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This is the text of the talk I gave this afternoon at the Lawyernomics marketing conference in sunny Las Vegas.
A lot of lawyers have blogs. A lot of those blogs suck.
I suppose I am partly to blame for this. For years, I told every lawyer who would listen that he or she ought to start a blog. I explained that a blog was a great way to get clients in the door, as if that would magically happen if you started posting something on your blog every few days. I neglected to explain how to write a blog that doesn’t suck.
As a result of my negligence and the continuing enthusiasm of a horde of social media marketing cheerleaders, there are lots of lawyers out there with ugly blogs with lame names that are hosted on their law firm websites, and they are writing the same posts about how to hire a lawyer or summarizing the same decisions everyone else in their practice area is summarizing on their blogs, and they are talking about SEO, and they are glued to their traffic analytics. Or their “blogs” are just blank pages on their law firm websites because they haven’t published anything, yet. Or the most-recent post is six months old.
These lawyers are contributing almost nothing of value to the Internet. Most people read their posts only by chance. And their blogs are generating very little in the way of business, as a result.
Blogging really is not complicated, but a lot of people think it is because they assume there must be more to it than just publishing good content. They are wrong.
Blogging is time-consuming, and it is hard work, and not very many people are good at it. To make matters worse, many people have the wrong idea about blogging. They take the time and they work hard, but the result is a blog that sucks.
People with sucky blogs inevitably think their blogs are awesome. That’s because social media gurus tell them about all the “value” their blogs provide to potential clients. (I always put “value” in quotation marks when I write about marketing, because I think that’s how most social media consultants use that word. They mean “value,” not things that are actually valuable. It’s like Networking, which is always capitalized and italicized when career counselors use it, because they aren’t talking about real-life, normal networking.) Maybe the they think their sucky blogs are awesome because some SEO consultant says their keyword density is optimal. Those gurus and SEO consultants suck, too. They are part of the problem. Like sucky bloggers, they have forgotten what things that don’t suck look like.
I am not a guru or a consultant. You cannot hire me to manage your social media campaigns or pay me to teach you SEO. I am a blogger, and most of the time, my blog posts don’t suck.
So I will tell you what the gurus and consultants won’t tell you because they are too busy trying to keep you paying their exorbitant fees.
Your blog sucks …
… because the main reason you blog is direct marketing. In other words, you hope people who are looking for a lawyer on Google will find one of your blog posts, read it, and then contact you.
Look, blogs are awful direct marketing tools. Expecting people to find your blog and call you is like the Atlantic Monthly writing about current events because it wants to sell consulting services to politicians. It’s like a journalist expecting orders for donuts after publishing an article about the stock price of Dunkin Donuts. Or like people trying to hire the LA Times to handle their murder defense because it covered the OJ Simpson trial. The direct result of publishing a blog is readers — if it doesn’t suck — not clients.
… or, worse, because you think of a blog as advertising. You end most posts with a “call to action” like “If you have been arrested for picking up a prostitute, we can help! Call now for a free consultation!” Blog posts are not billboards — or advertisements in any way. I don’t know how anybody could think that will work, but some people obviously do.
… because you think people who visit your blog are looking to hire a lawyer. Most people who visit your blog aren’t looking to hire a lawyer — at least not at that moment. They are looking for information, or maybe entertainment. Occasionally, they may need a lawyer but not realize it. Thinly-veiled sales pitches will not get very many of these people to contact you.
… because you just write the same FAQ posts that can be found on every other lawyer’s website or blog in your practice area. Even if you are doing this for SEO reasons, this is a bad way to go about it. At best, this is sort of like sticking a travel brochure for the Grand Canyon on a wall of travel brochures for the Grand Canyon. And when you run out of “frequently-asked” questions to answer, what will you write about?
… because you don’t read other blogs, comment on other blogs, or write about other bloggers’ posts. Blogging is taking part in a conversation. A good conversationalist listens and responds, in order to keep the conversation going. Or, you could converse like my grandma, who responds to everything you say with a completely unrelated story about her childhood. That’s what it’s like when you blog in isolation.
