If you’re writing blog posts, or any kind of copy, on behalf of a client, you need to know them so well that you can (quite literally) finish their sentences. As an outside writer, it’s a hard but necessary task. Great writers are plentiful, but writing in someone else’s voice – even a company’s voice – is the real challenge. I compare it to a comic doing impressions. (Or maybe that’s just my excuse to classify watching SNL as “research”.) Someone like Dana Carvey carefully studies the quirks and habits of how an entity presents itself. Sure it’s about the words they say, but it’s also about how and why they say them.
There’s a ton of research to do before you start writing, so let’s get to it!
Does Your Client Have A Content Strategy?
A content strategy is a the primary resource for anyone creating content across communication channels. When established and used correctly, it weaves multiple channels together (social media, SEO, PPC, email marketing, etc.) The research on who you’re writing for, what to write, why you’re writing it, where it goes and when it’s published, has been done. So it’s up to the writer to fall in line, creatively speaking.
Think of all the brands you know that you can actually visualize. You could describe their audience, and you could pick one of their images out of a lineup. One employee could be writing everything: the email newsletters, tweets, blog posts, etc. It probably isn’t one person, but feeling like it is the same person is a way to tell that they are nailing their content strategy.
How About A Style Guide?
Style guides are a useful resource if they have them. But if we’re being honest, most of them lack creative inspiration. Especially if they weren’t written with you, the outside writer, in mind. This happens more often than you’d think. Style guides always include font choices, color schemes and rules for grammar and mechanics, but rarely include anything about who the company really is. What’s their personality? If they were a person, how would you describe them?
Do The Brand Research Yourself
No content strategy? No style guide? Aka starting from scratch? Then you’ll need to do some digging to get to the core of who they are. The following three exercises are my personal favorites. If you’re in a pinch, these can be done in the absence of any existing content guidelines.
1. Send A Questionnaire
Keep a basic template handy, but always edit it to be company-specific. Include anything that might get them to think beyond sentence structure, and reveal more about the company’s personality. Ask the questions that will bring the most value. Questions like:
- What are some words [Company] would never say?
- If [Company] was a person, how would you describe their personality?
- Imagine [Company] is on the cover of a magazine next year. What magazine? And why are they there?
- How should people feel after reading/interacting with this content?
You can either send it to them to fill out (15 minutes max.) or get them on the phone and take notes.
2. Discover Their Language
Make a spreadsheet with 4 columns: Verbs, Adjectives, Nouns and Phrases.
Look through previous content they’ve published. Ask them if there are any samples that speak to who they are – otherwise just look at recently updated copy. Fill out the spreadsheet until a clear voice starts to come through.
You might be thinking, why not just generate a word cloud? I find this exercise more useful than a word cloud, because through researching and categorizing everything myself, I can view the words nestled in their natural habitat, rather than isolated.
Here’s a quick language discovery I just did for a favorite brand of mine, Huckberry. Can you get a feel for the way they write?
3. Research Their Audience
Figure out the company’s relationship with their audience. How do they interact with them and speak to them? What does the audience think of the company? How does the company communicate with their audience? What kind of rapport do they have? The good news is, social media takes a lot of the guesswork away. People will straight up tell companies how they make them feel. Use your internet stalking method of choice to find out their interests, location, hobbies, who else they follow, and their general way of living life. Or let a tool like Followerwonk do the digging for you. What a time to be alive!
Now Present Your Work
Once you have your piece written, don’t just hand it over the fence. You’ve done all this research, so you might as well show it to them! And be sure to include the rationale behind it. The above exercises are just scratching the surface, whereas a fully considered content strategy presents a holistic picture of exactly what to say, when to say it, how and to whom. Put it this way: if writing with these methods is like your friend doing a passable Borat impression, then writing with a content strategy is like Tina Fey’s Palin. The stuff of legend.