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Any successful brand publishing operation requires executing to a high degree across a range of disciplines and capabilities, but none are more important than the simple ability to consistently create content that provides value to an audience.
A foolproof strategy, beautiful design, expensive technology, seasoned writers and seamless processes are worthless if they’re not underpinned by a steady stream of content that’s worthy of readers’ attention.
Saying, “create compelling content,” is simple, but it certainly isn’t easy to do. No two pieces of content are alike, no two readers are the same, and there’s no guaranteed formula or process that can be employed. To a large degree, it’s a muscle that must be built over years of repetition, both at an individual and organizational level.
Common pitfalls include relying on luck or volume to occasionally “strike gold,” shying away from originality in favor of glorified plagiarism, or no attempt to differentiate from competitors.
But there are key principles, habits and best practices gleaned from newsrooms, media companies and professional “storytellers” that can be used to set brand publishing operations up for success and drastically improve the quality and consistency of their output.
Brand publishing teams should ensure they:
- Understand how to create compelling content and value for their target audience: Having a well-defined target audience and a thorough understanding of what it finds valuable is an important prerequisite for identifying compelling angles and creating successful content. Attempting to create valuable content without keeping a target audience in mind is a recipe for failure.
- Generate ideas for strong content: Teams should employ smart tactics and good habits to generate a steady stream of content ideas. “Finding” great stories is a process that requires planning and diligence. Great writers and content creators employ a handful of key tactics on a regular basis to ensure they’re cultivating a pipeline of high-quality content ideas.
- Understand and learn how to select effective formats for each piece of content produced: Presenting and packaging information well is almost as important as identifying what information to present. Selecting a highly effective story format can help elevate mediocre content, and enable great content to shine. Conversely, a great topic or story idea can be hamstrung when forced into the wrong box. Easily repeatable content types and formats can also help with operational efficiency.
This guide explains the tactics and approaches outlined above, and provides a detailed breakdown of key story formats with templates that can be used to jumpstart these efforts.
What makes for compelling content
The most important factor in generating an effective piece of content is identifying what to write about and why. This sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done.
The ability to quickly gauge what a particular audience will find interesting and/or useful is a hugely valuable skill, and one that can take years to acquire and hone. Experienced journalists and editors often refer to this ability as “instinct,” and it’s a key trait that editorial organizations look for when hiring editorial staffers.
Good instinct and experience are equally as valuable for brand publishing teams, but they are not mandatory for generating and identifying successful ideas.
It’s possible to gauge what will make for a great piece of content by keeping the following key considerations in mind.
Know your target audience
It’s critical for content creators to keep a target audience at the forefront of their minds when attempting to create engaging and interesting content – in fact, omitting this step is a recipe for failure.
Having a clearly defined and understood target audience is an important prerequisite to identifying compelling angles and creating content that’s attractive to that specific audience. Writers and content teams should, at all times, be able to articulate who their content is designed for and why.
For more information on establishing target audiences, identifying their needs and interests and creating audience personas, see the Brand Publishing Strategy Guide.
Focus on creating value
Once a clear target audience is established and their needs and interests are identified, any potential story and topic idea should be evaluated through the lens of creating value.
One story idea or topic might be extremely interesting and useful to one audience, but of little consequence to another. Writers should, therefore, attempt to put themselves in their readers’ shoes, thinking carefully about the types of information that would prove interesting or valuable based on an audience’s specific characteristics.
When evaluating a story or topic idea, it’s worth carefully considering whether it meets one or more of three criteria for the audience in question:
- Is this interesting or entertaining? Will it pique their curiosity or provide levity in some way? For example, an entertainment media organization may consider profiling a prominent artist. A retail or e-commerce tech organization may want to speak to successful founders and entrepreneurs in the retail industry. An information technology business may want to include news about a cutting-edge technology or noteworthy cultural shift.
- Is it useful or actionable? Might this information be used to help inform future decisions or actions? For example: A piece of new information that might cause a reader to change their plans, a company to alter its strategy or an investor to buy or sell shares in a company.
- Is it practical or educational? Can it be used to help solve a unique problem, or to build knowledge and expertise? For example: a piece of content detailing how to overcome a specific challenge (e.g., this Guide, which aims to help brand publishing operations create compelling content) or an article explaining why something operates the way it does.
For brand publishing teams performing inside broader companies, content can also be required to help drive specific business goals and outcomes. For example: positioning a company as a thought-leader around a specific topic, generating interest from a very specific type of reader or generating awareness of product offerings.
