Content Briefs: The Foundation of High-Performing Blog Posts
Your content brief is the first step towards creating killer blog articles. It’s what connects your strategy, traffic goals and objectives with writer expertise and audience needs.
Without a solid brief, you’re likely to produce content that fails to meet expectations. After collaborating with dozens of clients and freelance writers, we’ve found the best approach to removing these headaches is a strong position and collaboration.
For in-house marketers, it’s your job to provide as detailed a brief as possible. Your audience, why this topic matters to them, and which angles to include should be crystal clear.
And for writers, you need to bring your expertise to the table. You have the subject matter expertise and ability to conduct in-depth research to craft captivating content that gets results.
What’s in this article?
- Content positioning: making your content stand out
- Run an opportunity analysis to undercut your competition
- Using data wisely to direct your outline
- Outline collaboration for thorough coverage
- The anatomy of a solid content brief
Content positioning: How to make your content stand out
Content marketing is suffering from a case of “blind leading the blind.” Research often starts and ends with reading the first page of Google and reverse engineering those results.
While responding to Google’s needs is critical from an SEO perspective, it can end up hurting your credibility. Not only that, it ends up ruining the reader’s experience and even makes your distribution efforts difficult.
Why? Because your content is repeating the same message. Your audience has seen it all before.
Instead, it’s essential to take a data-driven approach for performance while injecting credibility and originality, while providing a delightful content experience. This is where content positioning comes into play.
Content positioning accepts the fact that stale content production workflows no longer work. It ensures your content is timeless while allowing it to stand out and grab attention.
Some considerations to help you establish a strong position include:
- Fulfilling Google intent as table stakes: Yes, this does require you use data to make informed decisions. But it should not determine the nature and format of the content itself.
- 80/20 approach to conformity: Facts are facts, and you can’t be contrarian for the sake of it. But are there areas of a topic you can dig into that others can’t, or are too afraid to explore?
- Unaddressed pain-points: This could be an “elephant in the room” that others ignore, or common questions that simply aren’t addressed within the content landscape.
- Zig while they zag: Changing the format and frame of your content can help it stand out. While structure, formatting and custom design provide easy wins, consider new elements and unusual formats that the SERPs are missing.
In short, content positioning enables you to provide exceptional amounts of value while helping your content stand out. More importantly, it’s a sure-fire way of interrupting the pattern of dull, shallow content audiences have sadly come to expect.
Run an opportunity analysis to outperform your competition
Establishing a strong position means understanding the competitive content landscape. It’s not always your direct competitors that you’re up against. There are plenty of other brands vying for the attention of your customers.
To identify these gaps, run an opportunity analysis of the competitive landscape. This means going deep into two areas:
- Content competition: What’s the overall quality of existing content? For example, you might be in a market where most content is lackluster, and a clear differentiator would be to make it better and more robust.
- Backlink competition: How hard would it be to rank based on the number of backlinks other articles have earned?
This approach also helps provide your writers with a clear direction. Marijana Kay, a freelance writer for SaaS brands, is another follower of this philosophy:
“There’s one thing I’ve added to my own content brief template as I developed it over the years that I haven’t seen others use this way: I ask my clients to list competitor articles that we’re looking to beat with this piece AND also to add notes on what they think is good or bad about them.
This isn’t to throw shade at a competitor, nor to steal parts of pieces that rank well. It’s simply an excellent way to notice things that are either unexpectedly great and no other competitor tried to capitalize on that, or that are terrible and still ranking, meaning that there are gaps we can fill with our piece. Here are some of my favorites:
• Example of stating the good #1 (from a financial SaaS): “We have different target audiences (ecommerce vs. service-based businesses), but I like how they set up the article, how clear, concise, and actionable all the advice is.”
• Example of stating the good #2 (for an article about remote work): “They talk about the people element, navigating the unknown, changing what has been tradition"
• Example of stating the bad #1 (for a customer support SaaS): “Spammy article with no value for readers. Sections are short and don’t go into the topic deep enough at all.”
With honest, real insights and perspectives like this, I can get a much better idea of the angles, subtopics, depth, and goals the client wants with the article I’m writing.
It’s a great way to get a unique peek into my client’s brain. I love it, and I highly recommend adding this to the briefing process.”
Keyword difficulty (KD) isn’t the only competitive indicator. There have been many occasions where we’ve outranked content with a more robust backlink profile.
However, it will give you an idea of how competitive a topic or target keyword is. To truly understand the competitive landscape, you should focus on looking at how you can make your content different or improve upon existing options.
This analysis will help you inform your content positioning and create original blog articles. Here are some practical ways we do this for clients at Grizzle:
1. Identify new angles
As I mentioned earlier, too many marketers attempt to reverse-engineer what appears on page one to emulate that success. But this presents a deeper issue; content starts to look the same, and over time erodes the user experience.
While using data directly from Google is critical for organic growth, don’t follow it blindly. Use the algorithms to evaluate competing content, and identify gaps that you can fill.
For example, when writing an article on CRM technology, we found that nobody talked about how to evaluate and choose the right platform for their business.
So, we created an entire section on this sub-topic. This helped us to not only rank for a competitive keyword, but also several ancillary terms that most competing articles miss.
Most importantly, it provides the reader with more value, which is the ultimate goal of content marketing.
2. Credibility and authority
I frequently see content that makes lofty claims with zero data or statistics to back them up. This provides you with a golden opportunity to build a more credible and original piece of content. Not to mention external links can help with organic rankings.
Building authority also means using the language of your audience. For example, if you’re writing for a senior marketing audience, speak to the challenges in a way that shows you’re “one of them.” They’ll engage with your content, which leads to stronger customer connections and organic sharing.
