What the content creation process really looks like [A guide for digital content creators + business owners]

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Like a lot of things today, the difference between reality and fantasy is enormous.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to understanding what the content creation process really looks like. We’re sold a ‘story’ that it is simple, straightforward, and can be done on the run.

What I’ve found, however, in reality is vastly different.

Especially if you hope to make a living as digital content creator, want long term clients, and aspire to a level of professionalism that leaves you feeling proud of your work.

The entire time I’ve worked as a digital content creator, I’ve felt a tension between the rah-rah of content produced for the sake of it versus content that is deep, has integrity, is an asset to a business, and keeps working for the client long after the metaphorical ink has dried on the paper. It could be my preference for things that require deep thought and work, but the lightweight nature of most content holds little appeal. Thankfully, I found clients who shared the same values.

If you take nothing else out of this blog, I want you to know that what the digital content creation process looks like is not the fantasy you’ve been sold. I also want you to know there is a way to create content that will make both you and the content you create stand out from anyone else who does what you do, if you’re prepared to do the work.

>>> Also helpful: Creating content: Craft meaningful messages for business content

Step 1 – Accept content creation is a process

Eight years ago when I started working as a freelance digital content creator, I was a total novice. It was this very reason that prompted me to establish a clear, repeatable process for how I approached content creation for my clients. I felt that with a clear process I had a better chance of demonstrating that I knew what needed to happen next. It gave me a level of comfort that both the client and I shared an understanding of the direction we’d take, and in doing so, the client would feel confidence in their investment. This process has not let me down and it has many benefits one of which is that is it slows things down.

Because life and business are so busy, often when I commence working with a client, I find they are over the place with their content. Although they intellectually understand that everything worthwhile takes time and requires effort, for some reason they simultaneously think content should somehow magically be the exception to this rule. And it really isn’t.

For most business owners content is an added extra that just feels too hard. There’s a mentality of ‘I know I need to do it, but how?’. I get it. The struggle is real. They don’t have a clear idea about what to say and how to say it. Usually they’re feeling burnt and resentful about content. A lot of times, they’re on the verge of giving up. That’s why I slow things right down. We step back to move forward, starting with solid content foundations. Although counter intuitive, I’ve found this process not only saves time in the long run (even if there’s initial resistance), it saves and makes money too. A smart client will discover this, and once they experience the process and see the output, I’ve found they open up to the reality that content creation is a process; one that is best taken  at a more measured pace, rather than raced through to completion.

Step 2 – Understand the client

For the life of me, I could not work out how any content creator (regardless of their media) could produce work for a client if they did not take time to understand the client. In practical terms this means spend time with them to learn about the business, their audience, ideal customers, their goals, values, and the messages they want to convey.

Learning all this takes more than a quick discovery call. Indeed, it takes considerably more time. Why? Because most people won’t disclose this information unless you spend time with them. You’ll also find that you, as the content creator, must ask questions. Not just any questions, but thoughtful questions that prompt the business owner to dig a little deeper, beyond the superficial to the gold that I’ve found is always there, waiting to be extracted if only someone would help draw it out.

The other key ingredient with understanding is it also requires that the digital content creator listens. It’s one thing to ask questions. It’s quite another to listen carefully, and where necessary, ask even more thought provoking questions to draw out what lies beneath.

Understanding the client is based on the premise that you respect the client enough to get to know them. It demonstrates you’re willing to go beyond the superficial, which is so much a part of everyday content, to help create meaningful content assets you can both be proud of.

Step 3 – Create a business content + communication guide

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that a shared understanding goes a long way to avoiding conflict. The reality is that working with clients, it’s possible that things can get lost in translation, a bit like the line in the song Let’s call the whole thing off when Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong fight it out over whether the correct pronunciation is toMAYto or toMAHto.

In a pre-emptive move that demonstrated I’d listened and at the same time established a shared understanding, I produced what I called a business content and communication guide. This guide was the rock on which all written content for the business would be produced and if there was to be any divergence from it, it would have to be cross-referenced with the guide. We were, as they like to say in the corporate world, singing off the same hymn sheet.

Every smart business owner wants their content to sound great and ‘land’ with their ideal clients or customers, but how often has it missed the mark? Too many times to count, right? Well, it doesn’t need to be this way. It is entirely possible to communicate clear messages and connect with an audience through each and every communication when you becomes super clear about important things like:

  • Ideal customers
  • The voice, tone, and language of the brand
  • The most meaningful messages
  • A brand’s values
  • Content themes
  • Stories that connect
  • A brand’s visual aesthetic.

Business owners who take the time to create their own business content and communication guide take an important step off the content conveyor belt. Instead of vanilla content that sounds like everyone else, they’re ready to create the content that lets their customers and clients know they care. 

>>> Also helpful: Telling stories in business: How to mine and evolve your content gold

Step 4 – Develop assets for a business’ body of content

With the clear foundation of a business content and communication guide in place, it’s time to get to work on developing the assets for your client’s body of content. But before doing anything, start with an inventory and review of all the content that’s already produced.

All too often we lament things we don’t have and forget what’s already right in front of us. It’s a case of the glass half full. How many times have you whined and moaned about something that’s out of reach and in the same breath overlooked and discounted what’s right in front of you? If you’re like me – and 99.9 percent of humans on the planet – you’re guilty of this. Not surprisingly, the same thing happens with content. Many business owners – at the behest of their content creators – continue creating on the conveyor belt, without revisiting what’s already in the content library. This leads to disconnected content, mixed messages, and a lack of cohesion. It can also mean you create unnecessary work for yourself. For this reason alone, it pays to take an inventory of the existing business content. Before doing anything else, make time for a content stocktake.

Consider the:

  • Website – Is it up to date, optimised, in need of a refresh?
  • Print media – What’s dated and needs an overhaul?
  • Digital content – Is it consistent with all other business content assets?
  • Audio/visual content – Do the images need a refresh? Should videos be part of the content library?
  • Content wish list – I’ve found every business owner has a content wish list, so what’s on your client’s?

Once you’ve gone over what’s in front of you, it’s time to develop the content priority list, ranking each item high, medium, or low based on your business priorities and marketing budget. This list becomes the scope of work that guides the development of the business’s body of content assets. It sets a clear direction for the content creation team and is a clear reference point that supports shared understanding.

>>> Also helpful: How to simplify the process for creating content: The essential guide for business owners with no content plan

The wrap up

It takes more than good ideas to create content that reflects the business and connects with an audience. It involves research, care, deep work, strategic thinking, creativity, vision, and conscientious effort. Not every business owner cares about creating content like this, nor is every digital content creator interested to producing content of this calibre. And that’s okay. If, however, meaningful content that leads to more connected, enriching business relationships is important to you and the people you work with (whether you’re a business owner or creator), it makes sense to become masterful at the content creation process.

>> Also helpful: How to find the right words [and write for business] 

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