A great content marketing strategy is built on what the company collectively publishes, not what you personally write.
Knowing the difference will stop you, as the Content Marketing Manager, from trying to be the lone steward of good stories in your company. Publishing interesting ideas from your colleagues counts all the same; content is an end result, and readers don’t care where it comes from.
Publishing as a team
One of the most important problems a content team tackles is filling the well. Once you understand your audience, define your editorial standards, and tie content to business goals, “all that’s left” is figuring out how to fill the well of inspiration and insight week after week — in reality, the most demanding task.
During your search for ways to feed the calendar, you’ve probably turned inwards and considered having your teammates publish what they’re working on or thinking about. There’s a potentially high upside in making this happen, and tested ways to reduce the challenge of getting other people’s words fit for gameday. But first, you have to start with why.
Finding the ‘why’ in team publishing
What do you get from team publishing that you can’t get elsewhere? That’s a question you’ll have to answer with hard-won experience. Publishing as a team isn’t right for every company, and it isn’t always worth your time.
However, there are a few broadly applicable benefits that every company should weigh and consider. Here are just a few.
1. Improve the quality of your content
Content Marketing Managers are often asked to violate the first rule of writing: to write what you know. They overcome this built-in flaw by validating stories with research, interviews, and spot checks from their colleagues.
However, no matter how curious a writer is, or how far they go to learn the truth, they can’t always make up for a lack of experience. Living with a problem is often the only way to be qualified to talk about it. In these situations, the subject matter expert acts as the “brick” while the writer is the “mortar.” The expert brings the sturdy material and the writer helps piece it all together. Try it any other way and you’ll end up with a straw house the Big Bad Commenter is sure to blow down.
This is why it’s crucial to treat publishing as a team sport. You’ll completely miss your chance to craft high-impact stories if you relegate the entirety of content creation to the content team; they’re experts in content, not experts in everything. They need input. And while your content team can and should bear the brunt of the editorial work, interviews and ghostwriting aren’t always the right way to form a meaningful story; sometimes a point-person needs to lay the foundation.
2. Improve the quality of your calendar
Writing something useful starts with knowing something useful. First you need to do the work required to have an opinion, then you need to find a compelling way to share it.
When a small group of people are the sole creators of company content, you’re asking them to monopolize all the good ideas, to have all the interesting stories, week after week. In reality, there’s work being done every day all over your company that’s worth writing about. Content teams can act as reporters within a company telling compelling stories about products, projects, and process.
The pushback I usually see is about topicality. Does our audience really want to read about these topics and hear from the rest of our company? In B2B this is a firm “Yes.” Business readers are, by their very nature, interested in how you run your business; quality, variety, and distinct style trump a needlessly strict adherence to staying on topic. Every publication that’s ever meant something has followed the strategy of land (own their niche) and expand (to different topics, mediums, etc.).
Content you publish should intertwine with your core product philosophy. But readers contain multitudes, and it’s a disservice to cast them as anything other than a curious group of people. If you share stories worth following and ideas worth applying, they’ll listen.
3. Create and sustain brand momentum
Clear, coherent thinking around a problem generally begets effective solutions; a problem well stated is half solved. Read anything by Jason Fried on how Basecamp tackles new projects and you might give yourself whiplash from nodding in agreement. Clearly they are suited to build a product, and a company, that solves the problems Basecamp aims to solve.
Potential customers (and potential hires) recognize this team/market fit, and it’s a criminally underrated way to create brand momentum and instill customer confidence. It starts with showcasing the minds building the company — and that happens by sharing your work.
4. Get the world to talk about new features
If you’re someone who works on product — a founder, designer, product manager, or engineer — you’re an irreplaceable asset to the marketing team if you improve your ability to write about product.
Most companies launch new products and features via trailblazing strategies such as “send email to customer base” and publish We Have This Feature Now to the blog. That’s a shame, because the best time to tell an interesting story about a new release is right when you release it.
Discovery is what turns event into story. If you can pair and support the solution you’ve made with how you think about the problem, you’ve already surpassed the status quo. Moreover, the work it took to reach launch day has left stories in its wake. You surely unearthed something interesting about the way things work while solving this problem; something that confirmed, skewed, or challenged your expectations. Why not tell customers about it?
