The content debate professional services firms are having (or should be)

• 4 minute read

No doubt, crises give rise to valuable content opportunities for professional services firms. With their deep well of relevant experts, they can help clients make sense of cataclysmic events.

But crises also offer temptations to produce content that suffers from lemming syndrome and reactive thinking. (Spend any time on LinkedIn these days?) The challenge is knowing where to make the right investments. For those that get it right, the returns can be substantial.

The financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated the opportunity most vividly to me. Then a reporter at The American Lawyer, I recognized that some law firms had a clear strategy to take advantage of the barrage of rules and regulations implemented to address the crisis. They were so good I began to rely on them and cited them in my coverage.

Content that pays

The clearest example was Davis Polk & Wardwell, which created a comprehensive website that tracked and analyzed every development contained in the Dodd-Frank Act. The site became a go-to resource not just for the firm’s clients but for others, too, like journalists. It was so successful that the firm ended up charging $7,500 a month for a subscription.

The site worked in part because it didn’t feel like content marketing (a lesson learned by the creators of SCOTUSblog). It looked and felt more like a public service that might have been published by a research institute. It also worked because the subject matter was in alignment with Davis Polk’s hard-earned reputation in financial services regulation. Trust and confidence were baked into the product from the outset.

Landing on such a successful content project is not easy. The best content—the kind that is recognized and cited by the media—most often requires a commitment to collecting original data and analyzing it. It’s work that usually can’t be done overnight.

After the global COVID-19 pandemic’s impact came into focus, we saw a long list of firms move quickly to assemble task forces. They created content to address the new legislation, regulations, and consequences of the pandemic, covering a wide range of areas, from worker safety to cybersecurity.

Many of them are excellent and provide helpful information. For full-service law firms, that kind of response is practically required. No doubt, their clients expect them to bring together their best thinking, especially when it comes to a history-altering development like the pandemic. After all, why have a full-service law firm if you can’t demonstrate its value?

Deciding with purpose

That doesn’t mean that every firm should follow that path. While tempting to join the fray, for some firms—especially those with limited resources—it may be better to pause and think deeply about where to invest resources to truly stand apart.

The key is to decide with purpose. It’s been refreshing to see some clients take a more cautious approach to their COVID-19 content. Some, for example, have intentionally refrained from writing another article on force majeure when dozens of competitors have already done so.

Their restraint, they have argued, helps to protect their brand. If they cannot offer a different analysis than others, they’ll stay silent. They don’t want to be seen as also-rans, which can result in brand dilution.

The problem, of course, is that measuring brand preservation is not easy. It’s much easier to see how many clicks or views an article receives.

But there is anecdotal evidence that a firehose of repetitive content can backfire. A journalist-friend recently conveyed to me his annoyance in receiving five COVID-19 alerts from a single law firm over a weekend. General counsel have also complained about COVID-19 content fatigue.

Asking the right questions

The bottom line is that there are no right answers to questions about what kind of content to produce, how much, and when. Some firms will see clear benefits in producing a steady stream of content, even if it’s not completely original, for example. The engagement from clients they receive will help bolster their argument.

But it is a debate that should be happening. The mistake is not asking the questions and not understanding the trade-offs. These questions shouldn’t paralyze firms; they should clarify their mission.

We’ve been confronted with these questions ourselves. In response to the pandemic, we had all kinds of content ideas, including many that we’ve come to see elsewhere in the media. We ultimately passed on many of them.

What saved us from lurching in all kinds of directions was a conversation around purpose. What is our role in the market? What do clients need from us? How are clients used to hearing from us?

We’re living through a history-altering event with no precedent in modern times. There are lots to say about it. Being thoughtful about what we say will pay in the long run.

Andrew Longstreth is Head Writer at Infinite Global, where he creates custom content for law firms. He can be reached at andrewl@infiniteglobal.com.