Content blog

  1. April 19, 2016. [Permalink]

    Story: the best content strategy tool you’re not using

    So: you’ve decided to get to grips with your organisation’s content strategy. You’ve read Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s excellent book, Content Strategy for the Web, and you’ve concluded that of course (slap forehead): it’s a fool’s errand to keep creating vast amounts of content without working out such things as:

    why you’re creating content
    how you’re going to structure and promote it
    where it’s going to go
    when you’ll publish it
    who it’s for, and
    what in the world it should look and sound like anyway

    … which is jolly good news. And if that all sounds like common sense to you, remember that Halvorson herself once tweeted:

    In other words, to know that a course of action is sensible isn’t the same as to act on it – and it takes passionate advocates like Rach and Halvorson to get everyone behind a movement as sensible as content strategy.

    So let’s all get moving.

    Content strategy tools

    Of course, asking the right questions about content is one thing; figuring out answers is another. That’s why Margot Bloomstein’s Content Strategy at Work is such a useful book. In it, she suggests you create a message architecture – that is, a “hierarchy of communication goals” – to help you make decisions about future content.

    Define what good content should look like, in other words, and you can start to build it. It’s a good idea and a practical one for marketers.

    In the book, Bloomstein suggests some ways of creating this message architecture. First, she says, try an adjective-sorting exercise: brand managers are given a stack of cards with an adjective on each, and are asked, via various interventions, to prioritise them. Alternatively, create a two-circle Venn diagram: one circle is marked “brand values”, the other marked “audience needs”; your job is to find brand “attributes” that fit into the intersection of each. Either way, having defined your adjectives or attributes, you can prioritise them and create content to match.

    As a brand manager, marketer or content strategist, you’ll find either exercise helpful. Adjective-selection exercises are a popular way to define brand tone, and can help you answer content questions that can cascade through future decision-making.

    A common criticism of these exercises, though, is that it can be difficult to select adjectives that set you apart from competitors. Many B2B brands, for example, want to be “friendly”, “confident” or “professional”; these are qualities that are easier to describe than to convey. And there are only so many suitable adjectives around: with a limited verbal palette to choose from, finding a set that defines your individual tone can be harder than it looks.

    Moreover, as a copywriter who often refers to brand guidance, I often find myself wanting a bit more information about a company’s relationships with its customers – that is, the real-world interactions that underlie the rules on design and tone. What does the organisation exist to do, and how does content reflect that?

    It’s challenges like these that might lead you to seek a wider “architecture” for your content and messaging.

    Towards a content strategy based on story

    It’s at this point that I think that the parallel discipline of brand storytelling can be helpful.

    Good brands deploy narrative techniques all the time. In marketing, as in story, we often try to “show, not tell” – to demonstrate an idea through a case study or an anecdote, rather than simply tell people how world-leading or innovative we are. A sales team, too, will vary the pace of a sale depending on the product or the prospect – just as in a story, an author will manage the pace of a plot depending on who the reader is. A CEO, meanwhile, will tell a story in order to relax a business audience, and you can be sure that that story will have a moral that’s pertinent to the business point she’s trying to make.

    If you’re attracted to the idea of deploying narrative technique in your organisation, an understanding of story structure can help get your creative sparks flying. There are many ways of defining a narrative structure, but most include elements such as these:

    PROTAGONIST The hero of your story. There may be more than one hero.
    STORY WORLD The world the hero inhabits. The “rules” of the story world usually stay consistent through the whole story (but see the rocket scene in The Life of Brian for a counter-example of this).
    OBJECT OF DESIRE The hero’s most fundamental need which drives the story on. There may be a difference between what a hero thinks they want and what they actually need – and a well told story will reveal this tension.
    ANTAGONIST Opponent of the hero there to thwart them from achieving the object of desire. May be a person an object or an internal character trait.
    INCITING INCIDENT Event that upsets the hero’s stability and sets them moving toward the object of desire.
    CRISIS/CLIMAX Event that acts as point of conflict between hero and antagonist; and keeps the story moving forward through time. The final crisis is the CLIMAX and it brings back stability to the hero’s world in the form of a RESOLUTION.

    That’s the gist of it, anyway. If you’re interested in storytelling, read Bob McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing and perhaps also Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. You’ll find a lot there that’s analogous to marketing and interesting in its own right.

    For marketers, it can be useful and enjoyable to analyse ads, websites and PR campaigns to see how successfully (or otherwise) elements of story structure can be deployed. I’ll be discussing some examples in the course I’m running this June on Storytelling in Marketing – but you might like to think about (for example) the New Coke fiasco; the rise, fall and rise of Stella Artois; and the viral Squatty Potty ad for starters.

