One of the most common questions we get from prospects who are considering hiring PMG to produce content is:
“How can you write for my business and my industry if you have never worked directly in it?”
Our sales team has some standard answers to this question based on our experience, but for a more in-depth response, we thought we’d pose the question – and a few more – to some of our favorite content marketers, many of whom also do work as freelance writers. No surprise, they had some great replies that are sure to help you evaluate whether an outside writer could be valuable for your company.
The first thing that freelance writers do is to think and act like reporters.
“How does any reporter, from the AP to the New York Times write about a new industry?” asked Hilary McCarthy. “Reporters (and writers) frequently change beats and are expected to be able to write on just about anything.”
Wendy Ducharme echoes the sentiment. “Journalists are not experts in all the fields they cover,” she says. “But they serve as translators explaining complex subjects and issues in a succinct way so the general public can understand the topic. They do this by learning enough about the subject to ask probing questions of the real experts. They then relay the information provided by the SMEs. We do the same thing.”
Allison Woodbury also compares her job to being a reporter. “I gather the right information by knowing the right questions to ask. That’s an important part of it, but it’s just the first step. As writers, we must craft that information into content that is effective, compelling and engaging from a marketing perspective.”
The best reporters—and freelance writers or content marketers—will devour any information they can get about the new business or industry they’re covering, all with the goal of creating content that is effective with the target audience.
Hilary says, “We have a passion to understand and write about the issues. We strive to uncover the things that readers need to know but don’t—we’re the kids most likely to raise our hands in the classroom. We seek to help you and your clients, and we do it through research, asking questions and talking with you and your clients.”
These writers all claim to rely heavily on the client as a critical subject matter expert (SME).
“My first channel for research is always the client,” says content marketer Katelyn Moore. “What articles, blogs, and news channels do they subscribe to? What articles do they think would add more validity to the story?”
Allison adds, “The best research is always an interview! Interviewees often will try to find the perfect way to explain things – so I remind them to describe it casually and informally, as if they were explaining this topic to a friend.”
But content marketers understand that the best content will not rely solely on the client.
Denise Locke, who specializes in technology, says, “Writing about a new industry means doing research and interviewing subject matter experts. It’s about learning the basics of the technology, but researching the peripheral topics, too. Getting into the nitty-gritty details that will resonate with your audience and help them solve challenges. Paying attention to detail. Learning about industry benchmarks to demonstrate authority on a topic.”
Hilary says, “We use Google, the Internet, anything else you send us—we devour this information.” She also spends time researching background on the industry, the company, going to client’s website, seeing what customers are asking on social channels, and looking at common questions on specific topics.
“I spend quite a bit of time ramping up on the industry,” says Allison. “Competitor materials are key. I also like to find third-party sources (like news releases) for a better ‘unbiased’ understanding of how to approach a topic. When it comes to crafting a piece of content, professionally conducted persona research is ideal for understanding how to add context and relevance to what we’re communicating.”
Kate turns to keyword research tools, like AnswerThePublic.com to find different ways to pose questions to Google. “Instead of What is this product? I could search for How does this product help people? or What is the future of this product?”
She also reads between 10 and 15 articles in a related subject for that same industry before even thinking about an outline. “I ask myself, How are other people telling this story? How is the competition telling it? What can I do as a writer to make that story clearer, more helpful, and more accessible to the audience it’s intended for?”
You’d think that with all of this research, a freelance writer would have the answers they need to produce great content. But the irony is that more than providing answers, the research helps the writers ask the informed questions that will lead to the best content.
Wendy notes that especially when writing for a completely new industry, the research is imperative.
“The greatest challenge is to write for an industry with a totally unfamiliar vocabulary,” Wendy explains. “There are times when you read stuff and you don’t know what it means because there is a whole new universe of words that don’t mean anything to you. The key is to learn enough about that language so you know enough to ask the best questions.”
Besides the need to learn acronyms, industry lingo and the company style guides of their clients, writers often deal with a lack of content to work with for background information. This makes sense. If a company is looking to produce quality content in their marketing efforts, chances are they have struggled to produce it in the past. In addition, with new technologies, tools and industries cropping up daily, today’s content marketers often find themselves starting from scratch.