In these instances, writers should also consider:
- Will this content map to the goals outlined in the strategy? The answer to this question may be easier or more direct in some instances than in others, but keeping it in mind can help inform the angle, nature and format of a piece of content.
Generating content ideas
Generating a consistent stream of compelling content ideas requires instinct and good judgment, but also, the development of good habits and practices. Great content ideas require excavation and shaping before they can form the basis of great content; they aren’t just sitting in the ether waiting to be “found.”
Developing a few key habits will help writers and content creators develop winning content ideas at a more steady cadence.
Depending on the industry or topic that the publication focuses on, nearly everything in culture can be a story – or provide an idea for one. A simple and effective trick is to ask whether something may be the beginning of a content idea, whenever a new topic is presented. Asking why something is the way it is is a good place to try this – if there is a why, chances are, other people (e.g., the target audience) are wondering the same.
Data and research
Raw data and research can make for great stories. Many companies do studies and other proprietary research of their own. There are also trade organizations that study behaviors and attitudes of their industries in nearly every category. Research and data can be used as jumping-off points for bigger pieces if interesting patterns are discovered. For example: does a new piece of research find that people prefer dogs to cats, including those who own a cat? This can make for the beginnings of a trend piece where cat owners and makers of dog food and toys are interviewed. Another way to present numbers and data is to create charts and graphics in a way that distills the numbers down to what is most important and valuable.
Sourcing is difficult for many content creators, yet typically forms the basis of the most compelling and valuable content. Journalists often reference “source building” and “talking to sources” but interviewing people doesn’t always come naturally and can feel forced, uncomfortable or overwhelming, sometimes, for both parties. For brand publishing teams, it’s best to start by creating a list of stakeholders – internal or external experts, such as C-level executives within the company, or external vendors, clients and consumers, who are respected, have a point of view and have something to say. Once these leaders have been identified, the content creator should explain to the stakeholder why they were selected and ask to begin with a weekly or monthly call or email to learn what is new and interesting. Story ideas develop when casual conversations lead to interesting news. Asking, “So, what’s the latest news that I may not know about?” can lead to strong angles. That can be a great way to begin. Once developed, teams can also expect to get into the habit of having people reach out when they do have something interesting or valuable to say, without being asked directly. Sources can also build upon each other – that is, reaching out to one person for information, then going to another expert to find more information – which can act as building blocks for good content and story ideas.
Reading other people
Reading other sources, such as competitors’ blog posts and content, or news media and analyses relevant to the industry, can be a good place to jog ideas. Finding, for example, certain gaps that haven’t been covered is a good way to come up with content ideas. If a news article, for example, didn’t cover the pitfalls of a new technology, but the brand publishing team has authority and expertise in that area, that could be a strong story opportunity.
Reading older stories
Checking in on stories that were crafted previously can be a valuable source for story ideas. Often, reading announcements from one year ago can provide fodder for a “check in” on a specific topic, or can create ideas for re-doing the same type of piece, but on a different subject or on a slightly nuanced point.
Selecting effective content types and formats
There’s no wrong way to tell a story or to communicate information or ideas, however, some content formats lend themselves better to certain topics and audience needs than others.
A senior executive at a fast food company may find value in a news story detailing newly discovered health implications around certain types of foods, for example, or in a high-level “trend” story that highlights a growing demand from younger customers for plant-based alternatives to meat products.
Meanwhile, a mid-level manager at the same company might find value in an “explainer” detailing the science and processes behind how plant-based products are manufactured and shipped, or perhaps a “case study” of how a competitor went about marketing those types of products to its customers.
Elsewhere, a resident in a small town might be interested to hear from a local politician or city official about plans to build a new plant-based food factory in their neighborhood, and may appreciate a straightforward “Q&A” in order to get a more direct understanding of how that official views and talks about that specific issue.
When creating content for any audience, selecting a highly effective story format can help elevate mediocre content and enable already great content to shine. Conversely, a strong topic or story idea can be hamstrung when forced into the wrong box.
Easily repeatable content types and formats can also help with operational efficiency. They can create a kind of internal shorthand for how a story should look, sound and feel, aid effective content planning and management and even be used to help generate internal momentum. Well-defined formats can help resource-poor content teams operate significantly faster and more responsively.
