People have remarked that the word “unprecedented” is certainly having a moment right now. I think that’s something we can all agree on. And one of the things that is truly unprecedented is the sheer amount of content coming out of law firms. While firms have long been known for producing a variety of client alerts, articles, blog posts, and more, the amount of information that is pouring forth from legal minds around the world is quite a torrent.
We’ve already talked about it in recent weeks here on Zen, and it has me looking back to some of our previous discussions around content marketing, and its best practices. That may seem a bit superficial at a time that is a dire as this one is, but we’re going to delve into some content conversations over the next few weeks and I’ll tell you why I think they’re essential for firms at the moment:
- Number one on every lawyer’s list right now is being their clients’ trusted business advisor. And if it isn’t, it should be. My saying that here isn’t news to anyone, and the engagement with each of your clients to best serve their current needs will be very individual.
- As all of the chaos surrounding the initial lockdowns begins to settle and we either continue to remain remote, or we return to limited work, there will continue to be some slowdowns. Firms are expecting this. We know we can’t engage in the previous ways that we used to for knowledge sharing, like networking events, seminars, client lunches and dinners. But we can improve our content marketing and use it to stand out among the noise.
- “Content marketing” isn’t a dirty word. When used well and effectively, it’s a targeted, smart method of adding value in a way that reduces the burden on lawyers while expanding their profiles and allows for relationship-building opportunities. Currently, those opportunities will remain virtual, but they still exist!
So, bearing that in mind, let’s consider some of the chaos of the last seven or eight weeks, and how that has brought into sharp focus these two problems that we see for legal content developers – and when I say “legal content developers,” if you write, blog, host a podcast, present, speak on telecasts, post to twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, author client alerts, etc, this applies to you! Bear with me in the early stages of this post though, because some of it is going to get a wee bit technical – I promise to translate it for you!
Every time I want to learn something about content marketing, I look to Neil Patel. You may be wondering who he is, and according to his website:
He is a New York Times Bestselling author. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, Forbes says he is one of the top 10 marketers, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he created one of the 100 most brilliant companies. He was recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama and a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 35 by the United Nations.”
He’s also an author for the Content Marketing Institute, and with credentials like the above, you can see why I respect what he has to say. I recently read a post where Patel addressed “How to Fix the 4 Biggest Problems with Content Writers.” He starts out by saying:
[T]he content marketing industry has experienced massive change.
At first, there were just a few of us plunking out a couple of blog articles a week. Back then, it was pretty easy to get a lot of traffic, comments, ‘likes,’ and subscribers. Then, more and more people started jumping in.
Eventually, the content marketing industry as we know it was in full force.
Since that time, people have had plenty of advice on how to fix it, change it, and improve it. The blog you’re reading right now has been a major force in the improvement of content marketing. But we’re still seeing some issues. Some of these issues are relatively new. Some are signs of content marketing’s growing pains.
The problem, of course, isn’t with the industry itself. The problem lies with the way we’re going about it. In other words, the problem is with us – the content writers.”
For some of you, this will sound like a bunch of marketing mumbo jumbo. But I promise that it’s not, so let’s dissect it a little bit before we dive into the actual issues with content writers.
For the legal industry, content is not new. Lawyers have been writing articles since long before the internet was popular, and many then graduated to identifying the latest trends, legislation, case results, etc. and sharing that and its impacts with their clients through client alerts or personal emails. That’s all content, and so you’re already content writers.
The method of delivery is new in recent years, with lawyers and law firms embracing blogging, videocasting, podcasting and more on a larger scale. The content is the same, but the means for getting that content out to the consuming audience is new. In the early days of blogging, when the lawyers doing it were few and far between, as Patel points out, it was much easier to get traffic, comments, likes and subscribers – it was the shiny new thing, and people were hungry to get any and all content they could get their hands on. You could essentially write a blog post on anything, hit publish, and everyone would read it. Now, it has to be good AND people have to be able to find it.
We were also operating as big fish in small ponds – with fewer people engaging (in the beginning) in blogging and other forms of content marketing (social media), it wasn’t hard to get in front of people. But now that there’s so much content out there, and all using similar mediums, it’s harder to be noticed. You have to be better to be noticed.
