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.

How Bloggers Blog: The Survey

Do you blog?

The number of people that answer that question with a “yes” continues to grow.

Blogging can look really different depending on who’s doing it.  A blog that’s mostly meant as a fun way to work out your thoughts or track your experiences on vacation will provide a different experience than the blogs meant to help promote a business. Even within the latter category though, how people blog varies.

To get a clearer picture of what business blogging looks like, Orbit Media took a survey. What they found, as expected, is that there’s a wide variety in how bloggers blog. Even so, they were able to pull out a few key trends in the blogging process.

  • Most bloggers spend less than 2 hours on each post, but it’s not unheard of to spend over 6 hours.
  • Bloggers don’t keep normal business hours. They write whenever they can fit it in, or when an idea hits.
  • Most bloggers work from a home office.
  • Many bloggers publish new posts multiple times a week.
  • Few bloggers have editors.
  • The main blogging promotion tools used are social media and SEO.

Not too many of those surveyed were freelance bloggers, but the survey findings match my experiences pretty well.

There’s no one right way to blog. Anyone who works in a creative field knows that you just have to figure out what works best for you.

If you want your blog to succeed as a business tool though, there are a few key things you need to keep in mind.

For a more in depth look at what you need to do to build a more successful business blog, download the Austin Copywriter report on the subject.

So what about you? How do you blog?

 

Why You Should Be Promoting Your Content (Not Just Your Products)

By this point, most businesses know they should be creating content. The advice is everywhere. Talk of content content promotionmarketing and business blogging is all over business magazines like Inc and Entrepreneur. You’re much less likely to encounter a business owner today who has never heard of content marketing than you are to encounter one who has thrown up her hands and agreed to go along with the tide and start a blog or YouTube channel for her brand.

You’re probably thinking: well what possible downside could a freelance copywriter whose job it is to create content see in this?

That more businesses are embracing content marketing is mostly a good thing, but many are taking an incomplete approach to it. Every business that starts a blog, publishes once a week, and doesn’t get results tarnishes the idea of content marketing a little bit.

For your content to gain traction, you can’t just create it. You need to promote it.

This message has made its way into the realm of common knowledge for those who specialize in content marketing or content strategy. Nonetheless, for many businesses who have just done cursory research into content marketing, the idea isn’t as familiar.

Jay Baer popularized the concept that you should make content so good that people would pay for it. Making content that’s good enough to be a product is step one. Step two is promoting it in the same way you do your products.

Well, not exactly the same way. The process of promoting good content is a little different than product promotion (although there’s plenty of overlap).

We’ll get more into the hows of promoting content in future posts, since it’s too big of a topic to cover in one blog post. In the meantime, there’s a lot of good information on the subject already out there. Here are a number of articles that touch on both the value of content promotion and techniques for getting started:

There’s some overlap in those posts, but that just lets you know that the stuff that comes up multiple times is the stuff you really need to know about content promotion.

Lest you read this and think, “Of course she says this is important, she just wants us to buy more of her services,” content promotion isn’t actually a specialty of mine. I can provide some consulting to help you generate ideas for a content promotion plan, but I’d rather help you find someone else to execute it.

I do benefit from more people understanding the value of content promotion though. Blog posts, reports, whitepapers, ebooks–all those things I do specialize in–are all worth more to a company that has a plan to promote them. I’d rather make great content for businesses that people actually see and appreciate, than great content that goes unnoticed by all but a few people outside of the company.

You’re Not Normal, So Stop Marketing To Yourself

Doesn’t it just drive you crazy when you’re trying to read a magazine and you keep having to flip to different pages to finish each article. No?

Image by Nina Mathews via flickr

That’s because you read a magazine the way most people do, flipping through to see which articles are interesting to you rather than starting from the beginning and reading straight through to the end the way weirdos like me do it. Magazine publishers design their issues based on normal reading habits. My habits aren’t normal.

I Wrote This Sub-Heading Just For You

Which brings us to another way in which I’m strange, I read blog posts the same way: I start at the beginning and read through to the end. As a writer who produces content for the web, I had to do my research to figure out that this isn’t normal.

It’s not just me. Especially tech-minded people see the world differently than the audiences they sell to, a lesson they had to be reminded of by Justin Jackson. Whatever your personal vision of “normal” is, probably isn’t. When you to need to reach people that aren’t just like you, you have to get outside of your own head.

If I want people to read what I write, I had to figure out how to appeal to the normal reader, rather than doing what comes naturally to me.

Do Your Research

It’s human nature to assume that the way we like to do things is the best and most obvious way to do them. It sure would make marketing easier if that was the way it worked. Instead, figuring out what people respond to is hard work and involves a lot of research, followed with trial and error.

If you start a blog to promote your business, you can’t just sit down and brainstorm a list of all the topics you think would be interesting to write about. If you’re lucky, there will be some overlap between what you want to write about and what your target audience wants to read, but you can’t count on it.

Instead, you need to go where your target audience is and learn what they’re responding to.

