Let me start with a confession: I detest marketing terminology. Like any jargon, it obscures meaning. My clients hate it too: they roll their eyes and start looking at their smart phones whenever anyone talks about content channels, verticals, or market segmentation. So when the term “content marketing” came into play, I could feel my lip curl. So now it’s ‘content creation’, rather than writing? That reminds me of when the term ‘data entry’ came into vogue: as one frazzled HR manager commented, “No matter what you call it, it’s still typing.”
Today, law firms and their marketing departments are being bombarded with pitches for content marketing strategies and content management systems, as though ‘content’ were some newly-discovered magic marketing elixir. Having been around for a while, I wondered what the difference was between the old days of law firm newsletters and brochures and this new magical content world that search engine experts were talking about. After poking the bear a bit, I realized that what is new is the means of disseminating content, not the content itself. And because you have so many different ways of pushing out content, the need to feed the beast is constant.
What has changed is people’s expectations—that they can find the answer to their problem freely available on the internet. The more ‘retail’ your legal service is, the more likely this is to be the case. So if you’re a personal injury law firm, you want prospective clients to find your website when they look up terms like ‘brachial plexus injury’—and before they’ve thought of calling a lawyer. Or if you’re a trusts and estates firm, you want people who are looking up ‘duties of an executor’ to land on your website.
With all our blog posts and Twitter feeds and LinkedIn status and email blasts and Instagram updates, etc., it’s not surprising that the focus has shifted from the quality of the writing to the quantity of the content, as though anything is better than nothing. But landing on a website isn’t enough: you’ve got to engage prospective clients when they arrive on your site. They have to find relevant, well-written content that encourages them to take action as a result.
Steve Mathews, who runs SLAW and who’s just co-authored a book on content marketing, thinks content quality is as important as it has always been.
“Content should never be treated like a commodity. You can automate distribution methods to an extraordinary degree. But that doesn’t mean the same care and attention isn’t required in crafting one’s message. Writing is still an art and takes time. Rushing the creation process to match the speed and efficiency of our new methods of distribution is a common mistake.”
So what is content marketing and how does it differ from what we’ve been doing in the past? It could be said to be the opposite of advertising: it’s relevant, useful information consistently provided to a specific audience. Law firms have always relied heavily on content marketing, whether they called it that or not, because their product is intangible: it’s the application of their knowledge and experience to a client’s problem. Sometimes, however, clients don’t know they have a problem. A well-written article or well-produced video outlining the problem, its consequences, and how it can be prevented or remedied can often alert a prospective client to pick up the phone.
That’s the content part. The marketing part is getting that article in front of people who may have the problem in question in a format that they find useful. The more consistently such content is disseminated to the right audience through the right channel, the better for the law firm’s reputation and brand. And this is where my former career as a magazine editor comes into play. Everyone knows how hard it is to get people writing for blogs, newsletters, and client communiqués, so set up an editorial calendar and plan your content for a year at a time, not just for the next issue. It’s easy to substitute when an emerging issue crops up, much harder to start from scratch every time.
I’ll end with who should do what, because it’s much easier to divide up responsibilities when each player understands their role. The lawyers should concentrate on figuring out which audience they want to reach—who is our ideal client?—and what that audience’s issues are. What keeps them up at night? What are the problems they don’t know they could have? That’s content.
Armed with this knowledge, your marketing staff or consultant/advisor can research where that audience goes online and what their preferred formats are. They can then figure out how to make the most of your content: tweets to blog posts that link to full-length articles that link to your LinkedIn profile that link back to your website profile—you get the picture. That’s marketing.