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Sue Bramall explains how firms should approach their content marketing so they can hook their target readers and clinch new clients
Knowledge is a law firm’s raw material, but getting your lawyers to draft expert legal content in plain English to keep your firm’s website up-to-date can be like pulling hens’ teeth.
Some solicitors positively enjoy writing – and may well blog on other issues in their spare time – but others have confessed to me that they simply do not know where to start.
Writers’ block can happen to the best-known and most well-read authors so it’s no surprise that it can happen to anyone, including lawyers.
There are some law firms who place an expectation on lawyers to contribute, but the reality is writers receive no recognition or reward for this activity and quickly learn where effort will be more profitably rewarded.
And rightly so, because while a good website and expert content will generate enquiries and leads, it is face-to-face business development activity which will usually clinch a new instruction.
Whether it’s better for a highly-trained expensive professional to spend two hours researching and drafting an article or blog post, or take a contact out to lunch, is an important strategic decision.
Your business needs both activities in its marketing mix and business development approach.
Few law firms have an effective strategy to plan and produce high quality content, something that is often evident when looking at their websites.
This might be because no one person is in charge of content, or even marketing. But what does it say about your firm if the news is out-of-date or your legal updates are dominated by one enthusiastic blogger?
It’s therefore vital for law firms to understand and implement key steps if they are aiming to improve their online presence and generate a steady flow of quality enquiries.
Direction of travel
Establish a clear set of objectives for your website and online communications. For example:
- Do you want to generate direct enquiries from new clients?
- Do you wish to set out your credentials for clients who are being referred by your professional contacts?
- Do you want to attract business from overseas, possibly in a foreign language?
- Are you considering launching a new service?
- Do you wish to highlight your profile in the local community?
- Do you want to emphasise your culture and commitment to certain good causes?
Each of these objectives would be supported by a different type of content strategy in terms of key messages and distribution channels, so it is vital to be clear about your intended direction.
Failure to set this out as a guiding principle can result in a glut of random content which does little more than fill space.
Determine your content
With your objectives in mind, you can then develop a shopping list of content for different parts of the firm’s website. This could include new pages or amendments to the following sections:
- Legal service pages (or child pages).
- Lawyer profiles.
- Sector pages.
- Credentials or testimonials.
- Resources such as downloads or a brochure.
- Research papers and white papers.
- News or blog posts.
- Multimedia such as podcast or video.
With this list in place, you can slot the items into an action plan and your calendar and allocate responsibilities among your team – or outsource the work to a content specialist or legal copywriter.
Contrast this approach with what often happens in law firms: when someone is tasked with writing a blog post they may look at what competitors have been writing about recently and draft something similar.
But this assumes that the content being copied is the product of a decent content strategy – although the chances are slim.
It may not reflect what clients are actually interested in or the sort of enquiries you would like to generate.
This means it is unlikely to achieve much in relation to the keywords you are trying to target for internet search results.
Content is king
Choose your topics carefully, focusing on issues where you can offer a solution which yields profitable work. Think about your ideal client and what they need to know.
Don’t just write about a subtle nuance of case law which will only interest a couple of people.
Look beyond what everyone else is writing about and seek out a point of difference. Remember: marketing is all about differentiation.
Have you spotted any trends or opportunities about which no one else is writing? Do you have a strong opinion on a particular issue or ruling? Do you disagree with the popular view? Do you have insight into a new and emerging area of law?
Embrace journalistic style
“There are two things wrong with all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content. That, I think, about covers the ground”, so said Fred Rodell, professor of law at Yale University in 1936.
One of the most common reasons why a law firm is disappointed in the results of its content strategy – when it has been adding plenty of content – is that the authors are not writing for the right audience in the right style.
I have lost count of the number of draft articles I have seen which start with the phrase: “A recent high court judgment …”; and then fail to give the slightest hint about the implications of the judgment until near the end.
Even more importantly, they also fail to detail who is affected by this important judgment and in what way.
The news triangle indicates the most important elements that should be included in an article down to the least important element.
Old habits die hard. Having been taught legal drafting and practised it over many years, solicitors can find it hard to break these habits and develop a client-friendlier journalistic style.