5. Recruit new teammates in competitive industries
Content is absolutely a recruiting strategy and often a first impression. Whether they’re introduced to your company through the blog or they’ve learned about how you work via pieces included in your job postings, curious candidates want to find out everything they can, and they’ll do so with what you publish.
But transparency isn’t so compelling when it’s only coming from the marketing department. What does the rest of your company look like? Writing lets the world know. Why is this an incentive? Because everyone wants to work with great people, and writing gives your the influence to make that happen. There are few things the team cares about more than the future of the team.
6. Make time for what’s important, but not urgent
When everyone pitches in with ideas for articles, they give your marketing team a chance to step off of the content creation treadmill.
Urgency so often gets in the way of opportunity, and having a moment of reprieve also grants the editorial team time for high-impact work like audits, search optimization, promotion, resources, new mediums, and planning what’s next. When you’re always on deck for fresh original stories, you don’t have time for much else.
The pull and the push
Writing is an invitation for the world to look inside your head and comment on what they find. Your colleagues could use help getting past this fact. A touch of empathy is needed if you want people to approach writing with any confidence.
Inertia in writing is binary. To overcome it, you need to increase the perceived benefit of contributing (by providing motivation) and decrease the perceived cost (by making it easy). These are the pull and the push, respectively.
What motivates your colleagues to write? It isn’t a spike in pageviews; that’s a metric detached from their reality. They have personal, human reasons to share their thoughts. Begin there when creating motivation. And let’s be frank: If you don’t afford any incentive and nudge people to contribute, they won’t — they’ve many other demands on their time.
After some conversations with my former colleagues at Help Scout, their motivations to write came into view, and I was able to better present the upsides of contributing to the company blog.
Write to create leverage for your career
A well-constructed blog post is a career asset for the author, silly as it may seem. When you detail your principles, how you think about things, or how you approached a tricky project, you reveal more about yourself than any predictably unblemished resume could ever hope to. Projects and portfolios are cardinal companions to the modern resume.
Per unit time, my blog has probably had a four order of magnitude greater ROI to my career than coding.https://t.co/bipuqiAMNI
— Dan Luu (@danluu) December 6, 2016
But not everyone’s work results in something immediately reference-able. I call this the “Portfolio Problem.” Your colleagues in People Ops, for example, primarily work on internal company projects. There’s often nothing public-facing to point to once the work is done, even though they’ve dedicated just as much effort as anyone.
This is where writing comes in. Leah Knobler, People Ops at Help Scout, built a bit of a niche following for herself with posts on everything from planning company retreats to replacing our all-hands meeting with video. And although she authored the pieces, they were a shared win; successful projects from her department were now visible to all.
Presenting shared accomplishments is often key. I’ve yet to work with a single contributor who didn’t have reservations about taking too much credit. Team players always prefer “what we accomplished” vs. “what I did.”
Write to promote diversity on a company platform
I see this as “capital D” diversity, which means diversity in its many forms: diversity of contributors, diversity of disciplines, and diversity of thought.
The company blog is an extension of the company itself. If diversity matters to you, your public platform should match your intentions and inner-workings. When the marketing team have the only bylines on the blog you are, by definition, not representing the entirety of your company.
My colleagues deeply cared about us running an inclusive publication; yours may feel the same way. You can turn this passion into action by highlighting how such a publication is contingent on a band of motley contributors — you need a variety of people, expertise, and opinions to properly represent the people who work here, and you can’t do it alone.
Write to understand your work
Writing grows the business and the team, but it also grows the individual; you don’t know what you know until you try to write it down. Writing to understand is just as important as writing to be understood.
Here is where your experience as a writer can energize everyone else. Remind contributors that the exercise of writing is as valuable as the asset of a finished article. Writing extracts ideas from your head, lays them out, pieces them together, and helps you assess where you stand. When writing about one’s work, a prevailing personal motive is to fulfill what George Orwell calls historical impulse.1
The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
For those who like a challenge, you can point out that publishing your thoughts raises the stakes and thus raises your standards; brains forgive fuzzy abstractions, but audiences (and editors) do not.
