The purpose of this post is to warn lawyers against allowing their published content to become manipulative, formulaic, and hollow. There are no photos, heartwarming or otherwise, in this article.
If you read content online these days, whether from a commercial news site or an aggregator like Facebook, you’ll have noticed a change in how that content is delivered. Startling headlines and tantalizing photos grab your attention with the promise of something uplifting, hilarious, or shocking. Clicking on the links brings you to articles that frequently deliver less than the captioned photos suggested (or to a “sponsored” story that’s little more than a product advertorial). But vertical sidebars accompanying that article feature equally arresting headlines and provocative photos of people or scenery, encouraging you to click and begin the cycle again.
If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, chances are it was courtesy of a company called Upworthy.com, which has mastered the art of exploiting online users’ curiosity and willingness to click links. This article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek explains the techniques behind Upworthy’s remarkable success in generating page views from people browsing aimlessly at work or school. Even if you enjoy Upworthy’s offerings, you should understand how and why your manipulation is being engineered.
The science of manipulation through content is also on display at your local movie theatre (or, more likely these days, in your Netflix queue). If you’ve walked out of a major studio release recently thinking, “I feel like I’ve seen that movie before,” it’s because you have. Hollywood movie scripts have been almost entirely captured by a 2005 screenwriting guide titled Save The Cat, which lays out a step-by-step, virtually page-by-page blueprint for what’s going on and what should happen next. This article in Slate tells the story of the Script Formula That Ate Hollywood, and will probably explain why so many recent big-screen features feel like rote productions — because they are.
Now, little of this is entirely novel. News publishing has always been a more formulaic and manipulative undertaking than most readers assumed. Headlines are written primarily to attract readers’ attention and impel them to start reading the story, not to accurately convey the story’s content, while “front-page news” is the story (and headline) calculated to be the likeliest to inspire a purchase, not the most important thing happening in the world today. As for formulaic writing, anyone who has leafed through a romance novel or a paperback thriller purchased in an airport has experienced that.
But the quick-hit, rapid-fire nature of online content is escalating these forumlae and manipulations to new heights. For a succinct and brilliant analysis of this trend, read this article from The Onion: Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning, By Meredith Artley, Managing Editor Of CNN.Com.
What has this got to do with you, the lawyer who produces content to inform readers and promote her expertise? Hopefully, at this stage, very little. The legal content market is so small, relative to the consumer market, that I don’t think it has yet drawn much attention from these tactics. But I worry that pretty soon, law firms will start getting pitches from “content advisors” who want to help drive traffic and page views with sure-fire article structures and dazzling headlines. I’m concerned that lawyers will be susceptible to these offers: many lawyers would happily outsource all responsibility for their content, and since much lawyer writing already leans towards being rote and pedantic, it’s not a long journey from there to arrive at content that’s packaged, sterile and manipulative.
The real promise of lawyer blogs, to me anyway, is the ability to open up a line of authentic communication between a lawyer and her current and potential clients — to display not just the lawyer’s expertise, but also her personality, opinion, passions, and sense of humour. Connecting with a lawyer through her online content is the first step towards connecting with her in real life, and from there, towards building a strong professional relationship. But it has to be in the lawyer’s own voice and about her own interests, and it has to be written in hope of genuine connection with real people.
The current trend in commercial online content is a million miles from authentic, and it has no interest in long-term anything: it is short-term, disinterested, exploitative, and more than a little cynical. So remember the real reasons why lawyers publish content, and learn to recognize the danger if and when the other type of content comes calling.