The Best Way to Learn About Your Audience.

If you can contact them directly, this is the gold standard!

Surveys, calls to clients, email requests for feedback – if you have enough of a relationship with members of your target audience to get information on what they want to read about without annoying them, then use it. Few things will serve your marketing as well as taking the time to listen to your current customers (or people just like them) about their problems, concerns, and needs.

What Next?

Failing that (or to supplement that), find the other blogs in your space and lurk. Don’t worry. It’s not creepy to lurk on a blog or website the way it is in real life. It’s a valid and fully expected way for you to gather information about what people like.

Research the blogs and publications that are getting the most visits in your industry, as well as the ones that get the most engagement (they’re not always the same):

  • This tip probably goes without saying, but Google some of the key terms related to what you do and see what comes up.
  • Check out what’s listed for your industry on Alltop.com
  • Use FollowerWonk’s search function to find some of the people with the most followers in your industry.

This will get you started. Once you’ve found a few of the top blogs in your industry, it’s easy to follow the trail to more influential sites.

You see, bloggers and websites that get to the top of the food chain pretty much always get there with the help of other bloggers and websites. That means the guys you find that are influential in your industry are probably following, linking to, and otherwise connected with other influential sites in your industry. Once you find your first two or three, they’ll lead you to the rest.

Pay Attention to Metrics

You don’t want to just read these guys. You want to pay careful attention to the things they write that get the most shares and comments. These are the topics your readers care about.

Obviously, you shouldn’t straight up copy the big guys, but use what you learn there as a launching board for collecting ideas for your own blog.

Quick note: this isn’t a step you do once and are done with. Once you’ve collected a list of relevant blogs in your space, make them part of your weekly (or even better, daily) research routine so you can stay up to date on what people are concerned about in your industry. This will not only help you regularly come up with topic ideas, it will also help you stay connected to your industry.

You can use feedly to collect all the blogs you want to follow into one stream. And of course,  follow them all on twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

If what you discover your audience likes seems totally counter-intuitive, all that means is that you’re not normal. If you’d done your marketing based on the way you think, you’d have failed. Now, you can craft your marketing efforts based on what matters:  your audience.

8 Tips for Good Content Marketing

In the 4th and final video in the Austin Copywriter video series on small business content marketing, I’ve included 8 especially important tips for doing content marketing well.

What’s the point in putting in the time and energy, unless you take the necessary steps to get results from content marketing?

Watch it now:

In case you missed any of the videos that came before, here’s the rundown:

Part 1: Why Use Content Marketing?

Part 2: What is Content Marketing?

Part 3: The Benefits of Content Marketing

If you’d rather read than watch, here’s the transcript:

Hi! I’m Kristen Hicks and this is our 4th and final video in the Small Business Introduction to Content Marketing series.

At this point in the series, you should have a pretty good idea what content marketing is and the kind of forms it takes. So, now you have a decision to make:

Are you ready to get started?

I’ve got 8 important tips to help you create content that gets results.

Tip #1: Choose your Goals

First, you need to decide what you want to get out of content marketing.  If building authority’s your primary goal, your technique should look a little different than if traffic is the top priority.

You’ll probably want to accomplish some combination of these, but having priorities will help refine your strategy to something sustainable.

Tip #2: Keep your audience top of mind.

Make giving your audience something you know they need or want your priority. You’ll win more points with generosity than self-promotion.

For this tip to work, you have to make an effort to understand your audience. Create a customer profile and think hard about how to put yourself in their headspace.

Tip #3: Identify a need.

Review all the questions you’ve heard from customers and potential customers. Talk to everyone else in the company who ever interfaces with customers. From there, build a list of common issues and concerns your audience has and get to work answering them.

Tip #4: Include a call to action.

The end goal of all this content is to gain new customers. To help shepherd them from the role of content consumer to customer, you need to employ calls to action.

These won’t always be directly about sales. They could encourage the reader to leave a comment, reply to an email, or read another piece of content. The point is to continue the relationship beyond that first piece of content they encounter.

Tip #5:Do keyword research.

You want to talk the way your readers talk. The terms it’s most natural for you to use as an industry expert won’t necessarily be the same ones your customers use. Do your research, so you can make sure to be understood (and found more easily in search engines to boot).

Tip #6: Show your expertise.

Show people what you know! For anyone on the fence, or comparing competitors, a piece of content that clearly demonstrates how well you know your stuff will help make their decision that much easier.

Tip #7: Pay Attention to Industry Trends

Knowing what others in the industry are talking about will both make it easier to come up with content topics, and help you become a part of the conversation. By joining the larger industry conversation, you’ll draw more attention to your business and position yourself as an expert.

Tip #8: Network

As in most things in life, who you know matters! The more people who know and trust you, the more people in the world who are likely to share your content and recommend your business. Work to make connections online and off. Community can be a fantastic tool for content promotion.

Thanks for viewing the Introduction to Content Marketing for Small Businesses series.  If you have any questions or topics you’d like to see covered further, be sure to let me know in the comments.