Four takeaways from Seth Godin’s book, This is Marketing

by Paul Evans

Traditionally, I am not a Seth Godin “fan boy” but I must admit that I do like a lot of his work. I’m not a subscriber to his daily blog (daily is too much for me). However I do read most of his books. And wow, This Is Marketing blew me away. It is now in my top 5 favourite business books of all time.

If you want to do effective marketing, read this book.

Here are my thoughts after reading This is Marketing, including how it applies to marketing and business development professionals in commercial law firms.

Takeaway #1 – Marketing is all about change

Marketing can obviously be used for good and bad, and where Seth is coming from in this book is that ‘good’ marketing isn’t just about selling as much of X to someone as possible.

Seth poses the question early on in this book, “What change are you trying to make?”

Marketing is all about driving change. Or more descriptively, it’s about helping bring someone from an existing position (A) to a better position (B).

‘Driving change’ might sound philosophical, and about changing the world in grand ways, but in this context it isn’t.

When it comes down to it, the core of marcomms and BD roles in law firms is to help people (lawyers) persuade other people (clients, prospects, etc) that they are the right choice for them.

And there lies the fine line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Trying to persuade (or ‘trick’) someone that we’re a better choice with slick copywriting or a fancy website isn’t exactly ‘good’ behaviour. In many ways, it’s devious.

It’s a problem Seth discusses in length. The old advertising mass-marketing mindset is about trickery and drumming it into people to ‘buy this.’

But what if your lawyer or law firm is genuinely the best choice for a prospect? Then you would be doing them (the client, prospect, etc) a disservice by not making yourselves available to them!

And therein lies the ultimate theme of Seth’s latest book.

Marketing is good and effective when your intentions are to:

  1. improve someone else’s position (move them from A to a better B), and
  2. when you are the best person/business to help them make that change happen.

I strongly believe that this plays really well to a lawyer’s common predisposition that they are not ‘salespeople,’ and it gives marketers and BD professionals in law firms a greater purpose. It is genuinely an interesting challenge to work on and build a career around.

To achieve both intentions requires two conscious decisions to be made by your firm:

  1. A commitment to listening and understanding your clients’ and prospects’ problems and goals.
  2. A decision that your lawyers and firm cannot be all things to all people.

With those intentions and decisions, marketers and BD professionals can really make an enormous impact in their firms.

Takeaway #2 – Listening is foundational to all good marketing

Part of me wants to say that this is obvious, it’s Marketing 101.

But if we look at the actions of most businesses, including law firms, we see it’s often ignored. Browse your LinkedIn feed or the promotional emails in your inbox and you’ll see what I mean. We live in the most over-communicated era ever, and it is only getting more noisy.

In my Legal Marketing 101 course that I deliver to young lawyers, I always say this:

You don’t need to be an extrovert to close deals in ‘business.’ Contrary to popular belief, the best lawyers from a marketing perspective listen much more than they talk.

Seth backs this up in his book.

Legal marketers need to do a lot more listening if they really want to make change happen. I know from my own experience that the listening I did as an in-house marketing and BD professional always felt a little superficial. I’ve been involved in what I would call elaborate (and subsequently expensive) client listening programs, but it always felt like these programs were for the firm’s benefit – not the client’s. It’s hardly ‘listening’ if it’s all about the law firm.

These types of questions were, in hindsight, quite selfish:

  • How did we do with this?
  • What can we do better?
  • What should we do for you in the future?

That isn’t client listening, it’s a gauge of “how are we doing?”

Last week I was listening to the podcast from Graham Seldon of Seldon Rosser, A Legal High which is for professional services marketers.

Graham’s very first guest, Michael Chambers, was a Client Relationship Manager from King & Wood Mallesons. The interesting insight from the interview was that Michael’s job centred around obtaining an intimate understanding of a specific client – his role was literally learning the pain points of this company’s people, the business, and of course the banking industry.

He actually listened.

At enormous, multinational firms this kind of role has been around for years, but how can smaller firms possibly deploy effective listening?

(Even in a big multinational practice it’s not financially feasible for every client to have a Client Relationship Manager. I dare say that even if it was, finding that many suitably skilled people for those roles would be near impossible.)

