Estimated read time: 22 minutes
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Strategic writing probably has never been harder. It has to meet some of the more traditional measurements of quality, but it also has to perform. What’s the point of a fantastically written article when nobody reads it? Or nobody clicks calls to actions? Or at the very least it helps a brand stay top of mind?
This article shares tips on how you can create strategic writing that drives results. If you want to get the text book on creating a content performance culture, please consider ordering my book on the topic here.
To discuss the current state of strategic writing, I was joined by Sarah Mitchell of Typeset on the Business Storytelling Podcast. Sarah and her team publish the annual State of Writing study to see what teams are doing and where they can improve.
You can read the entire 2020 report here.
Some of the topics that need to be top of mind to create strategic writing:
- What’s your strategy?
- Who owns the editorial calendar?
- How does SEO and content play together?
- And more.
Sarah joined me again on the podcast to discuss the 2021 version.
“The findings this year prove that achieving success with written content is not easy, regardless of how much experience you have,” Sarah said. “The good news is, despite a disruptive year with Covid-19, content marketers say they feel optimistic and energized about the future.”
Other findings from the research include:
- Nearly half of content marketers still struggle to know what their audiences want to read
- Only a third of content marketers are having their copy proofread before publication
- SEO writing is now the norm for most content marketers, even if they don’t recognize it
- Content marketers have a real opportunity to improve editorial rigor and leverage the
benefits for their brand.
Strategic writing surprises
As you can hear in our discussion, Sarah and I were surprised to hear how few companies have no owners of editorial calendars and the low-ish number of teams that focus on SEO when it comes to their content.
It was also surprising to hear the low-ish number of teams that hold editorial meetings to create strategic writing. Brainstorming and collaboration is so important to be successful today!
Editorial meetings can be held in a number of ways now and don’t need to be in a conference room necessarily.
The hosts and producers of the Marketing O’Clock Podcast for example told me they brainstorm, share and finalize what’s being discussed on their show in a dedicated Slack channel.
Chris Craft shared some tips on how to maximize Slack communications in this article and podcast. You can also hold quick Zoom meetings, of course.
Read next: How to be creative [includes podcasts]
We were also surprised to learn that some content doesn’t even include calls to action. Certainly, few individual content pieces
You can listen to the show with Sarah wherever you listen to podcasts. The remainder of the article covers into related and additional ideas of creating strategic writing, including:
- Editorial calendars
- Why audience always must come first
- SEO and content
- Being leaner
How many people should own my organization’s editorial calendar?
I’m a big fan of planning and also of implementing those plans quickly. It’s the only way to know if those plans are worth the paper many still print them on. An editorial calendar is a great way to plan and implement content marketing and communications strategies. Of course remember to find a way to publish!
I use the WordPress Editorial Calendar plugin on here and it helps tremendously map out when specific stories should publish and how far I’m planned out. Using a calendar and sticking to it is especially important early in an organization’s blogging efforts. Until it becomes a habit (at least weekly is my recommendation) the schedule keeps us on track.
On this blog it’s just me who owns that calendar. There are no committee meetings, story briefings, etc. Story happens >>> I document it >>> Shared.
And in the recent year I’ve spent more time updating existing content. After seven years of writing on here there’s all kinds of content on topics that I can simply refresh with new thoughts and sometimes even combine.
Sometimes it’s OK to delete old content. If hardly anyone has read that article from six years ago by now it’s probably not going to takeoff now.
And this one-person process offers something to larger organizations:
One person should be the main owner of a editorial calendar. And the editorial calendar should include all channels.
I can already hear the question: “But what if (when?) that person leaves our organization?”
Have a backup or a small team of backups. Also: Create a workplace that high performers don’t want to leave.
And of course there might be other existing editorial calendars in the organization between marketing, communication, internal communications, public relations and other departments. So we’ll need some coordination between all of them. As part of the COPE model, why couldn’t they be consolidated?
Would it be awesome if one event/story that is worth sharing has different components from all these different departments and all work together? Yup!
Don’t just focus on new content
Your editorial calendar also should include:
- Creating new content
- Optimizing/updating existing content
That’s also a question Sarah and team ask on the 2021 survey. Do you focus on updating existing content?
I actually used some existing and underperforming content to create this about 4,000-word article on strategic writing. If the older content isn’t making it to above average and has been around for a couple years, there’s no harm in that strategy. It can even make my next article more comprehensive.
Does that article already exist?
Every new content idea leads to a search of my blog first.
Sure, anyone can search a blog for related stories, but having one owner helps keep things straight. Depending on what I find here are my typical options:
- The topic already exists and it’s performing. Disregard. Especially if I have nothing new to say.