But the best freelance writers will view this as an opportunity.
“If there isn’t a lot of published or noteworthy content out there yet, adapting the language to the story becomes more difficult,” says Kate. “And that’s why the client is such a valuable resource. Every day on sales calls, they help their prospects understand the language of their business.”
Hilary adds, “It can be fun to write on something completely new and position the client as a leader in this space. That’s where interviewing the client and all SMEs becomes even more important.”
The audience is EVERYTHING to a good writer.
Greg Reid, content marketer, says, “Regardless of the industry, people want to read about people. Joe had problem X. Here were the consequences if Problem X went unattended. Joe needed a change. Joe discovered Product/Service A. Here’s how and why he found Product/Service A. Here’s the difference it’s made in Joe’s job / career / business / life. Have a problem like Joe? Do what Joe did.”
When writing for a client, Greg’s approach is to find two or three SMEs, get them to relax and set aside the talking points. “I ask the questions the reader needs answered for it all to make sense, and then quote the experts liberally.”
Allison adds, “I ask SMEs about the pain point their topic seeks to address and ask them to put themselves in the head of our audience. Let’s say our reader is an IT Manager – I ask the SME to think about what is going on in the head of the IT Manager reading it.”
Hilary says that while good writers will consider the Who, What, When, Where and How of every situation, the most important factor is always Why your audience should care.
“Why is this topic important to them in the first place?” she asks. “And how can you help?”
A common theme for answering this question centered on the fresh perspective an outside writer can bring.
Content Marketer Sharron Senter says, “An outside point-of-view brings added benefits to clients, including a refreshing voice, which is especially needed in today’s highly competitive inbound marketing environment. A new voice, one without the inside scoop of an industry, can bring new insights and help a brand further distinguish itself from its competition simply by speaking differently.”
Adds Kate, “I think it’s sometimes better to have someone who isn’t familiar with your industry write about it. Here’s why: when you’re in the weeds of a product, service, or topic every day, you take shortcuts when telling your story – because you already know the details. As a result, information that could be helpful to a visitor may be left out. A fresh set of eyes can help clients tell the story in its entirety.”
Hilary agrees. “Often, because we are not ingrained in the day to day of your business, we can also see things more objectively,” she says. “We can recognize key points and value that you provide but are not already leveraging, or even improve on the way you are saying it. We can also often add a fresh, new level of creativity to your content and approach.”
Besides the fresh outside perspective, our writers pointed to the ability of a good writer to take one company’s message and weave in relevant supporting facts, industry data and expert insights to create a compelling story for the target audience.
Denise shared a recent example.
“When writing, you need to outline the basic frame to the topic, then use some creativity to fit the remaining pieces—the supportive content—together. I do this by asking questions like: How can I add more depth to this topic? What can I say differently to put a new "spin" on the topic? How can I differentiate?
“And what I find is that the answers to these questions often come when NOT writing. It's when I've taken a break to allow time to reflect and review the topic.
“Here’s an example: I'm writing a client white paper on robotics technology and constantly thinking about robotic parts and pieces. How can I make this paper unique but relatable? This is a familiar product (bearings), but in a new industry. Then while driving in the car, an ad comes on for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), promoting their "first-in-the-nation" robotic arm surgical center. A quick check of the BIDMC site helps me put a fresh, local spin on a medical application of robotic arms.
“Good writers pay attention and look beyond the obvious resources to learn about (and add a new perspective to) their writing topics.”
Researching new businesses, pulling in information from a variety of resources, positioning topics in a fresh and relevant way, and keeping the audience top of mind takes time and talent. But when the end goal is reached, it’s always worth it.
Greg says, “It’s about being a little different, focusing on the people. The people are important. They're the ones making decisions and opening wallets.”
Thanks so much to our awesome writers for their help with this article!
Before Maureen Condon became one of the Principals of PMG in 2006, she was a writer and a business owner – which explains why she specializes in content marketing and strategy. Covering topics that will help businesses get real, measured results from marketing – success you can see in numbers – Maureen likes to back companies in their efforts to create a strategy, a compelling message, and programs that connect with prospects, clients and influencers in ways that drive sales. And she does so, with panache!