WriterAccess Webinar Archive
The Creative Brief
Monday, May 7, 2012 – 1:00 PM ET
This month's topic focuses on developing a Creative Brief. In simplest terms, a Creative Brief is a framework or foundation that informs a writer of guidelines for a content project. It contains a well-identified and articulate summary of the key factors that can impact a project: company background, target audience details, competitive intelligence, brand goals and specific project particulars. The best creative briefs are concise and to the point. Byron and guest Nick Usborne will guide you through the creative process used to develop a Creative Brief.
In this Webinar, you will learn...
- What is a Creative Brief? Why do I need it?
- Key questions to ask your customers
- Key answers to tell your writers
- Private Access to Creative Brief Wizard
The slidedeck from this webinar is available for download.
Byron: We’re going to have a fabulous presentation today that we’re quite excited about. I am joined today by Nicholas Usborne. Welcome, Nick!
Nick: Thank you.
Byron: First I want to tell everybody a little bit about why we’re here and why this topic is important. For starters, this topic is brought to you by IdeaLaunch, which is the parent company for WriterAccess. We’re now really zeroing in on the WriterAccess business model that we have and helping not just companies create great content with access to great writers. We’re now trying to help writers to create that great content as well. Nick is kind to join us today. He’s a celebrity on the writer’s circuit, doing a lot of work with the American Writer’s Association (AWA) and lots of other ventures. I’ve known Nick for many years now. Back a decade ago, Nick and I basically did website audits for companies as part of some work we were doing with people. So, it’s really great to be back with Nick and we’ve got some other things in store with Nick if things go well, including more training and access to taking it to his level. Nick, did you want to add anything to that before we begin?
Nick: Just briefly, because I know that when I watch and listen to people, I’m never quite sure whether to believe them. I just wanted to reiterate the point that you and I have both been doing this for a long time, and what I’m talking about today is in fact really basic. I’ve been a freelancer for 30 years now, with companies large and small like The New York Times and Reuters. I’ve worked with hundreds of companies over the last 30 years, and that is what is prefacing this thought. I just wanted to make a point so that people don’t think I’m saying, “Just look at me!” This is based on experience over decades.
Byron: Well, I’m making my stuff up, Nick, so I’m glad we’re rooted well with you. But I’m making it up with some pretty good experience as well. That’s a great summary. So, let’s dive in, everyone. We’re going to try to blow through quite a bit of information here. I always begin these content marketing monthly webinars with a quick series of slides on what is content marketing. Then I’m going to go into a few slides on the creative brief–what is it, why is it important to you, how to write it, what do you need to do it and make it work. And then I’m going to debut some screen-grabs of a brand-new tool that we are launching today, called the Creative Brief Wizard. We hope to make it easier for people to express what they’re trying to accomplish, the creative strategy, the creative brief that you will be able to create. Then Nick’s going to go through some creative brief tips and advice.
So without further ado, a super-fast version of “What is Content Marketing?” I think everyone on the line here is fairly in-tune with content marketing. It’s defined as the art of listening to your customer’s wants and needs, which by the way is the hardest thing to do in my personal opinion. Also, how you understand those customers that you’re trying to target and/or working with. Then, of course, it’s the science of delivering content to them that’s compelling and engaging. There’s a big portfolio of assets that you now need to have in your portfolio if you’re going to reach people. Catching those customers orbiting at high speeds is very hard to do. You need to think well beyond your website, and into mobile, particularly social networks and video. The portfolio just keeps getting bigger and bigger. If you invest in a diverse portfolio, your chances of connecting with people will be much greater. Another key factor is you need content and information that they want and need. That’s where we’re beginning to see a fork in the road with where we used to sell years ago, by pushing the features and benefits of our products down people’s throats, and pushing marketing strategy out to them, and beating our chests constantly. That’s not working anymore, nor are aggressive sales tactics such as cold-calling tactics. It’s really all about what our customer’s wants and needs are. Where are they in their stage of their careers? How can we help them get better and improve their insights into an area we’re selling with them? That’s hard to figure out. Of course, testing becomes an important component, now that everything seems to be on the web. I like telling people, if you’re not testing, you’re living in the dinosaur age. That’s where Nick and I began years ago. So, good roots there as a part of content marketing.
The key seems to be finding the most efficient path to engagement. Sometimes that’s often not producing more content; sometimes it’s just fine-tuning what you have. It’s a fine balance to really find that efficient path. Content marketing really isn’t a thing or a particular phraseology that makes sense. It’s a process, and it’s really a whole work-flow. Today we’re talking about the content planing process as the preamble to actually creating the content, particularly when it comes to things like assets, the written assets that we’re focusing on today. This workflow is a pretty good summary of what needs to be done. So, let’s go into the creative brief.
For starters, this thing called a creative brief has been out there for a long time. Agencies and creative people, have needed a formal way to document the wants and needs of a customer that is trying to reach their target audience and increase their sales. So, it’s really meant to be a foundation that informs a writer or creative talent on the guidelines for a particular project. That’s a topographical overview. But the real key to it, in my opinion, is that it’s concise, and that’s it’s a very quick summary of key factors that will impact a project. We need to know a little bit about the company, about the target audience. We need to know something about the competition so that we can help to distinguish the client and the customer from the competition. And we need to know what the objectives and the goals are for the brand, and where the brand is in achieving those goals. Are they new to the marketplace, or are they well-entrenched within the marketplace? These are important things to think through.
