This post was written to help my clients. But it’s just as relevant for fellow content writers who struggle with the perennial problem of poorly written briefs. Please feel free to use this 5-step formula to create your own briefing template, or download one of my free templates here.
Let me guess. You’ve used a freelance content writer in the past, and they ballsed the whole thing up.
Their work wasn’t up to scratch. So, you sent it back with your comments, and then had to write more notes on the next revision, and the one after that. The result was a mediocre mash-up of drafts and notes.
It would have been quicker and easier to write the wretched thing yourself. If you had more time.
But let me ask: What sort of brief did you give them?
Was it a concise, but appropriately detailed set of instructions, with a clear indication of the context of the project and the outcome you wanted?
Then is it remotely possible the whole debacle wasn’t entirely the fault of your hapless content writer?
We’re good, but we’re not mind readers.
Here’s the thing: If you want a freelance writer to do their job well, you need to tell them exactly what you want.
Let me put it another way:
“The quality of the work your freelancer delivers will be directly aligned to the quality of the brief you give them.”
It’s like running a restaurant. If you give your chef nothing more than a chuck eye steak and a stock cube, he’s not going to produce the hearty, rich Beef Bourguignon you envisaged. He needs all the right components to create the perfect dish.
But if you follow this 5-step formula for fresh, juicy briefs, you will have your freelancers producing appetizing first drafts and succulent seconds, even if you’ve never worked with them before.
Step One: Set the Scene (Show Them Around the Kitchen)
Your content writer needs to understand the context of the work they’re about to undertake. So, give them some background and history. Let them get in under your skin a little to appreciate the flavour and character of your business.
Start by introducing yourself and your team. Tell them how long the business has been around and what you do. Share your vision, and how this project fits into the big picture of your content marketing strategy.
Where are you based, who are your customers? What are your core business values and what are you most proud of?
Who are your main competitors and why are they your closest competition? What can you lay claim to that they can’t?
If you’ve got a brochure or other relevant background material, include it with your brief, but don’t go overboard. Giving your freelancer the 200-page business plan you presented to the management team last month, is definitely going overboard.
Be informative, but concise.
Remember: It’s called a brief for a reason.
Step Two: Lay Out the Basic Ingredients
Now you need to set out what the project entails and what you want the writer to deliver. It’s a bit like lining up all your ingredients and equipment before the cooking begins.
- The type of content. Is it a website, blog post, email campaign, a landing page, an article? What do you want them to write?
- How many words or pages? It doesn’t need to be exact but give an indication like ‘a 2,000 to 3,000-word blog post’, or ‘a 5-page website’, or ‘a long form sales page’.
- Where will the content be published? In a blog, a magazine, a website? Locally, nationally, worldwide?
- What is the theme or title of the project? Say you want a series of emails to promote an end of stock sale for your online clothes store. The theme/title might be a sales-driven, 12-part email campaign called ‘’The 12 Days of Christmas’.
- What’s the main message you want to convey? Perhaps it’s ‘Buy one of our promotional dresses before December 20 and receive [insert discount or incentive]’. You may have a secondary message, such as ‘These dresses must be sold because we have a new range arriving in January.’ That’s fine, but don’t get carried away with too many disconnected messages. Don’t also promote your kitten heel sandals in the same email. It’s like adding sugar and curry powder to a recipe that only requires garlic. It’s confusing and waters down the effect of the garlic.
- What’s the overall tone of voice and style? This should be consistent with your brand, and your customers’ values. For example, if you run a law firm, you probably want the tone of voice to be formal, self-assured and professional. Whereas, if you’re selling dresses to teenagers, you want to sound youthful, hip and fun-loving.
- What examples can you provide as guidance? Maybe you’ve done something similar in the past that worked its socks off. Include it in your brief. Or link to something a competitor has done that you admired. Make sure your writer knows the standard you’re aiming for. Include examples of content you like and don’t like – and say why.
- What’s the deadline? When do you want to see the first draft and is there a publication date?
- What outcome are you hoping for? This is one of the most important ingredients. What do you want your audience to do having read the content? Buy now? Click on a link, download a report? Can you quantify your goal: Do you want to sell 200 dresses during the promotion, or attract 200 new subscribers to your blog? How will you measure the success of the project? You need to be as specific as possible with this one.
If you can’t define the outcome you want, tear up the brief and go back to the drawing board.
If you don’t know what business goal the project is designed to meet, how do you expect your freelancer to create powerful, persuasive content that has a purpose?
But imagine this: if you were able to show them a picture of the finished Beef Bourguignon and say, “That’s what I want you to achieve with the ingredients I’m giving you,” everything else should fall into place.
You see, the ingredients are no good to your writer unless they too can visualize your end goal.
Step Three: Don’t Make Them Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Writing content without knowing who you are writing it for, is like planning a menu for mystery dinner guests.
Imagine serving up Beef Bourguignon to the attendees of a vegetarians’ convention or preparing broccoli soup for a fifth birthday party.
So, don’t make your freelancer guess who your audience is. Tell them, and be absolutely, specifically clear.
In the case of our online clothes shop, their customers might be girls aged 16 to 25 who work part or full time, are single and live at home with their parents. But that’s not enough information for your writer. To create powerful, persuasive content, you need to paint a vivid picture of your ideal customer – the person you really want to attract.
She might be called Sally. She’s 17, lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, and works part time at the Magic Valley Mall. Next month it’s her 18th birthday and her Mom’s getting her the newest Sims expansion pack (because Baby Ariel’s got one), and a Moleskin journal. But what she really wants is a new dress for her party.
This visualization is called a buyer persona and you can read more about how to create them here.
Buyer personas can take time to produce, but they’re worth their weight in gold. If you don’t have time on your side right now, at least provide your freelance writer with the answers to these questions as part of your brief:
- Who do you want to attract as a customer with this project?
