If you look at your own life, chances are you will find that there is a long history of stories, notes, posts, audio recordings, video, letters, illustrations, and much more that you have been actively sharing with those around you. You have voiced your most vibrant opinions, milestones, ideas, and emotions in an attempt to express what you are about. When we use the word content from now on, please remember this: you have been creating it since the day you were born.
Content sparks our connections with others, our own selves, and the world. What we decide to share is a powerful expression of where we stand and where we want to go. An essential part of the human spirit, this constant information sharing is what ultimately builds the bridges between us. Every image, text, sound, or video that you have released into the world carries a part of you that others can relate to. If actions reveal our priorities, the content we share explains them. And that is precisely how content is defined throughout this book: the set of messages that we exchange to communicate what matters to us.
Just like the content you have shared offers a perspective of who you are as a person, brands can tap into the power of storytelling to start meaningful conversations with existing and potential customers.
Picture this: you just launched a vitamin business for which you have spent the past year developing a superior product, getting the legal approvals to sell it, and designing amazing packaging to ship it to your customers. It’s go time. What now? How do you express all the features you have carefully crafted into the product all this time? How will you kick off relationships with the customers who need your vitamins the most?
Content is how. You can design a set of key messages to reach out to the audience that will be most excited to buy your vitamins. You can share the story of how you developed the different components and how they contribute to your intended audience’s wellness. You can include certain key phrases and words in those stories to help search engines like Google show your product to those who need it most. You can begin building a social media community to answer questions about those stories. After you have a few early adopters, you also can feature testimonials that show how these vitamins have improved their health. You can build an email list and a thoughtful newsletter to follow up with existing and potential buyers. I repeat: content is how.
I used to hate the word content. Think about it: “content” is a glaring contradiction. We spend hours working on things like “content marketing,” “content production,” “content distribution,” and “content SEO.” At the end of the day? The term content is just a placeholder in all of those phrases. The word content, paradoxically enough, seems pretty void of content. At least it used to. Now, I understand that content is the essential substance of brand storytelling—our most valuable resource to create a narrative that genuinely connects us with human beings.
When I began truly managing the content I shared 10 years ago, falling into a constant cadence seemed like an impossible feat. I could see the many benefits of sharing content periodically, but the production process seemed too overwhelming to commit to a schedule. Seeing writing as “art” was not helping me the least bit. Looking at writing as art implies that there is a one-of-a-kind, unrepeatable quality to it. That would not be problematic at all if it did not dictate the terms of how we go about fabricating such art.
There is an expectation that if something is extraordinary it must also be arduous, a lingering thought that because content is a form of art, its production cannot possibly be standardized.
If we are to take advantage of the power of content, it is crucial to have a structured approach that facilitates decision making. Here is the basic outline of the 10-step approach that I recommend and will thoroughly break down throughout this book. I have seen the last five steps take place in different orders effectively, so feel free to decide which area you would like to tackle first after you have completed the first five. Essentially, defining your content’s audience, channels, goals, voice, tone, and aesthetic will lay the groundwork for the execution-oriented tasks in the second part of this list. We will cover each of these in depth throughout the book, but if you come across a term that you want to learn more about, feel free at any time to flip to the Glossary at the end of the book.
If we fail to define what our goals are from the beginning, our content creation efforts will lack direction. Not knowing why we are creating certain pieces puts us at risk of wasting valuable time and resources. By the time you are done reading Chapter 2, you will have a much clearer picture of the main intention behind each one of your pieces, and you will find yourself in a better position to evaluate the return on the investment you made in them.
Great content begins with the audience in mind. In Chapter 3, we go over the process of creating personas that summarize the traits of those who will interact with the content you create. These personas will serve as references as you ensure that your content’s themes, voice, and channels resonate well with its intended audience.
It is crucial to select a group of channels that allow you to reach this audience effectively. Chapter 3 examines various ways to host your content pieces, including a main hub (blog or website) and supporting channels like social media.
Your audience is composed of human beings who look forward to engaging in humane conversations. They expect your content to address topics of their interest using a tone that resonates well with them. Chapter 5 shows you how to set relevant themes, a central voice, and multiple tones to share your stories with an increasingly engaged audience.
Just like these audience members react positively to your content if it sounds a certain way, they also are drawn by the way it looks. Maintaining a cohesive brand aesthetic makes it easier for your users to recognize and understand the stories you want to convey. Chapter 6 guides you through the process of finding, shaping, and preserving such an aesthetic.
Stand on the shoulders of giants whenever possible. Content creation does not happen in a vacuum, and there are many existing experiences and tools from which to draw insight. Successful content creators employ best practices to their advantage, and thoroughly understand how they can use headlines, words, formats, and design to make content much more compelling. We will review various content formats and the best types of content with which to apply them as well as proven formulas that have worked well for other creators. We explore both of these topics in Chapters 6 and 7.
