What’s one of the most commonly skipped steps in the content production process? If you guessed creating an outline, you’d be right. But many folks also skip another important step—creating a content brief. Are you one of them?
If so, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a freelance writer, a business owner creating your own content or a marketer outsourcing to pro content creators. You need to understand what briefs are, why detailed content briefs are important, and how to create them.
What is a brief?
A brief is an overview of the plan for a piece of content, along with relevant information that should inform the writing. It’s the step before creating an outline (AKA strategically laying out the structure and key points for your written content).
Why create a brief before you start writing?
If you want your content marketing strategy to get you a good return on investment (ROI), careful planning is required.
If you wing your blog posts, for example, you may overlook important details that negatively impact content performance. Or, if various members of your content team write without a game plan, your collective library of content may not gel into one cohesive, effective content funnel. Even worse, if you leave out big-picture details when outsourcing to writers who don’t have the insider knowledge you do, content performance will suffer.
So defining who you’re writing for, how your content will meet their needs, and how it’ll be better than what’s already out there is a smart move. You should do more than jot down a topic, working title, and maybe a primary keyword.
What should a brief include?
Ideally, here’s what a brief for SEO-focused content should include.
A target audience description
How would you describe your target buyer persona? What’s the biggest pain point or challenge they face? What are their goals? Where are they in the customer journey?
These and other details ensure that the content attracts and resonates with the right people, which can indirectly improve your rankings in search results and increase organic traffic to your website or blog.
Primary and secondary keywords
In a keyword research tool of your choice, identify a target keyword that has low enough competition for you to rank but a high enough search volume to bring you traffic.
Also, identify related keywords that share similar search engine results pages (SERPs) with your target keyword. Similar SERPs reveal which keywords are meant to be ranked together so awareness of secondary keywords can help your pages rank for multiple queries.
To make this process easier, I recommend Surfer. It has built-in features to find related keywords, develop guidelines to help you rank for them, and stop you from making mistakes like stuffing keywords that hurt your chances.
Search intent and/or customer journey stage
Search intent refers to what searchers are looking for when they pop a query into Google or another search engine. The four types of search intent are:
- Informational: Searcher needs info
- Navigational: Searcher needs to find something (e.g. website or physical location)
- Commercial: Searcher is considering a purchase but not ready to buy yet
- Transactional: Searcher is ready to buy
A related concept is the custom journey. Granted, marketing in 2022 isn’t as straightforward as it used to be but your audience members can still be loosely associated with any of the following stages.
- Completely unaware: Isn’t familiar with you, the problem you solve or the solution you offer
- Problem aware: Becomes aware of/experiences the problem you solve
- Solution aware: Begins seeking solutions to the problem you solve but isn’t deeply familiar with you or your solution
- Product aware: Begins looking into specific solutions including yours in preparation for solving their problem or reaching their goal
- Most aware: Has researched your solution and others and is ready or near-ready to invest
How you should approach content writing varies based on the intent of the keywords audience members use and where they are in the customer journey. So, especially if your strategy isn’t geared toward a single intent or journey stage, it’s helpful to make note of each in your brief.
Your content’s edge
Google topic, then paraphrase. It’s all too easy (even for experienced writers) to fall into the trap of rehashing whatever content is ranking on the first page of Google without giving thought to what they could do differently or better. Don’t make this mistake.
- Do you have a fresh angle or point of view on the topic?
- Will your content cover an important subtopic that competing content doesn’t?
- Will the readability of your content and the user experience you deliver be better than existing content?
- Have you done original research to be able to back up your key message with reliable data points and/or expert insights?
Before you begin writing, define exactly what will give yours an edge over competitor content. Not only will this help you produce high-quality, relevant content for your target audience but it can also help you rank better in search results.
Internal links to include
Of course, you or your writer can add more internal links during the drafting and editing processes. But it’s smart to make note of the most important internal links to include upfront so they don’t get forgotten about.
For example, if you’re implementing a hub and spoke content strategy for search engine optimization purposes, it will be important to link to your pillar post(s). Or if there are relevant products or offers your readers should know about, you’ll want to link to those.
To quickly find URLs worth linking to and from, do a site search in Google. Type in site:yourwebsite.com “relevant keyword” and make note of the most relevant pages. So, for example, if you were writing for WordStream and needed to find blog posts on branding, you’d type site:wordstream.com/blog “branding“. Fast and simple.
Your style guide
You don’t need elaborate 50-page writer guidelines. But you (and any content writers you hire) do need to stick to a defined writing style. And that’s tough to do when you’re working from memory alone so write your guidelines down.