Popular content types and formats
There are countless story types and formats that can be used to effectively communicate different information and ideas, dependent on the nature, characteristics and interests of an audience, as well as the makeup of the content team doing the work.
Highly successful pieces of content often resonate with an audience because they’re packaged in a new or imaginative way, or in a method that satisfies a unique audience need. But packaging content effectively doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel.
Mastering a handful of common and established content types and formats — and learning to use them effectively — can quickly help any content creator engage audiences more effectively.
These content types and formats include:
- News story
- News analysis
- Trend piece
- Case study
The straightforward news story is a cornerstone of any writer’s repertoire. Anyone who’s read the front page of a newspaper or website will be familiar with a typical news story and its structure and tone.
Goal: to communicate details about a new development as clearly, quickly and succinctly as possible.
What it is: news stories typically seek to pass on a few very clear pieces of information to the reader about the new development in question. These often include: who, what, when, where, why and how, in addition to any background information or perspective that may be useful to help the reader better place the new events or information in context. For example, an event may not be particularly noteworthy by itself, but, with the added context of multiple similar events occurring in an extremely short space of time, it may take on new significance.
Journalists will typically attempt to structure news stories within a template known as the “inverted pyramid.” This approach calls for placing the most important facts (who, what, when, where, why and how) as high up in the story as possible, before moving on to less-crucial information and context, and ultimately finishing with more general information and additional background that serves as nice to know, rather than essential, information. Think of it this way: if a person only reads the first half of the article, they should still be able to understand the most critical points of the story, though they may not learn the finer, more specific details.
In addition to reporting basic facts and information to the reader, news stories will often include quotes from people closely related to the subject matter, either to relay information directly from noteworthy sources, or to offer up reaction and perspective from third-parties.
Brand publishing teams should feel free to apply these journalistic approaches to news stories of their own. They might be used to outline a new offering at the company, new technology developments that impact their products or services or to report on new research or data pertinent to audiences.
News stories should always seek to include third-party voices wherever possible. For example, a story from a local news site might include a quote from a local official about an event, a quote from a passerby who witnessed the event and a quote from an expert on that type of event who can place it in context or offer perspective on what any possible repercussions might be.
A news story about a company launching new technology might include a direct quote from someone at the company itself, a reaction to its significance from the company’s customers and/or competitors and a quote from a technology expert or subject matter expert on how it might impact future technologies or business decisions for other companies in the same industry.
When to use it: the news story format should only be used when significant, new information is available and if there’s a reasonable expectation the audience may not yet be aware of it.
If the information in question is not particularly new, a trend or analysis story might prove a more engaging and useful vehicle. And, if the information in question is not of particular significance to the audience in question, it’s often advisable to hunt for another story rather than risk alienating and irritating an audience with what’s often referred to as sensationalism or clickbait.
Approximate length: 300-500 words
Though closely related to the straightforward news story, this variation focuses on putting new information in context, rather than simply relaying facts to the reader. It’s a useful mechanism for adding value around a piece of news without simply relaying the news itself. Publications often use news analysis as a way to capture reader attention around news they didn’t break themselves with “day two” or “day after” stories.
The news analysis piece is more useful for brand publishing teams who are less likely to “break news” in the traditional sense. Analysis pieces can be especially useful when companies want to be seen as an authority figure or expert in their space, and many successful content marketing operations use analysis in order to demonstrate their expertise and showcase their abilities, for example.
Goal: To explain or explore the potential consequences of a new development or new information, often through a lens that’s applicable to a target audience.
What it is: The writer will typically seek the input of subject matter experts, or those impacted by a piece of news, to give the reader a sense of why it’s important and/or consequential. Writers should refrain from including their own opinions in analysis pieces, and should offer up multiple viewpoints or acknowledge tension or disagreement around an issue, where applicable.
For example: The scenario above about a company launching technology X might prove good fodder for a news analysis piece on what the repercussions might be for companies who rely on technology Y. It might explore whether those companies will be at a disadvantage for continuing to use technology Y, and include viewpoints from companies using both technologies to help explain to the reader the view from “both sides” of the situation.
News analyses can prove useful for brand publishing operations seeking to showcase a company’s expertise, particularly when there is a major development in the industry. In-house “experts” can be used as sources to help analyze the developments and place them in context for the reader, where appropriate.
When to use it: The news analysis format is extremely versatile and can provide a way to build interesting content on the back of nearly any piece of news, provided it’s relevant — or can be made relevant — to the target audience.
