Three Things Legal Content Makers Can Learn from Axios

Axios, the new media company started by former Politico founders covering politics and business, doesn’t lack for clarity in mission — or brashness. In its manifesto, it speaks of a “broken” media:

Stories are too long. Or too boring. Web sites are a maddening mess. Readers and advertisers alike are too often afterthoughts. They get duped by headlines that don’t deliver and distracted by pop-up nonsense or unworthy clicks. Many now make money selling fake headlines, fake controversies and even fake news.

In a recent Q&A with PR Week about Axios’s vision, founder and executive editor Mike Allen stayed on message:

We saw in media so much volume and so little quality. The big idea of Axios is we can help point to, discover, report, and illuminate the most important stories in an efficient way.
People don’t know who to trust right now. We want our readers to say about our journalists, “They’re smart, I trust them; they don’t waste my time.” If you can do those three things, that’s nirvana.

For about the last six weeks, I’ve been waking up to Axios AM: Mike’s Top 10, the daily newsletter covering the big political and business stories of the day. I don’t know if it’s spiritually transcendent, but I credit Axios for experimenting with a new approach to delivering journalism to readers.

Just as he did at Politico, Allen has breathed new life into the daily newsletter, which, even after so much technological change, continues to maintain an out-sized role in the media landscape.

His latest newsletter makes it clear that he understands his reader is in need of information fast. Reading it is a cognitive friction-less experience — each item is clearly numbered and labeled, and there are important chunks bolded and helpful invitations to Get Smart Fast and explanations for Why This Matters. And I because I know it’s not going to take much time to read through the newsletter, I happily do. In contrast, there are some newsletters I get that take up too much energy to get through, which often means I end up not reading them at all.

In its short existence, Axios has scored some scoops, which makes reading it even more essential. But I think more importantly, after reading the newsletter, I feel confident that I’m up to speed on the big political stories of the day. And yes, sometimes I feel smarter.

To be clear, I don’t buy the Axios premise that the media is broken. After all, the “media” covers everything from the New York Times to National Enquirer. And it should be noted that Axios’s start comes as some venerable media institutions like the Times and the Washington Post are attracting record numbers of subscribers and readers. Sure, those companies still face economic pressures, but the demand for their products has never been higher. Just read Axios, which points to their work on a regular basis.

But Axios is right that a certain lemming mentality infects the impulses of too many journalists and the journalism they produce. Not every media outlet should write the same summary of who won the basketball game or what the president said at his press conference. It’s a recipe for irrelevance. “Too much journalism is too long and built for journalists,” Allen told PR Week. “Things should be made to serve the reader.”

I think the the same could be said about content produced by law firms, which are notorious for moving in lockstep with each other on everything from associate salaries to office layouts. Same with content. The legal industry still does a relatively poor job of thinking about the consumer of content. Too many lawyers are still writing to show what they know rather than help people understand.

If building in-roads with C-suite executives, many law firms need to radically rethink how they deliver their content and what kind of content they produce. Look at a random sample of client alerts and other content produced by law firms, and you would probably think the audience is law review editors or other lawyers specializing in that field.

There is a wonderful opportunity for law firms to rethink their content strategy. I think Axios and its suite of short, smart newsletters can provide some inspiration. Here are three things law firms should take away:

  1. Shorter is better. To ensure that your content is read, make it short. If the content must run long, offer a summary. Every Axios story on its website offers a summary; if you want to read more, you can click for more, but you don’t have to. This is not simply about making content more digestible; it’s also about building trust with a reader. If you spend 2,000 words on a subject when 300 will do, you will lose your readers’ patience and trust.
  2. How content is delivered is just as important as the content itself. Once upon a time, it was a decent idea to start a blog on your firm’s website and wait for readers. Not anymore. Fewer and fewer people are visiting websites on their own. Today your content must be delivered to the end-user in any way he or she wants it. It may be through a mobile app; it may be through a newsletter; or it may be through social media. You need to find your readers, not hope the reader finds you.
  3. There is no substitute for true expertise. The best law firms know their strengths and they know they can’t be everything to all clients. The same principle should apply when developing a content strategy. Pick a lane and stay in it.