    Analysing story structure can also lead to jumping-off points for tactics in your own marketing. For example, you could make a list of the different “heroes” you might use for different brand stories. One story might be a marketing message about how well a product performs (eg a Dettol ad in which the product is a “vanquishing hero”); another might be a blog post about the great work of one of your employees; a third might be a “foundation story” from your CEO about how she set up the company against all odds. All these heroes’ stories might point to a moral that captures the essence of your brand.

    But wait a minute. Since the explosion of social media, the way that brands communicate with customers has changed. If you interpret marketing as less of a “broadcast” effort and more of a “conversation” between brand and a customer – as social media experts always advise you to do – should you still be seeing your own brand or product as the hero of your story? Should you not also be thinking of the customer as a potential story hero – given, after all, that you’re already creating the “customer persona” and planning the “customer journey”? And when you do, how can this help meet your content strategy goals?

    The role of “story architecture”

    Remember those goals? We wanted to document a content strategy that answered the “who, what, where, why and when” of content – and, to help us make future content decisions, we wanted to develop a “message architecture” (to use Bloomstein’s term) that acts as a blueprint for what content we create next.

    A “story architecture” (to coin a new term) might help you achieve this. You could ask yourself questions such as the following:

    Who are our customers? (PROTAGONISTS)
    What do they want? (OBJECT OF DESIRE)
    What obstacles do they face? (ANTAGONISTS)
    How do we help overcome these obstacles? (CRISIS POINTS)
    What ideal world would our customers like to inhabit? (STORY WORLD)

    Defining the “ideal world” or “story world” is the really interesting bit, because this is where we start to think about the underlying characteristics of our content.

    Here’s how a story architecture might look for one example brand:


    Our customer is …
    … a creative, independent-minded individual who sees possibilities in the future.

    He/she wants …
    … to fulfil a creative vision, build an independent lifestyle, take risks and try out new things.

    The main obstacles he/she faces are …
    … the difficulty of focusing on the essential things in life, because of everyday technological inefficiencies. Clutter, poor design and bureaucratic thinking frustrate his/her dreams.

    We help overcome these by …
    … designing technology that sets our customer free – to think differently, and to focus on individual aspirations and dreams, away from a traditional office environment.

    The ideal world my customer would like to inhabit is …
    … a clutter-free, paper-free space, allowing room for focused creativity.

    So we create content that is…
    … focused and clutter-free. We keep communication simple, reflecting our products’ innovative and minimal design. We eliminate unnecessary words in our language. We focus content only on channels that reflect our brand.

    Do the example answers I’ve given look familiar? That’s because they’re my attempt to reverse-engineer a “story architecture” for a company like Apple.

    Try completing a similar “story architecture” for your organisation, and see where it takes you. (If your audience isn’t a “customer” but a stakeholder or an employee, make them the hero of your story as appropriate.)

    One advantage of this approach is that it helps validate the work you’re already doing. To answer the question “Who is your customer?”, for example, you could refer to work you may already have done on customer personas. Or if you’ve done adjective-selection exercises, put them in the “ideal world” section and see how they fit. You might want to tweak them into a sentence that expresses the space you imagine your customer inhabiting.

    As you continue to create your story architecture, try to make it hang together as a coherent whole. For example, the “ideal world” your customer would like to inhabit is closely related to your decisions about your customers’ persona and needs – and all, in turn, inform decisions about your future content.

    And if you’re comfortable with where you are so far, you might even push the story analogy further – helping you dig deeper into your marketing platform:

    When does the customer know they have a problem that needs solving? (INCITING INCIDENT)
    What does the customer know already when we approach them? (BACKSTORY)
    What does the customer put at risk when buying from us? (CRISIS/CLIMAX)
    How do we allay these fears/mitigate these risks? (SOLUTION/RESOLUTION)
    How quickly do we approach the customer? (PACE)
    How do we present our relationship with the customer? Are we a partner an assistant or a guide? (CHARACTERISATION)

    Some of these questions may be more appropriate for individual marketing campaigns than for an underlying story architecture, but the principle is the same: use your customer’s own story to help plan content.

    Discover more

    I’d like to do more to help organisations use story to inform their content strategy. I think it’s a great tool that can support ideation and content planning efforts.

    That’s why I’m hosting a small-group course on Storytelling for Marketers, this June 14.

    I’ll be working on how marketers can find their “inner storyteller”, in order to achieve two things:
    • start developing a documented content strategy
    • tell better stories across an organisation.

    If you’re interested in finding more about storytelling in business and marketing, please come to the event.

    There’s a £25 discount off advertised prices for readers who’ve read this far. Just use the discount code EBCD25.

    Hope to see you there.

  2. October 7, 2015. [Permalink]

    Design teams: why use a content strategist?

    If you’re a design-led team working for largeish clients, it’s natural enough to see “content” as something that happens separately from your strategic, design thinking.

