I fell in love with writing in second grade. Writing was the key to what my 8-year-old, gap-toothed self saw as my natural habitat; one where I could transform anything and everything simply through the words I chose.
Then I got to college and discovered that all of those beautiful words didn’t say very much. Their only purpose was to exist as a work of art to be admired, and the list of admirers was short.
Why was that blinding glimpse of the obvious so important? Because writing that stems from nothing more than your love of language doesn’t get you very far in the real world. There are a few exceptions, like Pat Conroy. He used a full orchestra to tell a story that needed only an acoustic guitar, but it worked for him. It doesn’t, however, work for content writers.
We need to stick to the acoustic guitar (and, honestly, we should probably leave those at home too). In our world, words have a job to do, and there’s no room for slackers. Anything that doesn’t further the brand’s goals just takes up space. And brands aren’t going to pay you to fill up their blog with a whole lot of nothing.
What brands wish content writers knew
For career writers, leaving behind the notion that our words are works of art is one of the hardest lessons to learn when we start writing for customers instead of for ourselves. Writing for brands — the customers of the content marketing world — means keeping them happy, even if the writer-as-an-artist living inside of us cringes a bit.
With that said, let me give you a peek at their wish lists. Here are just a few things the brands you write for would like you to know:
They don’t want to argue about the Oxford comma
Believe it or not, not everyone enjoys robust debates about linguistic details. Most of the brands you’ll work with have their own style, and they don’t particularly care what your college professor would have thought about it.
While they definitely want to avoid obvious grammatical errors, most aren’t going to care about things like dashes and ellipses. If you’re going to make your stand on a grammatical hill, make sure it’s something that readers would notice and snicker at. Something that won’t cost the brand credibility.
They don’t have time to answer stupid questions
If you’re getting paid to write, act like it. Don’t call your editor with questions you can easily answer on your own with a little research. Want to know the name of the CEO, the year the company went public, or their primary competitors? Google it.
They don’t have time to not answer smart questions.
What Google can’t help you with is the purpose of a particular piece of content.
Let’s say a brand asks you to write a blog post about chocolate chip cookies. Depending on the brand and their goals, you could take that in any number of directions:
- The Top 10 Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes on Pinterest
- How to Make Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies Your Kids Will Love
- What You Need to Know about Making Chocolate Chip Cookies in an Instapot
- What Type of Chocolate Makes The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
- How to Host a Chocolate Chip Cookie Baking Contest for Your Next Girls’ Night
There are several different purposes represented in that list: feeding your children more nutritious snacks, selling more Instapots, selling more chocolate chips, etc.
Situations like these are when it’s not only okay but necessary to touch base with your brand contact — it’s crucial to know the purpose of the content you’ve been asked to write. Otherwise, it would be all too easy to take the content in the wrong direction, causing the editor a big headache when they’re on a deadline and need to rewrite your article from scratch.
They want you to understand which audience you’re writing for and what that audience needs to know
Most people in the content marketing world say that content writers should be subject matter experts. I disagree. Brands do need subject matter experts if they’re writing for people who do what they do — thought leadership pieces, for example — but they need writers with a business background if they’re writing for people who buy what they do.
That’s because subject matter experts are vulnerable to the “curse of knowledge,” meaning that they tend to write for other experts — people who do what they do. That can be a big problem when it comes to web content, blog posts, or other types of content. That type of content is usually targeted to people who buy what the brand does, and they’re frequently not experts. If they don’t understand the message, they’re not going to buy the product.
Here’s an example: let’s say a brand sells compliance services to other businesses. A blog post about the technical details of how their service works is going to zoom right over the heads of small merchants who don’t have the faintest clue that they even need to be worried about regulatory compliance. The first thing the brand needs to publish is a blog post on the ever-increasing compliance requirements facing small businesses. Once their prospective customers know that compliance is a really big deal and are shaking in their proverbial boots because they think they’re about to get busted…that’s the time for a post explaining the brand’s solution.
The takeaway here is that, whether you’re a subject matter expert or not, the brand wants you to write to a particular audience. If that’s not clear from the content brief, ask. Then write your content accordingly.
They want you to know how to vet a source
Not all sources are created equal. Let’s take Medium as an example. Medium can be fun to read, but since there is no screening process — anyone can publish — there’s no guarantee that information on Medium is valid. I would never link to a Medium article as a source, although I might try to find the same information elsewhere.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind about choosing your sources:
- .edu and .gov sources are among the most reliable. You can feel safe linking to any of these. Even Google approves.
- Try to stick with primary sources. If you need medical information, for example, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, the National Institutes of Health (one of those prized .gov sources!), etc., have more reliable patient-centered content than sites like WebMD or sites that belong to someone with a vested interest, like a pharmaceutical company. And stay away from patient forums. Just because somebody on a forum claims standing on their head while eating a raw onion every day cured them of the disease du jour, that doesn’t make it reliable medical advice.
- Actively look for bias in your sources. Just the other day, I was reading a paper on autism that was professional, scholarly, etc. — everything I look for in a source. Then, at the very end, the author made a comment about “discriminating against” people with autism. The author could have made the same statement from a place of neutrality, but she instead chose a word that showed a lack of objectivity. Even though I agreed with the point she was making, I couldn’t use her paper as an objective source. Bias can be sneaky like that, slipping through without attracting anyone’s attention, which is why you have to actively watch for it.
Brands want you to follow directions
This one is simple, folks. Whether it’s including specific keywords, sourcing royalty-free images, or sticking to a specific word count, just do it.
Brands want you to have their backs.
Everybody makes mistakes, and sometimes brands may ask you for something that would undermine their credibility, like the time a brand asked me to write a blog post on how to prepare for an OSHA inspection (most OSHA inspections are of the “surprise” variety). You can earn lots of brownie points by not letting the brands you work with look stupid.
That’s a lot to remember, but it’s much easier if you keep in mind that it all comes down to business. In fact, you can take all of these tips about what brands want from content writers and sum them up with a simple change in perspective:
Think of yourself as a business owner selling a product (content) to your customers (the brands you write for). Successful business owners focus on what their customers want to buy rather than on what they themselves want to sell.
Are you focusing on the type of content your brands want to buy?
Editor’s Note: this post was written by nDash content community member Patti Podnar. Patti Podnar is the content strategy and marketing half of Podnar Consulting LLC. Her mission is to guide her clients through the process of making sure their content aligns with their business needs. Hire her on nDash.