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Your client should be able to explain what they want. Many can’t. If this happens to you, what should you do?

Every writer should know enough about content strategy to fill in the gaps and educate their clients if necessary.

We’ve all had clients who have funny ideas about what makes content successful.

How often have you seen a job post that says something vague like “we’re looking for writers with proven success” or talked with a potential client who wanted “sticky content that goes viral”?

Proven success? What does that even mean?

What are you supposed to say when you apply for that job? That you can drive huge amounts of traffic to their website? That you can get a lot of shares on Twitter? That you can write content that ranks highly on Google?

That’s probably what they want to hear, but it’s just lip service.

Ranking content in Google is a complicated, long-term endeavor of which good writing is only a part.

Shares on Twitter don’t automatically translate to clickthroughs to the site.

A huge amount of traffic doesn’t automatically mean huge sales.

And yet, so many clients have vague metrics for writer success and are convinced by superficial promises of “big wins.” They don’t think they’re hiring freelance writers, they think they’re hiring magicians who can turn a few hundred bucks into quarterly sales records.

Why do they think things like this?

I’ll tell you who you usually can’t tell you why: Your client.

Because there’s a big problem with the dialogue between freelance writers and their clients.

“Gee, only one?”

Alright, there are many. But one problem at a time, okay?

Today let’s talk about one that’s particularly hard to put your finger on — Figuring out who is responsible for content strategy.

In my experience, this simple role misunderstanding causes nothing but headaches for clients and freelance writers both.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the fastest way to ensure a new relationship with a client ends before it begins, with everyone leaving the table disappointed.

Why does this keep happening, and who’s responsible for fixing it?

Let me tell you a quick story.

I recently got coffee with an entrepreneur who wanted to pick my brain about content. He runs one of those box delivery startups and is beginning to see some real traction.

He has a few thousand followers on his social channels, and from all outside appearances, his marketing efforts online look like they’re successful.

But he runs a small team, and a lot of his content is whipped up on the fly and with no real strategy behind it. He’s on the cusp of a big business break and he has heard that blogging is a successful marketing tactic. But he’s skeptical.

“It’s just such an investment,” he said. “If I pay a writer a few hundred bucks for a blog post and it doesn’t go viral, then it was a waste of money. A sunk cost. Writers just don’t understand this.”

Is this your expression right now?

Mine too. Let’s talk about it.

'There's a big problem with the dialogue between freelance writers and their clients — figuring out who's responsible for content strategy.'Click To Tweet

Just from hearing him say this, I could tell we had a handful of misunderstandings on the horizon when it comes to expectations. Putting my content strategist hat on, there are a few things I’d advise him on at this point.

Problem #1, he assumes going viral = success. If he were running a business that depends primarily on advertising revenue, like a publication or a blog, then going viral would indeed be the right strategy.

But his revenue model is based on products he sends customers in the mail. Is going viral really the right way to go?

Maybe. If he has a lot of money to put into content creation. But, Problem #2, he has a small budget for content. 

This means top-tier freelance writers are probably out of his range. He’ll need to hire first-year freelancers who are still cutting their teeth and building their portfolios.

There’s nothing wrong with those writers of course, but they probably don’t have enough content strategy experience to explain why “going viral” is a bad strategy for him, or what he should do instead.

Which leads to Problem #3, he implicitly assumes that success or failure is on the writer.

At that level of pay and experience, freelance writers should pretty much only be expected to do a job and collect their check, not feel pressured to guarantee results for a strategy they didn’t design and don’t have any input on.

'Many clients don't seem to think they're hiring freelance writers — they think they're hiring magicians who can turn a few hundred bucks into quarterly sales records.'Click To Tweet

If he can’t afford top-tier, experienced freelance writers, then all of the content strategy is on him, and the success or failure of the content is his as well.

So, if we’re keeping track, this client misunderstands:

  • What it means for content to be a success for his business
  • How much investment it takes to succeed with content
  • Who is responsible for the success of his content

The saddest part of this story? Running into clients like this is not uncommon for freelancers.

This is you right now, right?

If you’re the first-year novice writer this guy was able to afford, this puts you in an awkward situation.

First, it’s possible that you just don’t know enough about content strategy yet to explain to the client where he’s wrong, even though you probably intuit that he’s wrong.

Second, even if you do know he’s wrong, and even know some of the reasons that he’s wrong, you might feel that it’s not your place to educate your client, or you might lack the confidence to do so.

Whatever the reason, the client now assumes that you know enough about content strategy to make this one piece of content an absolute, unqualified success for him, and you assume he knows something you don’t, or just hope that the content you put together does what he wants it to do.

You’re both now co-pilots in a project headed for disaster.

And to think, it could have been avoided.

Who is responsible for content strategy?

What does all of this mean for writers, especially ones that are earlier in their careers?

First: In an ideal world, your client is responsible for content strategy. And you’re well within your rights to expect that of them.

They should know things like:

  • Exactly what kind of content they need produced
  • What it should look like
  • Which channel(s) it should be optimized for
  • What topics they want to cover
  • What keywords (if any) they want to target, and
  • Have a realistic idea of what success looks like.

