The "Shed at Dulwich"
His name was Oobah Butler, and in 2016 he decides to fool the whole of London. His master plan, to create the “Shed at Dulwich”, which would become the number one ranked restaurant in London in barely three months. As people were stampeding to call in and book a table at this “appointments-only” restaurant, there remained one slight problem. The Shed at Dulwich didn’t exist. The restaurant had been a mere listing on a travel ratings website which Mr. Butler created to demonstrate the force of misinformation and the power of the internet.
Of Mr. Butler and his exclusively fake restaurant, newspapers wrote: “With hardly more than some fake reviews – ‘Best shed-based experience in London!’ – and a website, it had climbed the site’s ratings in one of the world’s food capitals…He created a webpage with a menu inspired by moods, and illustrated it with photographs of artsy looking dishes made out of household products like bleach tablets and shaving cream.” About the menu, The Shed at Dulwich had claimed: “we don’t have a menu, per se.” They were right.
With the internet, anyone can be anything
This ridiculous story of how a backyard shed in south London could become the best rated restaurant in the whole of London in just three months teaches us a lot. For one, it teaches us some unfortunate lessons on the power of misinformation on the internet. But whatever misgivings you might have about Mr. Butler and his artsy dishes, his prank also teaches us some exciting lessons on the power of the internet. The prank essentially demonstrates that with the internet, anyone can be anything. Just on a basic level, and for most people, if they hear rumours of death of a colleague or acquaintance , their primary instinct would probably be to look that up somewhere on the internet, rather than drive to a house to find out if there has been death.
Its no secreet that people have just become so trusting of the internet. Way too many debates have also abruptly ended, at the threat of looking up the subject matter of debate on the internet. So, in the next few lines, I will illustrate how the story of the Shed can be inspiration for small law firms seeking to get ahead in a world where having an online brand is critical. I will also demonstrate how this story has exposed the mysteries of law firm marketing.
The prohibition against self-aggrandizement
In most countries in Africa, there exists a regulatory prohibition on advertising or conduct that is not consistent with the “lower tone of the law profession”. In Nigeria, for instance, there is a rule against “self-aggrandizement” which simply expressed, bars lawyers from blowing their own trumpets. This rule, obviously, throws spanners into the whole idea of law firm marketing.
The rule, though, is as old as the profession, and is deep rooted in many countries in Africa. Traditionally, the law profession has been averse to any conduct that appears to be advertising. So deep rooted is the rule against self-aggrandizement that even in the US, the rule existed until only 40 years ago when it was eventually lifted by the US Supreme Court in the landmark case of Bates vs State Bar of Arizona. Remember, this is the same place where it’s perfectly legal to own a military tank, but even in such a place, law firm marketing hasn't been acceptable for too long.
As regulators play hardball, law firms need to evolve
Whilst there appears to be some traction in the direction of scrapping the prohibition on advertising, bar associations and law societies in most countries in Africa have not been playing ball. Many regulators in Africa still treat advertising and related conduct as ungodly abominations, which deserve the censure of the regulator. With the exception of countries like South Africa, seeing a TV ad by a law firm is something to behold. Other than that, an act as unremarkable like posting a picture in your court robe on your Facebook wall can potentially be considered as touting in Ghana (not to "self-agrandize", but I do have several nice pictures in court robes on social media.)
With many of the regulators refusing to play ball on marketing generally, should law firms relent? I think not. This is because if lawyers have accepted that law firms are business entities (as they must), marketing and making a business known to as large a market as possible is not only indispensable, it is perfectly warranted business practice. Without it, it is impossible to create and to sustain a brand, which is a key component of any business. This makes it critical for law firms to seriously start looking at how they can implement sound marketing strategies without necessarily falling into regulatory pitfalls. It's possible, and lawyers are strangely creative. In ancient Greece when lawyers (then orators) couldn't legally charge a fee, they still found a way to represent people as "friends". This is not ancient Greece, and law firms can evolve.
A story about how a man so outrageously unknown shot to the first page of google
The “Kanokanga Effect”
There appears to be a solution to the woes of lawyers wishing to cut through the maze of marketing without falling into the realms of self-aggrandizement. It has worked with a Mr. Kanokanga, and it can work with anyone. Well, let’s talk about the “Kanokanga Effect”, which if done on a larger and more strategic scale, can be the answer.
