The Psychology and Data Analysis of Law Firm Content with Adrian Lurssen of JD Supra
In this episode of On Record PR, we’re going on record with Adrian Lurssen, the co-founder and vice president of strategic development at JD Supra, which is an online content intelligence platform. Adrian has been helping to build JD Supra since 2007. JD Supra supports lawyers and law firms, and their thought leadership programs by distributing their content to subscribers across all industries and sectors. Adrian and Gina will discuss the importance of marketing law firm content and explain the do’s and don’ts, how to use data as an opportunity, and ways to improve your law firm’s content.
This episode was recorded during the COVID-19 outbreak. Currently, Adrian and Gina are working from home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and are following stay-at-home orders.
Background on Adrian Lurssen
Adrian has worked in new media for almost his entire professional life. He served as a senior managing editor at Yahoo!, creating and managing the company’s first team of editors and writers whose work included Yahoo! News full coverage, daily and weekly pics, Ask Yahoo!, and other editorial features. In 1999, Brill’s Content media magazine placed Adrian on their top 25 influencers list, calling him “The most important person in cyberspace of whom you’ve never heard.”
Marketing with Attorneys
Over the years, one thing that has become part of my wheelhouse is the marketing aspect of JD Supra. I’ve sort of become the public voice of JD Supra, and I’ve worked with Aviva Cuyler, who’s one of the brightest, analytical people I know.
There’s an interesting lesson in how to bring along an attorney and their way of thinking through the world of marketing because those two things often stand in contrast of each other. Marketing often needs one very clear point.
I remember I was working with a committee of people on marketing messaging, and everybody wanted to put every detail possible into the marketing. This guy walked into the room with a big duffle bag, and he took out a piece of wood with a whole bunch of nails in it and put it on the table. He slammed a frying pan in this corporate boardroom onto the nails, and he held up the frying pan and it had a whole bunch of dots on it where the nails made impact.
Then he took out another board with a single point of nail coming out of the wood, and he slammed the frying pan into it. The nail went through the bottom of it, and he held it up, and you could see the hole in the bottom of the frying pan. He said, do you want a lot of points, or do you want one point? I always think that’s a really interesting anecdote about marketing but also an interesting anecdote about helping attorneys with their marketing.
As someone who is both a proactive communicator and legal professional, I agree that the analyses from both perspectives often fight with each other. However, I believe applying both gets me to the point and where we need to go because we were able to base decisions on evidence and data.
What Are Law Firms Doing Well from a Content Perspective?
One of the things that law firms have done right is to turn up and make sense of this pandemic. The fact that their writing is making all of the difference – especially at a time in which the various places, platforms and landscapes in which law firms flex their muscle, establish that credibility, and let the world know what kind of expertise is contained in the walls of the firm – is important because so many of those resources aren’t available anymore, such as going to a luncheon, going to a conference, or meeting people in in real life. The first thing people are doing right is turning up. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and throughout all of March and continuing today, there has been both an exponential increase in readership rates and output by all firms.
What law firms are doing well right now begins with continuing to fulfill the essential role of making sense of the world for people who need to hear it right now. For me, in the 12-plus years that I’ve worked with Aviva, and lawyers and law firms through JD Supra, there has been a notion that in an age in which technology has made it easier for people to say things, lawyers have something to say. That has never been truer than it is right now.
A lot of people in the legal marketing network are saying there’s too much content now, and people are getting content fatigue. Yet, I believe I heard you say there has been an exponential increase in readership.
Yes. Not only in readership but also in response to what people are reading. Over the last decade, what made itself clear is the kind of value that can be extracted and created by a law firm by unleashing solo leaders on the world.
There’s a whole array of that kind of value. One of them is that you’re read by the right people who should know what you’re good at. Also, people are reaching out with new work matters. Those are the home runs. Next, is mainstream media and industry-based professionals using your thought leadership in either their own periodicals or as background information, or they reach out to you and say, “This is exactly what I care about. I’m a reporter. Can I work with you?” Those are some of the incredible values and results from good legal content that have shown themselves over the years.
As I answer your question about what law firms are doing right with their content right now, one of the things that has struck me on top of data and analytics, is the tremendous sense of uncertainty, and that everybody is looking for authority. In this work, there’s an authority that everybody is responding to.