    Whether you’re busy interpreting a client’s thoughts about a logo, creating a brand book, or working on a wireframe for a client project, it’s easy to think of written content as a parallel world: the world of content writers, who might not get involved with a brand or content campaign until the design concept is done and dusted.

    But, as many different types of agency increasingly realise, considering content too late can hamper design projects.

    Creating a brand book without considering content, for example, means that elements such as colour, shape and form are all defined; but critical, related factors – such as tone of voice, message, style and content structure – are left to chance.

    And just as content decisions restrain digital design choices, so digital design decisions limit what you do with content.

    So next time you start work on a client project, it can pay to bring a content strategist in at an early stage. This helps you in the following ways:

    1. You can own the whole branding process.

    Tone of voice and a defined stylebook are vital branding elements, but some large clients – who might otherwise be strict about the visual use of their brand – can be relatively laissez-faire about language, leading to problems further down the line.

    As a design agency, you can take responsibility for the whole branding process by bringing in a language expert from the start.

    2. You can head off digital problems at the pass.

    With the rise of content marketing, marketers increasingly want engaging, semi-journalistic web pages, often a thousand or more words long.

    Content strategists can help digital designers tailor these pages to clients’ content needs, through the precise arrangement of page furniture such as headings, subheads, excerpts and sells.

    Design with lorem ipsum alone, on the other hand, and you create problems for your client to fix later – or stressful extra hours for your agency when your project deadline is near.

    3. You help your client map the customer journey.

    Designers are often tasked with mapping a “customer journey” for digital users. But who better to help map that journey than an expert storyteller?

    A content strategist can advise on common questions such as what type of content to place on each web page, depending on the stage of the marketing funnel a piece of content is at; where to place an all-important call to action (and why); and exactly how much or how little copy is needed to engage the reader in a concise, elegant way.

    All these factors will have knock-on effects for your sitemap or project management, so they need to be considered early on in the design process (and often tweaked as you go along).

    4. You can optimise for mobile devices.

    When space is limited, it’s harder to write copy that engages your client’s customer. This is especially true of content for mobile devices, and of copy for content elements such as calls to action, menus, breadcrumbs, and so on.

    An effective content strategist can advise on just how little copy you can squeeze in where.

    5. You can produce better content audits.

    If you’re a digital-focused agency and you’re making deep dives into a client’s content – in the form of a content audit – then a content strategist can give you the qualitative insights that help set your analysis apart from the rest. This adds value for your client.

    Having a content strategist on board can also help stop your content audits running over budget, because the strategist can help the client work out what good-quality content should look like. The answers, of course, will be different for every client.

    And there’s a bonus. Because a content strategist usually comes from a copywriting background, they’ll also be able to write the qualitative parts of your content audit in client-friendly language, too.

    6. Focus on what you’re best at.

    I’ve rarely met a content expert who admitted to tinkering much with design (beyond tweaking the odd bit of CSS), but I do know designers who’ve ended up writing content for websites, often at a client’s behest.

    Leaving aside the wisdom of that, the reason it happens is often the absence of content strategy at the start.

    But of course, it’s one thing to recognise that you need a content strategist; another to get your client to realise it, too.

    Sometimes it might be useful to introduce a content expert to the client as a “strategic copywriter”; this demonstrates to the client that they’re getting someone with a strong writing background but who can help them with content strategy too.

    Either way, next time you find yourself on a call with a client wondering what content goes where, mapping a client’s customer journey to a series of web pages, or making decisions about the suitability of a word, it’s probably fair to say that you’re operating in the space where content and design interact – and perhaps that’s the time to start discussing whether, in future, you need a content expert to help, too.

    • To discuss a pitch or a brief, please call 01273 906 222 or email

  3. May 20, 2015. [Permalink]

    Why copy-editing counts

    Does copy-editing matter in the age of Twitter and Pinterest? Some say not. But if you’re in the business of selling something – whether it’s a product or a service, a manifesto or an idea – and you think you can get away without a copy-editor, think again.

    Here are seven reasons why.

    1. Editing helps engagement.

    Engagement, emotional connection, call it what you will: if you want people to be interested in what you have to say, it’s important to talk to them as if both they and you are humans.

    Long, jargonistic subclauses packed with abstract nouns don’t get your point across to readers. Simple sentences with active verbs do.

    Copy-editors turn one into the other.

    2. Mistakes cost money; copy-editors catch them.

    Proofreading errors cost organisations money. Earlier this year, for example, the UK government had to pay out £9m after a single-letter mistake caused a business to collapse. And that’s quite apart from the damage to your brand that lesser mistakes can cause.

    How do you reduce the risk from errors? Simple: have someone look at your copy after you’ve written it. If that person is a copy-editor, versed in the art of spotting mistakes, you’re on solid ground.

