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Episode 65: Leveraging Thought Leadership to Effectively Create New Business

Guest: Adrian Lürssen, Co-Founder & VP of Strategic Development at JD Supra

Episode 65: Leveraging Thought Leadership to Effectively Create New Business

Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Adrian Lürssen, co-founder and VP of strategic development for JD Supra, a law news site that publishes and distributes analysis, commentary, articles, blog posts, videos and other content written by leading lawyers and law firms around the world. He brings a wealth of new media expertise, having been one of the first employees in the door at Yahoo, where he created and managed one of the company’s first teams of editors and writers. Today, he’ll tell us about JD Supra and how the digital world has evolved in terms of creating opportunities for lawyers and law firms. Adrian, welcome to the program.

Adrian:  Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Sharon: Glad to have you. Tell us about your background. You’re a true entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur. How did you come to the legal space?

Adrian:  That’s kind of you to say. As you said, I spent some time at Yahoo during the first rise of the web back in the 90s, so I’ve been online since the early 80s with BBSs and dial up and teaching myself how to program all those things. One way I’d describe it to people is that no matter what I’ve done in graduate school and in my various enterprises, I have always had a very deep interest in connecting audiences to the content that interests them the most. I’ve done this in a variety of ways that, if there’s time, I can explain everything, from when I was in grad school helping build English department textbooks to teach writing to undergraduates, and onwards from there. I’m the son of an old-school print journalist and I think what I inherited from him is a desire to provide to an audience the content, entertainment and information that they want. I’ve just done that at various stages in my life.

In terms of JD Supra, after leaving Yahoo, I had small children. I lived out in the woods in a remote part of northern California, where I met CEO and founder and my dear friend Aviva Cuyler, the CEO of JD Supra. She is a practicing attorney, a business lawyer and she had this idea that the written content produced by lawyers and law firms is one of the most important and prime forms of visibility, professional marketing and business development that they can put out there. She was trying to conceive of a way to do that and she was in the early stages of building up JD Supra when she asked me, because of my digital media background, for help with this, to offer her some advice. That steamrolled, until by the time JD Supra became what it is today, which everybody knows and uses, she had kindly put me in the position of being a co-founder. Basically, as a digital media person, I connected with my old friend Aviva, a lawyer, and between the two of us, we started building up what JD Supra is today.

Sharon: What brought you online so early? I know you have a passion for words and writing, and to me it’s unusual that you were a techie early on. What brought you over? What intrigued you about that?

Adrian:  There are two answers to that question and the first one that I always tell people is “thank God for the internet” because people who are getting their liberal arts degrees—actually, it made them employable. I had a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and I was going down the path of probably, in some fashion, making money as a writer. My day job was somewhere along the lines of being a reporter. I was starting to freelance, and the internet came along and saved me from that.

The interesting thing about Yahoo—and it sort of pertains to the answer—is that it was a company created by people who were in the business of creating software companies, but it was actually a media company. I’ve said this before, but it was really interesting to participate in, to watch the way in which a business is run and grown. As a software business trying to learn how to be a media business, they needed people like me and many, many others to leave a mark on that.

In terms of computers in general, many years ago, when I was young and I first came to this country from South Africa, my parents took me with them to dinner at a friend’s house. I was in the sitting room while the adults were elsewhere having dinner. The guy had a computer and I sat down in front of it and I literally, during the course of the evening, taught myself how to program it. After dinner, the guy gave it to me, essentially, and said, “Here, you should have it.” Computers, how they work and what they mean, have always been something that has been, I suspect, easy for me to understand. Since that moment of time, I’ve had a relationship with them and used them the way I want to use them.

Sharon: That’s really interesting. It seems like different aspects of the brain that came together. I want to ask you, is there anything about the legal industry or lawyers or the legal space that attracted you or that keeps your attention? Could this have been any profession?

Adrian:  That’s a really interesting question and I will answer it starting with a response to what you said previously, and that is that even though I’m not a coder, I certainly taught myself back in the 80s all of those languages that are now non-existent. There is quite a very close connection between writing a program and writing, for example, a story, a piece of fiction. They all have their own internal laws and implications, and I think people could spend more time looking at that. It’s quite an interesting overlap between the story you tell through coding and the story you tell through words.