One of the things that is going to be difficult–particularly for customers as they begin making these creative briefs, and what we’re trying to do with our creative wizard–is to inspire creative people to do something. That’s hard to do. You certainly want to clarify what your goals and objectives are, but you want to also inspire them to create great copy. That’s the trick, is to not create boring creative briefs that then convey to a creative person, ‘Gosh, maybe there’s no room for creativity!’ You want to use great words, and view this as an opportunity to inspire creativity. You need to work with groups of people. Typically, a creative brief is actually developed by the creative team that is working with clients on projects. Or try to flip that around a little bit, and have a customer actually create the creative brief. Which is going to create some problems, I’ll be honest. Years ago I was the account guy putting together the creative brief, and honestly that made no sense to me. I was coming in from a marketing angle and the sales angle of ‘How can we make this customer happy?’ And kiss their butts with great descriptions of features and products and how important they are. But really, this is not what this is all about. It’s not about selling anyone on anything. It’s about trying to gather good ideas, and we’ll talk more about that.
So, what questions does a creative brief answer? I think these are important things to go over. Certainly, what is a project? What’s the task at hand? Why are we doing this project? What’s its goal? Is it to increase traffic, is it to persuade and help people in a certain stage of the sales funnel? What problem is happening in that stage of the sales funnel, or what opportunity is there to motivate people? What do we want to achieve? What is the end goal? Who is the target audience, and why should they care about this thing we’re creating? Is this important, either to the company or to the target audience? In particular, the target audience. Where will it be used? Who will it engage, and how will it engage them? Is it a handout? is it a giveaway? Is it just going to be a static piece on the site? How are people going to get there? Is it supported by paper click? Is it supported by organic only? Are there links to this? Where are the links from? That’s an important element that you need to convey to somebody who really wants to perform to the maximum. Another interesting question is, how will it be remembered and retold? I’ve done many webinars on storytelling and creating great content and how to do it. But I think that retelling the story is something that a good creative copywriter is able to do. What needs to be done, by whom and when? In this case, it’s a particular copywriter who’s going to pick up an assignment. But a creative brief may be much more complex.
What form can a creative brief take? It certainly can be a template form, which I’m going to talk about today. But it can also just a conversation that you have with your customers that’s happening all the time, or that you’re having with your creative team. It could be a white-board that becomes a session people are involved in. It could be a war-room that evolves over time. Watch different elements that can happen here. Who should develop it? A customer, a client, a designer, a marketing person? There’s lots of different people who can create it, as mentioned. Who should use it? Certainly everybody. A writer, a customer, a designer–this is a very important document that everyone needs to agree to and be a part of in its final form.
What isn’t a creative brief? I thought that this was important to talk about. It’s not always necessary for simple projects. In many cases, people are coming to WriterAccess for example, with more of an execution mode, where they already know what they want. There’s a creative strategy, there’s keywords that have been identified, there’s a quantity that has been identified. Now there’s filling holes and filling buckets. That is perhaps not always necessary to involve a writer in a monstrous creative brief. But I would argue that it’s great to know what’s going on at every stage of a project being developed. If a content strategy was created, why not summarize that content strategy in the creative brief template that we’re going to talk about today? And just let a writer breeze that over. As long as it’s easy to read–which we try to limit our customers on how much information they’re providing and just providing that key information–I think it can be really helpful and help raise the level of quality in content that’s being created.
The next point is that it’s not always easy to create all the details that are necessary for performance and impact. These are difficult to do, we’re going to walk through the actual creation of a brief. But the net of it is, it’s not easy to do this stuff. And certainly, it’s not a long summary of how great your company is or how your products are. It’s not an opportunity to list the products, benefits, charts, features and graphs and get people wound up, as if you’re selling to them. And you don’t want to sell your products and services to your creative team. So that’s certainly what it’s not. That’s my biggest fear, that people will always want to talk about their company and their products in terms of their great products and services, and how they’re better than the competition. That’s not the path you really want to go down. And it’s certainly not an all-in-one document that applies to all your creative projects. Which is why you see we almost force you to say, “This creative brief applies to X, Y and Z-type assets that are being created. So you want different strategies for different assets.
Why is the creative brief critical to the creative process? For one thing, it defines and sort of fixes the parameters of the project. It allows you to wrap your head around it, in terms of doing a 20,000-ft view of several of the key points that are essential to understand and to agree upon as a group. Next, it provides an objective strategy that can be agreed-upon by everyone that’s concerned. But perhaps most importantly, it provides a metric by which to judge and evaluate the appropriateness of the solution. This is where WriterAccess comes in. We wanted this to be a public document. We want customers to create it, and we want writers to read it. We want some back-and-forth and questions answered, and perhaps clarification of this creative brief. But then we want it used as a gauge to measure the success of a particular campaign. That becomes a really important piece to WriterAccess, which none of our competitors are even beginning to think about. What is the creative strategy behind content, and did the writer achieve that goal? So that’s what we hope is going to be accomplished with the customers who choose to complete this and fill this out. Certainly, it needs to contain all of the relevant information in a single place. That’s frankly the beauty of it. It needs to really be a driver for the process, to deliver the final creative asset. I would argue that the creative brief in and of itself is the start of the process of creating content and you will hopefully see as well.
So, some rules for success? Every angle is different. We’re coming from different angles, we’re filling this out. I thought about including on the wizard, who are you that’s filling this out? So that we understand what the angle is that you’re probably coming from. But that becomes an important element for you to take into consideration. How brief can it be? That’s an important element. Is it organic and collaborative and inspirational, and not directional, limiting or persuasive? The creative brief should be inspirational for creative people, not limiting too much or closing doors of opportunity too quickly with how it’s being created. That’s a tough art to put that together. It needs to be brief, as mentioned. It needs to be written for the creative writer, not for your marketing manager. That’s an important distinction. I’d almost like to see a customer fill this out, and not have it approved by your legal department necessarily. Or approved by your boss or the director of sales. This is an inspirational piece. If your goal is high quality content and engaging content, you need something very strong and powerful for your brand, and infusing your brand message. Don’t express the hype, or believe the hype. Stay away from this concept that features and benefits and how great my company is the driver for the creative brief. Instead, find deeper roots and getting inside the heart and soul of the end customer and the reader. That’s the important part of it, not a bunch of marketing gibberish.
Next, try to be consistent with you how write the brief. Let the personality of the consumer or the reader shine through. That’s key. You almost want to be writing this as if your customers would be looking at it and agreeing with you about what’s being stated. The final trick is to use evocative language that tries to bring out some of your brand’s personality and how you think of the competition, or how you think about your own brand. I think that’s an important element here, because it opens up and triggers all kinds of creative thinking that a writer needs to go through.
Let me talk briefly about our wizard, which everyone’s going to be able to try out, check out and play with. It’s new and it’s fresh. I don’t know if they have anything like this on the web right now, so bear with us. Please send me your feedback to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t wait to get any feedback from everyone on this piece.
It’s a six-part wizard. It starts out looking for a title. Then a description of what you’re trying to produce. Then I check the content order type. In this case, it’s a blog post. So I’ve zeroed in the writer or the creative team on exactly what I’m trying to do, right from the get-go with a super-brief description of what I’m trying to produce. Very clean, very simple, that’s step 1. Step 2 is telling me a little bit about your company. We put a big blank box that allows you to talk about your company and quickly list your industry. It needs to be brief and to-the-point. Just who you are and what your company does, in a simple, easy format. You don’t have to come in and use your name for this. You could use your company name. But you could also remain anonymous if you want to, at WriterAccess as you post jobs with writers. But in any case, you need to explain to writers what you do.
The brand voice is interesting. These are throttles, if you will. What we’re trying to make a writer understand is, if your company is a person, what kind of personality would they have? You take that little slider and you move it toward one side or the other to try to create a mathematical sense of what your company’s brand is all about. Now, this is not the content asset. This is your brand. What is your brand voice? These are extremes that express your ability to nail your brand as closely as you can.
Next, we look at more company information. Who’s your competition? How are they better or worse than you? Cover the basics, but also use colorful words such as, “This is the underdog of the industry,” or “Here’s the elephant or the giant.” Using your own words, plane the competitive landscape. I think this gives real insight into how you think of the competition as opposed to your brand. The final section is unique selling points. I highly recommend that you read Seth Godin’s The Purple Cow. Try to find some unique selling points that are really infused with your brand, how you’re different and how you stand out in front of the pack. This is just a few bits of information about your company. We’re trying not to let you talk too much about your features and benefits of your products. Look at some other ways to summarize yourself.
Next is your target audience. We want you to describe your target audience by dropping any facts about your target audience, who they are. Are they celebrities or experts, exclusive or everyone under the sun? Then we want to know about their proficiency level. We talk about content marketing as our topic. Who is the target audience, what is their knowledge level with content marketing? Is it low, is it high? What’s the audience mindset? Are they know-it-alls, or undereducated? Is it a formal or a festive environment? These sliders will help put metrics on these distinctions. Next, we have more metrics in tone and style. We suggest that you drop in an actual sample. I look forward to your feedback on this style and tone section, whether this makes sense to people in having this throttled approach. We want it to be quick and easy.
Next, research and inspiration. Tell us about industry publications and sources that might be appropriate. Tell us about online references that would be appropriate, or any bright ideas that you may have to send people off into the sunset with some creative ideas. Finally, drivers and requirements. What are the drivers for this project? What are you trying to achieve? What are the main objectives of any content that you’re creating? Is it engagement, is it listing positions, is it optimization, is it link-building, is it SEO? What restrictions and challenges do you have?
I want my piece of the puzzle to end with something quite interesting. How do you measure the success of any content you’re creating? I want everyone to understand that there are a lot of great ways you can measure success. Engagement, listing positions, conversion rates, increasing traffic on your site, looking at user acquisition cost, increasing sales, there are lots of ways you can measure the success of creating great content. I’m dying for feedback, so please reach out to me. Everyone can go to idealaunch.com/101 for a free copy of my book. So without further ado, I’m going to hand the baton over to you, Nick.
Nick: One thing that I want to ask you before I start. From listening to you, it seems like we have a mix here of writers but also maybe one or two people from the client side as well?
Byron: Probably more than one or two. It’s a pretty good mixed audience.
Nick: I’m going to look around the edges of the creative brief. Byron is saying that from his agency days, he was the account executive. I was on the creative team. I was the copywriter and the creative director. I received these creative briefs that generally came from the account team. I had a love-hate relationship with these documents. On the one hand, they gave me the information that I needed to do the work. On the other hand, I always had this kind of resentment that they were boxing me in. Over time, that second part begins to disappear. I discovered that constraints can actually drive you to be much more creative. It’s when you have no constraints at all that you’re floating around. In my experience, that’s when you’re actually the least creative. If you’ve ever written a sonnet, talk about constraints! It has a very particular number of syllables per line. But you can hardly say that no one’s ever been creative with a sonnet. So briefs are sort of wonderful in that regard.
