Do you find yourself planning the form before you develop the idea for content?
Most of us do – it’s the way we consume content. When you feel inspired by a video or podcast, for example, your brain will start trying to come up with an idea to use in a movie or podcast.
It makes sense. You see an excellent, creative idea expressed in some form factor, and you think, “That’s what I want to create.” But it’s the container (the experience) you want to emulate. You still have to come up with a unique idea for that form factor.
It’s normal to create this way.
Think about it. Did George Lucas dream up a story about a young boy on a desert planet who reunites with his separated-at-birth twin sister to save the galaxy from an evil empire and then decide his story would work best as a movie?
No. Inspired by the television and movie versions of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, he decided to make a movie. The story for Star Wars came next.
Starting with the medium makes sense for filmmakers, TV show creators, novelists, and others. But it doesn’t work well for marketing.
Container-first planning doesn’t work in marketing
Starting with the content form factor can cause a heap of trouble in marketing for two reasons.
First, marketing content isn’t an endpoint – it’s a bridge to an endpoint. In other words, you aren’t trying to optimize for the end experience. Instead, you’re optimizing to find the people who want the end experience: our product or service.
Think about it this way: People want to watch Star Wars. They don’t necessarily want to find your marketing content. So conveying one story or idea in multiple containers gives you a better chance to find an audience. You’re telling the story everywhere the audience is rather than trying to lure them to one piece on one channel.
There’s another reason to avoid starting with the container rather than the idea. Organizations need to express a lot of ideas. Some are small, and some are big. If you plan the container first, you might end up putting small ideas into big containers and vice versa.
How many times have you seen full white papers dedicated to a too-small idea? On the other hand, I’ve seen many ideas that should have been integrated brand campaigns crammed into a single blog post. Why? Because someone thought, “We need a blog post about this,” and never considered whether it could turn into more.
How to separate content ideas from expression
Remember: People will consume the designed expression of your content ideas (your website, blog, video, e-book, social media post, etc.). But the idea conveyed in that expression will differentiate your work and determine whether your content strategy succeeds.
Star Wars wasn’t a hit because it was a movie. It succeeded because it was a great story well told.
I’ve written about how planning and governance can help you prioritize content projects. Adding a step can help you make sure your ideas end up in as many (or few) containers as you’ll need to find your audience.
Most of the content and marketing teams I know of use a content intake form that starts with the question, “What kind of content do you want?” A drop-down menu offers a selection of formats (video, infographic, white paper, web page, blog post, etc.)
Questions about the content for that format, the audience, the journey stage, and so on always come later. The process goes from request to asset creation.
That’s where the additional step should come in. The story or idea creation should be a step of its own – separate from the design and production process.
The process I recommend looks like this:
Create the story
Start by finding or hashing out the compelling story (within the content team or as a cross-functional effort). Do the research, outline the story, and decide how big the idea is.
Then, write the story. Create the world, the challenges, and the solutions. This is the raw content that could (or should) live in any expression of the idea.
Then – and only then, move on to the next step.
Design the experience(s)
Decide all the different kinds of packages this story can live in. Does it work as a video? Does it work as a white paper? Does it work as a blog post? Does it work as a print ad? Could it work as all of those things?
You don’t have to execute all experiences at once. But taking the time to create the raw content elements at the beginning of the process lets you quickly create those things when you’re ready.
I follow this same two-step process when I create content. I plan the story and write these raw elements first:
- Content elements (a draft of this column)
- A bullet point version I can use on a podcast
- Different paragraphs and versions to feature on The Content Advisory website
- Focused messaging points I can use to turn this into a presentation (or class or keynote)
- All the links and research I used to create this article (if any)
I file all this material away and use it as I need it. If I need to create a presentation – I can look back to this document and see which of my ideas are big enough. I already have a good start on the content I need to create it.
This approach isn’t appropriate for everything. Sometimes an ad is just an ad, a video is just a video, and an email is just an email.
But for big ideas (especially those that impact the larger organization), start thinking about creating the raw content for your compelling story before you decide how to design and produce all the experiences that will convey it.
That way, you can make sure your great big ideas won’t get trapped in too-small containers.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute