A recent, illuminating report co-sponsored by Edelman and LinkedIn (“2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study”) provides useful takeaways for law firms on how to differentiate themselves through thought leadership. Broadly speaking, thought leadership refers to providing free, thoughtful content in your area of expertise on the issues of greatest importance to your desired audience.

The report contains compelling data that illustrate the significant impact of thought leadership on B2B decision-makers. For example:

• 58 percent of decision-makers report thought leadership has directly led them to award business to an organization.

• 61 percent of decision-makers are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that has articulated a clear vision versus one that does not publish thought leadership.

• 66 percent of decision-makers say the topic being related to what they are currently working on is one of the most critical factors in their engagement with a piece of thought leadership.

• Further, 88 percent believe it is important for companies to lay out a clear vision for the future.

• Tellingly, however, decision-makers believe that only 18 percent of thought-leadership pieces are “excellent” or “very good.”

• Moreover, 46 percent of them acknowledge that poor thought leadership has decreased their respect for an organization.

These findings speak volumes. Most notably, ill-conceived thought leadership efforts can harm your firm’s reputation. Strategic thought leadership programs, on the other hand, can not only improve client engagement but actually lead to new business.

Whether your thought leadership pieces consist of videos, bylined articles, webinars, client alerts, presentations or other formats, they must be valuable and differentiable to your target audience. Here are four ways to help ensure that they are.

Focus on Industry Expertise

While general counsel and other in-house decision-makers—including their boards—will see relevance in your firm’s track record in cross-border mergers & acquisitions, commercial litigation or whatever the capability is for which they are considering retaining you, they also want to know how well you understand their industry. One reason is that lawyers who are commercially minded are more likely to be perceived as de facto business advisers—not just legal counsel—to their clients.

While your firm’s practice expertise should not be overlooked in thought leadership programs, demonstrating your industry-specific savvy can have more upside. A good rule of thumb is to focus on the industries in which there are the greatest gaps between the quality of your firm’s capabilities and their reputations in the marketplace. For instance, in which industries are your competitors ranked higher in directories despite having fewer high-profile engagements and an inferior track record? Identifying these areas can provide some of the best opportunities to create a strategy to “own” a niche in the minds of your target audiences.

But don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. For example, “technology” is usually far too broad of an area in which to claim expansive expertise—not to mention an unwieldy endeavor. Instead of trying to seize the entirety of such a vast space, ask yourself in which technology sector(s) your firm demonstrably excels. FinTech? Artificial intelligence? Cybersecurity? Software? Blockchain? There are ample opportunities to distinguish your firm in any number of niches. Branding your expertise in a broad parent industry, however, risks unintentionally signaling to clients and prospects an insufficient understanding of the complete range of risks and opportunities that keep them up at night.

Quality, Not Quantity

Perhaps the most common forms of thought leadership created by law firms are the ubiquitous, incessant client alerts. Clients are deluged with countless such email blasts every day. What’s worse, sending an inordinate number of alerts to clients tends to increase their “unsubscribe” requests.

Be selective and prioritize your client alerts. Focus on the issues and insights to which you believe clients will ascribe the most value—even if it means distributing alerts less frequently.

That said, client alerts, while often necessary, tend to be the least effective and impactful method of demonstrating thought leadership. They are dense and difficult to distinguish. More effective ways to grab a client’s attention on an important development include sending the client a timely article on the subject in which you or one of your partners is quoted; producing a 60- to 90-second video on the topic within 24 hours, if possible; quickly summarizing the three to five key takeaways on the development and inviting further discussion; and organizing a conference call on short notice.

Better yet, don’t wait for “developments” to occur. Focus instead on forward-thinking pieces. Some of the most effective thought leadership comprises original, data-driven studies performed by the firm or conducted in partnership with another organization. These types of studies show you are proactive, not simply responsive. When done properly, they provide valuable information that your firm—and no one else—owns. Mind you, these studies should always lead with a top-level, bite-size summary of the critical findings.

Original studies have an additional benefit: a greater likelihood of coverage in the business or trade press. That’s because the research is already completed and attributable. Your firm has already done most of the legwork for the reporter. All that is required at that point is a persuasive explanation as to why the reporter’s audience will find the information valuable. The potential end result is not only compelling information disseminated by your firm—but findings that are so important that a reputable media outlet has provided its implicit seal of approval. Third-party validation is among the most persuasive differentiators.

Loads of data exist that can be mined by summer associates, associates, marketing teams, librarians and others, and used as a starting point for an original study. Yet, many firms lack processes to tackle these projects. Who is responsible for tracking industry-specific trends of potential value to clients and prospects? Are lawyers—even associates—included in this group? Establishing procedures for identifying thought leadership opportunities ahead of the pack goes a long way toward achieving the most bang for the proverbial buck.

Be Concise and User-Friendly

In the Edelman-LinkedIn study, 57 percent of decision-makers preferred a format for thought leadership that can be digested in a few minutes. Lack of digestibility may be the biggest mistake law firms make in producing such pieces—not just because of limited attention spans of senior executives, but also because usage of mobile devices is overtaking that of stationary devices, including desktops and laptops.

Optimizing your thought leadership pieces through mobile devices should be the primary consideration in producing a thought leadership piece. A 2018 study by Litmus revealed that mobile “opens” account for 46 percent of all email opens. In addition, as of 2017, 50 percent of B2B inquiries were made on smartphones—and Boston Consulting Group expects that figure to grow to 70 percent by 2020.

These trends only underscore the need for content to not only be digestible, but also presented in a user-friendly format.

To best capture the attention of your audience, be succinct. Use short headlines. Determine the character limit for a headline on a mobile device. And when it comes to the piece itself, get to the point. Once your headline exceeds its character limit or the takeaways of your piece aren’t easily discernible on a mobile device to a recipient who is as busy as you are, the opportunity to connect meaningfully with your audience may be lost.

Measure Your Success

One of the most striking findings in the Edelman-LinkedIn study is that only 21 percent of “sellers” have developed a way to link business wins to specific pieces of thought leadership. For the 79 percent who lack such processes, it can certainly make their thought leadership spend—including on personnel—difficult to justify.

Needless to say, developing metrics to measure the success of a thought leadership program is vital, as is ensuring that the data are centralized.

Some of the more important measures include tracking direct engagement with partners, lead generations and referrals.

As thought leadership channels can include email, websites, social media, blogs and podcasts—among others—tracking downloads, click rates, social media engagement, landing-page traffic and other channel-specific data is critical as well.

Equally essential is tracking which media outlets, if any, are reporting on your thought leadership. Like other metrics, however, there is a qualitative element, as coverage in an esoteric legal journal with 500 subscribers is a far cry from exposure in a name-brand business or trade outlet with a large and loyal readership.

Importantly, the specific thought-leadership metrics should be agreed upon at the outset by asking, “What will success look like?” Once the appropriate metrics are identified, your firm will have the flexibility to adjust the program as needed and make continual improvements along the way to maximize its visibility and influence.

You can bet that decision-makers will take notice.

Tom Orewyler is principal at New York-based Tom Orewyler Communications LLC.