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How To Create Expert-Driven Briefs (Grab Our Template)

Anthony Marovelli
October 4, 2023

Close your eyes with me. (Now open them because it’s hard to read with your eyes closed.)

You’re going out of town for the weekend, leaving your dog/cat/baby/orchid in the care of a seemingly responsible adult.

Do you:

  1. Type up a detailed, by-the-minute schedule, complete with an FAQ section and a diagram of your home’s exits;
  2. Write a lengthy note describing the basics and emergency contacts; or
  3. Smack a Post-It on the counter with a hastily scribbled “good luck”?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, but you’ll likely get wildly different outcomes based on what you choose.

It’s the same with a content brief: how you set it up and what you include determines how well the resulting draft will meet your expectations.

What a content brief is (and why you can’t live without one)

A content brief is a document that gives a writer the information they need to produce high-quality writing. Without it, they’re left playing an elaborate guessing game about what you want—a game they’ll rarely win.

Editor and entrepreneur Erica Schneider puts it this way:

No one wants to see dollar bills from their tight budget turn into Fido’s dinner. Instead, you want to do everything you can to ensure a positive outcome. A brief does just that, offering multiple advantages for content marketers:

  1. The brief is a medium. Not the clairvoyant kind (sadly). 🔮 Rather, a brief is a go-between, conveying your client’s needs while empowering the writer to create a strong piece on their own.
  2. The brief is a roadmap. Even the strongest writers need directions to get where you want them to go. Your content brief acts like Google Maps, showing them the turn-by-turn route you want them to take. (Your freelancers will thank you!)
  3. The brief is common ground. This single document helps you manage client expectations. It’s something tangible that all stakeholders can view and approve before the writer gives it a go. With a solid brief, you bypass the ‘this isn’t what we had in mind’ feedback stage—or at least work through it before you’ve paid someone hundreds of dollars to write the piece.
  4. The brief is a yardstick. In the end, the writer and the editor both use the brief to assess how the piece measures up to its purpose. It can’t help you gauge the writing quality, but it can show you whether the headlines, tone, and research pass muster.

It’s not overstating things to say that a strong brief is the foundation of good content. But knowing exactly what to include isn’t easy. Take a look at how we tackle briefs here at Beam.

What goes into a rock-solid brief?

Over time, the Beam brief has experienced several evolutions, but (currently) includes:

The set-up + audience

  • Format and word count: The basics. Is it a case study or a state-of-the-industry report? 900 words or 4,500?
  • Audience and pain points: Who’s the piece for, and what do they need? This part is crucial, so we elaborate here with a few paragraphs of information. We also link to the company’s buyer personas when available.
  • Narrative frame: What’s the story, morning glory? Here, we set up the topic and show how the client’s product or service factors in.
  • Think, feel, do: Pioneered by Emily Greene at VIVA Creative, these three components serve as the Rosetta Stone to understanding your audience deeply. After consuming the content, what do we want the audience to think, feel, and do? We write each of these as a quote from the reader’s perspective to help us get into the reader’s shoes and empathize with them.

The client’s needs

  • Overarching client goal: We get explicit in the brief about what the client wants the content to achieve. We note if they’re trying to hit specific metrics, showcase their expertise, or do something else entirely. Otherwise, the end piece will fall short of client expectations—even if the way we write about a topic is *chef’s kiss.*
  • Product-based or agnostic: You may (or may not) be surprised at how often this crucial piece gets missed. Is this a top-of-funnel piece that’s mostly product-agnostic? Or are we doing a deep dive into features and functionality?
  • Other use cases: We call out any use cases for the piece beyond its primary purpose. Does the client want to get backlinks? Support sales enablement?

The writer’s toolbox

  • Perspective and byline: Who’s bylining matters a lot. If the piece is being written in first person from the CEO’s perspective, the writer needs to know.
  • Subject-matter expert (SME) info: We interview SMEs for almost every client piece we deliver, and we always include their LinkedIn profiles, interview recordings, and the recording transcripts in our briefs. We use Otter.ai so our writers can quickly navigate the transcript.
  • Internal and external research: Links to original research, desired internal links, and other useful sources live here. Quick tip! use this Google search code to hunt down related content or keywords on your client’s website: (Site:beamcontent.co “expert-driven content”)
  • Outline: Depending on the piece and the client, this could be a basic overview or an ultra-detailed plan. At Beam, we give our writers a tangible goal post while also leaving room for personal discretion and creative autonomy.

But a brief is more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes you need a little extra know-how about how to build your brief to create organized, compelling content.

How to create a clear, complete brief in five steps

If you don’t have a go-to brief template yet, no worries—we've got you. And to help you skip the stage where you stare blankly at the doc, we’ll walk you through exactly how to fill it out. It takes time, but the caliber of content you’ll get back is worth the effort.