As Patel points out, the problem now isn’t with the “how” of what we’re producing – blogging still works, social media still works – it’s the who. It’s us. We have to do a better job of producing content, because, as my friend Adrian Lurssen, a content expert in the legal industry, always points out, it’s about being the signal within the noise.
So what are two problems that Patel addresses that we should “fix” in order to be that signal and stand out from the noise?
Problem One: Content writers think that a boring industry necessitates a boring blog
As soon as I saw this problem identified by Patel, I knew THIS was extremely timely:
Content writers think that a boring industry necessitates a boring blog.”
Time and time again, lawyers will suggest that because we are in a serious industry, it necessitates a serious [read: boring] blog. And while I’m not asking you to start injecting unnecessary humor into your posts, I AM suggesting that you ditch the legalese and humanize them a little bit. Add your personality.
Patel suggests that a blog may be boring if the author believes that industry to be boring. But what I see more often than not is that a lawyer author who is passionate about their area of the law, who can talk to me with palpable excitement about the latest news in energy law, for example, still may have some trouble translating that excitement into the written word. It’s not that the author is finding the content boring; it’s that their treatment of the content isn’t matching with their passion for the subject. Please note that when I say “blog” here, I’m also talking about all content – articles, podcasts, videocasts, client alerts – none of these have to be “boring” simply because they are legal. Again, you can treat the materials seriously without being boring. Consider the current moment – how many of us are concerned, worried, anxious and really want to connect over the serious issues that are facing us and our businesses around COVID-19? Everyone! It’s possible to translate real, human empathy and concern into your writing and speaking without making it any less valuable or professional (arguably, moreso). Businesses and business leaders need fast, actionable advice at the moment, and if you can provide that to them, in the ways and places they need it, while leading with empathy and compassion, you’ll stand out.
How can you combat this tendency to be “boring”? I have three recommendations, which apply generally, but can also apply to the current situation:
- Audio record yourself: Take a voice memo on your smart phone about the latest news or update in your area of the law. Don’t think about it from the perspective of what it will end up being – just speak from the heart. What’s the latest news in the industry? What challenges are coming up this year? What question did you just answer for a client that you get regularly (and could answer, or translate, to a public format)? What makes you most excited about practicing in this area? Once you’ve done that, step away from it for a day or two, and then come back to it and transcribe it, re-working it into a written format that can be used for blogging or an article, but still embraces the enthusiasm you have for the subject matter. Or maybe don’t transcribe it, and share these short snippets as a brief coffee-talk-type podcast.
- Read industry content: When you practice in a specific area, don’t limit yourself to reading the legal publications for those clients – find out what business publications they read as well, and read those too. That will help you to get a sense of the language that they use and prefer for the treatment of the subject at hand. For example, after Prince’s passing, we all remember seeing Trusts & Estates lawyers who wrote about his lack of a will – they wrote that he died intestate, and though they put “without a will” in parenthesis following “intestate,” they’ve already thrown the legalese right in there. Ask yourself, when writing about a subject, is it necessary to use the legal term? Or can you use the discussion term instead? What will resonate better with your audience? Similarly, yes, it was necessary to be using the term “force majeure” in the early days of COVID cancellations, because that was the contractual term that we were all battling with, but it was helpful for many people to also include a parenthetical “Acts of God” note, for those who referred to the clause in their contracts this way. For a lot of people, even though they had read their events contracts, it’s easier to remember an “Acts of God” clause than it is to remember the term “force majeure.”
- Consider changing content types: Are you always writing articles? Do you always write client alerts? Do you know what is actually most effective for your clients? Try switching it up. Try inviting some of your clients to be on a podcast with you. Try calling your clients directly to ask them about their needs and concerns (without charging them; and yes, I’m going to count this as content – ESPECIALLY if you get the same questions over and over again, and turn it into another form of content). Do a Zoom happy hour for several of your clients who have never met and introduce them to each other, while inviting everyone to discuss a specific topic, like innovation in the time of COVID-19. Know that it’s okay to get creative and break out of the mold of what you’ve always done, as long as what you’re planning to do adds value for your clients.
Patel offers some solutions for this problem too:
- “Go deep. Deep content is rarely boring.” – If you’re afraid of writing too much on a particular subject, break your content into multiple posts or a series. Long content is actually quite popular these days as well, surprisingly, in this age of short attention spans. This can be in the form of multiple posts or articles, or also a series of podcasts or videocasts.
