Securing leadership buy-in for non-billable or non-client-facing initiatives is hard. This challenging dynamic has persisted for as long as there have been law firm marketing, business development, and internal and external communications departments.

Social media initiatives fall squarely into this category, often landing at the bottom of endless to-do lists. However, with COVID-19’s impact on all aspects of professional (and personal) life, there is a silver lining for legal marketers and communications professionals: They are poised to make a substantial impact on how law firm leadership and partners value social media initiatives.

Regardless of their size, law firms that are open to a strategic, thoughtful and consistent digital/social media presence will gain relevance and clout among target audiences during these strange and estranged times (more on that later). But even with this more fertile atmosphere, legal marketers and communications professionals still have an uphill battle given the cautious DNA of law firms.

This is no surprise due to the gravity of the legal profession and the potential impact on not only clients’ perceptions, but on a firm’s own reputation. Historically, any cost related to non-billable hours is subject to higher scrutiny. Beyond ensuring that marketing ethics are adhered to, however, this activity ultimately comes down to generating business, and now more than ever, firms are looking not only to attract new clients but to retain existing ones.

Even with the initial COVID-related knee-jerk belt tightening, it’s time to transform conservative mindsets, not least of all because there are several enterprising ways for firms to institute a comprehensive social media/digital marketing program that is affordable, engaging and rewarding across all internal and external audiences.

What’s more, the timing is ideal “thanks” to COVID. If there was ever a time to foster internal cohesiveness through social media channels, it’s now. If there was ever a time to leverage social media to raise profiles and remain engaged externally (from your home) to attract new business and retain existing clients, it’s now. And if there was ever a time to measure digital marketing investments accurately, it’s now.

It starts, however, with pursuing that all-important leadership and partner buy-in. Below are approaches to doing just that and some high-level recommendations for getting started in implementing, maintaining and measuring a social media program, specifically focused on LinkedIn on the earned-media front (as opposed to paid).

Step 1: Assess, educate and allay

The first step is to conduct an honest assessment of leadership’s perception of social media’s role in business development. Look at the dynamic realistically and anticipate tough questions and keep in mind that leaders — whether on the practice level or in management — are simply doing their job.

Instead of adopting a defeatist attitude, jump in and view the back-and-forth as part of a healthy process of validating and creating a social media program that is in the best interest of, and unique to, the firm.

Anticipate pushback and embrace it, though remain focused on why this is worth an investment in the spirit of educating firm leaders. And most importantly, be open to feedback. Similar to creating a PR strategy, a social media strategy must align with firm business goals, and leaders are better positioned to know what the priorities are and what’s on the horizon.

While assessing a firm’s social media attitude and appetite, take time to explain the social media landscape and the pros and cons of various activities. Also conduct a full audit of a firm’s social media channels against the backdrop of the overall business development strategy. Check out competitor websites. If a firm has no social channels (oh boy!), do an audit of competitors as well as aspirational firms.

Working off firm priorities and audit data, envision what a successful LinkedIn initiative would look like and result in, i.e., more followers by a certain percentage and date, heightened engagement in a targeted industry or among a specific talent pool.

Again, these goals must correspond with the firm’s business plans, otherwise the investment will be a waste of time and firm resources, running the risk of damaging the reputation of the firm and its marketing and PR teams.

Transparency is important in gaining leadership buy-in. Clearly articulating social media’s role, goals and approaches sets a solid and enduring foundation of trust as you begin to engage leadership on why digital marketing is important. The more trust, the more unfounded concerns about a social media program are allayed.

Step 2: Pitching and selling

After the educating comes the pitching and selling of a long-term social media investment.

Focusing on LinkedIn, given its extensive reach among professional services circles, craft a program underscoring the why and the how.

Specifically, if a firm or practice area leader works with its marketing/PR team, an executive LinkedIn program may be an ideal way to raise key lawyers’ online profiles and, by extension, burnish the firm’s overall brand. The program can include:

  • Customized individual content, which guarantees message control
  • Network management assistance, which fosters a consistent cadence of outreach
  • Group and conversation recommendation, which encourages all-important engagement from desired audiences

The results of this multi-pronged program include driving more social interest, thought leadership and overall brand awareness.

It’s important to note that this approach must be consistent and manageable, with the marketing/PR team providing training focused on platform development and goal setting with minimal time commitment from firm leaders and partners. The role of the communications professionals is to facilitate strategic connections while providing ongoing performance and goal setting.

As with any firm communications, all content would be blessed by the account owner, though the process would be streamlined so partners can focus on practicing and bringing in the Benjamins.

Step 3: Metrics, metrics and metrics!

Accountability across all communications efforts is key, and fortunately checking social media metrics in this day and age is swift and transparent.

Working from a baseline audit of social channels and within the goals of a firm’s business plan, be sure to monitor the below activity on social channels to help gauge progress.

It’s vital that any assessment is honest. If metrics are trending upward and in the desired direction, keep going with the current plan. If results are disappointing, such as flat or misdirected, admit it and discuss options candidly with your team and then leadership, and be sure to have other approaches. Course correction is valuable and common. Key metrics to follow, specific to LinkedIn, are:

  • Qualitative reach, i.e., who’s viewed your profile
  • Desired audiences, i.e., search appearances
  • Level of engagement, i.e., how many “likes,” “comments” and/or “shares” as well as number of new followers
  • Connections, i.e., has your network expanded

Even though we’re in the communications business, it’s important to remember that numbers don’t lie, so be sure to measure often, assess regularly, and adjust when needed. Leadership will respect you for it, and your social media program will be on track.

A former legal journalist and longtime in-house public relations professional at an Amlaw100 firm, Claire Papanastasiou is a director at Matter Communications, based in Massachusetts.