Legal Advertising: Traditional versus Digital Strategies

Whenever a marketing blog begins to talk about marketing for the legal industry, a clock begins to tick. That clock is counting down the minutes until it is inevitable that we will have to meet Captain Kirk.

You can’t go near a TV set without encountering legendary actor and entertainment personality William Shatner, lending his famous dramatic voice to the business of Hupy and Abraham, S.C., a personal injury law firm. You have to hand it to Mr. Shatner; he gives it his all. He makes the query “Do people really get more when they call Hupy and Abraham?” sound like the most intriguing question in the world, as if he had an entire starship crew behind him ready to explore the galaxy for the answer.

William Shatner is no stranger to celebrity endorsement advertising. Here he is in an ad for Commodore computers way back in the ’80s:

Advertising a computer using the star of a legendary science fiction show such as Star Trek makes a lot more sense for a computer company. There’s a whole generation of STEM (science, engineering, technology, math) career professionals who cited Star Trek as a childhood influence. Maybe it doesn’t make so much sense for an accident attorney law firm, but there is also Mr. Shatner’s turn in the TV cop show drama T.J. Hooker, not so readily remembered these days.

Obviously, paying a top-billed celebrity to be your pitchman costs a lot of money. Is it worth it? Within this limited context, it appears to be a popular strategy. If your think using Captain Kirk in your ad is cheeky, wait until you see Lindsay Lohan advertising for legal referral firm Mrs. Lohan is more famous for getting into the kind of trouble for which you need a lawyer, so her endorsement is an on-target, if gutsy, move.

Accident attorneys are one of the few branches of law that are 100% consumer-facing. The point of this marketing is simply to get your attention, using every trick in the marketing book. Accident attorney firm commercials saturate not just TV, but radio, Internet, and print media too. On television, they’ll frequently air during office hours on daytime TV, in-between segments of The Price is Right or a soap opera. The implication here is that an accident victim is laid up in the hospital watching TV, ruminating on how they’re going to recoup these damages.

Hang onto your hat, because we’re going to explore the wild and wacky world of personal injury lawyer advertising. First, we’ll explore some of the traditional legal advertising methods that law firms have employed—then we’ll dive into the world of digital advertising.

Let’s dig in.

How Does Your Law Firm Compete with a Celebrity?

It hardly seems fair that smaller law firms have to compete with such a huge enterprise. However, there are signs that celebrity endorsements aren’t all they’re cracked up to be when it comes to actually attracting clients.

In the first place, the public is always aware that famous actors, even off the B-list, add a hefty price tag to the company’s operating expenses. That actor’s paycheck is doubtless going to show up in the firm’s billing, passed on to the customer. Logically, consumers may turn to a competing company that does not go to such expense, reasoning that they’re just as good but will cost them less.

An Adweek / Harris consumer poll has shown that 77% of consumers claim that a celebrity endorsement has no bearing on their purchase decisions. Worse yet, those who are influenced say they’re less likely (14%) rather than more likely (4%) to buy the product the celebrity is endorsing.

There are some caveats to the raw polling data. Subconsciously, we retain an impression of a product imprinted by a famous face even if we don’t jump to act on it right that second. Also, some celebrity endorsement scenarios are more effective than others. A glamorous fashion model lends clout to cosmetic products or an all-star athlete to a brand of sports footwear. There’s some inherent trust deposited with the consumer when the celebrity is invested in the same industry as the product. We may not care where Tiger Woods eats lunch, but we’ll listen to his advice about golf clubs all day.

But for the most part, law firms don’t get as much mileage per dollar out of paid famous pitchmen. The value is solely in attracting attention. Now, if you want to attract attention, there’s more than one way to do it. This brings us to the other half of the high-profile personal injury law firm marketing world: The stunt commercial.

Replace the Celebrity with the Attorney

Why hire a media personality when you can make yourself the star of the show? Imaginative marketing works just as well to get your attention. In fact, the personal injury practice market is so competitive that it inspires some of the most truly memorable advertising out there. It’s just that sometimes the advertising is memorable for the wrong reasons when the creativity gets a little overboard.

Hey, we promised you “wild and wacky,” did we deliver? We see here several lawyers billed as “hammers” and “heavy hitters,” a car wreck transforming into a fire-breathing robot, CGI animations set to rap music, a squirrel in a treehouse, and a CGI tiger barfing money. This is just a small sampling of the outrageous stunts a personal injury law firm will go to.

The video back there presents the theory that injury and accident law firms are playing off the public perception that a lawyer has to be aggressive, dare we say “macho,” to win the best settlement in court. That seems apparent, but there’s also another factor at play, which is sheer attention. Advertising wants to embed itself in the consumer’s mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s through a catchy jingle, an adorable animated lizard, or a commercial that imitates the campaign for a WWF wrestler.

We can’t blame the public for having little practical concept of what goes on inside a courtroom. Most of us consider ourselves fortunate to have never crossed the threshold of a court building. Being involved in a lawsuit is perceived in the public mind as an unpleasant business, regardless of which end of the table you’re sitting at, so we psychologically push that aspect of society to the back of our minds and hope never to deal with it. When it becomes necessary to deal with the court system, logically we want a savvy, tactical professional, but emotionally we want that gorilla in boxing gloves to blast this case through the system as fast as possible.

Odds are that every law firm is familiar with the stress and anxiety the public feels when faced with a court date, even if they’re just a witness. Calming the jittery client is an art in itself. The client anxiety factor does at last show that the flashy advertisers have some method to their madness. When a personal injury lawyer equates himself with a shark, bulldog, or gorilla, he’s sending the message “I understand that a court is a scary place for you, but I’m big and strong so I will protect you.”

The tone is also intentionally humorous. We can see the smirk on the face of some of these lawyers as they interact with computer animations or make fun of their own lack of hair. They’re using humor to ease potential clients into this whole business. Don’t be scared, courtrooms can be fun! You might see this as the “Patch Adams” school of advertising a service that most people wish they’d never needed.


Aggressive Personal Injury Advertising Considered Harmful

There is a dreaded reputation that you don’t want the public to consider when looking at your business: the “ambulance chaser.” This is the derogatory perception that attorneys are advantageous, opportunistic parasites who prey upon the legal system with frivolous lawsuits and outrageous greed.

People still remember the famous case of the woman who sued McDonald’s restaurant chain when she was scalded by a cup of hot coffee at the drive-through take-out. Justified or not, the media spun this case into the narrative of frivolous litigation enabled by predatory attorneys. The McDonald’s coffee lawsuit has since been cast as one example of the growing perception of “compensation culture,” where literally every inconvenience, no matter how trivial, is accompanied by a lawyer appearing on the scene with a business card in hand, urging the “victim” to sue for damages.

Recently, a new controversy has arisen over digital mobile ads geographically targeted at hospital emergency rooms, marketing personal injury law firms over another channel besides the waiting room TV.

This is using a technology called “geofencing,” where your mobile phone’s location data is broadcast and then advertisers know to target you based on your physical presence. If you’re ever gone out to dinner only to have your phone chirpily ask you to rate your experience at the restaurant as soon as you’re getting back into your car, you’ve been “geofenced”!

The practice of geofencing ads in hospitals for injury lawyers has drawn some legal fire, with a few activists challenging the practice on consumer protection grounds. No doubt, if this issue made it to the evening news, the public’s sympathies would not lie with the lawyers. It is an example of over-aggressive marketing in an industry perhaps affected by a touch more ambition than the average profession.

So, we also have to remember that our advertising and branding should be tasteful, and respectful of its audience. While it’s OK to have a light and humorous touch, and it’s clearly advantageous to flex your litigation muscles, we can do that and still not sink to the silly cartoon tactics we see in the examples above.


Reach Your Ideal Client Through Targeted Digital Advertisements

There’s a catch with show-off marketing when we turn to online media: nobody searches Google for “James T. Kirk accident lawyer.” Nobody searches the Internet for “hammer,” “gorilla,” or “shark” when they want a lawyer. They turn to Google to ask questions. Often, the queries are very specific. The only way you’ll appear on the search engine results page is if your website provides answers to their queries. That means you either can appear organically (e.g., using well-optimized content) or you can run a Google or Bing ad campaign for the specific keywords your prospective clients are using.

Attracting Clients Organically with SEO

This is the beauty of online digital marketing because the Internet is structured to level the playing field a bit between the biggest and smallest budgets. A bit of well-structured search engine optimization (SEO) content marketing puts you ahead of the silly marketing stunts, including the rapping lawyers, the bald-pride lawyers, and the lawyers with explosions and fire in the background.

Structuring your website content so that your potential clients can find you is all about the substance over the style.

This shines another light on why traditional media advertising isn’t the best use of your budget: you can’t explain the intricacies of injury settlement cases in a 30 second TV spot. You’re talking to people who treat the law the way they treated algebra class back in school: deal with it when you must, then hope you never encounter it again. The alternative is to make a commercial that tries to cut through the public’s natural anxiety about legal matters without bothering them with the details.

But the web has no such handicap. You can make a website as big as you want it. You can host whole books online for nearly the same out-of-pocket cost as a Twitter tweet. You can take all the time in the world to pay attention to substance, instead of trying to conform to traditional media restraints. Your website is responsible for pulling in the audience through Google searches, one keyword at a time.

Google and Bing Ads

Outside your website, you can use targeted advertisements to reach people who are searching for legal assistance. I’m sure you’ve noticed ads displayed on search engine result pages (SERP). Those are from Google and Bing’s pay-per-click (PPC) online advertising platform, which allows advertisers to display ads based on associated keywords. Like its namesake, PPC is a marketing channel where you pay for each ad click or impression. These small, text-based ads appear at the top and bottom of the page—effectively sandwiching organic search results.

In our post on PPC ad targeting, we bring up the concept of addressing user intent. This is actually the most important aspect of legal marketing. People are very intentional in their searches. They have problems that they’re trying to solve, and they’re trying to determine the best path forward. When you have a strong understanding of your target client, the services they seek, and their decision-making process, you can identify the keywords they’re most likely to use on Google. The keywords that you use for SEO, are very much the same that you’ll use within your PPC ad campaign. While SEO is an effective way to get to the top of Google, it does take time to climb to the top. If you need leads immediately, PPC advertising might be a better option.