The HR executive obviously needs to understand isolation and shelter in place on a multinational level with the local jurisdictions around the globe. At the same time, there are tragic situations that lawyers play a role in, such as a grandparent reading about child custody who wants to know how they can protect their grandchild for whom they have custody, when a parent who’s in an unsafe situation wants to see their kid for a while. There has been an increase in the element of humanity, in which you can see lawyers and law firms playing an essential role in the human sadness and tragedy with these situations. On top of that, there has been a rise in both the corporate and legal need expressed all the time by readers, now at scale.
One thing I find interesting is that lawyers are asking questions too. Law firm leaders have to figure out how the ADA applies to different things going on and whether or not they’re going to be working back in their offices, as well as who can come into the office, and privacy issues with regard to testing.
Do Lawyers Read Content from Other Lawyers?
Under normal circumstances, I would say it has to do with the power of thought leadership in the context of a platform like ours. You would seldom ever get a lawyer at a particular law firm going to the website or blog of a competitor’s site and sharing their content on Twitter. But they actually do on JD Supra because of how JD Supra applies the context of news, analysis and insight.
I’ve been struck by it almost on a daily basis with this content by seeing how many readers are reaching out. The very first thing that they say is, “Thank you, that was helpful,” “I can’t thank you enough. That was so valuable,” and, “Thank you. That is exactly what I needed to hear.” It’s every manner of person in business roles, personal roles, and lawyers talking to each other. All of these things that have happened to us certainly are happening at scale.
Aviva, as a writer, a business mitigation strategist, and as an attorney realized very early on that one of the best means of showing your credibility as an attorney is through your own writing.
When we experimented with and launched JD Supra, we thought, “If we do this, what will success look like?” Now, I can’t help but think back to that proposition of hers and see how rapidly and constantly people are reaching out across the board. Somebody writes an article and within a couple of hours, it’s mentioned in the opening paragraph of another article in which a reporter is writing about this issue. Somebody saying, “My business is in dire need of help and this is exactly what I needed to hear. Can I call you for follow up?” Across the board, there are all different kinds of responses to this content.
Using Data as an Opportunity for Law Firm Content
When referring to data, it’s similar to what I say that’s so important for lawyers to understand. From a PR perspective, a lot of lawyers don’t understand what we do when it comes to PR or content. They’re starting to understand more now that if they provide thought leadership content in written form, it can be even more valuable. Today, it is more valuable than all of the speaking engagements that have been canceled. We’re going to see a huge shift.
You talked about data analytics in this realm, but right now, their conversation is rarely about content marketing, which is an activity that a lot of law firms saw at the top of the sales funnel, with credentialing and branding awareness. It was slowly shifting down the funnel and becoming much more of a business development consideration. More and more law firms, who were comfortable in creating thought leadership, started saying, “It’s good that I’m being read by these people. I would like to know more about who they are and what opportunity they represent for me.”
I think that once the dust settles on the sense making by law firms during this time, that’s where people will return, and they will be able to use data to understand where growth opportunities will be going into the second half of this year and next year. They will be looking at the data and will able to determine what it is that people care about.
I’ll share an example of something a mutual friend told me. She looks at her analytics, which is again playing with data, and she sees who has linked to and driven traffic to the work written by her attorneys. She follows up on some of the interesting URLs. For example, she’ll see a link to an HR post, and she’ll go to the blog that referenced it. She’ll spend just minutes walking through that blog and see that the blog that referenced that post has webinars. So, she’ll reach out to the editor who linked to her post and not just say, “Thanks for doing that link,” but she’ll say, “Thanks for doing that link. I see you do webinars. By the way, the attorney who wrote that blog post will probably be a good candidate for a guest webinar on your platform.” She turns the single link to an attorney’s blog post into an opportunity to speak. Now, in the age of no events but plenty of webinars, I think it’s a perfect example of using a very specific piece of data as an opportunity.
You work with numerous law firms and in many respects have had to teach them how to use the data that’s available. We also counsel our own clients on how to understand that data can be harnessed it in a way that is helpful to their audience to develop relationships because law is a relationship business.
The beauty of doing what we do is that we’ve developed the technology to know as much as possible about the impact from law thought leadership on target audiences in different ways.
