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The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketing Professional Services Online

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Selling intangibles is hard work. Putting together a successful Web site that peddles intangibles is even harder.

Lawyers, architects, engineers, designers, ad agencies, physicians, and other professionals don't, however, seem fazed. That's particularly true of the legal world, where no self-respecting law firm would be caught dead nowadays without a Web site.

Here's a look at the top sins that many professional services sites—maybe most—commit... along with some suggestions on what can be done about them.

1. Self-centeredness

This is the deadliest sin.


Visitors come to Web sites for all sorts of reasons. These include checking out bios or seeing what kind of work a firm or practice does.

Surveys tell us, however, that buyers come to sites for assurance, not ego trips. Buyers know that there's little that separates the top firms or practices from one another. They expect to be told by everybody in the top tier that "Our people went to the best schools, do the best work and care the most about our clients."

What buyers want is comfort. That means offering a site that shows "We know you, your business, and your industry—and we've solved the kind of problem you have.

"We've earned the right to be considered."

In other words, don't just talk about yourself. Or, merely assert that you care. Show it.

How do you do that on a Web site? Do it by showing visitors that you're looking at the law or medicine or whatever from their point of view.

Doctors get this. At least the ones who have Web sites—mostly plastic and cosmetic surgeons and ophthalmologists.

When you visit one of these sites, you know immediately you're in the right place. Most doctors' sites are about us... not just them.

Imagine a law firm site that invited visitors to describe their problem—what they need. Instead, virtually every law firm Web site invites readers to figure out, on their own, in which of the firm's service pigeonholes they belong. That's OK if you're a corporate counsel buying legal services—but what if you aren't a lawyer?

2. Wordiness

There's way too much black on most professional sites, and way too little white. Long words in long sentences making up long paragraphs stuck in long bios, long service descriptions and the like.

Gray. Dull. Boring. That's how most pages on professional sites look.

One reason is that most lawyers and other professionals are far more linear and long-winded than most readers. Most of us scan. Or we nibble.

Looking at a screen full of words shuts people down. I doubt, for example, that even my mother has read this far. "Too many words," she thought.

This is a huge battle. Short takes discipline, and that takes work. Work is hard. Hard doesn't get done.

3. Jargon

You're probably seeing a pattern by now. The common belief is "See me. See my credentials. See how smart I am and how much I know. Hire me."

Technical jargon doesn't provide comfort. For starters, it doesn't get read. Too hard.

What it does—read or not—is send a message to those of us who aren't blessed with a medical degree or whatever: It says arrogance. "We matter. You don't."

Sites don't have to dumb down. I like knowing that my lawyer understands debentures... whatever they are. It comforts me to know this.

But professional Web sites ought to be See-Spot-Run-simple to read and navigate. That doesn't require jargon. Just good writing.

4. Staleness

Sites require a lot of energy to develop. Particularly the good ones.

By the time a practice writes or re-writes and collects enough articles, pictures, or data to launch a halfway-respectable site, everybody's exhausted. Sites then limp along for a few years until the pain of creating a new site is less than the pain of keeping up the old one.

Technology helps. The newest content management software or database-driven sites make updates a lot easier than hard-coding HTML.

But staleness is a human, not a software issue. It takes a lot of dedicated resources to keep a site fresh—something the top firms and practices have begun to recognize. Web sites cannot be maintained out of a part-timer's back pocket.

5. Cliché images

What few images you do find on a lot of professional sites are typically worn out and predictable. Law firms, for example, seem to believe that we need to see the scales of justice or a gavel or some other hackneyed image to appreciate that we're visiting a law firm Web site.

With doctors, it's a caduceus. Architects? A Corinthian capital.

It's insulting.

Better to look like your market. Want to work for Fortune 500 businesses? Then your site better start looking like Aetna.com. Better yet, Google.com.

6. No images

I know. Lawyers are going to argue that they're not in a world that lends itself to being visual.

What about construction law? What about all of the pictures of buildings or real estate that can help a visitor relate to legal issues? Or, what about intellectual property and pictures or drawings of patented devices? If you're a corporate law firm, there isn't a client process or product that can't be pictured... and help tell a story.

Images make the intangible more tangible.

Some professions tend to swing the other way. Architects apparently ascribe to the theory that a picture's worth a thousand words.

So, a lot of architects' Web sites will show a bunch of lovely snapshots or renderings under a projects tab. But that'll be it, with very little in the way of copy. It's as if they're saying, "Can't you see how successfully we overcame this problem or took advantage of that opportunity?"

7. Rigidity

Too few sites knit their pages together. The best ones let the user graze on information, a bite here and a bite there.

For instance, imagine you're on a page showing an architectural firm's most recent projects. Wouldn't it be nice to have a link to the bios for the people who designed them? Or, to other similar projects? Or, to articles that relate to those projects or were written by their designers? Without having to go back to a main menu?

Database sites make this easier to do. But it still takes the right attitude. Loosen up…and put yourself in the user's shoes.

* * *

Let's be fair. Web sites for professional services have a limited purpose. They principally help architects and lawyers and such get found. Not get picked.

But even if they exist mostly to soften the sale, shouldn't professional service sites do that well? A good site might or might not win work. But a bad one might lose an opportunity. Or, at best make it harder to cash in.

And, who needs harder?

Anyway, how many sins did you count on your site? Take a look. What does it take to get sufficient resources dedicated or to make improvements a higher priority or to do whatever else it takes to get things right?

For sweet are the fruits of repentance.


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Doug Stern (www.doug-stern.com) is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or stern.doug@gmail.com.

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