An article on A List Apart recently caught our attention here at Stem. R. Stephen Gracey’s post Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs wonders whether FAQ sections on websites actually work. While he acknowledges their popularity, he’s got a beef with them because they rarely answer the questions he actually has.
Gracey’s post offers some solid advice for good FAQs, including:
- don’t patronize/talk down to the visitor.
- Don’t include FAQs just for the sake of including FAQs.
- Keep them short & sweet.
- And most importantly, use real FAQs: questions people actually ask.
The post also quotes Jakob Neilson, who says “Too many websites have FAQs that list questions the company wished users would ask.” Gracey concludes that ideally, if there are in fact legitimate questions that your users frequently asked, you shouldn’t just default to dumping them into an FAQ:
“FAQs are ubiquitous and familiar and occasionally helpful. They have a place in your content strategy, but use them carefully: if your users are asking the same questions frequently, consider how you can improve your content before reaching for a FAQ.”
At Stem, we’ve helped several clients develop custom FAQ collections [see: Ron Chapman’s Florida Criminal Records FAQ, or Jonathan Rosenfeld‘s Bed Sore FAQ], and we agree with the majority of Gracey’s advice. It’s important not to view FAQ collections as thinly-veiled sales pitches; but rather an opportunity for lawyers to establish themselves and their knowledge in a professional manner.
Gracey’s advice is also somewhat distinguishable: the FAQs he refers to are likely from companies selling products and services. The legal industry also sells service, but it’s the intangible product, expertise, that the user is really after. The fact that most complex questions can’t be fully articulated in an FAQ item, or a blog post for that matter, helps make it a formidable style of content marketing. And like other forms of content, there is a challenge: you must deliver enough quality information within the FAQ items to draw follow-up email questions and inbound links. Failing to do so, by the same measure, won’t have the marketing impact that most desire.
Some of the tasks and suggestions we’ve ‘tested’ when developing legal FAQ collections have included:
- Asking lawyers to put themselves in the potential client’s shoes. What issues keep them up at night? What key industry changes are on the horizon?
- To that end, we’ve often assembled question collections (answers redacted) from other FAQs on the same subject (including non-legal collections, which often prove very valuable) and presented those questions as a starting point.
- Asking lawyers what questions they find themselves answering again and again?
- And related, encouraging them to keep a running list for future updates to the collection.
- Encouraging lawyers to give away their knowledge on topics they could never justify billing for. Even the most basic questions (coming from the right client) can require a time investment. Similar to forwarding an ‘introductory article’ on a topic, an on-point legal FAQ can describe an issue in short order. The fact it serves as online marketing collateral means your content is multitasking.
- Finding non-lawyer experts to help formulate potential questions. These individuals are often available either in-house (especially with boutique firms), or by tapping into the lawyer’s industry-oriented business relationships.
- Execute keyword and other web-based research to find out what topics are being searched for by the target audience. We tend to run keyword volume reports for any online publishing initiative.
We also encourage lawyers to stay away from the types of questions Gracey and Neilson dislike: questions lawyers wish their clients would ask. These include strictly self-serving questions like “Why should I hire you as my lawyer?” and “What can your firm offer me that others can’t?”
Of course, we can’t forget the money question: Where’s the value? Going beyond FAQs as an opportunity to show off lawyer expertise, FAQ collections are a solid tactic to publish in a meaningful way. When a collection stands alone, it can become a valuable addition to the lawyer’s group of web properties. It also helps the lawyer become better aligned with the subject matter they most want to become associated with. Especially for lawyers with a niche or boutique practice, content depth online can’t be underestimated. From an SEO point of view, this depth not only addresses the long-tail type searches, but over time, will help create the authority and trust qualities that are so important for competitive search terms.
Finally, I’d like to address the strong relationship legal FAQ collections can have with law blogs. Consider the interplay, and how FAQs can:
- serve as a starting point for a blog discussion, without re-hashing factual details,
- act as a ‘best of’ collection for a blogger’s most important posts or an important sub-topic collection, or
- help remove non-opinion based posts from a lawyer’s blog.
FAQ collections do require maintenance, and ideally, authors are adding new Q&A sets as part of their publishing routine. For those who just can’t see themselves blogging, FAQs might also prove a viable alternative. The overall time commitment is about the same, but FAQs can be less opinion-driven, and don’t have constant issue of post currency. Those issues aside, I can’t imagine not pairing an FAQ collection together with a lawyer blog – the combined value, IMO, is worth more than the solo publishing efforts.
Many thanks to my colleague Emma Durand-Wood who’s helped me hash through these issues and co-draft this post. We both think Legal FAQ collections are a publishing tool with room to evolve. In the future, we’ll explore this topic in more depth, along with tactics for publishing and distribution.