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Surrender Control To Your Clients

Helping Clients

Professionals should not abuse their power

Service professionals have a problem sharing power with their clients. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lawyer, accountant, insurance, retirement or finance professional – many of us have been trained to take a proprietary attitude to our work. This is not surprising, we have spent years in tertiary education and then many more learning to refine our understanding of complicated and sometimes arcane issues. And obviously it is intrinsic to the client-professional relationship that professionals have the knowledge and experience, and clients pay to be the recipients of this wisdom, as part of a free market commercial transaction.

In my own profession, the law, there are clear guidelines given to clients about what they can expect from the relationship. For example, the Law Society of New South Wales has the following guidelines for clients:

As the client, you should receive regular updates on the progress of your matter, preferably in writing. Your lawyer must provide advice about all your options, including the best course of action, which may be alternative forms of dispute resolution. Your lawyer must also treat you with respect, be polite and assist in your understanding of the law.

Does this ring true in your profession? That’s a fairly catch-all guideline for the physical interaction between lawyers and clients, and would well suit any professional-client relationship. But what about our online relationship with clients as content and information providers?

Using website content for transparency

Content marketing (using your website as a means to establish an authentic relationship with prospective clients that will translate into business) is at heart a matter of sharing. Not only sharing information, but also something about yourself, your firm and your services. It’s the reason that the best content marketers write about the features, not the benefits, of your firm’s services. The goal is to address the pain points of prospective clients, and do it in a conversational yet authoritative voice. Clients rarely care about the features of your service, instead they want to know what you can do to help them find a solution to a problem. To do this you must create empathetic and informative content on your firm’s website.

Many professionals prefer to keep a careful distance from our clients for reasons, we tell ourselves, of professional objectivity. Although there is some truth to this, it also results in bland generic website content that nowadays is alien to the expectations of online consumers. And yet professionals have a real advantage over most business owners, because you know exactly what your clients want – for you, as an experienced professional, it’s not about focus groups or marketing plans or slick advertising concepts. Instead it’s what you see and hear every day as you sit opposite a client with a problem. A problem they want you to deal with. So in the race for online authenticity, you have a head start if you write content for your website with an eye to that interview process. Explain complicated issues in the same clear manner you use with that client, and offer the same real world solutions that connect with that client’s needs.

Writing content is easy

So you already know most of what you need to write great content for your website. If you are prepared to invest some time in a good read, then you will find all the help you need in my eBook The Ultimate Guide To Website Content For Professional Firms (downloadable from the subscriber form at the end of this post and in the right hand margin).

Here are some immediate tips to make your written content relatable to prospective clients:

  • Avoid the passive voice at all costs – it’s dull and makes no commitment to your work
  • Don’t use long sentences
  • Eradicate jargon unless you also explain it in plain English
  • Write for the prospective clients you want to reach, not for yourself. In your mind see that client in your interview room and write for them as you would (and do) talk to them every day.

Follow those four tips and your writing will immediately improve. No kidding. It will also be more transparent. All you need to do is relinquish the power to the most important player in your online relationship – your client.

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Why Website Content Is Essential For Service Firms

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How does Google find your firm?

Google wants to find the closest match on its search engine results page to what is searched by a prospective client. To do this it sorts billions of web pages and ranks them according to their value. There are many aspects to this ranking technology, however, the need for good content is now paramount because Google has altered its search algorithms to elevate the value of quality content as a prime driver of its ranking determination.

Ranking is based on a combination of two things – relevance and authority. Relevance is how close are you to the term being searched. But at the heart of Google’s algorithm is its proprietary means to measure the authority of the page (the “PageRank™” named after Larry Page, a founder of Google). This originated with the innovative work of Google’s founders on the authority of academic writing, which sought to rank the weight of an academic paper according to the number of different papers that cited it as an authority. Here’s the tricky part – not all of those citation sources are of equal value. For instance, if your academic paper is cited as a research source in a Nobel prize winner’s paper, which is also widely cited by others, it would (and should) give greater authority to your paper.

The Google algorithm originally achieved s a similar result, except Google looked for links from other web pages (called “inbound links”), not citations, and the authority was weighed by the number of links to the page that links to your firm. At least that was the intention in the early days of Google, and why the artificial use of those links became so prevalent, spawning so-called “link farms”.

“Panda” is a code name for a series of Google algorithm updates that commenced in February 2011, whose aim was to create a heavier focus on reader value and reward the trustworthiness of the website content. The many versions of the Google algorithm changes – both Panda and post-Panda updates – have specifically focused on quality unique content.

First understand your law firm’s content needs

The various Goggle updates have placed more and more emphasis on the quality of writing that must be relevant, authoritative, less jargon heavy and written in plain English. That’s hard to achieve by consultants unfamiliar with the professional-client culture and relationship, or at the least a similar service profession, which is why professional firms should always carefully brief and vet consultants hired to write content for their firm websites.

