Positive referrals and relationships will always play an important part in generating new business for law firms, but they will not always deliver a consistent flow of work for future growth.
In an increasingly competitive market, many law firms have turned to harnessing and distributing online thought leadership exercises to attract the attention of new clients.
Unfortunately a lot of firms are still not familiar enough with the available technologies to track any potential interest successfully. Others are cautious about using data capture techniques to generate new leads, fearing that it will deter readers.
Existing technology is woefully underused in the legal market but can help optimise content and track readers, allowing for a more targeted push. When used successfully, these can produce a tangible return on investment and real business development opportunities.
It is difficult to understand the online strategies of law firms and there is not much in the way of large-scale research into what UK firms are doing online in relation to business development. But in the US, a 2012 Legal Market Survey Report of 1,300 attorneys and legal marketers by Avvo & LexBlog showed that 23% of firms were generating business via online sites and social media – which is not insubstantial.
For this article we reviewed 21 London firms and interviewed eight others from a cross-section of 'magic circle', mid-tier and US firms to see what kind of thought leadership activities they were engaged in online.
Results showed that most firms were still not tracking their thought leadership activities well enough to gauge exactly what was generating interest and to what extent. Broadly speaking, firms were either unwilling to track users of their content or were completely unaware about what they could be doing to make the most of their content. In addition, we found that there were major variations in the quality of what was on offer.
Of the firms we interviewed, those creating thought leadership online did so mainly for enhancing brand awareness and the development of existing client business, as well as for public relations and hosting related events for clients and contacts. Only two firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Olswang, were able to show new business leads as a direct result of their thought leadership activity online, although this appeared to be a positive side-effect rather than a deliberate strategy.
Given the heavy investment needed to produce high-quality thought leadership, it would make sense for firms to use it as a way to generate client leads as well as simply satisfying branding objectives. So what kind of activities could firms be doing?
First, firms need to spend more time deciding on the best way to create engaging content for their audience. On-site content options are endless, from articles and blog posts to webinars and podcasts but firms, to their detriment, are focusing too much on the topics of interest to them rather than what clients want to see. As Jeffrey Forbes, publishing director at TalklawMedia, says: "Law firms have been producing content to promote their expertise for many years but it can often be too inwardly focused. The foundation of a successful thought leadership programme is high-quality insight, so understanding market trends, influencers and client issues is vital. Firms also need to ensure that content appears in front of the right decision maker at the right time."
To be more engaging firms probably need to focus less on providing commentary and more on giving an expert opinion. Thought leadership needs to show fresh perspectives and challenge the client's own thinking as well as highlight problems that they may not have identified themselves. This can be a challenge for many practice-focused lawyers who either are not comfortable writing truly commercial and analytical content, or who are too cautious to predict outcomes and take a real stance on a subject.
Even within specific practice areas, the law is so broad that the danger is to try to cover everything. Having a niche is a great way to test a thought leadership strategy and help the marketing and new business departments familiarise themselves with the related technologies and processes.
Being focused and consistent will result in higher search engine rankings, greater recognition and more website traffic for the subject matter. Association with particular issues, and talking about them in depth over a period of time, will develop and promote a distinctive perspective on chosen specialisms.
Where time or budgets may be restricted, firms could focus on subjects that may seem controversial, under-researched or where other firms are not so forthcoming with their views.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) of content should be a top priority for firms that want to attract new clients looking into a specific subject. If would-be clients are looking for thought leadership in a given area, firms should make it easy for them to find.
Google is usually the first port of call for searches. Firms need to follow best practice in SEO if they want to ensure their content shows up prominently for a particular keyword or phrase. This includes a blend of 'on-site', such as websites, and 'off-site', such as Twitter.
If a thought leadership piece is topical and/or new, it may be difficult to gain traction purely through SEO. In these instances, paid search (aka Pay Per Click or PPC marketing) can guarantee an appearance on page one for a range of keywords.
While most of the websites we reviewed were reasonably well-optimised, none of the firms we spoke to was actively engaged in a keyword strategy – for SEO or paid search.
Website, or 'on-site', content plays an important role in thought leadership activity but websites do not always attract the right people when they are wanted. Firms must also think about publishing 'off-site' to find and engage readers. This includes search, third-party websites, content syndicators and social media. Most of the firms we spoke to offered regular news emails. Reassuringly, of the 21 firms we reviewed all had a presence on LinkedIn and Twitter – though with variable effect. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton has yet to tweet while Olswang allows its entire partnership to do so at will. Barney O'Kelly, digital strategist at Freshfields, says: "LinkedIn and Twitter are great for our partners to build their personal reputation alongside the firm's brand, sharing their own expertise and opinions directly with our audiences."
Beyond engaging with social media, how is it possible for firms to actually convert 'reads' to leads? To do so they must start collecting data on readers. But the big problem for the legal market is that thought leadership is not really considered valuable enough to put behind data capture forms, which require the input of email addresses and can therefore be used for new business purposes. There is just too much competing content around. Some firms have found that asking people to register or log on had a detrimental effect on the number of people reading content, so they have chosen to make their content easily available.
To overcome this, firms should improve the quality of what they are producing, focusing on a few key areas, and think about introducing tiered content. Then they can offer more complex and sensitive opinions with some value-adds, all positioned behind data capture forms. The market shows that people are willing to pay or register details in exchange for high-quality content.
After an email address is known, nurturing a lead via a pre-specified series of automated emails can help build a clearer view of interest ahead of any approaches.
Once firms do start capturing data, there is plenty of off-the-shelf technology to help measure, analyse and optimise all aspects of their thought leadership activity. These technologies include content marketing systems which bring everything together within one central dashboard. With a good call-tracking solution, firms could link enquiries and sales directly to specific pieces of content.
This ability to monitor the effectiveness of each channel in attracting visitors and leads is becoming increasingly important. All of the firm websites we reviewed – with the surprising exception of Latham & Watkins, which was more advanced than the others in its organisation of thought leadership – had website tracking such as Google Analytics and Webtrends in place. These monitor user journeys and identify where visitors and conversions (downloads, registrations and enquiries) are coming from. But this is only part of the picture.
There is an array of technology available to help firms measure, analyse and optimise every aspect of their thought leadership activity. And dozens of off-the-shelf tools can help paint a clearer picture of how people are engaging with your content and help nurture leads into prospects. While law firms have yet to explore these opportunities, other smaller professional services are making the leap.
Firms could gain a competitive advantage through clever sales and marketing models on the web, combining thought leadership with web technologies that can help bridge, and even narrow, the gap between content marketing and new business.
A successful online thought leadership campaign combines exceptional and unique content which becomes highly sought after, as well as search engine optimisation techniques, social media and data capture to attract and nurture prospective clients. It should be produced with the intention of generating further leads.
Taking a holistic approach firms should be looking to bridge the gap between the marketing and IT departments by investing in digital talent. Without the latest technology, content, tracking and social media tools, thought leadership campaigns will never produce the investment return for the time and effort they require.