My web site host had a hardware problem a few weeks back. This blog was offline for about 10 hours. Visitors looking for law library content wouldn’t have noticed because it was overnight and they tend to come during the day. But there were some angry customers on social media as the outage grew longer and longer. Some said they’d leave the web hosting company. While I recognized the frustration, it made me wonder whether they would, and about service retention. What does it take to make a service sticky enough for people to stay?
The notion of stickiness is familiar in product development through books like Made to Stick. When you’re developing an idea, thinking about whether it’s sticky is a good place to start. Once it’s in place, though, how do you retain those customers? And how do you do it both at the macro – the law library – and the micro – the individual services – levels?
It’s a challenging topic for law libraries. We don’t really sell a product and have the ability to grow a market, in the way that commercial customer retention frames it. It seems as though the goal should be to find an equilibrium. When we provide a law library service, we should understand the cost to provide it. Cost in licensing fees, staff time, space cost if we pay rent or have indirect or chargebacks. Opportunity cost matters as well, because we can’t do everything.
In the balance, though, is how much more we’re willing to pay to keep a researcher using our service. That side of the equation is harder, I think, because it includes soft concepts as well as money. It can creep up on us until the total cost of delivering the service exceeds the value – to the law library – to provide it.
I was talking this over with someone and we decided a simple example of a really sticky service is personal email. It is frequently free in that you don’t pay directly for it. You may be monetized by Google term-searching your email for advertising or you may pay your ISP for internet and get free email.
The cost then of moving or staying is pretty much the same: nothing. But once you have an email address, and saved email, it becomes more difficult to move. I have family members who have never left AOL because they don’t know how. Getting a new address is easy; bringing your email with you is not something everyone feels comfortable about.
My web hosting service is where this started. Unlike email, it’s a paid service. When you pay for a service, you’re probably cognitively biased to think you made a good choice. As much as anything, that will make the product stickier.
Some products are just more heavily geared to retention. Luxury goods, for example, which focus heavily on exclusivity, are designed to appeal to consumers for things that are prioritized higher than cost. People buy $5 coffee for a reason and it’s not necessarily taste.
Legal publishers have used point-earning affinity or loyalty programs to get students attached to their product. That attachment – plus working at a firm that uses the same product – solidifies that commitment. I expect they can trace whether lawyers ever leave one product, if they have the discretion to do so, during their careers.
When we have to pay for a service though, we may tend to do more research. Law libraries compare legal research vendors and products they sell, both features and cost where possible. When you are unhappy with your service, you need to be unhappy enough to go back through that research process.
In the case of a web site host, you then need to move your files and data over and reconfigure it all. Like any service, you’ve got the cost of the service plus the time and other resources – basic knowhow – to use it properly. A switch from a legal research provider may require learning new search syntax, a new interface, and take time away from billing clients.
Stickiness in Legal Research
Fear is a good adhesive in legal research product selection. There are lawyers who go without any paid service, but there are just as many who buy duplicate, overlapping services. We purchase them because we – or the people we support – fear missing a case or resource if they purchase only one service.
I would argue fear is the most powerful element in legal research product stickiness. Whether it’s a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) or fear of what competitors are doing (benchmarking), we may license content out of fear and demote other concepts (like utility and cost) because of it.
I’m not sure cost and content are as sticky as they once were. As services move towards simpler search interfaces, and content is largely commoditized, there is less to distinguish one from another. Vague marketing handwaving about AI and comprehensiveness don’t seem to have actually become measureable values.
Past exposure is probably a factor in some contexts. Law firms in particular would, I imagine, be less likely to leave a product if it required a retooling of the lawyers using it. It may be critical to understand who is using the tool because if it’s largely intermediated by library staff, the opportunity cost (lost billable hours, etc.) may require a different calculation.
Some law library services are sticky by nature. Those are the ones where we pay for licensed electronic content that a lawyer may not be able to afford on their own. Or staff-powered services where we provide an expertise that the lawyer lacks or doesn’t have time to do themselves.
Unlike many service providers, our goal should be to create an offering that, as a whole, makes the people who use our law libraries want to continue doing so. A single service may or may not be key to that retention. Even if it is (“I only use the law library because it has X product”), we can create a sticky context around it.
We should be cautious about our perception of our own services though. One law librarian explained to me that her library provided “Cadillac” service: premium, luxe. I looked at lawyer social media, discussion boards, Google Maps reviews. If their service was a Cadillac, the people who talked about it thought it was up on cinder blocks.
Some services do not even meet the initial “is this product sticky” test. Law libraries can operate in contexts that do not require them to challenge assumptions about the necessity or viability of a product. We can accrete bad ideas if we don’t do this work up front. The fact that a service gets used doesn’t mean it’s a service that needs to be offered.
