Content Brief
November 16th 2017

Building a Better Content Brief Using Tech

When the American Marketing Association asked 500 marketers to weigh in for its 2016 Marketing Pain Points Survey, one of the main findings was that content marketing is a leading cause of grief among those tasked with building a digital presence.

In an industry full of creative, tech-savvy visionaries, how can it be that so many have a hard time creating content?

It’s because no matter how much cumulative knowledge your team has about your industry, putting it all down in words is a job itself. In fact, it may be many jobs, depending on the size of your company.

So, the question becomes, how can founders, experts, and SEOs better brief their content writers to ensure the results achieve topical authority and high rankings? With content briefs or outlines, but the one-page template you’re probably already using won’t cut it.

The key is building a better brief that’s based on existing data from top-ranking content – i.e., its word count, content depth and breadth, and the topics discussed –  and supplemented with insights from SEO experts.

In this post, we’ll discuss what content briefs usually include, and how to amplify your briefs to ensure that each time you give an assignment, the result is predictable, high-quality, and optimized for search engines. Additionally, we’ll give you tips on how to effectively communicate with both staff and freelance writers.

First, let’s talk basics:

What is a Content Brief?

A content brief is a document you give to a writer that outlines the scope and specs of a project. Ideally, you’ll want to have a new brief for every piece of content you assign. Commonly, agencies will have editorial briefs for each client and companies will have in-house blog guidelines, but these don’t provide much detail into how individual pieces should be crafted.

Client briefs and editorial guidelines will often include:

  • Keyword list
  • Audience
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Tone and Style
  • Word count range
  • Linking strategy
  • Resources
  • Delivery instructions

This is all very useful and necessary information for your writers to know, but providing them with an overview of a content strategy instead of a specific content brief leaves a lot of room for creative freedom. And if you’ve worked with enough writers, you know that’s not always a good thing.

When companies do provide content briefs for individual posts, they typically specify:

  • Title
  • Summary
  • Word count
  • Sources
  • Internal and external links
  • Keywords
  • CTA
  • Deadline

Again, great information, but does it tell the whole story? Could a writer refer to that document to determine exactly how to craft a piece to your expectations? Not quite.

The problem with content briefs as we know them is that they often lack the key questions and insights that differentiate page-one results from page-two results; shallow content from deep content; content with a purpose from content that meanders. You get it, but how do you get it?

You can achieve high-performing content with a brief that goes above and beyond, answering your readers’ every question, as well as the ones they didn’t even know they had. Each post should aim to address a set of questions, both obvious and obscure.

How to Write a Better Content Brief

Building a better brief entails a thorough analysis of the content that’s already ranking for your focus topic, and supplementing that with information that will differentiate your piece from the rest. It’s essentially the idea behind skyscraper content, where you look at what’s already at the top of SERPs and create a more robust piece of content.

The problem with the skyscraper technique is that it requires a lot of manual action and analysis, which is both time-consuming and unreliable because you’re using your subjective judgment to determine what “better” means.

This is where automated solutions can both save you time and ensure that your final result is based on data, not opinions.

Below, we’ll walk through what a MarketMuse Content Brief looks like and how each section contributes to a more reliable outcome.

MarketMuse Content Brief Basics

A MarketMuse Brief consist of two components – the executive summary and the outline view. As its name implies, the executive summary provides an overview of the strategy outlined in the brief in order to create a comprehensive piece of content on the chosen topic. The outline view is the blueprint that the writer will use to craft their piece of expert-level content.

Executive Summary

This summary provides a path to the best content following six critical steps:

  1. Determine ideal user intent and audience.
  2. Discover the question to answer within the content.
  3. Choose an article title appropriate for search placement.
  4. Find the most relevant subheadings.
  5. Discuss the most important related topics organized according to those subheadings.
  6. Link to relevant external and internal pages.
of MarketMuse Content Brief showing estimated monthly views, target content score and target word count.
MarketMuse Content Brief Summary.

User Intent and Questions

When a user performs a search in a search engine, they expect to get something out of the experience. There is intent behind every search, and it can be explicit or implied. By incorporating this information into your content, you can provide your audience with the information they need to move forward in their purchase journey.

Whenever someone uses a search engine, they have questions that need to be answered. The questions your audience is asking, when searching for that topic, are ordered by relevance.

Ranking Titles

Writing an engaging title is one of the most important aspects of creating content that does well in search engines. Titles with clear, concise and engaging language are often best, bringing more visitors to your site and into your marketing funnel. Titles that are ranking for the topic, and terms you can use to set yourself apart, are included.

Ranking Subheadings

Subheadings guide your writing to better reflect the topical authority standards search engines use to rank web pages. By focusing on subtopics that best answer your audience’s questions and needs, you can craft a piece of writing that is easy to read and quick to rank. Subheadings that are ranking for the topic, and terms you can use to set yourself apart, are included.

Subtopics

Establishing topical authority for a chosen search term requires mentioning the topic and using the network of relevant subtopics. These subtopics are linked to your primary focus topic through search indexes, so it’s vital that they are included. A compiled list of the most relevant related topics for your focus topic is included.

