9 Expert Content Strategists on How to Be a Better Content Writer

Be a Better Content Writer

Content writers know the importance of trying to get inside readers’ heads to tap into what matters to them most, but that penchant for empathy doesn’t always extend to those other people we’re doing our writing for. We can’t read the minds of the people who are hiring us, but the simple solution to that is a willingness to ask.

With content marketing one of the fastest growing and most lucrative industries for professional writers to work in today, many of us are increasingly likely to find ourselves answering to people with the newly familiar title of “content strategist.” In the interest of tapping into what’s going on the heads of these content strategists (without trying to read minds), I’ve asked a few of them just what they value most in a content writer.

Here’s what they had to say:

9 Expert Opinions on What Makes a Great Content Writer

1) “I appreciate writers who have a clear understanding of their skills, strengths, and things they’re not as good at.

I love when writers ask smart questions upfront and ‘group’ their questions when they have to ask during the project. It’s so much easier to field than one email after another.

The most organized writers anticipate an editor or content strategist’s needs. They proactively research organic search terms, they craft concise pitches and cite expected sources, and they reach out on a regular basis (once a quarter is ideal) to see what they can help with.”

Kirsten Longnecker
Content Strategist, BancVue

2) “I most appreciate content writing that reminds me of my academic roots in creative writing and analysis. I am looking for a voice that pops off the page — an intellectual heft, an analytical rigor, and the kind of word choices that will stick with me long after I’ve left work for the day. It’s all possible in the content world, but only when writers, editors, and content developers lead the way.”

Leah Levy
Content Strategist and Copywriter, Just Start Storytelling

3) “Adaptation.  This is really broad and can apply to many different situations. Whether it’s taking feedback and adapting content accordingly, seeing a blog post fall flat and adapting the headline/tone/format the next time around, or taking something that’s complex and technical and adapting it for a more general audience — the ability to mold and shape content is absolutely necessary.

Curiosity. Ask questions! When I work with content writers who ask a lot of questions, the end product is usually a better, more performant piece of content. Writers should be asking “who is the target audience?,” “at what point in the buying cycle will someone be exposed to this piece of content?,” “how much should I assume they know about this topic?,” “how will the target audience benefit from reading this piece of content?,” “what is the intended call to action after reading this?”

Hannah Simon
Content Strategist, Fastly

4) “One quality I find indispensable in a writer is curiosity. The best writers are incurably enthusiastic and want to learn as much as possible about the subject of their writing. I’d rather read a curious neophyte writing about a technical topic than a complacent expert! Curious writers unearth interesting facts and make insightful connections. And their energy is infectious.”

Melanie Seibert
Content Strategist, Razorfish

5) “Coming from the magazine world and into content development, the most important things for me are the age-old elements. Know your audience and know the voice of the site. Certainly, great writing is great writing but if that writing fails to take into account the brand persona and audience, then you’ve just lost an opportunity to connect and convert.”

Lara Zuehlke
Account Supervisor, Pierpont Communications

6) “The quality we most appreciate in the content writers we work with is their willingness to learn. We want to develop long-term relationships with the writers who develop content for our clients which means we play a very collaborative role in creation. Being willing to learn all there is to know about the client and their business, accept feedback, and then of course apply what has been learned to future content is a huge benefit to everyone in the relationship.”

Mack Fogelson
CEO, Mack Web

7) “For me it’s a little bit of a two-pronged approach and trying to find a balance between them.

I used to value writers who excelled at audience engagement – creativity and passion and being able to really get inside the mind of the persona – even if their process was chaotic.

But as we move to a more structured approach to content, I’m really finding that I value content writers that can also organize their thoughts clearly, deliver outlines in advance of drafts, who know how to research and footnote material. It’s no longer just about engagement – the structure and process are critical as well.

Jenny Magic
Principal/VP of Content Strategy, Sitegoals

8) “When I hire writers – I do so because I want to bring their view of the world to an issue that I or my client is trying to communicate.   Alignment and agreement is important – but so is (in many cases) disagreement and (in almost all cases) a unique perspective.

So many times writers want to ‘write what they think the client wants’ instead of bringing their unique talents and point of view to the table.  Certainly there’s a place for writing in a different voice (e.g. ghost writing) and trying to match tone and perspective. But, most of the time what I appreciate and value about a content writer is that they have the ability to tell a story in a unique and differentiated way.”

Robert Rose
Chief Strategist, Content Marketing Institute

9) “Given the space I work in: the ability to clearly communicate fresh ideas.

