Caroff Communications president Michael Caroff guests on a podcast hosted by Steve Fretzin, known as the “Attorney Whisperer.” Steve invited Michael on to talk about how to design effective lawyer websites that employ creative marketing principles, but maintain the professionalism needed.
Michael: Clients don’t hire companies, they hire people, and I always remind my clients of that. You’ve got to connect as a person before they are going to hire you as a firm. Again, there’s a way to do that personally without being inappropriate
Announcer: You’re listening to Be That Lawyer, life changing strategies and resources for growing a successful law practice. Each episode your host, author and lawyer coach Steve Fretzin will take a deeper dive helping you grow your law practice in less time with greater results. Now here’s your host Steve Fretzin.
Host: Hey everybody, welcome to Be That Lawyer. As the announcer mentioned, I am Steve Fretzin and I’m so happy that you’re here. We are happening every single week, twice a week right now. And the goal of the show is to help you be that lawyer Someone who is confident, organized and a skilled rainmaker. And what I try to do is just provide tips, tricks, ideas through myself and through my guests to make sure you’re stronger and busier than you’ve ever been, you’re making money, you’re living a balanced life and you’re just enjoying being a lawyer. So to that I have a terrific guest as usual but this guy has a unique twist. His name is Michael Caroff and he is the founder of Caroff Communications, How’s it going Michael?
Michael: Pretty well Steve, thanks.
Host: Are you Mike, or is it always Michael?
Michael: Michael, I prefer
Host: And Mikey is that off the table
Michael: It would have been on like 50 years ago.
Host: Well in my family it’s weird we always do like “E” at the end, as long as it’s possible. If it’s Michael it’s Mikey, if it’s Scott it’s Scotty, and yes, I’ve gotten an occasional Stevie which we only keep within the family; nobody else calls me that. If someone in my family does, I don’t give them a hard time. Well that was a weird tangent I just went off on. My peeps know I do a terrible job of introducing people so if you wouldn’t mind giving a little background on yourself — where you came from. And one thing we are going to talk about today is you’re a rock n roll star. I definitely want you to talk about that too.
Michael: Absolutely. So after I got over the youthful fantasy of trying to be a rock star — whatever that really meant in my mind at the time — eventually I got what I consider my first real job; meaning a job that I actually cared about. And that was working for Fender Guitars. And after a couple of years of doing some technical work for them, you know writing, I got bored. And I talked them into letting me start a magazine — which I ran for 8 years — called Fender Frontline. It was one of the best jobs I could imagine. In fact all of my friends said it was the best job they ever heard of. It taught me a lot besides being fun.
During that time while I was running it an opportunity came up in 1995 to both build and market my first website. So in my mind I started then and this guy that hired me to do this paid me on commissions. Not only did I learn website building and marketing at the same time, but I was highly motivated to make the marketing work. Because that’s how I made money. And that’s what started the company and I have been running it ever since then.
Host: So very cool Michael, translate that to growing an actual business and eventually how you came to work with lawyers
Michael: When I started the magazine I began as almost a one man show. I was doing all the writing, all the layout, all the photography, everything. But I graduated over the 8 years I ran it, to managing a process and running a team. I learned a couple of things in the process. One was how to build and manage a team of people, which is critical as you know when running a business. The second thing was how to run and manage a team of people that were external — that were remote. And this is before the internet, so I was doing it all with phone and fax and mail.
So when the opportunity came up to run my business, I had already developed those skills and so I started it the same way. I did everything myself — I did the layout, I did the coding, I did all the marketing outreach and everything — and eventually I built up a really solid team of people to help me do it. And one of the principles that I look for in bringing people on to the team is, I look for people that are at least as smart as, if not smarter than, I am. What is the point of hiring someone and then just showing them everything? I want them to bring ideas to me. I really like that process.
So the way that it sort of morphed into working for a lot of attorneys is they just happened to be a good fit. SEO is not an inexpensive process. It takes time: people hours per month, and it takes months on end to make it work. It is not for the faint of heart or the person that has a $200 per month marketing budget. And I found that professional services firms — legal, medical and financial and especially legal, especially lawyers — were right in that wheelhouse. They had the marketing budget, they appreciated the work, I was able to bring them enough business to far more than account for the money they were spending on marketing.
It was a good fit and it built up from there. As you work in one genre or industry vertical for a long time you start to get to know some of the tips and tricks of the trade and get better at it. Then you get known for it, and it built from that.