Linking Recommendations

Linking is a great way to show search engines your topical authority. Internal links help create authoritative content clusters. Relevant external links are good for your audience and search engines expect to see them in trustworthy articles. Incorporate our suggestions to ensure you link to reliable sources that aren’t in direct competition with your content.

Outline View

This view is organized so that writers can use the MarketMuse Content Brief while crafting their content. Like an outline, only better, it’s organized by section – each one containing the following items sorted by relevance:

  • A suggested subheading
  • Questions to answer
  • Topics to mention
  • Internal link suggestions (with anchor text)
  • External link suggestions (with anchor text)

Questions to Answer

Your content needs to be tailored to user intent profiles if you want it to rank. Searcher task accomplishment is quickly becoming an important metric to digital marketers, as Google monitors user behavior to give better ranking to content that answers a searcher’s questions. Simply put, know who you’re talking to.

Questions from a subsection of a MarketMuse Content Brief.

Subheadings

This is the meat of your content brief because it allows your writer to quickly draw up an outline of what the piece will look like, without having to start from scratch. Subheadings are based on the topics discussed in top-ranking content, and we will add suggestions to help your content stand out.

MarketMuse Content Briefs contain typically contain multiple subheadings, depending on the complexity of your topic. Using subheadings to structure your content is important for both search engines and visitors. It makes it easier for search engines to understand (and there for rank). That ease of comprehension encourages visitors to stick around longer.

MarketMuse Content Brief suggested headings for the topic Jim Furyk Biography and FAQ.

Topics to Mention

There’s a list of relevant subtopics that should be covered within each subsection. These are the concepts that an expert would discuss when creating an article on this particular topic.

MarketMuse Content Brief sample of topics to cover.

Linking

You’ll need both internal and external links to create an informative piece of content. Inbound links should point toward pillar or supporting pages that are relevant to your focus topic. Outbound links should point toward authoritative, non-competing pieces of content that complement your focus topic.

A few linking suggestions from a MarketMuse Content Brief.

An amplified content brief can make a good writer better, but it doesn’t totally remove the human element of managing a content team. Next, we’ll discuss the best way to convey your vision and strategy effectively, and provide some tips on how to communicate with and manage your writers, whether freelance or staff.

Effectively Conveying Your Content Strategy

Your writers should be aware of the goals and objectives you want to achieve with your content, as this will give them context for the posts and resources they create.

Both existing and new writers should have access to a user-friendly document that outlines all the items mentioned earlier when we talked about client briefs –  your goals, audience, tone/style, keywords, linking, resources, delivery instructions, desired length.

But to truly communicate what you want to achieve, you should be able to speak specifically about your strategy. Aim to provide examples to clarify what you’re looking for, and give statistics, facts, and resources to bolster your writers’ expertise and fuel their creativity.

Ultimately, the more your team knows about what you’re trying to achieve and the mission of your company, the better prepared they are to create content that’s on point.

Caveat: If you’re working with freelancers, there may be some information you’ll want to protect, particularly if you’re in a highly competitive market. Considering having your contractors sign a non-disclosure agreement, or only give them the information that you’d be comfortable making public.

Now, even if you create an immaculate content brief and have your strategy pitch down pat, chances are you’re still going to need to give your writers feedback from time to time. This is normal, so don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater if you have a writer who doesn’t hit the mark on the first try. 

Tips on Providing Writer Feedback

If you’re busy or don’t like confrontation, it’s all too easy to just fix errors and re-work sentences yourself rather than talking to your writers about the issues. But if you nip it in the bud and give them feedback, you’re giving your content writers the chance to truly excel and meet your expectations every time.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when giving your writers critiques:

  • Be understanding. Writing is subjective work and your writer has feelings, so consider her/his perspective and admit fault if you failed to make something clear.
  • Be specific. Instead of saying, always use active voice, give them an example of where they used passive voice. Seeing an example usually helps the message stick.
  • Be consistent. Learning sometimes requires having to repeat yourself, but don’t assume your writer just doesn’t get it and give up. (Not right away, anyway.)
  • Be helpful. Notes like “fix this” or “don’t like that” are not helpful. Be constructive with your feedback, and if you can’t articulate what you want, find an example of something you like or ask a third-party for perspective.

Of course, there will be times when a writer is just not meeting expectations and you need to cut ties. This post we wrote for Boston Content has some great tips on how to manage a team of writers, including dealing with some difficult situations. Bear in mind that excellent teams aren’t built overnight, but you can still create high-performing content in the meantime.

Key Takeaways:

  • Content briefs are a must to create predictable, high-performing content
  • Leverage technology to help you build a 10X content brief
  • Be clear and communicative with your writers, and they’ll produce great work
  • MarketMuse Content Briefs + Highly Trained Writers = Your Content Dream Team

If you want to learn how our briefs can multiply your traffic and rankings, just see how we did it for Neil Patel’s blog.

Rebecca Bakken

Written by Rebecca Bakken rakkenbakken

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