- The topic already exists but needs to be updated with this new information.
- The topic doesn’t exist yet but is already on the calendar a month from now. There’s no reason to have multiple writers work on the virtually the same topic.
- The topic doesn’t exist and is not yet on the schedule.
It really helps to have one person who is the person in the know – especially the bigger a project grows over time.
That person can even go back and strategically look for older posts that need a refresh (aka an update). I would recommend that especially for older posts that still get a lot of search engine traffic.
Of course, just because one person owns it doesn’t mean they get to be bossy bossy. They still need to collaborate with others.
Successful strategic writing is a team sport.
The players – frontline staff, marketing and communications teams and even leadership – need to play together to win. Align all goals!
So collaboration – including between owners of different departments and their various calendars is important and essential for an integrated and successful strategy.
But, please pick one owner. It’ll help make it easier long term and also empowers employees to own something.
CMI research finds that marketers look for audience needs to reach their own goals
The Content Marketing Institute B2B marketing report in 2018 found that more and more B2B content marketers are putting their audience needs first to implement their company’s marketing strategies.
From CMI: “The survey found 90% of top-performing B2B content marketers say they put their audience’s informational needs ahead of their company’s sales/promotional message (Compared with 56% of the least successful). Ten years ago, that was a novel concept. Now that it’s common among the most successful content marketers shows us how much marketers have adjusted their thinking.”
That shift is awesome to see and I can attest that content is the most valuable to readers and consumers when it actually meets the audience’s needs. People buy from companies when they think that company knows how to solve a problem they are having. Marketing strategies that share useful content can certainly get companies on the right track.
Mark Schaefer discusses how marketing is changing with me on the podcast and also his “Marketing Rebellion” book.
Even though 90 percent of top performing content marketers say they put the audience first, there are still plenty of marketing strategies out there that claim they do but then they don’t and fall back into “we are the best” marketing talk. Ugh. I bet that many or at least some of those 90 percent still have to wage the war against the use of superlatives in their organization.
Cut the superlatives, friends.
The teams I worked with at Stamats Business Media created personas for their brands. Those personas are then used to check whether or not a story should be pursued. Every story is then aligned with a goal. I discussed the concept and those goals in my talk at Content Marketing World 2018. Here’s the deck:
I’m the first to admit that it can be hard to always keep your personas in mind. I have them mapped out for this blog, too, and sometimes, I want to write about other things. Since this site is somewhat of a personal-professional mix, I sometimes do, but always try to find an angle that the main readers on here (social media and content marketers) care about. Or at the least that there’s potential that they might care about it.
Personas and goals help. The CMI report also looked at how marketers gather information on their target audiences. Probably not enough content marketers are actually talking to the actual customer to find out what their needs are.
During a project in SaaS (Software as a Service) I talked to the customers and potential customers all the time. It was easy to find out what their actual perceived problems were and which ones they needed help with. Of course, just because I talk to 5 people today that does not mean they are a representation of all customers. Something to keep in mind.
The CMI report actually lists sales team feedback at No. 1 for most used technique. If the two teams collaborate well, this could work. Another strategy might be to combine marketing teams with first-touch sales people (aka SDRs).
In B2B publishing, that’s different.
The sales teams typically sell to advertisers, not the audience. Though, there’s no reason B2B publishing cannot move more toward B2B company marketing models. The sales teams hardly ever talk to the audience. The editorial teams do. And if you are lucky enough to have one – the audience team. I’m lucky enough to work with one and the insights they can provide are tremendous. Maybe that team would be in No. 1 in B2B publishing.
Types of content in B2B marketing strategies
Finally, I’d like to share the results surrounding what type of content marketers are sharing. Here’s the info from CMI:
The majority of marketers were planning on creating more multi-media and written content. That’s good! Of course, the content must be good and useful to our audience, but it sounds like we are on track to get that debate surrounding creating less content settled and successful marketers already know that it’s a bit of an arm’s race.
Being leaner for strategic writing
Some so-called content marketing experts have shared their own definitions of what lean content marketing is and isn’t. Here are my steps on how lean content marketing can actually be most helpful – especially the larger an organization gets. Being lean in the right sense can also help with strategic writing.
The model of “lean (insert industry)” stems from lean manufacturing, as Charles Duhigg shares in his book “Smarter, Faster, Better – The Secrets to being Productive in Life and Business.”
Toyota revolutionized this model by pushing day-to-day decision making – all of it – to the most front-line staff employee. Assembly row workers could stop the production line without manager approval, for example, if a problem existed or if they had run out of time to fix a problem. Yup, it cost Toyota money by the minute when the line stopped but it ultimately made them all more money and build a community around a shared goal: To produce the best product.