Aside from optimizing your individual content pieces, you want to ensure that the environment in which they are consumed is conducive to engagement. There are many ways to improve the way your main hub (blog or site) serves content using information design principles. We delve into them in Chapter 9.
When you have detected effective patterns in your content production process, it’s time to replicate them to extend that success. Scaling winning pieces, cutting back on those that have underperformed, and finding innovative ways to repackage old material are all fundamental parts of a content manager’s role, and in Chapter 11, you learn a framework to facilitate them.
If your content team is larger than one, you will quickly find that there is an important management component to everyday success. Chapter 12 provides advice on handling requests, working with remote creators, and ensuring quality.
Content is dead without distribution. People need to be able to find it in order to interact with it, and this isn’t something you should leave to luck. Throughout Chapter 13, I walk you through the process of using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) principles to your content’s advantage. We also go over the basics of setting up content partnerships, securing paid placements, and using social channels to spread the word in Chapter 14.
In the beginning, I could not see the process of writing (and the content it powers) being serially produced like Big Macs or Lego pieces. And then I remembered that at one time people could not envision cars being mass-produced either—not until the Ford Model T came along.
Reading about Henry Ford’s life helped me understand the importance of reproducing stellar work through a continual process. Extending it. Projecting it. Scaling it. I soon discovered that content is both an art and a science. Both masterpiece and routine. Craft and task. It should be exceptional enough to strike as unique—and repeatable enough to be scalable.
Ford’s ideas, particularly those that reconcile one-of-a-kind artistry and mass production, radically transformed the way I looked at content. In Ford’s own words:
We speak of creative “artists” in music, painting, and the other arts. We seemingly limit the creative functions to productions that may be hung on gallery walls, or played in concert halls, or otherwise displayed where idle and fastidious people gather to admire each other’s culture. But if a man wants a field for vital creative work, let him come where he is dealing with higher laws than those of sound, or line, or color; let him come where he may deal with the laws of personality. We want artists in industrial relationship. We want masters in industrial method—both from the standpoint of the producer and the product…We want men who can create the working design for all that is right and good and desirable in our life.1
Think about that for a minute: “we want artists in industrial relationship.” How game-changing would it be to find a way to repeat the processes that bring us our most successful articles, videos, or graphics? Henry Ford managed to do it at a time when everyone saw car making as an involved, almost artisan process.
The production manager
Part I focuses on the essential building blocks of your content strategy: the foundation of everything we will create. We go over a few basic steps involved in creating a robust content platform:
Understanding your audience
Choosing and prioritizing your channels
Defining your goals
Finding your brand’s core themes, voice, and tone
Refining your brand’s aesthetic
The fact that we are defining an audience, themes, and a certain voice does not mean that they cannot be modified later. After you begin creating content for the audience that you initially defined, it is absolutely possible for new groups to emerge. In response, your brand’s voice might need to adapt to resonate better with this broadened audience.
Your goals and channels are also dynamic: brands’ intentions are constantly changing depending on business model shifts. New communication channels arise every day, which affects your content strategy directly. Chapter 4 touches on the need to be on the lookout for emerging trends and provides recommendations on how to monitor them.
This world belongs to the storytellers: the daring voices among us with an ability and desire to share a message. These brave individuals and brands defy clutter every single day with unique perspectives on topics that matter. We live at a time when bloggers, vloggers, and many other kinds of content creators take over our daily conversations. Undeniably, this is the century of the content creator.
To help you understand what is involved in content creation, Part II walks you through the following:
The various content formats at your disposal
A series of formulas and templates for writing copy
Using design to create an engaging content experience, even for skimmers
Techniques to facilitate your content brainstorming process
We would be unable to create a successful content strategy—let alone manage a content team—if we ignored the processes involved in creating content from scratch. Part II of this book introduces the various formats, headline formulas, structure templates, design resources, and brainstorming techniques available to content crafters like you. Regardless of how often you are actually in charge of creating content pieces, this unique perspective on the aspects that must come together to shape the content teaches us a lot about how to optimize the process.
In my experience, only persistence and thorough follow-up can give any brand a shot at consistently amazing content. You got that right: it takes heaps of unsexy tasks to achieve a few sexy results. That is where thinking like a production manager saves the day: it allows you to maintain a well-oiled content machine that generates amazing results reliably.
Part III explores some of the most common tasks involved in managing a content team:
Finding new ways to scale your content’s success
Scoping, delegating, and supervising tasks
Ensuring that your content is optimized for search engines
Securing distribution for the pieces you produce
Producing content successfully relies on your ability to go beyond the strategist and creator roles and into actual management. This requires measuring performance, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and steering the process to create the most successful content possible every time. It demands a keen eye for aspects that can be improved and the willpower to scrap what needs to go. You will need to wear the production manager hat, think like Henry Ford, and build your very own “working design for all that is right and good and desirable”2 for your brand’s content strategy.