Professional services firms are discovering that when it comes to reeling in new clients and servicing existing ones, the Internet is a profitable business address -- and a relatively easy way for professional unknowns to make a name for themselves.
Just ask 29-year-old Gregory Siskind. Three years ago the Nashville attorney was a nobody with a big dream of practicing immigration law. Today, his immigration law firm, Siskind, Susser, Haas & Chang, has 11 lawyers with offices in six states. About two-thirds of the firm's business comes through the Internet -- either from its Web site or from its free monthly newsletter, distributed electronically to 10,000 subscribers.
A cheap way to market
Mr. Siskind has also written the American Bar Association's definitive marketing book: "Lawyers' Guide to Marketing on the Internet."
Or ask 39-year-old Lewis Rose, whose Washington-based law firm Arent Fox added 30 new clients and about $300,000 in revenue over the past 16 months with little marketing expense.
How? By hanging out its Internet shingle. Mr. Rose, who in 1994 launched his firm's Internet site, says, "The Internet has been the most cost-effective way of getting my name out there . . . I get phone calls and referrals all the time and give speeches all over the country."
What Mr. Rose, Mr. Siskind and other professionals are realizing is that cyberculture and professional culture can be an ideal match. The biggest lure is that for the cost of an in-depth Web site (typically $10,000 to $50,000), professionals can quickly establish their name and reputation.
The Web site for Mr. Siskind's firm, for instance, at 1,000 pages is a veritable bible of immigration law, including all government forms relevant to immigration -- and it's all free.
While it seems incongruous, lawyers, accountants and other professionals are touting the virtues of free information on their Web sites.
Content drives clients to call
Burgess Allison, technical editor of the American Bar Association's Law Practice Management magazine and author of "Lawyer's Guide to the Internet," explains it this way: "If someone's spent the last half-hour reading a huge tutorial at a Web site, who are they going to pick up the phone to call?"
Think of Web marketing of professional services as a never-ending, free seminar -- chock full of information that gets your name and expertise in front of the public. "To do a good professional Web site, you don't want to do advertising," says Mr. Allison. "You want to market content and services."
Content drives people to a professional service's Web site, says Mr. Allison, and helps establish name recognition and reputation.
Interactivity is key
Besides content, another key to succeeding at marketing professional services online is interactivity. "You want to make it as easy as possible for people to reach you," advises Stephen King, president of Virtual Growth Incorporation, a small-business accounting and consulting firm that has grown 300% in the past six months.
Virtual Growth's Home Page includes two big buttons to click: One gets you a free consultation, the other's an e-mail contact. To keep fingers itching throughout, every Virtual Growth page has an information request button and an e-mail box.
Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz, a New York entertainment and media law firm recently revamped its site, making a lawyer just a click away. For example, site visitors that want to find out if their latest brilliant scheme will fly legally can just click on a particular practice area or attorney's name on Frankfurt Garbus' site to ask a question.
Make sure it's simple
There's another secret behind successful professional service Web sites. Keep them simple and professional-looking. "You don't want things running on the bottom or hands waving at you," warns Mr. Siskind.
His rule of thumb: "If it's not something you would find acceptable for a firm brochure, chances are it won't be acceptable for a Web site."
Of course, marketing your law firm or accounting or consulting practice on the Internet is more than just putting up a World Wide Web site. Like any good marketing, Web marketing needs to be part of an overall campaign and integrated with non-Web marketing.
"You can't just put up a Web site and expect people to come," says Mr. Rose, who also runs a list serve for lawyers and moderates an advertising law forum on Counsel Connect, an online networking service for lawyers.
Site depends on clients
For some professionals having a Web site can be overkill. One of the question you should ask: Are your clients or potential clients online?
A good way you can test the online waters is to put your e-mail address on all your communication.
"If you're inundated with e-mail, you may want to make your presence more well-known," suggests New York attorney Ernest R. Ferraro, of Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz.
Lawyers venturing online, says Mr. Siskind, should also check with their board of professional responsibility, which regulates legal advertising, to ensure their Web sites don't violate state regulations.
A few states, for example, require prior approval of any advertising portions of a site.
Don't stop at the Net
Still, online marketing doesn't end with the Internet. At the end of the day you need to turn a contact into a relationship the old-fashioned way.
"People still need to look you in the eye to know they trust you," says Mr. King.
"To be honest, you need phone calls or meetings to get the warm and fuzzies."