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Mobile-ization: Law firm marketers make their websites smartphone-friendly

When clients pull up your firm’s website on their mobile devices, what do they see?

A quick-loading, simple interface with easy-to-read text?

Or a graphics-heavy, full-scale website that requires zooming and side-scrolling to navigate?

If your firm is like most in Virginia, the answer is the latter. Your site may look great on a PC, but if it’s not customized to sync with mobile devices, it could be a headache for your mobile audience.

That’s because standard websites don’t work efficiently on mobile devices. A traditional website is too large to be viewed on a mobile screen, which in turn makes it tricky to read information, click links and fill out forms. Plus, large graphics and animations slow down a site’s performance on a smartphone.

Fortunately, a growing number of legal marketers are getting ahead of the curve and developing mobile-optimized websites to tout their firm’s services to potential clients who are on-the-go.

A mobile site is a version of a standard website that has been scaled down for optimal viewing on a smaller screen. These lightweight sites are quicker to load, easier to navigate and streamlined to provide only the most relevant information.

“People are traveling and moving and need information on the fly,” said Darron Franta, marketing director at the Richmond law firm of LeClairRyan. His firm launched their mobile website in June 2011 after tracking significant growth in visits from mobile devices. “We wanted our site to be as user-friendly as possible.”

This desire for information on the go is one of the factors that drives mobile web usage, according to Jeff Roberts, president and creative director of Washington-based Moiré Marketing, who spoke at a recent Legal Marketing Association meeting in Richmond. And user experience is important aspect to consider.

“People won’t go back to a mobile site if it takes too long to load,” Roberts said.

For anyone not convinced their target audience is mobile, there is plenty of data to support the seemingly exponential growth of smartphone usage.

A recent study by Internet analytics company comScore states that one in three Americans owns a smartphone. This equals about 107 million smartphone users nationwide. The company also reported that, between January and April 2012, 49 percent of mobile users accessed the web through a mobile phone.

According to Roberts, experts predict that by 2014, more people will be viewing the Internet from mobile devices than from desktop PCs. To reach this rapidly growing audience, it’s become a priority for any business to make its information more attractive to the smartphone set.

“The way people are accessing information is changing,” Franta said. While LeClairRyan’s full-scale website was available through mobile operating systems, it was complicated to use. “It made total sense to try to make it easy.”

Franta says he’s heard buzz from law firms across the nation who are working to make their websites more compatible with mobile browsers.

“The legal industry as a whole views it as a hot topic,” said Emily Krause, marketing director at the Richmond firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen. The firm debuted their mobile website in 2010, along with their My Lawyer Accident App.

“We saw that people were accessing our site through mobile devices,” she said. Taking the anticipated growth of mobile usage into consideration, creating a mobile site “was the next logical step.”

The law firms of Williams Mullen and Reed Smith are also among the Virginia  firms who have gone mobile.

But many law firms are still reluctant to jump on board.

“The biggest challenge is changing a lawyer’s mindset,” said Mindy Weinstein, marketing director at Foster Web Marketing, a Fairfax-based company that provides internet services to law firms across the country. Weinstein says she’s encountered firms who would rather stick to more traditional marketing practices that have worked well in the past.

But ignoring this growing trend could leave law firms struggling to keep up with the competition.

According to Roberts, there were 150,000 mobile websites worldwide in 2008. Last year, there were more than 3 million.

Those who don’t create a mobile-friendly site soon may risk losing a significant part of their target audience.

Creating your mobile site

It wasn’t hard to convince firm leaders to sign off on the development mobile site, Franta and Krause both said. Website statistics told the story of a growing mobile audience for both firms.

For those still questioning whether a mobile site would make sense from a business perspective, Franta recommended running analytics to show which devices are being used to access the firm’s site.

When it comes time to set up a mobile site, there are several different approaches.

Franta and his team chose to integrate the LeClairRyan website with its mobile counterpart. Any time a news feed, attorney bio or practice area page is updated on the site, the change is automatically pushed through to the mobile version.

Allen & Allen took a slightly different approach. While all of their content is managed through the same system, the mobile site is not set up to feed directly from the main site.

“We edited all the copy so it’s not an exact duplicate of allenandallen.com,” said Krause. For the mobile site, she created content that was shorter, more condensed and therefore easier to read on a smaller screen. Since the mobile site is its own entity, Krause maintains its content separately.

To develop their mobile sites, both Allen & Allen and LeClairRyan worked with the third-party companies who were already managing their websites. But if hiring a third-party developer is not in the budget, there are a number of do-it-yourself programs available through the web.

After figuring out the technical aspects, the next step is to focus on content and layout.

One of the main objectives of a law firm website is to be found on search engines by potential clients, said Weinstein.

As Roberts pointed out, Google searches on mobile devices were up 130 percent in the third quarter last year. So choosing the right kind of content for the mobile web is crucial. To decide what makes the cut, think about the information a client might be searching for on a smartphone.

“A mobile website should tell three things,” Roberts said. “Who we are, what we do and why you should care.”

While it’s tempting to want to make every piece of information about the firm available via smartphone, it might be better to take a less-is-more approach. People accessing mobile sites are most likely away from a desktop computer, and are seeking quick bits of information instead of performing in-depth research.

Weinstein cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the firm itself. While pages full of case result analysis, history of the firm and client testimonials could be useful to a web surfer on a traditional computer, the mobile user is likely searching for distinct bits of information.

“You have to appeal to the people,” Weinstein said. Reach out to the clients, she suggested. Let them know what services you provide, and how you can help them.

Not sure which content has the most appeal? Look at your site’s analytics to see which pages are being viewed the most, Krause advised. When setting up Allen & Allen’s mobile site, she edited meticulously, drilling down to the key points.

Their home page offers a brief welcome message, along with direct links to attorney pages, practice area information and phone numbers and directions to their offices.

LeClairRyan’s site features the latest news about the firm and upcoming events, along with a list of practice areas, attorney bios, office location and contact information.

“We selected information we wanted our users to have easy access to,” Franta said.

When designing the layout of the site, it’s wise to take a more minimalistic approach. Larger type that fits the screen, fewer links for simpler navigation and little to no graphics for optimal page loading help visitors get the information they need more efficiently.

“People interact with websites much differently on a phone,” said Krause. “Think about how the content will be used.”

Once a mobile website is established, visitors who are using smartphones will automatically be directed to the appropriate, scaled down version of your site. But “web lite” may not always meet the needs of every visitor. It’s a good idea to provide a link back to the full site, just in case the information the visitor is looking for is not available via mobile.

What about apps?

There tends to be some confusion when it comes to distinguishing a mobile website from a mobile app.

Although the two may be similar in design, it’s important to realize a mobile site is not an app.

Roberts highlighted some of the distinctions.

Apps, he said, must be developed for specific mobile devices, so an app designed to work on an iPhone won’t be available to Android users. Mobile apps must also be downloaded, and therefore take up space on a phone. This requires a certain level of commitment on the user’s part.

Mobile sites, on the other hand can be accessed through all smartphone browsers, regardless of the device’s operating system. Since these sites are available through an Internet browser, there’s no downloading required.

But the most significant difference between apps and mobile sites might just be the price tag. In many cases, apps are significantly more expensive to develop than mobile websites.

Apps are trendy tools, and they certainly have their advantages from a marketing perspective, but are they right for your firm?

If your goal is to convey information, rather than create an interactive user experience, a mobile site alone should satisfy your needs.

For those who need further convincing, Roberts provided the following breakdown:

Mobile apps

  • Have to design separate apps for various mobile platforms (iPhone, Android, etc.)
  • Users are required downloading, and possibly purchase, an app – this makes it necessary  to promote an app’s existence
  • Requires programming to update; users will need to download any upgrades
  • Expensive to create – development averages around $30,000 to $50,000
  • Better for media-rich, interactive content
  • Must go through an approval process to be accepted by various app stores

Mobile websites

  • One design works across all mobile browsers
  • Reaches a broader audience since they don’t need to be downloaded – they are available through Internet browsers and free to access
  • Updates can be made through an online content management system
  • Less expensive to create – 50 to 75 percent the cost of an app
  • Better for browsing and conveying quick information
  • No approval process required – anyone can host a mobile site

2 comments

  1. Great post. Mobile is the way to go. People are out and about, what better way to reach them than a mobile website.

  2. The mantra should be to design for mobile first. As I looked at several of the mobile sites mentioned in the article, I see that many are still too cluttered. The point of a mobile optimized site is to provide the required information and nothing else.

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