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Should Professional Firms Write Long Form Website Content?

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My recent long form content experience

Having just finished a six-part series of posts, 50 Website Content Strategies For Professionals, each long form (average 2200 words each), I thought I would pass on some of the lessons from this experience. For the record, this series is in total 13,500 words published twice a week for three weeks. It took a while to write, but that’s part of the secret of getting it done that I want to pass on – incrementally, not in one gigantic burst, which will likely turn into one gigantic bust.

Should professionals write a long form series?

Yes you should. And no you shouldn’t. Get it?

Long form blogging is a controversy unto itself, so let’s first look at the pros and cons before we move on to consider its place in the marketing scheme of a professional firm.

First, you will not find a definitive answer to this. Not here, and not anywhere else in the blogosphere. Sure, there are dogmatists who swing each way, but for every argument in favour of a long form blog post – say 2000 words or more – there are others who swear it is preferable to take the shorter route home, perhaps 500-700 words. The latter is what I usually aim for when not writing a stand alone post. This should reveal something, there is no “perfect” length for a blog post.

By the way, one of the greatest exponents of the blog post (and everything else about online communication, Seth Godin, regularly posts at about 100 words. Here’s an example. He has millions of readers. What’s the point? That the answer depends on who you are, what you want to achieve, and who you want to reach.

My first series post – Google Has No Clothes – was also six parts (yes, once more planned  at a neat five but once more I got carries away), but each post in the series was the standard 500 – 700 words. The latest series was a far bolder experiment.

Here’s how to tell what suits your firm

Should professionals firms – lawyers, accountants and all superannuation, retirement, insurance and financial planning  professionals – have a blog? The straightforward answer is yes.

Should professionals firms also consider a long form post? Look at the following:

  • How long will it take to say what you want? If you are a personal injuries lawyer, and you want to write a post about the steps prospective clients should take to make a claim after a public transport accident, then it’s going to take longer than a post about how to write a letter to your neighbour over a fencing dispute.
  • If you publish a blog post once a month, or even every two weeks, then there is probably more room to write a longer post. Obviously it will take more time to write the latter, and I deal with this in the next section.
  • What’s your purpose? What’s the business case for your blog post? If the greatest investment rewards your business case, then do it. If not, then it is a waste of time and will only reward your ego
  • Can you write well enough to sustain an argument or thread over a long form series? If longer form equals boring, then you are in trouble and would be far better to stick to a shorter form.

The answer is an occasional longer form series

This is what I intend to do:

  • 500 – 800 words posts for the everyday issues I want to address that also match my business case;
  • an occasional longer form stand alone post over 2000 words;
  • and a longer form series of five posts or so, each 2000 words up, perhaps every few months.

My reasons for an occasional long form post are:

  • it provides lots of internal links for other posts;
  • it’s good advertising for my writing ability;
  • there is more room for keywords to help search engine rankings;
  • it encourages readers to share;
  • it separated you from the pack;
  • it offers scope to fully present an argument;
  •  it can form a chapter in a later eBook or other publication.

How to create a long form topic

This is the easy part. I keep an account on Feedly, and I read a lot of news. When I think of a topic I want to consider for longer form writing, I jot it down and then populate a list with URL’s and sources until I have enough to begin a research project.

What software do I use? Yes, I know all about Evernote and similar tools to gather ideas for future reference. Sorry to make this shocking confession, but I use a notebook. Made out of paper. And a pen. For those of our younger readers, this is a writing apparatus. I then transfer my ideas to a Word document under headings, and when I have accumulated enough ideas under a specific heading, turn it into a long form blog post. Prehistoric I know.

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Should Professional Firms Use WordPress?

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Why WordPress for professional firms?

There won’t be many professional firms who choose to build their own website, and though the exercise is certainly educational, it can be frustrating if you have little or no experience. Not to say that it cannot be done, nor that it is not a worthwhile exercise. You will really learn a lot, but be prepared to invest time and effort. My preferred website platform is WordPress.

As the WordPress designers describe it:

“WordPress started as just a blogging system, but has evolved to be used as full content management system and so much more through the thousands of plugins and widgets and themes, WordPress is limited only by your imagination.”

