Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.
What If I don’t Have Any Content?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): I get asked this question a lot, generally from someone who has seen all the articles on my site and wonders how they can put up a site when they don’t have any published articles. My usual quick answer to that, by the way, is that I had exactly zero published articles when I first put up my web site. My more precise answer is that I believe that everyone can provide excellent content, if they think about what they already have and what their audience wants to know, and if they work on content on an ongoing basis. If I can make only one point about content it is this: on the web, the words “content” and “evolution” go together. Most of the well-known “content” sites had very humble beginnings. I remember about four years ago when Jerry’s site was one of the leading “content” sites for designing law firm web pages simply because it had two of the handful of good articles on the subject. Jerry, I’m sure you remember those days.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Two articles won’t make you competitive nowadays, that’s for sure.
Brenda Howard (BH): Very true. Especially if you are just starting your site and competing with law firms that have had sites and generated content for years. I remember when Jerry’s site was small – not so anymore. It is a treasure chest of information now
JL : Thanks, Brenda, but mine looks the 90 pound weakling compared to Dennis’s mammoth site, www.denniskennedy.com . How should someone without your depth of material get started, Dennis?
LB: You’re on point, Jerry. Web viewers can also validate the news they see online by visiting another news site, and making sure the information checks out.
DK : Let’s address the issue of published articles. Here’s a key point: with a web site, you are a publisher – you own a printing press. This fact is one of the revolutionary features of the Web. An article you write for your web site can easily have more readers than would an published article you write for a local bar journal. A second thing to remember is that your target audience is likely to be different than the audience of traditional legal publications. Third, one of the ideal web formats is the 200 – 600 word article that focuses on a single topic and includes practical tips, as opposed to case citations and scholarly footnotes. I don’t know of many legal publications that publish that kind of articles. Don’t get too hung up on “publications.” In fact, the way the Web works, you may find an e-mail one day from someone who wants to reprint one of the articles on your site.
JL : Your point about writing differently for the web is critical, probably worth a whole monthly column in itself. It is often a mistake to just take articles you have written for paper and move them to your web site in the same format. If the article is long, at a minimum you should “chunk” it, i.e., divide it into shorter pieces.
There is a general trend toward shorter attention spans, brought on in part by television. Don’t fight it, go with the flow.
BH : We can’t blame television alone. We have been inundated with information. People are expected to know more about every single topic out there, simply because the information is available. No one explains how a person is supposed to find the time to read all that material. It is the “information overload” that has our society reading shorter blocks of text and bullet comments. We simply don’t have the time to read it all. Even with shorter articles and byte size pieces of information, you can still spend hours researching a topic on the Internet. Jerry is correct in saying that writing for the Web is an article in itself, for now, let’s focus on where to get the content. Any other ideas, Dennis?
DK : To me, the best way to get started on content is to inventory what you already have, and this is the important part, with the idea of seeing what can be transferred to the Web. The buzzword here is “repurposing.” A few things are easy to see. Any articles you have published are candidates for transfer to the web site. After that, you need to put on your thinking cap. One excellent place to look is the form letters or memos you routinely send to clients describing certain processes or procedures, such as a memo on what to expect at a deposition.
JL : “Repurposing” is definitely a sound concept, but just make sure it doesn’t turn into “shovelware,” or just dumping in anything you have on hand.
BH : Good point. More is not necessarily better. It still has to be quality content. Each article should be read through and evaluated before using it.
DK : Older articles can be updated or broken apart into multiple articles. If you’ve spoken at seminars, handouts, outlines and PowerPoint slides certainly can become web content.ted. Video can and should be used in ways that adapt well to the Web.
JL: I love the idea of leveraging live seminars you’ve given onto the Internet. Among other benefits, it lets you get more mileage out of the material because it subtly highlights the fact that you are an expert: other people have looked to you to teach them on this topic.
Slide shows can be good, but you have to be careful with them on the Web. They can download too slowly. Only a small fraction of the audience today has T-1 lines, cable modems or DSL service. One way to speed them up is to avoid the use of gradient backgrounds (i.e., those with a gradual shift of color). I sometimes print out a PDF version of a presentation with six slides per page and use it along with the slide show version on the web, because I know some people dislike slide shows and won’t read them.
You can get the Adobe PDF writer program for $250; much less if you shop around. It’s easy to use. The PDF writer appears in your application “Print” menus as another printer. When you want to create a PDF file, you just select the PDF writer and choose the directory where you want the PDF file to appear. As Ross Perot would say, “It’s just that simple.”
