May 22, 2020
The problem with client alerts – and how to fix them
Most GCs don’t find client alerts useful. Making them better may be easier than you think.
In a recent survey of GCs, we found that their preferred medium for Covid-19-related content was email – by a long shot – but only 35% found email content to be useful.
In other words, the majority of professional services firms’ client alerts, at least on Covid-related topics, aren’t up to snuff.
The good news is that in most cases, it’s not the information itself that’s letting recipients down. What’s missing, rather, is a sense of empathy for the stressed-out, inundated reader. Too often those readers get an email with a subject line that tells them nothing, containing massive blocks of jargon-filled text, loaded with background information they already know. There may be valuable insights hiding in there, but who has the time to hunt them down?
Firms can do better – with just a few tweaks. Here’s how.
1). Subject lines: just tell us what we’re going to learn. Too many subject lines tell us the subject – “New EEOC guidelines” – without any hint of what the firm has to say about them. That’s only half the battle. A good subject line describes, in a few words, the subject of the alert (e.g., new EEOC guidelines) and what the reader will get out of reading it. For instance: “New EEOC guidelines, explained” ; “New EEOC guidelines – 3 things employers need to know”; or “FAQ: New EEOC guidelines”.
2). Cut to the chase. Everyone knows Covid-19 is unprecedented. Yet alert after alert opens with a preamble reminding us of the fact. No need. You’re talking to informed professionals. Lead with a sentence telling the reader why they need to pay attention (i.e., what’s at stake) then quickly describe what you’re going to offer.
3). Understand what service your content is providing. The effective client alerts we read tend to include one or both of the following: 1) A clear, concise summary of a new legal development; or 2) Considerations, action-items, and/or insights around a certain topic. What’s key is to recognize which kind you’re writing and develop it with that in mind.
A mere summary – highlighting the key points of a complex law – might be useful if it’s easier to read than the law or regulation itself, and if it comes out before news organizations have covered it in-depth. Likewise, if you’re offering actionable insights, don’t wait until the final third to get them; hyperlink to the context and put your insights in clear, succinct bullet points.
4). Use descriptive subheads, short paragraphs, bullet points and even visuals if you can. Again, just think about how you read emails. You’re basically skimming for what might be useful, right? And what makes skimming easier? Subheads that tell you what’s in the section to follow; bullet points that have ample space between them and aren’t heavy on text; and short, concise paragraphs that aren’t filled with long names of laws/regulatory bodies that everyone knows by acronym anyway.
5). Consider employing a few reliable stock formats. I like knowing, when I get my New York Times morning briefing, that it’s going to follow a familiar format: a few summed-up stories, a recipe and little joke towards the end, and so on. I like, too, that it comes at pretty much the same time every morning. In short, I appreciate it because it tells me, via its format and style, what, where, and when I will find useful/relevant information.
Client alerts may not be so simple – it may not be possible to reliably send them out at the same time. But you can train readers on what to expect when they open one up. It will endear you to them and, as a bonus, it’ll make alerts easier to write.
Some stock formats that we’d suggest:
- FAQs – Just remember that it’s better to have more questions (and shorter answers) than multi-paragraph answers to a single broad question.
- Checklist – Providing a checklist of actions/factors to consider on a specific topic – that a reader could print out and keep on their desk – is the ultimate utility. Just keep it to one page.
- Summary + Insight – In other words, two short sections: 1) What you need to know (i.e., brief summary of issue with hyperlink, and why it’s important – but again, keep it to a minimum); and 2) What to do about it (i.e., professional guidance). Clearly delineate them with the same subheads every time.
- Panel – Why not just grab direct quotes from your subject-matter experts – (ideally) ones that sound like the way they actually speak – and toss it into a Q&A format? The alert could start with a quick summary of what’s at stake, then collect 3-5 paragraph-long quotes from different sources sharing their perspective/guidance on the topics. It’s a good way to make alerts engaging, personable and easier to write, while showcasing distinctive voices and the breadth of the firm’s intellect.
If for some reason none of those work, just remember your audience: a busy, intelligent, informed individual who doesn’t owe you any of their time and doesn’t need or want to be pandered to.
And remember that now more than ever, people do want to hear from subject-matter authorities. It’s your job (and ours) to deliver that message effectively.