Produce Helpful and Unique Content at Scale Using Content Briefs
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Producing helpful and unique content is hard.
It’s even harder at scale.
Writing a helpful and unique content piece requires more time and expertise than the average piece of content you can find online. And if you want to publish this type of quality content at scale, you’ll have to hire writers.
Writers who probably don’t have the ability nor the time to align their assigned article to your company’s positioning, narrative, audience, etc.
A content brief is a document that gathers all the necessary instructions a writer needs to write a search-engine optimized article about a specific topic, or around a specific keyword. The amount of details included can vary depending on the amount of creative freedom given to the writer.
The main goal of a content brief is to make sure that the writer follows the prearranged plan for that piece of content.
Without a content brief, the risk is that the final piece of content won’t answer your readers' questions, will lack expertise, won’t fit your brand narrative nor positioning, and even worse – it can become a fluffy regurgitation of previously published content on the web.
As the content brief is the first step of a content creation process – be it for blog posts, e-books or white papers – it is also the best way to make sure that all involved parties are aligned at every step of the content creation journey.
Content briefs are usually written by a content manager, or any other person managing content (content lead, SEO consultant, etc.). The person producing the brief has to have a clear understanding of what the final copy should look like, how it fits into the overall content strategy, and other important elements I’ll cover in more detail later.
When to use a content brief?
A lot of companies struggle to produce content at scale, frequently complaining that:
Copywriters are writing poor copies with irrelevant information or even mistakes
Copywriters are missing the brand’s tone, voice, and narrative
It’s too hard to achieve consistency
Content production takes too much time (there are a lot of back and forth between all involved parties)
Content production is too expensive (because they spent so much time on it)
The produced content doesn’t rank in search results and thus doesn’t bring traffic
The produced content doesn’t bring leads
What they don’t realize, it’s that oftentimes a strong content brief can help fix these issues (I say strong, because not any brief can do the job. I’ll present you what a strong content brief should look like in a moment).
A content brief helps you with:
Keep your content on-brand (aligned with your company’s positioning, narrative, and messaging)
And doing all the above at scale and under resources constraints
Plus, you won’t be surprised at the end with an article looking nothing like what you planned. The copywriter has received clear guidelines, which means you can easily track if those instructions have been followed or not. No room for misunderstanding, it was all written down.
With a content brief in your content production process, your workflow will look something like this: content manager writes a brief, copywriter writes the article, content editor (can be the content manager) edits the article and publishes it.
There shouldn’t be many intermediary steps, and the clear instructions will allow you to assign any article to any writer, which means you can afford faster content production without sacrificing the quality of your content.
💡 If you are working on an article yourself, you’ll find many benefits to a brief as well. I’m currently writing this article following a brief I prepared last week. This helps me structure my ideas and follow my red thread. Plus, if I end up not having time to finish it, I can always assign it to a copywriter.
Everything to include in a strong content brief: a checklist
This is a checklist of all the elements your brief needs to contain.
You can also recreate yours, listing these key elements:
A recommended word count: To make sure your copywriter doesn’t get carried away by his inspiration. ;)
The tone and voice of the copy: Expert, serious, funny, casual? It all depends on your brand.
Details about the target audience and/or customer: A copywriter has to know who is writing to.
Links to resources: If you have an internal style guide, brand guidelines, playbook, don’t miss providing it to your copywriting team as reference.
Page type: Will it be a blog post, an e-book, a product page?
Content tactic: Are you writing a new article or refreshing an old one? Or maybe you are merging different pieces of content into one?
The meta-data: Either you write the title tag and meta description of the content piece yourself, or you delegate it to your copywriter, keep it centralized in your content brief.
The suggested URL of the published page: To know what URL to implement at publication. The content brief is a place that centralizes all information about a published content piece.
Framing keywords: if you are writing an SEO content brief, don’t forget to include the main keyword + the secondary keywords selected for the copy.
Requirements for internal and external links: If you provide the required internal and external links in advance, your copywriter can organically incorporate them in the copy.
