How to Build a Digital Thought Leadership Platform

“I want to be a Thought Leader,” said almost every attorney looking to build their practice.  But “thought leader” has become one of the most overused buzzwords in business today. Most major professional services firms use the word often and claim to be thought leaders in their particular practice specialties. The reality, however, is that most firms or individuals are not really thought leaders in the true sense of the word. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a thought leader is: “One whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.”

Most law firm marketing professionals will tell you that many of their attorneys are thought leaders and the same can be said of their practices more generally. How can this be true for so many lawyers? To be recognized as a true thought leader, as the definition suggests, the attorney or practice group must be recognized as a major influencer or authority in their field. This recognition must come from clients and peers, not from companies that create awards as a way to drive revenue. These awards companies prey on the ego of lawyers to sell them the opportunity to be perceived as a thought leader. Thought leadership cannot be bought. In fact, if you ask most in-house counsel, they will tell you that these awards are insignificant to them, and don’t greatly influence their purchasing decisions when choosing a lawyer or firm to advise them on a particular matter. In other words, the awards don’t bestow a “thought leader” title on to their recipients.

On the more conventional side, lawyers rely on traditional marketing and business development tools to meet and increase their visibility with their clients and potential clients. They write articles, attend conferences, speak on panels, sponsor events, and entertain clients individually and in groups. These methods are all critical to building and maintaining a practice, but there are limits. Lawyers “hope” they work, but it’s not always clear and these activities take a great deal of time and real dedication to have any impact.

Further, the proliferation of available content in the legal industry is magnified by content aggregation and distribution services, which are flourishing by charging lawyers and law firms to distribute their content to in-house counsel. Single client alerts and articles are now made available to thousands upon thousands of potential readers.

While this approach is fine for pushing content beyond the normal reach of existing email lists and client databases, it’s also limited and fairly passive. You are not the only one using these services, and your content is distributed along with similar content from every other lawyer or law firm subscribing to that service. In fact, in a recent conversation with a group of in-house counsel, they all indicated that whenever there is a new legal development or major court decision, they get inundated by the exact same “analysis” by dozens of major law firms. This group of in-house counsel said that they find this information of little value and it is certainly not a critical factor in determining which lawyer or law firm to hire. That’s incredible to hear, given how much time is spent on creating this content. That’s not to say that alerts or these services are not useful to demonstrate an understanding of a particular area, it’s just that it’s a one-way, over-saturated method of communication.

But now, there is a powerful way for lawyers to develop and strengthen strategic relationships and build rewarding business networks with clients and prospects across a larger geographic reach using the internet and social media.

The advent of the internet and the explosion of social networks have had a leveling effect on business in general, and the legal services market in particular. Information has become a commodity, and is readily available at everyone’s fingertips at home, the office or on the go. Access to useful information is extremely affordable, and in many cases it is free.

Right now, the use of digital marketing and social media is limited for many, because most lawyers and law firms do not truly understand digital marketing and social media, and how to use these new tools to engage with prospects, clients and influencers, or they are reluctant to do so. While most law firms use social media to varying degrees, they are using it primarily as just another one-way communications channel to distribute content and press releases. It’s a good first step, but it’s not enough.

To truly reap the benefits offered by this technology, lawyers and law firms need to “listen” and “engage.” Building a thought leadership platform to develop and strengthen strategic relationships with clients and prospects is a very valuable exercise. But to do this properly, lawyers and law firms need to utilize social media as a two-way communication and business intelligence tool. It is not enough to simply push content on social media, even if that content is valuable and timely.

Clients are looking for lawyers who truly understand their business and the challenges that they face in running it. Talk to any GC and they will likely list “understanding my business” as one of the top two or three non-technical criteria they use to assess and differentiate lawyers and law firms.

What exactly does that mean? As a first step, through “social listening,” lawyers can use technology to gain a better understanding of their clients’ and prospects’ businesses, challenges they face and the state of their industries.

Social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn can be used to monitor what clients are talking about and sharing through these social channels. Setting up Twitter feeds and Tweeter lists is very easy and takes little time. Once set up, they can be used to track and monitor the topics and content those clients and prospects are posting, re-tweeting and engaging with through the social network.

Another useful social listening exercise is to join relevant LinkedIn groups based on subject or industry. It’s especially useful if you’ve joined (or created) groups where your clients and prospects are members. By monitoring the discussions and conversations taking place in the group, lawyers can start identifying potential topics that warrant focus.

Once lawyers gain a better understanding of a client’s business issues through these social networks, the next step is to use that information to create and curate content that will address some of the most topical issues and problems their clients or prospects are facing. This strategy, if properly executed, will enable lawyers to slowly develop relationships with targeted clients, prospects and influencers (and as part of this, be mindful to comply with any state bar rules pertaining to social media).

As with any relationship, it’s incredibly important to build trust. No one likes to be sold to; therefore lawyers must be transparent in their approach. Lawyers cannot expect to all of a sudden develop relationships that lead to immediate business. Relationships take time. Building trust takes time. Sharing knowledge and experience whenever feasible helps to build that trust.

The final recommended step to becoming a true thought leader is to build a thought leadership platform. While public social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter are great for reaching and connecting with prospects and influencers, they cannot be relied upon as the only platforms for engagement. As the old saying goes, “you can’t build where you rent.” Lawyers do not own LinkedIn or Twitter, they are services owned by corporations who are in business to make money. They can and do change the way they conduct business at any time based on their needs. They own the social network’s data. So, it’s clear that lawyers cannot just count on these social networks as the only way to build their thought leadership platform.

Many savvy lawyers have realized this and have built or are in the process of building blogs and microsites where they can control and own all the data and where they can customize the user experience the way they want. Part of being a successful business developer is being able to properly analyze data and act upon it. Digital marketers call this “actionable data,” and it helps to drive strategy and planning development.

It is not merely enough to have data. You have to be able to analyze it and turn it into useful information. You can only do this if you control your own platform. Your blog or microsite is where you will house all of your content. It is where you will offer visitors the ability to subscribe to your newsletters, register for your webinars, and contact you. The importance of having a well-built platform that provides a pleasant user experience and that also is easily found by search engines cannot be overstated.

The time to start is now; it’s never been easier. Begin your thought leadership journey by first becoming an active participant on Twitter and LinkedIn. Don’t just lurk in the background. Connect to your clients and prospects and “listen” to what they are discussing on-line. Share and curate relevant content on these networks. Finally, create your own thought leadership platform and use it to push your own content, curate others’ relevant content and engage with your clients. Use social media to promote your thought leadership platform and your content and to further engage with your clients and prospects. This digital marketing and social marketing ecosystem will take your business development efforts to the next level and propel you to broaden your professional networks and become a true thought leader. Just remember, like everything else, it requires time. It won’t happen on its own and it takes commitment, but because it’s digital it can happen on your own terms when and where you are available and for a busy lawyer, what can be better?

About the Authors

Guy Alvarez  is founder and CEO of Good2bSocial, a digital marketing firm.  Lee Garfinkle ( is chief marketing and business development officer of the Americas at Allen & Overy LLP.  Follow Guy @guylaw1313 and Lee @lgarfinkle.

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