I’m all for pretty prose, but in content marketing it’s all about educating customers; this places priority on clarity over articulacy, and demands an ability to argue unique perspectives. In other words, I mostly value a writer’s ability to think clearly and then put those thoughts to page over their ability to ‘write well.’ Perhaps they are one and the same, though. :)”

Gregory Ciotti
Content Strategist, Help Scout

Edit: Bonus Tip!

One strategist got back to me after the post went up, but I didn’t want to deprive anyone of her great advice.

“I need people who are super curious and constantly educating themselves about all the different areas of content strategy, particularly UX and metadata basics. Great writing only goes so far! :)”

Kristina Halvorson
Content Strategist, Brain Traffic

One thing that quickly becomes clear through these answers is that not every content strategist has the same priorities when it comes to finding a great content writer, which goes to show that much of being good at your work is finding the employer or client that’s a great fit for you.

There are a few key themes we see emerge though:

  • Curiosity – A good writer has got to be a great researcher and that’s a skill that usually comes from having a driving curiosity to learn new things. The best writers like that process of digging up new information on a topic and becoming a mini-expert in every little thing their readers want to know about.
  • Creativity – Good writing is not formulaic, it brings something unique to the table to help keep the reader interested. While that curiosity-driven research takes care of the background work, creativity is what makes for greater skill in the writing process itself. Choosing the best possible words, finding the right voice, bringing some humor into a piece ­– these are some of the kinds of creative skills that really set content writers apart.

So there you have it, the things content strategists care about the most when it comes to the work you do for them aren’t those nitty gritty values like meeting deadlines or crafting the right headlines (although I’m sure they’d all be quick to say those matter too). It’s more about the most basic personality traits that drove many of us to become writers in the first place: the desire to continually learn new things and stretch our creativity muscle.

15 Tips (of Various Types) From Content Marketing World’s Experts

content marketing world 2014

The weather’s nice. The food is orange. And there are the biggest names in content marketing everywhere you look (and a constantly cursing Oscar winner to boot).

Content Marketing World is an experience full of unique character and packed to the brim with information, tips, and ideas. The speakers and attendees come from all types of backgrounds and represent just about every possible job title in the content marketing industry.

That makes for some good variety in the knowledge you walk away with at the end of the week. Here are fifteen of my favorite tidbits from those full days in Cleveland.

1) Forget funnels and focus on moments of inspiration.

Does the sales funnel still accurately reflect how people buy? With the way the internet has changed how people research and shop, Andrew Davis suggests we’re looking to an outdated tool to understand buying behavior.

There’s not a simple, linear process behind making a purchasing decision anymore. What there is now is an internet full of ideas and stories. To get the attention of your potential customers and make a connection, you need to play on the level of the things they’re paying attention to online. You need to work toward creating moments of inspiration.

2) Start using Google Trends. Yesterday.

Another tip from Andrew Davis who insists that Google Trends is the most underused tool in marketing today. If you want to understand what people care about, what they’re talking about, what they’re thinking about and searching for (and of course you do if you’re in marketing), Google Trends is the tool to show you.

google trends

What people are thinking about today

3) Speaking of Google tools, you’re not doing enough with Google Analytics.

Andy Crestodina (another Google Trends fan) has figured out a lot of the best tricks for getting more out of Google Analytics. Trends are good for figuring out what people are thinking about more generally, but Analytics is where you figure out what they’re coming to your site for and what they’re doing when they get there.

If you use Google Analytics effectively, the data you glean can help with keyword research, topic development, and refining your strategy as you go.

4) Use tools, but don’t let them take the place of strategy.

Content marketing tools abound. We’ve got the aforementioned Google tools, a dizzying array of software, social So many tools! Graphic via Curatanetworks, tools for organizing your content creation process, amplifying the reach of your content, tracking performance, and so many more.

Kristina Halvorson offers the reminder that we can get carried away with our tools and tactics. Content marketing isn’t just about what we can do or think might be cool to do, it has to be strategic. Don’t let those tools distract from creating and sticking to a strategy.

5) Use personas. But remember, they’re not a creative writing project.

Personas are content marketing 101. We all know we need them, but the harder part is making sure they’re based on something real.

It might feel fun and creative to sit down and write out what you think is going on in the mind of your ideal customer, but unless you’re basing what goes into your persona on actual interviews or data, you’re writing fiction. Jenny Magic and Melissa Breker brought up the inconvenient truth that for personas to do their job and make your content marketing strategy more effective, they can’t just be a creative writing project.

say "no" for a better content strategy6) When creating a content strategy, saying “no” isn’t just ok, it’s important.

This is another gem from Kristina Halvorson (and one of the pieces of advice on this list that can easily extend to life beyond content marketing). Marketers are creative people and, as such, we tend to have more ideas than we can reasonably execute.