But don’t expect a copywriter to understand the nuances of estate litigation or mortgages or superannuation trust deeds. If you are a service professional without the time to write your own content, then at least get a thorough grounding in what you will need and look for someone very familiar a similar professional service industry. This is all explained in my eBook The Ultimate Guide To Website Content For Professional Firms (downloadable from the subscriber form at the end of this post and in the right hand margin).

Write benefits not features

The best way to structure content that targets both your clients AND Google is to understand and emphasize the benefits that clients derive from your services. An outside copywriter may assume that a family lawyer is in the business of selling family law advice and expertise. But this is going to cause real problems if you make it the foundation of your communication with clients. What if you instead shift the emphasis to “benefits”? After some time in this branch of law, you will be familiar with the emotional needs of clients in the throes of a life-changing relationship breakdown. From this perspective, what are you “selling”? Reassurance? Relief from anxiety? Guidance through a legal minefield? Hope for the future? The chance for financial security for children? Those are “benefits”, and they are the foundation of good website content. That does not mean you ignore the legal issues – every client wants to know that you will see them through the legal mire to a successful result – but you need to couch that advice within the context of an appropriate client psychology. This is sometimes known as a “client persona”.

When you focus on the features of your firm’s services, and not the benefits of those services, you misunderstand your client’s needs and how best to communicate with them. Ask yourself, “what do our clients really value”. That will always lead you to write content that rewards clients and boosts your search engine ranking.

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Service Professionals Are Natural Content Producers

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Professionals are always content producers

“I can’t write a blog”. “I can’t write an eBook”. “I can’t write my own content for our firm’s website”. “I can’t…” Well, you get the idea.

Why is it that so many service professionals – lawyers, accountants and superannuation, insurance and finance professionals – apparently believe they cannot write beyond the usual  parameters of their profession? I don’t get it, and that’s not because I am a professional who has published written material for decades. In fact that only adds to the mystery.

But I do know three things for certain: one, it’s not that hard to write website content that will be relevant and useful to your clients; two, you already understand pretty much most of what you need to know to write that content; and three, content marketing is essential if you want to be found online. As I have previously written in my eBook The Ultimate Guide To Website Content For Professional Firms (downloadable from the subscriber form at the end of this post and in the right hand margin):

You may have heard the story of the sign that adorned the wall of the so-called War Room in the campaign headquarters of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential run against then incumbent George H. W. Bush. At one time following the Gulf War, with stratospheric approval ratings, Bush was considered unbeatable. Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville hung a sign to keep the campaign team on message – “It’s the economy, stupid”. His motive was not to berate the team that it lacked intelligence, in fact they were the best and the brightest, he placed it there to emphasize the obvious. Sometimes, in business as well as politics, we need to remind ourselves of what is right before our eyes. For a professional firm that wants to be found online, it’s the content.

Professionals don’t know what they already know

How long did it take to finish your professional studies? In my case it was five years full time at the University of Melbourne. Let me assure you, the basics of writing content for your firm’s website are elementary compared to those years of formal education. And what have you been doing since you graduated (no, not the mandatory trip to Nepal, after that)? In all likelihood you have been out in the real world, where know it or not you have undertaken rigorous training to be a …. content producer! Now all you need do is add a few simple rules – that’s 90% of what you need to know right there.

The other 10%? Just write…then write some more. Look, if there’s one rule to follow with content marketing, it’s this: produce quality content, and then more quality content, and then more. That’s it.

Changes to Google’s search engine rankings algorithms, introduced over the last few years, have ensured that quality content is now an imperative. Google’s response to the many objections to its algorithm changes, usually from those who previously relied on artificial means to boost rankings, has been the same for a while now – stop complaining and just create great content. Google will help new clients find your firm if you create ongoing original and useful content, and happily for you this is well within your reach.

Your firm is a content factory

We erroneously tend to think of content as that function of our firm that conveys something of value in writing to our clients, but that’s way off the mark. Putting aside Google and it’s voracious appetite for content, as a professional you are essentially in the content business, and that’s from the moment you greet a client in the waiting area to the final letter you send to finalize the engagement. Everything you say or produce for clients is either a content product, a piece of advice that easily translates into content, or an asset from your knowledge bank that that is already in writing or can be readily transcribed. In the end it’s all content, and for professionals it’s ubiquitous. That’s very good news for you.

Professionals know all about the rules of content (yes, you do). It’s encompassed in the way you explain arcane concepts to your clients, using techniques you have honed for years. As a lawyer, I used to do a lot of appearance work in courts. Often clients would tell me that they did not comprehend much of the courtroom interaction, complaining that they felt more like spectators than participants. But they never said that about my conversations with them when we were in my office or on the phone. That’s because, like the vast majority of professionals, I had learned to explain complicated issues in plain English. And this is the essence of good content marketing as well.