Read this article to learn the basics of how Google Ads work, and in this article, we share how Google Ads can help you stand out in a competitive marketplace.

Social Media Advertising

On the Internet, you can advertise your law firm through a variety of channels. You have Google and Bing Ads like we just mentioned, but you can also run ad campaigns on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

What channel you use will depend on your law firm. We recommend that you conduct research to better understand your ideal customer’s behavioral habits. With that information, you can create detailed buyer personas to guide your marketing efforts. Through your research, identify where they spend their time online. What websites do they visit? How frequently do they log into social media platforms? Mobile or desktop users?

If you’re an employment law firm, LinkedIn is likely a solid option to reach HR professionals and other white-collar professionals. On the other hand, if you’re a personal injury lawyer, you may want to look at Facebook. With 2.6 billion monthly active users, it seems like almost everyone is on Facebook. Because of that, it’s a great channel to build brand awareness. Facebook has robust targeting features that allow you to hone in on the exact type of people most likely to respond to your ads. You can refine your targeting using features like location, profile details, demographic information, behavior, etc.

Read our article “Beginner’s Guide to Facebook Advertising” to learn how to launch your first Facebook ad campaign.

Programmatic Display Advertising

Another option at your disposal is programmatic display advertising, which is when you run ads on other websites. I’m sure you’ve seen ads along the sides or tops of webpages—those are programmatic ads. But how do marketers get them there? Instead of being placed manually by an ad specialist, programmatic advertising relies on sophisticated software to make the decision.

Adweek defines it as “Programmatic is a catchall term that many people are using to categorize everything from behavioral and intent-based targeting to real-time bidding and exchange-based buying of inventory.”

It allows marketers to use automated systems to make media buying decisions. Instead of manually submitting ad placement orders to website publishers, it all happens automatically within seconds. Another reason digital marketers love it, is that it allows you to precisely target your ad campaign so that it reaches the right audience.

If you’re new to programmatic advertising, you’ll want to read our article “Beginner’s Guide to Programmatic Display Advertising – Everything You Need to Know.” It’s a whopper, jammed packed with information.

Digital Advertising Best Practices

Still, does this mean that we can totally dismiss those celebrity endorsements and weird CGI animations common to the rest of the personal injury marketing field? These weird commercials persist year after year, so they must work for some consumers. Exploring why that is can help us tune our online marketing efforts.

Here’s a recap of many points we’ve made elsewhere, legal content digital marketing works best using these methods:

  • A text-rich, informative website that answers prospective clients’ questions
  • Sectioned, detailed information on the firm’s areas of practice and expertise
  • Good reviews and testimonials from satisfied clients
  • An ad campaign targeting potential clients with practical keywords
  • Rich multimedia such as YouTube channels or podcasts

The practice of digital marketing for law firms is similar to marketing any other service on the Internet. We just have to address the fact that the law is a specialized area, and that personal injury claims clients are likely to have very little experience with legal matters beforehand.


Personal Injury Law: What Digital Online Marketing Can Learn from Other Media

We’ve covered above some of the points where the flashy, aggressive advertising can be effective. Personal injury clients tend to not know much about the law, be under-informed about their legal rights, and be nervous about dealing with the legal system in the first place. In lieu of projecting the more on-target message of legal competence and shrewd jurisprudence, these ads opt for the emotional message of a strong, paternal, protective figure.

We can translate that same energy into online content marketing and digital advertising but substitute addressing the root of the matter. People inherently fear what they don’t understand. So, establishing an educational profile by making yourself a trusted, wise authority on the Internet goes a long way in instilling consumer confidence in your firm. By building a useful, informative website with helpful content, you establish your firm as a capable practice that has all the answers.

We’re guessing that the flashy circus of personal injury lawyer advertising doesn’t preserve much of that style once there’s an actual trial. The marketing is there to draw attention and reach out to reluctant clients, but obviously the attorney isn’t putting on a gorilla suit to go before a judge (we sure hope not, anyway). All the macho posturing and laser-shooting robots are a metaphor for expert legal representation.

We pointed out back there that advertising can also stand to be more respectful of its target audience. Pandering to the public by talking down to them with these weird macho metaphors can also be seen as condescending to the audience. The tacky commercials, while getting attention, also appeal to the lowest common denominator. We have no statistics to back this up but feel confident in guessing that the CGI tiger barfing money probably attracts a lot of “slip and fall” cases at Dollar Tree.

On the web, we don’t have to use those metaphors. We can respect our customer base by enlightening them, rather than indulging in crude dog-whistle tactics. We can showcase our true strengths, calmly discussing our knowledge of our professions and passions for our work.

If you want to learn more about Google Ads, read our Google Ads beginner’s guide. Or if you want to talk about developing a digital marketing strategy for your law firm, feel free to reach out to us. We’re happy to help.


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