“The Big Seed:” How law firms can aim big on the web

The first time I heard the phrase “big seed marketing” it set my gears turning.  I thought – how can law firms use the big seed to reach a larger audience, and increase success that our message reaches the right “ground?” It wasn’t until I spent some time with the humble samara that it all came together.

Every year about this time, the maple tree in our yard starts dropping thousands of “helicopters” – those spinning, double-sided seeds (fruits, actually, called “samaras”) that go everywhere.

This cleverly formed samara finds it way into the most interesting places – like the trunk of my car!

The success of the maple tree depends on these seeds –  and their success depends on how well they spread. A combination of aerodynamic form, a sticky surface, and sheer volume give the “helicopters”  a much better chance finding fertile ground on which they can root.

I can’t help but think of these seeds as a metaphor for digital communications and content marketing. I’m not the first to think this way. The term “big seed marketing” was first coined in 2007 by Duncan Watts and Jonah Peretti, and reintroduced to a new audience by Dan Zarella – Hubspot’s genius social media scientist – in his book “The Heirarchy of Contagiousness.”

In both pieces, the authors build out their ideas with a virus metaphor, rather than sticking with The Big Seed. Watts and Peretti focus on reach – the size of the initial wave of “infection” – to the exclusion of the qualities that help the idea spread. Zarella takes a deep dive into the specific qualities that make an idea “transmissible” and provides a lot of actionable tips (tweet at 4:30 pm, y’all!).

Personally, I’m not sure the virus metaphor can ever work for legal.  But the first time I heard the phrase “big seed marketing” (at the world’s most tweeted webinar) it set my gears turning. This is the power of a great metaphor. I thought – how can law firms use the big seed to reach a larger audience, and increase success that our message reaches the right “ground?” It wasn’t until I spent some time with the humble samara that it all came together in a simple formula:

(Good design + stickiness + quantity) x big reach  = best chance for new growth

Let’s unpack it!

Good design:

The samara’s special shape helps it take advantage of the wind and gravity, allowing it to travel far away from the parent tree – which casts too much shade to allow the seed to grow.

Similarly, you should do what you can to help your content soar. Create an editorial function that ensures your people are  producing high quality content that can be carried on the winds of  interests of your key targets and issues in the marketplace.

Many law firms make the mistake of leaving the editorial function almost entirely to the lawyers. If your “big seed” depends on their interest and availability, you will always be in a reactionary position, not strategic.

A strategic editorial function requires prioritization by the top levels of firm management and oversight by skilled and empowered editorial professionals. Their tools will include: editorial calendar, web-writing guidelines, clear approval and conflict-checking processes, and blueprints for various content types. This is a true communicator role, and should be integrated throughout the marketing function.

The objective should be the regular and frequent creation of relevant content that is cleanly formatted and well-written so it can  flow through various channels unimpeded.

For more on designing an excellent content program, see “Rebalancing for Content – The New Marketing Equation” by Rebecca Lieb.

Stickiness

Samaras have a sticky surface that helps them hitch a ride on animals and feet and noses especially. Again, this ensures they will move further from the parent tree and have greater chances of germinating.

What makes content sticky? According to the book “Made to Stick” – sticky ideas have 6 attributes which give them “SUCCES;”  Simplicity,  Unexpectedness,  Concreteness,  Credibility, Emotions and Stories.

Legal writing, on the other hand, can be very analytical, fact-based and yes, bland, to the detriment of simplicity, surprise and emotion. This might be okay for our lawyer constituency, but we also need to appeal to c-level executives and senior management who may not have a legal background, but play a critical role in legal services procurement. And let’s not forget, lawyers are humans too, and a certain kind of entertainment will always be appreciated.

The Deloitte “entanglement model” (talk about sticky!)  gives us some ideas on how to make our content stickier – by taking cues from B2C content marketing.

“We’re taking some pointers from B2C companies where the content is often short, sweet, and to the point, with the focus on benefits, and people are spoken to in a way they recognize. In the past, we often started with a white paper, with a big piece of thought leadership. We said, ‘What if we flip that around? What if we don’t start with the big thing but with the seed, the small idea?’ Not everyone is interested in a 20-page piece of content. Now we start with shorter pieces, such as our three-minute guides. We then look at the metrics see where the interest is; if there seems to be lot of interest in angle X, we’ll dive a little deeper there.”

Quantity

Maple trees release literally thousands of seeds over a period of weeks.

Again, look at Deloitte’s entanglement model.

Instead of one big thing – a whitepaper or booklet – what if we acted like the maple tree and released a lot of little things? Or what if we divided our big things into a lot of little things – a chapter a day for 10 days?  Think conversation instead of thought leadership. Then take an inbound marketing approach – release and measure, release and measure – and  use feedback to produce more targeted and relevant stuff. Create a sense of momentum and expectation – then deliver on it. Again, talk about sticky!

Big Reach 

And finally,  start out big! In the words of Brad Smith, “Other people will spread your message, but only if you reach enough people first.”

Once you’ve produced your seeds – give them a big push through all available channels. Conversely, make the most of what you have by publishing it over and over and over in your various channels.

  • Email lists – Email is still king! A great email list is worth its weight in gold. Be sure to communicate with your lists frequently enough that they don’t forget who you are and unsubscribe.
  • Content Syndication – Services such as JD Supra, Lexology, Mondaq can help your content reach a much larger – and oftentimes more qualified – audience.
  • Social Media – This is probably the most important channel for big seed marketing, especially when you have hundreds or even thousands of amplifiers in your organization. For inspiration, look to Morgan Stanley’s social media program where – theoretically – 17,000 financial advisors can tweet a single piece of content. That’s a big seed!
  • SEO  – Give your content a home on a big, well-optimized site, where it can continue to garner views via keyword search over months and even years. Case in point, my firm has evergreen content that is over 10 years old that STILL gets thousands of views a year. Your archiving strategy should take this into account.

And finally – Patience

Did you know that it can take a single maple tree samara years to germinate and produce a tree? Again, this is a pretty good metaphor for the sales funnel in B2B and legal. It can take a very long time for a lead to produce business and typical ROI models don’t always work.

But with a lot of intentionality – and a little luck – your seeds will germinate, like this one.

written by 

Molly Porter on Twitter

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