We’ve talked before about that pile of articles from freelancers on your desk — unfinished, unedited, unuseable for the inbound marketing strategy for which they were written. Sometimes they sit there because they’re out of sync with fundamentals of the overall inbound marketing plan.

But sometimes they are in sync — in spirit, that is. You gave your writer a creative brief, after all. Yet the articles still aren’t useable for some reason. Maybe . . .

The writer knows the product, the message and the topic very well, but the copy is 1000 words too long for where you intend to use it.

Or it’s the right length but fails to quote the expert you had assumed would be featured prominently in that particular piece.

Or it’s the right length and includes the right sources, but made the wrong assumption about the audience by, for example, talking to college students using your software instead of the administrators in charge of purchasing decisions.

This kind of problem — an article done, turned in and somewhat in sync, but still not useable — often results from nonspecific direction. (And of course that pile doesn’t even show the pieces that were never turned in because the writer, lacking direction, is off somewhere running in circles.)

Marketing professionals can avoid the problem by using a simple assignment brief tool.

What is an assignment brief?

The assignment brief is a document, intended for the writer, that recognizes an important truth about content writing: good assignments are more than a topic sentence, headline idea or keyword phrase.

Give two different excellent and experienced writers the same topic sentence, and you are still likely to get two different results, neither of which will necessarily be what you need.

Crafting a good assignment is usually the responsibility of a managing editor and requires intimate knowledge of inbound marketing strategy, your business goals and the art — and skill — of good writing. Initially, in a given content marketing plan, the essentials of those two components (business strategy and the editorial process) should be captured on a creative brief designed for content marketing.

But the assignment brief goes a layer deeper.

The assignment brief captures the essentials of each individual piece of content. This document details the desired outcome, the goals and the intended process of a specific article or blog, white paper, ebook or ghostwritten essay.

Every one of those articles requires a clear assignment where the strategist, editor and writer all understand the context and direction. Otherwise, the writer can only make guesses about your expectations.

How editors use assignment briefs to implement an inbound marketing strategy

A good managing editor who makes a practice of using assignment briefs will prevent a backlog of incomplete or imperfect articles from accumulating in the first place.

This is because an editor knows the content writing process and can anticipate the floundering that comes from inadequate assignments. A good managing editor will not stop after generating a solid creative brief; he or she will consistently use assignment briefs to equip writers with the explicit guidance they need.

Combining the specifics of an assignment brief with the background of a creative brief (and, often, some gentle nudging from the managing editor) results in first drafts that are nearly ready to be published. (There’s still the editing process, of course, but that’s for another day.)

So, if you hire well, the writer will bring excellent writing that’s informative when it should be, funny if humor is called for, consistently substantive and always thinking about what the reader needs. But if you have a managing editor that utilizes the assignment brief, that excellent writing will also be in sync with the content marketing plan.

What should a content assignment brief cover?

If you click here for this simple template, you can see how we use assignment briefs to achieve excellent content writing for an inbound marketing strategy — and you’re welcome to copy, adapt and use it as you wish. The assignment brief is actually quite self explanatory, but here is an overview of what ours contains:

Topic. Some topics are more prescriptive than others. Yours might be a starting point or it might be a mini-thesis. This isn’t necessarily the headline. Robert McGuire usually advises that the topic be treated in the spirit of a starting point from which the article can evolve if surprising insights are uncovered during the research.

Deadline. Well, we all know what that is.

Writer. The person for whom this assignment brief has been filled out. The lead writer responsible for creating the first draft.

Byline. Often, especially in content marketing strategies, the writer is ghostwriting for somebody else. If the writer gets the byline, just write their name again to be clear. Why is clarifying the byline important? Because the writer benefits from knowing whose voice and point of view they need to capture.

Word count. Minimums and maximums are helpful. If you don’t know at least a range, then you may not know enough about where it will be used and who will be reading it, so maybe the idea isn’t ready to be assigned yet.

Client. On whose behalf is this being written? Even if the client is never mentioned in the article, the writer needs to know what the company is  — and the writer should be given a creative brief about the client.

Goals of this piece. Is this to entertain the general public? To inform a certain consumer group or tier of managers at a SaaS company? To convert bottom of the funnel prospects? Remember, this isn’t the overall content marketing strategy; info here is specific to this piece of content writing. Here are a few example “goal” statements from assignment briefs we’ve written:

For a thought leadership asset: After reading this middle-of-the-funnel piece, readers should feel, “The people at [client] have an interesting point of view and are in touch with the trends. I want to learn more about [client]. I’m going to ask them for a demo.”

– For a “toolkit” asset: To answer the following key questions of our prospective buyers: How are peers using this new technology? How do I select a vendor for this technology? What are the pricing models? How do I implement this technology?

– For an awareness building blog post: To reassure prospective buyers that the technology is accessible.

Type of piece. The creative brief should detail different types of pieces such as blogs, white papers or other formats. Copy over the type of piece for this individual assignment and the relevant details — and add any additional information if the creative brief info was too general.

Publication. Where will this piece be published? Or if that’s not yet known, where might it end up? What is its target destination — or examples of ideal spots? This context goes a long way to helping the writer understand the voice and organization that is most suitable.

Reader / audience. This info can be pulled from the creative brief, but make sure to use specifics. Your target market might be VPs, but if your product has multiple use cases, this individual article might be speaking to VPs in one industry vertical — or to the influencers one role junior to them. What do we know (or think we know) about those people?

Thumbnail outline / points to cover / keywords. The direction offered here can go in many directions. Sometimes you  have an explicit list of points to cover or even a full outline of a piece. Sometimes you have a few broad questions to help point the writer in the right direction. Sometimes you only need to include a note to “be sure to mention” a certain aspect of the subject.

Essential sources. Is there anybody who must be interviewed for this article? Or any studies that must be cited? Any products or services or locations that must be mentioned and therefore the writer needs to become acquainted with?

Other recommended sources. The same questions as above, only these are suggestions or examples rather than requirements. Often the editor will know of recent reports or other material that may be relevant and will leave it to the writer to look at them closely and decide whether to use them.

Previous examples of similar pieces. As I’ve said before, the quickest way to direct a writer is to show examples of what you do and/or do not like. If you put examples here, though, be sure to add brief notes about what exactly works and doesn’t work with a given piece so the writer knows which parts to emulate.

Useful links and other notes or suggestions. I think the title of this section really speaks for itself, don’t you?

How is the assignment brief used?

First, it needs to be filled out. While input and guidance for any content marketing piece might come from the business side or the editorial side, typically the managing editor oversees the completion of assignment briefs.

On an assignment brief, about half of the information is unique to the assignment and about half can be pulled directly from the creative brief. If the assignment raises questions not answered in the creative brief, the creative brief might need to be augmented; these two documents should fully complement each other.

The assignment brief should be given to the writer in conjunction with the creative brief.

Remember: To effectively implement a content marketing strategy — which means making every article or blog or white paper or ebook or listicle or editorial excellently written and aligned with the inbound marketing plan — writers need a specific, thoughtfully-produced assignment brief.


Shari Shallard

Shari Shallard

Assistant Editor

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.