Why Doesn’t Our Web Site Work?’

August 31, 2005

So, you have spent double the budget to launch or re-vamp your Web site and the day has come for it to go ‘live’. The excitement in (most of) the firm is palpable, the marketing partner has that glint in his eye, everything works and even the pictures in the partner profiles look great – well, as good as can possibly be hoped! The client newsletter trumpets the firm’s new Web site and the local paper has published your press release verbatim. It seems like a new dawn.

At first, all seems well – the site has had several hundred visitors (“unique users”) in the first fortnight.but then, slowly, the numbers dwindle away and by the end of the third month, your site statistics show an average of only a few dozen visitors a week and worse still, the average time spent on the site is down to under a minute per visit. And where is all the work – or at least enquiries – this investment was meant to create? It is beginning to look like the Web site represents a substantial wasted investment and that it will not cover its running costs. Sparks are beginning to fly and the partner who was implacably against the expense is wearing that ‘I told you so’ expression.

If this sounds like the story of your firm’s Web site, you are not alone. Up and down the country, dozens of firms are questioning the value of their Web investment. Many firms who are not questioning it (because they don’t look at the statistics and so don’t realise they are failing) should be. The irony of the position is that many of the least effective sites I see were clearly among the most expensive to create. You do not have to spend large amounts of money to have a ‘good’ Web site. You do have to do a lot of thinking! This article looks at some of the reasons Internet projects fail to produce a positive return on investment and what to do about it. It does not deal with issues relating to the use of client extranets, where the issues are significantly different.

Who is it for?

The first golden rule of Web sites is to make sure you know who they are for: your clients and your prospective clients. They are not there to be attractive to other lawyers or for the partners. Making your site ‘speak to the user’ (ie written with their requirements in mind and in their language) is a prerequisite of being effective.

There are two important points to make with regard to sites in general.

Firstly, all Web sites should have the basic ‘how to contact us’ material one click away from the home page. The majority of your visitors probably just want to find out your telephone number or get directions to your office. Make that very easy. Make your contact details easy and fast to find. For example, the Web site of a two office firm puts the office addresses and telephone numbers at the bottom of the page – which is outside a normal screen. They are not therefore visible unless you scroll down. The other way to find them is to click on the ‘about us’ tab (not ‘enquiries’, which is an e-mail response form) and then to click on ‘location and maps’. Not only is this time-consuming, but the use of ambiguous tag labels (‘about us’ is, on most Web sites something about the type of firm and people) is irritating.

Secondly, the use of flash introductions which load meaningless graphics is a complete time waster and very annoying after the first few times. The proof is that the large majority contain a ‘skip’ button (which often, infuriatingly, appears at the end of the display, not the beginning). Get rid of your flash opening page and let the client or prospect go straight to the information they sought in the first place. I am at a total loss to understand why any sensible firm would waste time and money on something that always makes the user’s experience worse.

The Basics – Sending the Right Messages

There is another issue here. The structure of your Web site sends powerful messages about the type of firm you are. For example, one firm has in the ‘about us section’ a list of the executive board (is this of relevance to clients?), followed by a list (I am not kidding!) of ‘Partners in order of seniority’. Think about this. Would you want to deal with people who think it is important to show the outside world their internal seniority? To me this sends messages of being inward-looking, obsessed with status and so on. There again, it is surprising how many firms under ‘our people’ do not list anyone other than partners and/or fee earners. This sends the clear message that you do not value anyone who is not a fee earner (‘fee earner’ is incidentally the worst term in the world to use in front of clients. It tells them that you are there to earn fees … and that they are there to pay them). Thinking about issues such as this is important, as these messages are powerful influencers, especially of people who do not know what you are really like, such as prospective clients.

The last general point is that people who are looking at law-firm sites are generally doing so for a reason and that is normally because they want information about something, or they have a problem and they want that problem solved. So, talking about what departments you have isn’t as much use to them as talking about the types of client you act for and the types of problem you can help them sort out. It is a subtle point, but a valid one. Talking about expertise (unless it is a real and recognisable niche) is a waste of time: expertise is a given. What prospective clients want is more than expertise, it is consideration and a good ‘client experience.’ Your site should talk about clients and their problems. Similarly banging on about Lexcel and so on means nothing to clients – 90% of whom will have no clue what it means (unlike ISO 9001, which will mean something to your business clients and prospects).

What’s it for?

The first question that has to be asked when commissioning a Web site is ‘what is it for?’ It must have a purpose.

