Dylan Cinti

For content marketing writers, particularly those at outsourced content providers, delivering the inaugural article for a new client is a decisive moment. It’s the point when the writer not only proves that he or she knows the client’s product or service, but also how to engage with it in a way that will deliver ROI.

Earlier this year, I was putting the finishing touches on one such piece when I remembered something the client told me during the kick-off call: “Make it punchy.” She’d said it almost as an afterthought, and I hadn’t thought much of it. Now, reading over the article, I tried to evaluate it solely on the basis of punchiness. And yeah — to me, it seemed punchy enough.

When the client rep read it, however, she had other ideas. While she was satisfied with the general content, she requested that I go back and make the whole thing “just a bit more punchy.” And that’s when I asked, “Would you mind clarifying what you mean by that?”

It was a question I should have asked earlier — before I’d written a word. Because when it came down to it, we had different ideas about what constituted punchiness. Of course, only her idea mattered, since it was my job to absorb and deliver her brand’s voice.

When you’re launching a client, their voice has to come through in the first piece of content. Article One is the launching pad for the rest of the client relationship. It sets the tone for everything that follows. That’s one reason why writers need to be active in the onboarding process. The other reason is that content marketing — and the content writer in particular — is facing some competition from a potentially game-changing adversary.  

Beating the robots by proving our content humanity

The content marketing industry has been in a constant state of flux ever since the first corporate blog hit the scene. But these days, there’s a question circulating that could be the biggest the industry has faced: “Will journalistic robots kill content marketing? That query, posed by SEO expert and industry leader Jayson DeMers — among many others — is based on some pretty remarkable advancements in journalism-centered AI. One of these is Automated Insights, a startup offering an automation service that processes raw data and turns it into content. Their product, Wordsmith, has attracted several high-profile users including Yahoo! Sports and The Associated Press, which leverage Wordsmith to “cover” certain sporting events.  

For the record, I don’t think AI will replace the content marketing writer — at least not anytime soon. While technology like Automated Insights can generate technically serviceable content based on concrete data sets, it absolutely lacks the human touch to produce stories with an analytical, relevant and punchy journalistic voice (see what I mean here). So thankfully, it’ll be a while before we’re supplanted by machines.

shutterstock_1365463Still, I do think the AI journalism question points to broader conversations that many enterprises are having about intelligent automation. Basically, if there’s a way a business can automate something, it’ll consider it. As the automation push grows, it’s becoming important for content marketing writers to demonstrate what sets them apart from the algorithms. One key way is the ability to offer clients a personalized approach to content strategy. And that personalization begins with the onboarding process.  

So now there are two compelling reasons for the writer to be more involved in the customer onboarding process: First, the inaugural piece sets the tone for the client relationship, and second, it’s a way to demonstrate the personalization that we as humans can offer. Here are some tips writers should keep in mind when they approach client onboarding:

1) Be an active participant in client conversations:

When I’m launching a new client, I always make sure I’m present for all the calls that take place in the lead-up to the first story. While the account manager usually leads those calls, I make an effort to be actively engaged (which is also a requirement for tips two and three, below). By the time I submit that first article, I want to be on a first-name basis with whoever’s receiving it on the client side.  

2) Ask any and all stylistic questions:

As a tech writer, the onboarding process for new clients always involves a lot of product-specific talk (after all, there’s a definite learning curve for stuff like DevOps orchestration). But it’s important that in-depth product understanding is matched by questions that help establish strong stylistic footing for the first piece. When a client hires an outsourced writing team, their question is, “Will this agency be able to sound like us?” That responsibility falls on the writer, which is why I always make sure to ask as many stylistic questions as possible, such as:

  • What do you want your brand voice to sound like? To help refine this question, I typically ask clients for publications or even specific articles that they’d like their content modeled after. However, I also want to make sure their desired voice is something I’ll be able to realistically deliver. That’s why I follow up my question about brand voice by providing a new client with a series of stylistically diverse pieces I’ve produced and ask them to select the piece that most closely resembles what they’re looking for. That way, when I approach the first article, I’ll have an idea of the desired tone that I can model on my own previous work.
  • What are some words that describe the type of content you’re looking for? Make sure to follow this up with any clarifying questions so that you don’t end up in your own “punchiness” debate.
  • Lists: Yay or nay? Just because listicles are “the new face of content marketing” — particularly for B2C — that doesn’t mean every client will like them, which is why it’s important to establish a client’s stance before you write your first piece.

Those are just a few personal suggestions. But when it comes to questions of style, there’s no query too small, so don’t shy away from asking anything that will help you deliver your best content.   

3) Fully understand the target audience:

Content marketing writing is divided into two types: B2B and B2C. But that only tells the writer whether they’re aiming content at an industry person or a more general reader, and within those two categories there’s a lot of variety. A B2B cybersecurity services company whose chief buyers are C-suite IT leaders will have a very different target demographic than a financial software provider that mainly caters to smaller-scale agricultural operations. So when I’m launching a client, I always ask for an extremely detailed picture of the likely reader: Law firm executive without a formal IT background; Tech startup marketing VP with a Master’s in applied behavioral science. Visualizing these readers leads to content with a tailored persona, which is vital to lead gen (read more about the persona-based approach here).  

When we imagine the writerly process, we think about sitting alone with our thoughts and letting the style flow from there. But with content marketing, that goes out the window. As a marketing writer working on behalf of a client, you can’t let voice and tone emerge as you write. Instead, these are things that need to be hammered out with the client before you write a word.

Now more than ever, the content marketing industry is about delivering quality and personalized content. Automated services offer quantity, not quality. Automated Insights’ website, for instance, proudly states that Wordsmith delivered one billion pieces of content last year. But one billion auto-generated articles won’t lead to high SEO rankings, organic traffic and social traction. Those benefits come from quality content, and that begins with an involved onboarding process followed by a first article that hits all the marks.