An important part of developing a content strategy that will be effective and sustainable is the ability to say “no.” Producing a blog post a day, a weekly video series, and an infographic all this month might sound like a great plan ­– but do you actually have the resources to execute that plan? Carefully consider what you can accomplish, so you create the most effective and efficient strategy within your means.

7) Always ask “why?”

Another Halvorson tip: think like a five year old. Every step of putting together your strategy and creating your askwhycontent, ask “why?” Why are you doing this? Why is this important?

Just keep asking until you get down to those big, hard-to-answer philosophical questions. If your content answers everything up to that point, you know you’ve dug deep into something really useful.

8) Writing is not grammar, it’s thinking.

You may have noticed a few sentences in this post that start with “and” or “but.” Well Ann Handley told me I could :) .

The grammatical rules that may have seemed like gospel when you were learning to write in school aren’t the most important part of writing well. In fact, any time they have a negative influence on the readability or personality of your content, they should be set aside.

What matters is the thought that goes into the work. Writing must be useful and meaningful and something your reader can relate to. More than any proper use of a semi-colon, that’s what makes writing good in the world of content marketing.

9) Whenever you could use some extra writing inspiration, check out style guides.

Do you ever look over the style guides produced by some of the companies putting out great content? I have to admit, I never really thought to, but Ann Handley recommends it as a way to keep your writing fresh.

A few she specifically recommends are:

If you know of any other good ones worth checking out, let me know,

influencer marketing

Find influencers with Followerwonk

10) If you don’t have one already, develop a plan to start connecting with influencers ASAP.

In his talk on influencer marketing, Lee Odden stressed how people are much more likely to trust experts than brands. This is a pretty intuitive point: how much more likely are you to make a decision based on the advice of a person you trust versus that of a brand?

That makes any expert in your industry with an engaged audience somebody you want to know. And more to the point, somebody that you want to know and trust you well enough to share your content. This isn’t easy though, you need a plan to best determine which influencers you want to connect with and how best to establish, nurture, and maintain that connection.

11) Be sure to target actual influencers, not just people that are popular.

It’s possible for someone to have a large following and obvious popularity, without being a person with influence. Odden explains the distinction: a brandividual is popular, but an influencer can create popularity.

Popularity might be measured in things like followers, but an influencer is likely to have a more engaged audience. Their followers aren’t just passive listeners, but make a point to interact and become a part of the their community. That’s how you tell the difference.

12) But don’t just target the already influential, look for people on their way up.

Every powerful influencer out there started as someone with no fans or audience. The road to cultivating influence is long and slow and most of those who reach the end get some help along the way. And they remember the help they got.

Says Odden, “Work with an influencer, they’re friends for a day. Help someone become influential and they’re a friend for life.” Keep your eyes open for the people who are on their way up and look for opportunities to connect with them as well.

13) Get ready for adaptive content.

Context plays a huge role in how and why people buy. How huge of a role? It turns out that personalized content can mean 3-10 times as many conversions.

Jenny Magic and Melissa Breker talked about the growing trend of adaptive content. You’ve already seen glimpses of this ­– things like personalized ads based on sites you’ve visited and seeing different versions of a website on different types of devices all count as adaptive content.

The technology for businesses to do even more personalization in how they deliver up content is already there; it’s just a matter of jumping in and using it. But you can’t jump in without a plan. In the mantra familiar to any and all Content Marketing World attendees: the strategy must come first.

14) Slow down and fix your shit.

Both Kristina Halvorson and Jonathon Coleman gave this line a nod. Along with #15, it’s one of those pieces of advice that’s useful in pretty much all aspects of life. Rushed work and hasty decisions rarely produce results on par with what you get out of a well thought out and carefully executed strategy. Take your time and do it right.

15) It’s all about empathy.

To produce content people want to consume, you have to understand what they like and need. We talk a lot about personas in the realm of content marketing, but we always have to remember what the real point of those personas is. They’re worthless if they don’t help us empathize with the people we’re trying to reach.

In the emphasis on getting out a large quantity of content quickly (see #14), it’s easy to lose sight of what the purpose of the content is. Catchy headlines followed by posts that repeat familiar facts might help content creators reach their quotas and satisfy the higher ups, but are you creating something that people will actually appreciate?

Always have the people on the other end of the computer screen in mind. If you’re not making an effort to empathize with their needs, it’s time to start.

Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,

12 Things Every Non-Expert NEEDS to Know About SEO

important SEO basics

For those of us who spend hours each week reading about different facets of online marketing, there are many SEO facts and best practices that seem obvious to us that still aren’t understood by your average business owner. Dedicated, experienced SEO professionals have way more knowledge about the nitty gritty particulars of what makes for effective SEO than is covered here (and most know loads more than I do personally), but you don’t really need to know all that stuff anyways.