Approximate length: 500-700 words
The trend story is an extremely versatile and useful format as it frees the writer up, somewhat, from the constraints of the straightforward news story formats outlined above. Trend stories can offer significant value to readers by moving beyond the simple reporting of facts and by providing a new insight or perspective from which to view a certain topic or issue.
Goal: To highlight a new or noteworthy series of connected events, and to potentially attempt to explain their possible causes and ramifications.
What it is: Trend stories can take on various forms, based on the subject matter and the nature of the trend being examined. In its most basic form, a trend story will highlight the connection between three or more relatively recent events, simply because their relationship is noteworthy.
More advanced trend stories will seek to go further, either by exploring or explaining the trend as a result of a separate issue or problem, or by exploring possible future repercussions of the trend.
For example, a local news publication might publish a trend story highlighting three major robberies in the same neighborhood, in a relatively short period of time, and documenting concern from nearby residents. Another publication might take the same series of robberies and examine whether those crimes are a symptom of reduced policing in the area, while a third might talk to real estate agents about the impact the theft could have on future property prices.
Similarly, a business publication might note that four independent companies launched similar products in the space of a few months, and opt to explore what the trend says about the staff or culture within those companies, what the companies’ future plans might be or what the implications might be for the direction of the broader industry.
As with news analysis pieces, trend stories can be a useful way to demonstrate knowledge, authority and expertise from a certain company or group.
When to use it: Trend stories offer a vehicle for publications and writers to add their own unique perspective and analysis to a subject, which makes them extremely useful for creating differentiated content and building affinity among a target audience or community.
Many publications also lean on trend stories as an effective way to create timely content and weigh in on recent events without covering incremental developments the way a hard news publication might.
Approximate length: 400-700 words
Case studies provide a powerful way to deliver value to readers who are interested in exploring niche topics or themes in close detail, or to tell the story of a particular success, failure or journey. Great case studies are not easy to pull off, and should only be used if genuinely valuable information is available.
Goal: To explain how a person, company or group achieved a goal or outcome, or dealt with a unique situation.
What it is: Case studies aim to communicate how a brand’s actions helped drive desired outcomes for a person or group over a given period of time. The key to a successful case study is in the detail, which isn’t always easy to get. A case study should provide detailed, measurable information about what actions were taken and why, and how those actions contributed to a tangible and quantifiable outcome.
The structure of case studies can vary, based on subject matter and the nature and volume of the information available, but a well-produced example includes:
- An overview of the starting point from which the case study commences. In some instances, this may be a specific problem that needs solving or a challenge that is being addressed.
- A thorough description of the actions and measures that were taken during the time period in question, with explanations of why those decisions were made or how those actions came to fruition.
- An examination of the outcomes, ideally, with specific data, to quantify any change over the time period in question and evidence to suggest those outcomes were directly influenced by the actions taken.
When to use it: Successful case studies must contain new, interesting and detailed information. Case studies do not lend themselves well to vagaries, exaggeration, repurposed marketing materials and spin. Before embarking on a case study, writers should feel confident they’re bringing new and interesting information to the table.
Case studies can be especially useful to demonstrate new products, capabilities and offerings without resorting to press releases. They can also be helpful to market to prospective new customers as well as current ones. They can provide a vehicle for publishing teams that lets them get deep inside the mechanics of certain products or projects in a linear and outcome-oriented way.
Approximate length: 500-900 words
Explainers can provide significant value and utility to an audience, while also enabling a publication to express its unique point of view, personality and identity. Depending on their subject matter, they often have a long “shelf-life” in addition, meaning value can typically be derived from them for months, and sometimes, depending on the subject, even years.
Goal: To explain and dissect concepts and ideas to the reader in a simple and concise manner.
What it is: explainers can take many different forms, but they typically seek to break down confusing or complicated subjects, situations or processes into easily digestible and understandable sections.
Popular explainer sub-formats include:
- “X number of things you need to know about subject Y” – This is a popular – and perhaps overused – explainer approach, but it remains an effective one. The reader knows what to expect going in and, if the explainer is executed well, can come away from a relatively short piece of content with significant value.
- Question and answer – The Q&A approach is just that: a series of common questions about a specific topic and answers to those questions. For example, when explaining a new technology, questions might include:
- What is technology X?
- What does technology X do?
- Why is technology X important?
- Who is technology X for?
- Why is technology X controversial?