There is a version of WordPress that is hosted free by the creators, WordPress.com, but it is not recommended for any professional. WordPress.org allows you to download a basic website structure which you then host yourself and “own” as a proprietary piece of internet real estate. This is the only option for a professional firm.

There are others blogging platforms, including:

  • Blogger (owned by Google) – it has a very quick setup, drag and drop editing, and is easy to use. Many professionals do so.
  • Tumblr – this is an interesting fusion between a blog and a Twitter-like feed. Now owned by Yahoo.

WordPress advertizes a ‘five minute installation”. That’s true as far as the basic installation is concerned, and it’s a potent marketing line, but the installation is only the very beginning of the WordPress journey. Be warned – people will tell you that WordPress is simple to use, and yes, there are hundreds of books and online tutorials to help you use WordPress (including at WordPress). As well there are thousands of online forums devoted to WordPress, where adherents exchange information (and sometimes insults). But despite the proliferation of helpful advice, the best way to understand WordPress is to use it and allow yourself the time to understand “the way it thinks”.

Get web hosting

If you use WordPress.org,  as I recommend, you will need a domain name and web hosting. Again, there are hundreds of companies that offer this service, but make sure will be happy with the decision for the long-term. Obviously if you have chosen to hire a consultant to build your website, then you can take their advice on these matters, and likely they will handle it for you.

For what it’s worth I use VentraIP for both domain name registration and hosting. I have no business affiliation with them, but my experience over four years has been consistently excellent, and they respond to queries quickly and efficiently. I like the fact their severs are domestically based, though many well known bloggers swear by providers that are in another country. Do some research, make up your own mind.

Get a theme

WordPress gives you a basic structure for your website (or stand alone blog) – a “Theme” builds on that basic structure, like accessorising a piece of clothing to create a different look. In other words, a Theme is a skin for your blog. However, the basic structure of a WordPress site is the same for everyone. Happily for us, WordPress is kind enough to make the code for that structure freely available (called “open source”), so programmers can create “skins” to overlay it. This is achieved by incorporating style “templates” into the WordPress structure. Some of these Themes are free, some are not, and there are plenty of good examples in both camps. Every designer, free or not, offers a gallery to preview the themes. I believe it is always worth the investment in a paid theme, usually around $50 or more.

Should professional firms use WordPress?

This is a complicated issue – you can certainly have a WordPress website built by a consultant/contractor. However, WordPress updates its themes all the time, so it is not a “set and forget” website platform. I love it because I have learned how to make most changes myself, I enjoy the challenge, and I produce content on a regular basis and it would be prohibitive (and unnecessary) to hire a consultant to handle this. However, any website built on your behalf should allow you to edit and add new content on your own.

If you have your website built on a WordPress platform, or do it yourself, these are words of warning from a website reviewer:

“Hiring a WordPress contractor is a very common practice for most non-technical WordPress gurus and the cost can add up over the years – we’ve had our fair share of contractors.  The hiring process could be stressful and you really don’t know what you’re going to get until you pay them to do the work.  Further, when WordPress updates its platform, you may need to hire the contractor again to ensure all the custom work is compatible.”

I love WordPress, in fact in my travels through the web landscape, it’s the most impressive creation out there. It also has a huge “community” and (literally) tens of thousands of “plugins” and “widgets” (tools created by developers, often free) to assist in its evolution. Nevertheless, there can be a steep learning curve because it is not really an intuitive platform. My best advice is to find a local website builder who can give you an honest assessment based on your needs. But if you have the time, and you want control of your website, WordPress is really quite brilliant.

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Should Professionals Guest Blog?

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What Is Guest Blogging?

The concept is simple – you find a site that accepts articles (blog posts) by guest writers, offer up your work, they publish it, and then you bask in the reflected glory. Anyway, that’s the concept.

As we know, content marketing is the hottest topic in the online world, and “guest-blogging” is currently its favourite child. It has been popularized as a reliable source of links to your own website. Why? Search engines are the judges in a worldwide competition, a beauty contest between the competitor websites. Other websites are also casting votes by way of links. And the more links to your site, the higher its ranking. This is called “link popularity”.