Host: When you mention fit, I think that’s a really great word, it’s probably one of my favorite words. Especially when I put on pants. But when you say fit with lawyers and the legal community, what are the kinds of things that you saw them challenged by where you were the fit? Where it just made sense. You mentioned budget, you mentioned certain things, but is there more than that in the sense of what they need and how you help them?
Michael: Yes. Like a lot of businesses and especially professional services, if you take all of the attorneys in one field — let’s say “personal injury” or “estate planning” or something — everybody that’s in that field essentially does the same thing. And what they all want to do is say the same things: “We’re really good,” “We have a good track record,” “We really care about our clients.” Those are all fine but that’s true for all of them. In no way does it make any individual attorney stand out.
What I am able to adapt is taking creativity within a box. Because if you are building a website for an attorney you don’t want to get all wacky and crazy colors and weird images and all that. It may make people remember them but it will not tie-in well with the profession. What you want to do is take the limitations of professional services and within that make it creative enough to remember that person and set them apart. And that has a lot to do with personal brand.
This is one of my bugaboos about the web: the web is anonymous, it is very impersonal. When you are presenting yourself on the web, I believe one of the most powerful things you can do is let your personal self or your personal brand out. So that people can start to make a connection. And they want to get to know you more.
Host: Do you have a specific example of someone you did that with? Where they had something unique about them and you were able to flip it into how they stand out among estate planners or personal injury attorneys?
Michael: I’ve got a few. I will start with an estate planner. That’s one of the driest forms of law. There’s not a whole lot of excitement to it and there’s not supposed to be: what they’re doing is very serious. One of the clients we worked with for several years with SEO, is an estate planner in California, San Diego. And we were able to get them to a certain point with SEO, but we kind of ran up against limitations, because again they were like all of the other estate planners. So they asked me “if rebuilding their website (because we didn’t build it at the beginning), would make a difference.” I said “Absolutely.”
And what I did was I took what I felt was one of their distinctive characteristics, and that is they are a complete family-run law firm. Dad, two daughters, a son, daughter-n-law; I felt that was huge for that kind of law! So I put that front and center. Let’s make sure that people know that you are a family firm and make sure we talk about the connections and highlight it instead of just saying it. And that made a big difference. It brought warmth to their website that was missing before and the results were amazing. And the conversions they had grew like crazy. I think it was in great part because of that.
Host: It’s the creativity that I think makes a website really hum and a lot of people are using things like cityscapes in the background or here’s a picture of a family or just really standard stuff. What are some of the things you have done creatively to change the game for some of your clients in the homepage design, in messaging, in text. What are some things that you either recommend or that you’ve done that people could emulate or at least get some ideas around?
Michael: Let’s start with photographs because that is a big issue. Let’s face it: human beings are a visual species and we react to images before we react to text. So I will spend hours combing through tens of thousands of photos to find just the right ones, especially for the home page banner, which is the first thing people see.
What I am looking for is something that has emotional impact. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the subject. I don’t necessarily need to show an estate lawyer signing a document, for it to be a site about that. In their case what I used was a family walking along a beach. And you could say there was a connection because they do family estate planning, but it wasn’t about that. These people were having a good time. They were obviously a family, and obviously had warm feelings in the photograph. It was a nice, pleasant environment.
The minute you got there it gave you a feeling. And you know the old real estate adage: When you go to put an offer on a house it has less to do with the square footage and all the technical aspects of the house. When you walk in they say you are going to know in 60 seconds if you’re going to put an offer on it. That happens down here right in our emotion planning center. Then we spend the rest of the day deciding why it is that we should put an offer on that house. We’ve already made the decision we’re just rationalizing.
The same thing with websites. You get there and you are going to decide within a matter of seconds, how you feel about that firm, that person. So I can provide a good feeling right off the bat, it’s a good part of this job.
The other part of that equation in the photograph is that I want it to make people think just a little bit. So as an example, I recently did one for a patent attorney, and the photo I picked was a guy in a business suit standing on a rock looking off into a horizon of clouds. Now what does that have to do with patent attorneys? Not very much. But you know what the first thing anybody says when they look at the site is what’s with that photo?
When I first did it the attorney said” I don’t know if I like it,” and I said “Trust me — give it a shot.” And since then he’s really come to appreciate that it makes people think and remember him. And not in a bad way. Look if I had a photo of a bunch of junk then the reaction is “This is trashy” but it was provocative, and that’s part of what I look for.
