Management consultants have enthusiastically embraced thought leadership as a way to influence clients. It's time for law firms to do the same, say Fiona Czerniawska and Rachel Ainsworth.
The last couple of years have seen law firms increasingly switch to content-based marketing. You only need the briefest of trawls across the websites of the major firms to know that publications (‘thought leadership’ is the rather more gung-ho term) now have a huge role to play in the way they’re trying to keep existing clients and win new ones.But is it worth the effort? We’ve been analysing the thought leadership of management consulting firms for more than a decade and every bit of information we gather says that the answer is unequivocally ‘yes’.
Thought leadership is the way ahead
Yes, clients do use publications as a means of staying up to date on key topics, but the more senior they are, the more they also use them to understand the differences between firms. Seventy six per cent say that this is the most effective way of marketing to them, making thought leadership equal in importance to personal contact (regular visits from partners, account management, etc.) and far more important than most other marketing tools.
And it’s not just the immediate audience that matters: 86 per cent say they pass on material they think is interesting and well-researched to their colleagues. Around a third say that thought leadership has a significant impact on their impressions of a firm, and a similar proportion say it can influence their judgement about which firms to short-list for work. Most important of all, a recent survey we carried out of around 400 senior executives in large US corporations suggests that one in six have bought services as a direct consequence of reading a firm’s material. Thought leadership isn’t just big business, but potentially a much bigger generator of business than most of us would expect.
The challenge is not just to get clients to notice you’re there but to actually read something. Baker & McKenzie’s website even looks like Deloitte’s and its report on third party supply chain risk would give any Big Four firm a decent run for its money. Its material looks great, some has been produced in conjunction with a reputable third party (such as the Financial Times) and much is based on reasonably robust research.
But both Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Norton Rose Fulbright (and they’re not the only culprits) simply present the reader with a long list of ‘stuff’, forgetting that most readers have little time and plenty of choice. Your potential audience is easily distracted, especially when there’s more interesting, entertaining and even funny content just a finger swipe away, so having content which is different to the other material they’ve seen and resonates more because it’s on a subject that’s very relevant to them or is very topical, is crucial.
Braver content needed
Of course, developing such content isn’t easy – cheap-and-cheerful thought leadership is never good. Often firms get a group of experts in a room for a couple of hours to map out a piece of thought leadership, only for it to be handed over to junior associates to write and the marketing team to design and publish. Articles and reports get written by committees, with everyone afraid to say too much or offend a valuable client. We estimate that about a third of all thought leadership shouldn’t have been published – it just doesn’t say anything different, interesting or authoritative.
But with so many clients now saying that thought leadership materially influences their view of a firm, the time has come for law firms to be much braver about what they’re prepared to say.
Fiona Czerniawska is co-founder of Source Information Services and Rachel Ainsworth is Head of Research at Source. Source for Consulting specialises in researching the management consulting industry.Source’s new report, The Impact of Thought Leadership, was published in September 2014.