The most powerful thing I’ve found is that briefs open conversation. And it’s an opportunity for me as a writer of copy and content to open a dialogue with the client. Very specifically, to communicate to them that I’ve read the brief and that I’m really excited to be working on this. I know you don’t always have that opportunity, depending on the kind of client and the structure of the relationship, to get into a one-on-one conversation. But when you can, there’s this magical thing you can do. Open up the conversation and say, “Thank you for the brief. I am so excited, I’m really looking forward to this! I really want to help you achieve your goals.
I can say this because I’ve been involved in some research about what clients really want. There were some replies from freelancers, saying, “Our favorite kind of freelancer is the freelancer who is just really into our business, engages with us, is excited and wants to help. I have this guy on the client-side called Jimmy. He was telling a story of how a freelancer called him on a Sunday afternoon when he was at home. He said, “Hey, Jim, I’m sorry I called you at home. But I was thinking about this job and working on it, and I just had this idea.” He was really excited. Jimmy said, “I didn’t mind that guy calling at all. He called me on a weekend, and his voice told me that he was really into it. That’s the kind of freelancer I love. What I don’t like is a freelancer who gets the brief, never says a word, does the job, invoices the job 35 minutes later and follows up on payments seven days later. I don’t use people like that. I love to work with freelancers who ring you in the afternoon in the garden with my family. It shows that they care.” Creative briefs are great in that they open the door to conversation.
I’m now going to look around the edge of the brief. The template is a great starting point and gives you the slider thing, which I think puts a specific figure on something. When I receive a brief, I often go back and say, “Can you just, in your own words, write me an email the way you see it? You wrote the brief. I get it, I understand it. But write me 200 words on where you think this is going and what you want to find.” And I do that because I take the client out of the constraints of the briefing process when I say, “Hey, just tell me.” And it might be that I’ll record a phone conversation and say, “Can we have ten minutes and transcribe this?” What I’m looking for is the kind of language he or she uses. Very often, several times over the years, I’ve taken a line out of this informal description, and it’s become the headline. Or I’ve taken a sentence or a whole paragraph and it’s become the lead paragraph in something. Sometimes when you ask the client to get less formal for a moment, ask them to take everything in the creative brief and put it in their own words. Often that’s where I’ll find my insight, what they’re really looking for. When you have the opportunity, always ask for this informal addition. I take the creative brief and I get that and use that. But I’m also looking for it in the client’s own words.
Another thing I do for a client is I ask for samples of work that they really like. It doesn’t have to be for their company. It could be for a competitor, or for a totally unrelated service or product. But I want to get a feel for what that person actually likes in this kind of creative work. If I’m writing a page, I’ll say, “Show me a few other pages that you like, that you really think hit the mark.” I’m not ignoring the creative brief; I’m just trying to add stuff. I’m trying to fill out the edges and get a different viewpoint.
This can be really important in terms of giving the client something they’ll be happy with. Byron, you may have had a similar experience. I’ve had experiences where I’ve done work, which is absolutely spot-on to the creative brief, and I deliver it and they don’t like it. And I’m like, “But I followed the brief!” They say, “Yeah, but it doesn’t work for me.” There’s all kinds of circumstances where you do the job you’re asked to, and the client doesn’t like it. Just to show you how weird this can get, I did some optimization work for a team. I was part of a team for a company. We were improving the home page on their website. We thought it worked really well, and the client we were working with thought it worked really well. We got a phone call the evening we were going to publish it, and the guy said, “Don’t publish it.” The chairman of the board had a look at it, and didn’t want to run the new version. We said, “Why not?” Because we’d done all these tests and we knew it would work so much better. He said, “The truth is, the chairman was behind the version we have now. He quite rightly thinks the new version’s going to work better, and he doesn’t want to look bad.” Weird stuff can happen. You do the best job you can, and stuff happens. I told this story to show that sometimes they will ask something from you. Then, you deliver what they asked for and it doesn’t always work out happily. So if I can, I try to get examples of what the client likes. Because I know if I hit the creative brief head-on, that it still might not please the client. It doesn’t have to be the same kind of work for their company; it could be a different industry. It just rounds things out for me.
I’ve worked with and I know an awful lot of freelancers. A lot of them work very hard. The ones who don’t do quite so well are the ones who tend to take shortcuts. They’ll get a client and they’ll get a brief, and often it’s not as formal as the ones Byron’s offering. Then they’ll just dive in and do the job, and it doesn’t work out well. And I say to them, “Did you spend time on their site beforehand and look at their existing stuff? Did you subscribe to their newsletter? Have you been following their blog posts, follow them on Facebook?” And they say, “No, I just did what they were asking.” That strikes me as foolish. If you want to truly understand, this is what gives insight into the creative brief. The creative brief can be a little bit constructed, there’s a necessary rigidity to it. This is where you fill in the blanks. So I always, for myself or if I’m talking to other freelancers, say, “If you’re going to work for a client, how are you going to spend time?” If it’s online work, spend time across their online channels. Read their website, sign up for their newsletter, and read their blog posts. Look at their LinkedIn page, so that you can get a feel with the brief as to the kind of language they use, the way they open and close. Even when a client isn’t aware of it, you as a writer can look at a client’s site and see stuff they don’t see. You’re looking at it from the outside. You’re looking at it from a fresh perspective. They may have become blind to the way they do stuff.