If you want to seriously invest time in client listening – but you don’t have the resources to do so (genuinely) at an individual client level – it makes sense for your lawyers to pick a ‘type’ of client and listen to them.

This brings us to our next take-away. The concept of the ‘smallest viable market.’

Takeaway #3 – Your lawyers can’t be all things to all people

Selecting a niche is a good use of marketing resources and it helps position your lawyers as thought leaders in X.

The concept of niching isn’t new to law firms (nor me talking about it). Plenty of firms, including large and small, have developed an industry focus or a focus on a very specific area of expertise.

However Seth states that we should take ‘niching’ down to the extreme and focus our efforts on ‘the smallest viable market’.

I have copied four quotes from Chapter 4 – The Smallest Viable Market that sum up this concept perfectly.

“The relentless pursuit of mass will make you boring, because mass means average, it means the centre of the curve, it requires you to offend no-one and satisfy everyone.”

“If you could only change thirty people, or three thousand people, you’d want to be choosy about which people. If you were limited in scale, you’d focus your energy on the make-up of the market instead.”

“Everything gets easier when you walk away from the hubris of everyone. Your work is not for everyone. It’s only for those who signed up for the journey.”

“ ‘It’s not for you’ shows the ability to respect someone enough that you’re not going to waste their time, pander to them, or insist that they change their beliefs. It shows respect for those you seek to serve, to say to them, ‘I made this for you. Not for the other folks, but for you.’”

For law firms, one of the most contentious topics is the idea of the ‘full service firm.’ So many of the larger firms consider themselves to be ‘full service,’ which I’d argue means absolutely nothing to a client if it’s not paired with technical experts that understand their industry and/or problems intimately.

From my own experience, I can say that it can be incredibly difficult for a marketing or BD person in a law firm to convince a partnership, CEO or COO that the entire firm should position itself as X. I’ve seen very experienced Marketing Directors and very expensive management consultants fail to convince firms to change. This is because, for most firms, making that change is too drastic and therefore virtually impossible to get unanimous buy-in for.

Where I have seen great success is in bringing a ‘niche’ or ‘smallest viable market’ concept to a particular partner or a small group of lawyers who share a similar client base.

A hypothetical, extreme (yet feasible) example

If you’re a fifteen person law firm, stating that your industry focus is property or aviation is far too broad. You need to get more specific. No-one would believe that a firm that size can service all aviation-related organisations.

Perhaps your smallest viable market could be:

  • You work with the owners and management teams of privately-owned and small, public airports around Australia.
  • In your team, you have experts in aviation law, property and planning law, retail leasing, tax, insurance, and general commercial advisory. Three of your lawyers previously worked as in-house lawyers for a major capital city airport. The firm was established to make the lives of owners and CEOs of these airports less complex.
  • Your Managing Partner is on the Governance Sub-committee of the Australian Airport Association and your firm is their major sponsor of the association’s national conference each year.
  • Your firm hosts a quarterly discussion group at your office for airport CEOs and hand-picked advisors, including an airport industry-focused accountant and OH&S consultant. A topic is set before the event and the CEOs can provide their experience handling a specific challenge.

Compelling, isn’t it? Quite literally, this firm would be the law firm for privately-owned and small, public airports in Australia. Why would anyone in this market choose a generalist commercial law practice over this firm?

Remember, marketing is good and effective when your intentions are to:

  1. improve someone else’s position (move them from A to a better B), and
  2. when you are the best person/business to help them make that change happen.

This hypothetical firm would be a dream to market! The plan would write itself and the content would be extremely specific. It would get serious traction, but more importantly it would be an incredibly useful service for clients in this market, and it would have serious potential to be an amazing business for the partners. It’s win-win.

The lawyers at this firm could clearly make a concerted effort to listen to their smallest viable market and create genuine value for those who are members of it.

The smallest viable market isn’t just for small firms

It’s a trap to think that the ‘smallest viable market’ only applies to small firms. I strongly believe the big firms can carve out dominance in a number of niches; this is where ‘full-service’ can exist. In a two-thousand lawyer, global law firm the banking industry could be a reasonable viable market, and it may have other related industries that it serves.

