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June 18, 2012

Quality Content Begins with Quality Research. Period.

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Let’s face it: none of us are experts in multiple subjects. But, when you’re writing content on behalf of other businesses, you have to be. Writing content for business is a mix of diligence, skill, talent, empathy, perceptiveness, art, organization and attention to detail. But you simply cannot, nor should you ever attempt to type one word until you’ve put in your research. Quality content simply can’t exist without research, which is why you should always budget ample time of your writing project for the research portion.Recording Device, Notebook and Writing Utencils

And watch out for content writers who say they can do it faster and cheaper then the next, because you get what you pay for. The time necessary to get into the minds of the audience in an industry that is completely foreign to you, and into the heart of a business you just met takes time.

Today, we’re going to look at how you can mix research and interview questions to get the most out of your writing when you’re creating content on behalf of businesses. The steps outlined here are meant to occur before the initial interview with the client and directly after it. The more legwork you, as the writer, put upfront, the more successful your interviews will be. What becomes of this is Web content that respects your client’s business and their audience, and provides value, not just words.

You Have the Keywords, Now What?

So you’ve talked to the client to get a snapshot of the business and its audience, you’ve put in your keyword research and you have a general idea of topics you need to build out on the company’s website. This is the time when you start thinking about what you’re going say – the content surrounding the keywords.

Sure, you could easily word-vomit 500 words and insert key terms here and there, but that wouldn’t be very good for the client or the end user, now would it? You could also spout off some corporate gobbledygook that just talks about the company, how great it is and the products or services it sells, but again, this is just words on a page.

The way you approach the content you write will greatly impact the end product and its quality. It’s important to not view the pages as just words filling a quota; look at your Web pages as a chance to educate, inform, sell and convert.

Tip: Any time you are looking to cut corners with your content, ask yourself if you have the client and the end user’s best interest at heart.

Start Exploring the Brand

Start reading the client’s website and all its content. What are they currently talking about? Are there missed opportunities with what they’re not saying? What’s important to the company? Create a snapshot of the client as it stands today.

Then, look at the way they use their words – their voice. Get a feel of how they represent themselves. If you have the luxury of working with the client to explore their brand’s voice, this is a great time for you to make note of how they are talking to their audience now.

If you don’t have this luxury, you still need to understand the voice the client is using, so you can begin to match the brand in your writing. But be careful, many businesses default to uber corporate speak because they haven’t yet explored what their brand sounds like. So again, if you can actually assist the client in building a brand voice through its writing moving forward, you’d be doing them a great service.

However, some businesses have already done a branding exercise and can hand over the collateral to you so you can begin writing in their voice right away. Don’t forget to ask for that in your wish list, which we’ll discuss later in this post.

During the initial process of exploring the brand, you’ll begin to have questions about the business. Guess what? If you have questions about the brand, its products or services, other people do, too. Just start jotting down any questions that come to mind. You can organize them later.

This whole process doesn’t need to take days. Depending on the scope of the project, it might just take an hour. The things you do in this step are merely preparing you for the interview process with your client.

Tip: Many businesses have never even thought about what it means to have a brand “voice” – your questionnaire could not only serve as a great exercise for you, but also for your client.

Begin Formulating Interview Questions

The interview is “the money” aspect of the writing process, as in the sweet spot. You might not be an expert in what you’re writing, but you can bet someone on your client’s team is. And tapping into them in a way that gets them to give you exactly what you need to get started developing content is key.

Sometimes it’s the CEO, and sometimes he or she may not want to be involved in the writing process. It’s your job to be an evangelist for the research and interview process. You must be able to relay the value in this component to key stakeholders so you can write quality content.

To get a holistic snapshot of the business, its challenges and opportunities, interview more than one person in various areas of the business. You almost have to do this with larger businesses and content dev projects, where the priorities and messages become more diluted as they expand out from the owner or CEO.

Be prepared that every interview should be different, depending on the client, product, service and industry. The key is in formulating your questions to get the exact information you need from the client.

It’s also a little bit like a college exam; sometimes you want to vary the questions just slightly to elicit a different response. Create questions that get your client thinking in new ways about their business.

When you conduct enough interviews this way, you’ll find that many businesses have never even thought about some of the questions you’re asking. This is when a seemingly simple interview for content development becomes something much more for the business.

Every interview should be custom to the client, but the following are just some of the questions that I almost always ask (always customize the language to the client, its product or service):

  • Why do people need your service/product?
  • Why do people use your service/product?
  • How does your service/product work?
  • What are the common problems that your product or service addresses and how?
  • What are the features, and the benefits of those features (what do the features allow people to do)?
  • Why is your company the best choice for this product or service?
  • What does your audience believe about your company today?
  • What makes people choose your product over service over the competition?
  • What makes people choose the competition over your company?
  • What myths can we dispel surrounding your product or service?
  • Describe your typical customer.
  • What keeps your customers up at night?
  • What’s important to your customer, and how does your brand/product/service become a part of that?