Sources for background research: Your copywriter may not be an expert in your industry. By providing him with solid sources you trust, you have better chances to have him on the same page as you.
Suggested title and headings (H1, H2, H3, and H4 if necessary): It is better to come up with headings beforehand, for two reasons: first, to have a clear vision of your article’s structure, second, to make sure keywords are included. But that doesn’t mean these have to be permanent – you can also open yourself to suggestions from your writer.
The complete outline of the article: Sections, subtopics, information you want to be included. Part of the work would be done after you’ve come up with your headings, but I personally highly recommend you go further into details, and actually list the information you want into bullet points.
Next steps or CTAs for the reader: If there are CTAs you would like to see in the final copy, include them in your brief as well. The more information you give to your writer beforehand, the more organic will be the integrations at the end.
Guidance on visual elements like graphics and illustrations: To keep all information about a piece of content centralized, plan your visuals ahead of time, and include them in your content brief.
Your brief also needs to reflect more subjective elements, such as:
Your angle on the topic
Your company’s hot takes/brand narrative
Your company’s positioning
This can either be stated directly as special instructions or reflected throughout your detailed content outline, your headings, and your information choice.
💡 The amount of details you want to include in your content outline depends on your preference. Based on my experience, the more information you include in your brief, the less fluff you’ll have in your copy. Especially if you’re covering a topic that has few trusted sources online.
Why content briefing is important
In one sentence: a content brief makes it way much easier to manage content.
There are different reasons for that. Let’s dive in.
A content brief makes content production less frustrating
If you get things right from the start, you won’t end up rewriting an article five times.
Creating a brief may look troublesome at first, but believe me, it will save you much frustration at the end.
A content brief will force you to do all the necessary research and thinking before writing (and you won’t end up changing directions later in the process).
A content brief will force your copywriters to follow guidelines (and make it easier for the content editor to check if the instructions have been followed correctly).
A content brief will centralize all information about a piece of content, and thus make it easy to keep all involved parties aligned.
Eventually, it will save you a lot of back and forth, and editing will be faster.
The copywriter will also benefit from clear directives, moving faster with their writing, and avoiding the frustration of mistakes and misinterpretations.
Result: your content pieces will be published in no time, and all parties will rejoice from the satisfaction of a smoothly accomplished task.
A content brief helps you avoid content regurgitation
Something you don’t want (I hope), it’s to create the same content other companies have already published.
You know that feeling, when you research something on Google, but every blog article you read tells the exact same thing, in different words. How frustrating is that. 🤯
This happens for a simple reason: companies assign articles to freelance copywriters without properly briefing them.
What can copywriters do except google the topic and rewrite whatever is already there?
They ain’t paid enough to interview experts or to conduct academic research.
So you end up with content looking no different from the competition. Won’t even tell you what it does to your ranking. 👎
Even if and when you rank, people will bounce because you’re not really saying anything.
The simple solution to that is to prepare a content brief for the copywriter. A content brief including your expertise (you know your industry), or at least trusted sources of information, so your content writer can have something to work with.
A content brief helps you to keep your content on-brand
You want your content to reflect your brand, right?
Well, except if you have an in-house copywriter, any other person you outsource your content writing to probably don’t know much about your company’s positioning, narrative, and messaging.
And I dare say, even in-house copywriters don’t always do.
So it’s probably not up to them to decide the direction the company should take when writing about a topic.
A content manager should be responsible for the structure of a copy, especially if it’s an editorial piece, communicating opinions. They should be able to make it unique, aligned with company’s narrative. And then delegate the writing part to a copywriter, via a content brief.
💡 Don’t forget that a content brief is also supposed to include brand guidelines, the tone of voice, and reflect the angle of the article. All these elements help you stay aligned and on-brand with your content strategy.
A content brief helps you to make sure your content solves problems
Your content is only needed if it is helpful to readers.
It can be helpful in many ways: by solving concrete daily issues, by answering common questions, by providing information on a hot topic, or simply by being entertaining. One way or another, your content has to solve problems.
