Articles. Blog posts. Client alerts. White papers. Thought leadership. Lawyers and law firms pump out an incredible amount of content. And somewhat rightly so — as lawyers, from their early days in law school, are taught to analyze situations in writing and then solve the legal issues the situations present in writing. And clients do read (and appreciate) good, useable content written by lawyers. According to Greentarget’s 2018 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey, 71% of in-house counsel say that “utility/usefulness” are the main attributes that attract them to law firm content.
While it’s great to create a ton of content, without any kind of plan or guide, your content (and messaging) is all over the map (no pun intended). In order for your content to have real impact and to effectively support your firm’s business development goals and objectives, you need to have a “content strategy.”
So what exactly is a content strategy? Lauren Reed, editorial services manager at iQ 360, a communications firm that works with professional services, says content strategy is “your business’s approach to creating and distributing content for your target audience.” In other words, content strategy is how you share your knowledge and experience in a way that is palatable, consumable and useful to your clients and potential clients.
- According to the Content Marketing Institute, 65% of the most successful content marketers have a documented content strategy. Unsurprisingly, 86% of the least successful content marketers have no written strategy in place.
- Regarding the value of social media platforms for content distribution, 75% of law firms cited LinkedIn as having the most value, with Facebook coming in a very distant second at 15% (The Law Firm Digital Marketing Survey, conducted by the Legal Marketing Association and Good2BSocial)
- Just one in four law firms has a documented content strategy (Greentarget’s 2019 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey)
As with all law firm initiatives, it’s best start out small — don’t try to develop a firmwide content strategy all at once. Not only is that a big chunk of content to bite off — but you’ll have a better chance at creating and implementing a broader content strategy if you’ve had some success with a smaller, more focused initial effort.
To figure out the best place to start, take a good look at which of your practice groups are consistent with their content development. If you have a group that routinely pushes out good thought leadership, they would be a great candidate to work with on developing a content strategy because: 1) they are used to writing content; and 2) they will likely be receptive to listening to ways to focus and refine their material to really speak to their target audience.
Alternatively, if you have a new practice or industry group starting up — and they want to quickly raise their profile externally — offer to help them develop a content strategy that will effectively demonstrate the group’s skills, knowledge, and experience
Developing a Focus
Having a focus to your content strategy will not only help you keep on track but it will give your strategy a strong base to build upon.
To identify a focus for your content strategy, ask yourself these questions:
- What makes your firm/practice unique? Does it have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition)?
- Does your firm/practice have deep, rich experience in one particular area?
- Is your firm/practice concentrating on any cutting-edge legal issues or industries?
Another way to develop a focus, according to Brandon Copple, Greentarget’s Director of Content & Editorial Strategy, is to: “Let your audience guide you. If you can pinpoint a few issues you know they want to read about, and stay tightly focused on giving them useful insights on those issues, your content has a fighting chance.” In other words, listen first then act — or in this case — write.
Former journalist and now content consultant Susan Kostal suggests the following for developing a focus: “You should always keep tabs on what your competitors are publishing. Subscribe to their newsletters, set up alerts, or search what they are putting out on JD Supra, Lexology and the like. Then commit to providing an alternative. Did they do an exhaustive piece on the state’s new privacy regulations? Fine. Let them own that. Don’t replicate it.”
Defining the Pros and Cons of the Platforms
While it’s important to use various vehicles to deliver your content, not all platforms were created equal. As leading law firm content consultant Amy Spach, AS Written Communications, says: “McLuhan is right: the medium is the message. But the same post on six different platforms won’t cut it. Calibrate content to the way people interact on each platform to perfect the user experience.”
Here are some observations of the various vehicles you use to distribute content:
- Articles: The great thing about articles is that so many publications are starving for content that it can be somewhat easy to get a by-lined article published. Articles are also good as they vary in length (so your long-winded attorneys can say as much as they want to say) and article reprints are great business development tools.
- Blogs: Blogs are an easy, quick way to deliver content — the catch with blogs is that posts need to be added regularly — once a week minimum. Blog posts can get stale very quickly — and there’s no bigger turn-off for a reader to visit a blog and see that it hasn’t been updated since 2015.
- Client Alerts: Even though client inboxes are jammed full of client alerts and newsletters from law firms (and a whopping 78% of law firms use client alerts as a vehicle for getting in front of clients, according to The Law Firm Digital Marketing Survey), clients still like getting alerts — even if they get multiple alerts about the same subject. The keys to a successful client alert are timing (getting it out ASAP); utility (“what does this mean to me and what should I do now?”); ease-of-reading (make good use of subheads for easy skimming); and brevity (it shouldn’t be a multi-volume treatise).
- Social Media: Social media (especially LinkedIn) is the current “darling” for law firm content distribution. It’s great for pushing out timely content and it’s relatively simple to do. There are some challenges with social media, though. Freelance writer, editor and content strategist Erin Brereton, who has specialized in writing about the legal industry for more than 12 years and is a former legal association communications and marketing director, observes: “Social media posts can take a considerable amount of time, depending on their frequency; a firm may need to adjust a staff member’s responsibilities, create a dedicated in-house position to handle the work or potentially outsource it.”