Simply put, if you’re not being paid to do so, your role isn’t to create a strategy. Your role is to execute their strategy.

Sure, maybe you can advise them here or there on technical stuff they might be missing, like headlines.

Let’s say you hire someone to paint your living room. They show up at the address, but it’s just an empty lot. They call you, confused. “Where’s your house?” Just as confused, you retort “well, you have to build it.”

No.

No no no.

This is not how it will go.

Writing is a skill, just like painting a house. It doesn’t mean that a house painter can also build a house. Similarly, a writer isn’t necessarily a content strategist.

And if a writer is a content strategist, then they, like the house painter, wouldn’t build the house for the same cost as it takes to paint the living room.

Here’s the reality check…

Between you and me, as the freelance writer, you’re completely justified in expecting that your client has already figured out exactly what they want.

But…

… it’s probably not going work out that way every time.

Heck, most times.

All too often, the client doesn’t actually have a strategy (or doesn’t understand what they should actually want) which means that many are setting themselves up for disappointing results.

And who are they going to blame? They’re going to blame you.

Even though it’s 100% their fault.

Here’s what writers should do.

Yes, in a perfect world, you’re not supposed to be the content strategist (unless you’re being paid for that).

But you can’t wait for clients to become the content strategist. If they are, that’s awesome. If they aren’t, you have to step in and educate them.

This means:

If you’re a writer, you’re also a teacher. Your students are your clients.

Understand a simple reality: Most clients you’ll be working with on a freelance basis aren’t content people.

They don’t know the ins and outs of your skillset. That’s why they’re hiring you. You’re the content person.

Most small business owners spend their days wrapped up in product and sales and payroll. Ultimately, they just want to be successful.

Most of them know that good content can be a big advantage over their competitors.

They just don’t know what success actually looks like, when to expect it, and what kind of content gets you there.

So what are we telling you to do, really?

We’re not advocating that you offer free content strategy services to your clients. Anything but.

We are saying that writers at all levels, but especially early on, need to prioritize learning content strategy.

If you’re a first-year writer and have one takeaway from this post, that’s it.

Start learning content strategy today. 

And don’t stop learning content strategy.

Make it part of your professional development.

Read marketing blogs and subscribe to marketing newsletters.

Learn, learn, learn.

Every writer picks up content strategy over the course of their careers.

But they do it haphazardly. They learn from experience.

We’re saying start the process now. Do it on purpose.

So you can offer free content strategy advice to clients?

No.

So you can recognize red flags your clients throw your way about content strategy.

So you can understand what you’re getting into.

So you can help manage expectations.

So you can push people who hire writers to set tangible, realistic goals for you.

'If you're a writer, you're also a teacher. Your students are your clients.'Click To Tweet

You can’t define your client’s goals for them, but you should ask what their goals are and be able to chime in if you think they’re unrealistic.

And if your client is lost and doesn’t know what their strategy should be, offer to create one for them (for pay, of course).

When it comes to the dialogue between freelance writers and their clients, we need to lead a paradigm shift.

Study after study after study after study after study shows that good content is a major driver of business growth and success. Every client who wants to hire a freelance writer already knows this.

But it takes time. It is an investment. Most clients don’t know this part.

That’s the expectations gap. That’s why clients think one blog post will set quarterly sales records.

The only way to fix this problem and hit the reset button on client expectations is to normalize conversations like this:

Client: “I want content to go viral.”

Writer: “Are you sure that going viral is the right strategy for you? What’s your ultimate goal?”

Client: “To sell more stuff, obviously.”

Writer: “Okay, well, going viral isn’t necessarily the best way to do that because [insert XYZ reasons].”

Client: “Oh. Well, what do you think we should do?”

Writer: “It sounds like you need to spend some time thinking about content strategy, or hire a content strategist. It just so happens, I could offer my services…”

That means you need to collect all of the knowledge about content strategy you can, as soon as you can.

Okay, sold. How do I learn more about content strategy?

There aren’t a lot of good resources out there that are specifically geared toward writers. You’ll have to mostly stay away from freelance writing blogs and look for resources in marketing, PR, digital media, and more, depending on what lane you’re trying to steer into as a freelance writer.

Even if you’re getting your start writing listicles for a viral website, you can learn things about stuff like headlines and readability that will benefit you when working with a B2C blog.

Even if you want to become a master blogger, there are things you can learn about email subject lines and social media advertising that translate over.

Good copywriting habits are good copywriting habits.

Also, ProWriter is, in part, an attempt to bridge the divides we’re talking about.

That’s why this blog exists, and why we publish content like this on our social channels:

We publish content every day in an effort to help writers, especially those earlier in their careers, increase their knowledge of content strategy.

That way you can coach your clients instead of letting them set both of you up for failure.

Needless to say, happier clients means more jobs for you which means a happier you!

If you have any suggestions for topics you think we should cover, feel free to email us directly at dusten@prowriter.co. Or, start a conversation with me on LinkedIn.