Write to pay it forward
There isn’t a single person working in an internet business that hasn’t benefited from hard-won experience freely shared online. We readily take as much information, guidance, and encouragement as we can carry — it feels good to offer up some of our own in return.
When you start publishing as a team, you’re sure to hear, “But everything worth writing has already been written,” or, “I don’t have any unique opinions to share.” This is how you address these concerns. Remind people that a beginner is born every minute, and every idea can be seen from multiple perspectives. It often takes hearing something a certain way for it to finally click. Your vantage point could be that moment for someone else.
Writers love the mystique of, “How do they do it?” Truth be told, nonfiction involves less rain-dancing and sacrificial black magic than writers would have you believe (for fiction, all bets are off). And if you want people to contribute, you need to fully expose how editing and publishing actually work.
Set clear, achievable standards
To successfully introduce colleagues into the mix you must set achievable expectations while holding firm to your editorial standards. You can’t let a bad piece slip by just because “they worked really hard on it.” But you also need to be careful of imposing unrealistic or confusing requirements; publishing needs to feel possible.
Here’s where documenting your editorial strategy pays for itself ten times over. Unless you plan on forcing contributors to live in a land of abstraction, where “quality” is defined by how you were feeling that day, you need to write down what the company publication is about, how you prefer to communicate, and what a valuable post for readers looks like.
Outline the publishing process
When I kicked off team writing, I asked around about what would be helpful to cover in a few docs. Multiple people wanted to know how submitting to the blog actually worked. Whoops. For the longest time I was the only writer; I hadn’t considered the benefits of mapping it all out.
Don’t make the same mistake. Step-by-step instructions make contributing more approachable. You can use the Five W’s to get the gears turning and build a starter list of questions to answer. After you get feedback and surface points of confusion, you can add to your list.
is the person I should chat with when I have an idea?
will edit my first draft?
from my department should read/approve the post?
has final say on what gets published?
makes for a really good article?
steps do I need to own during this process?
do I need to include in my initial pitch?
should I have a first draft done after my pitch is approved?
should I review the first round of edits?
can I expect my post to be published?
do we catalog our article ideas?
does my first draft live once it’s done?
should I put article assets (images, etc.) for my post?
[these questions are often specific to the individual]
Explain the purpose of editing
Handing over a fragile first draft and getting back deletions and critique in return can take the wind out of your sails. Editing becomes less distressing when everyone knows what it’s for and how it works.
At Help Scout, we used the Venn diagram above to capture what editing meant to us. “Good” writing is fiercely subjective and painfully inscrutable, so a single graphic can’t cover it all. It can, however, plainly define an achievable goal.
Concentrated. Explain big ideas in a small space with no words wasted. We constantly looked for sections, paragraphs, and sentences that could be distilled or removed entirely.
Vivid. The art of being unquestionably clear and memorably imaginative. Finding common ground between author and reader, like explaining an advanced concept with a familiar analogy or metaphor, is the best way to quickly establish a connection and share ideas with a wider audience.
Incisive. Good writing is a campaign against cliche. When you’ve lots of experience in a discipline, ideas trotted out ad nauseam become obvious and boring. Avoid those — don’t patronize readers, leave out all you can infer, and move the conversation forward with an undiluted opinion.
With this end in mind, beware of editing articles in a way that causes the author to feel like a “special guest” instead of the star. Great editors are like great mentors; they don’t control your story, they help you realize it. Have the courage to challenge and shoot down sloppy thinking, but don’t let a rigid grasp squeeze out the personality from other people’s prose.
Editors create fine stories by typing on a keyboard composed of human beings. Knowing which key to hit when and how hard to press it is both art and craft.
— David Carr, The New York Times
Make team writing work
Although the benefits are enviable and the work is fun, team publishing doesn’t guarantee results and it isn’t always sustainable. You need to continually find out if it’s working and find ways to make it work.
1. Buy-in is a must to move forward
There’s often an ingrained belief that The Blog is the marketing team’s pet project rather than a company platform. If you want to turn this perception around, it’s best to get buy-in from leaders in your company.
Without high-level support, writing will be seen as a low-leverage activity and no one will pursue it. If you start chasing company-wide contributions without a thumbs up from the C-level and department heads, you’re also telling your colleagues a few things:
- “This isn’t actually important.” If it was, you could use working hours to write. This is the content team trying to get you to do their job; the company doesn’t actually care about publishing.
