Legal websites can provide unique experiences to their visitors while including third-party content.
By Erik J. Heels
First published 1/1/2001; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association
I remember when Yahoo was incorporated, when the Yahoo website moved from its original home on a Stanford computer to the yahoo.com domain, and I snickered at the concept. It was 1995, and I was skeptical that Yahoo had a viable business model. It was not immediately obvious to many that an advertiser-supported website would be viable. It seemed like they were selling air. Six years later, Yahoo is a leading Internet media company. And a profitable one.
Then in 1996, my co-columnist Rick Klau and I received an e-mail message from a law firm with what we thought was an odd request. The firm needed to drive traffic to its website, but it did not have the time to create its own newsletter. The attorney who contacted us wanted to know if we knew of anyone who would license content to the firm for its online newsletter. We strongly discouraged the firm from trying to license third-party content, arguing that users want unique content produced by the firm.
But think about it. Do users really want 100% unique content? Or do they want a unique experience? United Airlines serves Starbucks coffee, WalMart stores have MacDonald’s stores inside, Dell laptops have Intel microprocessors inside. These companies provide unique benefits to their customers while including branded third-party products within their larger products. Similarly, I now believe that legal websites can provide unique experiences to their visitors while including third-party content.
Today, the benefits of content syndication are more obvious than they were just a few years ago. Consider an early example. From 1992 to 1995, I published my first book, “The Legal List,” for free on the Internet and for a fee in print. The online version employed “print and pay” copyright, which allowed users to copy the electronic version (see http://www.complaw.com/lawlibrary/TLL-ASCII.html), but required a fee to be paid if the electronic version was printed. (And yes, many complied, including the US Supreme Court.) This was a syndication model, but it didn’t begin to take advantage of the possibilities afforded by the Web (and the Web didn’t exist when I first wrote the book). Today, content syndication is alive and well on the Internet, and the legal market is starting to adopt the syndication model.
What is Syndication? What is Content? What is Content Syndication?
Content syndication means different things to different audiences. In the syndication model, there are three parties. The content creators who provide content, the content subscribers who sign up for third-party content, and the syndicator who connects creators with subscribers.
For content creators (or “authors”), content syndication allows their content to be distributed to multiple locations. For example, Scott Adams, the creator of the popular Dilbert comic strip, distributes his comic strip via the syndicator United Feature Syndicate, Inc., which makes Dilbert available in newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and websites around the world. The “write once publish many” feature of syndication provides three key benefits to authors: 1) time to focus on what they do best (creating compelling content), 2) a wider audience for their content, and 3) additional revenue for their content.
For content subscribers (or “publishers”), content syndication allows some or all of a particular publication to be outsourced to a third party. The “outsourced content” feature of syndication provides three key benefits to publishers: 1) time to focus on what they do best (creating unique experiences), 3) increased readership (or, in the case of websites, increase “traffic” on their site), and 3) loyalty and additional revenue (or, in the case of websites, “stickiness”) for their brand.
For syndicators, the opportunity is to connect authors and publishers. And since the word “syndicate” comes from the Greek word “sundein,” meaning “to bind together,” it should come as no surprise that the Internet – the network that binds together all other networks – is the ideal platform for content syndication. The Internet is networking is syndication.
In the name of full disclosure, I should mention that I work for Bitpipe Inc. (http://www.bitpipe.com/), which syndicates corporate literature such as white papers and case studies to information technology (IT) portal, magazine, and trade show websites. Bitpipe is an example of a vertical content syndicator. “Vertical” meaning focused on a particular market (the IT market). Another vertical example is ePinions (http://www.epinions.com/), which syndicates its product reviews to other websites. New technology (such as the emerging XML standard) allows syndicators to deliver content into the “look and feel” of subscribers’ websites (for a demo, see http://www.epinions.com/partners/demo/).
What is Content?
What isn’t content? I take the extreme position that anything on the Web can be syndicated. Articles and comic strips are two obvious examples. But other aspects of a website can also be syndicated by their authors (and, as such, outsourced by website publishers), such as search engines, stock quotes, banner advertising, and website statistics. Whether you call it content licensing, content syndication, content outsourcing, it’s all pretty much the same model.
In the accounting profession, syndication is alive and well. For example, I just received a print newsletter from my accountant. The cover of the “CPA Client Tax Letter” has the name and address of my accountant printed at the top. A disclosure on the back page clearly states that “The ‘CPA Client Tax Letter’ is prepared by the staff of the AICPA to provide generalized information to the clients of its members.” As a client, I appreciate the newsletter. As an attorney, I appreciate the disclosure. And I’m sure my accountant, as a solo practitioner, appreciates the syndicated content he gets from the AICPA. It would be a logical extension of the syndication model for the AICPA to syndicate its print newsletter to CPA websites.
Issues for Subscribers
If firms choose to subscribe to syndicated content for their websites, what are the issues? Three issues are cost, control, and ethics.
The most obvious issues for subscribers is cost. Subscribers pay for the outsourced website content one way or another. Either by paying a licensing fee up front, accepting banner advertising (and sharing that advertising revenue with the syndicator), or incorporating a “free” service (and giving all advertising revenue to the syndicator). For example, the broad-based Internet syndicators (i.e. those that do not focus on a particular type of content) have basic “free” services, each of which allows websites to put, for example, news headlines in a frame on the subscriber’s website. In this way, the subscriber presents the headlines in its own “look and feel.” But subscribers “pay” for this service by sending their users away from their own websites and to the syndicator’s website (where they will presumably read the full text of the articles and be shown various advertisements).
