Content strategy starts where all client projects start: with the brief.

Content and Strategy

Enough has been said over the past few years about what content strategy is. That song is so overplayed even the radio won’t touch it.

However, tradition demands we have a working definition to proceed, so we’ll go with a broad one from A List Apart article by Kristina Halverson:

“Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

I also think that we all know by now that content is more than just copywriting. Web content today also includes videos and images, external files (like PDFs), contact forms, buttons (and other calls to action), maps, data tables, infographics, as well as the copy—titles, slogans, about pages, etc.

According to Halverson, it’s all about planning. A brief is a “useful, usable” way of putting it all down on paper (or .pdf). The content brief is a document that outlines all of the content (in context).

What Lucky Sap Gets The Job?

Who, specifically, should take lead on the content brief? Anyone that can listen and take notes will do. Whether they’re a copywriter, content strategist, project manager, designer, developer, whatever.

Can you type? Then you’re good to go. Thorough, organized, communicative, good with words, thinks of the big picture: these are also good qualities to look for.

In any case, a brief isn’t built by one person. Projects have many stakeholders. A copywriter may put together the rough draft or write revisions, but it’s the whole team’s job to put the brief together in collaboration with a client.

Clients have input from multiple stakeholders in their own company, too, so be careful not to leave anyone out of the decision making process.

What Goes Into a Good Content Brief?

A brief must take into account everything on the project.

The brief should cover all of it: not only what the client’s goals are, but what tone of voice they prefer, what the timeframe looks like, what content should be on the site, what should be left out, how the content fits into the context of the design, editorial strategy, who is going to add new content, and whether or not they need formatting guidelines to follow.

A good brief is a vital source of information for everyone involved in a project. Designers, copywriters, and even developers should be able to refer to it while they work.

Special note to designers and developers: a content brief is especially useful with clients who underestimate the work involved on a particularly complex project.

A Brief Example

This is the basic brief I use for website design projects. I often find myself adding new sections, quotes from clients (copy pasted from emails), and scribbling notes in the margins. If you don’t have to alter the brief to the context of the project, you’re probably missing something.*

  • Basic Details
    1. Company Name
    2. Contact Name
    3. Project Start Date
    4. Projected Finish Date
    5. Will this be part of a larger communication or stand-alone?
  • Overview
    1. What is the client expecting of the project?
    2. Define the goals of the project.
    3. What is the background and context for communication?
  • Background and Raw Material
    1. What material has the client produced before? How did it perform?
    2. How does this campaign fit in with other communications produced by the client?
    3. What images, videos, copy, and other material has already been created?
    4. What images, videos, copy, etc. is missing?
  • Target Audience
    1. Who are we trying to reach? Why? How?
    2. What mediums are we using to reach the users?
    3. What is their profile? Do we need to develop personas?
    4. What do they think about the client?
    5. What’s going on in the marketplace? How crowded is it?
  • The Core Message
    1. What is the single, compelling message that must be communicated?
    2. What supporting evidence is there to back up the claims being made?
  • The Unique Selling Point
    1. What benefit does the core message provide to the audience?
    2. What makes this different and compelling in the marketplace?
    3. Why should the reader bother to read the copy and respond at all?
  • Creative Direction
    1. How should the finished work look and feel?
    2. Is there a brand style that must be adhered to?
    3. Are there examples of similar work that can be used as a guide?
    4. What’s the appropriate tone of voice?

After you’ve completed the brief, be sure to clear it with all stakeholders involved in the project. Each person may have their own perspective to add. The more people involved, the more comprehensive the brief will become.

The trickiest part of a good content brief is making sure that it covers all the angles. If it doesn’t cover everything, it may fall short or even fail entirely. Deadlines get missed, budgets run out, people get stressed out, and suddenly you’re drinking twelve cups of coffee a day, working weekends, or pulling a frantic all nighter.

Nobody wants that.

The Interview Process

When you’re taking the brief, you want to get into the mindset of an interviewer.

The person taking the brief has to ask the right kind of questions. Since there are usually multiple stakeholders involved in a project, be sure to talk to all of them. Interview them relentlessly. Ask the dumb questions. Be persistent. A bad assumption will cause you more work in the end, whereas a dumb question wastes a few minutes of time at most.

Also, don’t be afraid to call back and clarify. A good interviewer is thorough and goes back a second time if they feel like something is missing.

Tweak It As You Go Along

If someone realizes that the content brief is missing something—whether it’s a paragraph or a page or something bigger—the brief should be updated. If it’s a major change, be sure to notify your team! Nothing says waste of time like writing content that’s already been cut.

Discussion

Do you use content briefs in your projects? What kinds of questions do you ask your clients? Is there any place where content briefs fall short?

*Disclaimer: this brief outline is based off one from Copywriting: Successful Writing for Design, Advertising, and Marketing. If you like and use the outline, we recommend that you buy the book. Especially if you’re interested in copywriting. It is an indispensable resource.

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