A good content creation process is not something you should ignore. So many guides and workflows include a stage that is dramatically simplified and summarized to just ‘add content’ or ‘upload your text.’ In practice, as you know, this is never as simple as it sounds.
The actual quality of that content is one of the fundamental variables that will determine the success of any marketing campaign, business website or sales process. You can’t gloss over or avoid the work that needs to be put in in order to create great content (whether you’re outsourcing this or handling it yourself) – so why do some people think you can?
In this post we take a detailed look at one of the most important activities in online promotion – the practice of creating content.
A content-first approach
Web development workflows are often built from a technical standpoint, and they assume that content is something completed elsewhere and by other people. For that reason the process of adding the content in the documented workflow is a simple one, and doesn’t get into the more fluid, creative side of coming up with new ideas, or new ways to express old ones.
In addition, many online guides and resources that detail how to be successful with website creation, SEO or content marketing online also don’t go into much detail on how to create good content because the author simply doesn’t know. Creating content is messy and artistic work, writing is uncomfortable and time-consuming, and explaining how to get it done doesn’t always fit into a neat little ’10-Step Formula.’
To get around these issues you need to take a content-first approach to projects in which the quality and volume of content is an important variable, and develop a proper content creation strategy. Reconsider the steps that need to be carried out in the project in terms of what is needed to get great content results, and make those aspects more granular and focused to take away some of the guesswork, ambiguity and heavy lifting. The rest of this post contains some guidance on how to do that.
Accept it – writing is just plain hard
First up let’s accept the fact that writing is hard. And that is one of the reasons why people leave it out of their guidance. If their handy formula reflected the reality of unstructured content creation, the steps would probably read something like this:
- Open a blank document and stare at it,
- Make a coffee, check your email, and procrastinate in a dozen other ways,
- Write the first paragraph,
- Check your email, Facebook and Twitter,
- Write a second paragraph,
- Decide, based on the second paragraph, that the first paragraph needs to be changed,
- Coffee is cold now – better make another,
- Think about whether you should have gone into retail instead,
- Think about your favorite book store and how nice it would be to work there,
- Think about your favorite book and how long it must have taken the author to write it,
- Think about how long it is taking you to write anything,
- Decide you can’t write anything today.
That’s the sort of thing that actually happens in the mythical single step of ‘create the content’ – and that’s the sort of inefficient approach we need to try and avoid.
You’ll have noticed that this post primarily focuses on writing, and for good reason; good content mostly relies on good writing. The value of writing in blog posts, articles, press releases and web pages is obvious; but podcasts, videos and other audio outputs also need scripts, headlines, descriptions and keywords. Even Instagram and other photo-sharing sites need hashtags and captions that make sense and add value to the images, and engagement with the audience on those sites often means responding to written comments.
Yes writing is hard – but it’s also vital.
Conserving mental energy
One of the major difficulties of the ‘create the content’ step is that it places a huge drain on your mental energy reserves. You only have so much attention and will power that can be applied to writing (or any complex task really) – it is both physically and mentally draining work. To make it simpler you need a process that takes as much of the decision-making and research out of each individual step.
Complex material is particularly mentally taxing. It’s not uncommon for content authors to be given half a dozen links, documents and resources in order to create an effective piece of content – and the sheer overwhelm that the volume of material causes just leads to procrastination.
There is also the issue of ‘ramp-up time’ – switching between tasks or stopping and then re-starting a piece of difficult work leads to a lag in productivity while the brain gets back up to speed with the task in hand. This is a delay that you want to try and avoid if it all possible.
A good technique to overcome this (at least a little bit) is to stop mid-sentence, and then complete the sentence as the very first action when re-starting the work. This gets your brain back into gear and shortcuts the productivity lag a little bit.
It works best when you know what the end of the sentence should be – and a good way of doing that is to complete your last sentence and then delete the final 5-10 words.
Ramp-up time issues are only one piece of the puzzle of course – what you really need is a complete, end-to-end process designed to increase productivity and conserve mental energy by taking the guesswork out of content creation. Let’s create yours.
How to build your content creation process
Firstly, how are you going to document and share your content creation process map? You need to have a clearly presented explanation of how it works that can be viewed and accessed by multiple people.
Use tools such as Dropbox or Google Drive for this, or any other file-sharing system that your company deploys. Don’t worry about being too complex or perfecting the document – remember that this is for internal use and it should be iterated on and improved as you test options, get staff feedback and add in new opportunities and procedures.
