Tell me if this sounds familiar:
As an SEO Manager, you’re responsible for growing your company’s organic search traffic. You’re working with your dev team on some technical improvements, but you notice a big slice of the opportunity lies with content. Your company has a content team, but you notice they’re not using keyword research to inform their articles. You’ve tried to send them keyword ideas, but so far, they haven’t been receptive to your suggestions.
Or how about this scenario?
You’re a marketing director at a startup. You know that you need content, but don’t have the expertise or time to do it yourself, so you ask your network for recommendations and find yourself a freelance writer. The only problem is, you’re not always sure what to assign them. With little instruction to work off of, they produce content that misses the mark.
The solution in both of these scenarios is a content brief. However, not all content briefs are created equal.
As someone who lives with one foot in content and the other in SEO, I can shed some light on how to make your content briefs both comprehensive and beloved by your content team.
Let’s start by agreeing on some terminology.
What’s a content brief?
A content brief is a set of instructions to guide a writer on how to draft a piece of content. That piece of content can be a blog post, a landing page, a white paper, or any number of other initiatives that require content.
Without a content brief, you risk getting back content that doesn’t meet your expectations. This will not only frustrate your writer, but it’ll also require more revisions, taking more of your time and money.
Typically, content briefs are written by someone in an adjacent field — like demand generation, product marketing, or SEO — when they need something specific. However, content teams usually don’t just work off of briefs. They’ll likely have their own calendar and initiatives they’re driving (content is one of those weird roles that needs to support just about every other department while also creating and executing on their own work).
What makes a content brief “SEO-focused”?
An SEO-focused content brief is one among many types of content briefs. It’s unique in that the goal is to instruct the writer on creating content to target a specific search query for the purpose of earning traffic from the organic search channel.
What to include in your content brief
Now that we understand SEO-focused content briefs in theory, let’s get into the nitty gritty. What information should we include in them?
1. Primary query target and intent
It isn’t an SEO-focused content brief without a query target!
Using a keyword research tool like Moz Keyword Explorer, you can get thousands of keyword ideas that could be relevant to your business.
For example, in my current job, I’m focused on creating content for retail store owners and others in the brick and mortar retail industry. After listening to some sales and support calls on Gong (many teams use this to record customer and prospect calls), I might find out that “merchandising” is a big topic of focus.
So I type “merchandising” into Keyword Explorer, add a couple more helpful filters, and boom! Tons of keyword suggestions.
Pick a keyword (check your existing content to make sure your team hasn’t already written on the topic yet) and use that as the “north star” query for your content brief.
I think it’s also helpful to include some intent information here. In other words, what might the searcher who’s typing this query into Google want? It’s a good idea to search the query in Google yourself to see how Google is interpreting the intent.
For example, if my keyword is “types of visual merchandising,” I can see from the SERP that Google assumes an informational intent, based on the fact that the URLs ranking are largely informational articles.
Dovetailing nicely off of intent is format. In other words, how should we structure the content to give it the best chance of ranking for our target query?
To use the same keyword example, if I Google “types of visual merchandising,” the top-ranking articles contain lists.
You might notice that your target query returns results with a lot of images (common with queries including “inspiration” or “examples”).
This better helps the writer understand what content format is likely to work best.
3. Topics to cover and related questions to answer
Picking the target query helps the writer understand the “big idea” of the piece, but stopping there means you risk writing something that doesn’t comprehensively answer the query intent.
That’s why I like to include a “topics to cover / related questions to answer” section in my briefs. This is where I list out all the subtopics I’ve found that someone searching that query would probably want to know.
To find these, I like to use methods like:
- Using a keyword research tool to show you queries related to your main keyword that are questions.
- Looking at the People Also Ask box, if one exists, on the SERP your target query triggers
- Finding sites that rank in the top spots for your target query, running them through a keyword research tool, and seeing what other keywords they also rank for
- And while this isn’t specifically search-related, sometimes I like to use a tool called FAQ Fox to scour forums for threads that mention my target query
You can also create the outline yourself using your research with all the H2s/H3s already written. While this can work well with freelance writers, I’ve found some writers (particularly in-house content marketers) feel this is too prescriptive. Every writer and content team is different, so all I can say is just use your best judgment.
4. Funnel stage
This is fairly similar to intent, but I think it’s helpful to include as a separate line item. To fill out this portion of the content brief, ask yourself: “Is someone searching this term just looking for information? Inspiration? Looking to evaluate their options? Or looking to buy something?”
