Ahhh, the good old dayz.
Back in the Summer of ‘09, you could stretch, sit down, and pretty much write whatever the hell came to your head first.
A few hundred words of pretty surface-level stuff, no images or citations required, throw in a simple text link to your product/service, and watch your Internet ATM machine run wild.
Unfortunately, those days are long, long, loooooooooooooooooooooooong gone.
Today, “good enough,” isn’t.
Average content fails today because there’s too much competition, the SERPs are too competitive, and table stakes for quality continue to rise. (Peep our free training for the full story.)
The result is that today, if you have any hopes or dreams of ranking for anything remotely commercial (read: competitive) online, your content can’t just be “well written” – it also needs to be laser-focused on search intent (or what people expect to find when they hit your article).
Here’s how to create a killer content brief, and how to scale the content brief template process across all the content you publish.
Do you need a content brief for each piece of writing?
Asking if you need a content brief for each piece of writing is a little bit like asking if you should wine and dine with a bottle of red, slow jamz, rose petals, and massage oil on Valentine’s Day.
Technically, you don’t need to.
But it sure as hell helps!
Two critical points to reference to set the stage, helpfully explained in detail by our friend Andy Crestodina over at Orbit Media Studios:
And some TLDR nutshelling for the time-deprived:
The first link highlights that what used to work back in the good old dayz, no longer does. The people that report the best content marketing strategy successes today are also doing the things that others don’t like to – spending more time per post, writing longer, publishing more frequently, using more mixed media like illustrations or videos, incorporating influencers, etc. etc.
The second link expands on how Big Daddy G’ is getting surprisingly and somewhat-disturbingly better at inferring intent. That’s a fancy way of saying they can basically read your mind. They know when you type one thing, what you actually want to see, even if it’s not super clear.
“Engineer salaries,” for instance, could refer to civil, industrial, electrical, or software engineers. BUT, based on your past browsing history and patterns of search, they already know exactly which one you mean and can tailor the results to answer you more effectively.
All of this happens in the background without you really knowing. Kinda also like how Alexa is also listening in the background when you argue with your kids or are trying to implement the aforementioned Quarantine Seduction Playbook on the significant other. (Nerdy marketers love their playbooks!)
This evolution of search means that the best content today should follow a familiar pattern if it’s going to have any chance of ranking. You actually WANT your content to at least follow themes across the best stuff already ranking, in terms of overall article structure, topics being mentioned, questions being answered, and more.
So there’s a fine line.
Yes, this sort of competitive benchmarking can lead to a bunch of watered-down copycatting where everything kinda looks and sounds exactly the same.
But no, it doesn’t have to.
The trick to walking this tightrope is through (1) hiring better writers. C’mon, they’re the people who’re actually putting pen to paper at the end of the day. Average writers often will just “rephrase” (read: plagiarize”) whatever is already out there ranking.
After all, I don’t write in this choppy, borderline psychotic way, casually dropping inappropriate references or circular inside jokes just to amuse myself. (Well, actually I do.)
I also do it so that these pieces will stand WAY outside all the other generic crap you’re going to read on the same topic. You might not like it all the time. But you sure as hell should remember it.
Except (2) better content briefs come in a distant second, because they allow you to make sure whatever content creator you do use can “stay in the lines” enough to rank well, but still have enough freedom to express themselves and make pieces stand out.
And that’s ultimately why content briefs aren’t just “nice to have” anymore.
They’re absolutely essential. And they’re the best way to future-proof potential content failure, not just resulting in higher quality across the board, but also making sure your content investment won’t be spent in vain.
What should be included in a content brief? (hint: it’s not what you think)
Quick. Take a step back.
Before opening that new “content brief template” Google Doc you’re about to, think through this from a high-level perspective.
What information will searchers actually want to find when they search for any particular query.
After all, this is the crux of everything else. You don’t get semantic topics to include until you consider the basic question of questions (that your buyer persona is asking).
If search engines are stealing your privacy getting better at understand what you mean, and displaying that information, then it stands to reason that the SERPs are already telling you exactly what these questions include.
