If you’re a freelance business writer, this will help you double your rates and build a base of steady work:
The Super Concise Guide to Content Strategy
Are you a commodity or an asset? The question every freelancer needs to answer.
Most freelance writers are happy to get assignments and knock them out for a fee. The successful ones become an extension of the client’s team, which means a steady stream of work. And there is a proven way to become that asset. It has two components:
- Subject matter expertise
- Creating and sharing a solid content strategy
Subject matter experts (SMEs) have learned your client’s business, market, audience, the problems they solve, and the solutions they offer. Commodity writers take assignments but don’t create a context for them. That’s where developing a content strategy with your client can really pay off. If you work it right, you can eventually get a monthly retainer, which, for me at least, is the goal of freelancing because it combines freedom from employment with a degree of financial certainty. You become a go-to asset instead being ‘just’ a writer. It was the key to my success as a B2B marketing content strategist and writer.
You’re going to need to invest in this
Anyone who has started a business knows that you make a big personal investment, beyond any financial investment. Your personal investment in becoming a SME is your business advantage over the less knowledgeable competition. As a tech marketing professional, I know that my core expertise is not the knowledge I have of my clients’ businesses, it is my ability to acquire that knowledge in-depth, quickly. And then to take my outsider status and use it to explain that tech to markets that are searching for solutions. I have to invest in acquiring this expertise by doing a lot of homework.
The return on investment
The payoff for becoming a subject matter expert is higher rates, greater client loyalty, and the ability to turn around projects faster (which increases your actual rates). But there is a kicker that can amp this investment up to the next level: offer the client a content strategy map that lays out a complete set of content targeting their entire marketing challenge. In this article I’m going to outline how I do this. It serves as a template plan that can be applied to any business client. And by default, you should become the go-to resource for creation of this content.
Never pitch content without context
When you take freelance projects that specify a subject, story, or target, you are not in control of the context. The person assigning that subject or asking you to suggest one, owns the bigger picture. You’re just a piece of the puzzle, a commodity writer. If you bring a context, populated with a proposed library of content, with each piece a part of a bigger picture, you are now an extension of their communications team. And you are uniquely positioned to implement the entire content strategy, because you defined it and showed the logic that drives your thinking. Yes, it takes work, but it will change your life as a freelancer.
The content strategy framework
I’m going to sketch out the framework and process for developing an effective content framework and link to other articles I’ve written that go into the details of each element. Content marketing is a rapidly evolving methodology that every business writer needs to understand and keep up with as it evolves. To understand its context, you have to understand the changing dynamic that led to its dominance as a marketing strategy. It’s known as the search journey.
The search journey is your base for developing your content strategy
Let’s break down the idea of a search journey. Today, because of ready access to all kinds of information about a product or service, a potential buyer does a lot more research about their purchase before ever reaching out to the provider of that product or service. If you map out the search journey and identify milestones along it, you can slot content into the journey that hits the buyer’s needs at each stage of their quest. That map becomes your proposed content plan for your client.
How important is understanding the search journey? In November of 2018 Google announced a major change to their search ranking methodology algorithms. Given that they have historically been very opaque about their processes, this represented a major change. What drove this? They went from trying to offer the best answer to a specific search query, to understanding the buyer’s journey and where they likely are in their search, then serving up content that best fits their level of expertise. Which, when you think about it, is pretty crazy, but also logically sound. Though I’m certain there are many people who don’t want to know how well Google knows them!
To start your content strategy, you work with your client to map out the buying process that their customers have used to find, evaluate and make a buying decision. This includes understanding the six basic needs that drive buying. Ideally, your clients have already done the marketing side of this for you by creating personas and understand the ‘typical’ process their customers go through. You should be able to use this information to create content subjects that address each stage of the journey.
Are you charging for this? (I don’t, at least not overtly…)
My goal with good clients is to develop a relationship that becomes a monthly retainer for managing and creating their content. So, when I start working with a client, once I’ve determined they are not a ‘bad’ client, based on experience (I decline additional work with problematic clients), I offer to do a content strategy for them. I don’t charge for this as I see it as a marketing investment that will result in steady work. It is up to you whether you choose to charge for this. I realize that a client could take this work and use someone else to implement it. That’s a risk, but not one I’ve experienced.
Content Strategy worksheet
- Rewrite website content to reflect the buyer journey
- Write cornerstone content that covers the most widely used search phrases and includes multiple links to specific subject matter content. This is redone quarterly. Ideally you would do two pieces and A/B them with Google Analytics.
- Create a basic spreadsheet with a proposed editorial/publishing schedule. Depending on the subject I’d typically do two pieces weekly
- Write posts, case studies, and white papers based on an editorial schedule. These target different people involved in the buyer research process: users, purchasing people, recommenders, decision-makers.
- Set up social channels to organically distribute as each piece is scheduled
- Build interconnecting links across the site to help search engines understand context as you publish.
- Create repeating posts: Interesting Things We’ve Read This Month, Employee Featured Bios
- Assemble a monthly newsletter of previous month’s content highlights
There are other tactics you can work in (like search and social advertising) but they likely are outside of the scope of a writer. The pieces in your plan should vary in length and sophistication.
Tweak this content library
Assuming the client goes along with this strategy, you write and build until your content library is relatively complete, then, based on feedback from the client and search analytics (if you have access), you redo, update, or replace as content becomes stale. This is the content management piece of the process.
Work with your client on this so they understand why you’re doing it and what to do with the content: the value-add
The repurposing of the content library is where the synergy comes in. The content can be used in sales or to maintain contact with customers for future business. Executives can put their byline on it to show thought leadership. It can be offered up to industry blogs and media as guest content (best for pieces that don’t overtly pitch). Offering up suggestions for your client to leverage your work means you are making that content more valuable. The reality is that you can create a simple list of suggestions for content use that can work with any business or organizational client.
Adding value like this helps cement ongoing relationships and give you leeway to charge higher rates. It also gives you, as a writer, a roadmap for creating content and a structure to demonstrate the ‘why’ behind it.