Google also favors helpful content, because it is moving away from being a search engine, and getting closer to being an answer engine. It is in your advantage to make sure your content answer users questions too.
A content brief is a good starting point to understand what problems exactly you are trying to solve with your article or e-book.
When writing a content outline for your piece of content, you’ll be forced to identify all the questions you want to be answered, and then you’ll be able to communicate that effectively through structured guidelines for your writers.
I’ll explain how I make sure my content is helpful in the next section, by detailing how to create a content brief.
How to write a content brief
Time to learn how to write content briefs.
It’s not about filling a random template you find online. I want to walk you through the creation of a strong content brief that will help you create helpful and unique content at scale.
So, after you have selected the topic you are going to write about (depending on your process, this may come from your content plan or content calendar), create a new doc, and do the following.
Identify keywords and intent
SaaS content creation in 2023 is about solving people’s problems, as I previously mentioned. Vince has written an article about our bottom-up approach to content creation, explaining that keywords are not the starting point of a content creation process.
But it doesn’t mean that keywords are not relevant anymore. That is and will always a key indicator of what users are looking for online – of how they formulate their problems and questions.
For that reason, when I start writing a content brief, I always have a look at popular keywords on Semrush or Ahrefs.
When doing research for this article, I found out that users were highly interested in templates (that’s why you’ll get one at the end of this article), but also that AI-generated content briefs were a subtopic I could touch upon.
I didn’t think of that at first, but now I’m interested in talking about this aspect as well.
It’s as simple as the principle of offer and demand – online users are looking for templates, so I’m going to share a template.
Have a look at what your competitors do
Top Google result pages rank for a reason. Take a look at their article's structure. 👀
Not to copy it (remember, we don’t want regurgitated content), but to find gaps/areas of improvement.
This comes from another simple principle: You’ll rank better if you do better than others. SEO is a zero-sum game.
For example, for this article, I noticed that the majority of competitors didn’t talk much about the arrival of AI tools able to create content briefs. So now I’m thinking about adding this section even more.
Find your angle
To stand out from competitors, but also to appear as a company with a strong voice and brand, you can’t write generic content. You need to choose a position, an angle - you need to tell a story
For example, my angle for this article is how to create a strong content brief that will result in a helpful and unique piece of content.
I’m aligned with our positioning, narrative, and messaging. That’s what makes my copy unique, and on-brand.
So a piece of content is not just about what competitors say and what your users are looking for, but also how you approach that specific topic as a brand/individual.
🤔 You can’t find an angle? Maybe you just have nothing new to say. If that’s the case, reconsider your decision writing on a topic :)
Create a target audience persona
You need to know who you are talking to when creating content. I personally know that I’m writing for SaaS CMOs, marketing managers, and maybe even higher decision-makers involved in marketing.
You, dear reader, may also be an SEO agency member or a marketing student, and if it’s the case, I appreciate you, but you are not my ideal client, so I’m not writing specifically to you (that’s why I’m barely talking about content briefs for clients).
The best approach in this matter would be to have an internal document describing your target audience, and a link referring to it in your briefs (It’s a one-time effort).
But sometimes, the target audience may change for specific content. For example, if you decide to write content for your employees, or if you want to establish thought leadership in your industry (in this case you’re writing for your peers).
That’s why I’m mentioning the importance to always know who you’re writing for.
Prepare the structure
Now that you know what your competitors wrote on the subject + what users are looking for + what you personally want to talk about, you need to put all this in a clear structure.
Not much to say here. Simply write your headings: start with H2s, then H3s, and if necessary, H4s.
💡 Your content structure is not something carved into stone: it may vary during the next steps of your content process if it’s for the best. But if you've written your content brief correctly, changes should be minimal.
Here’s an example of a content structure:
Write a content outline
These steps can be applied differently depending on your content production process.
If you write a content brief for yourself, then I highly recommend including at least all the key information you want to talk about in your final copy.
If you write a content brief for a copywriter, then in my opinion, the more information you include, the better.
Don't be stingy in sharing your expertise.
Especially if you are writing a technical piece, and you know the copywriter doesn’t have the required expertise to write a helpful piece of content.