A documented process makes it easier to have very specific conversations about content creation, and also to hand off work to service providers or use in training new staff. A simple Word document or PowerPoint file with a SmartArt process diagram should be sufficient – so set this up and then work through to add the relevant details below:
State the purpose – before putting pen to paper (or finger to key) it’s vital that the author of any individual piece of content understands the exact purpose of it and how it fits into your wider content strategy processes. This is needed for all of the different forms of content you publish. State the purpose clearly at the start of your custom content creation process, for example:
- Blog posts – to entertain our existing followers and share news about the company that encourages them to re-engage with us.
- Product pages – to convince readers of the quality, sustainability and cost-effectiveness of our products so they are motivated to contact us using the contact form.
- Company information pages – to give readers the interesting facts about our business that helps support a buying decision, and then direct them to product pages.
Explain the structure – once the author knows what the content is for, they next need to know the structure of the content type they are writing so it is clear what they are working towards. If the purpose is the ‘why’ then the structure is the ‘what’, and you will need a different explanation for the structure of every content/page type. Some example elements that need to be included in this are:
- The headline or title – keywords, focus, length including how it should appear in website menus
- The URL – use keywords, be clear on structure (hint: keep it flat and simple to help people remember, don’t put dates in unless needed, in case you need to change this in the future)
- The sub-heading (if needed) – keywords, focus, purpose, length
- The opening paragraph – keywords, focus, purpose, length
- The metadata description – approximately 160 characters, used in search engines to show what the page is about
- Any tags, categories or keywords needed in your content management system (CMS) – e.g. blog category. Use keywords and provide guidance on how to choose.
- Main content body – length, layout, sub-headings, use of links and keywords
- Images – image file name title (use keywords in the actual file name before uploading), alt text, caption, placement (remember how the page will look on a small screen), use, sources (e.g. royalty free pictures can be found on https://stocksnap.io/ and http://photopin.com/, more professionals photos on http://www.istockphoto.com)
- The call to action – how the piece should end, what you want the reader to do next.
Lay out the steps – the structure above shows you exactly what the end goal of the content creation should be. In order for an author (or anyone else involved in the process) to understand how they reach it, next lay out the steps involved. For each step include what input is needed from other sources, who owns the process and anything else needed to get it done.
Deal with source material – the content creation workflow built in 3. makes it easy to break down larger tasks into much smaller steps, and assign them to different people (or to one person at different times). But there’s a few extra things to consider, including dealing with sources. Difficult writing work almost always involves collating information from a variety of sources. It’s not uncommon for writers to have a whole bunch of online articles, brochures, emails, and other sources thrown at them which they have to develop a coherent piece out of. Here’s a useful method to deal with this:
- First, copy all of the material to a single document,
- Then get rid of anything completely irrelevant and format the whole thing in a consistent style,
- Next make bullet points with just a single point, fact, message or assertion for each bullet – break up long sentences into multiple bullets,
- Finally, delete all the duplicates in the bullets you’ve made – lots of the points will crop up multiple times and you can simply get rid of them so that you are left with a concise list of the most important information. This approach really helps make dealing with long and complex source material much less taxing!
Create an outline – now that you know the purpose and process to go through in order to create the content, are clear on what that content should look like and have dealt with the source material, the next job is to create a clear outline of the piece of content. Use the bullet pointed material and group it into the relevant sections based on the required structure in an outline of the piece. Give each of these sections a working title at the relevant level e.g. major sections should have <h2> tags, sub-sections should have <h3> and so on. The outline will make it much simpler to create the text.
Write in sections – don’t attack the piece as a whole, don’t pick at it in a haphazard manner – take it section by section and work at them until they are done. Don’t get disheartened thinking about how difficult it is to write 1,500 words – just focus on using the selected and organised source bullet points (meaning you don’t to spend mental energy thinking about these) and getting through the next 250. You can do that no problem! And pretty soon you’ll have the whole piece done and dusted. Over time certain words, phrases, links and other pieces of text will become standardised, and you can keep a list of the most used or queried terms for everything involved in communication to check against.
That’s it! All of the elements in the list above can be combined to create a content creation process that works for you – whatever your resources, aims and parameters.
Don’t be afraid to test and tweak things to try and create better content more efficiently – the real power of a defined and formalised process is that you know exactly where you stand and can make evidence-based decisions.