And here’s how you can label your answer:
- Top-of-funnel (TOFU or “problem aware”) is an appropriate label if the query intent is informational/educational/inspirational.
- Middle-of-funnel (MOFU or “solution aware”) is an appropriate label if the query intent is to compare, evaluate options, or otherwise indicates that the searcher is already aware of your solution.
- Bottom-of-funnel (BOFU or “solution ready”) is an appropriate label if the query intent is to make a purchase or otherwise convert.
5. Audience segment
Who are you writing this for?
It seems like such a basic question to answer, but in my experience, it’s easy to forget!
When it comes to SEO-focused content briefs, it’s easy to assume the answer to this question is “for whoever is searching this keyword!” but what that fails to answer is who those searchers are and how they fit into your company’s personas / ideal customer profile (ICP).
If you don’t know what those personas are, ask your marketing team! They should have target audience segments readily available to send you.
This will not only help your writers better understand what they should be writing, but it also helps align you with the rest of the marketing department and help them understand SEO’s connection to their goals (this is also a critical component of getting buy-in, which we’ll talk about a little later).
6. The goal action you want your readers to take
SEO is a means to an end. It’s not only enough to get your content ranking or even to get it earning clicks/traffic. For it to make an impact for your company, you’ll want it to contribute to your bottom line.
That’s why, when creating your content brief, you not only need to think about how readers will get to it, but what you want them to do after.
This is a great opportunity to work with your content marketing and larger marketing team to understand what actions they’re trying to drive visitors to take.
Here are some examples of call-to-actions (CTAs) you can include in your briefs:
- Newsletter sign-ups
- Gated asset downloads (e.g. free templates, whitepapers, and ebooks)
- Case studies
- Free trials
- Request demo
- Product listings
In general, it’s best to use a CTA that’s a natural next step based on the intent of the article. For example, if the piece is top-of-funnel, try a CTA that’ll move them to the mid-funnel, like a case study.
7. Ballpark length
I’m a firm believer that the length of any article should be dictated by the topic, not arbitrary word counts. However, it can be helpful to offer a ballpark to avoid bringing a 500-word blog post to a 2,000-word fight.
One tool that can make coming up with a ballpark word count easier is Frase, which among other things, will show you the average word count of pages ranking for your target query.
8. Internal and external link opportunities
Since you’re reading the Moz blog, you’re probably already intimately familiar with the importance of links. However, this information is commonly left out of content briefs.
It’s as simple as including these two line items:
- Relevant content we should link out to. List out any URLs, especially on your own site, that could be natural fits to link out to in this article.
- Existing content that could link to this new piece. List out any URLs on your site that mention your topic so that, after your new piece is live, you can go back and include links in them to your new piece.
The second item is especially important, since adding links to your new post can help it get indexed and start ranking quicker. A quick way to find internal link opportunities is to use the “site:” operator in Google.
For example, the following search would show me all posts on the Moz blog that mention “content brief.” These could be great sources of links to this blog post.
9. Competitor content
Search your target query and pull the top three-or-so ranking URLs for this section of your content brief. These are the pages you need to beat.
At risk of creating copycat content (content that’s essentially a re-spun version of the top-ranking articles), it’s a good idea to instruct your writer on how best to use these.
I like to include questions like:
- What’s our unique point-of-view on this topic?
- Do we have any unique data we can pull on this topic?
- What experts (internal or external) can we ask for quotes to include on this topic?
- What graphics would make this more visually compelling than what our competitors have?
You get the idea!
10. On-page SEO cheat sheet
One thing I always like to include in my briefs is some form of an “SEO cheat sheet” — tips and resources for helping your writers with important on-page SEO elements.
Here’s an example of one I’ve used in the past:
Important caveat: Writers have varying levels of SEO expertise. Some content teams are very bullish on SEO (companies like G2 and HubSpot come to mind), so the writers may not need much help in this area. For others, SEO is fairly new to them. Determine what’s necessary for your unique situation so that you can avoid over or under-prescribing in this area.
What to avoid when writing content briefs
Sadly, “SEO” has become a dirty word to many writers. Understanding why will help us avoid the major pitfalls that can lead to ignored briefs and interdepartmental tensions.
Don’t provide suggestions after that asset has been written
When writing for search, we’re creating the output. The keyword is the input. In other words, target queries are questions to be answered, not something to be stuffed into copy that’s already been written.
Google wants to rank content that answers the query, not just repeats it on the page.