… because you think you are competing with other bloggers. At a certain point, this is true. When you reach the scale of the New York Times, you are probably competing with the Huffington Post for some critical mass of readers who will not click on both sites. But for the most part, people who read things online think little of clicking over to another website or blog. This is both good and bad, but it absolutely means that if you don’t encourage people to visit other blogs, those blogs won’t send any readers your way, either.
… because it is on your law firm website. Blogs do not belong on law firm websites. (Although it is maybe okay to have a law firm website on your blog. That’s actually a whole different thing.) Most normal people are as interested in visiting a lawyer as they are in getting a colonoscopy — and for similar reasons. A blog on a law firm website is, at best, like a great magazine in a proctologist’s waiting room.
Even if you do something joyful like adoption law, your office is not a place most people want to visit, if for no other reason than that you come with a large price tag. Your website is, basically, an online representation of your office. People don’t want to have to go there. If you put your blog on your website, your website is discouraging people from coming back.
… because you haven’t started it yet. That should be self-explanatory. A dead blog makes your site look like nobody is home. I think the web designers are mainly to blame on this one, along with the social media marketing consultants. They talk about blogging like it’s a panacea, so when lawyers are building a website, they think hey, why not include a blog? This sort of doing-without-thinking is why there are so many abandoned pets. People don’t realize how much work they are going to be. Abandoned blogs aren’t as cute as abandoned puppies, though. Nobody wants them.
… because it has a name like Tulsa Personal Injury Law Blog. This will be extremely interesting to people who want to read books with titles like “Boy with Scar Discovers He Is Actually a Wizard” and “Several Small People Take a Ring to a Volcano.” A blog with nothing but a description for a title has no identity. How will people tell other people about your blog? “I was reading something on the Tulsa Personal Injury Law Blog the other day.” Really? Which one?
… because it’s ugly. Getting a decent-looking blog is as simple as clicking a button. In fact, the current default WordPress theme is probably better-looking than your blog. It actually takes effort to make a blog ugly. Or just a lot of social networking plugins.
… because you haven’t posted in days. On the Internet, a day is an eternity during which your soon-to-be-former readers will forget your blog ever existed. If you cannot post at least weekly, at least until your blog has a few hundred posts and some real momentum behind it, don’t bother.
… because you don’t love to write. This is actually the Number One Reason your blog sucks. A love of writing — in fact, a compulsion to write — is the only good reason to start a blog. Without it, your blog will suck.
Actually there’s one more reason why your blog sucks, but it (hopefully) only applies to some of you. Your blog may suck because you don’t know what you’re talking about. You hold yourself out as if you know something, but you graduated from law school last spring and you’ve maybe settled a couple of DUIs for your cousins and classmates. You don’t know anything. Your “insights” probably aren’t worth anything. I started my first law blog after I had been practicing for three years, and I still wrote a bunch of stupid crap.
Nothing sucks like spouting off about things you don’t know anything about. Lots of bloggers don’t seem to realize that people will actually read what they write — and make important life decisions based on what they write. If you write stupid crap, you are actually damaging society. Nothing sucks worse than that.
Oh, and your blog also sucks because you don’t understand the different between the word blog and the word post. God, I hate that.
So what makes a blog awesome?
The opposite of a sucky blog is an awesome blog. (There are, of course, plenty of just-okay blogs, but you don’t want to aim for mediocrity.)
Maybe you don’t care about awesome, you just want a successful blog — one that will ultimately bring in clients. Same thing.
An awesome blog is one that people come back to because they like what they find on it. People learn who you are as a result of your blog, and they tell their friends about you and your blog. Maybe they do this by linking to your blog from their own blog, or by sharing your posts on LinkedIn or Twitter. Or maybe they are old-school, and tell their colleagues over lunch, or while discussing a case at their office.
This builds your reputation. It increases the circle of people who know who you are and what you do, and if you have an awesome blog, it increases their respect for you. It can even teach them how to refer cases to you, and which cases will make good ones.
On many occasions, I have received calls from lawyers that started “I read your post about X, and I think I have a referral for you” or just “I came across your post about the changes to Rule X; what effect do you think that will have on my client’s case?” One time my waitress came up to me after I paid for breakfast, and asked “hey, are you the same guy who writes that blog about debt collection?” When I said yes, she asked for my card and said she had been meaning to call me about a problem she was having with a debt collector.
These are just anecdotes, but they were not unusual. While I was practicing consumer law, my blog was one of the most-common reasons people knew who I was and what I did. One way or another, my blog brought in about half my business.
Once someone believes you are an authority in your practice area, they will refer business to you. This is not marketing voodoo, this is just how referrals among human beings work. It is how we hire plumbers as well as lawyers. A blog is just a way to reach a bigger audience of potential referral sources.
With an awesome blog, a lot of work, and a bit of luck, that’s what can happen. If all you write is keyword-stuffed SEO bait, that will never happen.
So how do you create an awesome blog and avoid mediocrity — or worse, suckiness?
There is really only one rule, and you have probably figured it out by now: write stuff people want to read.
Here is my central argument: blogs are not really marketing tools. They are publishing tools. And while those two things are compatible, the natural result of publishing something is readers, not clients. In order to hit the goal of bringing in clients, you have to ignore it and aim at a different goal: bringing in readers. That’s what builds your reputation to the point where your phone may start ringing due to your blogging. And a reputation is far more durable (and effective) than a favorable ranking for “Boston bankruptcy lawyer.”
If, on the other hand, you try to write with marketing in mind, your blog is more likely to read like a running sales pitch. You won’t sound like an authority; you will sound like a used-car salesman. And it will come across much worse because a blog is not a platform for selling used cars. It is a platform for publishing writing.
Why can’t you just write to get clients? Because it doesn’t really work. Blogs are awful direct marketing tools. No matter how hard you try, your keyword-stuffed blog posts are unlikely to attract very many people who are looking to hire a lawyer at that moment.
Don’t get me wrong, you will probably get a couple of clients that way. You can get a couple of clients putting your business cards on every coffee shop’s bulletin board, too. That doesn’t mean it is an effective way to build a book of business.
What does work is indirect marketing. Building your reputation — your brand, if you like marketing buzzwords — is the best way create a strong foundation on which you can build a successful practice. And that’s where your blog can help, if it is awesome.
I’m going to give you a list of things that I think make for awesome blogs, but just know that you can find amazing blogs that violate every item on my list. There are no hard and fast rules.
Awesome blogs …
…first of all, stand on their own. They are not tucked away on law firm websites. Every time I say this, some SEO consultant tells me I am wrong because … SEO, I guess. I’m not talking about SEO, guys. That should be obvious by now.
…have a name. A real name, not a descriptive title. A name gives your blog an identity you can imbue with personality, with voice. It makes it a place people can tell other people to visit.
… look good — which means they are clean, simple, and easy to read — on phones and tablets, too. This does not require a web designer, it requires some good judgment and a few clicks. A blog is really just a showcase for writing. Make sure it is easy to read, including on phones and tablets.
… encourage sharing without shoving social media buttons and star ratings down the reader’s throat. People love to share, but they hate wading through a sea of icons in order to do it. Pick one sharing plugin, preferably one that is unobtrusive, and that’s it.
…help the reader scan content by using clear headlines, and break up posts with helpful subheadings. Most people who visit your blog will not read past the title of a post unless you give them a reason. If they get that far, more will drop off unless your first sentence is compelling. And more will drop off if they are faced with a wall of text.
Use strong titles, compelling opening sentences, and help your reader with subheadings that give the gist of your post.
… make it easy for readers to navigate the archives and find old posts. The built-in search engine for most blogging platforms is pretty bad. People will search. Make it easier for them by plugging in Google search or something like Swiftype so they can find what they are looking for.
But most of all, awesome blogs contain great writing. Content is king. An ugly blog with great writing will always be better than a beautiful blog with nothing worth reading.
There are many kinds of great writing. Some blogs are funny, others provocative. Some are in-depth essays, while others are quotes with pithy one-liners. But even with the great variety of blogging styles, there are some constants:
Good bloggers have something to say.
Good bloggers have an opinion.
Good bloggers get to the point quickly.
Good bloggers are sometimes provocative, snarky, funny, or ranty.