If SEO isn’t your personal specialty, but is something that matters to you and your business, these are the key things you absolutely need to know to avoid making decisions that could hurt your company.

1) SEO factors can be divided into two categories:

On-Page SEO Factors
This is the stuff you can control. You can optimize your website for SEO by making sure the site design is intuitive, the pages load quickly, and you strategically place keywords in the main parts of the page that are noticed by search engine crawlers:

  • Title tags
  • Headings
  • Image alt tags
  • On-page copy
  • Meta descriptions (doesn’t influence rankings, but good for encouraging clicks)
  • Page URLs

You can find a few more details on this part of the process in the SEO Basics presentation here.

Off-Page SEO Factors

This is the trickier part and where some businesses get in trouble. Search engines try to gauge how trustworthy a site is based on off-page factors like how many other sites link to it, how authoritative those sites are, the authority of authors who write on your site and share your site, and some various other complicated factors that help the search engines decide if people really like you.

2) SEO takes time.

SEO is a long process

Image via Corey Leopold

You’re not gonna see results tomorrow. Or next week. Or the next. It takes time for Google to pick up on changes, and even more time for SEO efforts to start to add up into something tangible. There may be some slight changes to your rankings in a short period of time (especially if you start off ranking very low and are pursuing SEO on your site for the first time), but good SEO is a long game and results take time.

3) SEO is a long-term process.

Related to #2, but still its own point, you can’t make a few tweaks to your site once and figure you’ve got SEO taken care of. It’s not a one and done deal. SEO is a continuous process that requires:

  • Fresh content
  • Regular tweaks to your site
  • Ongoing efforts to raise brand awareness and encourage legitimate links, and
  • A continual tracking of analytics to determine what’s working.

If you get yourself up to a nice high rank and figure you’re good and can stop, your competitors will take advantage of that false sense of security to unseat you.

4) Bad SEO can hurt you. 

Bad Seo

Google and their ilk hate spammers. The people out to game the system to get low-quality sites ranking higher than they should are precisely the enemies search engines are trying to take out with every new update to the algorithm. If you hire those people – even if you do so innocently, thinking they’re legitimate professionals who know what they’re doing – you risk hurting your business.

You cannot make rash decisions when it comes to your site’s SEO, you have to seek out white-hat SEO professionals who really know what they’re doing and won’t put you at risk.

5) SEO evolves.

As the search engines update their algorithms to foil the spammy SEO perpetrators addressed above, what works best for SEO changes. This is another reason it must be treated as a long-term process. What works best today might not be what works best in 6 months, so you have to stay on top of the changes and be prepared to adapt.

6) Search engines prefer sites that prioritize people over search engines.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. If your site seems more designed to please the search engine deities rather than your actual visitors, it’ll be bad for your business (who’s gonna stay on a site that’s not useful, much less buy something off it) and bad for your rankings. Search engines consider things like how long visitors stay on a site and whether they ever bother to come back, so they can get a sense of whether or not the people stopping by actually like the site.

7) Keywords matter.

You have to be careful not to overdo it on the keywords – a keyword focus can’t outweigh the importance of making sense and writing content that’s easy to read – but keywords do matter in SEO.  Keyword research helps you understand what people in your industry and, more importantly interested in your industry, are talking about. That lets you know what kind of things to write about on your site, what kind of questions to answer, and what terms to use. You should pick different target keywords for each page on the site and include them in all of the parts of the page listed in the On-Page SEO Factors section in #1.

You want to choose keywords to emphasize based both on how popular they are and how competitive they are. If a small business decides it wants to dominate for a broad, popular keyword like “bathing suits,” it’s never gonna beat the likes of Target, Victoria’s Secret and the other huge brands sitting at the top of the search results for the term. But something more specific, like “vintage style plus size bathing suits” (what those in the biz call a “long-tail keyword”) will be a  more reasonable goal.

8) Content matters.

Content only ever seems to become more important to SEO as time passes and search engines evolve. Content provides value to site visitors, gives them a reason to stay on the site longer, answers their questions, and can help in the process of turning visitors into customers. Content is valuable to businesses beyond its role in SEO, but its importance to SEO can’t be discounted. Fresh content is one of the factors search engines take into consideration in site rankings. More importantly though, good content fuels the shares (read: links) and return visits to the site that signal authority and trust to the search engines.

9) Analytics matter.

