The selling of ‘expertise’ has always been a crucial element to legal marketing. Why else would lawyers with heavy billable targets take months of their valuable time to write a book? Expertise, even more than having years of experience, is an important measure of qualification, and a tool used to grade the modern professional. So the question presents itself: does an Expert rise from the ranks and develop out of peer acknowledgment? -OR – is an Expert a created entity carefully crafted by profile building and marketing? It is my contention that the answer is likely found in that ‘grey area’ between the two theories. We all know exceptional professionals or academics who are very well respected in their small circles, with limited exposure, and we all know the so called experts that can best be described as “all sizzle and no steak”.
The concept of Thought Leadership is hardly new, of course. Lawyers have become experts off-line in their fields for years. There are, however, a number of characteristics that are unique to the online space. First of all, the barrier to entry has definitely been lowered. While web technology has been limited to those with programming expertise in the past, newer software technologies – such as blogs and social networks – have leveled the playing field for exposing one’s professional knowledge & expertise. Second, the number of participants in these online conversations is not limited. Those with a willingness to get in there and participate will benefit from the increased exposure. And lastly, the web is a mix of both those that innovate ideas, and those who diligently spread the word. Success can be found in either capacity, but a balance between ‘subject expert’ and ‘online rainmaker’ is probably the best approach for most Professionals.
It is the concept of an ‘image‘ of being an expert that intrigues me. It is obviously a crucial element to building a lawyer, or any professional, into a marketable commodity. The selling of professional services on any level requires that an individual substantiate their level of expertise and establish credibility with the potential client. And only once a lawyer passes this test of credibility can the engagement potentially occur. This decision-making process is always in play, even (especially?) when it comes to marketing professional services over the Internet. There is, of course, one distinction worth identifying when it comes to building the image of expertise online: the web is just as much a social tool as it is a publishing tool. Lawyers who figure this element out will thrive, and those that don’t risk becoming obscure (and often can’t figure out why).
Thought Leadership is a phrase that’s evolved in online communities to describe those individuals who become a hub within online conversations. These individuals are very recognizable. Their opinions are watched by hundreds, and often thousands, who share a common interest. Their online publishing power is driven by their social network as much as their individual ideas. And when they do publish their opinion, people seem to jump! Jump you say? How so? It’s difficult to explain. Thought Leaders are in a very interesting position. Not all readers are supporters. And in some cases, the naysayers can outnumber their supporters. It’s not that their opinions are the most respected (although this is the case for some, and an ideal position, really), it’s that their voice drives others to respond. The end result is that they set online conversational direction, and if they enter into a particular discussion, that issue will be heard. These individuals carry an immense amount of ‘web profile’ power.
For a lawyer who wishes to drive their personal brand through the roof, becoming a Thought Leader can deliver one of the longest lasting effects possible. Done properly, the position of being a Thought Leader could create value for a lifetime, or at least as long as one’s professional career.
So what are the benefits of being a Thought Leader? If we consider the fact that links are the currency of the modern web, and that incoming links are one of the key elements to boosting Google rankings, Thought Leaders are often in an ideal position to generate ‘buzz’ related to their online presence. Those who believe that the web simply bounces from one innovation to the next should learn that the effects of Thought Leadership transcend the internet trend of the moment. The method of publication is unimportant. It might be a blog post, a threaded discussion, or a list of bookmarks to what that person is reading — no matter: it is the ‘brand’ of the Thought Leader that observers are watching. When web technology changes, these individuals simply move on to embrace the new.
Another benefit worth noting is the amount of personal control retained by these individuals. The degree of success can obviously vary, but as an example, consider the many lawyers who are currently investing their time blogging. These lawyers decide when they have time to contribute, write commentary in smaller ‘chunks’, and can focus exclusively on the narrow facets that they find interesting.
The results that can be achieved, again from a business perspective, have been repeatedly demonstrated with current blogging leaders, and are difficult to refute:
- Increased media exposure;
- A devoted referral network;
- Increased offers to do speaking engagements;
- More writing & publishing opportunities;
- A dominant presence in the search engines; and finally,
- Behind-the-scenes exchanges with other experts, which increases one’s exposure to an industry’s leading strategies & tactics.
Being an online Thought Leader means that you truly are a hub of your intellectual and social sphere. By keeping a balance between substantive discussion and social exchanges, Lawyers have the opportunity to increase both their ‘image’ of being an expert, and backing up their professional credibility with commentary that demonstrates, and qualifies, their knowledge with potential clients.