Most of the time, I look at it and I get a sense of how they do it and what they want. And I’ll blend that with what I’m getting from the creative brief. But sometimes, I’ll look at the creative brief and I’ll look at what they actually do and I’ll see a significant disconnect. And I think that I could be running into trouble. When I have the opportunity, I then get back to the client and I’m totally honest about it. I say, “Look, you say ABC in your brief, but I look at your website and you’re saying XYZ. Can we talk about this? It troubles me. I don’t want to give you ABC if what you actually want to publish is XYZ. And I don’t want to give you XYZ if you’re going to be upset that I haven’t followed the brief that says ABC.” I only do that when I see a significant disconnect between what they ask for and what they generally do. If you don’t explore that content for yourself, in addition to reading the brief, you’re not necessarily setting yourself up for trouble. But it’s trouble you can avoid simply by having a look at their existing content and what they do now.
Get them to prioritize their needs. It may be that, if you look at the creative brief the way Byron is presenting it, you may think, ‘Wow! They want me to be funny. They want me to be serious. They want me to address people who are knowledgeable. They moved the slider here and put in the little bit of text. They say this. But what do these guys actually want?’ Very often, the answer is that their audience is actually quite complex. They may have four or five types of visitors. As they give you the creative brief, they’re trying to cover all kinds of different eventualities and audiences within their larger audience. I might recognize it in a creative brief. When I see that, I think, ‘They’re trying to please all kinds of people. I can see these little conflictions in what they say here and there.’ I get back to them and say, “Here’s what I’m seeing. Can we talk about this?” Sometimes it’s a phone call, but you can do it by email as well or through a form. Sometimes they say, “We have five different types of people. And we have these 32 different product or service offerings that match different audience types.”
This is classic appetizing Marketing 101. You cannot please all audience types. You cannot address everyone. As soon as you try to address everyone, you automatically write something that is boring to everyone. It’s not on the mark for anyone, because you’re trying to please too many people. It doesn’t matter if I’m working for a local company or The New York Times. I say, “You’ve got multiple audience types. You’ve got multiple offerings in terms of products and services. You tell me which three or four products or services that 80 percent of people are looking for when they come to your site.” Sometimes they say, “How did you know?” I know because it’s always that way.
If a company offers 50 different products and services, 80 percent of the people who come to their site are generally looking for three or four things. You miss the 20 percent. But if you can get 80 percent, so much the better. Sometimes I find a creative brief where I’m like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute! I’m not getting a clear idea of who they’re trying to talk to.” It’s often because they’re trying to talk to too many people about too many things in too many different ways. So then I get back and say, “You can’t do that. You’re going to have very ineffective text if we try to address everyone and please everyone. We will wind up pleasing nobody. Let’s prioritize the audience type and the message type.” If it’s content that is pre-selling products and services, prioritize which products and services. That’s important to me because that gives you the ability to write really good content. When you’re trying to please everyone, you’ll never be able to do your best work. Your client will never be delighted, unless they’re a little foolish. They’ll never be delighted because they can recognize that the copy is kind-of flat and not very engaging or exciting. That’s often because it’s trying to please too many audiences in too many different ways.
I might get a client who says, “Can you write a page of content?” I say, “Sure I can.” They’ll give me a brief and tell me what it’s all about. It might only be a single page. It might not be as extensive as Byron’s brief. Many of the questions in Byron’s brief, if need be I will ask them in email. I want to know if it is connected. This is absolutely essential in the online world because everything is connected. Every page in a website is connected to one or more other pages. So if they ask if I can write a page of content or a series of five pages of content, I will say, “Absolutely! Can you show me how this fits in? From which page are people going to come to this? Which pages are they going to be sent to at the end of this page? How else is it connected? Are you going to be talking about this on Facebook? Is this going to be linked from your newsletter?”
I want to understand the context. If it’s print, it’s a little different. It might be part of a broader campaign. But on a website specifically, every page will always be connected to other pages. If I’m doing a series of five content pages, and there’s a primary page from which these pages will be linked, I want to see that page. I want to make sure that when people go from that page to one of my new pages of content, there’s a natural flow that makes sense. It helps me write better content. It also helps me avoid the circumstance where I submit my work and the client says, “It’s great work, beautifully done. You absolutely followed the brief and we cannot fault it. But we should have told you at the outset that it’s going to be part of a larger collection of connected pages. And though it’s great, our web team in-house doesn’t feel happy because the tone is really different from the surrounding, connected pages.”
I’m trying to set myself up for success. And I’m sometimes trying to fill in the gaps that a client may have made. They may not have thought, ‘We should tell Nick about how these pages fit into the website as a whole.’ They may forget to tell me, “We’ve already got the second-level page where the links of these pages will be listed. Nick’s style and approach should match that second page.” So it’s something that I definitely make sure that I do.
It depends on how you’re getting the work and the size of the project. But just as a freelancer tip, I always look for opportunities to expand the scope of the project. Let’s say someone asks me to write a sales page. I say I can do that, and I get the brief. Then I say, “By the way, how are you getting traffic to this page?” Then they say, “Oh, we’re going to do a series of emails.” I’ll say, “Who’s writing those?” because I want to know how it’s connected. And they’ll say, “We haven’t worked that out yet.” Then I say, “Perhaps I should do that. If I write the emails, then I can make absolutely sure that there’s a perfect connection and flow from the emails to the sales page.” And they say, “Yes, please do that.”