Another issue for content subscribers to keep in mind is that they can, in some cases, give up some control over what appears on their website. A news feed may provide fresh headlines on a daily or weekly basis, but subscribers may not have the ability (or the time) to make sure that each individual syndicated story appeals to subscriber or to the visitors to the subscriber’s website.
There may also be ethical issues with putting third-party content on a law firm website. What content is the firm’s own? What is licensed from a third party? Is the nature of each kind of content disclosed? Ethical and disclosure issues presented by text content should be no different from those posed by non-text content such as photographs. See, for example, the photo credit on my website at http://www.lawlawlaw/copyright.html. In the end, disclosure is key.
Legal Market Syndication Examples
I am aware of no law firm that is syndicating its own original content out to other websites, but I see no reason why a firm should not consider this approach. Law.com and Court TV are already making their content available via broad-based syndication companies.
There are basically two types of third-party content a law firm could put on its law firm, text and non-text. Text content includes newsletters, articles, and the like. Non-text content includes graphics, search engines, stock quotes, and the like.
Many law firms already incorporate non-text content from third parties on their sites. Photographs and graphics are obvious examples. Interactive features are less obvious examples of the syndication model in action. For example, Divorcelawinfo.com (http://www.divorcelawinfo.com/) incorporates a search engine from Searchbutton (http://www.searchbutton.com/). At least one law firm, Florida’s Schnap & Associates, PA, a securities law firm (http://www.schnap.com/), incorporates interactive iSyndicate content (a stock quote feature on their securities page (http://www.schnap.com/securities.htm) into its site.
Examples of law firms incorporating third-party text content into their websites are less common. One example is the syndication company NextClient. NextClient is doing for law firm websites what the AICPA does for CPA print newsletters. Namely providing generalized information for the clients of its law firm customers. Several law firms have already signed up for NextClient’s newsletter content for their websites (see the weekly newsletter at http://www.contilaw.com, the tax newsletter at http://www.vrmlaw.com, the business newsletter at http://www.bottilawrence.com, the personal injury newsletter at http://www.hardinglaw.com, and the family law newsletter at http://www.margobouchet.com).
The case for subscribing to syndicated text content is even easier to make for legal portals, many of which rely on website traffic as their main business. Legal dot Net (http://www.legal.net/) provides law-related articles from iSyndicate to LdN visitors. The intellectual property portal IPnetwork.com (http://www.ipnetwork.com/) incorporates content from ScreamingMedia (http://www.screamingmedia.com/), another syndicator.
So how will law firms distinguish themselves through their websites if they are all licensing the same stuff? The answer is simple. What do you do best? Do you create search engines? If not, subscribe to a third-party search engine. Do you create stock quote engines? If not, subscribe to a third-party stock quote engine. Do you create graphics? If not, license them from a third party. Do you create generalized legal newsletters? If not, license them from a syndicator. And then focus on writing the feature stories. In short, law firms who choose to incorporate third party content – whether text or non-text – on their websites should distinguish themselves by identifying their strengths, focusing on those strengths, and producing a website experience that demonstrates those strengths. WalMart is not a fast food restaurant, but it has MacDonald’s stores in its stores to make dining part of the WalMart experience. Law firms outsourced graphics when they realized they were not artists. It is only a matter of time until more non-specialized text content is outsourced by law firms to third parties, and until the remaining specialized text content is distributed to other websites via legal syndicators.
The Future of Legal Vertical Syndication
The legal market is just beginning to take advantage of content syndication. I predict that the following three things will occur within 17 months.
First, law firms will begin to make their content available to syndicators such as iSyndicate and ScreamingMedia. Law.com and Court TV are already doing so. Many law firms (some large, some small) have great content, but it’s still not easy to find these firms (or in some cases, to find the content when you get to their site). Two examples that immediately come to mind are the excellent employment law content on Littler Mendelson’s site (http://www.littler.com/) and the Internet Case Digest published by Perkins Coie (http://www.perkinscoie.com/). Imagine reading case summaries about employment law on Yahoo or AOL, or receiving the latest Internet case summaries on your pager or cell phone.
Second, legal publishers will distribute more content via syndicators. Law.com and Court TV are leading the way here. But imagine if you could incorporate the FindLaw directory into your website. Or if your firm’s clients could read this publication, Law Practice Management magazine (http://www.lawpractice.org/), on your own website.
Third, new companies will emerge as syndicators for the legal market, aggregating content from law firms, publishers, and others for distribution to websites of all shapes and sizes. Or an existing legal publisher will enter the syndication market for legal content. A few companies are experimenting with pieces of the content syndication puzzle including LawSyndicate (http://www.lawsyndicate.com/), NextClient.com (http://www.nextclient.com/), and Contentville (http://www.contentville.com/). But nobody has yet taken the broad approach to legal syndication: taking lots of legal content from lots of sources and distributing it to lots of places. Contentville may be the one to watch. ContentVille was founded by Steven Brill, who brought us a little venture called Court TV, which caught on in a big way.
Did you snicker at Yahoo in 1995? Don’t snicker at content syndication today.
Content Syndication Companies (or Why Anything Can Be Syndicated)
Book Store (http://www.amazon.com/associates/)
Broad-Based Content (http://www.isyndicate.com/)
Broad-Based Content (http://www.moreover.com/)
Broad-Based Content (http://www.screamingmedia.com/)
Broad-Based Content (http://www.yellowbrix.com/)
Legal Newsletters (http://www.nextclient.com/)
Reviews & Ratings (http://www.epinions.com/)
Search Engine (http://www.searchbutton.com/)
White Papers (http://www.bitpipe.com/)