On a very basic level, your may just want to give your clients and prospects contact details, a map of how to find the office and so on. A site like that is aimed, in essence, purely at making it easy for people who want to contact you to find your phone number, office location and so on, nothing more. A site like this is just fine (if that is what you want), and should be very cheap to set up and maintain. Typically it should contain mainly static information, be accessed by few people who do not already know the firm and will be used only as long as it takes to get the required information (typically the office phone number or a map). These sites have little marketing value and there is little point in spending money doing ‘search engine positioning’ for such a site.

However, all Web sites should have such information easily to hand.

If, on the other hand, you are looking to extract real marketing advantage from your Web site, you have to go further. In this case you are seeking to make your Web site part of the ‘glue’ that sticks your clients to you or attracts prospective clients. To make your Web site part of the relationship with your client or target, it must be worth visiting over and over again. In other words, it has to address their needs, both in the periods that you are working for them and in those when you are not.

There are two main issues here. The first is that you must drive traffic to your site. This can be done easily by two means. Firstly, you can make an investment in search engine positioning, so that people searching keywords (for example, ‘divorce’ and ‘Midlands‘) will find your firm’s details displayed on the first page or two of their search results. This requires a continuing investment, but it is not normally very expensive. The second, and far more powerful way, is to distribute e-newsletters. If these are good and you invite clients to forward them to their friends and contacts, you can inexpensively build a large base of contacts. You have to make sure you don’t ‘spam’, but in practice, if your material is seen as useful to the reader, it can be a tremendously cost-effective way of building influence and reputation as well as driving Web site usage. Everything that is needed can be bought in inexpensively – for example buying in and sending 10,000 e-newsletters a month costs about £175 per month, which is less than the cost of an afternoon’s golf and dinner for 4.

The second issue is making the site worth visiting over and over. What clients want here is relevant content – stuff that addresses their problems, advises them of issues to consider and makes them think of you as a bright, on the button, practical and approachable firm. Here the prerequisites are:

1. The material should be up to date. It is impressive indeed to see content dates ‘this month’. It is very unimpressive to see a ‘newsletter’ page with noting new within the last six months (as is common).

2. The material should be written in plain English and be jargon-free. Clients don’t want to know the case reference or the legal technicalities – they want to know in simple terms what it means for them and (hopefully) get some generic advice about what the issues to think about are and possible strategies for dealing with them;

3. When they need to get in touch, they want to have the name of the person to contact and their contact details must be easy to find; (if used) the contact must produce a response which is in keeping with the promises (explicit or implicit) made on the site. So, a page saying ‘who is who’ and/or ‘who does what’, together with their phone number, e-mail and perhaps some brief biographical information (too much looks self-indulgent) and a picture is fine. By the way, do ensure some consistency in this. Commonly the senior partner writes screeds and some hardly bother at all. This does not project the image of a firm with people who share common values.

Making sure your Web site has user-relevant, up-to-date and appropriately written content is simple and surprisingly inexpensive (even compared with the cost of writing in-house). You can buy in at low cost up-to-date legal content as word and .pdf files from several sources (suppliers other than our firm Words4business (www.words4business.com) include LawGroup/TNSN (www.lawgroup.co.uk), Webnotes (www.webnotes.co.uk) from Oyez Straker StatPlus and there are some others) and even rent blocks of content that are kept up to date from web builders such as Conscious Solutions (www.conscious.co.uk). What is absolutely crucial is that you have a simple and easy method of getting access to your own Web site, so that you can update material without constantly having to go through your web designers, which will slow things down as well as increasing the cost.

Essentials for an Effective Web Site

1. Most Web sites seem to have about 80% of the time and money spent thinking about the design and 20% about the content. Turn that ratio around! It is content, not design, that makes your Web site valuable.

2. Make sure you have direct and easy access to the content-bearing areas of the Web site, so you can update them regularly.

3. Make your contract with your Web site builders require them to deliver specific outputs which you define.

4. Avoid Flash. Avoid pop-ups. Keep it simple, sharp and logical. Think about it from the user’s perspective and get feedback from people outside the firm before you finalise the design.

5. Make sure the messages the site gives are the right ones and that they are congruent with its content and the subsequent client experience. This will require ‘buy-in’ from your people.

6. Effective Web sites aren’t about winning prizes, they are about producing results, so never forget the prime objective: the clients.

Joe Reevy is the managing director of law firm mentors Best Practice Online Ltd (www.bestpracticeonline.com) and legal content providers www.words4business.com.