I might ask them how they’re going to get traffic here and they’ll say, “We’re going to do some paper-click ads.” I will ask, “Have you got them done so I can look at it? Why don’t I do that?” I quote some reference from some study that shows that the actual text you use in the paper-click ad, if the person who clicks it sees an immediate match on the landing page, you can increase conversion. Everything I do, I say, “Well, I wonder how this is connected, and I wonder whether I can also write those connected pieces.” I would say over the years, about eight times out of ten, I succeed in expanding the scope of the original project the client had in mind. As freelancers, we have two types of time: billable and unbillable. I like to do that because then I’m not having to spend unbillable time looking for new work. I already have the client, and I already have a project. Any additional work I can get by expanding the scope of that existing project, that’s extra work I’m getting without having to spend unbillable hours marketing myself. Sometimes I can add to my fee by 50 percent or more. The biggest one, an insurance company came to me with a $2,000 job. Over the following three months, it expanded into a $30,000 job. That was simply saying, “Who’s doing this?” Or, “who’s doing that?” And I was just going in and picking up more and more. For some projects, you don’t have that opportunity. Where you do is where you have an open line of communication and they’re willing to listen to your questions and suggestions. Then that is something that I always recommend that every freelancer should think about and do. It’s a great way to make more money with very little extra effort.
When I get to the client, I say, “Tell me the scope of the engagement and everything you want me to do.” Then I submit an estimate, and they give me the creative brief. Sometimes circumstances are a little different. They may say, “Nick, we want you to do this. Here’s the creative brief.” And then the process begins at what, in my mind, is the mid-point. I always pause and I try to step back. I say, “Thank you for the brief. I get that. Can we please have a look at the scope of this engagement?” Make sure you understand precisely what they want you to do. Sometimes I’ve gone into jobs, and other freelancers have done the same, where I was given a creative brief without getting clarity of the scope of the engagement as a whole. And then freelancers do it, and realize that they’ve agreed to do it for a specific amount of money. Then they suddenly realize that this project is actually bigger than what they’d anticipated. Then you get into that awful business of, ‘I can’t go back and change the estimate now or the amount of money. But, they keep asking me for more.’ So what I do when I get the creative brief as well as trying to build a bigger picture is to see what else is involved. I also want to make absolutely sure, before I put a pen to paper, that we both understand precisely what I’m going to do for the money.
With Byron’s template, that should hopefully not often be a problem. It should be fairly clearly described exactly what they want. I’m not saying that the clients are being deliberate or malicious in suddenly saying, “But, I thought we agreed that you would also do such-and-such.” Often, it happens with an inexperienced client. They don’t really understand the process that well, and then they get surprised. You get surprised, and then everyone gets a little upset. I don’t know if it sounds obvious, or if it sounds unnecessary. But it’s actually one of the key pillars of the way I’ve conducted my business as a freelancer for the last 30 years. Before ever putting pen to paper, I get absolute, total clarity on the full scope of the engagement before I begin. I want to get into that without any worries in my mind. I want to look forward to writing what I’ve been asked to write. I want to understand fully and exactly what I’m doing for the amount of money agreed, whether it’s a small job or a very large job. I absolutely do not want upsets and surprises to end up in wasted time or the breaking up of relationships that could have been very good.
Byron: First of all, Nick, you put up a lot of information here for people. You speak a lot, you write about writing, you have online courses. Where do you want people to go to if they have questions or if they’re interested in jumping on your fan wagon?
Nick: If they want to jump on my fan wagon, just go to my website, nickusborne.com. For specific questions that we don’t address today, I put my email address up there so people can contact me. I may not reply immediately, as it depends on what else I’m doing. I try not to spend my day too much with email, although I do try to get to it. If you send me an email, and you don’t hear from me in a couple of days, remind me.
Byron: Let’s go into a couple questions here, Nick. We had a several questions about the wizard–where is the wizard, how do I get to it. We just launched the wizard today, basically. If you go to writeraccess.com and look at the bottom of the page, there’s four grey boxes. One says “Resources” and has a link to the creative brief wizard. It’s a free tool, and you’re going to love this. When you fill out the information, or when a customer fills out all of the information, it bangs out a PDF you can take with you. We also churn out a unique URL for that creative brief that’s emails to you. You can then share it with other people who are working on that project. It’s totally free and customizable. Once you create the creative brief, you can’t change it. That’s the only problem. We haven’t built an engine that will allow you to go in and edit it. You’ll have to be careful with that one, or copy and paste the answers from that page to another one. Let’s go to some other questions.
Somebody had a comment that I just wanted to read to you, Nick. In our company, the stakeholder or the person requesting the creative services completes the creative brief that contains standard questions. It’s a very common theme. I had someone else who actually sent me an angry email during the webinar, which I thought was interesting. It said, “Byron, the creative person shouldn’t be filling this out. The account person does this. Maybe the customer, possibly. But an account person who’s trained on what to ask and when to ask it.” They were very emotional and passionate about that mistake they’d thought I’d made. Which I love, bring it on! Nick, can you talk about that?
Nick: You love it when people get distraught with you.
Byron: It was wonderful!
Nick: My experience is that the creative brief is usually created by someone on the client side or the agency side. If someone says, “Nick, for our product, can you write the creative brief?” I’d probably say, “No, I can’t. You know it better than I do. You’re on the client side. It’s your product or service. That’s something for you to fill out so I can learn from it.” As for who fills it out, in the agencies, sometimes it comes from the client company. Sometimes it was put together by the account group. But as a copywriter, I’d wait for the creative brief to be delivered to me as a resource to me. Very often, then I’ll have follow-up questions where I’m trying to fill in around the edges of that brief and address and questions I might have.
Byron: I agree with that. It’s tricky waters. I think it’s a really good point to ask who should develop it. The key is that it should be someone that understands the real context that the work will exist. Somebody really needs to understand this client’s brand, their company and competition. I also think that this person needs to be inside the mind of the reader or the customer who is going to be engaging with the work.
