I grew up reading Wired magazine cover-to-cover every month. I soaked up all the articles, learned about cool technologies, even snagged a free CueCat -- an ill-conceived venture aimed at getting readers to scan barcodes in magazine ads using a USB-powered reader shaped like a cat.

But there was one part of Wired that I always skipped: Sponsored Content. At first glance, the sponsored content section looked like a regular article. But around the time you began wondering why the author was so keen on Kyocera copy machines, you catch the "Sponsored Content" label in the footer. Then quickly skip ahead.

Fast forward to us starting ThreadKM last year: While the entire legal profession is mired in email, we built a matter-centric "team chat" platform at a time when most people had never heard of such a thing. It makes perfect sense when you see it.

But trying to stand out in a crowded field of "so-called" collaboration tools - often not much more than a message board and file store - is tough.

So how excited are we to get an email like this?

Sounds great, right? We could be one of the top 20 something-or-other legal technologies for 2015! Sure, we're already getting amazing responses from the legal community, but this is real validation!

Now, here comes the kicker...

Huh...so are they interested in our product or our money?

Let's break this down for a second: $3,000 "sponsorship" times 20 companies = $60,000 in revenue. And for what exactly? For making a list of companies who are willing to pay.

If the magazine emailed every one of the "300+ companies" purportedly reviewed for this honor, they would need a response rate of about 6% to fill up 20 slots. With enough legwork, that's certainly possible. But the idea that the 20 companies that pony up are truly the 20 best companies in legal? That's a stretch.

I'm not trying to single anyone out, but this isn't an isolated instance. Very similar "opportunities" pop up from time-to-time in other contexts - from trade shows to publications - offering ThreadKM the chance to be a featured company or "thought leader." It's so enticing. After all, who doesn't want to be a thought leader?

The companies behind these "pay for play" scenarios generally share two things in common:

  1. They have no idea what ThreadKM does.
  2. They don't care.

But you should care. After all, if you give this content your attention - or consider it as you make a decision about what software to buy - you should realize what's really going on: You are the product. I am the customer. These companies are selling your attention, not delivering valuable content.

Thinking back on my days as a lawyer in a firm, I looked at this content frequently, and it seemed genuine to me. Now that I'm on the "other side," it's so obviously bogus.

To be clear, we have nothing against paid marketing. If you create an audience, that has value. And you can charge people for getting in front of that audience. My biggest concern is when the division between editorial content and plain advertising isn't at least as clear as a "Sponsored Content" footer.

If you are purporting to review a product, create a "best of" list, or offer blank spaces for sponsors to fill with content under the guise of "thought leadership," you should disclose any related income. It's not hard, and plenty of bloggers and publications do it.

Every industry deals with this problem in one way or another. I've just noticed it tends to be fairly significant in legal...and not just legal tech, by the way. Lots of paid "best of" lists are available for lawyers who want to see their name in print, too.

And the influence of these schemes favor the incumbents, who have the least incentive to act as the "innovative thought leaders" they purport to be.

If you are wondering, here's how we respond to these "opportunities":

One last thing: if you want to see something we think is really innovative in legal tech - team chat for lawyers, kanban for project management, and more - you don't need to rely on a Top 10 list. Just sign up for a demo of ThreadKM and judge for yourself.

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