Today’s topic is a fun one: digital content development.
Below, I’ll discuss the following:
- What is content?
- What is digital content?
- What are examples of digital content?
- When did things shift to this digital marketing mindset?
- Why is it essential for businesses to produce quality digital content?
- Why do you need a digital content STRATEGY before you develop digital content?
- What’s the copywriter’s role in the digital content development process?
- What are some tips for creating strong digital content?
- What’s AI’s role in the content development process?
Do you learn better by watching a video?
Here’s my video on the topic of digital content development. Or scroll past it and read away!
What is content? What is digital content?
Content is the words and images we read and watch every day: TV shows. Articles in newspapers. Billboards on the commute to work. Podcasts, YouTube videos, our latest Netflix binge. Textbooks in school are full of content. So are the magazines in doctors’ offices.
The examples above include print items (like newspapers) and digital items we access online (like YouTube videos and podcasts).
Content is content. But the delivery mode can be different: print vs. digital.
For this post, we’re talking about digital content, specifically the kind businesses and brands use to promote their services, products, or causes. (That’s the simplest definition of copywriting: any writing that sells a product, service, or cause.)
What are examples of digital content that businesses use to market their services?
I mentioned some examples above.
Here’s an incomplete list of digital content that businesses use to engage with prospects and customers:
- Blog posts
- Case studies
- Digital ads
- Landing pages
- Social media posts
- White papers
- User-generated content (like Yelp reviews and memes)
As a freelance copywriter, I draft tons of blog posts, emails, entire websites, landing pages, ebooks, digital ads, and video scripts. I still write some print materials. But it’s most definitely a digital marketing world.
When did digital marketing take off?
It didn’t happen overnight or all at once.
I’ve been working as a freelance copywriter since 2002. When I started, digital marketing was still in its infancy. Yes, many people were charmed by the World Wide Web, but not everyone was online.
Some fun facts about the landscape in 2002:
- Google was only four years old.
- Facebook didn’t exist.
- HubSpot didn’t exist.
- The iPhone didn’t exist.
- LinkedIn did exist. (It began in the founder’s living room in 2002 and was officially launched in 2003.)
When I started freelancing in 2002, I had an AOL address. I had a very basic website. I also had a physical portfolio—an actual binder—with clips and examples of my work that I’d haul to meetings with prospective clients.
I still wrote many print materials in those early days: trifold brochures, sales letters, and direct mailers (postcards). I was writing some website copy, too. But it was still very much a mix of print and digital.
I do have a distinct memory of a turning point—a seminal moment—in my journey.
It was late 2008 or early 2009. I was working with a marketing colleague. She co-managed a marketing firm I did a lot of copywriting work for. We were working on a client’s website in her office in the basement of her home in central Massachusetts. We were frustrated because we couldn’t easily make the changes we wanted to the client’s website. We’d have to involve the client’s web person, which was a pain.
One of us mentioned we’d recently heard about a Boston-based company called HubSpot and its streamlined content management system (CMS). What’s funny: The other person (I can’t remember if it was her or me) had recently heard about HubSpot, too.
Together, we turned to her computer, visited the HubSpot website, and began poking around. We both knew that HubSpot was different—that it was special. Before long, we booked a demo and never looked back. (We moved the client’s site to HubSpot.)
THAT was a turning point in my career, and things moved quickly from there.
In a nutshell, inbound marketing focuses on attracting people who are already on the hunt for your products or services. You attract them via optimized search, lead them to your primary digital asset (your website), and delight them with helpful, engaging content—and you continue to deliver this engaging, helpful content at every stage of their buying journey.
On the other hand, outbound marketing blasts marketing messages to everyone—even though most people probably aren’t on the market for that particular product or service. Think about the billboard on the highway. Not everyone driving by needs that product or service. But those who go onto Google and search for a solution to a problem—or a type of product or service—are the folks inbound marketers want to capture.
At the core of inbound marketing is high-quality digital content: websites, blogs, emails, and social media posts.
Bottom line: Digital content makes the online world go round, which is why it’s vital to businesses and brands.
So you might be wondering: OK, great! How do I create quality digital content? This must be where the digital content development part comes into play, right?
Before you can produce quality digital content, you must have a robust digital content strategy.
Producing digital content just for the sake of putting digital content out there won’t get you far.
Instead, you must have a robust digital content strategy to guide your digital content development.
A strong digital content strategy involves the following:
- Knowing your target audience. What problems do they have? What content do they want? For example, if you focus on older Gen Z (people between 20 and 26), giving them 2000-word blog posts won’t cut it. This is the TikTok generation. They want videos.