In specific answer to your question, I would say that not only is it attractive to work with lawyers, and this became apparent as we grew JD Supra, but it also almost feels, at this point, inevitable. There’s a very simple way in which I mean that. We are participants in a landscape today in which it’s never been easier to say something online to a constituent audience. It’s never been easier to stand up before the microphone and speak. One of the places where we suffer—and you can talk about the various ways in which the suffering might occur—is that everybody’s talking and very few people have something to say. It impacts things. What’s fascinating and what became very apparent to me very early on, is that lawyers actually have something to say, and it’s hard-earned and well-conceived. They’ve worked very hard to put themselves in the credible position of having those things to say. Not only that, the people who are there to listen to what they have to say need to hear it. It’s very different than the rest of the online landscape, where it’s great to hear from my friends what movies to go to and what restaurants to eat at, what to see, and what animated GIFs and videos are entertaining, but in the transaction online between what the lawyers are saying and what their audience needs to hear, it’s existential. It’s very much a need-to-know thing. I actually operate and work with JD Supra in an environment that is both fascinating and necessary, and that’s my answer.

Sharon: That’s really interesting. What does JD Supra mean? Maybe it’s a legal term or a Latin term, I don’t know. How did you come up with the name and what did you want to communicate with that name?

Adrian:  Aviva Cuyler came up with it, and it’s a reference to citing in a filing, like ibid or the ref. I think the lawyers listening in could do a better job of describing it. It’s been years since I thought about it in this context, but it is essentially a Latin footnote to do with references that have been made before it in a court document. Hopefully, from a branding point of view, it’s taken on a larger context than that and we have grown into what JD Supra means today, certainly for people that use us and are aware of it.

The interesting thing about it is that, at that time when Aviva was conceiving of JD Supra, her focus was this idea that people who produce court filings and successful court decisions and all the rest, those types of writing create tremendous credibility and professional value for lawyers. Since then, we’ve taken on a much bigger task of authors delivering analysis and commentary and legal alerts and client alerts and blog posts. The early name referenced a specific type of legal writing and we’ve since grown in that regard.

Sharon: How does JD Supra work? You sign up, pay and submit? What is the process?

Adrian:  Our clients work with us for our audience. We are in the visibility business and one of our two products, I’d say, is distribution. Oftentimes, when we ask people who are with us why they came on board, the answer has been, “Because you have an audience that I want.” That’s what we do. We take law firm content, largely the content that’s being produced already, all of those alerts and blog posts and multimedia that is making sense of the law, and our readers are in the business of drawing that readership basis. They subscribe to very specific things. There are people who want to know about Dodd-Frank and healthcare reform and patent litigation and every legal issue out there. They subscribe and ask clients for that information, and it is delivered to them in a custom collection of content on a daily basis as new content comes in. That’s the distribution aspect of it.

One of the things we’ve grown into—because this notion in the digital space of thought leadership and how it works online has settled and become sophisticated—now people are not only interested in reaching a larger audience, but they’re also interested in knowing who that audience is and what opportunities exist in that engagement. What we also provide is the intelligence for people to act on the engagement. That comes in two forms. There are very robust analytics, which allow people to see who’s interacting with their work and find the opportunities therein. Then, we have access to a larger data product looking at readership across the entire JD Supra platform. We’re getting to the point where our clients are using it not just for visibility, but also to get a sense of trends in industries and marketplaces, and they’re making decisions based on that. They’re making decisions about their content strategy, about their business growth, about practice groups and all of the rest based on what they’re learning from a larger pool of data that measures sentiment in almost every industry.

Sharon: Wow! I know that one of your titles is VP of Strategic Development. It sounds like a strategy that makes a lot of sense, having sat in so many meetings where you were trying to ascertain which practice group to emphasize or where your investment should be, when there wasn’t a lot of information.

