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BACK TO BASICS: Tackle SEO Web Content Writing with Ease

by Jessica Lee, April 15, 2010

That old tyrannical king: content. Like it or not, Web content (ahem, relevant and useful Web content) is one of the key components in a holistic SEO strategy — and it's also one of the most feared.

Countless people have sat, motionless, staring at the blank screen in front of them, wondering how to muster up the words to write just one 450-word Web page, let alone an entire site. From seasoned writers to business owners, writing relevant Web site content can be an overwhelming task for anyone.

This is where a repeatable process comes in handy. If you're a writer who's writing content on behalf of your client or company, try creating one or more "standard" questionnaires that cover the basics of the brand and its community. Then, you can tailor it to each new product or service when it's interview time.

If you're not a writer but the Web site is yours, you hold the knowledge on the company, product or service. So, Web content writing starts with you. Not to fear, many business owners find this exercise eye-opening and extremely beneficial to future marketing and sales plans.

To lay a solid foundation for tackling content, time and time again:

  • Create a questionnaire that identifies the most important aspects of the product, service or company upfront. This helps you connect with the appropriate audience and position the brand in the best light possible.
  • Gather information and create copy in a way that's manageable and anticipates challenges. If you're not the expert on the topic, get to know how your interviewees work so you can be efficient in obtaining the info you need.

Use Questionnaires to Identify the Brand

Start thinking about the company, product or service holistically. Create a document with lists of questions dedicated to covering the most important issues. As mentioned in last month's feature, "Building a Brand with Your Online Voice," your copy should uphold your brand's personality.

Create a questionnaire that delves into the brand as a whole. Whether you're starting a site from scratch or adding fresh content, the following is a list of just some of the categories you might want to create lists of questions for:

  • The company, product or service background and history
  • Market trends and opportunities
  • The target audience(s) and its behaviors
  • Competitive analysis
  • Features, benefits and performance of the product or service
  • Tone and personality of the brand
  • The key messages the brand should convey

Client and Project Management for Writers

Step 1: Get to Know Your Expert

Once you have a questionnaire that aims to paint a clear picture of the brand, its product or service and audience, you can start formulating a process for gathering info. And because you'll be working with a myriad of personalities, this step can be anything but concrete.

After a while, however, you'll start to understand how different people work and apply best practices for each type. Flexibility is key; keep in mind you're dealing with non-writers and professionals who likely have an entirely different agenda.

Find a rhythm with your expert(s) and identify the best ways to extract knowledge. A lengthy questionnaire can be met with some resistance, so try not to overwhelm the interviewee by figuring out what works best for him or her.

Some experts prefer to be interviewed in person, tackling the entire questionnaire at once, while other might like to do it in segments. Some may want the questionnaire in digital format to complete as homework and return on a specific due date, while others might prefer to return chunks of info over a period of time.

The key is to build a nice pad into the content-creation timeline dedicated strictly to this step in the process because each person is different. Once due dates are determined, keep your expert(s) abreast of deadlines to come. A big chunk of the writing process is learning how to manage time and people.

Step 2: Establish a Reliable Means of Communication

You're sure to have the need for follow-up conversations to clarify the expert's answers and further probe. Even if you're a great interviewer, questions can arise as you're organizing the information you've gathered.

It's essential to find out what type of communication your expert(s) responds to (e.g., e-mail versus phone versus in person) and what days and times they're likely to respond (availability and responsiveness are not the same thing!).

Finding the opportunities to connect with your experts and making it as simple as possible for them to give you information is vital. If you don't establish the interviewee's behavior ahead of time, you may find yourself at a standstill because you simply can't connect.

Step 3: Create a Sample of Your Work

Write a sample copy of the content for the product, company or service by creating a mock page for the client's Web site. This is something you can show to the client prior to tackling the entire project, to ensure you're on the right track.

The sample content will show your expert(s) that you understand the brand, what it's about, its personality, its key messages and benefits, its target audience and more. Then, have the client sign off on the overall concept. If all parties are on the same page right off the bat, it can save you from scrapping content you've poured your heart into in the end (notice I didn't say will save you from scrapping content).

It's also a good idea to get the expert's sign off on each document or interview you conduct so everything is predictable. Having approval on big-picture concepts ensures that the direction is clear. This documentation can be helpful to clear up any confusion that may arise down the road on behalf of the writer or the interviewee.

Of course, you have an obligation to make sure you clearly understand what the expert is trying to convey before anything is set in stone. And, you must also ensure the client is happy with the end product. That's why a sample page of content can be so important.

Tackling Content for Non-Writers

If you're a business owner, you'll need to become a temporary journalist to answer the questions you've formulated. Some of the steps outlined for writers above can apply to your situation as well. If you have a network you can tap into for extracting the info you need, great. If you have employees or colleagues that can help you tackle this step, even better.

Identify the people in your network who can assist in answering your questions. Break up the categories by their areas of expertise. For example, someone on your sales team might know more about who your target audience is than you. Or, a peer in the industry might be able to help you figure out your competitive advantage.

Once you're ready to start writing, create a timeline and build it into your daily responsibilities. Divide the total word count (assuming you want at least one page of 450 words) by the time that you have to do it in. Then, commit to reaching that word count daily.

Don't worry about editing your work initially. Just write. Ideas need to flow freely, and you can build in some time at the end of the process to proof and edit. Perhaps you have a group of colleagues who can help by reviewing and making suggestions along the way.

Remember, You Can't Always Tame the Beast

In writing, there are certain aspects that a repeatable model simply can't address. That's why it's important to document what's worked in the past and draw upon it for specific scenarios.

Whether you're a writer or business owner, the key to content creation is to make the process manageable. Recognizing you have to wear many different hats throughout the process helps. Sometimes you put your journalist hat on, other times you change into your project management cap.

And once you've gone through this process, you're now an expert on the product, service or company. You have a foundation to refer back to each time you need to create copy for the company's Web site. Share this newfound knowledge with your Web designers, SEOs, sales team and more. It's as much of a branding exercise as it is a writing project.

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