The Firm: Google Plus: The next big thing for small law firms?

By Sylvia Hsieh

The Daily Record Newswire

Some law firm marketing gurus are going gaga over Google+ (Google Plus), the latest social media platform.

Even though it's only been out for less than two months, Google+ is already generating a heated debate over whether it's the next big thing for small law firms.

The main reason for the excitement is the fact that it's not just another start-up.

With over a billion searches on Google every month, and millions of users of gmail and other Google services, the potential if these powers are combined is enormous.

"We're talking about one of the biggest players online. They're not just launching a social network. Google+ is going to be a window on all of their services," said Steve Matthews, founder of Stem Legal Web, a law firm marketing company in Vancouver, Canada.

The numbers of Google+ visitors has skyrocketed since its beta form was introduced on June 29. After the first week, Google+ had garnered 10 million visitors. After 21 days, that number doubled and now has reached 25 million.

"That tells me Google+ is filling an unmet need. Twitter is not doing it for law firms as a way to communicate, and neither is Facebook," said Larry Bodine, a Chicago law firm marketing consultant.

But others say the numbers are simply a function of how big Google is, not whether Google+ will replace Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

"To say Google+ is somehow anointed for success because of early adoption is a red herring," said Jay Pinkert of Shadowbox, a law firm marketing company in Austin, Texas.

He says small and solo lawyers have enough on their plate without one more social media site to juggle.

"I would say, 'Yes to Google+, but not yet.' It's too early to tell what value it's going to have. ... Right now it's really just another beast to feed," Pinkert said.

Circles, huddles, hangouts and sparks

In Google+, users group their contacts into different circles. You don't have to invite someone into a circle, so you can drag and drop people into your circle and others can do the same to you without invitation or approval.

"It's like having a private listserv to which you can send messages," said Bodine.

Stephanie Kimbro, a solo with a virtual law practice in Wilmington, N.C., joined Google+ the first week it was available and has 12 circles for various professional networks, including legal technology and marketing, estate planning and legal ethics.

"Huddles" are real-time mobile group chats and "hangouts" let members of a circle hook up via video conference. "Sparks" let you search feeds by topic and subscribe to them.

One shortcoming, said Kimbro, is that she has not found a way to follow someone for a temporary period of time as you can on Twitter.

Get on it early?

Techies and social media mavens are already on Google+, but do regular lawyers with an average social media presence need to get on now?

Yes, advised Dale Tincher, a web marketing consultant and CEO of Consultwebs in Raleigh, N.C.

"Get on it early," he said. "People don't realize how important it is for your rankings. Just like YouTube ranks so well because Google owns it, Google+ has the same advantage."

Bryan Griffith, an attorney at Sanborn, Duvall & Bobbitt in Dublin, Ohio, said his Google+ profile appears on the first page when someone searches his name.

"If you're comfortable using social media, you definitely need to familiarize yourself with it because of the way Google controls their search engine," said Kimbro. "For a law firm website, it's [about] having a high ranking, and your Google+ profile, or number of +1's or number of posts may factor into search engine optimization." (A +1 button lets people recommend sites they like. It appears next to search results.)

Kevin O'Keefe of LexBlog in Seattle said lawyers that get on Google+ early will have a better chance of getting noticed.

"You're never going to get a better opportunity to mingle with influencers simply because you've got something all new and not as crowded," he said.

"When it comes to social media, there's no advantage in waiting. The benefit goes to the early adopters, people who see value in establishing a presence and make themselves known," said Bodine.

Or wait and see?

Others say Google+ is still in the experimental phase and lawyers should leave it to tech experts to figure out any kinks in the new platform, especially since most lawyers have not yet mastered existing social media.

"There's so much out there already that needs to be optimized. Lawyers would benefit from building their social media skill set before moving into new territory," said Pinkert.

He says Facebook may still be a better fit for small firm and solo attorneys who rely on personal connections.

He also worries that the platform gives users a false sense of security.

"The expectation is that it's more private and more secure than other social media, but it isn't really the case," he said, noting that there does not appear to be a way to delete your Google+ profile once it's created.

Pinkert suggested lawyers wait at least until after the general release version comes out before joining.

Kimbro agreed that one advantage to waiting is that you avoid the issue of what to do with your individual profile once Google releases its Google+ platform for businesses.

While it's too early to know how Google will handle distinctions between individual profiles and business profiles, Kimbro said solo lawyers like herself may have to adjust their branding strategy.

"Any brand building through social media works best as an individual. People know my face; they don't necessarily know my logo," said Kimbro.

Published: Fri, Aug 19, 2011

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