Guest: Bill Bice, Founder and CEO of Boomtime
Episode 62: Attracting New Clients Through Word-of-Mouth Marketing
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Bill Bice, founder and CEO of Boomtime. Bill is what some may call a serial entrepreneur. He launched Boomtime after starting several other companies, and he was also a founding partner of a VC fund investing in high-tech, high-growth companies. He’s passionate about helping businesses grow and focuses on the legal industry, among others. On today’s podcast, he’ll tell us about his path and what he’s learned that can help law firms grow. Bill, welcome to the podcast.
Bill: Sharon, it’s great to be here with you. Thanks.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. You have significant experience in the legal industry from a technology perspective. Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to found Boomtime?
Bill: Legal is where I started. I started a company called ProLaw Software when I was 18 and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I joked that I’m like Bill Gates because I dropped out of college to start a software company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He started Microsoft and became the world’s richest man. I started ProLaw and went into a market that I wasn’t—I didn’t have the experience to know that I shouldn’t be walking into the corner office of a managing partner and selling him software that I was writing the night before. But what we were doing was unique enough and was needed in the market that with enough time, I learned and built a great team. We ended up creating something new and it was really innovative for the time, which was an integrated system that automated the whole firm. We were replacing seven or eight different NIP systems. This was in the 90s and we were really taking a different approach to automating law firms. It was great experience in the legal market and I’ve gone on to found a few more companies in the legal space.
Sharon: What is it that attracts you to the legal industry? Did you ever consider becoming a lawyer?
Bill: I didn’t. I’ve always come from the technology side. Some people find this a little bit ironic, but I’ve long thought that the real competitive advantage for me, and what allowed me to better serve attorneys, was the fact that I didn’t have a J.D. I didn’t come in with a preconceived notion of how you should run a law firm.
One of the reasons that I chose the legal market—because I was writing vertical market software for several different markets and eventually got smart enough to pick one of them—is because I really felt that I could build a better product than what was in the market today. The joke was that the competition was an attorney who hired a Visual Basic programmer to implement their view of how you should run a law firm, and the thing that you really have to do—I mean, legal is not one kind of business. There are so many practice areas and what you need to do for an intellectual property practice versus a personal injury practice are, of course, vastly different. It’s not a good area to have dyslexia in, so I really had to listen to the attorneys and firm administrators and staff that I was working with and truly understand how the law firm operated and build a system that supported that. I think that was actually an advantage. I love the practice of law; I don’t want to actually practice it myself.
Sharon: I can understand that and that’s really true about the different practice areas. There’s the foundational aspect in terms of how all firms operate, but there’s also such a specificity in other areas, like intellectual property being different from employment or from aviation law. You described marketing law firms as a technology problem. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Bill: This is a great quote that is attributed to John Wanamaker, who created department stores: “I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”
Sharon: Right, yeah.
Bill: Of course, we both know how true that has been, but we’re in a digital world where marketing today—it’s not that traditional media isn’t important, but so much of what firms are doing today is digitally driven. We actually have the opposite problem. We can have the data on every single engagement we create and where every dollar we spend is going, so we have the opposite problem: how do we take all of that data and turn it into something useful that we can make decisions on? That’s how I looked at marketing, because I started as a programmer writing the software for ProLaw. I just look at it as a technology problem. I look at it from the lens of the data, and I found that if you follow that data and you iterate, then the ability to improve the engagement that you’re creating through all that effort—and attorneys are very rational and fact-based, so being able to show that data to your attorneys to demonstrate what’s really happening, that’s one of the biggest problems in marketing for firms. They don’t commit to a long-term strategy they execute on consistently. This is not something you try for a month or two to see if it works. You’ve got to have a long-term commitment if you expect it to work.
Sharon: In terms of the technology, yes, you do need long-term commitment. It seems like you’re talking about two different things. You’re talking about the technology and what it’s saying and the data, and then also this commitment to, “Well, it didn’t work this week. Maybe it’s time to start something new.” How do you overcome that?