Search engines listen to the opinion of other websites in order to form an opinion about yours. If lots of sites link to your page, that tells the search engine your site is important. So what you want are inbound links, the more the better, though the quality of those links is critically important. When you have an article published on another site, your authorship creates a link back to your own website, for instance “Written by Geoffrey Winn at MatureMedia”. Depending on the rules attached to the home blog of the article, there may also be opportunities to link back to your website in the body of the post.

However, as we will see later in this post, this theory may no longer be as relevant to guest posting if it is only to gain links.

Guest Blogging Spam

Before Google began its “animal” updates, guest blogging was sometimes a source of search engine spam. You found appropriate keywords for your firm, wrote a guest post that emphasised those keywords without regard to their relevance or context to the readers of the target website, and reaped the rewards in extra traffic. Changes to Google have made this a far less attractive proposition.

Nowadays you need to look for opportunities that emphasise relevance (is the target blog relevant to your firm’s business e.g. a superannuation blog that has a similar readership to your clients), quality (is the target blog a high quality site), and opportunity (does the target site get the attention of Google).

Find Guest Blogging Opportunities

So how do you find relevant opportunities for guest blogging? First, use one or all of a series of search phrases (and grammatical variations of each) that relate to guest blogging, e.g:

  • “submit a guest post”
  • “guest post”
  • “we accept guest posts”
  • “write for us”

Combine each of these with keywords that are important to your clients. So, for instance, if you are an accountant and you want to attract retirees for investment advice, you might put some of the following in the Google search box:

  • “superannuation retirement” “submit a guest post”
  • “retirement investment accountant” “guest post”
  • “how to retire” “we accept guest posts”
  • “long term investments” “write for us”

You will get many results. Read some, decide which website you might want to write for (e.g. do you want a site in your city?), and then check their guest blogging guidelines, which can sometimes be onerous. I recently considered a submission to a well trafficked website, but was shocked at the stringent conditions attached to each submission. Although I understand that popular sites must be choosy, at the end of the day it was not worth the effort.

How To Pitch A Guest Blog Post

If not well written, you can be certain the email that pitches your guest blog post will be quickly discarded. So if it is not grammatically correct, reasonably discursive and intelligent, don’t even bother. Make sure your “pitch” has at least the following:

  • Has diligently follow the guest posting guidelines of the website
  • A well thought-out and carefully crafted subject line for the email
  • A very short bio for your firm, including your expertise
  • Share something about their blog and what you like about it
  • Why their readers will be interested in the topic – include a short summary
  • ALL your personal contact details – don’t make them go through a switchboard and leave a message

Latest Google Guidelines About Guest Blogging

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team (and a really well known SEO commentator to whom everyone listens) had the following to say in January 2014:

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company… Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains. We’ve reached the point in the downward spiral where people are hawking “guest post outsourcing” and writing articles about “how to automate guest blogging.”… There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future.

Get it? If you want to guest post to largely gain traffic, the effort is misplaced. As Cutts writes, “I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes”. So if you want to write for a blog or website that is respected in your professional field, and you hope to attract some of its readers to your site, than that’s great. And well worth the effort.

According to search optimisation genius Nail Patel, “…if you use it to help build up your brand, referral traffic, and overall sales, it will continue to be a great strategy”.

This is an evolving subject. I’ll keep you posted as this pans out.

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How Professionals Can Use Feedly To Create Website Content

What Is Feedly?

Feedly is a news aggregator that has blossomed on the back of the demise of the best known aggregator, Google Reader. Sometimes called a “feed aggregator”, these are web applications that collect syndicated internet content, including blog posts, podcasts, news reports etc. For the purpose of this post, we will concentrate on the aggregation of blog posts.

Let’s say there are twenty website you want to follow on a regular basis. This is especially helpful if you wish to maintain a protracted research effort. For me, this is to stay up to date with the latest information about content  marketing, especially as it impacts professionals. You can imagine how much time would be wasted if I was to go through a manual search of these blogs. As well, few bloggers post every day, so this would be at best a hit or miss practice. Instead an aggregator notes the blogs you wish to follow, and when a new article is posted, places it in your account, where it can be found and read the next time you visit.