Once you have the answers to these questions, guess what you’ll be doing? Yep, more research. Remember, a little research should be built into the entire writing process from start to finish.

Depending on the scope of the project, see if you can talk directly to customers via a phone survey. Or put together a survey through a service like SurveyMonkey to supplement the information you received from the client. Nobody knows the challenges the brand’s audience faces better than the actual audience. They can also give an unbiased look into how they perceive the company, its products or services.

Tip: If you’re dealing with a larger brand or a small company that’s very active on social media, start seeing what people are saying in the communities and online about the brand. You’ll get additional insight into what’s important to the audience and how they use the company’s products and services.

Create a Materials Wish List for the Client

Your client has collateral that will help you get into the mind of the business and its products or services. After the initial interview, you’ll create a wish list for in-house materials that will help you understand the products, services and company you’re writing on behalf of.Creating a Checklist

It might not be apparent right away to the client what they have to offer you in terms of materials. It’s your job to start asking interviewees after each interview about what materials they have, and have a cheat sheet you can prompt them with – white papers, ebooks, in-house documentation, press releases, brochures, emails to customers, proposals, case studies, etc., etc.

Sometimes you have to be creative; for example, if you’re trying to get a feel of the culture because you’re writing content for the “About Us” section on a website, you might go to the human resources department. There, you might find they have an internal awards program no one mentioned before.

Of course, the wish list portion is much simpler when you’re dealing with small businesses. But, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need no matter what size the project or client. In the end, your client will thank you for it.

Tip: You can never have too much information from the client. Some of it you may never use, but you need to create a library for every client that essentially brings you up to speed (as best you can) with the level of knowledge of those who have worked there for years.

Being a good content writer for the Web and for businesses requires that you be a sleuth, a journalist, a researcher. And it doesn’t mean that the scope of the project has to keep getting bigger and bigger. It means you must build the research into the project from the beginning, and then deliver such great content that the client wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.





11 responses to “Quality Content Begins with Quality Research. Period.”

  1. Michelle writes:

    Jessica, I could not have said this better myself. This is absolutely true: “And watch out for content writers who say they can do it faster and cheaper then the next, because you get what you pay for.” I’d rather have a writer take two hours to write 500 well-researched, substantive, engaging words than half an hour to write content-mill-grade fluff. This is an excellent post that should be required reading for both writers and the businesses that want to hire them.

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Well, thank you, Michelle! My pet peeve right now is all those content “factories” springing up and promising quality content that totally falls short. You’re right — just like many other misunderstood disciplines, this is another area where education is critical. Thanks for weighing in on this, Michelle.

  3. Michelle Lowery writes:

    Absolutely. Once again, you and I are completely simpatico! :-) I think it’s a shame that many writers look at content creation as just a way to earn a paycheck, so the faster they can do it, the more they’ll make. I see the need to write about topics with which I’m unfamiliar as an opportunity to educate myself. I’ve learned some really interesting things through writing for clients!

  4. Brad Dalton writes:

    I base my content on my own personal experience.

    How can you tell a story based on research you get from the internet?

    In some ways it goes totally against the spirit of blogging as your ideas as based on content already published rather then fresh, original content based on your own testing.

    There’s far too much of the same ideas rewritten over and over again.

    And there;s far too much of, we link to you, you link to us going on as well.

  5. Raymond writes:

    Completely Agree with you Jessica! I generate my content not only just through research but also I tend to ask few reliable people on the topics I’m about to write. Books and internet are real resources but I believed actual experiences are the best part of nay content.

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hey Brad,

    Story telling is my favorite thing right now for businesses. I think this is how you connect with your readers. If you have personal experience that can relate to the topic, awesome. Sometimes we’re not so lucky, so we have to dig deep into the mind’s of our clients and tell their stories for them, right?

    Thanks for your comment!

    Jessica

  7. Andrew Kra writes:

    Those example client interview questions are awesome – they should be necessity, not a nice-to-have (or nice-to-do).

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Raymond, thanks and definitely! I’ve always believed you can’t write until you’ve lived. But in business writing, it’s a little different unless you’ve had hands-on experience. It’s awesome when you can actually embed yourself into a company and watch, listen, etc. to get a feel of what really goes on. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Andrew — Thanks so much; I hope they help you in your writing endeavors! Let me know how it has helped if you use them. :) Thanks for the comment!

  10. Jon @ ECP writes:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Too often, SEOs get caught up in technical, on-page optimization techniques and leave the most important aspect, content, to the very end of the process. Performing a quality content analysis of your client’s site, and following up with extensive research provides a detailed look at what the client is lacking, and what needs improving content-wise. Using services like content-mills should never replace honest, in depth research. The fact of the matter is that no matter how perfectly optimized your website is, if your content is lacking, other sites have no incentive to link to you.

  11. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hey Jon,

    Thanks for weighing in. I agree with you — and SEOs shouldn’t necessarily be the content person. I think that’s where some businesses make mistakes. Let the more technical SEOs do what they do best in preparation for the content development aspect of the project. Agree?

    Have a great weekend,

    Jessica



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