Engaging existing customers and clients while developing new business leads has reached new dimensions in 2010. Years ago companies relied upon traditional media such as radio, television and newspapers to advertise and promote their brands. Creating brand awareness and developing customer loyalty could take weeks and months as ads saturated small towns to major commercial cities from coast to coast. Lawyers too invested significant sums in producing and distributing glossy brochures and promotional literature branded with the Firm's philosophy and backed by years of expertise.
In today's economy, businesses and their law firms need cost-effective, broad reaching branding tools to launch new products, issue press releases, drive Internet users to rich and developed content on interactive Web sites, and disseminate critical advisories such as product recalls. From a company taking its first steps out of a business incubator to venerable brands and their trusted trademark counsel, the latest buzz is all about creating buzz itself, online, and through the use of interactive online tools which are aptly named Web 2.0. We have collectively reached a new generation of communication and business networking which is premised upon conducting brand conversations with the consuming public through Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter and engaging in virtual handshakes and alliances through LinkedIn.
The primary Web 2.0 tool is Twitter. On Twitter, brands and lawyers regularly distill trends in the law, product launches, promotional campaigns and drum up consumer dialogue in 140 characters or less. Tweeting can occur at any hour on any day. As a result, there is always a global population of readers ready to receive information. Brands and law firms can quickly build a global online following as it only takes a few keystrokes to become a "follower" of a particular brand, attorney, or law firm. Social media has rapidly become a top priority for many brands which has lead to the creation of social media directors who are paid to tweet and respond to consumer questions or complaints. For lawyers, the ability to direct people to press releases announcing recent wins at court or helpful articles on developing case law is made even easier through Twitter. Through the power of the "retweet", a sentiment or announcement can be circulated and re-circulated throughout cyberspace. Twitter also offers users the ability to bookmark or create lists of individuals and brands making it even easier to categorize and make sense out of the digital stream of information.
Brand owners have also flocked to Facebook, an online social networking site that boasts more than 400 million users. This site added 100 million users in less than nine months and carries a mass appeal from members of Generations X and Y to baby boomers and their parents. Brands have developed fan pages which display in real-time the number of devoted fans and enable swift communications about new products and services, discounts, and deals. These sites regularly work in tandem with traditional media which allow for greater interactivity and brand affinity with the consuming public. According to Facebook, "more than 20 million people become fans of pages each day.”
A forerunner in social networking sites for lawyers is LinkedIn. Lawyers have realized that this forum is ripe for creating and maintaining valuable connections with colleagues, friends, and potential clients. Business networking no longer requires hours of travel and costly business trips. Instead, lawyers can contribute to online group discussions on a myriad of topics and interact with decision makers and corporate leaders from CEOs, CFOs, and other professionals. The ability to showcase PowerPoint slides, post helpful articles, and read the tweets of others through Twitter updates on LinkedIn makes every online visit worthwhile. The numbers speak for themselves - LinkedIn recently surpassed 45-million users worldwide.
Brand Owners Beware
While social media carries tremendous opportunities and benefits for those who use it, brand owners and their counsel need to be sensitive and proactive in guarding intellectual property which makes its way onto social media Web sites. In particular, brands need to conduct clearance searches and file intent-to-use trademark or service mark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office before turning to Twitter or Facebook for promotional activities.
While it may be impractical or costly to vet every tweet or online posting through legal departments or outside counsel, social media team members of corporations and law firms need to be cognizant of the archival nature of social media. In particular, Google now archives nearly all tweets in its storehouse of information. There are also numerous social media search engines which allow for instantaneous access to a brand's historical tweets or a lawyer's record of posting or retweeting the articles of others. Trademark owners need to take an active roll in reviewing the postings of fans, followers and other members of the public and media to ensure that their trademarks are being used properly. For example, trademarks should be used as adjectives rather than nouns to avoid becoming generic. Luckily, it is easy to search Twitter through the online search box available at Twitter.com.
Another reason to monitor social networking sites is to counter the counterfeiters. Social networking Web sites can easily become spaces to publicize illegal goods and steer the public to illicit online auctions, Web sites, and other portals offering unauthorized merchandise. Finally, brand owners should keep an eye out for fictitious fan pages or individuals posing as official Twitter accounts. Counsel should be immediately contacted if this situation arises as great damage can arise by having a brand in the hands of an unauthorized individual or entity.
Act in 2010 and Embrace Social Media
Many people view social networking as a mere passing fad. However, the current upward trend in users suggests otherwise. Moreover, brands are investing considerable resources into social networking and have had great success in staging social media campaigns. There is a recognizable energy that is realized through social media campaigns and the resulting buzz about branding which stirs both online and off the grid. Social media is a work in progress, but its foundation has certainly been set. 2010 is the right time to join the discussion online and take part in this fast evolving virtual world.
Kenneth Suzan, a partner at Hodgson Russ LLP in Buffalo, practices in the areas of trademark litigation and prosecution, copyright law, intellectual property law, social media law, Internet and new media law. You can follow Mr. Suzan on Twitter at @ksuzan.
Before joining Hodgson Russ, Mr. Suzan was a senior associate at a prominent firm in New York City. His experience includes prosecuting and defending trademark opposition and cancellation proceedings before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; representing and counseling clients on federal trademark litigation matters; managing and supervising foreign trademark agents in international oppositions, cancellation actions, and infringement proceedings; advising clients on the availability and commercial advisability of proposed trademarks; counseling clients on all facets of trademark clearance, prosecution, infringement, licensing, domain name, and Internet and new media matters; preparing, filing, and defending proceedings under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy; drafting, reviewing, and negotiating agreements for a wide range of Internet services; and advising clients on enforcement policies for worldwide protection against counterfeiting activities.
Mr. Suzan is the author of numerous articles on topics in his areas of concentration, including "Legal Strategies in the Age of Social Networking" and "Expand Your Brand Into the U.S.," both published in The Lawyers Weekly. He is also the author of "Tapping to the Beat of a Digital Drummer: Fine Tuning U.S. Copyright Law for Music Distribution on the Internet," published in the Albany Law Review; he received first prize from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for this article. At Albany Law School of Union University, Mr. Suzan was the managing editor of lead articles for the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology.