Following the Converging Growth Curves of ROI and Exertion
As we enter fourth quarter and inch ever closer to a new year, strategy and long-term planning are top-of-mind for law firms and attorneys. Projects and budgets are being mapped out, and considerations are being made as to the allocation of resources—with the considerations, the allocation and the resources likely looking far different than they did this time last year.
Perhaps you are evaluating new endeavors as well: repositioning your messaging, a potential rebrand, the launch of a new practice area, website modernization, the launch of a podcast, or new coaching and training programs for associates. For legal marketers, it is more critical than ever to understand and to be able to articulate to firm leadership what the return on any proposed investment might be, and what the time horizon is for the realization of that return. In doing so, it is important to be realistic about such forecasts, but to illustrate and validate the worthiness of the endeavor.
Two curves should be understood, as well as when those curves will converge; and patience should be both preached and practiced, if the firm or the attorney is ever to arrive at Phase Three of the business development evolution—where it all gets easier, and exponentially more fruitful.
Curve One: Resources Exerted
Take any of the endeavors I referenced above: any significant project or endeavor will have correspondingly significant “startup costs.” There will be conversation, debate, planning, strategy definition, project roadmapping, meetings, etc., all of which come at some expense, either in billable hours foregone by participating attorneys or via the engagement of outside resources and consultants.
Once the strategy has been defined and approved, and the plan has been roadmapped, the wheels are in motion and escape velocity is achieved. By and large, attorneys can be relatively dismissed so that they can concentrate on the practice of law and bill hours. The strategy and planning investments are in the rearview mirror, and now the costs and allocations are appropriated toward action and deliverables. A website is designed and developed; a podcast gets recorded, launched and syndicated; or the repositioned messaging gets deployed to marketing instruments and rolled out into the market.
Once the initiative is launched and implemented, the cost/resource curve begins to flatten, and eventually the investment levels abate, moving into a “maintenance mode” of some sort. There are far fewer resources in demand to maintain a podcast, website or rebrand as time goes on, and the curve develops the proverbial dinosaur tail at the far reaches of time.
Graphically, the investment curve might look something like this:
Curve Two: Returns Achieved
In the planning phase of any project, the returns are practically zero. You may be able to recognize the long-term value of your planning and strategy efforts, but in terms of returns to the bottom line, there is virtually nothing to show.
Once you get into execution, the returns start to reveal themselves. Very early on, there are intangible returns, as you start to visualize the improvements and enhancements you are making to your marketing arsenal. “This new messaging sounds more like us!” “We’re going to be the first podcast in our market niche!” “None of our competitors has a website that does this!”
During the deployment and implementation phase, the returns start to become more tangible. Clients and prospects start to provide qualitative validation, via reactions or conversational feedback they might send along as you roll out the new initiative. Quantitatively, metrics and analytics start to demonstrate the efficacy of the endeavor, as the project rollout starts to drive more traffic, engagement and reach.
A word of caution: Metrics such as those referenced above do not validate ROI, but rather become leading indicators of returns on marketing investment to come. What matters most to law firm leadership and attorneys themselves are financial metrics: new client engagements, more billable hours, higher fees garnered…actual business development growth. Most corporate law firms have long “sales” cycles. There is no escaping reality that trust is earned over time, and experts elevate to thought leaders in months and years—not days and weeks. Nobody hires an attorney they don’t like, trust, respect and have confidence in. And no amount of marketing can speed that up or steal the base on the cheap.
Given time, those deeper and broader prospect engagements convert directly into clients and engagements. For sophisticated law firms, those engagements represent significant dollars. Those wins beget further confidence in your expertise, and that demonstrated success and confidence begets even more engagements, to the point where the attorney or firm is recognized as the “go-to” resource for a given matter or field of expertise. (The exact duration from launch to convergence varies from industry to industry, and practice to practice.)
The growth curve of return on investment looks something like this:
Superimposed, the two curves graph out like this:
There is a natural convergence point, where return exceeds investment. Returns continue to grow indefinitely, while investment eventually sunsets. Once you pass the convergence point, tailwinds become headwinds. Clients and opportunities “magically” start coming to you, rather than you chasing them down (a different kind of investment in resources, for which the returns are difficult to measure, slow to come, and potentially never-ending). But it’s not magic. In fact, it’s science…the science of economics.
But notice that, in each of these graphs, the X axis is time: a fixed commodity over which we as humans have no control. There is not an easy fix or solution on the cheap. There are no time machines. For sophisticated professional service providers like attorneys, business development is not transactional. It requires relationship building and the establishment of trust and authority in order to earn a prospect’s business. All of which takes time.
Embracing the Rule of Seven
“The rule of seven” in the world of marketing and advertising is probably more relevant for professional service providers than even consumer product marketers. The oft-cited rule quite simply states that it takes an average of seven interactions with your brand before a purchase will take place. It would be unrealistic to assume that the moment you launch your new strategic project into the marketplace, it will reap immediate returns. But if you don’t invest the resources early on, you never get to the critical convergence point where returns outpace investments. And you certainly won’t ever get to the far right of the graph…where investment abates and returns skyrocket…in perpetuity.
If you find yourself in the position of either considering or needing to demonstrate the long-term returns on your short- and medium-term investments in time and treasure, reference these curves and graphs, and you’ll be able to not only preach patience, but to practice it.
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