Just remember that writing content for your firm’s website is like a client interview. What is it that clients inevitably tell to begin a first interview? They tell a story. If you are a family lawyer, it might be a chronicle of a philandering partner or years of neglect. If you are a financial planner, it might be a tale of an investment opportunity that went south, or a dream to plan for a tertiary education for children, reflecting opportunities the client never had in their own family. A retirement expert might hear about the struggle to build a business, and the hoped for reward of a seachange to a coastal paradise.

And how do you respond? Usually with a story of your own, or stories of other clients who have trodden the same path. All service professionals know that listening is an essential skill. You probe for the right questions to clarify your client’s problem, and choose a way to explain their situation in its professional context, framed in the tones and language you have discerned from your client’s words. It’s the same with website content. Yes, you know many, many big words. But resist the temptation. The goal is communication, not self-aggrandisement (yes, that’s a very big word!)

Management consultant Ted Dwyer has noted:

…we know that clients view relationships as having multiple components, technical expertise being just one. The other components of quality relationships appear to be the same as those that exist in our personal relationships – trust; responsiveness; empathy; transparency; likeability; honesty; and, above all, genuine caring based on demonstrable actions.

What website content should professionals create?

It’s not the “what” that matters – it’s what the content achieves. Does it educate clients and prospective clients? Does it create an empathetic relationship with the client? Does it anticipate or alleviate pain points in their service transactions?

This is a different model than the traditional online “brochure” advertising of many professional firms. It requires an understanding of your clients’ wider needs. For instance,  nowadays it is no longer enough to tell clients they require adequate house insurance. To properly address those needs, and to encourage engagement with your content, you need to show them you have anticipated their underlying anxieties about the best strategies to protect their assets and their families. It’s precisely the same way you handle client inquiries every working day.

That’s real content marketing.

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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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A Content Ideas Bank

How to create a content ideas bank

Multiple sources for content

Looking for content ideas? You are not going to find enough content from a single source to maintain a blog . Yes, it will be okay at the start, but soon enough the ideas will dry up (at least the ones that are interesting to clients) and the pace will inevitably diminish.

The exception might be if you are a business analyst who assiduously reads the business pages of the newspapers nationally and in your city. In that case you are in luck, because the business sections of newspapers appear to be one of their few growth areas, and of course you can read many more online (I subscribe to the New York Times and read it daily).

A curation strategy

I have previously written about my preferred Reader, Feedly, which has a useful interface and is easy to understand. I subscribe (at the time of writing) to thirty or so blogs that I follow, which means I get around twenty articles directed to my account every day. It doesn’t take long to go through them (all readers skim on the internet), you can usually know whether the article is useful within the first minute. If there are, let’s say, ten articles that might be useful, I will direct them to a file and sort them into appropriate headings.

For instance, if I know I am looking to write a series of posts on changes to SEO and Google, I will wait until I have enough articles collected under that heading and then dedicate a segment of time to plan out the series.

This should be a seamless operation. Don’t waste time by reading every article as research as it comes into the Reader, wait until you have grouped a number of articles under a common heading, it will be far more efficient. An even better way to do this is to annotate each link as you place it in your file. So if I have, for example, found a useful article about developing a content strategy for accountants, I might place the URL in the file under a general heading “Accountants” but use the “Ctrl + K” shortcut to create a hyperlink and rename the entry “Good article that lists 10 ways for accountants to repurpose content”.

Twitter is also a useful source for articles to feed your content ideas bank. If you don’t already have a Twitter account, then please take some free advice and set up Twitter. Even if you don’t tweet you can use it to aggregate content from experts. To do this you create a List in your account, and every time you find a blog that might be useful, add the writer’s Twitter handle (the “@XXX”) to your List. That way you always have ideas in your content bank, accessible any time you have internet access.

Paying attention to questions

How many questions do you get asked a day? Not just from clients, but from colleagues? If you are a mature professional, the answer is likely “plenty”. Can you remember those question two weeks later? Likely not, you have moved on. Instead learn how to mine that database of collected wisdom.

When asked something, take just a moment to place the question in a file, perhaps labeled “Questions for Content Ideas Bank” or whatever. And believe me, because the source is part of a back and forth discussion, the resulting article will follow quickly.

On the other hand don’t rely on representative industry magazines or blogs, some are better than others. Many professional journals are written for fellow professionals and drafted in quite a stilted (believed to be “professional”) style. They also tend to focus on technical detail. Your aim should be to explain technical issues in a discursive manner, ideally by telling a compelling story.

In coming posts we’ll look at other ways to find inspiration for your content creation.

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

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