Host: I think the imagery and the emotion, if we want to go to the granular level, everytime I see a commercial on TV for a new pharmaceutical where there’s horrible side effects they always show people skipping rope and walking at the beach and all that right, the visual just covers up. But in this case you’re giving a visual that not only makes people think but also brings out some emotional element that connects them with the lawyer, connects them with the even though in estate planning kinda talking about death a little bit but we are also talking about retirement, we’re talking about family, we’re talking about piece of mind.
Michael: Yes that’s exactly what it is. And you want a calming picture whereas with the patent attorney I wanted something a little bit edgy. Something that made them think.Its really a different flavor for not only each vertical within law but for each person within law. It’s got to fit them.
Host: You have some imagery that I think is really unique in that it makes people stand out and also brings that emotional tie. What are some other things that you have recommended to people as far as how they stand out, something that’s going to get attention, differentiate them from 100 lawyers around them?
Michael: One of the things I always encourage people to do and I will admit this sometimes ends up being a struggle. Is to get them to let out some personal facts about themselves. I don’t mean to tell people what their SSN # is or where they were born. But what are your hobbies, what do you do for fun, what’s your background, are you into family, are you into sports? People have to make a personal connection. As a company president the last company I worked for many years ago told me, Michael clients don’t hire companies they hire people. And I always remind my clients of that. You’ve got to connect as a person before they are going to hire you as a firm. Again there is a way to do that — bring the personality out without being inappropriate.
Host: I did a social media post recently because this has been coming up a lot and I think it goes right in line with what you are saying, sharing what your why is. Why are you doing what you do? Why are you in the business you are in? Why are you all about what you are? You can just say I’m an estate planning attorney or you could share your why, what your purpose is or what people might actually care about. More than just your academic title so what’s your thoughts on that and pulling from there?
Michael: I’m 100% with you. That’s an excellent point and when I get brought in to design a site, in an ideal world, and as you know the world is rarely ideal. But in an ideal world they already have a logo, a tagline, copy, they would have already thought through that whole personal branding thing. 9 times out of 10 they have not. So, I have to create that. And a lot of what I am looking for when I come up with a tagline, because when you do a homepage you don’t have a paragraph for people to read, first you have a tagline that tells you immediately who they are, what they stand for and as you say why they’re doing it. I often dove into the why to create that tagline.
Host: Ya that makes a lot of sense. Really it sounds like starting from the bottom up. What’s their “Why?” You get that tagline that may then help you create the rest of the site from there. So you’re starting from the most important part and building around it.
Michael: You have to. You don’t really want to start with the imagery first, you need something that’s going to tell you what the imagery is going to be. Starting with the “why,” like I said, is an excellent point. That is the beginning of not only the personal branding but also the visual imagery.
Host: Is that sort of the biggest mistake or one of the biggest mistakes that lawyers make when they create a website or they work with a company to create a website? Either that they just slap it together or they just want to throw something up and there’s not a lot of thought about the why or about what its trying to accomplish. What are some of the mistakes that you see in the website that people come to you with that you know are trash or clear that they were just sold a bill of goods that really isn’t really benefiting them.
Michael: The first one is people build websites or design websites backwards. They start with I like the way this website looks. Then they figure out what they’re going to put into it that fits that thing that’s already laid out. And then at the very end they say “huh, what should the website do for us?”. What’s the purpose you want to start with the opposite. You want to start with what’s the purpose of the website? Is it to drive leads, is it to impress current customers, is it to give people information online? What do we want it to do for us? Then from that you say based on what we want it to do, what should be the content? Do we have videos, what’s the text content, what kind of functionality is going to be on it? At the very end you use the design to support the content.
Like I said, it’s generally the exact opposite of what most people do. They start with a look and say I like this look and now they have to fit things in to fit that look. And it’s not about them, it’s about the look. That is — I have to say — the major problem of websites. It’s rampant everywhere I see.
The second major problem is letting the website look overtake you. A website can be poorly designed in two ways. One way is shoddy and sloppy and not very well designed, and it’s obviously a problem — most people can see that. What they don’t see is what if a website is so cool and slick that you’re looking at and thinking about the site, not the person or firm on it.
So, you want a balance: you want it to be professional and clean enough that it represents you well, but you want it to be in the background. You have to come forward. It’s what I call transparent design. If you are thinking about the design — either good or bad — you’re not thinking enough about the person or the firm on it.