When linking to third-party data, always link to the original source. Avoid referring to roundups and listicles that only mention the studies you’re citing, especially if they don’t link back to the original source themselves.
3. Create a controversial narrative
I’ve already mentioned the value of “zigging” where your competitors “zag.” A practical way of doing this is to use frameworks, templates and formats that move away from the same thing everyone else is doing.
For example, Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro, was looking for outreach tips to help a customer, only to find most content on Google contained outdated and misleading advice. When looking at the SERPs ourselves, we can see a clear pattern:
So he aimed to write an article on the topic to call out these outdated practices, titled “Outreach Tips (better than anything you’ll find searching Google):”
He opens up with a controversial introduction, along with a subsection on how to do better before moving into his list of eight tips.
This article is one of the most commented on the SparkToro blog. Not only that, it ranks #1 for the term “outreach tips” (below the featured snippet):
When a seasoned marketer or salesperson next searches for information on outreach tips, which result do you think will stand out?
Controversial content that breaks the mold can perform well. Don’t forget to deliver value and provide the most comprehensive answer for users. Frame your content to provide unique experiences, and allow your content to stand out in the SERPs.
Building an outline with data & creativity
Crafting an outline is easier once you’ve mapped out the big picture. A good outline creates context around your content, and communicates the narrative to other stakeholders.
Your outline will also determine how well your content performs. If organic traffic is your primary goal, a high-performing article should sit within the sweet-spot of these three areas:
- Algorithm: What themes and sub-topics have Google deemed necessary to fulfill user intent?
- Audience: What are your customers hungry for, and what information is not yet offered to them?
- Product: How will the topic align with your value proposition, solution or product?
Keep these aspects in mind when crafting your outline. Build out content templates and frameworks to guide you through this process.
For example, a traditional “how-to guide” template usually follows a step-by-step instructional narrative, which is perfect for anyone targeting practitioners or consumers looking to learn how to do something.
On the other hand, content should be strategic in nature when targeting senior decision-makers. This can come in the form of thought leadership that presents a problem, builds an argument for new solutions and demonstrates a new way of doing things.
To make sure we’re satiating Google’s hunger, use a tool like Clearscope to uncover critical themes to include. Here’s what some of those relevant terms look like for the term “DOOH” (which stands for “digital out-of-home media”):
It can be tempting to shoe-horn these terms into your content without care. But doing this removes context, spoils the experience and may send a signal to Google that you’re trying to “game the system.”
Instead, use it to direct which themes to include in your content. Use your outline to group these themes into relevant sub-sections.
The sub-heading copy doesn’t need to be perfect at this stage, merely act as an indicator of what each section will cover.
Outline collaboration for thorough coverage
There’s no clear-cut method of writing an outline. Instead of providing you with a rigid framework, I’ll share a real-world example using the DOOH topic:
This screenshot covers just a third of the outline. As you can see, each subsection includes all the contextual information we need:
- Benefits, outcomes and results that paid media specialists can expect from DOOH
- Third-party DOOH statistics, and how it applies to programmatic advertising
- Key metrics around the topic, what they mean and why they’re important
- Additional themes relevant to the audience and product
- New angles to make this content original and most relevant to the ideal customer
Your outline also provides a canvas for stakeholders to get involved. This includes marketing leaders, product managers, founders and salespeople.
In this sense, your outline becomes a dynamic playground. Using Google Docs, you can create sub-sections with nested bullets that create a narrative hierarchy. From there, stakeholders can add comments with their thoughts and insights.
This dynamic outline leads to more robust articles and fewer edits. Our DOOH article needed only one round of feedback, as the draft included everything the content required to succeed. All thanks to the brief.
The anatomy of a solid content brief
The information, data and level of detail you add to your briefs depend on your own goals. At Grizzle, we include the following as a bare minimum:
- Topic details: Basic information on what the topic is, target keyword, format of the content and draft due date.
- Technical details: Includes a link to content guidelines (format, tone of voice etc.), Clearscope report and a rough target word count (we use word count to set expectations on freelance writer rates only).
- Editorial & meta titles: A list of 5 to 10 potential editorial headlines and meta titles.
- Content positioning: A statement to outline the content strategy, as covered earlier in this guide.
- Target audience: A detailed outline of who the audience is, what their problems are and why they’re searching for information on this topic.
- Keyword data: Information on the primary target keyword, difficulty and volume. This should also include secondary and ancillary keywords.
- Opportunity analysis: An analysis of the competition, including gaps in their content, backlink landscape and a rundown of how to make your content outperform them and stand out.
- Influencers: Information on thought leaders or partners you’d like to include in your content (by quoting them or reaching out to feature them in our content).
- Reference content: A list of content that you and your writers will find useful for research.
- Internal linking: Provide a detailed outline of internal linking structure (for on-page SEO purposes).
- Content outline: The collaborative hub of your content that ultimately determines the end product.
How you structure this information is up to you. We use a no-frills Google Doc, with sub-sections that groups relevant information together.
In short, your content brief must include everything you and your writers need to create a killer piece of content.
Allow me to be brief
Many marketers see the brief as a necessary evil, attempting to get it over with and move on to the content production process.
This level of neglect leads to content that misses the mark. Key themes, sub-topics and audience pain-points are left by the wayside. No proper direction was given to the writers tasked with creating it.
Instead, treat your content like you’re building your dream home. The brief acts as the architecture, foundations and construction. Allow your writers to use their interior design expertise to bring it to life.
This is how you make a house a home, and turn ideas into high-performing content.