Perhaps a little bit of background on the “Kanokanga Effect”. First of all, it is worth stating that you need not wonder if you have heard about the “Kanokanga Effect” before. You haven’t heard of it, because I just totally made it up. But anyway, on to what it is. This story, like many good ones, starts in a bar. There, I once asked some lawyers if they knew a Mr. Kanokanga, a lawyer and man who appears in almost every search for almost anything law related in Zimbabwe.
My general conclusion was that most people didn’t know Mr. Kanokanga, and those lawyers who knew him didn’t think the proposition that he was firmly established above them all on the first page of google was a worthy proposition. There was clearly a disparity between what lawyers say about each other at the bar, and what the internet says. But who wants to be famous on the internet? Right? Well, the internet population of the world has recently gone above 4 billion people as of 2018. Good luck comparing that with the handful of drunk patrons at the bar.
But how did a man so shockingly unknown rise to the first page of google?
So, what did the authors of the “Kanokanga Effect” do, to get a man so irrationally unknown to be one of the first hits when you search for most things law in Zimbabwe? My two-cents on this are that it all came down to a relentless exercise in content marketing, which involved posting as much law content on the web as humanely possible. I would imagine that if Mr. Kanokanga and his makers were not posting law related content on the web, they were seating there in awe of the magic they had created. Business was booming.
In a space of three years (quite frankly a far cry from the three months by Mr. Butler), the makers of “Kanokanga" posted everything imaginable in the name of the firm, from mundane articles on how to sue and claim debts in the Magistrate’s Court (this incidentally earned them top-spot on google for a search on debt collectors in Zimbabwe), to more elaborate subjects like conducting a contested divorce in the High Court (also incidentally earning them top spot for "family law in Zimbabwe" search.)
The battle to create content
In the end, there is now so much “Kanokanga” on the internet that if you google “civil procedure in Zimbabwe”, a guide on civil procedure in Zimbabwe from “Kanokanga” and his makers emerges (strangely way above texts of law by university professors.) If you are to look up family law or just divorce in Zimbabwe, “Kanokanga” has the answers. The man seems to know everything, and he is winning the internet. Compare this with big law firms or those guys at the bar, your best bet is that they post thin articles with a three month spacing on their law firm page.
Yet, the "Kanokanga Effect" is critical especially considering that lawyers are the classic knowledge workers. In all truth, the public generally banks on lawyers to “know”. And in the age of the internet, there appears to be no better way to create a brand than to showcase in-depth knowledge in the firm’s professed practice areas? What better way to create a practice area specific brand than to literally “Kanokanga” the internet? It’s not self-aggrandizement, it’s just useful content. Its a demostration of knowledge.
Thoughts on packaging content
Like everything else, packaging whatever content the law firm decides to push on the internet is important. Does the law firm really need to bombard the web with articles or blog posts? Does the law firm really need to do webinars or podcasts, and do law firms have a place on social media? These are all questions that are critical, and law firms will probably need an expert driven approach to tackle these issues. My view, let the lawyers practice law, and let the marketers market. In the end, whatever a law firm chooses as its primary web-brand building strategy, the greatest objective is to understand that this is predominantly an exercise is brand creation and that at its core, any content will have to mirror the brand the firm intends to create. Kanokanga knows everything, that's his brand. What's yours?
By consistently pushing practice area specific content, small law firms can get ahead
At the end of the day, the internet is a big deal (It is strange that I still have to be saying this in 2019.) Reports from 2018 indicate that business transactions are, now more than ever, moving to be predominatly and entirely on the internet. This illustrates the reality that people are cutting down on physical engagement, as more people are assimilated onto the internet and as the internet continues to grow as one huge marketplace.
By the way, the richest man in the world currently, Jeff Bezos, runs a business that never requires him to meet his customers to make a sale. It's an entire business model that ticks over the internet. If people can find love on the internet, or buy a pair of shoes without even trying it on, a law firm in Africa can surely deliver online legal services by simply creating a formidable online brand. The reality is that the nature of global business is shifting, and to stay in the fold, law firms cannot continue to treat web-brand creation and internet marketing as some ungodly abomination. Law firms need to move ahead. Let the regulators fret, but get moving. Like with everything else before, the regulators will eventually catch up.