Adrian:  Yeah, I’ll tell you—I’m speaking later this fall on the east coast at one of the LMA Regional Conferences, and we’re talking about this concept of client-led growth. One of the things I see right now—and I think this is supported in many ways by the digital landscape in general—is there’s been a rise in this notion of account-based marketing. Within legal, it’s generally referred to in a number of different ways, and we internally refer to it as client-led growth. I think it has, at the heart of it, some things the really savvy marketer has always known, which is that marketing isn’t a matter of putting in front of people what you’re interested in them knowing, but finding out what the people you want to connect with actually care about and then delivering that to them. Read A Data, which measures people’s behavior online as they go looking for the information, they want to know about the things that are keeping them up at night, is a really, really interesting way to support client-led growth and account-based marketing. It allows you to see—and we see our clients do this—they are able to prioritize where to spend their money and time on various topics, but it also allows you to see opportunities.

I’ll give you an example of this. A particular business development director from one of our client firms had the opportunity to look at his firm’s data for the first time. Most of the people who were looking at it were in PR and communications, since it was a content initiative, and when he saw the data, his immediate response, without hesitation, was, “Oh my God, we’re approaching that company from the wrong angle. They are looking at information that has nothing to do with the practice group with which we’re trying to set up a meeting. They are reading content developed and written by an entirely different practice group, and that is our door into them.” That is one small, anecdotal example of how this Read A Data supports very savvy activity and brings thought leadership and content marketing further down the funnel from visibility, credentialing and branding to actual supporting of business development activity.

Sharon: Such powerful information. I was just thinking the same thing, for legal marketers to have the information and be able to show their lawyers how they can repurpose all this content they’re constantly creating and get it out there, as well as to see who’s interested in it and what that means. It sounds very powerful.

You’ve been involved in the online world and the digital world for a long time. What trends have you seen in lawyers’ and law firms’ understanding of the value of online? Does everybody get it now, or do you still see pockets of resistance? What are you seeing?

Adrian:  I think for the most part, people get it. I’m speaking very much from the point of view of my wheelhouse, which is specifically around this notion of, in the age of information, participating by giving the information that people want. We live in a time in which people who are buyers of everything, from shoes to tennis rackets to cars to complex legal services, do their research as they want to and where they want to. You hear the phrase, “It’s a buyer’s journey.” That is supported and true, in large part, because of the extraordinary amount of information that’s out there that allows buyers to set their own journey. I think everybody understands that and participates. If you want to be visible and have any kind of professional credibility out there, a lot of people are answering that by being thought leaders. That’s where we are.

In terms of trends, what I was talking about a minute ago feels like the biggest trend right now, which is that for the longest time—I mean, if you think about it, making sense of the law predates the internet. It certainly predates this version of the internet. Law firms have sent clients’ analyses and commentary and guidance forever, and that used to be typed out on really expensive paper. Now it’s free in digital format and available to everyone, but in the early days of all this content coming online, and certainly in the social age, I think a lot of people saw it as very high up on that business development funnel as a credentialing activity. The biggest thing we’re involved in right now, based on the conversations we’re having with people and the tools we’re being asked to build, is that it’s very much, “What can we do about this visibility?” It’s no longer simply a matter of branding and credentialing. It’s also, “Let’s act on the business development,” and that is in multiple ways as opportunities arise. Sometimes, it’s single instances, in which somebody is very interested in your work and you could do something about that. At other times, it’s looking at a larger pool of data and seeing a trend in the marketplace that is a green field and an opportunity for you to act on and strike while it’s gold.

I think those are the kinds of trends. I don’t think everybody’s an expert at this point. I think there are still challenges and one of them has to do with the siloed activity of very, very busy people. This isn’t necessarily true in every instance, but one example of this is that typically, because we’re talking about content, in a firm of a particular size, oftentimes people who lead the charge with visibility of content might be in the PR and communications realm. They are very interested in getting larger visibility for their content and that’s what happens. To them, the ROI is more people are seeing this and people are targeted and they’re interesting people, and it’s interesting industries and companies—good! But if they share that information with their business development managers, that data would support the initiatives of the business development people in very different ways than how it’s supporting what they’re doing in PR and communications.

For me, the challenge is getting people to understand how valuable it is to share this. For example, some of our more savvy and sophisticated clients who, when they go on stage at conferences and talk about this, say things like, “Once a month, get people in very different roles and very different departments to sit down in front of your metrics and your analytics, and look at them. Have them decide together what it means to the firm and find action based on the initiatives you’re doing.” I see as a trend, more people being aware of the power of that, and I see as a challenge, the need for more people to do that.

