Understanding the Groundswell of social media and its value to lawyers

Issue December 2009 By Alan J. Klevan

Law Practice Management Section Council, Klevan & Klevan LLP

In this world of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, blogs and wikis, there are quite a few places to turn when we want to know how to use them. However, there is only one place to turn when you want to understand how important these platforms are for companies and how they respond to these various types of media.

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, is much more than a book introducing the concept of social media to its audience. It is a thought-provoking tome on understanding that the "groundswell" - defined as "a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations" - is an unstoppable force. One need look no further than to search "United Breaks Guitars" on YouTube to understand the authors' position. It is the groundswell that is making organizations change not just the way they do business, but their actual product, in response to what the people want.

While Li and Bernoff introduce us to the many ways in which the groundswell is, in fact, an "unstoppable force," the book does not provide specific ways in which corporations and organizations interact with the groundswell. However, the book does provide a guide on how to go about setting up a groundswell strategy. To this end, they offer us the acronym POST:

  • People: Are your customers interacting with social technologies? Which ones? How do they use them?
  • Objective: What does a company hope to accomplish with a groundswell strategy?
  • Strategy: How will those objectives be achieved?
  • Technology: Which vendor or technology can help accomplish these goals?

Although the book is replete with case studies involving major corporations such as Dell, Mini and Sony, these strategies also apply to attorneys, from the solo practitioner to the large law firm. For example, using the POST techniques, how are you interacting with your client? Have you gone to to see what others are saying about you? Have you set up a Google Alert with your name so you are notified when you are referenced on the World Wide Web? If you do plan to participate in social media, what are your objectives? Do you wish to specifically market your practice, or do you wish to educate? What is your strategy to do this? Do you plan on answering comments if you blog? Do you wish to have engaging communication electronically or do you wish for them to contact you by phone? Lastly, what is your technological platform to accomplish this? Do you wish to have a blog, which requires both understanding and commitment, or will you use a social network such as Twitter, LinkedIn or the like?

Interspersed with the sometimes-redundant case studies are nuggets of vital information necessary for successfully communicating with the groundswell. First, obviously, is to know and understand your audience and what the groundswell means to you.

The obvious place to start is search engines, such as Google and Yahoo. It is also important to search the "secondary" engines, such as Bing, to see what, if anything, is being said or printed about you.

Second, set in motion a plan to listen to what your customers are saying about you. Create a Survey Monkey survey for your clients to complete after the conclusion of a matter. Have them consider posting a rating of your services on Avvo. Your client may have a blog and they may have posted something about your work on it. Listening is the lowest risk/lowest participation aspect of communication with the groundswell that can produce successful results for you.

Talking with the groundswell comprises a lengthy chapter in the book. Basically, there are four ways to accomplish this: 1) post a video; 2) engage in social networking and user-generated content sites; 3) join the blogosphere; and 4) create your own social community. Before contemplating any of these choices, it is important to review the POST guidelines.

Besides listening and talking to the groundswell, Li and Bernoff also discuss how to energize your groundswell and continue to support it, primarily through case studies and stories from groundswell participants. It is here where the book gets bogged down with study after study on corporate participation in social media. However, using the techniques set forth in the book, and understanding the POST principles, the techniques explained by the authors can easily be incorporated into any attorney's legal practice.

The groundswell is a phenomenon that is here to stay. The traditional methods of seeking information about a product or a service are waning. Groundswell, while not a "how to" primer on using social media to communicate with your customer base, provides a basic and important framework to start a dialogue, either with your colleagues, staff - even with yourself - on understanding social media to better communicate with existing and potential clients, and successfully pursue your goals.