By the way, I like to avoid calling all such shows “PowerPoint” presentations. Powerpoint is merely the name of one brand. There are many others, some of which are considered superior by many people. Corel Presentations and Astound are two popular alternatives. Personally, I like Lotus Freelance Graphics. Its default set of backgrounds look much more professional than those that ship with the Microsoft product, and the newest version of Freelance Graphics (included in the “Millenium Edition”) is clearly technically superior in the sizes of its HTML output (at least if you select the right options).
Compatibility is a big problem with PowerPoint. In many cases people with Netscape browsers can’t read PowerPoint slide shows at all. This may be acceptable if you are posting it on a law firm intranet, where you know all the users have Microsoft products exclusively, but it is a fiasco if you are going after a broad audience. You can select an option for Netscape compatibility when you export a show in PowerPoint 2000, but I haven’t had great success with this.
Another big problem to watch out for is that the slide shows are frequently unintelligible without a speaker. Look for an option to publish speaker notes along with the slides. It’s extra work to make them, if you haven’t already (as most people don’t), but it’s needed if your slides don’t stand on their own (as most of them don’t).
BH : That’s the biggest problem with presentation materials – the person is missing. Sure, there is a list of bullet points, but what do they mean? The presentation materials are only half the picture and the other half is the actual narrative provided during presentation. Make sure to adapt a presentation so that there aren’t as many “blanks” or you don’t have blocks of missing information.
JL : Absolutely. By the way, an exciting way to use your PowerPoint slides is in live presentations over the Internet. Many vendors offer facilities for broadcasting such content. WebEx, www.webex.com has a good reputation. This is a good way to hold a “virtual seminar” for your clients. An organization called LawMoney.com conducted a survey recently and found that there was a high demand for web-broadcast seminars among in-house counsel, a client group many law firms are willing to go to great length to keep happy.
BH: Jerry, this is the best of both worlds. This way, the visitor doesn’t miss the “how and why” of the presentation. Dennis, are there any other good content types?
DK: I think checklists make ideal web content. I was talking with Dan Evans who runs the excellent Pennsylvania Estate and Trust Cybrary site ( www.evans-legal.com/dan/ ). He told me that the page on his site that consistently gets the most hits is a checklist he wrote many years ago on what to expect during the probate of an estate. That doesn’t surprise me. This information is exactly what a visitor to such a site would like to see – useful, practical information – and, more likely than not, something you either already have or have been planning to prepare.
JL: This is a great example, and it reinforces the benefits of keeping it short that you mentioned earlier.
DK: Another example was given to me recently by an attorney who does a lot of traffic law. She asked what I thought about a chart that showed how much different insurance companies would raise your rates if you have a moving violation rather than a non-moving violation. Great idea!
JL: Yep. While it could be done as a static form, the ideal way to implement it would be with a database that took visitor input through a form with check boxes, etc., and then displayed customized results. People love interactivity at web sites. The problem is that it frequently requires some real computer programming, unlike static web site design, which is more like desktop publishing than programming. (Many professionals detest the term “Web programming,” as applied to Web site design, by the way).
BH: We like to call it Web development. [Smiles.] Developing a Web based application is truly the only way to provide interactivity between the visitor and site. While these are fun, a law firm could benefit by providing this type of activity. For example, a bankruptcy “test” could help a person determine how close they are to needing an attorney. They could answer 10 questions. If they get 7 out of 10 with a positive result, they would get a page that says, “Call us immediately”, if they got 5 out of 10 with a positive result, they could receive a page that says, “A debt re-organization is in order”, etc. These are not too hard to develop and the experienced attorney uses this type of criteria to categorize clients during a face-to-face interview. I would add a huge disclaimer saying that the process is returning generalized results, but it would still benefit the visitor and would encourage them to seek the appropriate remedy.
JL: Your bankruptcy example is excellent; there is at least one law firm out there that already has exactly what you are talking about. Another great way of adding interactivity is through online quizzes. These are a favorite of editors of paper magazines, because they do engage visitors. They have even more potential on the Internet, where they can be interactive. The Venable law firm has a good example: http://www.venable.com/lawquiz/lawquiz.pl .
What makes it even more attractive is that there is software that will take your questions and automatically add grading. I was going to save this tip for a future column about how to create a web site on a budget, but we’ll have plenty of material for that topic, so here goes. Here are two easy sources for quiz production aids:
If you know what you are doing, the hardest part of creating an interactive quiz is coming up with the questions.