This will prevent fluff and lack of precision. The copywriter will only have one job left: to write.
Include sources and resources
You, better than your copywriters, know where to find legit information in your industry.
I highly recommend including links to such sources in your content brief: to help the writer understand the topic before they write about it.
This is especially worthwhile if you have internal resources, such as podcasts or recorded webinars to share.
Include an on-page SEO checklist (optional)
Even if the most important part of an on-page SEO is already accomplished when you choose your headings and subtopics, there are still a couple of best practices left.
If your copywriters don’t have SEO experience, then you can include a checklist, to make sure they don’t forget to include major keywords in their text.
Here is an example of a best-practice checklist for an SEO content brief:
Write short sentences
Use active voice
Use the framing keywords organically in your copy
Include recommended internal links
Included trusted external links
Write 1-4 lines paragraphs (one paragraph, one idea)
Space out your paragraphs.
Think about the visual aspects of your final copy
While planning your article, or any other type of content, think of the visuals at the content brief stage.
If you are writing a tutorial, for example, then provide screenshots of each step of the process you are describing in your content brief. This will help your copywriter a lot to understand the process you want him or her to explain.
The same goes for videos you would like to include, or infographics you plan to create.
This way, the copywriter will be able to integrate them organically in their text, and you will get a unified multi-format copy.
Human-written content briefs vs AI content briefs
Content briefs are a highly strategic step of the content production process.
And for that reason, content briefs are something an AI tool can’t replace, even as advanced as ChatGPT.
See for yourself.
AI content brief tools don’t provide you with unique information
Tools like WriterZen, Clearscope, SEO surfer, and others, sell you the dream: easy and fast content briefs, where AI collects suggestions for you, and you just have to click here and there to create the final content brief structure you want.
How they typically work, taking WriterZen as an example to illustrate:
The tool scraps the internet to understand what is said and done around a topic: optimal word count, popular headings among top ranking results, type of ranking content, etc. This is the competitor analysis part.
They can even use an AI assistant to generate a content outline for you, based on the competitor analysis:
Then, the tool suggests keywords to choose, providing you with general usage data and a usage recommendation.
And finally, you can directly write the article in the software, alongside automated recommendations based on your brief’s settings:
Looks like it’s all well-thought-out to you?
Here is my problem with these briefs:
You are basing your content brief on content structures from competitors, which means you are basically doing content regurgitation, which is neither interesting for your reader, nor for your target audience.
Research on Google is far more advanced than just keyword recognition – in a SEO point of view, you won’t rank better only because you have mentioned 9 times your main keyword. It’s 2023, keyword density is not a ranking factor anymore. Content helpfulness is.
These briefs don’t include your expertise and unique insights.
These briefs don’t think about your audience’s problems and needs.
These briefs don’t adapt the content to your company’s voice and your brand guidelines.
These briefs don’t provide an interesting angle.
Generative AI is not made for content briefing
With the arrival of ChatGPT and other generative AI, there is a big debate around its use for content marketing.
I won’t talk about the use of AI for writing content (there are pros and con), but in the case of content briefing, there can be only one answer: no.
Simply because generative AI is not made for tasks like this.
Here is how generative AI works: It is trained with a lot of data to be able to predict the next word in a sentence. It’s a language model, that simulates human writing.
Much like the T9 in your mobile phone. But far, far more advanced.
It doesn’t do research
It doesn’t fact-check information
It doesn’t answer questions.
It only predicts.
It was trained, with a lot of data, to predict the next word really really really well.
It looks very legit. But it doesn’t answer questions. It’s not its goal.
Here, see for yourself:
A content brief generated by ChatGPT
It looks like there is something to it, but the only thing the AI did was to come up with a credible content brief according to the given prompt. There was no search, and even less strategic thought behind.
It’s a simple doc including everything that was mentioned in this article so you don’t have to work from scratch.
I'm a content and on-page SEO specialist here at ScaleCrush. I love when a blog post becomes more than a marketing piece, but an original source of information. This probably comes from my background in journalism.
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