Someone recently booked a call saying, “we need a content strategy.” My usual reaction to that kind of demand has often been, “damn, I don’t do that.” My second reaction might be to say that I work on narrative strategies or writing for learning and thinking, not for marketing. My third reaction was to take some time to think about it and put together some things I keep doing and frame it as my method, a playbook, if you will.
I’m a big reader and learner, so I’ve done several deep, years-long dives into various topics. I built my whole career(s) by showing I know what I’m talking about and drawing people’s attention to my work. That’s probably the quickest description of my playbook: read, learn, think, share. Here’s how that might look.
Make it ’til you make it. Lots of people will tell you to “fake it ’til you make it,” I don’t believe in that. Sure, if you’re good at something and the project calls for “very good,” you can decide to put in the time and deliver. But if a project calls for something you don’t know at all, learn some of it first, don’t make it look like you know. That’s both a policy I apply with clients and one of the tenants of this playbook. What you will share with your audience should be based on your practice, in what you know, not on aspirational things you think will look good. Do the work, talk about the work. Developers, for example, are often recruited by looking at the code they share on Github, not by what they’ve written on their CVs or claimed in their intro letter. In sports, athletes perform and climb the ranks as they get better, not because they brag about how good they are on social media.
Show you know what you’re talking about (proof of knowledge). Write about the work, the details of what you are doing. Talk about your thinking in the field, opinions, lessons. Teach others. That’s usually articles on a blog, a podcast, a newsletter, a course, etc.
Show you know what’s going on (proof of attention). Some people have been doing great work for years but haven’t learned anything new since getting out of school, getting the first job, or starting the company. I believe you need to constantly be learning, which means an evolution of your work, and knowing what’s going on in your field. That might be all the same formats as above but can often be a curated newsletter of what you find while keeping up. (That also becomes a great source of things you can write about.)
Show you have ideas of where things are going (proof of vision). This one might be more optional, but it’s of growing importance for your own company’s preparedness—foresight, forecasts, futures. You are thinking about where your company, field, and surroundings are going. Beyond the three or five-year strategy, what might happen? What does that imply? We’re beyond content strategy here, but it’s an interest of mine and something that will become increasingly essential for everyone, so it can also be part of what you want to think about and share.
I’m not big on detailed strategies with tight schedules and a list of two hundred topics you “should” write about. From my own experience but also from every big newsletter I’ve paid attention to in recent years, it comes down to two things: regularity and quality. That’s it. I could list a few dozen articles and podcast interviews. They’ll give some recommendations but, almost to a person, will end up saying that you need to follow a schedule and put out something of quality. I’ve rarely had huge popular success but, as mentioned above, have obtained good results when showing that I know what I’m talking about and in drawing people’s attention to my work.
Pick something you’d like to do that matches a medium in which you can express your ideas. I go for newsletters and articles, but maybe you’re dreaming of something else?
Determine the regularity you know you can hit (or afford to pay someone for but remember you’ll also need to dedicate time to working with that person to discuss your ideas and work), minimum once a month, ideally once a week, twice if you can.
There are dozens, probably hundreds, of templates and articles about personas and audiences. You can do that. I recommend going more personal and straightforward, so I’d say identify one person—perhaps a few, but they have to fit together, not multiple audiences—and then write for them. Maybe you get there later, it may be the case that you have to talk to investors and potential hires, but chances are you have the time, budget, and ideas for one type of person. Even if you can do more, start with one and polish your craft/process/collaboration first.
Define a sandbox or niche of things about which you want to talk. I recommend where your work and your interests intersect. Not what you think people want to hear, or what you think will make you look smart, or what you think might go viral. Sure, you can have these at the back of your mind, but if you want to draw the right kind of interest, start from what you know, what you are thinking about, or the things you want to learn.
What it’s not
In the beginning, I mentioned writing for learning and thinking and showing what you know. I believe this has the best returns because it’s not aimed at traffic or mentions or leads but instead at progressing in what you do. This kind of playbook is more subtle, probably doesn’t fit large organizations, and is hard to track with metrics. It’s not about going viral, and it’s not about claiming thought leadership. But if you do good work, want to keep learning, and believe showing the work can be enough, you should think about starting with this approach. ⊗
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Need a hand with some of this?
- We can have a chat first to see how we might work together.
- To “show you know what you’re talking about,” we can sit for interviews and turn them into articles. Talk through some ideas and research to turn them into pieces, etc.
- To “show you know what’s going on,” you need to... know what’s going on. It can be hard to keep up with everything going on in a busy domain. I can help with specific research, regular reports, writing an internal newsletter to keep you and your team updated or writing a public newsletter as part of your “playbook strategy.” In this last case, see the process has putting in the time and money to know what’s going on and sharing it with others.
- To “show you have ideas of where things are going,” you’ll need to put in the time beyond signals and trends and start developing scenarios for potential futures. I can point you towards people who do that work in detail, but we can also work on a few simple methods together to get an idea of what might come to be and perhaps how you can affect that direction.
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