Host: Yeah, there’s actually a web guy who I think is pretty good. He has something on his website where it had a slider where it was kind of like before and after like the site before and the site after. And he had a slider where you could see the before and after, it was so slick. But I found myself just playing with it. I was so enamored with the slickness of that cool slider tool that he had created or whatever that I wasn’t really paying attention to anything else.
Michael: Well that’s a perfect example. You weren’t looking at the before and after that he wanted you to see, you were looking at the tool. A perfect example of that is slideshows on a homepage. I have very strongly recommended against them in the last few years. It’s been proven that like dogs we look at motion. People think “I want to get all the information out and I also want to put sliders and make people see each thing.”
What happens is you’re looking at the motion, you’re not actually reading what it is. So I say let’s pare it back; let’s pick out what’s most important and put that there, and give them the chance to absorb it.
Ok, I’ve come up with a 3rd thing. Too much information at one time. I get this question a lot: “Is this too much information for a website? How much should we have on there?” I’d say you can have anything you want — you can have an encyclopedia on the website. As long as you break it down to bite-sized pieces that people can absorb.
You throw it all at them and they are going to go away, it’s so overwhelming. If you give it to them bit by bit let them look at what they want to, let them absorb, you’ll be able to get a lot more across. There’s been studies that show magazine layouts where you have like a spread, you know, like in an article they have pull out boxes and quotes and things. That’s what people always read first, what’s in the little boxes. Because it’s easiest to absorb that little bit of information. So we have to do the same thing on websites, give people little boxes, little areas that they can quickly absorb and then move onto the next thing.
Host: We’re like little gnats: We’re just on to the next thing, we’re moving constantly. So who’s going to read 4, 5, 6 paragraphs on a website page to learn about the firm. That’s just not going to happen.
Michael: Well you might if you get engaged at a certain point. It’s always good to have that but don’t make people read it if they don’t want to.
Host: On like social media, maybe I’m wrong, but on social media there’s a couple of great writers. I’ll give some shoutouts to Dan Gershins and Frank Ramos, where they write like a couple of paragraphs, I call it a rant, where they are kind of going off about something. And once I read the first or second sentence I’ll read the whole thing down. But there might be somebody that has a video or an image where I wont look at it at all. So maybe it is about how, just like with any book or anything you have to grab the reader and pull them in and then maybe they’ll keep reading.
Michael: People will be different, you know. I know a lot of people that if they’re looking for information online they always prefer a video, like a “how to” video. I personally prefer text, because I can scan down, get what I want and move on. But everybodys different. You should give people options.
Now one of the things I’ll do for longer articles — and I’ve got all of my writers trained to do this — is never have more than 2 or 3 paragraphs in a row without breaking it up with a subhead. So people, if they want to, they can scan down and see a subhead and say, “Yes I want to find out about this.” Or they can move on and go down, “Oh it’s the one down here that I’m interested in.” If they want to read that way, some people will read the whole thing.
Host: Let me ask you this question. The website is the base of operations for any business, a law firm or an accounting firm, doesn’t matter, that’s the base. And then there’s a bunch of tentacles coming out of it, the blog, the podcast, could be social media, there’s a bunch of things that work to drive traffic into it. So what are some of the things that you’ve seen that seem to be driving the most traffic to a website that you’re recommending to your clients to use. Because a website that doesn’t have traffic, and again depending on what it’s used for, but no matter what you want traffic going to it. So what are the things that surround the website that you’re recommending now more than ever?
Michael: The first thing is I want to make a quick point before I dive into that. A website can be valuable without having traffic driven to it. And that is the case for some businesses because it’s going to represent you when people find out about you. If you go to a networking event and hand someone your business card, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? They’re going to go home and bring up their website. It’s like having a nice office — it may not bring in business but it’s going to make an impression when you get there.
But as far as bringing traffic in, there is no one rule. 15, 20 years ago I would have said it’s all about SEO. But now it can be about SEO, it can be about pay-per-click (kind of like a paid form of SEO); there are many different forms of pay-per-click that you can do. It can be about social media, and now there are multiple channels. It used to be just Linkedin and Facebook. Now there’s Instagram, and TikTok . . . We recently had a PI attorney come to us and say “I think we should look at TikTok.” And we said TikTok for a PI attorney, really? Turned out he had 150,000 followers on TikTok, getting tons of views. You can bet we took a look at that and started advertising on it.