Large, global corporations still require large, global firms that can support large in-house legal teams. A great, real-life example is Linklaters (UK). They are a firm with 2,000 lawyers that operates in twenty countries, and only service multinational corporations and industries that fit that business size (financial services, industrial businesses, etc).

But the 200-lawyer law firm that’s website claims it understands its client’s needs and has a ‘focus’ in twenty industries is kidding itself.

Niching has become more necessary than ever before

As we’re all aware, the legal industry is currently going through massive change and disruption.

Direct competition is getting fierce and more and more firms are merging in a bid to compete or offer something more to their clients. These are traits of being at the ‘mature’ phase of an industry life cycle.

Despite this, I’d argue that the bigger challenge law firms face is the increased competition from alternatives (growing in-house teams and increasingly sophisticated legal technology).

The pursuit of the smallest viable market is going to be incredibly important to thrive (or survive) in this increasingly competitive and fragmented industry.

Takeaway #4 – It’s extremely difficult trying to convince people that their worldview is wrong

One of the overall themes in This Is Marketing is that it is much easier to ‘sell’ your idea of change when you truly understand your audience and their worldview.

Of course, this is heavily linked to listening (takeaway #2), but it also is relevant in how you design your services to match what your audience wants.

Here’s a gem from this section of Seth’s book:

“In a world of choice, where we have too little time, too little space, and too many options, how do we choose?

It’s easier for those we seek to serve simply to shut down and not even try to solve their problems. If it feels like any choice is going to be wrong, it’s better to do nothing. If the world is filled with claims and hype, people believe none of it.

Marketers can choose to stand for something. Instead of saying “you can choose anyone and we’re anyone” the marketer can begin with an audience worth serving, begin with their needs and wants and dreams, and then build something for that audience.”

As an in-house marketer and now a business owner, I have observed many advisors (lawyers, accountants, consultants and yes, even marketers) essentially claim from the outset that their strategy and approach is the right (and only) way, and that if you’re not doing it ‘their way’ it must be incorrect or inefficient.

Seth’s argument is that when you (and your lawyers and law firm) state:

  • This is who we are
  • This is who we do it for
  • This is the change we’re trying to make for our smallest viable market
  • And our actions match our intentions

…your marketing efforts become a whole lot easier. If your lawyer’s/law firm’s worldview matches the client or prospect’s worldview, doing business with each other is going to be more simple and fruitful.

In reality, this is positioning. It’s not much more than complex than “We do X for Y because it helps them with Z.”

“It’s not for you”

One of my favourite quotes from Seth’s book is “It’s not for you.”

If people fundamentally have a different perception of the world than you, that’s absolutely fine. In fact, that’s great.

Seth puts it as:

You can’t get someone to do something that they don’t want to do, and most of the time, what people want to do is take action (or not take action) that reinforces their internal narratives.

At the heart of all strategy is not only what you do, but what you don’t do, but it’s incredibly easy to forget that in the day-to-day, and when “opportunity” comes knocking.

Summing it up – a legal marketers greatest challenge isn’t actually “marketing”

Perhaps it’s controversial to state that legal marketers greatest challenge isn’t actually marketing.

But marketing theory isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense, or perhaps, uncommon sense.

If you break it down, effective strategic marketing is basically decision making and the conviction to back those decisions.

What’s more difficult in law firms is the implementation – especially when things get difficult, boring, or take time to yield results.

The greatest challenges legal marketers have is convincing a managing partner, COO and/or partnership group that they should pursue a smaller market and don’t need to be all things to all people.

In effect, you might be asking them to change their worldview.

Some will get it, and some won’t.

The challenge isn’t in convincing everyone. It’s finding those that share your worldview, and working with them to make their ‘position’ a reality.

As legal marketers, you have the opportunity to drive real change in a hyper-competitive industry. But it takes courage – from you and your firm.

This is the hardest part of our jobs. Persuading others, often internally, of the change we seek to make.

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Paul Evans

Paul Evans is a legal marketing expert with significant experience in digital marketing. Prior to founding Toro Digital, he was a senior marketer in some of Australia's fastest growing law firms.