- Agreeing on the goals of each digital content asset. Be specific and align goals with different content. For example, the content you develop for social media will have different goals than the landing page you’re developing for a pay-per-click campaign. With social media, you might measure success based on engagement. For the PPC campaign, you’d measure success based on conversions.
- Collaboration. Digital content development involves collaboration between the marketing team, writers, and designers (and, ideally, the sales team).
- You’ll want to research keywords and what competitors are doing. You’ll want to create different and better content than what’s currently out there—more on this below.
- Planning. Whether you use a Google spreadsheet or more robust project management software like Monday or Basecamp, you need an online calendar that everyone can access. People must know their responsibilities, due dates, and other relevant details.
- Execution (aka, the actual content development). Writers and designers get to work creating the various content assets.
- Promotion and repurposing. Just as you need a strategy for developing the content, you need one for promoting the content—not just once, but over the long haul. You also need a plan for repurposing the content. You can (usually) repurpose one piece of content into multiple formats and share it across different channels.
- Ongoing analysis. You must constantly measure performance. If your digital content isn’t achieving your goals, how can you improve it? Metrics you’ll measure include organic traffic, page views, bounce rates, time spent on a page, engagement (social media), click-through rates, conversion rates, and retention rates. (That’s an incomplete list.)
I don’t recommend going longer than a quarter at a time when planning.
Strategizing beyond a quarter can be challenging. Sure, you can have broad strokes. For example, if you host a virtual conference every fall, you can have it on your radar. But as you’re planning Q1, you won’t be coming up with all the details for the October virtual conference.
What’s the copywriter’s role in the content development process?
To be honest, copywriters aren’t usually as involved as they should be, especially when we’re talking about larger brands and businesses. This is especially true if you’re a freelancer, but I see it happening to full-time copywriters working for brands and agencies.
Too often, the marketing folks devise a plan based on what they’re seeing. They might go so far as to map it out. Then, they bring in the writers. Skilled marketing writers will often spot gaps in the plan’s logic and spend more time trying to understand the goals and revise the plan accordingly, all of which takes more time than if the writer had been involved from the beginning.
IMO, copywriters should be involved (and, in many cases, leading) the content development strategy—they shouldn’t be coming in mid-stream.
But that’s a perfect-world scenario, and we all know we’re not living in one of those.
The good news is if you’re working with small businesses, you can often train them to include you earlier in the process—or if you’re working with solopreneurs, you can lead the charge in the digital content strategy.
And the strategy layout doesn’t need to be complicated. You can create a simple plan if you’ve considered the objectives, researched, and discussed what worked in the past.
It might be something as simple as the following:
- Let’s produce an optimized blog post a week for one quarter.
- We’ll pull content nuggets from the blog post and create social media posts.
- At the end of the quarter, we’ll create two white papers or guides based on the content from the blog posts.
- We’ll gate the white papers and create robust landing pages.
- We’ll run some paid ads to drive people to the white papers
- We’ll review the results: Have we increased organic traffic to the site? Have we seen increased engagement on social media? How many downloads of the white paper have we gotten, and can we attribute any business to these activities?
Keep in mind that each piece of digital content you create will involve its own steps and workflows.
For example, think about everything that goes into developing an optimized blog post:
- Discussion with the client re: the topics they want to cover
- Keyword research to figure out the best keyword phrase for each blog post
- General research – see what content exists online for the keyword phrase and devise a plan to make more substantial (aka, better) content. For example, if the top content for a keyword phrase is 1500 words, you’ll want to create something that’s longer—say 2000 words. If the top piece of content lists “top 10 ways to do X,” you’ll want to create a blog post focusing on 15 ways.
- Interviewing subject matter experts
- Writing the first draft
- Getting client feedback
- Repurposing, as appropriate (for example, if you wrote a blog post on the “15 ways to do X,” you might create 15 separate social media posts, each one devoted to a different way).
What are some tips for creating strong digital content?
If you want to create quality digital content assets that get results, then . . .
You must create content that’s different from the existing content about the topic.
Again, producing content just to produce content won’t get you far. And keep in mind your competitors will be writing about the same topics. You must find a different spin and angle on the same old content everyone else is putting out there.
Sometimes, that might mean going longer. Going back to our blog post example . . . if the existing blog posts that rank on the first page of Google weigh in around 1500 words, try writing content that goes deeper into various points so that you can hit 2000 or 2500 words.
If the top blog post lists “top 10 benefits you get from installing solar panels on your home,” you’ll want to create a blog post focusing on 12 or 15 benefits.
