...become an active member of the conversation happening in the industries you focus on. 

I hate shopping, and I particularly disdain the shopping experience at stores like Costco and Ikea that herd shoppers like cattle through their aisles. I’ll give it to Costco, however, for providing grazing stations along the way. A square of free frozen pizza can hardly make up for hours spent bumping into other shoppers who can’t see over the top of giant packages of paper towels in their carts. (How much Windex can one household use?)

For Costco, that free frozen pizza is not merely a charitable giveaway to weary shoppers—it’s big business.

This article from The Atlantic explained how frozen pizza samples at many national retailers boost sales of the product by as much as 600 percent. People may think they’re going to Costco for the free samples, but the odds are they’re going home with a cart full of paid product. 

What’s at work here is the principle of “reciprocity.” When someone does something nice for you, it creates an urge to do something nice in return. In the context of shopping, not only do free samples lead to more immediate sales of the product, but they also build long-term brand affinity and loyalty with the retailer, leading to more sales in the future.

The principle of reciprocity also comes into play when it comes to content marketing for sophisticated legal services.

By giving away your best ideas for free in the marketplace of ideas, you’ll build an audience of engaged and loyal followers. When your followers have an acute need for a legal solution of the variety you provide, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll turn to you for the answer.

How Content Marketing Leads to Business Development

Content marketing involves freely sharing informative, educational, and inspiring thought leadership content in the marketplace of ideas. Many lawyers are afraid to engage in thought leadership marketing because they don’t want to give away the “secret sauce.” They believe their ideas are unique. They worry that if they give away too much they’ll lose their competitive advantage.

If you’re hesitant to share your best ideas with those you hope to serve, keep in mind that one (or more) of your competitors is already doing so...

This type of thinking is misguided. Clients aren’t looking to do it themselves. They’re looking for the right expert for the job. If your ideas resonate and help your prospects understand that you have a solution to the problems they face, you’ll distinguish yourself from other lawyers who are leading with their biographies and not their best ideas. And keep this in mind: If you’re hesitant to share your best ideas with those you hope to serve, keep in mind that one (or more) of your competitors is already doing so. 

It can be scary to dole out the answer before having the engagement agreement in hand, but time and again, across multiple domains, we see that people buy after they know the answer—not before. 

For example, most venture capitalists won’t even speak to an entrepreneur who insists on an NDA before a pitch meeting. They know that ideas are a dime a dozen and that the ability to execute an idea is all that matters. Authors share significant portions of their books in the form of blog posts and free chapters because they know that the only way to get their ideas to spread, and, therefore, drive book sales, is to give them away for free. Software companies use “freemium” business models to get users hooked before they ultimately pay for the product in order to unlock more features.

As a lawyer, the best way to get prospective clients to “try before they buy” is to give them free, bite-sized samples of your best ideas. Thanks to the internet, we’re no longer in an era of information scarcity. Anyone can find an answer to virtually anything online. In this environment, a lawyer’s biggest challenge is not protecting a precious idea, it’s overcoming obscurity and getting that idea into the collective consciousness of her target audience.

...people buy after they know the answer—not before.

Buyers conduct due diligence online. They want to know that you know your stuff before they’ll talk to you. Before sitting down across a desk with you, they want to see your thought leadership content. A recent Demand Gen Report found that 47% of B2B buyers viewed three to five pieces of content before engaging with a sales representative, and 51% of B2B buyers rely more on content to research and make B2B purchasing decisions than they did the year prior.

Content marketing, therefore, is the best way for lawyers to position themselves for business development opportunities. Indeed, the primary reason to give your ideas away for free is that otherwise you run the risk of toiling away in obscurity. Content marketing allows you gain awareness and build trust among prospective clients at scale, and as we all know, clients buy from lawyers who they know, like, and trust. 

More specifically, content marketing allows you to:

  • Introduce your services to new audiences unfamiliar with you and your practice
  • Foster relationships and inspire loyalty with existing clients
  • Stay top of mind and top of inbox by having a higher online profile
  • Establish yourself as an expert and charge higher fees
  • Sharpen your skills by thinking more deeply about the issues through your thought leadership writing

If you consistently show up in front of your target audience and generously share your thought leadership, you’ll be rewarded. The people who matter to you will start to view you as an insider who can be trusted, not as an outsider who is held at arm’s-length. You’ll become an active member of the conversation happening in the industries you focus on. 


[Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading digital marketing agency for law, consulting, and accounting firms. He specializes in helping law firms build engaging websites and digital marketing strategies through creative design and storytelling. 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.]