This is Part II in a series on creating a culture of writing at your company. To read Part I, click here.
A great content marketing strategy is built on what the company collectively publishes, not what you personally write.
Knowing the difference will stop you 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 rarely care where it comes from.
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 game day.
But first, you have to start with why.
Finding the ‘why’
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. As a strategy, it isn’t a perfect fit for every company.
However, there are a few broadly applicable benefits that every company should weigh and consider. Here are just a few to think about.
1. 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 learn about how you work via pieces included in your job postings, curious candidates want to find out everything they can, and they will 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.
An engineering blog with actual things that actual engineers have shipped is the best recruiting tool there is /c @patio11
— mrb (@mrb_bk) November 2, 2016
It’s certainly up there! Shows the character of the work you do *and* the people you get to do it with if you just apply. https://t.co/dUaD90t4KN
— Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) November 2, 2016
Why is this an incentive? Because everyone wants to work with great people, and writing gives you a meaningful way to contribute to that goal. There are few things a team cares about more than the future of the team.
2. 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 challenge of the job 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 everything 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 publishing, not experts in everything. They need input. And while staff writers should bear the brunt of the editorial work, interviews and ghostwriting aren’t always the best way to form a meaningful story; sometimes a point-person needs to lay the foundation.
3. 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 your viewpoint.
When a small group of people are tasked as 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 engrossing stories about products, projects, and process.
The pushback I usually see is around topicality. Do our readers really want to hear from the rest of our company? In B2B this is very often a “Yes.” Business readers are, by their very relationship with your company, interested in how you run your business. Quality, variety, and distinct style are topic-agnostic advantages in publishing, and rather than being penalized for occasionally exploring something other than your core topic, you’re often rewarded (for example, we learned at Help Scout that even support professionals can become fatigued by endless support content).
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.
4. 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’ll instantly see why they are so 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.
5. Get the web 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 through such trailblazing strategies as “send email to customer base” and publish We Have This Feature Now to the blog. That’s too bad, 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?
Making it 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.
Most teams assume the lion’s share of the effort will be in proving the company-wide publishing initiative, but there will likely be plenty of up-front legwork needed to get the project going in the first place. Let’s start there.
1. Buy-in is a must to make progress
There’s often an ingrained belief that The Blog is the marketing team’s baby rather than a shared 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 not-so-good 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.
What’s worse, for collaborative cultures it’s assumed none of the above needs to be addressed. Will people really get the impression they could be penalized for writing? Absolutely. Help Scout’s founders 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. Create clear guidelines for storytelling
One of the more valuable projects an editorial team can take on is to create good storytelling guidelines. This means identifying, and writing down, what makes for a compelling article, how to carve out an appropriately sized topic (e.g., help contributors avoid biting off more than they can chew), and outlining “more like this, less like this” examples of content that the company would prefer to publish.
Let’s unpack that last one for now. One post on the Help Scout blog I wish I could take back is this piece on revisiting past lessons (at least I’m living up to the idea, I guess?). The overly personal tone, the lack of focus, and the scatterbrained examples are all slightly off the mark in terms of what we wanted to publish at Help Scout. Don’t get me wrong, the post isn’t a complete disaster, but it contains many less like this traits I would highlight were I to write our storytelling guidelines today. Throwing away garbage content is easy; benching “okay” content is what keeps your publication great.
This is in contrast to a great piece written by Alex, who was on our customer support team. Her post had a specific, important thesis, it championed the people in our community, and it proposed real solutions (without finger pointing) to the challenge at hand. Everything about the article was more like this for our blog.
3. 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 a runner’s high, the “writer’s high” is an addiction you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve felt it.
One way to jump-start momentum is to publish something already written. These days so much written communication happens in companies that you’d be hard pressed not to 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, 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 often public pieces in the making. And if you aren’t already taking time to write things down, you should be.[footnote]Ben Horowitz’s tale of writing Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager is another good example of what can happen when teaching becomes an impetus for writing.[/footnote]
4. Empower your star contributors
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 people’s strengths and preferences. I‘ve personally noticed four fairly distinct publishing personalities.
Stars. These are the 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 pieces. 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 outline 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 contributing, they can weigh in on quality and pitch helpful ideas.
Technicians. 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.
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 starts with forming honest, easy-to-follow narratives that pair qualitative measures with hard data. How you define success will depend on your goals and the work at hand. But there are a number of recurring 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, 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 something to share. But it shouldn’t be the only form of success; it’s a short-term measurement and contributors shouldn’t feel they’re being 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 and building your company’s reputation. Collecting kudos for your monthly/quarterly update is the entry-level 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 on a central topic almost unavoidably means forming an echo-chamber; that’s why many publications branch out after finding initial success (land ???? expand). 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/culture is noteworthy; you can often attract the right kind of customer even when deviating from your core topic.
Are you missing out?
When I work with clients, the teams that are excellent fits for team publishing tend to surface quickly — for example, they might have a technical product that’s context is best addressed by technical people, or maybe they’re a small business with fairly uncommon traits (e.g., entirely remote) that wants to build customer trust by communicating more instead of staying quiet.
But I believe most B2B startups underestimate the value made by sharing the stories their work naturally creates. Although Help Scout found its place in the support community by publishing the best educational material we could, perhaps the accomplishment I’m most proud of is the number of colleagues who were first introduced to us by something we had written; usually a piece by someone outside the content team. That’s to say nothing of the many team contributions that became reader favorites over the years.
The thing is, what actually stops this value from being created is the same thing that stops so many smart initiatives — the belief that other people are somehow “finding time” that is unavailable to you. If company-wide publishing matters to your business, then know that you don’t find time, you make it. Or, you make an excuse.
Illustration by Karen Kurycki.