How Pay-Per-Click Ads Are Horrible Like the Phone Book

Way, way back, a long time ago, there was a time when lawyers advertised in the Yellow Pages.

The phone company printed a gigantic book filled with phone numbers and addresses.

Accompanying the phone numbers and addresses were lots of ads.

Lawyers were big purchasers of these advertisements.

In the beginning, lawyers could purchase a small ad, and their ads would get noticed by people using the book to look up numbers. Sometimes the phone book readers would call the lawyers and purchase legal services.

A little ad in the phone book went a long way in the early days.

Over time, more and more lawyers realized the effectiveness of advertising in the phone book. Once that happened, an increasing number of lawyers bought ads. Eventually, the phone book was so filled with advertisements that lawyers realized that no one was really seeing their ad because it was lost among the sea of other advertisements. Lawyers with little ads got few calls.

Lawyers got the smart idea, with the assistance of the phone book salespeople, to purchase bigger ads. Lawyer advertisements in the phone book got bigger and bigger.

Eventually, the phone book had more advertisements than listings with phone numbers and addresses. Many of the lawyers’ advertisements covered an entire page.

Once lawyers started buying full-page ads, history repeated itself. Lawyers with full-page ads noticed that no one was seeing their ads because of all the other full-page ads. What did they do? They bought multi-page ads. They bought ads covering two and sometimes three pages side by side. Unfortunately, as many lawyers bought multi-page ads, the effectiveness of those ads started to diminish as well. In a last ditch effort, the lawyers even bought ads on the front and back cover of the books as they struggled to stand out from the pack.

Along comes the Internet.

Some smart Internet companies figured out that they could sell ads to lawyers on the Web. Once the first lawyer bought an ad, the pack quickly followed. Eventually, Google got into the business along with Microsoft and took over what quickly became a huge industry.

Here we go again: it’s the phone book all over again.

We’re back in the cycle that benefits the ad seller and pits us against one another.

This time, instead of buying bigger and bigger ads, we’re bidding higher and higher for better placement of our ads on the search engines and social networks. This time, we pay to be number one rather than number three or four. Some of us are paying hundreds of dollars for a single click. Unfortunately, many attorneys/bidders will pay whatever it takes to secure the first position without regard to the cost/benefit of the bid. Often the competitive nature of the attorney takes over, and all rational thought is abandoned. Securing a client, even at a loss, is somehow perceived as a victory.

Realistically, just like the phone book, once everybody jumps in, the ads become less and less effective. Just like last time, as the ads have less impact, we also pay more for them in our struggle to stay on top.

What are we to do?

Two things:

First, if we’re going to stay in the advertising game, then we need more effective ads. You aren’t going win with the headline “Memphis Divorce Lawyer” if every other lawyer in Memphis is using the same headline. You’ve got to stand out in a very crowded environment.

Second, and more importantly, it’s time to look for the next thing. It makes little sense to continue fighting the battle and escalating the spending in an arena where everyone else is competing. It’s time to look for a new place to communicate your message.

That might mean that you need to look at advertising in another medium. It might mean that you need to focus on content marketing. It might mean that you need to focus on relationship marketing and building your network. There are plenty of options out there for your consideration. Each option requires a different set of skills and a different personality. You’ve got to find the marketing mechanism that is most effective for you.

Realistically, when something works (like pay-per-click advertising) and it’s easy to afford, it’s going to attract everyone eventually. Then it’s going to stop working because the competition is stiff. You can keep throwing money away trying to make it work like it used to, or you can do something different. I’d suggest doing something different.

When you make the shift to the next thing, I’d suggest something that (1) works and (2) is not easy to afford. A good example? Networking: building your network of referral sources by building relationships. It works, and it’s not easy to afford in that it takes considerable time and energy. It has the added benefit of being uncomfortable to many lawyers, so they resist doing it.

You’re looking for something new that presents barriers to the competition so you can maintain an advantage. You want to get out ahead of them and be protected by the challenge they face if they choose to chase you. Building referral relationships precisely meets that criteria.

Of course, there are other marketing options as well. Some of them work and aren’t easy to afford. Keep those criteria in mind as you figure out what’s next.