Creating digital content is hard. Planning, producing, reviewing and refining; you could say that content never ends. With our studio manifesto and principles in mind, we want to focus on creating content that reduces waste and maximises value. So, it’s more important than ever in this labour intensive process, you establish a routine that is as slick and ‘lean’ as can be. I’ll cover some of things I’ve learnt to help with this.
The Content Lifecycle
There’s a whole host of content lifecycle diagrams out there (just Google it!), but for the purpose of this post we can say there are (broadly speaking) five main stages to producing great content. I’ve taken these examples from a talk I attended given by Gather Content’s Robert Mills.
1. Strategy & Planning
You’d be surprised how many companies jump straight into pushing content out without an underpinning strategy based on audience insight. Knowing a little bit about your customers is nice, but it’s not enough. Of course you know how many followers you have on Twitter, what pages they’re visiting on your site; but do you really understand your customers? Do you recognise their needs, motivations, barriers and what content would be useful to them?
I know what you’re thinking… audience research can be very costly. There’s probably a lot you already know about your audience, so instead of starting from scratch, you can develop ‘proto-personas’. Rather than coming from time-consuming (and expensive) research, these originate from a workshop where you map out:
• What you already know about who is consuming your product/service
• What is motivating them
• What content they already engage with.
There will obviously be some gaps at this stage, some things you’re not 100% sure of and some you would like to validate… one way to do this is through assumption mapping (see below).
Validating assumptions to gain new learnings
Validating assumptions to gain new learnings could be done in a lean way. Each content piece could be used as an experiment with a set hypothesis to prove or disprove. The key is understanding what the objectives of the content piece are, so if you can’t write a hypotheses (e.g. if we do X we expect to see Y) you need to question why you’re doing it.
It’s important to remember that the audience cycle, like others, is perpetual. When gaining insight about your audience, you need to consider that their needs and wants will change over time. You should find a way to capture the insights as you gain them, with something such as a product canvas board. The content that they consume will vary, so you can’t create personas and then never touch them again.
Content Style Guide
So many different people are involved with producing content, you need to make sure you are all aligned so that the output remains consistent to your audience. One way to help with this is through a content style guide. We wouldn’t dream of starting development work without a style guide, so producing content should be treated in the same way. This does differ from an overall style guide, it has more of an emphasis on giving you an authentic and consistent tone of voice (TOV).
You need to make sure that the guidelines are actually used and not just a document that gathers dust. Online versions are nice. An online style guide has worked really well for some of our clients, as they can be easily kept up-to-date and adapted.
“It takes an average of 10 hours to produce a 750 word piece of content” Robert Mills, Content Strategist, at GatherContent.
When coming up with content ideas you should prioritise against the effort it takes to produce vs the impact it’ll have. We normally plot this in a diagram (as shown below) to illustrate where you think you’ll see the most value first and therefore which ideas should be prioritised.
Roles and responsibilities
There are lots of people involved in content production, so it’s important that you establish a clear workflow. You should define roles and responsibilities early on, so everyone is aware what they have ownership over.
To do this you should have an effective feedback mechanism. Most content gets stalled in the approval feedback loop. So, setting a ticket template with clear objectives and hypotheses will help this.
Manage expectations about what’s due and when. At Code we find Trello useful for this. The columns help visualise the different stages of the process. Tag these tickets against key performance indicators (KPIs) and have a clear template so a piece can’t start production without a hypothesis.
With Trello, you can measure your content cycle time. Evaluate how long it takes you to produce your content and see if you’re getting more efficient over time.
Try pair writing
Another effective way is pair writing, whereby an in-house expert is used alongside a copywriter. Collaborating is much more efficient than a copywriter just throwing their work over the wall and receiving lots of bitty feedback.
Plan what’s being published and when. You could use something like Google Docs to create an editorial calendar. Set a deadline in a programme such as Trello and sync it with the calendar to help to visualise the overview for the multiple parties involved.
It’s important to continuously generate content in good time, regardless of whether it needs to go out that week. This will allow you to gain a backlog of content, which means you always have a piece of work ready to go, just in case another doesn’t work out.
Define the minimum requirements needed for a piece of content to go live. So this maybe the blog content itself, imagery or accompanying social posts. Remember to consider the value that this will have and allow this to help you decide what you should do first.
So, once it’s gone live how do you know your content is working? This is where the hypotheses and objectives that you defined upfront become really important. Ask yourself:
• Did it achieve the expected result?
• Were your assumptions correct?
You should make sure you learn from every piece of content that you release. Whether that is successes or failures. Discuss this within your team, so you can understand how to enhance future content.
Your content plan should be versatile. It should be both proactive and reactive, and respond to the learnings that you gather along the way. You should start small and test your assumptions, to make sure you are working in the best possible way. For example one way you could do this is by testing the water with different variations of copy, headlines and imagery on Facebook Ads, before a big bigger media launch. Document your learnings from the soft-launch and build on the approach you take when the content is officially released. Remember to action all your insights in a living document. Take note of the refinements you’re making – you never know it could be needed in future! Not only do you need to refine this based on what you learn about the content, you also need to make sure to revisit your business strategy as priorities change (which could result in audience changes too). Keeping the personas up to date will mean you won’t incur a costly fee to research them all over again at a later stage.
Make sure you have objectives, personas, hypotheses defined up front. You’re producing this content for a reason, so if you don’t know what you want to achieve… should you be producing it at all? Every piece of content you produce is a learning curve. So make sure you refine and enhance based on your findings, to give your audience the type of content they want to see.