Take an example like “what is compound interest,” which could go in a million different directions, and start by looking at what questions are hiding in plain sight:
Just this very basic level of effort is often enough for moderately-difficult keywords. However, if you’re a classic overachiever, you can get a little more sophisticated with content optimization tools. (After all, this creative brief template is ultimately what has the great impact on content optimization at the end of the day.)
Open up the MarketMuse Question app, drop in your target keyword, and watch more examples flood onto your screen. Type in “content planning” and you’ll start to see similar themes being asked:
- Was the message poorly conveyed at a higher level?
- When they get to the end of the piece, what do you want the reader to do?
- Will you measure the success of this piece?
- Publication details (in other words, where will the content appear)?
- How aware is the target audience of the topic under discussion?
And on and on. This tool is essentially replicating the same process that search engines are going through: predicting what someone is specifically looking for when they search for something.
Jumping back to Google SERP examples, you can also use search suggestions, like when you start searching for something and Google will try to answer it in real-time. The more specific your keyword, the more accurately the suggestions will be:
Last but not least, scroll alllllllllllll the way down until you see “Related Searches” towards the bottom of the page.
Notice the clever color coding here to bucket certain terms together that will help me
humbly expertly setup my next point:
Remember: your job isn’t to write like a robot. You don’t want writers to write like robots, either. So part of this content brief process is to create unique article templates that will help writers naturally flow from one section to another, while still providing a thorough, comprehensive piece of content.
So here’s an example of how you could use those color-coded groupings above to break down into article subheadings for a “How to Make Iced Coffee” blog post:
- Orange: How to make fast, easy, instant iced coffee in less than 60 seconds
- Green: The budget-friendly way to make Starbucks-worthy content at-home with your Keurig
- Pink: How to make iced coffee on-the-go without ice or a blender
I know, I know. You and I might agree that Starbucks iced coffee is awful. (Although, in fairness, it’s better than their regular hot coffee.)
But that’s also the point. It don’t matter what you or I think. It don’t matter what your content creator thinks, either.
If that’s what people are searching for, and that’s what Google thinks they want to read, then shut up and give it to ‘em!
Here’s another way to get more granular with the same exercise, jumping back into MarketMuse Questions app:
In this instance, you could still organize a similar article in a different way:
- How do you make iced coffee (and how is it different than iced lattes)?
- How to make coffee ice cubes so you don’t water down your iced coffee
- What is cold brew (and why is it better than iced coffee)?
- The best 10 Amazon coffee brands to use for your iced coffee or cold brew
See that? Compare the two article article structures. Completely different.
Yet, you’re able to largely cover the same ground. Either wouldn’t look out of place on an ad-supported site or affiliate site, or even an individual brand site. You could easily tie both angles back to your method of monetization. And there’s still enough overlap to still answer what people are looking for, include all of your semantic topics, etc. etc.
Semantic keywords are simply an extension of these questions. If you think of reusing questions to help create your article structure, semantic keywords are like the sub-topics that should appear under each section.
Again, there are no shortage of tools here to reference. But I’ll keep showing my normal process with MarketMuse. When planning new content, I like to use their Compete tab to get a feel for (a) the best content currently ranking and (b) any potential structure or gaps the competition might be missing.
Here’s what I mean:
I can quickly open and read through the best content by sorting through the ones with the highest content scores (NOT necessarily the best ranking, because that could be due to other factors outside of content’s control – like site authority, brand, off-site SEO strength, number of referring domains to that page, and so on).
BUT, I’m also seeing some big content gaps down below with both “Japanese iced coffee” and “ice cream” that almost none of the competitors are talking about. Granted, these are lower on the totem-pole of semantic importance. However, it’s still useful to know that my competitors aren’t talking about them at all.
Bonus tip 1: If you’re really paying attention, you’ll also notice a question in the preceding example about “what is vietnamese iced coffee.” So together with these “Japanese iced coffee” and even “ice cream” gaps, you could add a few new sections that none of the top ranking content is really doing a good job answering.
