It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it’s hard work to build great content that:
a) people want to read
b) people remember and will be motivated to share
c) helps you further increase the reach of your brand
This becomes especially true when you’re building content for a company that’s not your own.
This post isn’t about Lesson #12,753 we’ve so valiantly learned here at Mack Web as we grow our small (but mighty) integrated web marketing team.
It’s about you and the exceptional content you need to be building on behalf of the clients you work for.
That said, if you’re like us, you find solace in, and learn a great deal from, the trials and tribulations other companies face. I’ve broken this post into three parts, each of which tackles a big question you might be wondering about:
Sit tight. I’ve got some ideas.
We’ve got a content generation process that has been working pretty well for us now, but it took a ton of failing to develop it.
For a while, we were treating content generation like a factory. We had clients. They needed a strategy. That strategy called for content. We gave the specs and details for the content to our writer. She generated the content. We optimized it. It went live. We did outreach. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s not that the content we were producing in our “factory” was bad. It wasn’t thin. It just didn’t serve a purpose beyond meeting preconceived frequency expectations for their blog. Although it was intended to add value to the conversation, it wasn’t going to rise above the ever-growing noise and help them build their business and further their brand.
Our factory approach was fine for a short while, but as we started to grow, level-up, and recognize that the lack of effectively executed, fully integrated content marketing strategies would make it increasingly difficult for us to earn audience engagement, we realized our content had to be better. It had to serve a higher purpose for the brand and it needed to integrate all the appropriate channels.
Which meant, of course, that we couldn’t create it in a silo anymore.
General brand stuff vs. expert content
We’ve found that, for the most part, our clients have needed our help with two distinct types of content in order to build their audience: general brand stuff and expert content.
General brand stuff is the content thatâ€”if you’ve really done your diligence to fully understand the company, their industry, their persona, and the story they’re trying to tellâ€”you can essentially create content without putting too much extra work on their plate.
You still work together throughout the process (which I’ll get into more in just a bit), but really you’re taking the lead, doing the majority of the work, and ensuring you have approval as you move through the different stages in the content generation process.
Expert content is content that requires the knowledge of a subject matter expert (which hopefully you will find inside the company) to produce. The expert stuff places a great deal of the content generation responsibility on the client. Your job is to act as a guide, facilitator, and editor so that you’re ensuring strategic alignment, brand integrity, and that the content actually gets created and connected to its intended audience.
When you’re working with a subject matter expert to develop content, it’s really important that you’re taking as much weight off the expert as possible, and you’re also earning their trust. You can do this in a few ways:
Allow the expert to drive
You may suggest trending topics and direction based on strategy and goals but, depending on your expert’s writing prowess, you don’t want to get in the way by controlling the process too much. Their time is extremely limited so you want to make the process as enjoyable and efficient as possible.
If the expert is driving, your goal is to cater to their needs and aid them in any way possible. Take the time to listen, observe, understand their writing process, and how you can fit into that. As facilitator and editor you’ll be providing feedback on basic grammar, transitions, focus, and depth, but you’re also working to keep them on task and accountable for deadlines.
Provide the expert with the structure
Maybe the expert doesn’t necessarily want the freedom to drive, but they could use your help getting the structure together. It really depends on the expert, what they’re comfortable with, and what their schedule will allow.
If they need your help getting the ball rolling, you can interview them for the key takeaways, write the outline for them, and provide them with anything else they need to get that first draft going.
We’ve also had great success writing the first draft for the expert so that they have something to take apart, integrate their expertise, personal anecdotes and voice, and then we help them put it back together.
In general, expert content will take longer to come together. You’re usually talking about people with extremely busy schedules, and unless they find value in what content marketing is doing for their brand and company, it could take months to get content out of them.
What we’ve found is if you’re properly balancing the creation of both expert and general brand stuff, you can fill any production gaps with minimal involvement on the client’s part. That way you’re still getting content out and you won’t have lengthy time lapses in the execution of deliverables from your content strategy.
As we’ve been growing our team and our content department, we’ve been working to get more out of less. We have found that investing in processes that document the stages of our everyday operations (like our client on-boarding process and the base ongoing monthly stuff we do for nearly every client) has really helped us to be more efficient, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a very systems- and process-oriented person. I like things to be neat, organized, and, well, systematic. As much as I believe in investing in them, I’ve come to learn that you can waste a lot of time and precious resources on processes that don’t work, don’t get used, and don’t help you become more efficient.