Similarly, every law library I’ve worked at has had champions. These lawyers extol our services and skills. But they often don’t have a frame of reference. It is not uncommon in our profession to have lawyers claim that their libraries are excellent while the actual services delivered at those libraries are dramatically different.
This can mean that our equilibrium is lower than other businesses. Honestly, if a lawyer or member of the public doesn’t value what our law library provides, it’s not like there are lots of competing options out there. That can itself be a bit of a trap, because the people who need what we offer don’t have many – any – competitive choices. Incorrect self-perceptions, overblown sense of value, and lack of competitiveness can all become factors that undercut a law library if, say, funding cuts become an issue. It’s important to step away from your work and law library and see it with a critical eye.
We’ve found equilibrium by benchmarking what local photocopying services charge (public libraries, the clerk of courts’ offices) and charging the same. If we charge more, the lawyers might print less, especially if we circulate books. We don’t charge less because we need to maximize revenue. In similar ways, we’ve found sweet spots for document delivery charges, based as much as what others charge as what the market might actually bear.
Most law libraries do not face direct market competition. Except in metropolitan areas – where a law firm, a law school, and a courthouse law library may co-exist and provide overlapping services – we tend to provide the same services without fear of competitors. This is especially true if we build services based on what others are doing.
In general, licensing content is not going to make your law library unique. Our special collections may be important to us but in many cases, they are not accessed enough by our entire audience to make them powerful for retention. A law library should do the things it is uniquely placed to do.
If you’re going to focus on content, build up and deliver content that is geographically unique to your law library (local court opinions, local regulations). If you have a membership focus, create services that are members-only. Create news feeds and update tools that use email to deliver content unavailable on commercial platforms. State court systems (dockets, trial court opinions, &c.) and metropolitan news can be non-existent on legal publisher services, no matter how comprehensive they claim to be.
Create Cognitive Bias
Look for ways to make people biased towards your services. Things like the Mailchimp High Five build a connection (and a game) with email campaigners create a cognitive bias, an attachment to their product. Give them things that are library-branded (reciprocity bias) or that otherwise keep them connected to your library. Amplify their choice of your library with a library card or symbol of membership (choice-supportive bias).
A membership fee may do it – or a premium tier of service – so long as the fee is tied to value received. The point of considering bias is not to manipulate or game your audience. They’ll recognize an inauthentic offer. But consider, when you develop a service or marketing offering, how it will support customer retention.
Cost is a funny thing. If you have recurring fees for your audience, think about how you feel when your electronic license is coming up for renewal. A renewal notice can be the point where cost is no longer sticky, since you are asking them to reassess the value of the relationship.
If you can create this sort of bond with your researchers, they can end up recommending your library or services to friends and colleagues. They can become champions when you get into inevitable funding fights. They will want the best for you, because they want the best for themselves.
Stay in touch with your audience. When my web site went offline, my service provider had a link showing the server status. It wasn’t great but it let me know they were working on it. That sort of transparency can be useful. Find ways to share meaningful – not just marketing – communications by email with your audience.
If you have outages or other events that could negatively impact your audience, do you communicate them as meaningfully as you do when you have good things to share? If you are closed for a holiday, do you post a warning days in advance or does it only show “Closed” on the day you’re closed? Communication has its own equilibrium, as transparency can quickly become over-communication or spam.
A new service may take some time to find its equilibrium. I saw a library roll out a service during the pandemic that was clearly unsustainable. It required a lot of staff time and didn’t create a lot of value, either as a marketing tool or in researcher benefit. It disappeared after a few weeks. Create your idea and commit to it but do the work up front and after roll out to make sure it creates value but not at the cost of your staff’s ability to deliver other services.
I don’t think equilibrium – or retention – is set-and-forget. Value changes over time. Context changes over time. Your resource availability changes, as funding grows or shrinks, as staff gain skills or move on and create vacancies. The cost of products rises and frequently do not correlate to any increase in content or value. A law library director should be looking at the law library’s portfolio to assess the balance on a regular basis.
When I moved to the web host a few years ago – after running my own server, which had its own outages – I did a good deal of research. The company is a good one with a positive reputation and terms and conditions that are supportive of the customer. A 10-hour service outage was frustrating. In context, plus the uptime commitment that meant 50% of my monthly cost was refunded, it is more trouble to move to another provider. Another provider can’t guarantee uptime and the cost of getting to a new provider isn’t zero. For now, the things my provider offers for me to be a customer are enough for me to stay.
Editor’s Note – This article is republished with permission of the author with first publication on his blog.