How Law Firms Can Improve Its Content
To answer your earlier question, “What are law firms doing right with content, and how could they do better?” I think the most valuable answer has to do with walking through individual pieces of content. There has been an extraordinary magnitude that I could never imagine with an increase both of readership of this content and of the output by law firms. I totally get their need to participate, and I think it’s good.
I think that what they’re doing right and wrong is in the mix of a handful of things. Especially in the early days of this, law firms were producing a little more content than they should have. The real takeaway is this: A thought leader with a legal insight and perspective shouldn’t be trying to break the news. They should try to explain it.
When you start trying to break the news, you are taking on the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and every other entity that already has a fully stocked collection of really smart people who aren’t doing that. What the world needs, after the news has been established, is to understand what it means to them. That’s the role of a law firm thought leader in my view. You and I have talked about the complaints of having too much content. I think specifically there’s a complaint about being told things you already know. The unique position that most law firm thought leaders are in is that their explanation of what the law means is a hard-earned expertise that only they have the ability to communicate. They are the authority.
Let’s play this out in a non-coronavirus wave or a second. Let’s say there’s a United States Supreme Court case decision that comes out. What matters is knowing the difference between saying that this is what the Supreme court said versus explaining the implications of what they said and why it matters to you, your firm, and your audience.
That’s exactly right.
A lot of GC’s say, “I need to hear it from you first, not three days later.” But the difference is knowing what they need to hear first. If a Supreme Court case is announced by the media anyway, you need to understand how it applies to you.
The people who don’t do this well do something like this: The Supreme Court decides something like Obamacare. Every law firm issued a release immediately. “The Supreme Court has decided about Obamacare, and this is the decision.” They would be short releases around 300 words. The only difference in the substance of the post was the brand image at the top of it. Everybody said the exact same thing.
In the age of media, that actually could have been left to a status update by the attorneys and practice group members for whom this was an important thing to be on their radar. They could have said, “The Supreme Court has handed on this decision. This is what it is. Analysis coming soon.” That could be the digital record when somebody cared to look backwards to see because one of the things that law firms are doing is leaving a digital record saying, “We’ve been paying attention.” I understand the value of that release, but the value of the release beyond communicating, “We’re paying attention,” diminishes rapidly when you have 300 of them.
Keep Your Legal Content Relevant to Your Audience
Then, the next thing that would happen is that law firms would begin to unpack for various audiences what this meant. It is critical, given how much information there is, that the person you’re writing for – the group, the sector, the role, or the industry – needs to be as clear as possible in the title and why you’re writing for them needs to be there. The firms that do it well do it like this. “For people who have companies of 50 or less in the state of California, this is what matters. For global multinationals in this space, this is what matters.”
Again, one challenge is this notion of being all encompassing and shoehorning as much information as possible. For example, if the Supreme Court decided something that impacted UPS drivers, most editors at a newspaper would have a headline about the UPS drivers and how they were impacted by this. Editors at a newspaper understand the story is human, and in the title, they would have the human impacted by this change in the law. The law firm covering that story would either have the law itself or the action of the Supreme Court in the headline.
Right now, there’s a particular kind of post that has been around for a long time that is especially unhelpful, which is one that looks at a law that’s up, and it asks a reader to read through walls of text to find the implication that impacts them somewhere in that post.
A good post is a post written for that person who has that business of just 50 employees, where you take a section that relates to them out of a long, verbose wall of text from another post and make that into a post of itself. Those are the ones that are being successful.
One of the things that I say to people over and over again is you have to be thinking about readership. I think that the best way to do that is to think of your own reading habits. You have to earn your readers one post at a time. Again, this sounds flippant and is not meant to be negative at all, but I think that many lawyers and firms think that they will be read because of whom they are. The ones that are read are read because of what they say and how they say it.
I think that ego in the psychology sense tends to cause many of us to believe that people will want to read this. I’m often surprised by what people actually read as opposed to what I think they will read. What I also find interesting is lawyers don’t tend to like to talk about the softer side of things. They tend to get so much into the law as opposed to what you talked about: Focusing on how it affects you as a person. That’s what gets read.
To be clear, we’re not saying that law ought to be simplified. Oftentimes, the law is extraordinarily complex. That’s acceptable, and the complexity should remain, but for whom it is complex and what it means should be clear.