Do you use the Oxford comma or not? Do you use sentences or title case for headings? Do you spell out numbers one through nine or use all numerals? Put these and other details in writing.
The great thing is that you don’t have to start from scratch. Is there a style guide you like? Keep the link to it handy for yourself, your content team, and your content writers. Alternatively, you can use it as a starting point for your own guide by copying portions you like and then listing out any deviations from the standard rules. Doing this will save you a ton of time.
Other helpful things to include in content briefs
Besides the above inclusions such as keyword ideas and a target audience description, what else can be helpful to include in content briefs? A number of things including:
- A working title. And, if you’re doing search engine optimization, SEO title direction to make sure that your keyword will be included and preferably front-loaded. You may also want to jot down observations about the kinds of titles that are used for content ranking high in relevant search engines result pages (SERPs) and how you can make yours more enticing and clickable.
- A suggested outline. To provide some clarity going into the research and outlining stage when ideas can often get messy. This can also reduce the time it takes to get to the actual writing stage.
- Existing content to update. Don’t just think about where the piece of marketing content you’re working on should link to. Also, make note of existing content that you can update to link to the new piece*. Doing both will create a better internal link structure, help search engines understand your site better, and rank it appropriately.
*What if you’re a freelance writer and don’t have access to the CMS to update existing content? You can still suggest content that needs to be updated with links to your latest work. It’s a small thing you can do to make your clients’ lives easier!
- External links to reference. Is there content that can inspire or inform the content you’re producing? Keep the link to it handy so that you can easily refer to it during the content development process or even link readers to it.
- Top ranking articles to beat. If you’re writing SEO content, you should have an idea of whose content you hope to outrank in the SERPs. Listing those URLs can be a good reminder for you and your content team of what you need to do better to get results.
- The target word count. Content quality is more important than length but content length can have an impact on SEO. So, if you have a tool that shows the average word count of pieces ranking in the top 10 for your focus keyword, it can be a good idea to set a target word count range.
Sure it takes some extra work to develop content briefs with this kind of depth. But, in the end, it can help you be a better content creator, engage readers, drive conversations, etcetera.
How do you write a content brief?
If you’re imagining that you have to write a gorgeous, 1,000-word blog post-style brief, stop. In-depth doesn’t necessarily mean elaborate.
For instance, I use a table-based Google Docs content brief template (mostly for blog posts since they’re my specialty). It has a row for each of the necessary inclusions above and I write a few lines of text for each. My completed content briefs rarely ever exceed one page long. And, although I create them during the keyword research process, filling in the table itself takes only 20 to 30 minutes, if that.
That’s not too much of a sacrifice for a smoother writing process and, ultimately, better written content, right?
What is an example of a brief?
Now, enough talk. Want to see some examples of content briefs? Take a look at the brief template for most of my content below.
As you can see, it’s fill-in-the-blanks style, which makes getting prepped to create content quick and easy. But what if you’re planning for a larger project or one with many teams involved?
You can still keep it simple. However, in that case, you’ll also want to make note of stakeholders, assets and deliverables, the project timeline, distribution plans, and budget. That way, everyone involved is on the same page.
Before Starting Your Next Piece, Create a Brief
Whether you’re writing content for your own blog or marketing materials or for someone else’s, a detailed content brief can work wonders. It will help you or your content writer to:
- Keep important considerations such as customer journey stage in mind so that the content is tailored perfectly for your audience
- Include all relevant information to satisfy readers’ search intent (and, if applicable, help search engines understand the content and its relationship with your other content).
So, next time you create a brief, include:
- An audience (AKA buyer persona) description including their paint points, needs, and goals
- Keyword suggestions such as primary and secondary keywords
- Search intent, which is especially important if you’re working with freelance writers that don’t have much knowledge of SEO since they may not be able to pinpoint search intent correctly based on your target keywords
- Customer journey stage to ensure that the content is not too basic or too advanced for your audience
- Your content’s edge, which could be more comprehensive coverage of a topic, an uncommon angle or point of view, etc.
- Internal links to help readers and search engines easily navigate to other relevant, valuable content
- Your writer guidelines to keep your writing style consistent
And, if you want to go the extra mile, you can also include a suggested title, starter outline, helpful references, content that needs to be updated with links to your latest piece, content that you’re trying to outperform, and a target word count range.
Now that you know how to write a brief for a project, all that’s left is to try creating one and see how it enhances your writing process and final draft. Hit me up on Twitter and let me know how it goes!