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Best Practices

12 Steps to Master Content Writing and Drive the Customer Value Journey

By Andrew on August, 17 2020

We’ve broken down all of the essential to-do’s to help you, the content writer, go from head-scratching writer’s block to a compelling storyteller with an SEO superpower.  

How do you get there? 

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Before ever putting proverbial pen to paper, you need to plan -- determining your audience, developing a content roadmap, defining your topic clusters and a process for generating ideas.

Only after can you thoughtfully write -- keeping story, tone, structure, and intent in mind with every word.

To bring it all home (and into the homes/offices/etc. of wherever your target audience may be), you must optimize -- a tactical, thorough SEO strategy is the difference between your content being a party for one and playing to a sold out stadium.

 

Why is SEO such a critical aspect of content writing? In short, because it’s the essential framework for all of the content you create. It’s also the behind-the-scenes data that offers detailed insight into what we call the “customer value journey,” or the process of conveying value to your customers at each stage of their buyer’s journey. (Learn more about the Customer Value Journey here).

Think of SEO as the tablespoon of baking powder for your loaf of bread; even if you have the best homemade recipe for the tastiest sourdough on the planet, without a rising agent, those ingredients will sit flat, unwanted, and uneaten.

SEO has a reputation for being an undefined magic but cracking its code is as simple as knowing the most efficient way to target attainable keywords and phrases that complement your brand and using them to proactively answer your potential customers’ questions.

In the below 12 steps, we’ve distilled our battle-tested best practices into a content writing playbook that can help you create the most compelling, effective, and high-converting content possible. If you’re brand new to content writing, consider this a go-to starter’s guide.

And if you’re an old pro, this is a fresh reminder of the basics we all need to understand and conquer to speak to the broadest possible audience.

 

PLANNING

 

Here’s something seemingly counterintuitive -- to be the most effective content writer possible, you’ll spend significantly less time writing than you will planning and researching what to write.

But that’s not something exclusive to our medium: screenwriters in Hollywood will often spend months planning, ideating, and discussing what to write and only a few weeks actually writing their script.

Likewise, having a thoughtful, long-term content strategy can elevate your content from potential box office flop to Oscar-nominated. Below we’ve broken down the handful of simple steps you can follow to plan strategically and effectively.

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1) Storytelling & Characters: Why Your Business Needs Them

 
Wait, wasn’t the Hollywood analogy just an example? You actually have a lot more in common with the screenwriters of LaLa Land than you realize.
 
The nucleus of every piece of content you produce for your business is story and character, same as the Oscar winners.
 
Why? Because whether you’re writing about Spider-Man, contextual marketing, or dentistry, the most compelling content in any medium has to create an emotional connection with your audience. That’s the starting point for any form of engagement, and has remained the most sure-fire way to attract listeners, viewers, or visitors since storytelling began.
 
In this case, the story you’re telling is your brand’s. Think granularly about what exactly your brand represents. What is its history, its intent, its meaning? What does it stand for? What does it want to say, do, or accomplish? What value does it bring? Who is it for? 
 
Content writing is nothing more than brand storytelling, and people are always more drawn to brands they feel an emotional connection to, even if that connection is slight or subconscious.
 
As an example, think about Coca Cola. What emotions and connections do you feel when you think of their brand? Happy and fun summer BBQ’s? Days at the pool? Think of brands you have connections to. What emotions or connections do you have and why?
 
The characters you’re writing for are your visitors, identities that you need to clearly define and cater to. In movies, these are your protagonists, the featured actors on your theatrical poster. 
In marketing, they’re called your customer personas and they're stars of your future hit “Understanding the Customer Value Journey.”
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2) The Customer Value Journey: Determining Your Audience & Customer Personas

Put more colloquially, “read the room.”

Understanding who you’re speaking, writing, or performing to is crucial for any form of storytelling, whether it’s a script or a water cooler anecdote. Content needs to be catered, and that can only happen once you have a firm grasp on who your audience is and the types of stories that will elicit an emotional response at various stages of their customer value journey.

And we mean “know your audience” quite literally, because determining who they are as a broad group will illustrate who your customers are as individuals.

Customer personas, or profiles of potential customers compatible with your brand, constitute your audience, and you’ll conceptualize these just like you would the characters of a script. 

Who are they? Where do they live, what do they like? Do they have a family? What is their income and educational background? Write a list or a couple of paragraphs on who they are as people and write your content as if it were a direct conversation with them.

What stories will they react to? What are they attracted to? What will generate a feeling or an emotional interest that compels them to engage with you?

At the end of the day, everything you write needs to speak directly to them.

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3) Developing a Content Strategy Roadmap & Calendar

 

Here’s where the strategy comes into play.