Pay attention to what people do on your site. If you have pages that have high bounce rates (people that only stay on them for a second before leaving), they’re not doing you any good in terms of future sales or SEO. Weed out what’s not working and identify what is. Your SEO strategy should be regularly refined based on what your analytics tell you.

10) Traffic should not be your primary goal.

seo traffic

It’s not all about traffic

As previously mentioned, if you’re getting people to your site who don’t stay there, that tells search engines something about the value of your site and can hurt your rankings. Any increase in traffic is at best a temporary win if you aren’t giving people something they value once they get there.

Empty traffic doesn’t just end up hurting you from an SEO perspective though, if you get a billion visitors who never buy anything how much are they really worth? If the point of your website is to make money, you need visitors who will turn into customers. That needs to be your primary goal.

11) You are not Google’s* priority (not as a marketer or business owner anyways).

There’s no use complaining about it. If you get a penalty and/or fall from page 1 to page 142, you can feel like Google’s done you wrong and they owe it to you to fix it, but what reason do they have to care?

Their priority is to provide useful results to the people performing searches. If it looks like your site’s guilty of the manipulative tactics that result in lower-value search results, your business gets lumped in with the bad guys.

They’re a business with their own priorities and fixing your problems (even problems caused by your rank in the almighty Google search results) don’t rank high on the list.

*Insert any other search engine name in place of Google in this section and the idea’s the same. But let’s be honest, we’re mostly talking about Google.

12) Never trust an SEO company that guarantees a #1 spot. 

Remember when I mentioned back at the beginning that there are certain SEO truths that are super obvious to those of us in marketing? This ranks high on the list. The idea that there are still many businesses that buy into this line is baffling to those with some knowledge or background in SEO.

But it still happens, so it needs to be said. If an agency or individual ever pitches you based on this promise, RUN. They are not legitimate professionals who understand SEO and they’re likely to do your business more harm than good.

 

Now if you ever talk to an SEO firm that’s annoyed when you tell them you want to rank #1 by next month, you’ll understand why. There just aren’t shortcuts. As in most things worth doing, SEO takes some real time and commitment to do it well.

Sometimes Good Ideas Just Need a Little Boost: On WDS 2014

World Domination Summit

Image via Armosa Studio

At the professional conferences I’ve attended, there’s often a sense that everyone’s leaving with a few key ideas written down, tweeted, and held onto for inspiration coming home. At the World Domination Summit (WDS), I got the impression that every person was leaving there with a unique personal goal or idea top of mind.

The thing is, while attendance at WDS can offer some distinct professional benefits, it’s not a conference about work. It’s a conference about ideas. That means the takeaways for different people who attend are all over the map; whether that’s a more defined commitment to writing more often, an excitement to get started creating a course for digital nomads or the kick in the butt you’ve been needing to actually create that business plan and start your own business.

The result of attending WDS is that you really think about whatever it is in life that you want or need the most, and you leave with the inspiration required to start doing it.

Since this blog is about marketing and copywriting, it took me a little while to think of how best to tie in what I learned at WDS with the kind of topics I cover here. When it comes down to it, I realized one of the big lessons of my time in Portland could be applied as easily to content marketing or blogging as it can to a wide array of other tasks, professions, or goals: sometimes your ideas just need a little boost.

This guy hiked in a dress for charity. Image via Armosa Studios

Somewhere in the back of your head you probably know just what your life <ahem>, I mean marketing plan, needs, but you aren’t ready to put in the work or time or take the risk you’ve been considering. Ideas can have a lot of power, we just have to do something with them.

If you have an awesome idea…and then stop there, you won’t get much out of it. If you have an idea that sounds crazy like hiking in dresses for charity, building a tiny house (with no previous building experience), or walking everywhere you go for several years (all ideas turned into action by WDS attendees), sometimes you’ll get more out of it than you’d ever imagined. But only if you actually do it.

The Content Marketing Institute recently wrote about a new commitment their team is trying out: putting 10% of their time and resources toward brainstorming and tackling ideas that seem a little out there – either because they’re risky, untested, or just seem too big to accomplish. This isn’t a new idea, it was inspired by a policy at Google that was also employed by Jonathan Mildenhall in the marketing department at Coca Cola.

It might be tempting to say, “well sure, huge businesses like Coca Cola and Google can take creative risks, but we have a budget to stick to,” but that’s an easy excuse. The individuals at WDS get out there and take crazy risks on much smaller budgets than your average business marketing department has access to. You just have to be willing to give that good idea a boost, instead of getting mired in the all the excuses not to do it.

WDS gave many of its attendees that boost, but you can find your own. Think right now: “what’s the thing I’d really like to do next, but keep stopping myself from diving into?”

Now, just decide to do it. Good luck.