downloading graphics, animation, pointless splash screens, and so on. Web sites have their own unique logic
Brenda Howard (BH) : This is true. Unfortunately, bandwidth does not allow web sites to utilize the theory of television. Maybe, in the future, when we all have T3 lines or cable connections, we can “push” more of a television show onto the Internet user, but it isn’t here today. Sites that believe it is are the ones that do not succeed. Market research has shown us that a visitor wants to receive information and they want to receive it within 30 seconds of arriving at a web site. This means text that they can read quickly. Flash and graphical sites are fine for MTV, but not for a successful law firm web site.
(JL): 30 seconds. That sounds about right.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): The sites Brenda describes illustrate ways some law firms lose their focus. Quick show of hands: how many of your clients or potential clients think first of seeing cool videos as a reason for coming to a law firm sites? Oh, that’s not many. You can tell the owners of some of the “flash” sites never use them, at least not using the modem speeds that a good part of their target market uses. Jerry, you have one “television” word that people need to think about in connection with their web sites.
JL: “Narrowcasting.” With the advent of cable and satellite, television programming has become more specialized, but the major networks still aim pretty broadly. On the other hand, web sites are different. It is usually a mistake for a law firm web site to attempt to be the “Gunsmoke” or “I Love Lucy” of the WWW. A web site, or different sections of the same site, should be targeted to appeal to very narrow audiences. This is similar to what’s happened in the magazine industry. We don’t have tens of millions of people reading Life or the Saturday Evening Post every week. Instead, we have literally tens of thousands of magazines, targeting every special interest imaginable. The Internet carries the narrow focus we see in the paper publishing industry to an extreme.
BH: The secret is to understand the differences between the various media and what their audiences want. Television can be educational, but is generally known for entertainment. Print is can be entertaining, but generally known for education. The Internet was originally known as an informational resource – and that’s still the primary reason that people use it. Entertainment has been thrown in to attract more users, but it isn’t effective for law firms. The Internet is still mainly an informational resource that empowers users by educating them and helping them make choices with regard to their decisions. The Internet is so competitive, with the volume of sites available, that law firms can be “confused” into thinking that they have to “entertain” to attract visitors.
JL: Brenda has hit on a key theme, one that is probably worth devoting a whole future column: While consumers tend to be passive on television, often watching the “least offensive” program on at a particular time, on the Internet, the consumer is in the power position. What should law firms do to take advantage of this power shift?
DK : One model is all the new cable channels that serve very focused audiences. Any given channel might not interest you, but there are bound to be one or two that do. Leave the “broadcasting” to others and identify a specify niche that you can target and, most important, serve.
JL : Here’s another difference between web sites and television: The quality of a television commercial or a print brochure can be judged by looking at it. On the other hand, web site quality can’t be judged completely without seeing how well they fit into the network. How many other sites link to a site is a key criterion of quality. If a site is good, many other sites will link to it, and such links are a form of endorsement. Web sites are part of a network, and understanding this is critical to evaluating their quality.
BH : Again, it’s simply a new medium and it has its own rules. The consumer is creating some of these rules, but technology sets the rest. There are still limitations with regard to the Internet as a medium.
DK : A common mistake of the television-like sites is that they show no understanding of the typical web user. Video uses up big chunks of bandwidth. Most of us are still using dial-up Internet access with regular modems. Those users are more likely to hit the stop button than to sit through a flashy animation that does not have significant content.
JL : Absolutely. Here’s yet another difference between TV and the Internet:
If you were producing a television show, it would be insane to give away your best ideas to other TV producers. By contrast, on the WWW, giving away high quality content to other web sites can be one of the smartest moves you could make.
Distributing your content to other sites potential clients of your firm are likely to visit, along with a link back to your web site, is one of the best ways to build traffic to your own site. For example, if your community has a local chapter of NOW or an elder citizen advocacy group, let them publish the essays you wrote on dealing with abusive spouses or estate planning. This method is particularly effective because you are not attracting random web surfers, but people who have already demonstrated an interest in your practice area.
BH: Jerry, you are correct. With all these new rules comes a new set of terms. This is known as “coopetition.” Instead of competition, on the Internet, web sites cooperate to help each other drive traffic to their web sites. Dennis, what do you think about this concept?
DK : Interestingly, by making your content readily available and linkable, you improve someone else’s content and everyone gains as you drive more desirable traffic to your site. The key concept is Metcalfe’s Law – in essence, the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of nodes on the network. E-mail was a cool toy when you had one other friend with e-mail, but it became an essential tool when you were connected to everyone. People will enter your site through many doors and it will surprise many people to find that most users do not enter your web site through the front door or the home page. People are looking for content or individuals. Using the network to accommodate those users is key. Part of the problem is that law firms leave the real work of their web sites to people with other agendas. That’s not a wise thing with web sites, is it Jerry?
JL: Nope, and you have hit on another big difference between television and web sites. Television ads or print ads can largely be delegated to a design firm. Lawyers normally won’t need to bother much with them. The same is true of a brochure-type web site. On the other hand, lawyers must take the lead in creating magnet-type web sites.
DK : The appeal of the “hands-off” approach is that you have the designer to blame for everything. Brenda, I’m sure you have some comments about this issue.
BH : Unfortunately, this is a true statement. I’m working with a client right now that blames his previous designer for some limitations with his site. He went with the “razzle and dazzle”. Now, he realizes that while it was cool looking and fun, it’s only cool and fun the first few times a visitor goes to the site. To attract potential clients, he needs to decrease the graphics and add content. Blaming the web designer is an easy out, but a costly one. You really do have to hope that the designer knows and understands the medium and your target market for you. Either that or you have to do enough research to understand these issues yourself.
DK: The key is understanding the target audience or, better, target audiences. People need brochure information once they get to your site and have started to make a decision, but they come to your site looking for answers to questions. That’s content.
BH: To sum it up, creating a site that is similar to a television show is simply not effective for a law firm’s target market. A clean and professional design with valuable content is the secret to attracting visitors and keeping them around long enough to make the decision to hire the law firm for representation.