In content marketing, lean content marketing can happen the same way. Whoever is closest to a problem or a situation gets to make the decision and move forward. Right now. In the moment. There’s no waiting for days because some manager has to approve it.
Recommended for you:
Many organizations still approve blog posts, social media updates and responses by committee nowadays. Sometimes that makes stories better, but not usually. How many meals gets cooked by committee? Ha.
Lean content marketing looks like this:
- Leaders and teams set the strategy. Make sure this is written down and fits on 1-3 pages. Anything longer will likely never be referred back to.
- Define roles and responsibilities. One person is in charge of editorial planning. Another of responding to social media responses and scheduling. Etc.
- Establish an informal way to communicate. A group instant messaging chat can help. The more informal, the more likely communication is and that helps team members learn from each other.
- Go and implement.
- Continuous review of metrics. (But be aware that when you are first getting started there will be a ramp-up period.)
- Occasional team check-ins to see what is and isn’t working. Make sure team members know not to wait to share relevant in-the-moment information until then.
Running a lean content marketing program – which should be part of your overall digital and offline marketing strategy – can help with a number of things:
- You’ll be more efficient
- You’ll stand out positively with your target audiences
- Your employees will feel empowered and valued. The culture will be a recruiting advantage.
Lean content marketing can help organizations be better and more relevant long-term.
And as Duhigg reminds us in his book, people work smarter and harder when they have decision-making power. Of course, bosses will need to support those decisions to make it work.
I also find Andrea Fryrear’s agile marketing strategies relevant here. She discussed the topic with me here.
To dive even deeper into agile marketing, read her book here.
The power of SEO in strategic writing
A content performance culture means that we produce content in line with a strategy and with goals in mind. Of course, we also will then measure those goals.
- An embraced performance culture
- Innovation by all
- Next play mentality
- Right players in the right seats
- Ongoing evaluation
In the sense of SEO, a content performance culture is important because at the end of the day we are measured on results. Especially in SEO how to drive performance changes. We need a culture to empower teams to be successful even when things change.
How do you determine measurements?
It all depends on your goals. Let’s say you are trying to rank for a cluster of keywords, make that your goal. Are you starting to rank? You can use tools like Ahrefs or others to track this. For example, I love the monthly email that shows me how my site is ranking:
I also like using Keywords Everywhere – a Chrome plugin – that lets me check keyword volume quickly and inexpensively before I start creating content. For $10 I can buy 100,000 credits, with one credit being one keyword. I then simply search in Google for terms I’m trying to target in my strategic writing campaign.
Suggestions are right there and even more are further down.
I can easily check how many credits I have left in the Chrome dropdown.
Keep in mind that when Keywords Everywhere gives you 40 keyword ideas that counts as 40 credits. Given that one credit costs 0.01 cents that’s super cheap!
Ranking for unrelated keywords can still help us but may not be as valuable to the business. Sometimes success happens by mistake. That’s okay. Learn from it and apply what you learned going forward.
Also make sure there’s buy-in and understanding of the goals from a business perspective. Do these goals make sense? If not, evolve them. Marketing is a numbers game. We need to grow our audience to convert people. Tamara Burkett told me just 3 percent of audience members are ready to buy so that means we need to talk to more than 3 people!
Be sure that something can be measured. I’ve seen projects that came up with goals that in no way could be measured then. They sounded good, but weren’t going to work. Do remember though, that’s not everything can be measured.
Finally, keep in mind that things change. A lot of sites have seen a drop in SEO click-throughs after Google redesigned the results pages. Not everything is in our control.
What’s the set up of a high-performing content team?
High-performing teams have certain players on board. At the least they include:
- Content creators (writers, editors, etc.)
- Syndication/conversion strategists
The role of the marketing technologist is newer. While every marketer or content person needs some technological understanding, considering working with a marketing technologist, is something worth considering. On this livestream, Joshua McNary shares what goes into marketing technology.
All roles and skills play important parts and on smaller teams one person may play several of these roles. On larger teams they may be split up further. Syndication strategists can be split up into: SEO, social media, email, podcasting. For example.
It does depends on the team set up, budget, workload and current goals. Do keep in mind that most teams – even large ones can always use more help.
Casey Stanton mentioned on the podcast that marketing budgets should be set by overall revenue. Pick a percentage. Once revenue increases marketing budgets increase. Keep in mind that there’s a ramp-up period and when business is not going well, like during COVID, marketing may need to be thought of as an investment.
