The CEO of Hootsuite, Ryan Holmes (@invoker), shares that during the first few years of his company, they spent literally no money on marketing, PR, or advertising. Hootsuite couldn’t afford it so they bootstrapped.

I can relate to no marketing, PR, or advertising. LexBlog’s out of the garage budget didn’t have a line item for marketing.

The fact that Hootsuite didn’t have any money didn’t stop Hootsuite from getting millions of customers. Sure, the company had a freemium business model, leading with free and selling premium, but that’s not what brought their exponential growth.

It was a global ambassador program. Say what?

A brand ambassador program involves building up a global ‘army’ of people who are genuinely interested in your company and therefore willing to spread the word for you. It’s an incredibly effective way to increase global brand awareness on a shoestring.

Building relationships with people by listening was at the heart of the program.

…[W]e quickly learned that building a successful brand isn’t just about ROI; it’s also about developing relationships with people.

The key to doing this—even with limited resources—is to really listen. Again, tools like social media are essential here. Even if just one enthusiastic fan in Iceland or Siberia reached out to us via a Tweet or Facebook update, we made sure our community and support teams were paying attention and engaging or responding.

The results, per Holmes:

[…We] saw hundreds of people all over the world become brand ambassadors because they liked our product and they liked us. And they did it all for free, because they were having fun. Many of these ambassadors, it turned out, were bloggers, consultants, early adopters, and “digital influencers,” who really helped us spread the word in new markets.

Relationships and word of mouth reputation are at the heart of getting clients as a good lawyer. You can try to short circuit the process by buying attention. But it’s fleeting, and a bottomless pit of money chasing ads.

Lawyer without a marketing budget? Law firm with an inadequate marketing budget? Why not build relationships and word of mouth on a shoestring.

Listen to what clients, prospective clients, and their influencers (relevant bloggers, reporters, and association leaders) are saying. They’re all talking on all the social media channels – blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Rather than using these social media as distribution channels, use them as your ears. Engage those with whom you are looking to build relationships.

Have some fun. Be insightful and giving, if you won’t go so far as to be provocative.

Can’t interact with clients and prospective clients because of ethical restrictions, confidences, and attorney-client relations issues? Baloney.

You can’t give companies and individuals “shout outs” for the good stuff they are doing in your local community or industry? You can’t give a thumbs up, re-tweet, favorite a Tweet, or comment on something another shared? You can’t engage on sports or social items?

Take the online offline. Hootsuite started looking for low hanging fruit — social events at industry conferences. LexBlog started beer for bloggers in Irish pubs across North America. A Milwaukee lawyer I met invited referral sources he met on Twitter to a tailgater he hosted in the Miller Park parking lot before a Brewer’s game.

Have some fun. Make yourself and what you’re doing likable.

You’ll find that there’s something special about marketing on a shoestring, where necessity is the mother of invention, that builds trust with people. People who will spread your message.

Your clients and prospective clients have seen all the “other stuff” before. Competing law firms will be too afraid to be real and genuine and unwilling to experiment on social media.

Don’t get me wrong. Strategic and sophisticated marketing is valuable. Cara McDonald (@caramcdonald24), LexBlog’s Marketing Director, is demonstrating that to me every day.

But when you don’t have the budget, there is a lot you can do on a shoestring. A lot other lawyers and law firms will not do.

Hat tip to my source: Nilofer Merchant (@nilofer)

Image courtesy of Flickr by Orin Zabest

  • Amen, Kevin!

  • Patrick Fannon

    There’s a thread that seems to run through the majority of your posts, Kevin, and it is this: take a genuine interest in people as human beings, respond to their cares and concerns, and success will follow organically. It’s a heartening and encouraging message, and one that bears repeating.

    Now, more than ever, people are wary of being pitched to or having big, corporate brands speak *at* them, not *to* them. Law firms should not think themselves exempt. As you say, one need not abandon high-level, strategic marketing techniques in favor of the shoestring, grassroots approach, as the two methodologies can and should work in concert with one another.

    The more I think about it, the more sense it makes, and the more it seems almost deceptively obvious: people do business with people who they like and trust.