In the last year, I’ve met an increasing number of people who claim to be in the business of social media marketing. “It’s a game-changer,” they tell me. “It’s a way to interact with customers, influencers, decisionmakers in a substantive way that builds your brand.” And I’ve been skeptical. How much substance is there really in a tweet or status update?

But consider Antone Johnson ’93, Williams’s King of Quora, the online question-and-answer community. (If only we had a “Queen of Quora.” Much catchier). In his professional life, Johnson is a California tech-industry lawyer with legal and executive expertise in Web 2.0, social media, and what he describes as his “area of focus[:] the intersection between technology, media, finance, law and public policy.”

Many of his answers on Quora directly demonstrate that perspective, even in his answer to the question “How Much Does Self-Promotion Fuel Quora’s Growth?” An excerpt:

I will use myself as an example. I’ve been on Quora for almost a year now, beginning in the closed beta period. Although I’ve answered scores of questions related to StartupsInternet LawVenture Capital, etc., if you click on my answers you’ll see I’ve also written hundreds on totally unrelated subjects that I simply find interesting (music, sports, politics, cars, psychology, economics, etc.). I wouldn’t call any of that content self-promotional except to the extent all user-generated content with an identity attached is to some extent self promotional — i.e., any post is an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, common sense, good judgment, writing ability, sense of humor, etc.

Johnson has answered over 500 questions on Quora, ranging from “Is Davos Nothing But an Expensive Boondoggle?” to “Which City Deserves to Be the Capital of the World?” One must-read answer is his response to the question “Why Are Lawyers So Expensive Even With the Excess Supply of Lawyers” is a must-read. Johnson notes in his preface that he’s drawing on his economics major (although not that he received it from Williams). An excerpt from the answer:

So where does this leave us? I’ve addressed the question of why (large, top-tier) law firm billing rates are so high: Enormous overhead, sticky billing rates and salaries, and a general institutional insensitivity to costs until clients kick and scream about them. But what about that bimodal distribution and all of those out-of-work lawyers?

  • In placement, law schools and students focus on the large, top-tier firms to the exclusion of most other opportunities. This is because they pay the highest starting salaries and are prestigious names to have on the resume at the beginning of a legal career (see “obsession with prestige and rankings”). This isn’t just about greed and status; student loan burdens can be huge (another subject) and recent graduates are rightly concerned about earning enough to pay them off. Particularly at top-tier law schools, there’s a big push to land jobs at the big firms, and in good times, a large proportion of each class gets those jobs. (In bubble times, there’s a bidding war over a fixed supply of perceived “top students” — as they say, only 10 schools can be in the Top Ten, and only 25% of the class can be in the top quarter of their class.) It’s always been the case that smaller firms, government jobs, judicial clerkships and public interest jobs for lawyers pay much less than the big firms. But with demand shriveling up for new grads to staff the big, top-tier firms (perhaps related to the fact that said firms seem to think it makes sense to bill out rookie lawyers at $250+ an hour), that pushes everyone down the pecking order. Small and mid-sized firms usually hire a small number of associates, particularly at the junior level. They hire only when necessary, based on immediate needs, vs. planning ahead for whole “classes” of new associates as the big firms do.
  • The middle is missing. There used to be a class of mid-sized regional firms with billing rates and salaries significantly lower than the big national/coastal firms, but significantly higher than most small firms. That’s mostly gone now, as during the good years, many of those firms merged with megafirms as part of the pursuit of ever-higher profits (justified by the need to keep those profits growing to attract/retain the best partners).

Johnson embraces numerous social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others. But it’s on Quora that his efforts give a real glimpse of the substance to social media marketing, not just the flash.

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