Strategic writing and voice search
Voice search is an interesting topic. On one hand it seems to be getting more and more popular. On the other hand, there’s no official way currently to even see how many searches come to your website from voice. It all just gets lumped into organic.
Some people have said that voice only returns one result. That can be true for very broad searches. But longer-tail searches still show a handful of results. Of course, teams need to be in those top 5 to even be seen but top 5 sounds better than top 1.
In a nutshell, typical SEO strategies apply. Write conversationally. Use the terms people use to search.
For way more, this article dives into the topic of voice search SEO further.
Can office politics get in the way of strategic writing?
Always. Or usually. Try to find a way to collaborate and make sure teams have the same goals or at least not competing goals. That’s why it’s so important to have the right players and set goals that everyone goes after.
Try to understand the politics and work with them to reach the goals as much as it’s possible.
Some people say: “I wish there just weren’t office politics.” I don’t think that’s possible completely – even when you have highly functioning content teams. Somebody, somewhere will usually play the office politics game.
Unfortunately, competing goals can also exists in organizations. This podcast episode shares ideas on how to overcome those situations.
How do you find the time to do all this high-performing content?
There’s really never enough time for everything. Focus on what works and focus on creating content quicker. Some ideas that I use:
- I write in the mobile WordPress app. Anywhere. Often I voice dictate. That helps me crank out content quicker and I use downtime.
- I use Anchor to record my podcasts. It’s easy to record in the app – even with guests, to edit and then to publish or schedule.
- Go for doneish over perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. I just finished a book and I read it 100 times. As I’m reading it again, I still could make changes.
- Focus on the right things. Cut down on meetings, unnecessary processes, etc.
SEO and content marketing – how one can’t live without the other for strategic writing
The Search Engine Journal reported that just 3 percent of marketers believe that search engine optimization and content marketing are separate disciplines. It’s hard to argue that they are.
That reminded me of a roundtable I led at the Social Media Camp in Victoria, Canada in 2018.
I think the topic of the round table was actually storytelling and content marketing.
But the first few questions and discussions were actually around social media. And more importantly the best practices of social media.
Example: How many accounts do you really need? One person said that the experts were saying that more social media accounts were needed but that whatever the company was doing with fewer accounts was actually working for them so why would they follow anybody else’s best practices?
Exactly, they wouldn’t. Just do what works for you.
Then we talked about authentic storytelling and how to get frontline staff to tell stories.
Next we started talking about the importance of search engine optimization and keyword research to better reach your audiences. At that point, people from other round tables were joining us and started to ask questions and started participating as well.
One person commented that we should now talk about content marketing because she thought that’s what this round table would be about. Another person said that she came over because we were talking about SEO and she would love to move that discussion forward.
That prompted a discussion surrounding how related the two disciplines really are. So the question is: can you actually do good content marketing without search engine optimization?
At the very least you can do decent content marketing with little consideration of SEO. I’ve actually grown projects to good size with little search engine optimization tactics. But why waste time and leave everything to change.
What is SEO in the sense of strategic writing?
It’s the use of tactics to maximize our stories and content to be found in search engines. As the Search Engine Journal article said this is important because 50 or more percent of traffic to sites often comes from search. There’s been months on this blog where search engines drive 80,000 views. So SEO matters in strategic writing.
Search engine traffic matters because users are looking for something (aka they have intent) and your site might be able to help them. Being helpful turns into people into readers, customers, etc.
A good SEO strategy matches search volume to expertise. Ranking No. 1 for a keyword that nobody searches for won’t help drive engagement.
What’s content marketing?
In simple terms, it’s marketing though the use of content. Of course, marketing always has used content. Heck, an ad is content. ?♂️?
Practically speaking, content marketing is a collection of strategies to use stories and helpful information to establish authority and be helpful to our audiences. The business goal is to ultimately drive people down the marketing funnel and influence buying decisions.
Follow structure – including good conclusions
We often spend plenty of time on the headline and the introduction and other things that are right in your face. Those all matter. But another piece that matters is the conclusion. Don’t just go OK byyyyeee but give readers a reason to finish.
These are all good ideas and I’m the first to admit that it is a topic that’s easy to forget. The article is done. Goodbye. But adding more value in the conclusion can help on a number of fronts – including search engine optimization and reader engagement. I specifically love adding frequently asked questions in a conclusion. Basically answer questions that didn’t fit elsewhere but fit with the topic.
All these strategies and disciplines really are tools on the digital marketing toolkit. To be a strategic writing strategist, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to get our content to perform.
The role of technology
Last but not least, high-performing teams use the right technology. Technology that makes our lives easier.