Bonus tip 2: Which will THEN help give you a unique point of differentiation when trying to promote this article to get eyeballs on social media or embark on influencer marketing or links from other sites writing about iced coffee. You’ve got new stuff that will make this content appeal to new niche audiences that the current competitors can’t match. (Until they do and copy your success, which is a topic for another day.)
All of this research is how you should know what should be included in your content brief. You can create a rough outline of the article you’re going to write, from the questions you’re going to answer, to the subheadings you’ll use, and down to the actual semantic topics your target audience wants to read.
Here’s a rough content marketing brief draft from a previous article I wrote, at this exact point in time before fleshing out the full outline:
How to create scalable content brief templates to produce hundreds of articles each month
Alright, so you’ve done some preliminary research.
You know (more or less) what people want to see, and you kinda/sorta now understand how to create article structures for content briefs so they won’t result in generic crap that your competitors are already using.
Now, let’s up the ante.
One-off content is fine. It’s good. You need it. But publishing a handful of pieces each month ain’t gonna put you over seven or eight-figure monthly revenues.
What you need is a scalable project, baby.
Which means you need to figure out how to create a content brief template that won’t just apply for one piece, but hundreds at a single time.
(Why? Resource allocation. Cost per article comes down to time per article. Shaving off ~20 minutes here or there, across hundreds of articles each month, equates to MASSIVE cost savings, and therefore more that can be plowed into your content production machine to out-acquire the competition.)
Let’s circle back to finance examples, because it’s one of the most competitive spaces on the ‘net. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Peep these two Investopedia article examples below, side by side. Check out the Table of Contents. Notice anything familiar about them?
Two different keywords, but largely the same article structure. Congrats. This just became your “definition” or “term” content brief template structure. Simply rephrasing the same basic subheadings provides flexibility for each term you’re going to tackle, but it largely standardizes (a necessity to scale anything) your content structure.
- What is [Keyword A]
- How does [keyword A] work?
- How to find [Keyword A]
- [Keyword A] vs. [Keyword B]
- Examples of [Keyword A]
- Types of [Keyword A]
Now. Keep going.
If you have this content brief template and the structure pretty much set, you can also standardize every other aspect of these articles.
- The types of information
- Word count per section
- Semantic terms to include
- Images/visuals to use to illustrate
Standardizing these elements also mean it’s easier to use additional creative assets for everything from images for your design brief, to video scripts for your on-air talent, to a social copywriting brief for your promoters.
Writers, earmuffs for this next bit.
The cold-hard, money money reasons for creating content brief templates like this is primarily to drive down your creative team unit costs (read: both hard writer cost per piece and soft costs related to editing, production, and more) while at the same time driving up output and quality.
- Get less expensive writers to produce more, higher-quality
- Increase consistency across all writers (successfully go from a few to dozens)
- Reduce risk of content project investment not performing (rank faster & better than without it)
- Speed up your QA and formatting internally (remove inconsistency across editors)
Real-world content brief example: How we produce 300+ articles/month across dozens of writers
All of this sounds like a lot of work. Because it is.
But the good news is that none of this is theoretical.
We do it across hundreds of articles each month and across teams of writers each month for some of the biggest sites on the ‘net.
So let’s walkthrough a real content brief example so you can see exactly how this works in real life (unlike that faux marketing influencer bullshit you read on other sites).
Step #1. Fight fights you can win with good keyword research
Some things never change.
Good content briefs start with good keyword research. Because you shouldn’t fight fights you can’t win. There is no try, only do.
So don’t bother with content briefs for content pieces for keywords or SERPs that you have no business winning.
Tip: Based on your relative site strength, apply a volume minimum inside ahrefs along with a keyword difficulty cap so you can zero-in on related keywords that you can actually compete for in the next six months.
Bonus points if the content ranking for these keywords can follow the same overall content brief template, like these:
Step #2. Based your creative brief on search intent + point of view
If you skimmed the first few sections of this obnoxiously-long article, shame on you.
