Consistently apply this content development process to yield consistently quality content.
Every successful thought leadership marketing initiative starts with a clear content strategy—these are the clients we’d like to attract, these are the topics we must own, this is what we’ll produce when, and here’s who’s responsible for producing it. Depending on the complexity of your firm, developing a content strategy may be quite easy or it may be quite difficult. Regardless, for most firms what follows tends to be much more difficult—turning that list of topics into high quality content that’s suitable for publication.
The inclination is to just put a bunch of names against the topics and leave subject matter experts to their own devices. In some instances this works (that’s largely what happens at Rattleback). But in many instances it doesn’t. Not all subject matter experts are effective writers. Some are good writers, but lack confidence in their own abilities. And others simply cannot create the space and time necessary to do it successfully. Often, this is where editors, external agencies and content development teams come in.
But even throwing smart content people at the problem doesn’t always work either. In our experience, consistently ensuring high quality content requires using a structured content development process. Here is a 7-step process we’ve developed based largely on lessons learned from my good friend Bob Buday of Buday Thought Leadership Partners:
- Argument Shaping—The first, and most important step, is to work the topic. Schedule a call with the subject matter expert(s) to discuss the topic at length. Sometimes it’s helpful to prepare some secondary research in advance of the call to review what’s already being said about the topic from other sources. But this isn’t always necessary. In this call we’re generally trying to explore the expert’s point-of-view on the topic at length, understand what has shaped their thinking about the topic, and document what proof they have that their solution to the problem is a better one.
- Outline Development—Before moving into content development we recommend developing a structured outline and providing it to the subject matter expert for review. This takes a bit longer, but has a number of merits. First, it enables us to see whether the argument really holds water. Do we have enough proof to back the thinking up? Are we saying something novel or new? Where are the holes in our argument? What additional examples could we provide to tell the story? Do we have any? Do we need to look outside the organization? The subject matter expert is asked to review and approve the outline before proceeding to copy development. At this point, we’ll also ask for any additional documentation from the firm’s client work to substantiate arguments within the article.
- Copy Development—Once the outline is reviewed and approved, the content development team writes the article. It’s useful to indicate any supporting charts or visuals that might go with the content as well. If the article is using data to support its claims, this is the time to pull in a designer and develop any preliminary design thinking on how to visualize data. Ideally, during this phase the content team should also write all associated information needed to physically publish the post (excerpts for the landing page and SEO elements).
- Editorial Review—If your firm has an internal editor, this would be the step where they’re most intimately involved. Essentially, the editor and the subject matter expert are reviewing the article to ensure it follows the arc of the outline developed, hits all the key points, and meets the expected tone-of-voice of the firm and the author. This is a good time to explore different headlines if the working title isn’t particularly salient. And it’s a good time to look at things like intros and closing. Are we hooking the reader early? Are we giving them directed next steps?
- Design—Once the article has been reviewed or while it’s being reviewed, is a good time to develop supporting imagery and data visualizations. Depending on where and how you’ll publish usually you’ll want some supporting graphics to visually connect with your readers. Ideally, you’ve developed your own brand look-and-feel that connects your ideas with visual concepts in a unique way. If the article relies on data, it’s critical to give this step the time it needs so the design team can think through the best way to visualize data and work with copy developers to introduce clear headlines and subheads to support the story. Often, in a data-heavy article, the charts are more read than the prose. So, look at the story through the eyes of the charts. If the reader just read the chart headlines and scanned the graph would they understand the story?
- Proofreading—If at all possible, it’s good to have someone other than the key people involved to do a final proofread. Maybe it’s a dedicated proofreader. It could be a marketing leader. Regardless, it’s a fresh set of eyes; someone who’s good with grammar and punctuation. They’re essentially the final sign-off on the content.
- Publishing—This is the final step in the process; once the article has cleared editorial review and proofreading, it is added to the CMS. All copy is added, all supporting visuals are added, and the article is sent back to the proofreader for a final review to ensure that everything is in the right place.
While it seems like a lot of steps just to get a simple article published, I can promise that you probably go through all these steps in the content development process anyway. You just don’t think about them as discretely or as purposefully as you should. I can say from personal experience that once we started implementing this level of process rigor into our client work it became much easier to ensure that our clients’ content was of consistently high quality and was designed to do the job it was originally intended—demonstrate the firm’s point-of-view on issues that matter to their clients and generate leads for the business.
Learn more about Rattleback’s content development services.