Youtube advertising can be very powerful but the thing about all of this stuff is no one channel or group of channels works for everybody. You have to try different things and see what the target audience is going to react to. It’s easy to fall inti the trap of “Well we do this,” but you’ve really got to be open to trying new things and testing,
Host: And that’s something I don’t think people are doing enough of, and I don’t care if it’s a website or social media or anything, you’ve got to test and make adjustments. And what are some things you’ve done, specifically in websites tested out, maybe two different approaches or two different landing pages and what were the differences and how did you figure out what worked?
Michael: We will often do that, build multiple landing pages or start with one and make variations on it. The data will tell you. You can make assumptions. But until you actually test it and try it you won’t know and it’s different for every person.
There are some clients we have where the home page is the biggest converter. There is a rule in pay-per-click marketing that says don’t drive visitors to the home page, it’s just too general. You drive them to a specific landing page. And most of the time that’s true. But we’ve also had the case where it worked a lot better when we drove people to the home page.
And oftentimes it will work when you drive them to an inside page, if it’s the right kind of page. Again you have to test it and try it. Now the one thing to be careful of and this is what we run into a lot, is you don’t want to make too many changes at the same time. So we’ll have something where we’ll move a phone number or create a button for a client. And the client will come back in a week. Is it working shall we change it? We don’t know yet it’s only been a week. We only have a few dozen visitors to it, we always say you should wait at least a month for any test like that. And give it a chance to work. It may not be the right thing but you won’t know.
The other thing is don’t do too many things at the same time. What if you make five or six changes on a page and it turns out that it worked better — how do you know what it was? Maybe two of the things made it work worse. That’s why you have to do it a bit at a time and test it. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of trust by clients to be able to do this. Because they want to see the instant results right away. But you know we’re marketers, we’re not prophets.
Host: Look you can make profit though.
Michael: Well we certainly try.
Host: There you go so I worked that around. But, at the end of the day, everybody needs to figure out a way to get their brand out there. A way to put their best foot forward, and it sounds like you have a very good system for evaluating and trying to figure out the right angles for lawyers and law firms to go. I have a question off topic, in talking to you and getting to know you Michael you’re a rock star, you are. Two questions; number 1: What’s the largest audience you’ve ever played for? And number 2: is what’s your favorite rock band?
Michael: The largest audience is pretty easy — that’s about six thousand on the beach in Del Mar, California.
Host: Wow that’s cool
Michael: My favorite rock band, you know this is tough. I have a very wide taste in music, everything from classical to jazz to rock. But if you put me against a wall with a gun to my head and said you pick your favorite band right now or you’re toast. It would have to be Kansas.
Host: ooohhh love Kansas! Why Kansas?
Michael: Because their music is so beautifully intricate. It’s so interesting and it all works, not interesting in hey wow look at all the stuff we did, but interesting in that it makes you go: “That really worked, I really love that!” You know its all these parts fitting together seamlessly so it doesn’t sound that complicated but it is.
Host: Very cool, I love Kansas, love Journey, love all that classic ‘80s rock
Michael: Me too, we’re so sympatico!
Host: Yeah right and also old, but that’s okay. So if people want to get in touch with you to learn more about your business, Caroff Communications, or they want to ask you some rock-n-roll questions, what’s the best way for them to reach out to you?
Michael: The website Caroff.com and I am very easy to reach. If you even just search for it online it will come up and if you really want to see just the band you can search “California Santana tribute band” and we’ll come up for that too. But the easiest way is my website.
Host: And you play the guitar and it’s all that Santana stuff, that’s tough to play.
Michael: It is and it isn’t. It’s not technically hard to play as far as finger-wise. He’s not that kind of guitarist. It’s hard to get his phrasing. I call him the Sinatra of lead guitar. He has a way of, kind of twisting time back and forth that you’ve really got to pay attention to get it.
Host: Ok, wow, well we’re learning a lot today. Michael thanks so much for being on the show and hopefully everybody at home listening got some good takeaways and tips on websites and creativity and all that. Really appreciate you being with me.
Michael: Always great to talk to you Steve.
Host: Awesome, And hey everybody hopefully again you got a couple of good takeaways from today’s show, more to come and again the idea here “to be that lawyer” someone who is confident, organized and a skilled rainmaker. Take care, be well, be safe.