Place the Most Important Information First
There’s also a huge difference between reading and writing. As a writer, all of your most valuable points are sometimes at the bottom of a piece of content. The lawyers doing this well get to the point very quickly and make those points appear at the top of the post.
In the middle of this pandemic, there has been great difficulty in letting the dust settle and figuring out new processes for working when everyone is suddenly separated from their offices and have all gone into isolation. Instead of focusing on having a hair trigger response to everything that might happen, actually taking the time to make sense of what happened and for whom it matters would be a better course.
Understanding the “Need” Relating to Law Firm Content
In our world, there is a difference between “wants to know” and “needs to know.” What you need drives behavior that is essential. Lawyers who are thought leaders are trading in need-to-know information and it’s fundamental. The absolutely essential role that law firm thought leaders take is making sense of matters in the world.
One of the ways that it also ties together is thinking through the way in which you read and the way in which the people that you care about should read. There’s a couple of different ways that you can think through that. One of them is that you don’t ask of yourself, nor should you ask of anybody else, to read to determine whether or not something makes it relevant for you. The cues should almost be invisible.
An example is the changes in the American PA patent system. Law firms wrote titles like “The American Patent System,” or if it was slightly more eloquent, maybe “A Change to the American Patent System.” But this one group of attorneys and a law firm wrote “10 reasons Why You Should File Your Patent Before March of this Year.” And that particular post was read by 30,000 unique people within a two-week period. It was shared in every single venture capital, investment, and startup community on LinkedIn, etc. It called out not only who, but why. This made it different than the others, and it was simply a top 10 list.
What the list did was it created sub-headlines throughout the post that allowed readers to scan. The big point that I’m getting at here is that writers should write content in a way that can be scanned because the readers will qualify themselves for further reading.
I have to admit that I scan everything. I read the headline. If the headline doesn’t catch my attention, I don’t go any further. If the headline does, then I read all of the subheads, and I look to see if it’s relevant to me. I will often read the first and last paragraph. It’s important to make your points easy to find because none of us have that much time.
There is a map for how someone should write. Headlines should tell you what you need to know and allow you to say, “I’m going to set this aside and read it later.” Some people are in the moment and rarely need a deeper analysis of an issue. But many of them just keeping up with their world and are looking at the latest information on thought leadership. They’ll be scrolling through to see if the title peaks their interest. It’s unlikely that all of them will read that right away. What they’ll do is then set it aside and say, “When I get to the office or have a free moment, I’m going to read that.”
Writing for Law Firm Thought Leaders
Don’t write about the law. Write about the impact that the law has on the people you’re trying to serve. Write with your readers mind. Especially during these times, make sure that your points remain very clear. I’m not sure that anybody should be a formulaic rider, but if there is a formula here for a thought leader making sense of something for people in the world, it should explain 1) this is what happened, 2) this is why it matters to you, 3) and this is how you should proceed accordingly. Take the most valuable aspect of how you should proceed and put it in front of step one and you’re done.
I’m originally from South Africa in Cape Town during the dark and terrible years of apartheid. My dad was a journalist. One of the things that is interesting to me is being involved in a world of media, digital media, audience building, and giving audiences what they care about, and being the son of an old school print journalist who had a very different sense of themselves in the world in that regard. When I was a kid, I read an essay that my dad wrote. He was many things. A reporter and a news editor. For a while, he ran the newsroom of the leading newspaper in South Africa in Cape town.
Every time he hired a new reporter, he told him of this essay that he wrote for the University of Cape Town journalism students. He would have them drive to the top of the mountain overlooking Cape Town at Twilight and look down on the city and see the sparkling lights of the city. He would say to them, “When you’re out there and you see those lights, know that that’s your audience. I want you to go up there, and I want you to say to yourself, ‘I owe these people the truth and my best work.’” For some reason, I never forgot that. However, it struck me during this age that the ability to so easily see your audience has changed fundamentally. We can still see many things about our audience, and we can extrapolate lots of things around data, intelligence and analytics. We can find opportunity but to drive to the top of the mountain and look down and say, “Those are my readers,” those days are over. They’ve been replaced by something that is both very simple and also very complicated.
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