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Weekly Wisdom with Ross Tavendale: How To Write an Effective Brief

Weekly Wisdom with Ross Tavendale: How To Write an Effective Brief

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Modified transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to another Weekly Wisdom.

As an SEO, writing a brief for your copywriter can be quite challenging. You get so deep in the keywords and the tech that they may not make a lot of sense for the writer.

Sometimes it is hard to take your vision for dominating the SERPs and translating that into something that is actually readable. In this video, I am going to show you how to write a brief to avoid your copy sounding completely incomprehensible.

In this video, we are going to go over:

The SEO fundamentals that you are going to need in your brief. And that is from things like topics to keywords to entities. Should we care about things like keyword density, or is that a thing of the past? How to make sure your writer's style has the correct tone of voice for your brand? Anyone can write 500 words of copy about a topic, but is your brand serious and professional, or is it cool, irreverent, and hip?  How to structure your document so it is easily understood. The way I interpret something may not be the way that you interpret something. How do we write a brief for clarity? We need to understand what you should and should not write in that brief. Should you nail every single detail or give the writer a little bit of a creative license? How do you give feedback? Once you get the document back, how should you give feedback without sounding like a bit of a jerk? Where the writer's job starts, and your job ends? What should we expect from the writer, and how do we build trust in our working relationship?

SEO Fundamentals

Nowadays, in a world where machine learning algorithms like RankBrain and BERT are in play, the world has really moved on from the same keyword smashing over and over again. Don't get me wrong, in the old days, I remember we used to brief content just like this.

But now it is much more subtle, and it is built around topics and entities rather than a single keyword. That being said, John Mueller literally came out last week and said the keywords are still very important:

John Mueller

Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

“There is probably always going to be a little bit of room for keyword research because you're providing those words to users and even if search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about.”

When it comes to your brief, definitely mention the overall keyword topic of the page, but after that, you should get a little bit smarter about some of the terms and things you are asking for.

Tools and Techniques

There are a few tools that can help you get that brief to the writer. The first one is the Semrush On-page SEO Checker that gets your list of all the terms used in the top 10 results for a particular keyword. A relatively new tool called Surfer SEO actually uses entities on the page of all the results in the top 10 and compares it to your content to give you a brief.

If you want to go semi-manual, you can get a corresponding Wikipedia page, copy all of the texts from it, and put it through Google's Natural Language Processing — this is going pull out all the entities inside that page, and that will help you structure a content brief.

Remember that you should give structural guidance around things like titles, meta descriptions, H1's, and other headings to allow the flow of work and the article itself.

Tone of Voice

Tone of voice is very important when writing. If the tone isn't right, then something just feels off; this is one of the reasons why it is actually quite funny to hear babies swearing. It is a completely wrong tone of voice for a baby, it is completely incongruent, and it creates a kind of weird tension in humor. When writing your brief, open with your tone of voice guidelines so the writer understands how the words should sound.

For example, let's say I wanted to communicate that our agency, Type A Media, was a data-driven company. A professional tone of voice would be something like this: “Results for your brand are not subjective, and neither is data. That is why Type A takes a data-driven approach to your digital strategy.”

An irreverent or cheeky tone would be something a little bit like this: “From fake news to straight-up BS, the internet is full of it. That is why at Type A, we cut the crap and use data to find out what matters most and get the job done.”

Ultimately that is the exact same message, but the tone is entirely different.

Brief Structure

What should you actually put inside the brief? When writing a brief the temptation is to put as much on the page as possible, but I would ask you to hold your horses a little bit, and not kill your writer with a brief that is actually bigger than the end piece of copy that you want to produce. You should structure your brief thusly:

Keywords, topics, and heading structure. PR style lead for the copywriter, including 5W's — who, what, when, where, and why? What's the point of the article? What are you looking to achieve? Who is actually going to read? What reaction do you want to elicit, i.e., how do you want the reader to actually feel? Where is this thing going to live? Online, offline? In an app, a blog post, a product description?

Being Specific

There is a bunch of stuff you should not give a writer. Do not write vague statements about what you actually want them to do. For example, if you are talking about site speed, don't say, “Talk about how important it is for a site to load fast.” Instead of that, say things like “talk about how significant it is for a site to load under two seconds as a benchmark of a fast website.” Unless you have specified, do not expect the writer to do loads and loads of research on a topic. Tell them the exact points they want to cover.

Remember, the writer is usually not an industry expert. If you want them to mention particular features or stress a particular point, absolutely tell them.

Giving Feedback

In my mind, all feedback should follow the formula of SBI. We use this not only for managing people but also for critiquing creative work. SBI stands for Situation, Behavior, and Impact.

Situation — You need to describe the exact part of the text that you are not happy with. Do not vaguely talk about overall flow or something like that. For example, “On line 10, you mentioned...” Behavior — Describe the exact sentence and why is there an issue with it. For example, bringing them together: “On line 10, you said most of the internet is bots talking to bots.” Impact — Describe why that is negative and how you would like it fixed. Again, the example bringing them all together: “On line 10, you said that most of the internet are bots talking to bots. This is a dystopian and nihilistic view of the internet, and we want the article to be uplifting and hopeful. That is what needs to be rewritten to reframe that algorithms make our lives better rather than dismissing robots as talking to one another.”

Where the Writer's Job Starts and Yours Ends

Unless it is grammatically incorrect or does not fit your brand tone, you should not do the following: 

Do not comment on the words they use to construct the sentences. Do not comment on the way that sentences are formed. Do not comment on the flow or direction of the writing. Do not comment on the story arc.

Anything that is structural English language-dependent, that is the writer's job to get that right according to the brief and not your job. Remember, just as you are the SEO expert, they are the copy experts, so release the control and let them do their job.

That is everything for this week's Weekly Wisdom. We hope you have enjoyed it. If you think I have missed anything, I would love to hear from you in the comments down below.

Do you have a particular technique for briefing your writers? I'd love to hear about it; until next time, we will see you later.

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