“Creative brief” is one of those terms associated with graphic designers and ad agencies — Google is packed with articles about (and templates for) those ad-focused briefs. But while demand for substantive, effective content marketing is prompting a new look at this simple-yet-essential document, very little has been published about writing a creative brief to implement a content plan.
That’s what I’m talking about here: how to write a creative brief for a content plan. How you can capture everything your writers need to know about the marketing department for which they will be generating thousands of words.
What is a creative brief for content marketing?
A creative brief for content marketing is a document created by the managing editor (such as content services provider or whoever in-house is in charge of the content marketing project) in consultation with the marketing strategist (such as your V.P. or director of marketing) to give to writers (often freelancers or internal experts who contribute to the content). The document should capture the big and the little, the essential messaging and the quirky nuances of your brand and of the content marketing project.
This document doesn’t need to dictate every word the writer writes. It’s not to be read constantly; maybe it stays minimized in the corner of the computer screen, maybe it lies quietly on the desk covered in coffee mug rings. But its spirit needs to be kept in reach, reminding the writer for whom and why they’re writing this piece.
How to write a creative brief for your content plan
The creative brief is not written in a bubble. A fully formed content marketing plan is typically overseen by a managing editor, who serves as the bridge between the plan’s two sides: the business and marketing strategy on one side and the content production process on the other. The creative brief operationalizes that strategy, converting big ideas of the strategy into actionable information for the writers.
Creating a creative brief for your content plan will likely not be completed in one session. Assuming a managing editor is overseeing the project, the process should look something like this:
1. The editor will schedule a consultation with the stakeholders who own the strategy. Nobody really benefits from being surprised by the questions a creative brief asks, so everyone should have a blank copy of the brief to think about ahead of time and prepare notes.
2. Consultation time: discuss everything. The managing editor should ask probing questions that ensure the information is useable and doesn’t rely on marketing jargon. (Remember, this is ultimately a document for writers who are working on stories that establish your authenticity and help your customers. That’s the whole point of content marketing.)
3. Managing editor completes an initial draft of the creative brief and circulates it for review. (Because, even though it shouldn’t encourage inside jargon, it does still need to be aligned with the overall business strategy.)
4. Follow-up consultation. The initial draft is never perfect; this follow-up addresses what works and what doesn’t.
5. Managing editor revises the document as needed, and any final tweaks and agreements can typically be handled via email.
6. Use it. Make sure every writer has it, that every new writer gets it and that everyone is reminded of it occasionally so the project doesn’t drift off course.
7. Review periodically. If the business and marketing strategy has evolved, then the creative brief should be updated to reflect that. At McGuire Editorial, we do this regularly when contracts are renewed and the scope of work is being updated.
Of course some creative briefs require different amounts of time to capture the detail and polish it. The highest priority is that everyone feels that strategy has been translated into a description of what the managing editor and the writers should be producing.
What does this content marketing creative brief look like?
Below is an overview of what I recommend be covered in every content plan’s creative brief, and you can click here for your own free copy of an editable template.
Client overview. Assume the writer knows nothing about your business. In a paragraph or two, address basic information about who you are and what you do or sell.
Value proposition. What is your unique selling point? Why are you valuable to your target audience and potential customers? What does your company offer to the world?
Goals. What does the content marketing strategy aim to achieve? You might have a few different goals that will influence the types of content described later. Clarify if you want web traffic, more qualified leads, more nurturing of existing leads, more brand awareness or customer education. What will success in this project look like?
Audience. Who are these articles aimed at? Do you have a buyer persona — even a rough sketch of a buyer persona? What industries will the content project concentrate on? What kinds of companies or size of company do you want to attract? What roles within those companies do you want to be reading your content? Be specific. Your content about your training software isn’t just aimed at the director of L&D; the articles may be aimed at the director of L&D at a company in a certain industry vertical and above a certain size who is at a certain point in their buyer journey. You want the writer to know if they are talking to someone new to the topic or to a sophisticated reader who already has a foundation in the topic.
Messaging. What are some some catch phrases and taglines used to express your value proposition in the past? This should be quick and easy: just pull snippets from your website or advertisements that will help the writer know your voice and key messages.
Brand voice. In what voice do you want to speak to the prospective buyer? What voice do you want them to “hear” when they visit your site or read one of your white papers? Is the client conservative, edgy, casual, sophisticated? Witty or serious? Academic, fastidious, rough around the edges? Sweet and a little sappy? Ironic and sardonic? And which of these is the the most valued trait? Optimism? Should all or most articles take care to project positivity?
Writing style and tone. This overlaps somewhat with brand voice, but gives some direction to how your company’s voice translates into the written word. Is anything allowed or discouraged? Can pieces be in first person? Should writers use exclamation points liberally or omit them entirely? Should the language be technical or accessible?
Types of content. Most content marketing strategies will include several types of content, such as blogs, white papers, ebooks and articles. List each and any important details. For example, if the strategy will include feature articles, clarify the approximate length, publications they might be submitted to, to what extent experts and interviews and other resources should be used, and any other information that helps to clarify your expectations for this type of content.
Examples to consider: Nothing beats an example for effective shorthand. These might be examples of what you like and want to emulate or what you dislike and want to avoid. They could be previously produced by your company or by a competitor or even generated in a different industry. In short, this is a place to point at things and say “do it like this!” or “don’t do it like that!”
Competition and positioning. This serves two important purposes. First, it extends the writer’s understanding of how your business sees itself and its role in the marketplace. Secondly, it informs the writer of who your competitors are, which can be invaluable. Can you imagine if Microsoft published an article on hot new design trends and used the iPhone 7 as an example because the writer didn’t know the two companies were competitors?
Related reading: How Good Content Marketing Balances Generic and Specific
Other. Remember to add an “Other” category. Or a Miscellaneous. Or whatever else you want to call it. But there will be notes relevant to every content marketing strategy that aren’t already covered but must be conveyed to the writer. Maybe it’s a quirky way the client writes a certain word. Maybe it’s a pet peeve of the CEO that needs to be avoided at all costs. Maybe it’s more mundane notes, like house style details. (For example: Should you use the Oxford comma? Should you capitalize job titles? Should you avoid overusing parenthetical statements?)
A few final notes on what a creative brief for content marketing is NOT:
– This is not a piece of marketing in itself. Value clarity over catchiness.
– This is not an assignment to a writer. This is background information to accompany an assignment.
– This is not something to be done and ignored. If a writer doesn’t honor the direction provided by the brief — even if the article itself is fantastic — return the piece, point out where it deviated from the overall strategy, then sit back and wait for the document to do its job.
Shari is an assistant editor for McGuire Editorial. For more than 15 years, she has worked in publishing as a writer and editor for a range of industries including marketing, education and travel.