Unlock the Secrets to Social Networking: A Tutorial on How To Grow Your Practice by Leveraging These Powerful Tools (Part 1)

With social networking all the rage these days, I am frequently struck by how few attorneys really understand and know how to effectively use it to propel their practices to a whole new level. Having said that, however, I do not advocate jumping on the social networking bandwagon for the sake of getting caught up in the latest fad or trend. Studies show us that these powerful tools are revolutionizing how lawyers promote their practices, create referral relationships, strengthen existing relationships, and ultimately retain new clients. This stuff REALLY works!

What is it, exactly?

Let’s first take a look at the fundamental premise of social networking. Face-to-face networking for professional purposes has long been a cornerstone of business development activities for most lawyers where they gravitate organically to others with whom they share common interests. It is an effective and powerful way to build professional relationships, actively foster contacts and disseminate information.

It is not surprising, then, in our world of increasing reliance upon technology that these networks have rapidly migrated to the online world.

Although online social networking has existed in many different forms for years now, it has only been in the last few years that these tools have captivated broad attention in the legal services world. In its most simple definition, social networking is a set of online tools by which lawyers may build a wide-reaching reputation as an expert in chosen areas of law, promote their services through online discussion and chat groups, webinars, podcasts, and blogs, develop a super large network without any borders, and conduct relationship-building activities via one-on-one communications. Your online network can be as broad or as narrow as you want it to be. The tools are available with a click of a mouse or a simple keystroke. And, in most cases, there is no charge.

An Overview

The three primary components in social networking are reputation and relationship building, a circle of influence, and viral marketing. Despite some of the differences, most social networks, and here I mean LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, are based on some of the same concepts.

First, each new user/member must have an online profile that serves as the individual’s identity. The profile often contains information about a person’s professional experience, education, interests and affiliations, as well information about the individual’s specific skills and resources.

Secondly, each user has Connections with whom they develop a network, a following, or a friend, depending on the exact medium. It is here that powerful relationships and alliances can be formed and leveraged to build and grow a law practice. Let’s be clear: it is not only the connections that you accrue which are so valuable but, as importantly, the connections which you develop as a result of the connections your connections have. Make sense?

Think of your online network as a wheel to which there are many spokes. You are at the center of the wheel and your connections are the spokes. The more direct connections you acquire (this is sometimes referred to as first degree connections, in the case of LinkedIn), the more people to whom you will develop second and third degree connections. It’s the multiplier effect hard at work. Why does this matter? Strategically, if you connect with people with whom you may do business either as a client, referral source, key influencer, industry expert, etc., the probability is high these people have similar connections thereby expanding your network with qualified prospects. This is key to leveraging your position in social networking.

Third, to develop a strong reputation and credibility, each user has the opportunity to feature recommendations on his/her profile. What does this mean? Essentially, you can request that someone with whom you have a professional relationship provide an endorsement, if you will, which may speak to your level of expertise, integrity, work ethic, or some other positive professional attributes. Recommendations have many faces dependant upon the nature of your relationship with the “recommender” i.e. a colleague, a client, or a referral source, for example.

Recommendations are an important and useful way to develop some “street cred” from third parties and can go a long way to help establish and build your online reputation. It is, though, just one piece of the puzzle.

Fourth, as one of the most professional networking sites on the Web, LinkedIn features online Groups which can be a tremendously powerful tool by which to expand your network, establish yourself as an expert in a chosen field, and to lend a strong and frequent voice to your online presence. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of groups ranging from professional, alumni, non-profit, networking and so many others wherein a user may join like-minded users in discussions, pose questions for the group, and otherwise share a common interest. It is a power networking tool for interacting with people of the same business/professional interest, such as for referrals.

Fifth, Status Changes (on LinkedIn) and Wall Updates (on Facebook), if used strategically, can keep you connected with your growing network, aid in promoting your practice and business development activities, and provide to you a dynamic platform for using your online voice.

Last, uploading a photo of yourself makes a user’s profile come alive and seem more real. It also helps to put a face to a name of fellow users as you build a network. For privacy purposes, however, some folks elect to upload a photo of someone or something other than themselves. It’s a personal choice and ultimately should complement a social networking strategy.

These are the basic common elements of the most popular social media networks which should give you a sense of some of the reputation and relationship-building opportunities available online.

In the second part of this article series, we will explore how to develop a social networking strategy which helps you build a strong online presence and grow your practice by leveraging these powerful tools.