For this reason, I would avoid having an optimization step after your writing step. If you don’t, you risk the content not matching the intent of the query, which means it has little-to-no likelihood of ranking, and you’ll also likely upset your writers, who don’t want to cheapen their editorially excellent content by stuffing keywords into it.
Don’t favor keywords with high volume over high intent match
I once saw a brief where the SEO Manager requested that the writer use a certain phrase instead of another phrase because it had search volume while the other didn’t.
The problem? While seemingly similar, the keywords actually had totally different intents.
Don’t do this.
At best, targeting keywords purely for volume’s sake can result in vanity traffic that never converts. At worst, you’ll be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and likely missing intent-match completely.
Don’t blindly follow keyword tools
Keyword tools are helpful, but they’re not perfect reflections of search demand. For example, because they’re not always updated incredibly often, you may mistakenly think a query has no demand when in fact it has a ton.
A good example of this is COVID-19 related keywords. As a newly trending topic earlier this year, many keyword research tools didn’t register that they had any search volume, when in fact they did. If you would have blindly followed the tool, you may have missed out on the opportunity.
To solve for this, you can use tools like Google Trends or even Google Search Console (if you have content on a trending topic or similar topic on your site already, you should be able to see impressions/interest spiking within a few days).
Don’t instruct writers to “include these keywords” (especially a certain number of times)
When listing out the target query (or queries) in your content brief, it’s important that we instruct our writers that this is the main question to answer rather than this the word I need you to sprinkle throughout the content.
There’s no magic number of times you can stick a keyword in your copy so that it ranks for that term. Instead, instruct your writers to focus on answering the intent of the searcher’s question comprehensively.
Don’t try to jam keywords into articles that weren’t intended for search discovery
Organic search is not the only channel for content discovery. As someone coming from an SEO background, this took me a while to learn.
That means adding search content to your content calendar, not trying to cram keywords into everything on the calendar.
While it’s important to get the on-page SEO basics right (title tag, heading tags, links, etc.) for every piece, not every piece lends itself well to organic search discovery.
For example, if we only created content based on keywords that a tool told us gets searched a certain number of times per month, we’d never write about new concepts. It takes a lot of thought leadership off the table, as well as things like case studies and interview/feature story pieces.
Organic search is powerful, but it’s not everything.
Tips for getting your content team bought in
Even the best content briefs won’t make an impact if your content team refuses to use them — and I’ve heard of plenty of situations where that happens.
As an SEO, it can be mind-boggling that your content team doesn’t want to use this: “Don’t you want traffic?!” But as someone who leads a content team, I understand why they’re often rejected.
Thankfully, in many cases, this can be avoided by taking the following actions.
Involve them in the planning process
No one likes to be micromanaged, and thorough content briefs can sometimes feel like micromanaging. One great way to avoid this is by bringing them along for the process. Make content briefs a joint effort between SEO and Content.
For example, connect with the Content Lead and see if they’d be willing to sit down with you to create the content brief template together. By each of you bringing your unique expertise to the table, it can feel less like dictating and more like collaboration (plus, you’ll probably end up with a better brief template that way).
Make it clear that not all content has to be search content
SEO Managers live and breathe the organic search channel, but content teams have a more varied diet. They take a multi-channel approach to content, and sometimes are even writing content to support post-conversion teams like customer success.
When working with your content team on this, make sure you emphasize that this is a new content type that can be added to editorial planning. Not something that’ll replace or need to change the types of content they’re already writing.
Respect their expertise
Writing is hard. Doing it well requires immense skill and practice, but sadly, I’ve heard many SEOs talk about writers as if they didn’t know anything, just because they don’t know SEO.
As an SEO, you’ll get far with your content department simply by respecting their expertise. Just as many SEO Managers aren’t writers, it’s unfair of us to expect writers to have the SEO knowledge of a full-time SEO professional.
Before you implement a content brief process, sit down with the Content Lead and members of the content team to gauge their search maturity. What do they actually need your help with? Then trust them with the rest.
One of the best ways to get and maintain buy-in is by showing results. Show your content team how much of their traffic is coming from organic search and how, unlike many other content discovery channels, that traffic is staying consistent over time. Give the writer a shout-out when you notice their article ranking on page one.
Results are a great incentive to keep going.
Teamwork makes the dream work
In the SEO world, there’s a lot of talk about building strong relationships between SEOs and developers. It’s just as important to forge those same bonds with your content team and writers.
Remember, we’re on the same team, and stronger together than we are apart.