Writing to Grow a Brand and Reach a Global Audience — Q&A with Top Thought Leader Thomas Fox

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[The latest in our ongoing series of discussions on successful thought leadership with recipients of JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards:]

After he retired at 50 from a general counsel position, compliance lawyer Tom Fox started racing bicycles. Then a serious accident left him looking for something to do as he recovered.

He turned first to blogging, using Twitter, LinkedIn, and JD Supra to build his brand and what is the largest social media presence of any lawyer practicing compliance law. A few years ago, he began podcasting. Today, through his writing and podcasting, Tom Fox has developed a worldwide compliance practice literally out of his home office.

Walk us through how you started publishing.

I started blogging in 2010 – the third blogger in my area of the law – to get my name out there. I hooked up with JD Supra very early in the process (for both of us: I think I was a beta tester on the site).

I began my podcasts in 2013, and today have 30 different podcasts. Again, JD Supra has been essential in getting my work in front of a global audience and generating organic growth.

What is your editorial process?

The first year I blogged, I published three days a week. In the second year, I decided that if I was going to commit to this, I had to do it every day. That actually made it easier because it just became part of my workday: I set aside an hour or so to write a blog post and developed a discipline around it. Sometimes I wrote at 9:00 pm, sometimes in the morning, but I made it a part of my day.

Podcasting is a little bit different. I'm almost full-time podcasting now: I record podcasts every day, and post four to six every day. Each requires different preparation: one is the Daily Compliance News, where it’s only me talking, and another is a round table with a panel of speakers.

I also have a Star Trek podcast where I go through all 79 episodes of the original series to extract compliance and leadership lessons. Most of the rest are interviews I do.

How do you pick your topics?

There’s generally always something to write about. If there are breaking events or current news in my space, I certainly cover that. In addition, although in compliance law there are very few court cases, there are lots of regulatory or enforcement actions. When one of those happen, I'll usually take a deep dive into it with a multi-part blog post series.

Finally, because I focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of compliance, there is a bullpen of topics to choose from: regulators have established 11 steps to compliance, and I regularly go back and revisit these steps. I talk to regulators a fair amount, and they consistently ask me to just tell people how to do compliance, because they want that information out there. So that’s what I try to do.

Why do you think you’re so successful at connecting with readers?

The connection seems to follow a couple of different angles. First, because there is a lot of content out there, there’s a lot that people don’t really need to know, so I try to synthesize the issues down for the busy compliance and legal professional: here are the specific things you need to know about my area of law. I focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of compliance, such that people often tell me that they just upload my blog and it becomes their memo to management.

And second, I try to be a good storyteller. I really stumbled on this, but it's now part of my oeuvre: I frame compliance in the context of stories, from the Marvel cinematic universe to ancient Greek and Roman history, to literature, art, sports, and everything in between.

I try to use anything that I think will help drive my point home in the form of telling a story – a recent article was on Folk Rock which was born in 1965. I'll do Shakespeare and compliance, Sherlock Holmes and compliance, King Arthur and compliance, often in a week of characters, like I did with Winnie the Pooh and compliance.

One of my favorites was in my Star Trek podcast – I’m a huge Star Trek fan – looking at the episode where Kirk gets split into two personalities, a good Kirk and a bad Kirk. The bad Kirk attacks a female crew member, then Spock and McCoy interview her about what happened. I drew on that to talk about what happens when a woman is traumatized by sexual assault in the workplace, about interviews, and how men often ask what they think are straightforward questions that actually aren’t. Good lessons from a show done in 1966.

How has your content supported your business growth?

For me and my practice, there’s no direct correlation between what I’m talking about and what I get hired to do for clients. I've never been able to point to one post or a single podcast and say that it got me a piece of work. It's always much more holistic. But it starts when someone sees an article, then researches my work and determines I am a subject matter expert on compliance.

I do think it’s been very helpful to have a long history and deep library of resources: someone sees a tweet referencing a JD Supra article, the title interests them so they click through and read it, then go to my bio and see that I’m not just a one-trick pony, that I've got articles and books and have been doing this for this number of years. It’s the whole package.

How do you measure the success of your content?

Again, I don’t see a direct correlation between my content and my client work. It’s really about the exposure, about maintaining and expanding my brand. I have great numbers – thanks to JD Supra – and generally get in the 120,000–140,000 hits per month for all of my content. Last year, I had a month where I reached 200,000 readers, which was a big deal for me.

"It’s always interesting to see who is reading and listening to my content."

I’ve always been on JD Supra, and it’s been an incredible platform for exposing my work to a worldwide audience, which is critical for me since only about 40% of my readers and listeners are based in the U.S. I don’t think I could have done that on my own, but thankfully I don’t have to answer that question.

You get the readership reports from JD Supra on a regular basis. How do you use them?

I check my numbers every morning! It’s always interesting to see who is reading and listening to my content. They help me generally gauge how my work is doing, but I’ve never seen a pattern in what engages readers the most: my most-read articles were 1) a piece on design thinking, 2) a post on branding lessons from Count Dracula that I did around Halloween one year, and 3) an interview of two Star Trek junkies for my Star Trek podcast.

What advice do you have for lawyers want to become thought leaders?

It all starts with writing and writing consistently. I blog every day and that discipline has served me well, but it all begins with getting on the keyboard: consistently writing and putting your thought leadership out there.

Beyond that, I am the absolute king of repurposing and repackaging content. Everything you produce becomes multiple pieces of marketing content. I do the blogs and the podcasts on a regular basis and have also published books that repurpose the same content – someone in my community once told me that if you write consistently, at the end of a year you’ll have a book. And you can also turn posts into white papers, workbooks, and a variety of different formats.

When I started podcasting about three years ago, I began to send my guests an outline of my topics so they knew what to expect. That outline forms the basis of my show notes and my social media outreach – it’s all about repurposing content – so it’s all a single process.

One thing that gets in the way for lawyers is thinking that you need to write formal articles. That happened to me: when I started, I was writing law review articles. But that's not a blog, that's not the format nor what blogs are intended to be. It took me six months to a year to get away from writing with citations, for example. But lawyers aren’t trained that way.

Finally, it’s important to find your own voice. Early on I struggled with topics then I started randomly picking topics to write about – I would literally go to my library, pull out a book on compliance, drop it on the floor then write about the topic on the page that it landed on. My personal learning and expertise have gone up exponentially as a result of the research I would do.

I understand you have a book which was recently released. Tell us about it.

I am more than thrilled to announce the publication of the 2nd edition of my best-selling book, The Compliance Handbook. I have teamed up with the top legal publisher, LexisNexis Legal & Professional, to provide a new series of compliance books.

The Compliance Handbook 2nd edition is designed to provide the seasoned compliance professional, and those new to our realm, with the practical, actionable guidance, and tools needed to design, create, implement, and continually enhance a best practices compliance program.

Quite simply, it the best single-author volume on the design, creation, and implementation of a best practices compliance program. The Compliance Handbook 2nd edition provides the “Nuts and Bolts” for creating a comprehensive compliance plan.

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Tom Fox holds the lead spot among the top ten authors in JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards Compliance category. Follow, read, and listen to his ongoing compliance insights here.

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