For the past eight years, Google Reader has been the aggregator of choice, and the application that I used for some time. For reasons that are now irrelevant – there was much angst at the time of the announcement – Google chose to close it. There are many alternative aggregators on the market, none really as proficient, but like many others I decided to give Feedly a go. To be frank, I can’t remember why I chose Feedly, apart from it’s clean design and the fact that it worked hard to fill the breach. It also seemed to be closest to Reader in terms of functionality and was poised to take advantage of its years of development. It’s usage has exploded since Reader closed.

How To Use Feedly

It can be daunting to set up any aggregator. First, read the instructions at Feedly, they are helpful and you will quickly learn the mechanics of the process. But how can Feedly “feed” your blog? It’s simple.

As you look around the web, you will come across articles that appeal to your professional needs, and are worth a look for your clients’ content needs. For example, if you are a family lawyer, you will notice that there are hundreds of blogs that deal with a myriad of family law issues, many which are relevant to your clients, or can be used as research for an article. If your family law firm is interested in collaborative law, you may find a blog that deals specifically with this topic (in fact there are many). You therefore add that blog to your Feedly account and it will aggregate any future posts.

In other words, everything is handled through the Feedly site, there is no need to visit the blog again. Simple.

My Feedly

You add blog URLs to your “My Feedly” section. There you can categorise it (e.g. put it under the group “Collaborative Law”) so it appears with all the other posts that deal with the same subject. Each time you open Feedly, the unread aggregated feeds are grouped under headings, as well as an “All” category that tells you how many articles you have to read. When you click on the categories you are taken to a line summary of the article, so it’s easy enough to choose whether you want to read the full article or quickly delete it. Over time you will learn to scan the articles and streamline the process.

So try Feedly for an ongoing source of ideas for your blog. Remember, a blog is the best way to feed content  to your site, the search engines, and most important to your clients.

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How Professionals Can Get Started With A WordPress Blog

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Of course professionals need a blog

This is not the post (or place) to delve into whether you need a website or a blog. Or whether you need a content strategy. In this post we assume you have decided to get a blog, get a domain name (e.g. www.firmname.com.au) and hosting.

Well and good, but how do you do you start? How does an untrained professional – lawyers, accountants and all superannuation, insurance and finance professionals – know where to begin? Mao wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Hopefully our journey will be a lot shorter and get off to a more substantial start.

You first have to decide which blogging platform you will use. My very strong preference is to use WordPress as your blogging platform. Of course there are other choices, including:

  • Blogger (owned by Google) – very quick setup, drag and drop editing, easy to use.
  • Tumblr – interesting fusion between a blog a Twitter-like feed. Now owned by Yahoo.

WordPress is a popular open source blogging platform (it’s actually much more, a full content management system). That means its code is freely available and anyone can build add-ons to it. You can set up a WordPress blog on their own server (there is no charge for this) at WordPress.com. This is a big mistake and there will likely come a time when you will want to upgrade – so don’t do this if you have any intentions to create serious ongoing content. Instead use the WordPress.org platform, which you can download and install  for free. Many services will combine the domain registration, hosting and WordPress installation.

For hosting I use VentraIP. I have no business affiliation with them, but my experience over four years has been consistently excellent, and they respond to queries efficiently. I like the fact that their servers are domestically based, though many well known Australian bloggers swear by overseas providers. Do some research, make up your own mind.

Themes

WordPress gives you a basic structure for your blog – a “Theme” builds on that basic structure, like accessorising a piece of clothing to create a different look. In other words, a Theme is a skin for your blog. However, the basic structure of a WordPress blog is the same for everyone. Happily for us, WordPress is kind enough to make the code for that structure freely available, so programmers can create “skins” to overlay it. This is achieved by incorporating “templates” into the WordPress structure. Some of these Themes are free, some are not, and there are plenty of good examples in both camps. Every designer, free or not, offers a gallery to preview the themes.

DIY or consultant?

There is no doubt that it is easier to pay someone to build a website, and they will handle all of the above. If you merely want to start a blog – a place for you to build an archive of articles for clients and prospective clients to search – including some basic contact information, then you can DIY, but you should do some research first to get a feel for what lies ahead. There are many books that cover the basics of WordPress

If you want a website – Home and About Us pages, some resources, information sheets and a blog – then unless you have the time to research the issue thoroughly, it is better to consult a web designer. Which one? I have been through this exercise, and also built a website largely on my own, and in truth I found the process with the web designer fairly exhausting. If I had a preference, I would build a website myself just as a learning exercise and then shop around for a designer. Why? Because I would know  lot better what to expect and what to ask for. Obviously this is unwieldy and will only work for a few professionals, probably the ones that have an interest in online tools (by the way, it’s quite an interesting challenge and for me a lot of fun because I did it with my son). For myself, I enjoyed the challenge and I needed the skills as part of a joint venture that required a very steep learning curve.