Bill: That’s why I think the data is so valuable because my recommendation when I sit down with a partner at a firm is, “Don’t even start if you’re not going to do the research, understand the approach that you’re going to take and make that long-term commitment.” I really think you need to make a year commitment to the approach to show that it’s going to work.
I do a lot of work with content-driven marketing. It’s all word-of-mouth based. It’s the thing that’s so invaluable for firms that work of creating word of mouth for a law firm. It’s what’s always worked in legal and now we have such better tools for amplifying the effect of this thing that works because we can do it online. LinkedIn is amazingly powerful for law firms to make that happen. Using the data is how we can overcome making that long-term commitment because you can really see that it works. Then, if you put technology to work in the right ways, you can get scale on efficiency in the marketing, which makes it easier to see how to get an ROI on that investment.
Sharon: Is that what Boomtime does? Can you tell us about what Boomtime is? Is Boomtime the name of not only the company, but also the software? Is it the name of the process?
Bill: Yes, Boomtime is the company. We’ve written a marketing automation platform called Fuse that’s about delivering marketing as a service. It’s really about thought leadership and content marketing because it’s difficult to do that well consistently. That’s a problem that’s got to be solved for firms to be great at their marketing. Even for a firm that’s large enough to have dedicated internal marketing resources—as you know well, there’s always way too much marketing to get everything done. You always need more bandwidth.
Sharon: There’s always more to be done when it comes to marketing. No matter how well you’re doing it, there’s always more you can do.
Bill: Absolutely, and the only thing I’ve ever seen be successful for having a consistent content marketing campaign done well is to have an outside resource. In a smaller firm, they can hire you or me to do that and have it run for them. You can have a marketing director who now has additional bandwidth. But if they don’t hire an outside firm—and it can be an individual person, like you can find a J.D. who understands your practice area and is really good at writing content. It just never works internally because you’ve got clients to take care of. Sometimes it works to have a new associate do it for a little while, but honestly, you really need somebody who is more experienced, who can give your partner a pre-written piece of content that just takes minor editing and gets it to the point where it captures the voice. They do it right so it becomes automatic. It’s just so tough to do internally. I’ve never seen it work.
Sharon: It is tough because those people can be making money in other ways for you. You’ve mentioned that you see marketing in the legal industry as being different from other industries. How do you see that?
Bill: The biggest problem with marketing in legal is that legal is a tremendous business, but it really needs to be treated as a business. You’ve talked recently about the sales role within law firms, and sales is a bad word in legal and that’s something we absolutely have to change.
Sharon: It is changing slowly, but yes, for a long time, it was literally the four-letter word.
Bill: And marketing has been a bad word in legal because there used to be a time that if you were a capable attorney and you put your shingle out, you would, over time, get enough business simply because there was enough out there if you were good at the legal work. Post-recession, the market is dramatically different. It’s so much more competitive now, so if you want your firm to be successful, you’ve got to treat it as a business.
We started with Boomtime in other B2B areas, but because of our experience—we have the same team that built ProLaw at Boomtime, so we’ve got a ton of legal experience. After we learned a lot about marketing and B2B in other contexts, we’ve now taken that into legal, and a lot of the techniques are exactly the same. The challenges really come with the unique organizational structure of a law firm. You walk into a building that has a hundred people in it and 40 of them run the place, and that creates a very different organizational structure.
Sharon: Yes, very true.
Bill: That’s one of the big advantages that smaller firms have over large firms. It’s much easier for them to get all the partners together behind one consistent strategy and to do really simple things that were created well, like create a central database of all the contacts from all the attorneys. That’s something a smaller firm can do very easily, but the moment you have practice heads, it’s really tough to get the firm to do that, yet it’s such a huge advantage to have that central database from a marketing standpoint.
Sharon: Yes, absolutely. No matter what the size of the firm, it’s still a challenge. I always talk about it as a Saturday morning project because it’s something you just can’t get done during the week. Yes, you can pull it together and it’s critical to pull that database together, but you need to focus on it and make it very, very high priority.