With processes, it’s not about developing something that stands the test of time (because they never do). It’s more about providing guidance and suggestions for a more efficient workflow. That tends to come in the form of checklists that you’re continually iterating as living, breathing, dynamic entities inside your organization.
As such, this is what we’ve discovered to be incredibly helpful when developing our processes:
1) Determine the problem the process is going to solve
Clearly you’re taking the time to develop a process so that you can make something you do every day (or something you repeat quite often) a whole lot easier. For us, we knew we needed to create better content and work more collaboratively with our clients in order to do that. We thought a process for managing content generation might help us make those improvements.
2) Identify the people who are going to use the process
This is key. If you yourself will not actually be facilitating a process you develop, it will almost certainly die. You need the specific, relevant individuals on your team to not only believe in it, but own it, or it will go unused.
I no longer develop processes for the company and simply present them to the team to be used. I now work with the team to develop processes and the team figures out what checklists and supporting documents they need to make the process work.
3) Find the tools that will allow you to run the process
These tools don’t have to be expensive. We use a lot of free software like Google Docs, Spreadsheets, and Trello. Your tools don’t have to be fancy; they just need to be accessible so that the people on the team who are using them can get to them easily.
4) Use the process
We’ve realized that every time we use a process it’s going to change. That’s just how it goes. There will be specific parts of your processes that won’t get altered for long periods of time, but in general, as you use them, be attentive to contrast, taking note of the stuff you’ll want to take some time to analyze and eventually change.
5) Modify the process
At some point, you’ll need to dedicate the time to analyze your processes, make the adjustments, and then test those modifications. This is a continuous cycle if you want your processes to really work for you and provide a return on spending the time and resources to create them in the first place. Make sure it’s your team who’s taking ownership of this, not management.
Some pieces to facilitate the process
As we’ve developed a content generation process to produce better content, we’ve discovered that engaging the client and using these pieces have really made a big difference:
1) Use Strategy & 2) Pitch Content
We’re trying to remove as much content responsibility and workload from the client as possible. We definitely need them invested and involved, but they’ve hired us as an extension of their team with the hopes that we’ll free up their internal resources.To that end, we use the “unless we hear differently” model as often as we can throughout the content generation process.
Whether we’re developing general brand or expert content stuff, we always take the initiative and pitch the intended direction of the content to the client. We use the goals we’ve set and the strategy we’re working from, as well as trending topics, in order to determine the content we’ll be writing.
3) Collect Data
When we’re ready to collect data for the content, the client is familiar with the strategy that has been developed and what we’re working toward. We’ve already done a great deal of listening so that we can come to the client and say (with confidence), “Hey, here’s how we’d like this to go. Can we have your feedback?”
Once we’ve worked through some of these initial conversations, we send over a data collection (a template, if you will) that looks like this:
This data collection doc communicates our intent and requests the information we need. The “unless I hear differently” part comes into play in the suggested key takeaways and then asking the client to help us come up with additional details, photos, and anecdotes to support them.
This requires less work from the client, but involves them in the process. We’ve found that this also puts more meaning into the content because the client is participating by contributing the stories and first-hand experiences that we don’t necessarily know (and that they sometimes forget to tell us during interviews and conversations about content).
4) Develop an outline with key takeaways
Once we get all of the information we need from data collection, we create a more thorough outline of the post to get another level of approval from the client before we proceed to first draft state. This saves a ton of time. From data collection to outline, things shift from the initial, proposed direction, so providing an official outline gives us the opportunity to once again communicate exactly what the client can expect and earn their feedback and approval.
In the official outline, if we have them available at that time, we will integrate all resources and media so that we’re clearly communicating what we’ll be writing about and what we’ll be referencing. This provides the client with an opportunity to investigate the proposed resources and provide any direction change before we fully draft the content.
5) Provide a first draft with diagramming
Once we’re ready to present the first draft of the content, there’s a couple really important things we do before sending it across:
Indicate key takeaways (and feedback)
This part takes me back to my English teaching days. When we turn in the first draft, we actually diagram the post to illustrate the pieces of the original outline and where the key takeaways ended up. And, if the client provided some very specific direction or feedback to us, we make sure to indicate that they were heard by pointing those out in the diagramming.