Few lawyers have had any training in writing for the media or the internet, so think about investing in specific training. A style guide is also a great resource to help lawyers understand how to present their blogs (the Economist Style Guide is a good place to start).
A matter of design
Your online content does not only need to be in writing. Think about how you could illustrate the issue – perhaps by drawing a table or a flow chart, a graph, an infographic or a bubble diagram. Could the topic be addressed in a podcast or a video?
Your choice of format should be determined by your clients’ preferences rather than because you consider something to be trendy. Ask your clients how they prefer to consume their legal updates and build this into your plan.
Who is your reader? This is important because a different style will be required according to who you are writing for, so make sure the author knows their target readership.
Readers may be:
- Lawyers in the same practice area or in another area.
- Other professionals with clients to refer to law firms.
- Busy clients who do not want to learn about the law
- Journalists or conference organisers looking for good communicators.
- Algorithms serving up internet search results.
- Directory researchers looking at your lawyers’ profiles and evidence of experience.
- Insurers looking at deal size and fraud risk.
- Fraudsters looking for sleepy law firms without a grip on the internet (bear in mind the failure to update your website regularly sends other signals that you may not even consider).
Referrals from other solicitors and professionals are an important source of work for many firms. Even so, they may not be intimately familiar with your area of law and may wish to forward your material to one of their clients. So, even if you are writing for other solicitors it does no harm to consider that the eventual reader may have no expertise in this area.
Business clients are busy and usually have other things on their minds (running and growing their business and increasing their profits).
However, much they may appreciate you they are unlikely to want to learn about the black letter of the law.
They need to know, by the time they get to the end of the first paragraph, if the ruling or the development will affect their business – otherwise you will quickly lose them to something more pressing.
If you are writing for journalists, it is important to know their publication and the required style of their articles.
Remember they have a deadline to meet, so if you let them down you are unlikely to hear from them again. Be proactive – and drop the legalese in your writing.
If you are writing for an internet search algorithm, consider that it is scanning the content of several law firms to find the best answer.
This means you need to think carefully about your titles and subtitles and resist the temptation to abbreviate each set of key terms.
Bear in mind that your initialisms, abbreviations and acronyms may mean something completely different to a reader from another sector. For example, ‘FCA’ stands for something entirely different depending on whether you are in finance (Financial Conduct Authority) or athletics (Fellowship of Christian Athletes).
In the legal sector (and particularly confusingly), ‘SARs’ stands for subject access requests and also for suspicious activity reports – and it even stands for the solicitors accounts rules.
Have you ever considered fraudsters could be monitoring your content? It’s important to bear in mind that the failure to regularly update your website sends other signals you may never have considered.
If no new content has been posted on your website for some weeks or months it could suggest that other areas of your business, such as your cyber security, are not up-to-date and hackers could target your firm.
Unless you are writing for other lawyers, your first paragraph or two should answer all these questions:
- Who does this change in the law affect?
- What is this article about?
- When will things change?
- When do I need to act?
- Where will it occur?
- Why will we benefit or be worse off?
- How can you help us?
Ask a colleague to read your first paragraph to see if they understand what the article is about. If they don’t, edit or redraft it. Don’t forget your reader can leave it at any time; and if you don’t hook them at the outset, they can surf away to find an article elsewhere on the internet which does hook them.
Push hard and push often
It is not enough just to upload an article to your website and hope it’s good enough to attract lots of potential clients via organic search. You need to give it a helping hand and push it out into the marketplace to be noticed.
Internet search engines are evaluating your website for the three Rs: relevance, regularity and recency. Most solicitors’ firms focus on relevance – but forget about the second and third factors.
Remember that your competitors are adding content too, so if they are posting new content more regularly than you, and their articles are more recent than your firm’s posts, your competitors are likely to rank higher you.
This means you need to identify all the distribution channels available to your firm and your professionals, then take a focused approach to its distribution strategy. If you have not mapped your marketing and social channels, this may prove difficult.
Finally, remember to monitor performance and refine your approach. The great thing about online content is that you can measure its reach – and adapt your content strategy accordingly.
Sue Bramall is director of Berners Marketing BernersMarketing.com