How to be a thought leader
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One of a Kind

How to Become a Thought Leader

Anonymity is the enemy. Want to stand out and compete effectively online? Here are a few principles to keep in mind.

By Jay Harrington

When searching for a lawyer, most clients desire expertise, not generalized knowledge. Unless expertise can be validated through referral or reputation, it must be demonstrated through thought leadership expressed in the marketplace of ideas. Accordingly, one of the most important things a lawyer can do to become a well-branded, well-recognized expert is produce high-quality content.

Content sells a lawyer when she’s not there to sell herself. It’s both a method to achieve marketing scale and a mechanism to provide prospective clients with a window into the lawyer’s ideas and quality of insights. Through consuming and evaluating her content, prospective clients can determine whether their needs and the lawyer’s expertise align.

In 2019, this is critically important, because much of the preliminary vetting of legal services providers is happening online — often without the lawyer even knowing she is being considered. The prospect is in control of the due diligence, but a lawyer’s published content can engage the prospect in a valuable exchange of ideas nonetheless. Your ideas can generate intellectual and emotional resonance, which is an important first step toward generating new business.

Without a robust digital footprint, a lawyer is limiting her opportunities. She’ll be virtually invisible to an increasingly large pool of prospects who rely on Google and social media platforms to assess options to solve their legal challenges. Anonymity is the enemy, and a meaningful body of online work is a powerful line of defense.

Becoming a Thought Leader Is a Long Game

Content marketing allows lawyers and law firms to compete effectively in today’s digital landscape but it takes time. It is the “long game” with a focus on relationship building, not the hard sell. Content creates compounding returns on effort over time — not all at once.

Most lawyers don’t realize real benefits from their content because they’re not invested for the long term. They write a few articles, put them out in the world, and expect prospects to beat a path to their email inbox with accolades and opportunities. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. What works is sustained effort and a clear strategy about who you’re creating content for.

Want to stand out and compete effectively online? Here are a few principles to keep in mind when building your personal brand through the content you produce and share.

Think Small

The digital world is too noisy and fragmented to try to reach everyone. Those who create content of general interest — be it in written, video or audio form — end up drowning in obscurity. Those who consistently create content of specific interest to a smaller, niche audience are able to break through the noise.

Think of your content focus like a tree. Your core, niche focus is the tree trunk. As you dive into the world of content creation, you need to establish deep roots and a sturdy trunk. Focusing your content on a particular niche helps accomplish this. It allows you to build a following and community around your content. Once a community has been established, you’ll be able to branch out and experiment with new content topics. Some of those branches will be weak and break. But others will grow strong, like the trunk.

Start small. Find your core. Then branch out.

Connect the Dots

Most content efforts fail because they are too shallow. Any lawyer can summarize an appeals court decision or new statute and post it on their blog. This is another reason that having narrowly focused content is important, because it allows you to go deep on topics that matter to your audience.

If you pick an expansive topic that is generally relevant, you’ll only be able to touch on its surface, and you’ll fail to contextualize your insights for your specific audience. The odds are someone else will have said the exact same thing before. Instead, go deep and ask yourself: How can I narrow the focus? How can I make this big idea hyper-relevant for a smaller audience?

Through intense focus on a specific subject matter you hone your expertise. You start to recognize patterns and correlations that others do not. You’ll connect dots that no one else even knew existed.

Fuel the Fire and Capture Your Ideas

Connecting the dots is not easy. It requires dedicated practice. It also requires space and time.

Effective content creators schedule “white space” time to think and process information, and give their minds an opportunity to make creative connections. They also take advantage of margin time — time spent in the car, on the subway, waiting in line — to fire up their content ideation.

Fire requires fuel, however, so effective content creators also consume content — judiciously and strategically — to help generate their own ideas. They read. They listen to podcasts. They digest wisdom from thought leaders in other disciplines and draw inspiration that allows them to shed new light on issues in their own areas of focus.

The marketplace is crowded and noisy. Immense opportunity exists above the noise.

Perhaps most importantly, lawyers who create the best content pay careful attention to the ideas that arise in the context of their work. They consider the questions that clients keep asking. They identify trends in the industries they serve. They know that if one client is struggling to find a solution to a problem, others who are similarly situated likely are as well. So they determine to address the issue for a wider audience through their content. They approach content creation with an abundance, not scarcity, mindset and freely share their best ideas, comfortable in the knowledge that most clients are looking for a trusted advisor.

Finally, effective content creators have a method for capturing ideas. Ideas spring up at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. But ideas are fleeting, so it’s important to jot down ideas when inspiration strikes, whether it’s in the middle of the night or during a morning shower.

It’s not easy to build a powerful personal brand by becoming a thought leader. But it’s precisely because it’s hard that so few do it well. And therein lies the opportunity.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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