- Who do you NOT want to attract?
- What problems do your audience members have that you solve? Dig deep – the obvious problem is they need what you sell, but why would they buy it from you instead of anyone else?
Hint: When making the decision to purchase a product or service, people are naturally drawn to businesses that speak their language, reflect their values and understand their pain.
So, describe your ideal customer as a human being with values you share and pains you can melt away. Give the human a name, like Sally, and let your freelancer write content that directly targets Sally’s problems.
Step Four: Make Sure They’re Fully Equipped Before Cooking up Your Content
You’ve told your freelancer what content you want, why you want it and who it’s aimed at. But you may need to equip them with a few more components. These will depend entirely on your project, but it’s a good checklist to consider at the end of the brief:
- If the project requires the writer to do their own research, do you have any resources or links to websites and articles you think will help? Remember, don’t overload them.
- Are there any trends, government regulations or market conditions impacting your industry that your writer should be aware of?
- Can you provide relevant testimonials or feedback from existing customers? Verbatim quotes are always useful.
- Do you have a brand style guide? If so, provide a copy with your brief.
- What visual style preferences or layouts does the writer need to be aware of. Will you be providing images?
- What mandatory inclusions would you like in your content? They could be:
- Phone number
- Web or email address
- A link to a landing or sales page
- Any call to action (‘Buy Now’, ‘Sign me up”, ‘Download the Guide Here’,)
- Hyperlinks to other web pages
- Keywords and longtail phrases – where do you want these to appear?
Step Five: Perfect Your Brief with These Secret Herbs and Spices
The material in Steps 1-4 should be in every freelancer’s brief if you want them to whip up an appetizing first draft, and a tasty piece of content.
But why settle for tasty when it could be mouth-wateringly irresistible?
Every now and again a piece of content comes along that resonates so strongly with an audience it lingers for ever. It generates more likes, or shares, or sales than anything you’ve done before, or possibly since.
Great content is the result of a spark that ignites the writer’s creative fuse, inspiring them to craft the words that compel your audience to take action.
It’s the writer’s job to unearth that spark, but first you have to enrich your brief with these secret herbs and spices:
Keep Asking ‘Why?’
Remember we discussed buyer personas, and for the online clothes store we used the example of Sally from Idaho? We know how old she is, where she lives and what she wants – a new dress for her party. That’s great. But why does she want a new dress. Keep digging. What drives her, what scares her, what’s her real motivation?
Suppose you were able to tell your freelancer that Sally wants to look utterly amazing in her new dress to blow her ex-boyfriend away, making him regret the day he ever left her for that low-down snake, Courtney-Rae.
There’s a reason to buy a dress!
And there’s the spark of an idea. Now you’ve given your writer the spicy ammo they need to talk directly to Sally and make it a no-brainer for her to buy her revenge dress from the one online store that really gets her.
So, don’t stop at the demographics, or the one-dimensional ‘wants and needs’ of your audience. Dig deep and keep asking why.
Put Some Passion Into it
Great content oozes with personality and passion, and every business has a personality. Bring it out in your brief. Be joyful, be confident, or be humble. . .whatever reflects your values and aspirations.
For example: Maybe you want your audience to attend a workshop. Tell your writer how proud you are of the effort that’s gone in to the workshop agenda and why you believe it’s the most important event they could attend this year.
If you’re promoting a dress sale, get enthusiastic about the range of colors and styles and explain why this might be their only chance to snap up these designs at such amazing prices.
Sprinkle your brief with genuine passion and excitement. Show pride in your business and values and use informal language (ie, ditch the industry jargon). Give your freelancer something to get energized about.
Aim for an Emotional Connection
You know what you want your audience to do when they read your content (buy, download, sign up etc), but how do you want them to feel? What’s the emotional response you want them to have?
Why is this important? Because numerous studies like this one have concluded that we don’t make decisions based on logic, we make them based on how we feel.
If you can give your freelance writer a clear indication of the emotional connection you want to make with your audience, it’s like adding an extra dash of chilli flakes to an already spicy curry.
And don’t think this doesn’t apply to your business, because I bet it does. It applies to household cleaning products and dog food, as much as law firms and tech companies?
So, do you want your audience to feel special, reassured, excited, sassy, informed, secure, or surprised?
Whatever it is, toss it into your brief and let your freelancer stir the emotional pot.
Prove Your Claims
Let’s say you want your freelancer to write the content for a landing page to sell your latest product offering. You’re going to talk about the benefits and features of the product. You’re going to say it’s the biggest, or the fastest; that it’s more efficient, or lasts longer.
But what evidence can you provide to support this claim or any others that you make in your brief? If you’re the ‘best’ in your field, tell your writer why or how. Give them some tangible proof to get their teeth into.
It may be data that shows your product is outselling the competitions’, or testimonials from clients that validate your claim to improve profit margins.
Whenever you make an assertion in your brief ask yourself ‘why should anyone believe this?’ And then provide the answer. It’s the icing on the cake for a freelance writer.
Your brief is the single most important element for any new content creation – even if you’re doing it in-house and not using a freelancer.
If you can’t articulate how the project fits into your overall strategy, who your audience is, or what outcomes you want, you will end up with a tangled mess of cold spaghetti that’s expensive and time consuming to untangle.
There’s another key benefit to writing a good brief: It forces you to think strategically about your project. It highlights areas that might need reworking, or gaps in your research. It may even make you re-think your whole approach or come up with a better solution.
And it gives you a framework for assessing the quality of the final content and monitoring its success when it’s rolled out.
Because if you haven’t given your chef clear directions about the Beef Bourguignon you expect him to produce, how can you complain when he serves up chuck eye steak and carrots?