- “You should write your post on the weekend.” Don’t waste working hours contributing to the company blog. Focus exclusively on code/design/support and handle that writing nonsense on a Saturday.
- “This won’t be beneficial to your career.” There’s nothing in this for you. Publishing is not counted as going the extra mile, you’re simply doing a favor for the marketing department.
Billy Mays could be your managing editor and even his infectious energy couldn’t drum up enthusiasm with all of those stigmas attached.
What’s worse, for collaborative cultures it’s assumed none of the above needs to be addressed. Will people on your team really get the impression they could be penalized for writing? Absolutely. Help Scout’s CEO fully supported our experiments with team publishing and we still heard concerns about whether or not it was okay to work on an approved post during the 9-5. It’s a new task for most people, and they need assurance the time spent is to their benefit.
Nothing legitimizes company-wide contributions quite like a green light from the C-level. Additionally, if you want a designer, product manager, or support rep to donate attention to prose, you must inform and involve the person they report to. The administrative thumbs up ensures no one gets the impression that content is demanding carte blanche on their department’s time.
2. Writing prompts can provide guidance
For a plan to go the distance, working on it has to become habit. Relying solely on outside influence, like the marketing team pestering people to write, can etch out short-term wins but is ultimately an exercise in futility; anything that feels like a homework assignment is done begrudgingly, if at all.
The fix is to use writing prompts. Prompts work because they’re a set of guidelines that also act as internal cues to identify when you’ve come across a potentially good story. Because writing prompts are questions raised around the work you’re already doing, they’ve a number of inherent advantages:
- Prompts are mostly evergreen. You can update your list of prompts when you find other meaningful examples, but effort spent on your first list pays dividends for quite a while — carefully considered reasons to write have a long shelf-life, and rarely go out of style.
- Prompts make writing approachable. A blank canvas imposes the burden of infinite scope. People crave direction as much as they crave inspiration. Good writing prompts focus on common patterns people can notice and connect to so they have an accessible place to begin.
- Prompts are a catalyst to write. Prompts incite action because they’re natural reminders to write as a response to observations and experiences. Once you’ve encountered a prompt, you’ll see it in your day-to-day, and viewing the world with this writer’s lens can shift how you react. “Searching for a answer but not finding a good one” can go from mildly frustrating moment to potential article idea.
Prompts get people to think about the by-product of their work. All of our work creates by-products in the form of questions raised, lessons learned, and challenges overcome. Harvesting this outgrowth puts contributors in a position to share ideas and stories they’re most intimately familiar with.
Diana Smith, Director of Product Marketing at Segment, created a starter list of prompts in a presentation she gave to her team on how to write for the company blog. They’re good examples to model when you begin creating your own prompts.
3. Make use of your stars
For the variety of jobs team publishing accomplishes, you’re bound to find a few superstars in your company, along with a few folks who have a particularly difficult time with writing.
Knowing who you’re working with and setting the right expectations can make all the difference, so it helps to consider who you are working with. I‘ve personally noticed four distinct publishing personalities:
Stars. These are colleagues you can count on to produce interesting and fleshed-out first drafts. They’ll need support to refine their ideas and make their writing sing, but they enjoy writing, they know what a good story looks like, and they often take the initiative with new posts. Cherish them! Your biggest concern is tapping their enthusiasm without taking too much of their time.
Consultants. These are your teammates who are more comfortable being a point of reference or subject matter expert. They find writing to be a chore, but they’ll get ideas down and knock out a bare bones first draft when needed. They’re best suited to help you get your facts straight on an upcoming piece where you’re the lead. When someone else in their department is writing, they can weigh in on quality and pitch helpful ideas.
Specialists. Some of your colleagues will struggle with or avoid writing unless it’s a re-cap of a project they’ve completed. They’re hesitant to dole out prescribed advice, but they’re happy to detail how a project went down, and what they learned along the way. You may only be able to draw out one or two big stories in total, but they’ve the potential to be standout pieces.
