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Experiential Marketing for Law Firms on the Rise

By Sarah Kellogg

December 14, 2016

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After investing heavily in digital marketing initiatives, from deploying interactive websites to launching elaborate social media strategies, many law firms are finding that the best way to recruit and retain clients is the old-fashioned way: person-to-person contact.

In the last decade, experiential marketing has gained in popularity as law firms looked for an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Often described as event-based or face-to-face marketing, experiential marketing invites clients to develop a relationship with a firm while allowing them to share their concerns and grievances.

"There is a greater emphasis on relationship building at firms right now, and that is better done in person," says Katie Munroe, client development litigation lead at Covington & Burling LLP. "The goal is to create an event or an engagement that would attract clients but also present an opportunity for them to experience services first hand."

Delivering the Brand Directly

For clients, there can be a personal and professional advantage to participating in a firm-sponsored event, whether it's a legal seminar or a charity ball, compared with a purely digital dialogue. Experiential marketing encourages the client to be actively involved in what's happening so he or she has an interaction with the "brand"—the law firm—itself.

For law firms, the persona of the firm is delivered directly to clients instead of waiting for them to find it on their own. Through face-to-face seminars, CLE offerings, and client appreciation awards, firms and individual lawyers can educate clients and nurture relationships with in-house counsel, always with an eye toward building lasting connections that can weather economic downturns and staff changes.

"Experiential marketing allows our attorneys continued relationship development with clients and prospects," says Jennifer Bonesteel, manager of regional business development at Littler Mendelson P.C. "We recognize our clients have a multitude of choices when hiring outside counsel, and anything we can do to personalize that choice is important. I've always been told that people want to hire who they like. The right experience is always necessary, but it is also important to have a rapport with clients and prospects."

This experiential approach to marketing has been most popular—and deployed most effectively—with products. Think IKEA hosting an in-store pajama party, or Coke Zero sending hordes of people armed with soda to cheer for a fisherman on the side of a river. In the midst of all this is the omnipresent video camera recording these marketing marvels.

These high-profile branding opportunities are gaining converts in the professional services sectors, such as law, accounting, and even medicine. Who can say no to friends at a law firm after they've arranged deluxe dinners, chartered cruises, and winery tours? Or at least that's the rationale.

Still, the most established experiential marketing in law firms today, but also the most valuable, are events that link back directly to the law, say marketers. For example, every year Littler hosts a multi-day Executive Employer Conference in Arizona, bringing together some 600 clients and 250 of the firm's attorneys. The agenda focuses on significant developments in employment law and trends impacting the workplace, while allowing plenty of time for networking.

"In 2016 we implemented live attendee polling during the . . . conference as an additional way to engage with the audiences," says Bonesteel. "These marketing activities are a big investment for us, but they are essential to the firm's success."

Virtual Marketing Is Here to Stay

While experiential marketing may be carving out its own niche, that doesn't mean law firms are replacing their digital marketing strategies, especially social media. In a technology-focused world, digital is here to stay. Yet, there is a feeling that a hybrid of the two would deliver the best of both worlds for clients and law firms.

"Webinars and short video content are the largest investment we see being made by attorneys," says Samantha McKenna, senior director of sales for ON24, a national marketing firm that caters to law firms. "Webinars have long been a part of the Am Law 100's marketing efforts, but we're seeing more firms invest in producing short videos, 60 seconds to 3 minutes, on average, that allow them to communicate the information to current and prospective clients, but to also showcase their demeanor and body language, thus allowing the clients to get to know them a bit better."

McKenna says a few factors are critical to ensuring success with these virtual experiences—speed, interactivity, and longevity of content. For instance, according to McKenna, a number of firms teed up post-election Webinars even before the general election results were known and would need explaining. In this way, the firms were able to anticipate their clients' interests and needs, and the materials could stay on the Web indefinitely.

"The secondary appeal [of Webinars] is the level of interactivity that is allowed during a virtual session versus in-person," says McKenna. "A virtual session allows the attorneys to measure meaningful engagement that can't be captured in an in-person session or with a few brief minutes of Q&A at the end of the presentation."

Creating helpful, instructive video or audio content from an in-person event or a virtual one—content that can be downloaded for free and viewed on demand by potential new clients—also is a plus. The experience may not seem as fully realized as an actual physical event, but it is nonetheless an experience from which clients can derive benefits.

Still, a face-to-face event, whether a bonding exercise or sending lawyers out on the conference circuit, provides a rare opportunity for attachment that cannot be duplicated in the virtual world. There also is the added advantage of sharing marketing products that can be both keepsake and professional prompt.

"When a firm engages in experiential marketing, there are lots of opportunities to create and provide physical branding devices for consumers to take away with them after the event," says Munroe. "From t-shirts and coffee mugs to jump drives with helpful information, branded devices extend the reach of any event, and people just like them."