- White Papers: While “white papers” have been around for decades, today’s white papers have become a decent “sales tool” for law firms. White papers tend to address a complex or controversial legal issue — and also provide a particular solution — or advocate for one. Very often, white papers arise out of proprietary research a law firm might have done. The “catch” (in a good way) with white papers is that in order to get a copy of the white paper, the person requesting the copy generally has to provide his contact info. Not only does that help you measure the success of the white paper — but it helps you create a list of prospective clients.
One cautionary note about some of the other “platforms” for delivering content: the legal industry seems to have a plethora of “publishers” (and I use that term loosely) that will “publish” articles, etc., for a fee. One tactic is to “offer” the chapter of an upcoming book to a firm, get the firm (or attorney) interested or hooked, and then the “publisher” tells you that there is a minimal fee involved (usually several thousands of dollars). I know there are varying perspectives about these “pay-to-play publications” and I can see how sometimes they can be useful — but I believe there are plenty of opportunities for reaching your target audience through third parties without having to pay for it.
One of the most challenging aspects of developing and implementing a content strategy is, as with most legal marketing initiatives, managing the expectations of the lawyers. As a long-time legal marketer, I’ve had to carefully set expectations, be candid, and stand behind my convictions (and experience) on many occasions in connection with implementing new initiatives or processes.
According to Brandon Copple: “You have to make it clear what thought leadership will look like: it’s not what you, the firm or attorney, want to say — it’s what your audience wants to hear. And you have to be clear about results: you’re not going to get a half-dozen new clients from a single article. You have to commit to consistently pushing out insights, in ways that are accessible and digestible; over time you’ll build a reputation that drives people to seek your insights — and your counsel.”
Some years ago, I had the rare experience of helping a lawyer get a series of articles placed — and within just a few weeks, she had landed three new clients, all of whom had contacted her because they had read her articles and felt she intimately understood their industry (life sciences) and some of the legal hurdles they were facing (FDA issues). I mention this because a lawyer can attract new clients from a piece of thought leadership — but it’s a rare occurrence, in my opinion, so it’s important to make sure that your lawyers understand that the real purpose of developing content (and having a strategy that supports it) is to build and strengthen a firm’s/practice’s/lawyer’s reputation, so that the firm/practice/lawyer is in the consideration set when a client is looking to hire outside counsel.
Keeping the Content Pipeline Primed
Given lawyers’ propensities for writing, keeping your content pipeline primed shouldn’t be too terribly difficult, but there are some tricks of the trade that can make sure you have enough of — and the right kind of — content.
A content development concept that I recently came across — and one that I heartily endorse — is CORE, the acronym for Create Once, Repurpose Everywhere. The idea is that once you create a piece of content, try to repurpose it across various platforms. If an attorney develops a presentation, have her write an article based upon it. Take a blog post and post it on social media and then turn it into a bylined article. The repurposing opportunities are endless — the idea is to get as much mileage out of a piece of good content as you can. Just make sure you rework the content (whether for style or word count, for example) so that it fits the platform.
What if your attorneys have good intentions and want to create content but they just can’t seem to find the time? Erin Brereton notes: “Billable work can, and often should, be an attorney’s priority; however, that can make maintaining any sort of marketing continuity challenging, if you’re relying solely on the firm’s lawyers to provide content. Even if attorneys recognize the value content marketing can provide, their schedule may make producing it difficult. Hiring a freelance writer to work with an attorney on turning an idea into a white paper, blog post or other item can allow the attorney to just review, instead of write the item.”
Amy Spach shared a cautionary note about the “type” of content you put out: “Awards, rankings and ‘safe’ firm news are easy filler for content calendars. And while internal morale is valuable, aim to offer news clients can use. Focus on changes in the law in and trends in clients’ industries.”
There are as many ways to measure results as there are ways to get content in front of clients. While it’s important to try and measure your results, a successful content campaign is about more than data analytics. Susan Kostal says: “A myopic focus on SEO misses the real point: You want readers to engage with your content, not just notice it on the Web. You want to build a relationship, not just a body of vanity stats. If traffic isn’t converting into leads, something’s wrong. Typically, reaching a few targeted, highly qualified leads is better than Web traffic.” So while some hard numbers can be useful, what’s really more important is initiating a relationship, nurturing it, and then hoping that the reader reaches out to the author of a piece of content.
Embarking on the Journey
There’s a lot more that can be said about content strategy, but hopefully this short primer will provide a basic understanding of what content strategy is, its purpose, how to develop one, and how to implement and measure it. If you think you’re ready to embark on your content strategy journey, take a deep breath, focus, and don’t be content until you have a content strategy.
John J. Buchanan is Senior Manager of Communications at Sheppard Mullin. A member of this newsletter’s Board of Editors, he provides senior level public relations and communications counsel to lawyers, helping them raise their visibility in the media, strengthen their personal brands by using a variety of communication platforms, and manage their firms’ reputations.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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