Good bloggers are able to write tight, focused blog posts.
Good bloggers sometimes write long, in-depth blog posts.
Good bloggers sometimes write however and whatever the heck they want.
Good bloggers usually write several times a week, if not a couple of times a day.
Good bloggers read other blogs, and sometimes comment on them.
Good bloggers have thick skins.
Good bloggers strive to learn to be better bloggers.
How to write a non-sucky blog
Okay, so how do you fix your sucky blog?
For starters, consider whether you ought to be writing a blog in the first place. Why are you doing it — or if you aren’t, yet, why do you want to? Is writing something you really want to do, something you are committed to, and something you would probably do even if you did not start a blog? Blogging is not glamorous. And for a long time, you may be writing for your friends and family, at best. You may have to write for months before you begin to build an audience. If you aren’t compelled to write, you won’t make it.
Take a good, honest, harsh look at your blog. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader. After all, your blog is not for you. It is for your readers. When conceiving, designing, and writing for your blog, your only concern must be “Will my readers like this?” Not “Will my readers tolerate this?” or “Will my readers put up with this?” and most definitely not “Can I get away with this?” Will your readers like what you are doing.
Is your blog clean, un-cluttered, and easy to read? Is the content clearly separated from the sidebars and the headers so that readers can go straight to it? Can they quickly see how many people have commented on a post? If not, pick a better, cleaner theme.
Are you using full RSS feeds, not excerpts, so that people can choose to read your blog on the platform they prefer?
Does it look okay on a phone? Something like 25% of Lawyerist’s visitors are using a phone or tablet. Your blog needs to load quickly and look good for mobile visitors.
But most of all, if you had a few minutes to read anything on the Internet, would you pick one of your last few blog posts? Would your blog even be in your top 10 things to read?
That’s a hard question to ask yourself. But if you wouldn’t want to read your blog, why would anyone else?
Don’t feed the trolls
And now, a few words on haters and trolls. Whether or not you allow comments on your blog, someone may comment on what you write. If you don’t allow comments, they may do it on their own blog, or on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or wherever. And there is decent chance you will think they are being mean or unfair. Your feelings are irrelevant.
If and when this happens, do not give in to your temptation to holler ad hominem!, give a little ad hominem of your own, and justify yourself. You will just look dumb. Trolls have a lot more experience being trolls than you do, and if you try to play their game, you will lose.
Online criticism is, in some ways, like dealing with opposing counsel. If opposing counsel is a jerk, your job is not to let yourself be provoked, to ignore the bluster, and to respond — if you feel it is necessary — to the substance of the argument, not the form.
So ignore the tone and engage in a little self-analysis. Most of the trolls I know are smart, and they usually have a good point, even if they deliver it with a healthy dose of vinegar. So ask yourself whether your critics have a point. Were you being shallow, or sales-y, or dumb? If so, own it. Respond if you want to, maybe with a bit of self-deprecating humor, and strive to do better.
Plenty of people think I am an idiot. I don’t really care what they think. Some of those people who think I am an idiot have specific criticisms, and sometimes they are right. Sometimes I am an idiot. I strive not to be an idiot, but having strong opinions and putting them on the Internet means you will sometimes be wrong.
(By the way, if you are tweeting, now is the time to tell everyone that I said sometimes I am an idiot.)
When you screw up, own it. Don’t hide from your screwups. Be the first person to acknowledge your screwup, tell everyone you screwed up, and correct it. Then learn from it.
Blogging is a constant process of learning and improvement. You have to take it seriously as a discipline of its own, just like lawyering. Writing great content takes practice and the will and desire to improve. You have to take it seriously and work at it, but more than anything, you have to understand what makes a great blog.
Before you start a blog, or before you write another post, stop and consider whether you can add valuable information to the Internet. And more importantly, re-think what “valuable information” means. What matters is what your readers think is valuable, not what is valuable to you.
That’s because your readers are your referral network. They are not people you want to scare off with a sales pitch or offend with insipid blog posts. They are people you need to take good care of, so that they spread the word about your blog — and about you.
And, most important, never write anything you wouldn’t want to read yourself.