A single, well-optimized piece of content only offers your brand a limited amount of exposure, but that's one small battle in the larger war of building trust with your audience and site authority with search engines. 

Content development and output is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that needs to be an everyday element of your business’ marketing efforts.

To keep you honest, on-time, and within the bounds of your predetermined output goals, it’s essential to create a content roadmap detailing the topics your content will cover, how those topics establish your business as a trustworthy source of thought-leading content, how all your content relates to each other, and whether the intention of each piece is to educate or convert.


Content Calendar Screenshot

 

Similarly, you need a reliable calendar that holds you and your team accountable and keeps your content output on a consistent and well-balanced track. Detail precisely the topic, length, and intention of each piece, which stage of the customer value journey it relates to (Awareness, Consideration, or Decision), and when it will be published to various platforms.

This strict planning in advance will solidify your business as a reliable source of fresh, engaging content and afford you the creative capacity to focus strictly on writing when the time comes.

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4) Develop Topic Clusters & Pillar Pages

 
In conjunction with your content roadmapping and calendar creation,  developing topic clusters and pillar pages are a couple of additional best practices for keeping your content focussed and relevant.
 
Topic clusters are almost exactly as they sound: collections of subjects or themes your content covers.
 
Typically, this involves an overarching central subject. Considering we’re a digital marketing agency, an example for Estes Media would be “Local SEO NJ,” a broad anchor topic that encapsulates an array of other subtopics that our future content can cover in more detail, such as “Content Writing,” “Brand Development,” and “Customer Value Journey."
 
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Organizing your content into clusters ensures that you cover all of your brand’s topical bases while creating an organized web of supplemental content, each piece supporting and linking to others off of a larger, fundamental pillar page. 
 
Pillar pages are foundational pieces of content that serve as anchors to your subtopics. These are extensive pieces that cover a number of topics from a high level, offering smaller overviews that you can then expound on in smaller posts or pages. It’s a gateway for your audience to get a sampler platter of your content before deciding on the main course, and it establishes your topic relevance in the eyes of both your audience and Google.
 
Your topic clusters should be the guiding light of your content strategy and calendar, and your pillar pages are the ballasts for your most important, engaging, and relevant pieces of content.
 
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5) Establish a Process for Generating Ideas

 
You’ve determined who you’re writing for, the subjects you’ll cover, and when you’ll publish your content. But to tie everything together, you and your team need a reliable process for generating ideas.
 
Interview colleagues, industry peers, or people who fit the profile of your customer personas. Have regularly scheduled brainstorming sessions with your team to hash out different ideas, inspire one another, and discuss the elements of your business you should be focussing more on.
 
If you’re working solo, read as many blog posts and comparable web pages as you can to get an idea of how you can fill gaps other writers haven’t covered as thoroughly, or to get a sense of how the highest ranking pieces of content are written and constructed to earn them a first page spot on Google.
 
Find as many sources of inspiration as possible and be diligent in getting a thorough understanding of the existing, leading content of your topic, how you can emulate its most successful elements while offering your own unique spin, and identifying areas where you have the opportunity to offer more perspective or details than your potential competitors.
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6) Plan Each Post

 
To tie it all together, make sure each and every piece of content you’re producing has a defined plan.
 
When will you brainstorm the topic of a post and when does it need to be decided? What is the intent of each post and what response are you trying to elicit from your reader?
 
Who will write the first draft and subsequent drafts and when is each version due? Who will edit and when are their last revisions due? When is the deliverable due, and once everyone has signed off, where will you publish and when? 
 
In our digital marketing example, we need to have a detailed plan of who is writing, editing, and delivering our “Local SEO NJ” pillar post and when, in addition to having assigned roles and deadlines for our other subtopics like “Customer Value Journey.
 
Plan Your Content
 
We find it easiest to think of each post as a meal. You’ve decided who you’ll be cooking for and the kinds of foods they like. You know when you’re going to cook for them, how much food you’ll make, and where you’ll be serving it. You’ve picked the perfect recipe, done all of your grocery shopping, solicited whatever help and assigned whatever supporting roles in the kitchen you may need. You’ve prepared every utensil, preheated your appliances, and selected every little whisk or spice you may need along the way.
 
The table is set and your guests are ready, waiting, and hungry.
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WRITING

 

And cook with gas you shall!

You can dive into actually writing your content once and for all, but to do so as effectively as possible, there are a handful of elements you need to keep in mind. The content of what you’re sharing with your audience is massively important, but equally so is how you convey your message. 

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7) Content Writing Tones & “Professional Colloquialism”

 
Deciding a content writing tone that matches your brand, complements your content’s purpose and audience, and relates to the  appropriate part of the customer value journey is crucial in ensuring your message is impactful.
 
