What Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand about social media (and what every law firm should know)

by Dion Algeri on October 20, 2010

Back when we first started building websites for law firms (in 2003) it seemed that every new business meeting included at least one attorney who was a website skeptic.  During each meeting there was an exchange that went something like this:

Cranky Attorney: I’m not sure why we should spend money on this website.  Nobody is going to hire us because they find us on the damn internet!

Me: You’re right – nobody is going to Google “bankruptcy attorney” and then hire you because you’re listed there.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  However, there are lots of studies which show that most in-house counsel will visit your website prior to taking a new business meeting with you.  Don’t you want to give them a positive impression of your firm?

Cranky Attorney: <Yawn>

My point about Cranky Attorney: He couldn’t accept the idea that a website was simply a business development tool that would assist him in doing what he was already doing. If it wasn’t a silver bullet for landing new clients, a website had no value in his opinion.

Nearly eight years later, this dialog is happening again with regard to social media.  And to the new crop of skeptical lawyers, I encourage them to consider this: Social media is just another tool that can help get your message out there. It’s a potentially potent tool.  But it’s no silver bullet.

So, what about Malcolm Gladwell?
I was inspired to write this post after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece entitled “Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”  I normally love Gladwell’s stuff. However, I found this piece to be disappointing because he uses the same weak logic as Cranky Attorney.

In the New Yorker article, Gladwell explains that big social movements (ones that require people to risk their lives) can’t be effectively organized online.  According to Gladwell, history shows that a movement’s leadership must share strong social ties or it won’t get off the ground.  And since Twitter and Facebook tend to engender loose ties, Gladwell dismisses their value.

My point about Gladwell: He basically shows that social media isn’t a silver bullet – and then dismisses the entire medium as useless for social movements.  I find this logic to be absolutely baffling.  Is there no middle ground?  Can’t social media have tremendous value simply as a communications tool? Social media is an instantaneous, ubiquitous, interactive and free form of communication.  That’s got to be worth something, right?

My conclusion: Today – in 2010 – there are few people in the legal marketing world that doubt the value of a website.  Are websites a silver bullet for legal marketing?  Of course not.  In fact, I’d be surprised if there were any lawyers out there who would attribute their success entirely (or largely) to a website.  Websites are simply tools that lawyers and firms can use to get their messages out. And soon everybody will come to the same conclusion about social media.

One last thing: Despite what Malcolm Gladwell says – I’m absolutely convinced that the next revolution will, in fact, be tweeted.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike O'Horo October 21, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I love Gladwell’s oblique nod to Gil-Scott Heron’s 1988 social anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Hopefully, it was intentional.

Phyllis Weiss Haserot October 21, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Very well said, Robert. I agree most definitely. And going even further, revolutions are already being tweeted.

Social media are very important, can be very potent, and are not a silver bullet. We haven’t found one yet. But i wish someone would find for me 54 hour days so I cculd make more and better use of social media.
Phyllis

Scott October 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Great post. Spot on. I can relate to this as we work with quite a few law firms (a vertical we just so happen to work with). Good stuff. May call upon your team to collaborate some day. Cheers

Nathan Lustig October 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I think the revolution will be tweeted, but tweets are not what will organize the revolution. I think Gladwell is right that you need strong ties to start/finish a movement, but twitter/facebook/youtube will help spread the revolutionary ideas much more quickly to the masses.

I’ve met plenty of people via twitter/facebook/blogs that started as weak ties, but became strong ties. The power of the internet helps messages spread quickly, but you still need people offline to make things happen: http://ow.ly/2ZMbR

Mike O'Horo October 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Nathan: I agree. The best example of that I’ve experienced was in 1997, during the first DotCom boom. In the DC area, Mario Morino created an organization called Netpreneur.org, consisting of Internet startups, capital sources, advisors, wannabes, etc. They had a lot of online facilities to help you find resources, capital, partners, etc., but they also had a monthly event called Coffee & Doughnets, which was a physical gathering early in the morning. There, the people whose online signatures and comments you’d grown familiar with became real people and, as you phrased it so well, the strong ties developed.

Jerome Kowalski March 30, 2011 at 11:01 am

Twitter’s application and usefulness in marketing professional services is still very much a work in progress. Currently, approximately 36% of the adult population has Twitter accounts; of those, approximately 5% routinely log on to check their Tweets. Many law firms have web sites only because they seem to believe that maintaining a web site is required to give the firm some credibility, just like carrying a business card. But, when I first started to practice law some 35 years ago, there were a handful of elite white shoe law firms which did not allow their partners to use business cards. Like televisions, business cards obviously became de rigueur. Web sites followed. Then blogs. Is Twitter next? Probably.

For a really interesting – in fact remarkable — use of Twitter in the marketing of legal services, see http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2010/09/23/are-100-page-responses-by-law-firms-to-client-rfps-really-efficient-or-necessary-some-radical-and-revolutionary-changes-are-upon-us/

In the interim, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @jerrykowalski.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: