Have you heard the new Wu-Tang Clan album, The Wu – Once Upon A Time in Shaolin? Unless you’re a millionaire, probably not. The Clan’s new album will not be sold in stores, nor will its singles be found on iTunes, nor will the album be streamed through any online service. The Clan is going to produce one, and only one, copy of this album. The album will go on a tour of museums, galleries and festivals before being sold to a single private buyer.
This is an utterly foreign concept in the music industry, but it’s also a brilliant one. The Clan is making it clear that they consider their new album to be not a collection of songs to be purchased for 99 cents each (or more likely, ripped and shared for free), but a work of art. You might think that’s a little pretentious, but I think it’s a truly radical way of envisioning and branding the band’s work. And I think there’s a lesson to be drawn by law firms from the Clan’s experiment, one that relates to lawyers’ publishing and content marketing efforts.
No, I’m not suggesting your lawyers take their blog posts on a tour of art galleries. But consider what’s happened to the music industry over the past decade or so, and think about parallels to our own market.
For most of the second half of the 20th century, there were two ways in which mainstream pop music performers made money: commercial sales of their music (on media that evolved from 45s, LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes to CDs, MP3s, and iTunes) and ticket sales from live performances. Then along came Napster and the file-sharing revolution, and the first category of revenue nosedived and has never really recovered. iTunes helped save albums and singles from complete collapse, but many people will tell you that 99 cents for a single, as affordable as it sounds, is still overpriced.
Accordingly, many performers resigned themselves to releasing albums as loss leaders, taking what little revenue they could muster and hoping the songs would encourage fans to attend concerts, buy T-shirts, and so forth. This is the classic example of “freemium” services that we were all talking about five years ago. But even live appearances aren’t immune from technological disruption: concertgoers commonly use their smartphones to record a performance and upload it to YouTube (Google your favourite artist and see what comes up under “Video.”) It’s not the same as being there live, but it’s a whole lot cheaper and more convenient. So you can see why the Wu-Tang Clan was motivated to try something different.
Now, think about law firms. As Steve Matthews and I wrote in Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms, lawyers produce two types of content: stuff they sell (products and services delivered to clients) and stuff they give away (newsletter articles, blog posts, CLE presentations, etc.). The first generates revenue directly; the second is meant to promote the lawyer’s profile and expertise in order to encourage paying work of the first kind. The second kind of content is not just given away, it’s scattered to the four winds, circulated as widely as possible (most recently through the fascinating new CanLII project, CanLII Connects).
What if a law firm took a page from the Clan and decided that, in addition to giving away most of this second kind of content, it would start preparing and packaging some of that content in an exclusive format? What if, every 12 months, a firm commissioned each partner in a practice or industry group to write one really insightful, incisive article pertaining to the practical application of the law to clients in that industry — and then instead of posting those articles online, the firm packaged them into a handsome, high-quality print-only handbook and made just 10 copies, to be provided, free, solely to the firm’s 10 top clients (current or desired), for a period of 30 days?
After that 30 days, the firm could choose among many options. It could accept bids from clients to keep their copies permanently, with the proceeds going to a charity of the client’s choice. It could destroy 9 copies of the handbook and make only the 10th available to the highest bidder, proceeds again going to charity. It could make the initial group smaller — say, 5 — and decline requests from other clients to receive a copy until one of the first 5 dropped out, thereby creating a permanent waiting list and ongoing demand for access to the materials. It could invite the clients to a “Meet The Authors” cocktail event, where the lawyers who contributed to the book would circulate, talk about what’s happening in the industry, answer questions, and otherwise display their expertise — the “live performance” of the recorded work.
All, some, or very few of these tactics or approaches might be the right fit for your firm or its clients, and that’s fine. The point is to make your firm rethink its attitude towards its content. As I’ve said repeatedly over the past several years, law firm marketing efforts frequently stumble because the firm does not really differentiate itself from its competition and because its published materials are usually boilerplate, rote summaries of new cases or basic procedures — nothing to set the firm apart. Considering that this content is usually dragged out of lawyers on deadline as a non-billable obligation, it’s no wonder the lawyers rarely try to make the content outstanding, and no wonder it falls flat. If the lawyers don’t value the product, why should clients?
I suggest you use the Wu-Tang Clan as inspiration to think differently about what you produce. The Clan was tired of its work being treated as a commodity: its members care deeply about what they produce, and they wanted to make a point that its fans and customers should care, too. If your lawyers were told they were writing a work of art, to be provided exclusively to the most prestigious buyers of legal services around, do you think they would up their game? And do you think clients, told they were being given exclusive temporary access to platinum-quality work, would look at that work with a greater respect, and at the firm that provided it in a new light?
Can it be all so simple? There’s only one way to find out.