Nick: Often it would be that I’d get a creative brief from the brand manager, or whoever was responsible on the client side. But as a writer, I certainly wouldn’t expect to write it because I’m looking for those answers. I don’t have them yet.
Byron: Exactly. And it would take you many hours to get those answers.
Nick: And then I might be completely wrong, because the client can have all kinds of strategies, goals and approaches that I might not be privy to.
Byron: Exactly. I’m glad we clarified that. So, I think that’s a good and very important point there. My bad, hats off to somebody who had that question.
Nick: We’ll have a group beat-up Byron moment.
Byron: Yeah. Somebody did write, “The author of the creative brief is irrelevant. Whoever pays for the work needs to approve the brief in blood. That’s an interesting point. The writer, Ian, has a good point there. Writers want the creative brief. They need the creative brief. But they need it to be written in blood. That was your point earlier, Nick. It’s like, “I followed your creative brief here. You’re wasting my time.” Because someone didn’t approve the creative brief, so they didn’t approve the copy.
Nick: That happens a couple of ways. One is that they were sloppy with the creative brief, or perhaps that the wrong person wrote it. The other is that the creative brief is actually at odds with what that person wants. Quite often, the ultimate judgment of your work is more subjective than the client would be willing to admit. You can follow the brief, but then the client can just think, ‘Well, I don’t like it. I get that you followed the brief, but I still don’t like it.’ That’s a pain, because you get into that awkward back-and-forth. But I require blood for the creative brief. I specifically require blood for the exact scope and limits of the engagement. I do not ever, as a freelancer, want to write the five pages and have the client say, “I thought we agreed that you were going to do such-and-such as well.” When I don’t have a formal process put in place on the client side, I require from a client is a briefing on paper or by phone. Then I write them an email saying, “This is my understanding of the scope of this engagement. If this is correct, please email this back to me as a reply and confirm. I always get it in writing, in blood, that this is precisely what you’re asking me to do. It’s not that I want to go back and beat them over the head with it, because that doesn’t help anyone. What I want is to be sure that they’ve sorted through carefully before I put pen to paper and waste anyone’s time.
Byron: Someone had a quick question: can you customize the creative brief wizard? Not as of yet. However, there are several blank boxes, particularly in box six where you can add various things to them. We spent many hours working on this creative brief. Going to your point, Nick, the tone and style section. It started out with about ten questions on it. I said, “Strip it down more. This is a brief, so make it simple.” What we decided in the end was a better replacement for all these different questions and fields. We asked to enter a sample of work that you are looking for. Nothing could be better than that.
Nick: If and when you can. I’d also like to see an “in your own words” box. In addition to all the information you shared above, in your own words, tell me what you’re looking for. Very often, I’ve found the headline or I’ve found the key sentence with which to open something in that document where they’ve written to me their take or their viewpoint.
Byron: We got a comment from someone saying, “I could see small PR firms using this service, as we often retain freelancers. In small PR firms, the process needs to be turnkey. We do not have time for an extensive process. I’ve used this service extensively. Oftentimes, writers, even with instructions, will miss directions.” Spot-on. That’s why we thought this creative brief could be an ongoing project. We have a lot of agencies and SEO firms using WriterAccess now. We have something in there now, Nick, called “Master Instructions,” which can apply to ten or 20 things you’re ordering. We have an upload feature to master instructions now for this creative brief. We think the master instructions should be fairly brief. Here’s what I want, here’s how I want it, and here are some creative guidelines. But the brief is an add-on. It’s an additional feature that’s more of an ongoing project. Say, “We need 20-30 blog posts per month. Here’s a summary of what we’re looking for. Here’s our creative strategy.”
Nick: One more thing that you made me think of. Sometimes I read a creative brief and look at the demographic–psychographic, 60 percent female, 30 percent professional–that they’d like the writing to play to. And after I’ve read through ten little snippets like that, I get kind-of lost. I just try to imagine one person who fits this scenario. It may be somebody I know, or it may be somebody I imagined. So I’m thinking of a 40-year-old male who likes outdoor. Always, before I write, I try to picture one person in my mind’s eye. This is the person I’m writing to. When I write, I find it impossible to write to an audience. I don’t write well when I write to an audience. I write well when I write to one person.
Byron: Terrific insight! We had a last questions. Someone wanted to know how you price your services, Nick. Is there a relation to industry standards? Or is it Nick’s own world of pricing, and how did you develop that world?
Nick: If somebody’s asking me to write five blog posts, there really is an industry upper and lower level. Clients know what they can expect to pay for a blog post. That’s generally not being my kind of work. I don’t have an hourly rate. I always price by the project, and I price based on what I would describe as value pricing.
Here’s how value pricing works, and I think you’ll find this interesting. There are two sides to value pricing. One is the perceived value in the client’s mind. So, I’m going to give you two 500-word projects. One is to rewrite the “about” page on a website, the other is to write a sales page on a product or service on the website. On the about page, the perceived value to the client is very low. They perceive it as an expense. They’re not going to generate any income from that page. It’s just that it’s out of date and they want it rewritten. It’s an unfortunate expense and they don’t want to pay much. So they might pay me $200-$300 to rewrite their “about” page. The sales page, same number of words, they think, “If Nick can increase conversion rates by 6 percent, we’ll get an extra $50,000 this quarter.” So to them, I might say instead of $200, I want $2,000. I might say $5,000. And they’ll say yes because they perceive the additional value of that page.