1. Keep the audience top of mind

It sounds trite, but your audience is the filter through which all things content marketing must pass. That’s why at Beam, we anchor our brief with audience info near the top.

We also include a Think-Feel-Do section, but I’ll be honest: it’s as much for my benefit as it is for the writer’s. It helps me get into the reader’s mindset when writing the brief. I want to ensure all the elements in the finished product work together to meet the reader’s needs, moving them toward action.

2. Do your homework

It’s not enough for content to meet the target audience’s needs; it must also reflect the client’s goals and preferences. At Beam, we’re super lucky: our Head of Client Strategy and Success Sabina Hahn keeps a detailed, dynamic client guide on each of our clients with info like:

  • A company overview
  • Content context (the company’s overarching content strategy, goals, and themes)
  • Competitive analysis
  • Product deep dives
  • External resources

We keep our client guides in ClickUp, along with two other resources:

  • A content guide we’ve compiled with the company’s preferred tone and style—and any key feedback they’ve given us over time
  • A social + designed content doc with their style, brand, and editorial guidelines

We link all three living documents—the client guide, content guide, and social + designed content doc—in our briefs to help our writers understand exactly how to produce content our clients rave about. Here’s an (intentionally anonymous) example of a client’s content guide:

3. Strike a balance

You want to create a Goldilocks brief—one that’s not too bulky, not too thin, but just right.

If you bog your brief down with too much detail and explanation, you may obscure the most crucial points of the brief and needlessly limit your writer’s creativity. But if you don’t provide enough guidance, your writer could go astray and miss the mark entirely.

This one’s tricky to nail right out of the gate. You have to find a starting point and optimize through trial and error. At Beam, we’ve landed in a place where our briefs aren’t prescriptive—but they are pretty detailed.

The key to creating a robust roadmap that doesn’t overwhelm the writer is to include signposts:

  1. Use bullets and boxes to organize information
  2. Bold or highlight critical points
  3. Leave comments in the margins to call out important ideas or resources

At Beam, we also periodically re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t. For example, our original brief lacked direction about how deeply the writer should speak about the product. I looked at feedback from our freelancers and clients and decided to layer this detail into each brief about a month and a half ago. It’s working wonders so far. 

4. Showcase an SME

We don’t have time or patience for cookie-cutter content here at Beam. Instead, we lean into expert-driven insights to stand out. Interviewing an SME helps us find a unique angle and write a satisfying, buzzworthy piece. 

Sabina and I source our SMEs from client suggestions, our network, or LinkedIn. These folks are typically hard-working, humble, and passionate about their work; we just have to ask the right questions to draw out their wisdom. 

That’s where our work-in-progress (WIP) brief comes into play. By the time I hop onto the Zoom call with our SME, I’ve got the brief about 70–80% of the way there. I’ve done research on the topic and have a general idea of the story and a list of questions to ask. I typically structure these questions in the Hero’s Journey or case study structure—problem, solution, results. 

I’m working on a brief right now—here’s where it’s at. Once I chat with an SME later this week, it’ll be ready to rumble. I won’t write the Think-Feel-Do section until I’ve chatted with the SME and gained a deeper insight into the audience.

You always have to be ready to pivot. Often, I get to the interview and realize the story isn’t developed enough. That means coming up with new questions on the fly and reimagining the direction of the piece as the narrative unfolds.

Once the interview is over, while the conversation is fresh, I’ll immediately refine what I’ve already written and create an outline for the writer.

5. Make room for qualitative (and quantitative) magic

Combining the qualitative perspective of an SME with original research is the recipe for a truly stand-out piece. Content like this will live in digital infamy as a go-to source for the eternal generative AI scrape-fest. (P.S. We can sniff out AI-produced content a mile away around here, by the way.)

Qualitative goodness from SMEs is often enough to make a piece shine, but we also like to add original data wherever possible. Shallow statistics on their own will only get you so far. (I personally believe that people view the world through stories as opposed to facts.)

But working with original inputs requires flexibility and iteration. Oftentimes we’ll have an idea of the story we want to tell, but we haven’t yet received the data to back it up. Other times we have spreadsheets of numbers and statistics, but we don’t have a clear narrative.

And herein lies the beauty of the brief. If the data doesn’t support your hypothesis and working narrative, that’s a sign to adjust before your writer even hits the scene.

Trust your brief—and the process

You’ve put in the time and effort to create a brief that connects the client’s goals, the audience’s pain points, and the writer’s needs. There’s just one thing left to do: let go.

At the end of the day, there’s a certain level of trust and confidence you need to have in your writer. The Beam Team has some of the best freelancers in the biz—which makes handing over the briefs I make a pretty easy task. With a solid roadmap, our writers consistently knock it out of the park.

In case you missed it above, here’s another chance to steal our brief template. If you want to leave the briefs and drafts to us, let’s chat. We’re happy to help you create expert-driven content that exceeds your expectations.