Back in the old days—you know, when the media was mostly newspapers—we had a rough arithmetic for the way readers interacted with articles. Half the people who picked up the paper would scan a given headline. If that caught their eye, half of them would look at the photo or graphic (if there was one). Half of those folks would go on to read the photo caption. Half of the caption readers would glance at the pull-quote (prominent quote from the story in larger font). Half of those people, in turn, read the first paragraph of the story. Then just about everybody would turn the page.
The point is, long before today’s dizzying array of online outlets, social media and ever-proliferating distribution methods, it was not easy to get and keep readers’ attention. Now, it’s harder than ever, but there are ways to make content stand out. Some of them track back to the conventional wisdom of the media business, others rely on the latest technology, but they all hinge on one fact: creating content is only the first step of a process.
Professional services firms spend a lot of time generating content for marketing purposes, but the vast majority of it is lost in the noise of similar content (client alerts, newsletters, white papers, etc.) produced by their competitors. Moreover, firms seldom employ content amplification strategies that ensure the right audiences actually see the content and pass it on to their networks.
Infinite Spada recently conducted a study with the content performance analysis firm BuzzSumo that compared the efficacy of content produced by lawyers with that of accounting firms. The results showed a stark contrast, and also provide useful guidance to the ways all professional services firms can maximize their investment in content. Here are a few of the key takeaways:
Social Media Matters
Law firms have traditionally eschewed social media, often for good reason. It’s hard to control, time-consuming to manage and presents the risk that any post or tweet might send the wrong message to someone important. Still, social media has fundamentally changed the way readers find and digest news and information. An estimated 33% of all content is now discovered through social media platforms.
Our results showed that LinkedIn is the platform used the most to share law and accounting content. That’s not surprising given that LinkedIn is a professional platform geared to the type of content that professional services firms would produce. However, the data shows that accounting firms are using platforms other than LinkedIn much more than law firms. While LinkedIn hosts 40% of accounting firm content shares, the platform hosts 77% of law firm content shares.
The Big Four, of course, account for a large percentage of the shares observed in the accounting firm segment. But even when we removed the accounting giants from the data pool, accounting firms still receive 33% more shares than law firms. Clearly accounting firms use social media more effectively than law firms.
Visuals are Critical
The notion that visual elements improve a story’s readership is nothing new. Newspaper articles with photos and graphics are far more likely to be read than blocks of gray text. The same holds true online, where infographics, video and animations are proven to attract and keep viewers. (A separate BuzzSumo study found that having at least one image in a post leads to, on average, a doubling of the number of shares that content receives on Facebook and on Twitter).
Our study looked at the characteristics of the 30 most shared pieces of law and accounting firm content. Again, the accounting firms lead the way. Far more of their content makes use of visual elements. They also far outpaced law firms in the use of original or co-produced research. Useful data presented in clear visual formats is among the most compelling ways to demonstrate expertise and authority. It substantiates opinion and analysis, it’s readily digestible and easy to remember.
Moreover, partnering with a third party, such as a client or research partner, can strengthen relationships, add further credibility and boost readership by utilizing both parties’ networks. Our research found co-production to be a surprisingly underutilized approach.
The Long and Short of It
Clients often ask about the optimal length for content. A pithy tweet? A concise blog post? A 1,200-word by-lined article? An endless treatise? The direct answer is that shorter is often better, but long-form content often does not take advantage of the attributes that encourage sharing.
In our analysis, generally speaking, the longer the content, the fewer shares it received. These findings may reflect the fact that professional service firms’ long-form content does not include enough images or interactive elements conducive to social media. Regardless, this finding should not necessarily discourage long-form writing. It should, however, inform a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis.
Long-form content requires a much greater investment of time, so if firms decide to produce long pieces, they should bolster its digital potential with an amplification plan that includes social media, visual elements and a compelling executive summary that highlights key takeaways.
The Power of Your People
We all know someone who is phenomenally adept at social media. They seem to always have a thoughtful post, a timely reference or a spot-on tweet – and leave the rest of us wondering where they find the time. The fact is most of us are passive consumers of social media, but with just a little strategic planning and a few minutes here and there we can all become significant amplifiers for our organizations’ content.
A great deal of the content we analyzed received fewer than 10 shares, yet many of the firms we studied had thousands of employees. This is a problem, as Steve Rayson, founder of BuzzSumo, recently stated: “Anything getting less than 10 shares means you are not sharing your own content.”
Whenever you have taken the time to create a meaningful piece of content, be sure to ask the appropriate people within your firm to post it to their networks. It need not be a company-wide request, even a handful of shares from colleagues with relevant networks can provide a significant boost.
Finally, don’t lose sight of your old content. Just because a blog post or report may be more than a year old does not mean it’s useless. Current events or business trends could make it suddenly relevant again, provide points of contrast on how a subject has evolved over time, or even be a base for trend data—a very valuable and graphic-friendly resource. With a little strategic thought and stakeholder engagement, law firms can dramatically improve the lifespan, impact and reach of their content.
About the Authors
Steven Andersen and Helen Bertelli are vice presidents at Infinite Spada, a communications firm primarily serving professional services companies.