The other part of the equation when it comes to value pricing is their perception of the value that I have. How am I perceived in their eyes? If someone comes to me through a Google search, but they don’t know me or who I am, their perceived value of me is low. I’m nothing special in their eyes. Which means that I really can’t charge a premium price because I’m a stranger. If, however, somebody comes to me and says, “Nick, I’ve heard you speak at a couple of conferences and I read your book. I’ve been reading your articles since 1997.” Then I know that they have a very high perception of my value. Which means that not only can I charge more; I have to charge more.
I’ll give you a quick example of this. I once estimated for a fairly substantial job. It was just like that. It was someone who came to me and was looking for an opportunity to work with me. They wanted it to be me. They said, “Because of the constraints of the company, we were going to put this out to four different writers. But you’re the guy.” I put in my estimate of about $15,000. It was a big project. I waited a few days, but didn’t hear anything. I got back to him, and he said, “Awkward, Nick. You didn’t get the job.” Which kind-of surprised me, since I thought I was a shoe-in. I said, “Can you tell me why not?” He said, “Your estimate came in at about half what we expected.” I estimated at $15,000, but they expected $30,000. And when they saw what, in their eyes, was the low estimate, they thought, ‘He can’t be as good as we thought he was.’ Value pricing is very interesting that way. I know not every project is a $15,000 project. I’ve done plenty of $200 projects. But that time, I blew it because I misread the perception of value that they had for me.
I don’t have an hourly rate. I don’t compete with other copywriters. I don’t care what the going rate is. And if somebody says, “Nick, we were talking to Jack the copywriter, and he said that he can do it,” I say, “Fine. If you want to work with Jack, fine by me.” I don’t want to work with clients who haggle with me. I want to work with clients who get my value and want to work with me. It’s a very different pricing model from writing lots of content one page at a time. Then, I’m constrained, in a way, by industry norms. In that case, I’d stick with those industry norms. So the standard rate for this content is X. And I’ve built myself a bit of a reputation, so I can inch that up a bit.
I have another thing about pricing. If I’m not constrained by the going rate, I’m going to set the estimate. One, I never give an estimate over the phone because I always give it too low. Two, I never give an estimate within 12 hours of being asked to. I want to write it on a piece of paper and let it sit. I want to look at it, change it and make absolutely sure that I’m confident I’ve got it right before I send it off. That’s probably more than you wanted to hear. If you look at the top performers in the industry–whether they’re writing copy or providing other services for web-writing or optimization–you will find that almost none of them have an hourly rate. All of them practice value pricing. Value pricing can also be affected by the size of a company. I could do 500 words for a local company and do 500 words for The New York Times. The New York Times is going to pay ten times more. And they expect it, because they’re a big company and they’re used to cutting big checks.
Byron: Pricing is, without question, the hottest topic amongst our pool of writers. This month, the month of May, we are revolutionizing the industry. In June, we will launch a new pricing formula for the projects being put through the system. We are going to have a huge launch on this topic. We would love to get you thinking about it.
Nick: I could talk forever about pricing.
Byron: This is going to be an interesting one in June, Nick. I’d love to have you talk about this. The challenge to set it up is the following: one, these online models are very difficult. There’s 5,000 writers in our pool. Standing out from the pack is difficult. Customers come to the WriterAccess model and other models, thinking, ‘Oh, big pool! Cheap, this will be great! We’ll crowd-source this out. We’ll get writers to work really cheaply.’ We get that. We understand their background and why they think they can get that. But it doesn’t make it right.
What we’re doing is we’re coming up with a slightly more complicated pricing model. It will allow customers to price things differently. They’ll be able to send things out to the crowd with a crowd order. There will be a discount from the standard rate. The paid rate will be the price-per-word methodology that we’re already using. No changes in the price structure, so we’re a safe harbor there. But the next level up beyond that, we’re changing. It’s called, “Premium Orders.” A customer pays an additional industry-rate bonus. People know the ranges of blog posts, from X to Y. We’re going to show those ranges, and industry standards. Then we’ll also have another way to rate the quality level of a content asset. They can contract editing services. In other words, a second set of eyes looking at content. That’s all within the premium order option.
So if customers are looking for higher content, you get what you pay for. Either do with additional editor support, or pay an additional premium, which is industry standard’s rates. That’s beyond the normal word-order rates, which we need to have to compete with some of these other models. There’s a fourth one, but it’s a “secret sauce” for everyone showing up next month. It’s more like you were describing as a value proposition. That’s really one-to-one negotiations, without saying much more. I believe it will be revolutionary, and is actually using some technology to make that relationship. Tune in next month.
Just so everyone on the phone knows, I’m working with Nick to try to get the response and the reaction to webinars like this. We want to know from writers, was this valuable? Was it informational? Do you want course material? Do you want a guide to help you raise your star level and proficiency? What are the wants and needs of the writers in our community? What sort of help can we get from Nick, who you can see is a real pro?
So, that’s all we have. Nick, thanks a lot for being on the presentation today.
Nick: Oh, you’re very welcome. And I’m sorry if I was too wordy.
Byron: We’ll look for other venues to get people to talk with you, Nick. But it’s all good. It was a great presentation today. Thanks so much for tuning in, everyone. Please give me feedback. I’m dying to get feedback on that wizard. Please give it a try. Kick the tires. Send me an email to email@example.com if you have any thoughts on the creative brief. Send me a tweet and let me know what you thought of this presentation. I’ve been gathering my tweets and feedback for these actual webinars. Nick, thank you.
Nick: Thanks for having me.
Byron: We’ll bring you in the loop next month to talk about pricing. You’re spot-on perfect for that. Thanks everyone for listening in.