- “Unleash the data. The right people always love a good dose of data.” – Along with data, don’t forget the visuals. It’s always recommended to break up a lot of text and data with visuals.
- “Know your users. Understanding your audience gives you a powerful edge.” – I can’t emphasize this enough. The better you know your audience, the better your content will be received. And remember, your “audience” is whomever you’ve identified that you want to reach with your content based on your goals. This may be clients and potential clients, it may be thought leaders in your industry, it may be journalists, or it may be conference organizers (see if you can partner with virtual ones for now), etc. Start with your goals, identify who you want to reach based on those goals, and then get to know those people, what they want, and where they are.
Problem Two: Content writers go through the motions rather than trying to provide a truly helpful resource
Yikes. Does this sound familiar?
Remember my Hubs post?
These days, there’s a lot of pressure to produce content simply because everyone else is doing it – write a blog, tweet something, write an article, start a podcast, do a video, add more words into the ether. Sometimes, it can be tempting to write something for the sake of writing, rather than to be genuinely useful, and then we’re running the risk of adding to the noise, instead of being a resource. I cannot express how many emails I’ve gotten with how many hundreds of articles dedicated to each nuance of law surrounding COVID-19 that someone could possibly want to know about. The question becomes – are these truly helpful resources?
Content marketing has become another marketing function – just something you have to do. But content marketing is different from most business activities because it requires creative, inspired, and enthusiastic output of content. That content has to connect with people.”
For law firms, this is just as true – while I *hope* that your content is not marketing’s job, unless your marketing department is producing their own blog, it is indeed the case that producing content requires “creative, inspired, and enthusiastic output.” Most importantly, that it “has to connect with people.” (By the way, that’s where knowing your audience comes in handy)
The most important thing to do here to remedy this issue is to ask yourself some key questions:
- Is it necessary that I answer this issue with content? (whatever flavor that content comes in)
- Must that content come from me?
- Must that content come from me now?
- Must that content come from me now in this format? (There may be cases where the answer to the first three questions is YES, but really, you’re best served by picking up the phone to have a chat with your client, or top clients, rather than putting out another article).
We all believe that we have a new take on the latest updates, and it’s often true that if we don’t add to the noise, we are saying something with our silence. But while that may be the case, it’s more important to understand how you can add something different. What is truly the best use of your time in developing this content? If you’re using it to connect with existing clients, then consider client alerts and follow those up with a phone call directly to clients. If you want to develop new business, identify a unique angle to write or talk about. Consider collaboration with other jurisdictions or practices to discuss multiple aspects of the issue you’re reviewing. Consider collaborating directly with clients to talk with them about the issues they’re facing, and the topics that they most care about.
Another way to avoid going through the motions is to switch things up:
- If you’re a blogger and you’re feeling like you’re in a rut, try another medium. Maybe videocasting may work for you, or try podcasting. Step away from your preferred technology for a few weeks, and see if changing the way you deliver your content helps to challenge you and freshen up your message.
- Do some reading (or watching or listening). It can be easy to get bogged down in the weeds of our own writing and end up writing for the sake of it. Get back to the joy of writing by reading what others are working on. It can be within your area of practice for some inspiration, or totally outside of legal (perhaps to freshen up your writing style).
- Along those lines, take a break from writing. You don’t want it to be too long of a break, because out of sight is out of mind when it comes to content. But if you’re writing for the sake of it, and not producing anything of true value, there’s no harm in taking yourself off your writing rotation for 2-3 weeks and regrouping. Is the schedule of writing working for you? Could you come up with some standard types of columns to author that give you some guidelines without being restrictive? If you’re already doing that, could you change what these are to freshen up what you’re writing? What can you do to fall back in love with your subject matter again? If you do take a break from your writing or other content production, share previous posts or episodes so that your audience isn’t lacking in content from you while you’re taking a break. It’s particularly important at the moment, when we can feel and be overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world today and the information that’s being thrown at us. So know that it’s okay to take a break, and come back when you feel fresher.
Developing valuable, targeted content that truly engages your key audiences will become more and more important over the coming months as we slowly begin to re-enter society, but remain socially distanced.