Where do I begin to DIY?

I would read, and then read some more. There are hundreds of good books that cover WordPress – I would recommend an eBook so you can read on your computer while you follow the steps and set it up. WordPress For Dummies will do the job, in fact it will explain a lot more than you need to know.

The worst that can happen is that you don’t like the results and call in a designer to handle the job. Again, it will only be a minority of professionals that have the time or inclination to tackle this. From my experience, it helps to have a tech savvy child!

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Professionals – Don’t Invite Blog Comments Without Thought

Commenting on blogs by professionals It’s a professional thing

Service professionals – lawyers, accountants, superannuation providers and advisors, insurance and finance professionals – are not like everyone else. Not better, just different. Why? Because we have concerns about interaction with our clients that are not always relevant to other service providers. For instance, a hotel proprietor can make voluble claims and guarantees about the professionalism of their staff and their superlative guest amenities, but at the end of the day, this will be subjectively judged by guests. And those assessments will differ wildly. If proof were needed just look at Tripadvisor.

Guarantees of service, claims about results, and the sort of PR embellishments that  are taken for granted in some service industries are imprudent for many professionals. Although many service industries are regulated, the regulation (at least in Australia) of legal, accounting and finance professionals is stringent. You cannot assert an expertise you do not have, nor can you raise expectations you cannot fulfill. You have at all times an overriding duty of care to your clients.

A website for professional firms is a good thing

Many commercial enterprises define what they do in terms of their products or services rather than by the benefit that the client derives from those products and services. Paul Sloane, the author of The Innovative Leader, reminds us that companies who believed they were in the horse-drawn carriage business were quickly wiped out by automobiles. Why? Because they failed to see the nature of their real business – transportation. Or companies that thought they were in the ice supply business – but were really in food and drink storage business – and so were eliminated by refrigerators. Or companies that thought they were in the CD business but were really in the music supply business – and so were replaced by digital downloads. Or companies that thought they were in the typewriter business but were really in the communications business – and so were steamrolled by the word processor.

Service professionals who do not recognise that they are in the business of communicating with their clients – and that means (at minimum nowadays) an information-rich website – will go the way of all other industries that failed to see the reality of overwhelming change in their business environments. And social media has bred generations of clients (not just the young ones!) who expect to be offered the opportunity to communicate with you online. As I have previously argued, many first impressions now take place online.

So you would think that every service professional should not only have a website with an accumulating inventory of content, but also the means for readers to have a conversation on the back of that content. In other words, a way for readers to offer and share comments.

Yes, but professionals are different

And herein lies the rub, because professionals are in fact different. Whereas professionals can often be accused of a staid inability to move with the times, especially in communication technologies, in this instance there is a case for caution.

If you want to build an online community, then the solicitation of readers’ comments is a valid strategy. If, on the other hand, your goal is to provide a place for clients and potential clients to have a window into your firm’s culture and expertise, then a more holistic strategy should apply.

Comments will not build a professional online content strategy. That can only be done with ongoing content provision, which you have to develop. Since the aim of your content marketing strategy is to get potential clients to pick up the phone or perhaps have them in for a free first interview, you do not need to develop that relationship online. Instead the best use of your website is to prepare the ground for a one on one communication.

Moreover, a professional firm’s website comments section requires rigorous moderation. Every professional understands the opportunity for defamation and inappropriateness with regard to sensitive professional issues, especially if the comments reveal private information. If you are prepared to undertake these intermediary tasks with the energy and seriousness they deserve, then still have a good think about it first, and get some advice. Make sure you know what you are doing.

As a professional you don’t need to take advantage of every opportunity afforded by the internet. Instead you need to use what is offered to the best advantage of your firm and your clients. That’s the criteria that matters.

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"Practice Management: How to Get To The Top" by Geoffrey Winn               

Law Institute of Victoria Journal May 2014  

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