Content planning to keep your stakeholders happy

Agreement with many different people within and outside your organisation – long before any writing takes place – is crucial to a content programme’s success. Here’s what you need to do, and how

At FirstWord we have a slide with an appalling pun, which you can see here. Why are we interested in “steakholders”? Because all those people illustrate the biggest difference between making content in a traditional media environment such as newspapers and making it within the marketing department of a large company.

Happy stakeholders aligned with your content programme aren’t just crucial for success, they are crucial to getting anything done at all. And keeping them happy is about planning: huge amounts of upfront work that is more important than the writing itself. (For brevity, I use “writing” as shorthand for any form of content, but you could be making video, podcasts, infographics, slideshows or animations too.)

Why are all these people involved?

Stakeholders range from internal subject matter experts and consultants, to marketing colleagues and bosses, other executives in the organisation, and also clients or prospective clients that you might be planning to write about.

The reason they are involved is because content marketing is a branch of marketing, and a branch of the marketing budget. They need to be convinced that a content’s message will be consistent with the company’s marketing goals, position and culture, and that it’s worth paying for. Outside organisations need to be involved because you need to ask if they’re happy to be mentioned. And that means that the piece needs to align with their marketing goals and messaging too.

How to align marketing messaging and editorial themes

Everyone will stay happy if all the themes and story ideas in your editorial calendar are aligned with the marketing messaging and priorities for the next few months.

Marketing messaging about, say, being a sustainable and responsible company translates into editorial stories that demonstrate how you work with your supply chain and local communities. Showing you have the most up-to-date digital products might mean editorial about your tech development team being completely on top of what’s new, or how you are alive to the digital disruption rampaging through your industry.

This cuts both ways. One of your senior executives has read something in The Economist about quantum computing and wants to write (or have ghostwritten for her) about how important it is. That’s obviously fine because she is in charge. But you need to craft a synopsis or essay plan that talks about quantum in relation to your industry’s digital disruption, or in relation to how it might hugely affect your clients’ data crunching.

Story ideas need to tie into the topics about which your audience would expect you to be part of the conversation. If you’re an insurance company or carton manufacturer, your head of strategy might have opinions about last night’s football match, but you wouldn’t want them on your website unless they were about data collection and sustainable packaging for the corporate hospitality suites, or changing insurance risk at spectator events in a post-Covid world.

Speed dates and audience awareness are crucial

One way that we keep our clients on track with editorial calendars is to conduct short interviews or speed dates with a range of executives. We’ll ask what’s big in their world, what their clients are worried about, what regulation is coming up and so on. From that we can gather story ideas into various themes or pillars, and work with the marketing team to make sure that any story synopsis is aligned with the key messaging and goals of the company. Then, when we come back to the original executives (or others) for a detailed interview related to a specific story, we know that we are aiming at something that will be interesting editorially and tick the right messaging boxes too.

There are multiple potential and overlapping audiences for any story you do, and that’s another big difference between content marketing pieces and those in a newspaper. Journalists on a paper tend to treat the readers as a homogeneous group with the same interests in the same sorts of stories. Of course that’s a generalisation, but Guardian readers will probably have more in common with each other about what they want to read and how the story might be told than they have in common with Daily Mail readers. That means the journalist need absorb only the way their organisation usually approaches, packages together and tells the story.

But your corporate content campaign is very different. The same story aimed at different readers will need to be told differently. Are you writing about tech trends for your investors? Then the story needs to build in a sense that your expertise is going to boost revenues. Are you writing for policy-makers? You’ll need to show responsibility and awareness that tech could be causing disruption for the wider community and might need outreach and co-operation with regulators. If the piece is aimed at recruitment, then tech trends are going to lead to skills that companies in your industry will require, and so on.

Keeping your stakeholders on board involves showing that you know who you’re writing for and what they will want to hear from your company.

Stakeholders are not journalists

That brings us to the last reason why all that running around before any piece starts is important. Your stakeholders are not journalists and the language of editorial is not their job.

An editor at a paper may commission a feature writer only with: “Give me 1,200 words for tomorrow on what’s going on with blue hydrogen and how it’s a massive deal for packaging.” There doesn’t need to be a discussion on how the top of the story should read, how it should be structured to best entice the paper’s readers, what proof points and facts should be involved, who should be interviewed or how long it should take to produce. The writer is trusted to know all that and will be expected to produce the best story, tailored to the paper’s main audience, in the time available. If it’s a feature for tomorrow’s paper, it will probably need to be filed by 4pm.

But if your content marketing programme is to include something on blue hydrogen, then you will have to write down for your subject matter experts why you’re doing it, what information you’re gathering, how it will be structured, what overall messaging or company purpose is going to shine through the story, and of course how much it’s going to cost to produce. You might have to draw them a picture that shows the piece beautifully posted on a web page. When everyone has signed off on all that, you can start writing. It won’t be ready by teatime.

Putting it all together starts with budget

Newspaper editors rarely worry about the cost of each individual story, unless it’s a very big deal and they’re sending a team of reporters and photographers under cover to the moon for a month. But your content programme must be costed out. Each piece will take a certain amount of time, and if it is accompanied by photography, an infographic, a podcast discussion, a short list of its key points for posting on social media, maybe the building of a new web page to house it, all of that will need costing and signing off in advance.

It is so important to think about the “suite” of content for each story, because if you’ve booked a conference speaker and signed off their appearance fee of £50,000 but forgotten about writing up what they say (cost = £1,500), you won’t be able to go back to your procurement people and get that extra money. You also won’t get the other £2,000 you need to boost the write-up on social media, make a little highlights audio reel for podcast or anything else. Your stakeholders include the budget holders, and they need to be perfectly on board too before anyone can start writing anything.

So: speed dates, audience, concept, marketing alignment, size of the “suite”, budget, essay plans and deadlines. Then you can find the right writer, commission them, set up interviews and make a start.

Deadlines also need to include the time needed for a couple of rounds of approvals from all the various people involved. But obviously if you’ve put the work in up front, their expectations have been well set. The amendments process should be painless, right?

Not so much “least said, soonest mended”, as most said, least amended.