This has really helped to reduce revisions because it’s a subtle way to remind the client that what we are presenting in this content is what we’ve all agreed to throughout the process. And, as we’re drafting the content, if we feel the need to go in a different direction, we use the diagramming as an opportunity to justify the change.
Provide the entire experience
When we provide the first draft of the content to the client, we sell it. We provide it in ready-to-publish form complete with links, videos, and photos embedded so that the client gets the full experience of what it would look like live.
Writing is a very personal thing and it’s very easy to get emotionally invested in the content. Using data collection, outlines, and diagramming first drafts removes the emotion and keeps everyone accountable and focused on the content. If we’re reminding the client why things are the way they are throughout our interactions, they’re less likely to be distracted by new ideas or different approaches. We can rely on the process to keep the client (and, honestly, sometimes the writer) focused on the intent of this piece of content. And ultimately, this helps us create better content.
These deliverables have also streamlined the way we produce content and they really show the client that we get them and are trying to make life easier for them. Even though they are more involved in the process, we’re displaying more initiative and skill which further reduces the burden on their end.
Working with the client in this way has earned more trust and flexibility. We’re able to demonstrate better leadership, confidence, and how much we know (and care) about their business.
The more trust we earn and the more efficient the process becomes, the more we accomplish for our clients. But even with improved efficiency, there’s only so much a small team can do in-house. In order to scale, we’ve got to recruit outside help.
Like I mentioned, a team like ours is too small to effectively write all of the content for our clients in-house. Using contract writers has allowed us to conveniently scale our content department and provide better content for our clients.
There are three really important things we’ve discovered as we’ve been building our base of trusted writers:
1) Find writers who are a value match
You’ve got to be willing to do your due diligence and hold out for writers who are a match for your values and expectations as a company.
2) Set them up for success
You need to spend time getting the writers invested in the client they are going to write for. Set them up for success by providing them with as much information about the client that you would expect your in-house, full-time team members to know.
3) Invest in their growth
Just like an employee, you need to be willing to help your writers grow. Writing is hard and even the best writers struggle. If you want to develop lasting relationships and continue to get great content from your contract writers, you’ve got to be willing to invest time in their growth and development.
As we’re looking for great writers, we use a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the writers that we’re interested in working with.
We review writing samples, check their references, and interview them in person or via video so that we can get a feel for whether they’re a value match for us and that their writing style and voice will match up with one of our clients.
Once we’ve selected a writer, as they write for our clients, we assess their work. After they complete a few pieces of content for us, we can get a feel for their strengths. We can also identify trends. Do they honor their commitments with us? Do they communicate well? Are they responsive? Are they willing to learn? Maybe they’re not a match for the client we have them paired with but they’d be great with another. We use the same Google spreadsheet to keep track of this stuff and also include any patterns we’re noticing or feedback we’re getting from clients about the content.
Helping your writers grow
No matter how well you qualify your writers, there will be a trial-and-error period with every single one. If you want long-term relationships with them, you’ve really got to invest the time (beyond this trial period) and continue to help them grow.
When we receive a piece of content from a writer, our in-house content strategist reviews it before it’s handed off to the client for feedback. She reviews for quality, alignment of purpose, and also basic editing stuff. She diagrams the key takeaways to ensure that the content is on track with what the client approved in the outline/key takeaway part of the process.
If the post needs a little bit of work, our content strategist determines whether the edits are minor enough just to make them as she’s diagramming, or if she needs to schedule time with the writer to have them adjust the post.
We are diligent about communicating with our writers. If they’re learning and improving along the way, we’re spending less time on revisions and providing our clients with the content they need to build their brand.
An ongoing challenge
Content plays such a huge role when building a brand and a business. Trying some of these things in our content generation process has really helped us to create better partnerships with our clients, and certainly, better content.
This stuff may be working for us now, but we realize that building great content is always going to be hard (especially as the saturation problem gets worse). It’s our job to continue pushing beyond what could just get us by and discover what’s really going to make a difference in our clients’ businesses.
Of course, this addresses just one small part of that challenge. I certainly have not covered everything that would help you build great contracted content for your clients.
Share your secrets with me below.