DK: I’m a writer, so sometimes I forget that other people do not write on a regular basis or do not want to do so. I suggest hiring a freelance writer and working with him or her to generate content, either initially or on a regular basis. It shouldn’t cost much – we can all attest to how little freelance writers get paid. The writer can either work on material you already have or prepare new material at your direction. Brenda, you are probably the best person to comment on that approach.
BH: Most definitely. I had a client write her own content and it was not a pretty picture. There was quite a bit of rambling, but she was not objective enough to see that there was a problem. Fortunately, I have someone available that will read a submission and provide a critique. This is very inexpensive and well worth the money spent. If budget is a problem, provide the article to several other people and have them critique it for you. Make sure these are people who will honestly tell you what they think. The emperor should be told when he’s not wearing clothes. [Smiles.]
DK: Over the long haul, nothing generates great content better than a newsletter. Newsletters have a variety of other benefits and it’s hard to imagine a law firm web site that should not have a newsletter. Two other things I wanted to mention are prepackaged content and “blogs.” Many small firms purchase and use legal newsletters from a newsletter supplier. One approach would be to ask those suppliers if you can acquire content for your site.
JL: Mike Goldblatt, the original developer of the LawMarketing.com web site (now part of Findlaw.com), designed a set of pamphlets on topics of interest to consumers that is licensed through ClientPamphlets.com . This is not as effective as doing customized content, but it is better than no content.
DK: Another approach would be to use a web newsfeed service (e.g., www.moreover.com ) and give your site fresh news content on a relevant topic, such as tax developments, Supreme Court cases, etc. the updates come automatically once you “affiliate” and install the service on your site.
JL: ScreamingMedia.com is another example. You’ve had some experience with them, haven’t you, Brenda?
BH: Yes. I’ve used the newsfeed services mentioned and others. Another great one is iSyndicate, http://www.isyndicate.com/ . Keep in mind that there’s a difference between the services and the quality of content provided. There is “free” content, but it’s generally available on many other web sites. Then there’s content that you pay for and its value is that fewer sites provide that same content. I have a client that paid $500 a month just for content that was fed to his site from another site each week. It was worth it because the content only appeared on two sites on the Web. I would start with the “free” varieties, just to get my feet wet, and to figure out how the whole process works. Once this is done, conduct some research to determine whether or not it is worth the investment to pay for some content.
DK: “Blogs” (www.blogger.com) are my new favorite web phenomenon. In essence, they allow you to put an ongoing web journal of your writings on your web site, almost like a daily diary. If your site is designed to accentuate your personality, a blog might be a fascinating tool to let you easily put up opinions, idea and thoughts and get your audience to return on a regular basis. Jerry, perhaps I’ve gone too far out with that idea?
JL: One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard on Internet marketing for law firms was from Greg Siskind: “There is no single road to success on the Internet.” I think blogs are a classic example of this fundamental truth. For most lawyers, blogs would be a fiasco, possibly even dangerous. On the other hand, for a few lawyers, they could be perfect.
BH: Professionals should be careful of this method of providing content. Generally, the entries will be personal opinions – which could be inflammatory or derogatory. Some people love complete honesty and some people prefer diplomacy. As with any opinion article, it would be easy to alienate the person on the opposite side of the thought process. If the law firm emphasizes the “personal” side of their practice, this tool could be used successfully. However, this is a fine line and I would hesitate in recommending this. I have to agree with Jerry in saying that it would only be perfect for a select few.
DK: Let me turn to a content topic that gets debated a lot. Are links to other Internet resources content? I’m a big advocate of using links to useful resources as part of your content. I think you get credit on the Web for admitting that you don’t have all the answers and pointing people in the right direction and resisting the temptation to trap people on your site to sift through only your content. A collection of links can help you get a site up and rolling and then you can gradually fill in other content. The Estate Planning Links Web Site ( www.estateplanninglinks.com ) is a nice example of this technique.
JL: Well, Dennis, modesty is good, but it has its limits as a virtue. That site, which you designed originally, is a lot better than “nice.” It was highlighted not too long ago in the New York Times as one of the very best legal sites on the Internet.
DK: Thanks for remembering! If you use links as content, though, I suggest, you adopt one of the following approaches: ratings, annotation, or organization. The Texas Probate site ( www.texasprobate.com ) is a great example of a ratings approach. Here, there is a link to estate planning resources and each is rated on a scale of one to 4 chili peppers.
JL: Chili peppers! [Laughing.] I love it. Most gimmicks like this are not effective, but this one sounds like a good match for a Texas site. Add a little color, right?