You’ll want to make sure the digital content you create is optimized for search—for web pages and blog posts, that means having only one H1, keyword-rich H2s, appropriate H3s, bulleted lists, no errors, etc. For videos, that’s making sure you have keyword-rich titles and thorough descriptions.
Again, each piece of digital content will have its own workflows and best practices.
You must create content that’s developed specifically for the target audience you’re trying to reach.
For example, if your target audience is older Gen Z (maybe between 21 and 26), writing 2000-word blog posts isn’t the way to engage with this audience, which is all about TikTok.
And remember that your audience will have different content needs depending on where they are in their journey. People at the top of the sales funnel searching for a solution to a problem and becoming aware of your client’s business are in a critical educational stage. They respond well to blog posts and helpful FAQs. People at the bottom of the sales funnel might be looking to book a demo.
The content must be created (or heavily revised) by a human.
Large-language models, like ChatGPT, Bard, Bing, Writer AI, etc.—are fantastic tools. But they’re just that: tools. AI is not ready to replace human copywriters yet—or any time soon.
I know I might be wrong about this, and that’s OK. Things are moving fast. But right now, AI can’t produce the critical nuances needed for compelling digital copy—and trust me, I’ve been trying to get the various AI tools to do that.
I’ve been using all four of the ones I mentioned above—and I’m on the PAID version of ChatGPT and a paid version of Writer (through a client). I’ve been using these products regularly. They are excellent tools because they are lightning-fast. They can come up with copy points you might not have considered. They can review work and provide instant and helpful feedback. They can create decent outlines.
But they have yet to adequately capture a brand’s voice—and I’ve been trying to train it. And they can’t develop a digital content strategy. AI tools like ChatGPT don’t have awareness. It only knows what it’s been trained on. It’s a reactive tool, not a proactive tool.
And creating a digital content strategy requires a thoughtful, proactive approach.
Again, AI is a great tool. I begin much of my content creation using ChatGPT, Bard, or Bing. However, I’m using these tools for brainstorming or outlining in the early stages of digital content development. I must revise (usually heavily) any content it produces and find accurate sources to cite.
Also, currently, AI can’t produce quality long-form content. Not in my experience, anyway. Nothing beyond 700 words. It loses the thread. “Ask Writer” and ChatGPT can’t deliver more than 600 or so words at once (again, I’m using the paid versions for both). I’ll ask it to deliver longer copy in 600-word chunks, which it can do. But even then, both will often have difficulty reaching word counts beyond 900 or 1000 without sounding incredibly repetitive.
This will likely improve over time. But as of right now, I’d never hand off AI-produced copy to a client PRECISELY because it sounds like everything else that’s out there. And that violates one of the rules governing effective digital content—you must develop content unlike anything else out there.
Quality digital content WON’T sound like anything else already out there. To accomplish this, you need a human writer. We can imbue a brand’s voice and personality into the copy. We can identify how to elevate a piece of copy so it sounds different from everything else. We can spot gaps within the content—and address those gaps.
AI, in its current incarnation, as I write this post in 2023, can’t do those things.
Also, you can’t trust ANY stats it provides, even if it includes attribution and URLs. Both Bard and Bing will cite sources and provide URLs. I’ve found that even if the URLs are accessible and “on topic,” they seldom reflect the exact stat the AI tool tries to convey. I’ll question the AI tool, and it stutters and apologizes. I suspect this will also improve over time, but you can’t trust any stats or sources it shares. The spirit of what the AI tool is getting at with the stat is usually correct, which is helpful. But the copywriter still must go out and find a reputable source with a similar stat.
Bottom line: Anything a large-language model writes in 2023 is “OK,” but rarely (if ever) on brand or different enough from all the other content out there.
The “on brand” thing can be subtle—you know it when you hear the difference. And that’s the thing . . . someone who isn’t a skilled copywriter might not be able to pick up where things falter. They just know something doesn’t sound quite “right,” even if the content itself is otherwise acceptable.
This is where skilled writers excel. We can spot those “off” issues quickly and rectify them. We write for subtext. We write with nuance in mind. We know how to vary sentences. We’re not afraid of contractions. We know how to conduct solid research and get reliable stats and sources. We know how (and when) to push the envelope and how to sound on brand.
Digital content development: Think strategy first.
Digital content is an essential ingredient in an effective digital marketing strategy for businesses large and small. Copywriters create the content for various digital assets, like blog posts, social media posts, paid ads, web pages, etc.
Ideally, copywriters would be part of the digital content strategy from the get-go. But at the very least, writers can focus on creating quality digital content by making sure it’s different from all the other content out there, that it’s appropriate for the various audiences the client is trying to reach, and that it’s written and revised by a human, not AI.
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