Trust and authenticity were hot topics in 2017. According to Edelman, trust in businesses is on the decline, especially at the executive level. It’s no longer enough to have your brand or C-level brand representatives tell the public that your organization will do right by them.
For law firms, trust and reputation are critical to success. Your firm builds up trust capital everyday with its clients through the hard work and experience of the team. Then the advocacy engine kicks in through word of mouth referrals from satisfied clients.
And while advocacy & word of mouth are phenomenal (and free) marketing, they’re typically not scalable. Stories of advocacy exist in isolated pockets of conversation. Your firm doesn’t have the ability to influence or shape those conversations because you aren’t originating them. That’s where thought leadership comes in.
Why is Thought Leadership Important?
Thought leadership is your firm’s opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and differentiation through content created by people in the firm. When your target audience has an opportunity to connect with the thoughts and expertise of a team member, there’s a stronger bond of trust than if that same audience were reading a press release.
Thought leadership also becomes something people can talk about as advocates. They can share articles, videos, podcasts, webinars, videos, or any other piece of content with their own networks. Their experience with your firm doesn’t have to be limited to a private and confidential case that you worked on with them.
Lastly, thought leadership is a way to humanize your firm and build public trust with a large audience. This can become a competitive advantage for business development and recruiting alike.
Identifying Thought Leaders
We noted above that trust levels are low at the executive level, so when we talk about identifying thought leaders inside your firm, we are focusing on everyone else. Partners, associates, paralegals; really anybody who has demonstrated an ability to humanize your brand and can carry those key differentiator messages forward.
Above all, thought leaders are good storytellers. They understand their audience and how to communicate a topic to them in a way that’s accessible, memorable, and authentic. Look for people in your organization who do this well.
Internal Subject Matter Experts
Whose names come up most often when people are asking around internally for expertise? Yes, there will be obvious choices, as your firm likely has attorneys who specialize in specific areas. But also look beyond the obvious choices and see if anyone sticks out as a go-to resource, or someone who is always in the know about the latest developments in your primary practice areas.
You can put those people on the front lines and earn a reputation as being a go-to firm for reactions to breaking news.
One last characteristic of thought leaders is that they are comfortable in a social setting. They don’t have to be extroverts or have thousands of social media followers. They don’t even have to be accomplished speakers or writers, so long as there’s a willingness and excitement to learn how.
Developing Thought Leaders
Once you identify who would make a good thought leader in the firm, you’ll need to develop them. If you already have an employee advocacy or ambassador program, then thought leadership becomes a natural extension and byproduct of their advocacy:
- They are engaged enough at work to become an active advocate. They share company content with their social networks, as well industry and relevant subject matter content from around the web.
- Their advocacy activity begins to generate interest and engagement from their social networks. This response reinforces their desire to participate.
- Eventually, interest and engagement transforms into business opportunity. The employee is viewed as a trusted, authoritative resource by their social networks.
Bear in mind, this progression won’t happen automatically. The employee needs support from multiple areas of the company to become a thought leader.
Often referred to as “Social Media Training,” social literacy provides tactical and strategic guidance on how to use social networks for professional purposes. You can deliver this training as part of an ongoing effort within the organization, or as a prerequisite for inclusion in a thought leader program.
If you want your thought leaders to be perceived as trustworthy and authentic, they need to walk that walk on social media. This means polished and consistent social media profiles, bios, professional headshots and other photos that can be used for seminar/webinar/speaking graphics. The content they share on social should be a mix of industry and subject matter expertise. It isn’t all about sharing though; they should consistently focus on what they bring to the table as a resource, and seek out conversations where they can be resourceful.
Thought leaders need to be content creators. Format is irrelevant; your marketing team can repurpose or reimagine a piece of content for other channels or platforms. Find topics and formats that are comfortable for your employee and easy to talk about. Use experiences, trends, and conversations as trigger points to extract original thought and turn it into content.
Public speaking can take several forms. Company presentations, podcast interviews, webinars, live stream video, and panel discussions are all alternatives to the typical in-person, on stage conference or seminar session. Use these alternatives as a “training ground” to help your employees develop their public speaking skills, because public speaking is one area that truly differentiates your thought leaders and the firm’s brand.
Supporting a Thought Leadership Program
Management buy-in is critical for a formal thought leadership program. Employees are not hired for this, so they need to feel reassured that efforts to build their personal brands, create content, and attend conferences are both approved and encouraged.
- Provide budget to attend conferences so employees can learn, network, collaborate, and observe other speakers as they polish their own skills.
- Offer creative resources such as copywriters, video editors, and designers who can relieve your employees of the burden to create finished works, and let them focus on turning original thought into content quickly.
- Plan for professional development like speaker training and interviewing skills, as well as the social literacy training mentioned above.
At some point, for certain employees, you may consider making thought leadership part of their compensation package and job responsibilities.
Measuring Thought Leadership Impact
Empowering a tribe of people at your firm to build trust in the community by becoming known as experts can seem squishy in terms of ROI. Here are two metrics to look at that are more concrete in their visualization:
- Share of Voice – Is your firm’s name being included in industry dialog? Of all the blog posts, white papers, webinars, and speaking engagements in your practice areas, how many of them are highlighting your firm versus a competing one?
- Conversation Drivers – Does your competition consistently beat you to the market with big ideas or trends? If so, that’s a sign that you need to step up your game.
Thought leadership is not just the role of a few people, it’s the responsibility of everyone at the organization. Establish benchmarks for the metrics above. Support the program by empowering everyone to contribute if they feel capable. Communicate how your thought leadership program is driving the firm forward, and you will not only win the battle of trust and authenticity, but also become a world-class organization with a highly-engaged workforce.
A version of this article was published in the December 2017 issue of Marketing the Law Firm.