In a World of Tools and Technology, Story Remains the Great Equalizer in Law Firm Marketing

by JD Supra Perspectives
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In 2013, upon joining Bloomberg Media Group as its new CEO, Justin Smith sent Bloomberg's media team a memorandum describing his approach and philosophy to journalism. At a time when the media industry was experiencing massive disruption (which has since accelerated), and its primary revenue source of advertising was declining precipitously, Smith had this to say:

“All business is bifurcated into two distinct worlds: the struggling traditional segment that longs for a simpler, more profitable past that will never return; and the vibrant, entrepreneurial segment that reinventing commerce before your eyes.”

The same can be said of the legal industry in 2018. In fact, this same sentiment is expressed in the 2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market, published by Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, which suggests that too many law firms are fighting the “last war” by operating and adapting (or not adapting) based on how the market has behaved in the past, and not on what’s to come. Just as in the media sector, this has created opportunities for entrepreneurial law firms and alternative services providers to step in and exploit the situation through hustle and innovation.

From better, more creative billing practices to leaner, more productive operations, those fighting “today’s war” versus those fighting the “last war” are advancing on many fronts. One area in which the gap between the law firms of the past and those of the future is widening most drastically is marketing. 

Clinging to Marketing Myths

How can you tell the difference between firms that are innovating and those that are standing still? One obvious “tell” among those being left behind is that they cling to one or all of the following marketing myths or misconceptions:

  1. A law firm website serves as nothing more than an online brochure or directory of information, and has little or no relevance to law firm business development. 
  2. Interruptive marketing—such as paid advertising divorced from any broader, strategic campaign—is the best path to brand awareness and affinity.
  3. Greater investment in technology, in and of itself, leads to greater engagement.

The genesis of these myths and misconceptions is a belief that in the midst of this technological revolution, the fundamentals of marketing have changed; that because the tools and methods used to reach prospects have evolved, prospects’ motivations and proclivities have as well.  

The truth is that marketing - defined as the means by which we persuade consumers to act - has not changed over the last twenty years. After all, human nature has not changed. Only the methods we use to distribute marketing messages, such as websites and other digital channels, have been adapted. 

This tension was on stark display at the recent Legal Marketing Association annual conference in New Orleans.

A consistent through-line in discussions, panels, and presentations was an expression of frustration that despite investing heavily in websites, digital marketing, advertising, and other tools to help them expand distribution of content, law firms are still struggling to connect with audiences in a way that furthers business development priorities.

The Answer Is, As It Has Always Been: Story

Ironically, at a time when advancements in technology occur at a dizzying pace, the solution to this problem is an ancient, analog one: storytelling.

In fact, technology has made storytelling more important than ever before. As recently as twenty years ago, consumers of legal services lived in a world of information asymmetry where law firms, not clients, held an information advantage. Technology has created information parity, and an environment in which clients are online, in control, and, as a result, searching for a story that resonates. 

...technology has made storytelling more important than ever before.

In today’s world, where facts, figures, and features are readily available commodities, law firms hoping to build engaged audiences must provide insight, education, and entertainment without interruption. It doesn't matter how big your bullhorn is— amplification and distribution matters little if you're not giving people what they want to read, hear, and see.

The solution to the modern day law firm marketing dilemma lies in inviting your prospects into a story that reflects their challenges, struggles, and opportunities, and not your own.

Story connects with people on an emotional level and inspires them to act. Facts, figures, and features are meaningless—at best they bore people, at worst they turn them off. You can't interrupt people from the content they're trying to consume (through, for example, traditional advertising) and expect them to take notice. Don’t try to pitch prospects before giving them something of value in form of an insight they’ve never heard before, wrapped in a story that leads to an emotional connection. As it has for thousands of years, story is the glue that binds people together, and it’s what leads to brand affinity and marketing success as well. 

