The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

Dear Wasserstein & Co.:

In the wake of the news that you’ve bought back American Lawyer Media (after selling it off seven years ago) for a $200-million-plus discount, the reaction seems to be… a big yawn. No comments on the New York Times story as of this morning, a day after the story ran; not a lot of buzz even among legal marketers. Kind of a “hmpf” half-interested nod that you give on your way to checking your horoscope or the lottery numbers, it seems.

What’s up with that? As an amateur media buff who can’t get the ink out of his veins, I think this should be huge news, at least for those of us who care about the legal profession. I would posit that no other company has done more to change the face of large law firms in the past couple of decades than ALM, with its annual rankings of income and profits. They were doing metrics for lawyers long before lawyers even knew what metrics were.

So, this has to be an unbelievable opportunity to reinvigorate what has been to all eyes, a struggling media empire in the American legal profession, right? But aside from the standard gushing press release, everyone seems to be keeping quiet. Is it because they think this is a half-hearted attempt to finally put ALM into receivership? Perhaps just formalize the prescription for palliative care, while the good assets are quietly shopped around?

I don’t pretend to be an insider at ALM or know all that much about legal publishing in general. I’m just a member of the peanut gallery, a lowly legal marketer. However, I am ahuge fan of many of the folks at ALM, and of many of the company’s publications and products. That said, it seems like this is ALM’s last chance. Screw this up, and we will be playing the “remember when” game in a few short years. So, I thought I would — in the best tradition of our know-it-all legal profession — offer some unsolicited advice to the folks who’ve re-bought and will be re-running ALM:

1. Recognize that you are in the most valuable business of all: providing content. People will pay real money for good content, whether in the general business realm or custom publishing. Keep to that core strategy and don’t get distracted. Advertising is still important, but it’s worth noting that publications such as the venerated New York Times make more money from subscriptions than from advertising (and are profitable). Is that the case for AmLaw?

2. Upend the annual AmLaw 100/200 rankings. They are arguably one of your most valuable and visible assets, ala the Fortune 500 rankings. But finally take to heart all of the criticisms over the years about how certain numbers are overemphasized when they are meaningless and can be overly manipulated to make a firm look good (PPEP, anyone?). Yes, there’s been some acknowledgement of issues, but how about a complete overhaul of the metrics and start using ones that actually matter?

3. Beat Law360 and Bloomberg at their own game. You’re older, smarter and have more resources. You need to specialize at a local level with all of your publications and hire a gaggle of youngsters to rewrite those law firm press releases and publish them on the web. The key here is to play to lawyers and law firms’ basic, inherent narcissism. They want to read about themselves mostly. And when they’re interested in other lawyers, it’s usually those in their own specialty. Make it easy for them to find news specifically about bankruptcy or patents or products liability law and lawyers.

4. I bet you make a lot of money on the events and conferences. LegalTech alone must be keeping the company afloat. Or at least it should if it isn’t. But are they really part of your core business? Cinnabon President Kat Cole told the 2014 Legal Marketing Association’s Annual Conference attendees, “Get small to get big.” More events aren’t going to contribute significantly to the overall brand (do they contribute all that much now?). Shed them and invest the profits into new ventures (or more content staff).

5. Invest more in your marketing research arm, and publicize it constantly in your editorial content. You do great studies, and probably could do even more. We live in an age of metrics. Feed the beast…

6. Buy the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and the Los Angeles Daily Journal already and be done with it. Or spend some money, create a competing publication, and put them out of business. Fill those two big market holes and you can become even more dominant. What about Massachusetts Lawyers’ Weekly, for that matter? And the Above the Law blog. What about the SCOTUS blog? (How did Bloomberg Law get to sponsor them, for Pete’s sake???). If freakin’ Amazon (well, really Jeff Bezos) can buy The Washington Post, what’s your excuse for not grabbing more marketshare? What’s that saying, something about how no company ever cut its way to prosperity…

7. Keep investing in your online platform. It’s gotten a lot better over the years, but it still seems a bit clunky and not nearly as integrated as it should be, given your breadth and depth of publications and products. Spend some more money on improving the user experience, maybe?

8. Don’t be an island. Partner with other publishers and media providers and give your subscribers more value by sharing content across paywalls or other artificial boundaries. Have you ever talked to the folks from Crain’s or the American City Business Journals? Aren’t you in most of the same markets for your local products? Couldn’t there be some synergies there? A lot of journalists have been trained to be hyper-competitive over the years, “warring” with other publications. It’s what has helped kill traditional media, actually. While all the journalists and publishers were busy fighting with each other over irrelevant content, consumers went elsewhere.

9. Here’s where I risk the wrath of marketers and reporters alike: Buy one of the directories and then invest and market the heck out of it to become the most respected one in the industry. A true service. ALM really missed the boat on this one, I think. What’s to lose? They probably make some decent money and are close enough to a core content strategy (closer than events, at least). In the end, these things are all just advertising-driven anyway, right?

10. Stay relevant. Hire an R&D staff to find out what’s going to be the “next big thing” in legal media and publishing. (Hello, content marketing?) Forgive me if you already have some folks in charge of that, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the results of any of their work. (But I would love a chance to be educated.) Relevance will be the key to your continued survival. I’d really like to have written “success” there, but we both know why I didn’t.

Well, that’s enough free advice for one blog post. (You get what you pay for, right?) Feel free to disagree or dismiss as the arrogant rants of the uninformed. But please do something different. The status quo ain’t cutting it for anyone, anymore.


A big fan of ALM


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