The answers to those questions might be provided directly by the author, or in some cases, via quotes from third-parties. The Q&A format is also explored more deeply in the next section.
- Process or timeline – Some explainers seek to break down subjects more linearly by taking the reader through a series of steps or events in chronological order. For example: an explainer for a manufacturing process might break it down into 10 or 15 individual stages, while an explainer for an important historical or political event might document contributing events or factors that preceded or caused it.
- Data stories/by the numbers – These formats are typically only effective if there’s legitimate reason to organize an explainer around data, and if the data points tell a compelling story by themselves. In practice, those instances are relatively few and far between.
- Visual explainers/infographics – Infographics, diagrams and other visual explainers can often be gimmicky, but in certain instances, they can add huge value when used to augment and complement a well-written, text-based explainer.
- Videos – As above, not every subject lends itself well to video. But certain topics are far easier to unpack and illustrate with the benefits of sight and sound compared with static text and visual content alone. Video itself is a complicated subject, and a variety of factors such as length and distribution (social media or on a site, for example) should be considered when attempting this.
When to use it: Explainers can offer tangible value to an audience quickly and effectively, and are a good vehicle for creating “evergreen” content that’s less reliant on new or timely information. They can easily be pegged to newsworthy events or trends, but they don’t have to be. A successful explainer might take a well-known concept or subject matter and explore it from a different viewpoint or through a specific “lens” that adds new value to the reader.
If executed well, explainer formats can often be repeated to build up a body of content or a “franchise” that readers can access over time and may begin to seek out and pass on to like-minded people.
Approximate length: 300-700 words; videos: 60-90 seconds
The Q&A is perhaps one of the most straightforward formats to execute, but it can easily result in dull, uninteresting content if executed poorly. Q&As should be conducted for a specific reason or around a specific topic, not simply because they’re “easy” to do.
Goal: To give an interview subject an opportunity to speak directly to an audience, either because they’re an expert on a specific issue or topic, or because the interview subject is noteworthy in and of themselves.
What it is: The Q&A format is — simply — a piece of content organized around a series of questions and their answers. The exact nature of a Q&A will vary based on audience, topic and interview subject, but writers should be cognizant of three key factors:
- Length – An advisable approach, in most instances, is to keep Q&As as short and snappy as possible. Interview subjects would typically prefer to come across as concise and pointed, and very few readers have the time or inclination to comb through long Q&As for what’s likely to be a couple of interesting nuggets of information. Writers should typically select three to seven key questions.
- Editing – Where appropriate and ethical, answers should be shortened, and potentially reorganized, to ensure the most pertinent and interesting information appears first. The resulting content should include a note that all quotes are excerpts from a longer conversation, and that they’re “edited for brevity and clarity.” Editing of Q&As typically does both the reader and the interview subject a huge service, and makes for more interesting and readable content. That being said, judgment should be used carefully around what to edit or if content should be edited at all. For example, with sensitive matters or with an extremely prominent or important interview subject, it may be advisable to publish both questions and answers with little or no editing to provide a more transparent account of a conversation.
- Question styling – Questions can be styled in a variety of ways to match the tone of the publication and expectations of the audience. If a casual and conversational tone is appropriate, simply transcribing questions directly can prove effective. In other instances, it benefits the reader to have questions trimmed and sharpened up to make for easier and more pointed reading (provided disclosures are made about their editing). A third option is to forego direct questions altogether and to give each answer a title to indicate the topic being addressed. For example: “Why subject disagrees with statement Y,” or “Views on recent development Z.”
When to use it: Q&As should be used only when there’s a legitimate reason to hear directly from the interview subject at relative length. For example, when the subject is well-known, or famous, or difficult to pin down, and has a wide variety of opinions on a host of different topics or subjects, a Q&A can be useful. However, if the subject has one key point — or isn’t particularly noteworthy, well-known or significantly positioned — it’s possible their views could be more effectively represented via a quote in a more straightforward news story or trend piece, or perhaps as an expert voice in an explainer or case study.
Approximate length: 400-600 words
Checklist and next steps
“Good” content is subjective, and professional journalists and content creators spend lifetimes honing their instincts and skills in order to create it consistently. However, it’s possible to create processes with which brand publishing teams can routinely create high-value content by thinking carefully about the needs of their readers, how to deliver tangible value to them and how to package and deliver content optimally.
Brand publishing teams should ask themselves the following questions:
Generating ideas and writing content
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