Looking for evidence of the supremacy of storytelling in marketing? Simply consider the storytelling success of billion dollar brands such as Apple, Nike, and Red Bull. They don’t focus on features such as megabytes, stitch counts, and percentages of sodium and potassium in their marketing. Instead they paint pictures of how their products make people’s lives more creative, healthy, and adventurous. In other words, they prioritize connecting emotionally not intellectually, because emotion is the key buying decisions. Among a sea of similarly qualified lawyers and law firms, clients will choose those who they know, like, and trust.

The digital world is the kingdom in which law firms must operate, but content—and specifically storytelling content—is still king.

All of this is to say that in order to join the “vibrant, entrepreneurial” future described by Bloomberg Media Group CEO Justin Smith, law firms must cast aside notions that there are any magic beanstalk seeds that will lead to marketing success. Seeds, in the form of great content, must be planted, but they are the type that must be sown, nurtured, and tended to on hands and knees with sleeves rolled up. Implementing a robust and effective content marketing strategy is not easy, but it’s worth the effort. Technology is part of the solution, but it’s not the solution. The digital world is the kingdom in which law firms must operate, but content—and more specifically storytelling content—is still king.

How to Tell Great Stories and Connect with an Audience Through Content 

There are lots of tools, such as JD Supra, for example, that can help you to get your law firm’s content in front of the right people. However, your return on investment through amplifying and distributing your content will be far higher if you put the work in to ensure that your content aligns with your brand story. 

Know your audience...

There are many things you can and should do to “storify” your brand story as told through your website, and your content marketing as expressed across the Internet. However, the single most important step to increase content ROI through better storytelling is to: Know your audience. 

Indeed, story begins with an understanding who your audience is. If you were writing a book or a screenplay, a publisher or producer would ask you to define your genre and demographic. No story, nor piece of law firm content, is universally appealing. This means that you must start with an understanding of who your audience is, what members of the audience want, and what pain points they're struggling with.

Your firm, through its storytelling, can then explain what problems it's uniquely positioned to solve. Start with empathy and understanding, then demonstrate expertise and authority. Build a foundation, then lay brick upon brick of targeted content to make your audience better for having invested its time and attention with your brand.

Research and ask, don’t assume...

How is this best accomplished? Research and ask, don’t assume. Creating personalized content that resonates requires you to know something—and to do it right, many things—about your audience. Conduct surveys of your clients. Incorporate questions about content preferences in your client interview initiatives. Leverage social listening and monitoring tools, and SEO data, to understand which websites your audience visits, which influencers it listens to, what information it searches for, and what stories it shares on social media. 

Once you know what your audience wants, give it to them in a way that makes it land. If you’re drafting an article, write based on how people want to feel (inspired, educated, entertained), not how you want them to feel about you (smart and sophisticated).

Write the way Malcolm Gladwell does or Ernest Hemingway did—using story to parse complex topics at an eighth grade level. Banish jargon and legalisms from your toolkit. Write as if you’re sitting around the kitchen table having a conversation. Again, people’s perceptions will be shaped by how you make them feel—and if you attempt to dazzle them with your brilliance you’ll leave them feeling ignorant and uninformed.

Become the source of the information your audience seeks and they’ll keep coming back for more. Over time your audience will grow to know, like, and trust you because you’re making them better through the information you share. They’ll begin to perceive your firm as one that understands what it’s like to walk in their shoes, and possesses the requisite knowledge and expertise to help them overcome the challenges, and take advantage of opportunities, they face. Eventually, when the time is right, what was once a relationship between writer and reader will become that of attorney and client.

Lawyers and law firms already know that storytelling content is king—they use it every day while writing briefs, crafting closing arguments, and conducting negotiations.

Now it’s time to start applying it where it can really make a difference, which is building brands and creating content strategies that resonate.

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[Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading creative services and business development training agency for lawyers and law firms. He specializes in helping law firms build engaging websites, powerful brands and profitable books of business through storytelling and content marketing strategies. Jay is author of the recently released book The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer. In 2016, his first book, One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice, was published. Jay is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and previously he was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner.]

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