It’s not content marketing, it’s communication: Writing a brief

If you run a business and have been persuaded by everything you see on social media and the Internet generally that your marketing efforts should include “content”, then please sit down and think again.

The question to consider: what does “content” actually mean?

The Oxford dictionary definition (in my premium version) has four possibilities:

  • The things that are held or included in something (ie the contents of a glass jar)
  • A list of the chapters or sections given at the front of a book or periodical (the table of contents)
  • The material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc. as distinct from its form or style
  • Information made available by a website or other electronic medium

Those seem simple enough – but the meaning of the word “content” is now more complicated. It has changed over time to referring to an amorphous range of entities that are contained within a marketing strategy. Mailchimp’s definition of content marketing gives us a glimpse as to what “content” might be:

Content marketing is a marketing strategy used to attract, engage, and retain an audience by creating and sharing relevant articles, videos, podcasts, and other media. This approach establishes expertise, promotes brand awareness, and keeps your business top of mind when it’s time to buy what you sell. (my emphasis)

The word content is a useful umbrella term for the kinds of media listed in this definition, and it’s one I use in that way all the time. But the definition also paints a picture of content as pieces of created media that are made for the purposes of selling.

Content is not pieces on a chessboard

I think that the use of the word content in this way obscures something fundamental: that what is being attempted is the establishment of a relationship between business and customer. And you establish relationships through genuine communication, rather than by deploying varying pieces of “content” at strategic moments.

As might be evident by now, I am not a content marketer. Rather I am a journalist who has broadened my field of endeavour to include other kinds of writing, some of which are articles written for clients who wish to promote their businesses or brands.

What do you want to say?

In that capacity, I think that the place that a business should start is to think about what it is that they want to communicate, and to find a writer (or photographer or video maker or podcast expert) who can help them craft the best possible representation of their business or brand or product, which will reach customers in a genuine and authentic way.

Assuming that you want written content, the place to start in your journey is to work on a brief for the writer.

A brief (a document designed to instruct a writer on how to create the piece of writing you desire) is the way you are going to get what you want. It protects you too. If the piece of writing arrives, waffling on about your lunch menu when what you wanted was a description of your new brunch menu, a good brief will enable you say: “I’m sorry, that’s not what I asked for and I am not paying you.”

Long before you get to such an unpleasantness though, a brief will save the writer time, meaning the cost for the job should be less. And it will ensure that the relationship between you and your wordsmith stays happy and healthy.


Here’s how you go about making a brief.

There’s prep work to be done

Before you write the brief, and even before you search for a writer, there is some crucial thinking work you need to do. (And – these steps apply even if you are going to be doing the writing yourself!)

You need to figure out why you want that piece of written content, and what it is that you think it might do for you. Plus, who is it aimed at and where will it be used?

Going back to my view of “content” as part of relationship building, these steps are important because they help you clarify what it is that you wish to communicate, and who you are talking to – exactly the steps you would consciously or unconsciously consider in any conversation with someone who matters to you.

Some thought joggers:

  • Do you want the content to promote a specific product or service? If so, what is it?
  • Do you want the content to promote you or your business generally? If so, can you express that in a sentence?
  • Do you want the content to establish you as a thought leader in your field? If so, what might the thoughts be?
  • Do you want the content to advertise an event? If so, what are all the details of the event?
  • You want it to do something else? Try to get that as clear as you can.
  • Who do you think the audience is? In broad strokes, try to picture a real person who might be reading the writing that is to be produced.
  • Where is the content going to be published? Website? Social media? Local community newspaper?
  • How will you know the piece of content has done its job? What are you going to measure or look for?

Defining all these things gives you the list of basic information you need to supply to the writer. For example, taking the brunch menu idea, these might be some answers to those questions:

The content aims to promote your new brunch menu
The audience is your existing customers (particularly that couple who come in every Sunday for lunch)
The platform is your Facebook page
The measure of success is the number of uptakes you get for a promotion you will run offering a discount if people book a meal through the Facebook page


The content aims to promote yourself as a thought leader in the restaurant field
The audience is food journalists (who you hope will then give you more coverage)
The platform is your own blog on your restaurant’s website, and then foodie publications as a guest post
The measure of success is the traffic you get to that web page, and increased coverage in the media

(In this case, your work means you know at the outset that the format for this is going to be an interview or conversation between you and the writer, who will then take your ideas and turn them into an article)

The bottom line: you are not going to get a good result unless you are crystal clear in your own mind what your strategy is. The questions I have outlined above are a good place to start. But if you do want to help with crafting a bigger strategy, these are helpful resources (if you keep in mind what “content” really is):

Content Marketing
The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing in 2021

Ok, so then what? Do some nitty gritty thinking

Once you have your strategy clear in your head (even if it is only for this one piece of writing) there are some other things you’ll need to think about.

What’s the main message you want to convey?

Try to write this in one sentence, for example:

I want the piece to tell readers that I am launching a new brunch menu from (insert date) and that there will be discounts on meals until (insert date)


I want to express my ideas about the restaurant industry’s need to move to vegetarian and vegan dining because we too need to be part of addressing the climate crisis.

You can generally refine your thinking around this by asking yourself the question:

What would I tell a colleague or friend about this?

Thinking about in this human way will help you frame the main idea in a way that in meaningful to your audience.

Is there any specific information that needs to be included?

Here you give more detail:

The piece should include the fact that the menu is mostly vegetarian, and that there are several vegan options


I’d like to include some examples of the ways in which I have transformed some of my traditional recipes into vegan dishes.

How long do you want the piece of content to be?

This can be hard to determine, but in the case of our two examples:

Social media content should be as short as the writer can make it.
Thought leader content is usually between 800 to 1500 words.

In general, you can probably discuss desired length with your writer, who should have a sense of what works in various formats. (And… don’t think that because something is short, you will get a bargain price. It takes a high level of skill to write short pieces that pack a punch.)

Do you have any graphics or images that need to be included? Or do you want the writer to source these for you (which might affect the cost of the job)?

The more you can supply your own illustrations, the less work the writer (or eventual designer) has to do.

Finally, do some “fluffy” thinking

There are some intangible things you need to articulate, too.

What are your core business values?

You don’t need to write a mission statement here. Just try to write down the things that are important to you or to your business. Knowing what these are will help a writer understand what to emphasise in the writing they do for you.

For instance, if you value customer service, that will be mentioned in piece about your new brunch menu. But if your focus is innovative recipes, then that will take centre stage.

What’s the overall tone of voice of the brand?

Here, you are looking at emotion and connection. Do you want your content to sound friendly and welcoming? Or trendy? Or calm?

Is there a particular style you like or don’t like? A good way to start to understand this is to look at the material produced by your competitors. Are there any you like and sneakily admire? Then keep a list and share them with your writer. If they are skilled, they can place your content in the same realm.

In summary

All this might seem to be a lot of work, especially if all you want is a “quick social media post”. But it is worth it. You will get more than content – you’ll get a piece of writing that displays your business in the best possible way. And that’s the way that makes you human and relatable to the people you care about: your customers

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

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Main picture: Gabrielle Henderson, Unsplash

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