Are you not entertained?
But srsly, go back and read them now pretty please. They largely explain how to find the information to include in your content briefs.
Here, we’ll just provide some additional insight for context.
Many of your favorite content optimization tools are beginning to use human + AI to help automate the content brief creation process. The most thorough at this point are probably MarketMuse reports, that essentially re-create all of the manual research we’ve done so far to lay out exactly how subheadings should look, along with semantic keywords for each section and also internal or external links to include. Here’s a small sample of one brief section:
I like these, and I don’t.
The benefits are obvious. The information is largely legit. And this results in less work for you for your content strategist. It’s amazing to have this level of detail done by machines.
The bad part is that they tend to be overly prescriptive, which can lead to super formulaic content, which can result in generic copy-cat crap from content creators.
(Again, real talk. We assign, review, and edit hundreds of articles each month. We’ve seen this play out time and time again across clients, teams, sites, and projects.)
ALSO, they can be (a) an unnecessary delay or (b) cost prohibitive at high volumes.
So use them for the most competitive keywords, for sure. But just be sure to still apply some human touch to add nuance and style before shipping it out the door to your writers.
OTHERWISE, here’s how you can start bridging the gap of search engine research + AI machines + marketing know-how to arrive at a content brief template:
People might disagree, but I’m a big believer in the old PAS copywriting formula for each and every article angle. (Remember: the topic is what you’re writing about, the angle is your unique spin or point of view on it that hopefully sets it apart from everything else out there.)
I also believe that spending the time to flesh out the Pain and then Agitate it will help the reader actually understand the gravity or importance of the Solution.
In other words: if you just try to race for the finish line out of the gate, you’re gonna leave a lot of lovers and readers disatassified. It’s only when you warm them up a little bit, teasing and titillating, that the ultimate payoff becomes more pleasurable.
(Readers, who lack problem or need awareness, won’t give a flying F about the “solution” your article proposes. It’s only when this pain becomes real that they do or will.)
Step #3. Flesh out your content briefs to prep your content planning project
Content planning (not content strategy) is the art and science of figuring out how you’re going to scale a ton of revenue-generating content through awesome systems, processes, and teams.
It’s one of those things that’s conceptually straightforward to understand. Sounds easy on the surface. But the devil is always in the details.
Try doing it and see how easy it gets.
Go read that content planning guide I wrote about for more details. Or allow me to skip to the end so you can see what your content planning should result in:
Let’s focus-in on columns 5-8 for our purposes of creating a content brief template.
5. Content Brief: This is the doc URL where we’ll add content briefs for each piece, or content templates that apply for multiple pieces, in due time.
6. Video URL: If this is a new content template or style, I like to make sure we’re including a quick overview video so writers know the overall goals, objectives we’re trying to hit, and any other relevant context.
7. Benchmark: These should be your example articles your writers can reference. These can be external examples that are the best SERP competitors you’re targeting, or internal examples based on other similar blog post outlines that this post will follow.
8. Semantic Keywords: If you’re not providing writers with semantic keywords already specified inside each section of your content brief (which can become hard at scale), try to provide them with an external list of these, or through a writing link from Clearscope or SurferSEO, etc. The writer should ideally know these before they ever start writing and then be able to cross-reference through the content creation part. Don’t rely on editors to try and reverse-engineer all this work after the fact.
Content marketing today is too hard.
Your competitors are smarter, their writers are better, and your funds aren’t unlimited.
That means you can’t afford to miss.
You can’t afford to create shoddy content on topics that you have no business ranking for. If your content never sees the light of day on Page 1… why did you even bother investing in it? Might as well try a different channel or medium.
Content briefs help you avoid this, giving your articles the structure required to compete on crowded SERPs. And yet, at the same time specifying how writers can create something that’s different (enough) to stand out so you can get some eyeballs, clicks, and links.
So measure twice, cut once.
Taking a little extra time and research to arm writers with killer content briefs can literally be the difference between success and failure in the hyper-competitive landscape that is content marketing today.