DK: A “best of” list of links would be another example. Annotations, where you list good sites and then describe them, are extremely helpful to web users and, although they take a lot of work, a set of annotated links to other useful resources gives you great content. Finally, a list of links that is categorized and organized (even if only alphabetically) can also be useful content, especially when you are starting out. Jerry, you and I have somewhat different points of view on this, or have I worn you down on this point over the years?
JL: I’ve always felt that a properly planned and implemented list of links can be a significant addition to a site. Where I may part ways with you is my belief that poorly planned and implemented link lists predominate. All too many law firms assume that they should have link lists, so they include them without first asking what concrete benefits the link list will provide to the law firm. Remember, each link is an invitation for your visitors to leave your site and go somewhere else. Be careful before you issue too many such invitations.
You can benefit yourself by benefiting visitors to your web site. Before adding a link list, or any link, for that matter, ask yourself: is this really going to benefit visitors to my web site? If not, delete it.
BH : I agree with Jerry on this issue and will go further out on the limb. A site is created to provide a visitor with information about your services. As such, you’ll want to keep them on your site and not send them to another site via a link. The only time I recommend links that leave a site is when the site in question has provided a link back to my site. This is called reciprocal linking and it benefits both sites.
I believe that it is worth it to keep people on your site and you should provide all the content necessary for that visitor to feel comfortable with the amount of information you have provided. It is your duty to your visitor to provide them with the information they need.
Link sites are successful because they are a different type of business model. They are not selling their law firm’s services they are selling information. These sites can eventually generate enough “visitors” to justify the selling of sponsorship pages and/or direct advertising banners. They make their money off increased traffic and the advertising dollars that a high traffic site can generate. Most law firms are selling their services and the content simply instills confidence in the law firm. When the visitor leaves the law firm site, where does their confidence go? Enough said. It’s simply gone to another site. Now that we’re all in disagreement, are there any other content ideas?
JL: I don’t think there is really as much disagreement as there might appear to be. All three of us would probably agree as to whether a particular link list was a plus or a minus to a particular marketing plan. My point is, let’s make sure the list fits into our marketing plan, instead of just assuming that it does. If you are going to include a list, consider ways to “add value,” with Dennis’s suggestions of ratings, annotation, or organization being good places to start.
Many law firms will want to use a little trick for some or all of their external links: cause them to open up in a new browser window. That way, visitors can be directed to another site, without causing them to sever all links to your site. This is fairly easy to do. Just include the phrase TARGET=_blank on the anchor tag:
This technique, and others, are clearly explained at one of my favorite sites, Ken Johnson’s www.wwwscribe.com site. Any other good ideas, Dennis?
DK : I love small firm web sites that show a lot of personality. Here are two more easy content ideas. First, don’t limit yourself to legal content. Your pictures, articles and resources on Great Danes may ultimately be what gets you the new client. Second, for some people pictures are wonderful sources of content. Buy a digital camera or scanner and go to work. Put up pictures of employees, the firm picnic, the party celebrating your big verdict, especially if you can capture the personality of the firm.
BH : Ironically, you are correct. There is a software company that based its whole site around saving a particular species of tiger. Obviously, they sold software, but scattered throughout the site were references to activities, donations and other things that their company had performed to support this cause. Someone in management decided that this was not professional enough and had site redone to remove all references to this charitable cause. The uproar was heard throughout the company via email. The customers were very upset. It was this personalization that endeared the customers to this particular company. Needless to say, the old site was brought back.
JL: One law firm requires every lawyer photo to contain a favorite item that communicates something about that lawyer’s personality. Another example of innovation with photos was a law firm that got a lot of business from banks. They set up an area of their web site with photos of the children of people who worked at banks in their area. That was a great idea that created a lot of favorable “buzz” about that firm in its target market, but it is another illustration of Greg Siskind’s rule: this is perfect for that firm and its practice niche, but not the sort of thing that will work for every law firm.
DK : Let’s wind this up, even though content is one of my favorite topics, and I feel we’re just getting started. People hear everywhere that on the Web “content is king” and I think that can be intimidating. I suspect that everyone has good, even great, content on something. The important thing is not to let a perceived lack of content be a reason for procrastinating on getting going with your web site. Content evolves. Your clients and your audience will help you see the ways to evolve your content. Take a look around – I think you’ll be surprised to see what you already have. Get it out there.
JL: You are right on all counts. There’s plenty more we can usefully say about finding content; let’s return to this topic in a future column!
BH : I agree. We should return to the topic in the future. For now, the best advice is to start with that first article – the rest will follow.