Sharon: Right, you need to have the ability to have that information. Now, the challenge is figuring out what you need, what it means and what you should do with it, which is exactly what you are talking about.

Adrian:  Yeah, and I’ll give you an example. Figuring out what it means typically leads to somebody feeling resistant about this, saying, “Well, I know a client of mine is very interested in everything we write about cybersecurity. I’m not going to pick up the phone and say, ‘I see you reading all my cybersecurity content. What do you want to do about that?’” I think the people who are making the most of this stuff are being smart and creative and have an interesting, thoughtful and reasonable approach to it. You don’t have to call up your client and say, “I saw that you just read my article about XYZ,” but it’s perfectly reasonable to get in touch with them and say, “You know, you’re a valued client, and I want you to know that we do webinars about cybersecurity, and because you have a legal team spread across multiple offices, we’re going to put on a webinar just for you about cybersecurity. Do you have any interest?” That data point comes from seeing a legal team at a particular company reading everything that your firm is putting out about cybersecurity. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that they, of course, care about cybersecurity.

We actually just issued a video in which one of our clients is talking about this. One of his key values of Read A Data is what he calls meaningful face time. He says, “The entire point of my marketing department is to create meaningful face time for my lawyers when they sit down in front of their clients and have meetings with prospective clients.” Meaningful face time for him comes from knowing what those people in those industries and companies care about most, and he derives that information from what he’s able to see about what they’re reading.

Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. We all know we’re being followed and everybody knows what we’re looking at, but people still get—and I’ve heard people describe it this way—they use the word “creeped out.” If somebody calls you up and says, “I saw that you’ve read three of our last newsletters,” you may have to find a different way to express that. You gave a good example because I think that’s an art in and of itself. How do you soft pedal or come in through the backdoor, in terms of using the information and targeting what they’re interested in, without saying, “I’ve had my eye on you for six months.” We still have this illusion that nobody’s looking and we have the option of opting out.

Adrian:  I’ll just say quickly that I’ve been telling this story a lot lately, so some people listening in might have heard it, but I’ll try to be quick. A client of ours, this is how she used this information. First of all, her attorney said to her, “We want to write about opportunity zones.” The first way she used Read A Data [!!!]was to support that this was worth doing. Read A Data [!!!]indicated that everybody cared about opportunities zones. So as a marketer who’s always going to say yes to requests made of her, she simply used the data to prioritize when to do it. Secondly, they built a whole bunch of content, including investing in a video because the data supported that it would be worth the investment. Once all of that information was out there, they found that telecoms, and specifically regional telecoms, were very interested in that content, and her firm had a whole bunch of those as clients. She didn’t get in touch with them and say, “We see that you’re reading about opportunities zones,” but she focused on a campaign of direct mailing to existing clients, letting them know that, as a firm, they were a resource available around opportunity zones, and that led to new work.

There is a way to do this and manage this in which this risk aversion about creepiness is not really a consideration. That has more to do with the labels that everybody is throwing around today of data-driven marketing. You just make smart, reasonable decisions based on what the data tells you. On top of that, a huge amount of the interaction with this content is happening in the social realm, which is public. The people who are responding to it and letting you know that it’s valuable to them are doing it publicly, so there’s nothing creepy about joining them in that public conversation, even if it’s simply connecting with them on LinkedIn and saying, “Thanks for sharing my article.” It’s a worthwhile connection.

Sharon: Absolutely, and it is all about building those relationships, taking the online offline. It’s just that if somebody calls you up or emails you and says, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been following our material,” you feel like—it would make me think twice about whether I want to click on that content again, knowing that somebody’s looking. We all know everybody’s following what we’re looking at, but if it’s too blatant, it’s a little off-putting, that’s all.

Adrian:  Yeah, I agree with that.

Sharon: We could have a whole podcast on how you should approach it and how to artfully present it. Adrian, thank you so much for being here. This has been very interesting, and I appreciate you sharing your knowledge. You’re indeed a wealth of new media expertise, having seen it from its infancy.

To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. If you would like to contact Adrian, we’ll have his information and the JD Supra link in the show notes. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can be a catalyst for moving your firm forward. Thanks so much for listening.

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