Not interested. Some people will make it clear they have no interest in writing. Perhaps writing completely paralyzes them, or they’re simply too swamped. Either way, while it’s possible to get them to contribute, the outcome isn’t worth the effort — and that’s okay. It’s easier to fan existing motivation than to produce motivation where it doesn’t exist.
Focusing on your stars is the best way to get company contributions off the ground, and typically results in the highest-quality output. Getting great material in a reasonably diverse set of topics is better than getting mediocre material from all over the company.
Side note: pure ghostwriting is bullshit. It tries to mitigate doing the work required to have an opinion; someone involved with the article needs to know what they’re talking about. Ghostwriting also implies that writing is an errand to be done by your personal editorial assistant. Instead, view it as a specialist paired with a content consultant; someone who can match a practitioner’s ideas with the words that will resonate with your audience.
4. Look for content you’re already creating
When contributors get a taste of the benefits — such as praise and kudos from colleagues, peers, and readers — you’re on your way to creating a new convert. Like the runner’s high, the “writer’s high” is an addiction you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve felt it.
One way to jumpstart momentum is to publish something already written. These days so much written communication happens in companies that you’d be hard pressed to not find documented best practices or recorded lists of “how things work” that readers outside the company can benefit from.
For example, I see rave reviews for sleek internal publishing tools and wikis like Bold and Tettra, yet the same teams using these products commonly claim they don’t have time to create content. They’re already creating content — cleaning it up for public consumption isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as painful as facing down a blinking cursor when starting from scratch.
Docs, emails, and post-mortems are blog articles in the making. And if you aren’t already taking time to write things down, you should be. I always point people to Ben Horowitz’s tale of writing Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager as an example of what can happen when writing becomes an impetus for teaching.2
5. Measure the effectiveness of team publishing
It’s eye-opening to think about meetings as the total cost of the attendees’ time. A half-hour meeting seems trivial, but thousands of dollars in salary certainly doesn’t.
Company-wide publishing, like many content marketing initiatives, can’t be precisely measured. But like a meeting, it takes multiple people to reach the finish line, so it pays to view the time spent in a calculated way. Knowing your goals and where the hours are going is a solid first step, and makes it easier to present your results to the company at large.
This mostly comes down to forming honest, easy-to-follow narratives that pair qualitative measures with hard data. How you define success will depend on your goals and the content at hand. For example, I can’t say whether or not a designer’s time spent writing a blog post needs to be included in your CAC. But there are a number of broadly applicable questions to answer when evaluating if team publishing is working.
Did the piece help us launch? If your company has historically published vanilla “New Feature” posts, compare them to the results of a more robust team piece to understand how each performs. If you track how many people the article sends to the new release or product page — like we did when we coupled the story of Help Scout’s company re-brand to the launch of the Free plan — you’ll have another measure of success to talk about.
Was the piece especially popular? If a team piece takes you twice as long to complete, but produces four times the number of visitors versus the average, that’s also a win to share. But it shouldn’t be the only form of success; it’s a short-sighted measurement and contributors shouldn’t feel they’re being judged or graded on pageviews.
Was the piece well-received? Ignoring the cold gaze of the Spreadsheet Syndicate for just a moment, it’s important to remember that quality writing offers immeasurable benefits, like recruiting future employees and building your company’s reputation. Collecting notable kudos for your monthly/quarterly content update is the zero points solution, but I’d also encourage you to follow up with readers who gave praise and ask for additional feedback — you’ll learn about what they liked, what could be improved, and you might grab a nice soundbite for the marketing team.
Did the piece introduce us to a new audience? Publishing material on a single topic almost unavoidably means forming an echo-chamber; that’s why many publications branch out after finding initial success. Team pieces bring an opportunity to speak to crossover audiences and other important decision-makers in a company. In B2B especially, there’s an opportunity for “B2M” marketing — or business to maker. The overlap between founders and topics like design/engineering is noteworthy; you can often attract the right kind of customer even when deviating from your core topic.
Publishing is a team sport
Publishing is how your company talks to the world — relegate it to a single bullet point in the marketing departments AORs and you’ll speak volumes about how you value communication. Your customers, and the brand you’ve worked so hard to build, deserve better than that.
Writing is a deeply personal and often emotional process, but publishing is a team sport.