    3. Good editors are number-crunchers, too.

    Think copy-editors only spot verbal errors? Think again. Who else but a copy-editor will notice that the data you cite in your text doesn’t match up with the bar chart in Figure 6.2? Or that the figures in the percentage column don’t add up to 100? Or that the stat you quote in Chapter 7 confuses percentages with percentage points? (Your picky financial client, that’s who.)

    4. Copy-editors are guardians of tone.

    “Brand language” is a trendy thing in marketing circles. But you don’t need to be a tone-of-voice guru to know that when copy is full of technical jargon, customers are likely to be put off.

    If your copy isn’t speaking your client’s language, a good copy-editor will help set it back on track.

    5. Grammar debates waste time.

    “Judgement” or “judgment”? Oxford comma or no Oxford comma? Full points after abbreviations or not? Your style guide should have the answers – but if it doesn’t, a good copy-editor will help you form a sensible view on these linguistic dilemmas with a minimum of fuss. No more time wasted debating the finer points of English style.

    6. Copy-editors can help global teams.

    If you run a global team, your overseas colleagues will probably have excellent spoken English, but their written skills may not always reach the same high standard. This is understandable, but it means client-facing written reports will often need to be edited into shape. Enter the copy-editor, who will be able to turn overseas writers’ work into impeccable international English – in UK or US style, as you prefer.

    7. A good editor reveals the holes in your thinking.

    This is one of the most important benefits that copy-editors provide, but can sometimes be the most challenging, which is why I’ve mentioned it last. A common reason for poor writing is, simply, fuzzy thinking. That’s not, in most cases, a criticism of your ability: it’s just something that everybody is guilty of from time to time. But it’s also why one of the most important questions you’ll hear from a freelance copy-editor is: “What exactly are you trying to say here?”

    When you hear these words, take it as a positive sign. Freelance copy-editors are in the privileged position of being able to help join the dots in your thinking without undermining your authority – helping you to even greater insights into your market or business.

    For that, we’re cheap. Use us wisely.

  4. August 7, 2014. [Permalink]

    The most underused tactics in content marketing?

    When you’re considering which content marketing tactics to use, benchmarking tools such as Content Marketing in the UK 2014, from the Content Marketing Institute, are always handy.

    This annual study tells you, among other things, which content marketing tactics are most used in the UK and which tactics marketers say are most effective. But the strange thing is the difference between the two lists.

    The top five tactics used by marketers, as outlined on slide nine of the research, won’t surprise anybody. Social media (87%) takes top spot, followed by blogs (86%), articles on your own site (85%), enewsletters (82%) and case studies (77%).

    But when, in the next slide, marketers consider which tactics they find effective, the table looks different. Case studies (70%) are now up to second in the list. Blogs (63%) are way down in 10th.

    If we plot the difference between the two ratings, by subtracting the “effectiveness” score from the “usage” score, it’s possible to create a crude league table of the tactics in content marketing that are the most effective and least used: or in other words, the most underused.

    Crunch the numbers on the back of your nearest envelope (statisticians, look away now) and you get this:

    Tactic Usage Effectiveness Score
    Webinars 45% 65% +20
    Mobile content 48% 64% +16
    White papers 55% 65% +10
    In-person events 69% 74% +5
    Case studies 77% 70% -7
    Videos 76% 66% -10
    Articles on website 85% 68% -13
    eNewsletters 82% 66% -16
    Social media 87% 67% -20
    Blogs 86% 63% -23

    Now obviously this is a pretty rough and ready table. There are only 10 entries in the original effectiveness table, so we’re limited to 10 tactics to compare; and tactics that are harder to execute or less universally appropriate will, of course, drift to the top of the list.

    But these provisos aside, there are some striking lessons here for content marketers:

    1. Whisper it in some circles, but social media, and even blogs, aren’t working for everyone. Many customers, and particularly business customers, want more in-depth, organised content than you can achieve in 140 characters or less.

    Of course, it’s actually more in-depth content that customers often go to Twitter to find. White papers and infographics, of course, are great examples of in-depth content that’s eminently sharable via social media or a blog.

    2. Of all the types of written content you create for your website, the humble case study is the most effective and (‘mobile content’ aside) the most underused. This makes sense: case studies are your chance to show customers how you’ve followed through on the promises you make, but it can be tricky to persuade existing clients to get involved.

    3. It’s important to optimise your content for mobile if you haven’t already, which at a basic level means getting a responsive design – so it can be viewed equally well on all devices – and taking the opportunity to refresh your content while you’re at it.

    4. People will always prefer face-to-face contact, but the currency and immediacy of a live webinar is the next best thing.

    That’s my tuppen’orth anyway. I look forward to the 2015 edition of the data.