Before social media and search engines dominated so much of daily life, the reputation of lawyers depended on what clients and peers told one another about their work and character. Back then, word of mouth was just that: one person talking to another.

But now the search is at least partly, if not entirely, conducted online. And just as people browse reviews of body shops after a fender bender, they look at reviews of firms and attorneys for their divorces, or their house closing, or their will. What they find in reviews has an impact on their decision — probably more than you realize.

A recent study surveyed consumers and small to medium-sized businesses asking each group how they valued online reviews and one theme stood out: Overall, businesses consistently underestimate how much reviews directly affect customer decisions.

The study, conducted by the Local Search Association and commissioned by social media and reputation platform SOCi, found that 66 percent of all consumers  — and 80 percent of those under age 35  — perform research online every time or almost every time they buy a product or service.  The single most important consideration? Positive online reviews, which is a particularly high bar for attorneys, specifically. While other categories such as retail and restaurants require a 3.6 or 3.9 average star rating, people researching lawyers said they require a 4.1 star rating.

Yet despite these statements that show consumers check star ratings and use reviews to make purchasing decisions, 39 percent of small business owners who were surveyed said they did NOT believe that reviews influence consumer decisions.  And while more than half of businesses (54 percent) said they think consumers always or usually consult reviews before making spending decisions, 71 percent of consumers said they always or usually use reviews for every or almost every purchase. That’s a 17-point gap between how influential reviews are to customers and clients and how influential business owners think they are.

Of course, word of mouth and client and attorney referrals still matter, but gone are the days when attorneys can ignore their online presence, particularly on review and social media sites. Actively building and maintaining your reputation on these sites will help you grow your practice by reaching those people who you previously could not have reached using the old-fashioned, offline approach.

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