Sharon: You’ve said that, in working with different firms, you see only two ways for a law firm to grow. Can you tell us what those are?
Bill: Yes, so the classic way—it’s straightforward; attorneys really understand it—is lateral transfers. You go find a partner from another firm. You pull them and their staff, and the clients often come with them. Yet the research shows that it has about the same success rate of M&A transactions that attorneys are executing on for their clients, which is unfortunately very low. You have that experience in your M&A practice and the same exact things happen in the firm. It takes an average of five years for that to pay off for the existing partners in the firm, for a lateral transfer. Anytime you have that sort of transfer occur and you don’t keep that partner for more than five years, you’ve just lost money. Of course, that can work when it’s done really well. One, it’s strategic, and you’re adding a practice area that really fits with your other practice areas. But so often I see that this is the route that firms take to grow, when the long-term route that really helps a firm is to focus on the one thing that works, which is word of mouth. It’s so much easier to make that pay off if you put a long-term commitment into it and you leverage the thing that’s really working. The low-hanging fruit in almost every firm is cross-pollinating in the practice areas. Your clients see your firm from the perspective of the attorney they work with the most, and they don’t really understand the full capabilities of the firm.
Sharon: Very true. That’s been a long-term challenge and I think it’s changing, but yes, there are a lot of opportunities there. When you say word of mouth, what do you mean by that? Is it literally word of mouth, or are you saying visibility and recognition?
Bill: I have a little bit larger definition of that. The core piece of word of mouth is the referrals that are coming in. One of the things that is really basic about how referrals work in a firm, but it’s really important, is that the vast majority of referrals happen at the individual attorney level. So you want to optimize your whole marketing process around each of the rainmakers, each of the partners in the firm, because that’s where the referrals are coming in. The first thing you want to do is own the search results for each of your attorneys’ names. Between the bio page and the website and their LinkedIn profile, it’s very reasonable to do that. Then, the greater reach of word of mouth is, if that’s working for you and referrals are coming into your firm today, meaning your attorneys and your firm have a good reputation in the market, that means it’s very realistic to extend the reach and amplify that effect.
The one thing I would love more firms to take advantage of is to aggressively use LinkedIn. Of course, they’re on LinkedIn; you’ve got profiles for your attorneys, but what I mean by that is really growing your network on LinkedIn. It’s the best way to expand the audience that understands the expertise you’re bringing to the table. If you expand your network, and then you follow that up with thought leadership content, then you have a very natural way to get exactly the right target clients seeing what you’re capable of doing. I compare LinkedIn to the ideal networking event. Rainmakers go to networking events. They’re great at meeting prospective clients and over time showing off their expertise; well, imagine being able to do that where you only meet exactly the people you want to, and you don’t have to eat horrible, high-calorie food at the same time in that environment.
Sharon: Bill, a couple of questions because you’re preaching to the choir. I’m 100 percent behind what you say, but what is the reaction when you sit down and talk to a law firm managing partner? When they’ve opened the door to you but they’re still skeptical, what is their reaction or their resistance? What are you seeing?
Bill: There are a couple. It’s always tough to accept the idea that it’s going to work to have somebody outside, a subject matter expert, be a ghostwriter for you. Attorneys are really good at writing, but it needs to be in a legal context. We need a little bit of a shift when we do the same thing for marketing. The only way to overcome that is to be willing to try it because it’s so much easier to not stare at a blank screen and have something you can edit. You have to get to the point where it’s fairly minor edits so that it’s an efficient use of that attorney’s time because otherwise it won’t happen consistently. There’s a lot more desire and openness to using LinkedIn today, and it’s this more aggressive approach of really growing your network and not, “I’m only going to connect with people on LinkedIn that I already know.” That would be like going to a networking event and only talking to people you already know. It doesn’t make any sense. It takes a little effort to overcome that, and I believe the best way for all of those issues is in the data; it’s showing the results. It works extremely well. You just have to commit to it and do it.
Sharon: I did a search a few months ago on LinkedIn looking at law firm marketing directors or business development people. Even the LinkedIn experts were saying, “Forget it for lawyers. Forget it for management in firms because they’re just not using it,” or, like you said, they put up a profile five years ago and nobody’s ever looked at it since. How do you encourage them to get over this hurdle? What have you seen work in terms of making more use of LinkedIn?
Bill: I love the way you just put it because why should your firm do it? It’s because your competition isn’t doing it. It’s white space right now for law firms because your clients are doing it. They’re active on LinkedIn. The amount of time spent per user on LinkedIn over the last 18 months has exploded. LinkedIn has taken off and your clients are there. You want to be where your clients are and it’s a vastly more efficient way to do what you do in real life. Particularly if you have dedicated marketing resources inside your firm, the ability to do this—and it’s much more effective for partners.
At a small or mid-size firm, it’s not about the firm’s page. You certainly should have one, but the activity’s going to be at the partner level. People want to connect with other people on LinkedIn. They want to connect with people who are experts in their field, and attorneys are in the perfect place to do that. The challenge in every firm is that this works. It creates conversation and a lot of attorneys don’t have the time to engage in all those conversations, so you need to have a staff person or a central marketing person to whom you’re willing to give access to your LinkedIn profile. This is one part that I don’t recommend having an outside resource do because it needs to be very genuine. When somebody reaches out to you with a question on LinkedIn, you need to have someone there who’s responding from the firm. Some attorneys have their assistant be them in order to filter the conversations and point out the ones the attorney needs to respond to. A more straightforward way is to pop into LinkedIn messaging and say, “This is Susan. I work for Jim and here’s how we can help you.” It’s pretty easy to transition those credible client prospects into a telephone call with the attorney. That’s the best mechanism for getting from those initial connections to turning them into prospective clients.
Sharon: I’m thinking about the number of conversations we’ve had about that, but you’re right. It’s just like if you hire a salesperson for your law firm, there’s still opportunity because very few firms are doing it, or it’s only the more progressive firms. There’s still a lot of opportunity to do that and have a competitive advantage by getting on LinkedIn and making use of it before it’s so crowded that nobody has time to respond or everybody’s overlooking it.
What do you see as—and I think you’ve already addressed this—the biggest opportunity that most attorneys aren’t taking advantage of to grow their firm or their practice? What’s the biggest overlooked opportunity?
Bill: I really think that, if I were a partner in a firm and had a business development person or a legal sales executive, or if I were that person in a firm, this is the number one thing that I would be doing. I would be going to my partners and running aggressive connection campaigns on LinkedIn in order to create those conversations. It is, by far, the most efficient way to get to exactly the right prospects, and then you get two bites at the apple. You have that initial connection request and what we have found to be successful in that approach is to have a follow-up message after somebody accepts your connection request. You thank them for that. None of this is salesy, which is perfect for law firms because law firms don’t want to be salesy, and that doesn’t work on LinkedIn. It has to be about building a network because you want to help that network. It’s taking great expertise and advice that is specific to what each of your partners does and using that as a follow-up article. Taking their best piece of content and sharing that in a thank you message is the perfect way to strike those initial conversations and then you get a second bite of the apple, which is going from having a steady flow of thought leadership pieces that you keep posting on LinkedIn, to now this growing network. What happens when you do this really well is that it starts to grow organically. People start following you because they want your advice. I believe one of the things you have talked about before is that prospective clients come to the table so much better-informed today. Where does that come from? It’s going to come from your competition if you’re not the one putting out those thought leadership pieces.
Sharon: That’s a great point. You’ve made a lot of great points today and I’d be thrilled if the law firm management listening takes it to heart, because there is a lot of opportunity. Bill, thank you so much for being here today. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you’d like to contact Bill, we will have his information in the show notes. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help you move your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.
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