Generally speaking LinkedIn is a platform for professionals and networkers, therefore the content  you create is best served by a more formal, skillful tone.
 
Conversely, content for Instagram likely has more room for characterful, light, or funny posts. Obviously there aren’t black and white tonal rules, but it’s a good way to start framing the exact voice each post or piece of content should adopt.
 
Content on your website obviously needs to match your brand (if you’re creating a landing page for a funeral parlor, it’s probably best to shelve the zingers and knee-slappers), but it also needs to serve the post’s purpose.
 
Broadly speaking, the default tone we aim to strike is “professional colloquialism.” The most accessible and engaging content often reads like an organic conversation between two people, so we make an effort to write as if we were speaking to an industry colleague at a bar by the office after work.
 
Conveying competence and a clear know-how is key to building trust with your audience, but without injecting any sense of character or personality into your copy, it becomes too easy to ignore or disengage. 
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8) Write!

 

Write! That’s it!

. . . not really though. It can be if you simply want to get the job done, but to create the most powerful and engaging content possible, there are a few to-do’s before you open that blank document and a couple of aspects to keep in mind as you keyboard mash.

First, make sure you’ve done all of your competitive research beforehand. See what other content is out there, what’s ranking on the first page of Google for the topic you’re writing about, and make sure yours is written in a way that offers new information, a unique perspective, or some extra edge that differentiates your copy from everything else out there.

Interview members of your target audience about the content voids they’ve noted on your topic and how they think literature on that topic can be improved or expounded on. 

If our goal is to appear on page 1 of Google’s results for “Local SEO NJ,” a good place to start would be to Google “Local SEO NJ” and see what the top 10 results are. Then, we’d read through the results to decide how we can emulate the greatest strengths of those pages and how we can add additional value to the topic by providing our own thoughts, insights, and perspectives.

 

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The overarching thought is, “Who is searching this phrase and how do we add additional quality and significance to each stage of their customer value journey?”

And of course, reread your first draft a few times before delivering to your editor. Reading out loud is also a helpful way to identify sticky spots or unclear sentences in a way reading can’t. Have a peer or colleague proofread as well to offer a perspective that might point out confusing or problematic areas you may not see yourself.

Most importantly, enjoy the process. Writing is fun and fulfilling, and when you’ve put in as much work as you have to prepare for top notch content creation, you deserve to enjoy bringing your story to life.

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9) Structure & Using Text as Imagery

 
We’re visual beings by nature, and even if your copy doesn’t include any supplemental imagery, you should evaluate your copy on a visual level completely independent of its content.
 
Many of these design elements can be defined in your overarching style guide, which defines the parameters for the visual and editorial elements of your brand. 
 
Make sure to allow time and energy to create a content style guide that defines your voice and word choices. Don’t simply copy and paste your content into Grammarly to identify any grammar or syntax errors, but read through your brand’s style guide to ensure what you’re creating complements your brand on a visual level. 
 
How ugly, scary, and imposing is a giant block of text with 10+ lines and no paragraph break? (Very.)
 
Just because of its presentation, you’ll lose a sizable chunk of your potential readers who are either scared off by the apparent time commitment or can’t rely on your layout to determine the pace or chronology of your content.
 
The presentation of your content is a story in itself and a way to engage your audience before they’ve even started reading.
 
One isolated, opening sentence surrounded by white space serves as a hook because it’s naturally spotlit. Likewise, the first sentences of each subsequent paragraph should comprise a condensed, truncated version of your larger post for people who are just skimming. If people read only those sentences, would they be able to understand your content’s theme and story?
 
You’ve put a lot of thought, time, and energy into this piece of content, but it needs to be accessible to the members of your audience who may not have time to read it in its entirety.
 
One way to cater to them is to write a TLDR, or “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” This is an introductory paragraph that serves as a very brief summary of your entire page or post, and should be the last thing you write. It’s a way for you, the writer, to tie a perfect bow around your piece, and a way for your readers to get a concentrated version of your post if they don’t have 2, 5, or 10 minutes to read it all.
 
This sort of thoughtfulness is powerful fuel for maximizing your appeal at each stage of the customer value journey.
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OPTIMIZING

 

Don’t let the relative shortness of this third act fool you -- there’s arguably nothing more vital to the success of your content writing than search engine optimization.

Without it, you risk leaving the content you’ve worked so hard to craft in a vacuum without any bridge between you and new readers. SEO has a massive, lasting impact on your reach, staying power, and larger brand identity.

Admittedly, yes, this is part of eating your vegetables. But doing so can earn you many more years of happy living! 

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10) SEO Basics & Optimizing On-Page Content

 
There’s a twist in this story. All along you’ve been playing to your carefully defined audience, the faithful readers and the readers-to-be. But there’s another audience altogether you need to cater to: Google.
 
At its core, SEO involves maximizing your content’s readability in the invisible eyes of Google and other search engines. These all-important platforms determine your website’s authority and where to rank your content in search engine results based on a number of factors, namely your use of particular keywords or keyphrases. 
 
We’ve long evolved from the days of keyword stuffing; the highest volume of keywords used no longer wins. Google determines the value of your content based largely on the organic, limited use of those keywords and keyphrases, backlinks to your page, and the number of domains that reference your content or site.
 
Then, utilizing artificial intelligence to understand the intent of your content and those 3rd party articles linking back to it, Google matches your content with the queries its users are inputting. It’s how Google determines how much value you’re actually contributing to the searcher’s customer value journey.
 
In order to ensure the content you are writing matches the most popular search queries, you will need to do some research to identify those keywords.
 
Identifying target keywords and keyphrases is as simple as using an analytical tool like SEMRush to find those that substantiate your topic, complement your brand, and have a healthy balance between higher search volume and lower ranking difficulty. Weave these selectively into your title, opening sentence, and organically throughout your content without overstuffing.
 
If the content around those targeted keywords and keyphrases is helpful, reliable, thoughtful, and aids the customer value journey, naturally your readers will want to share and link to it from their own websites, pages, or profiles.
 
The more that happens, the more authority Google will assign your content, and the closer to page 1 you’ll appear.
 
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11) Writing to Be Evergreen & Repurposing Content

 
Maintaining as much long-term relevance as possible requires content that is “evergreen,” or doesn’t date itself.
 
Mentioning a juicy current event or making a pop culture reference is enticing and can be effective in the short run, but it’s a one-way street to irrelevance if a reader can tell your content writing  is old. Regardless of how pertinent your content may be, it’s inherently less trustworthy if it seems outmoded.
 
Whenever possible, avoid the trappings of references that put a timestamp on your work. Of course this is an inevitability to a certain extent. Platforms change, processes evolve, newer and better ideas emerge. But that’s exactly where repurposing comes in.
 
A long form blog post can be repurposed into snackable promotional segments that are great for sharing on social media. These snackable segments can be designed in a way that helps prime the readers' appetite for more helpful, engaging content.
 
Once your ship leaves the harbor, you can’t leave it alone forever after. It requires maintenance, updating, restocking. Make a point of scheduling content reviews and removing any details that seem obsolete and replace them with fresh, contemporary ideas.
 
When done thoughtfully and consistently, you should be able to make your strongest pieces of content last for years and years to come.
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12) Analyze & Update Your Content Roadmap

 
Part of your due diligence as a top notch content writer is keeping track of your content’s performance and making adjustments to it, as well as your overall strategy.
 
Make sure to track the performance of everything you publish so you have a thorough understanding of what’s earning the most engagement and what’s underperforming.
 
Change your roadmap accordingly so you’re not wasting time and resources producing more content on a topic your audience is largely disinterested in. Or, take another peek under the SEO hood to determine whether there’s anything you can do to salvage and optimize your lowest performing pieces.
 
Returning to our internal example, if we wrote a series of blog posts centered around “Local SEO NJ” and didn’t see a noticeable uptick in traffic for that search in the subsequent months, the fault is likely on our end. The keyword difficulty of “Local SEO NJ” could be too high or perhaps by not including it in our title or metadata, it didn’t carry enough weight to contribute to our overall domain authority.
 
Whatever the case, because content creation is always evolving, so must your strategy. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at what works and disappointed by what doesn’t, but that’s all part of the creative game we’re playing.
 
Learn from every performance, and in time, you’ll have a tried and true playbook of your own.
 
And you’ll be teaching the next class on content writing.
12) Analyze & Update Your Content Roadmap

 
At the end of the day, it’s really not so bad, is it?
 
It requires time, thought, and research, but assuming you have those trio of necessities, anyone can turn themselves into a top shelf content writer in no time. You’d be amazed at how many opportunities are lost simply because people don’t allot the time to do their due diligence.
 
Let’s return to the cooking analogy. You could probably walk into your kitchen right now and throw together a few ingredients into a perfectly edible meal, right? It’s do-able, but if you’re having guests over for dinner, there’s a chance your lack of preparation results in a dish that’s adequate at best. Your guests don’t finish it, the food is forgotten by night’s end, and no one calls you next weekend desperate for another homemade bite.
 
Cooking a memorable meal that doesn’t just satiate your hunger but ignites your senses takes careful thought and consideration. The best ones even create emotional connections and lasting impacts that you share with others.
 
Don’t make macaroni and cheese. Take the time to try, buy, and craft something delicious seasoned with SEO.
 
Do that, and you’ll have every dinner guest begging for more.
Best Practices
Andrew
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