In a perfect world, you would write every piece of content yourself because you have the brand voice, tone and key messages down cold. You’d have plenty of quality time to write, few distractions, no crises or priorities du jour. You’d also stop for coffee breaks and go for mid-day runs.
In the real world, you eat lunch at your desk and don’t have time to write thoughtful content unless you take the work home. So you farm out writing projects to freelancers or agencies. Some get your business, industry, messaging and voice. Most don’t. You end up with potluck: a tray of Costco lasagna here, a kale salad there, some deviled eggs and a bag of Doritos.
There is a better alternative. One where you don’t write any content yourself. And where whoever writes for you does the job you would do if you had the time. And frankly, if you had the talent. Because, in fact, you may hate writing, or you may not be good at it, or you may just want to lead the marketing and content strategy, which is what you got hired to do in the first place.
You need two things: a message platform and a writer or writing team who know how to use it.
Save time, maintain consistency
A message platform, also known as a message matrix or a brand messaging guide, can range from a one-page, high-level piece to a multi-page document listing vision, mission, values, background on your industry and company, key corporate messages, product/services messaging, and more. Voice and tone can be addressed in a messaging document as well but are most often found in brand guidelines.
I’ve created and used messaging platforms for my clients, and I can vouch that they’re life savers. The more detailed, the better. Messaging platforms benefit you in at least three ways.
1. Message platforms save time. You don’t have to waste time hunting for an annual report, corporate brochure or email that had some good messaging in it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a new piece of content is assigned. You don’t have to develop a creative brief for every new tactic. You can open up the messaging platform and—presto!—find the perfectly prioritized language you need.
2. Message platforms ensure message consistency. To support and build your brand, it’s critical to have unity of voice, tone and message across all your communications. Too often, because we feel we don’t have the time or, worse, because the executive team can’t agree on or won’t abide by a unified way of speaking to the world (see my post about getting buy-in from the C-suite here), we get a hit-or-miss approach. You end up with a mishmash of news releases, web pages, marketing brochures, white papers and social media that are the equivalent of a block of San Francisco Victorians: cute, but do pink, yellow and blue really represent your company? Message platforms limit the verbal paint to those colors you choose ahead of time.
3. Message platforms place strategy ahead of tactics. Developing the message platform is when you collaborate, debate and maybe even fight about what to say and how to say it. But once you’re done, you’re done. You shouldn’t have to fight those strategic messaging battles every time you put out a news release or white paper. Creating a message platform is a front-loaded strategic exercise that lets you expedite tactical content later.
Getting writers on the same page
Producing a message platform is a great first step, but it doesn’t guarantee success. They’re worthless if they collect dust on a shelf. Assuming that’s not the case, you can still run into problems with consistency in your written communications. This generally is an issue with execution.
You don’t have to demand that your writers adhere to the platform language dogmatically. There is room for nuance and creativity. But don’t hand out your message platform and tell writers it’s just a suggestion. That would be like giving someone a grocery list and telling them to disregard it if they think of something better. Or having a director pass a script out to actors but telling them it’s only a starting point for whatever creative lines they dream up.
Larger companies with bigger budgets fix the execution problem by training in-house and agency writers on the message platform and by hiring editors and brand cops. These keepers of the brand patrol the web pages and marketing lanes, collaring miscreant messages and arresting off-brand bandits before they can do further damage.
Not big enough to afford brand enforcers? One marketing manager I know had this problem. She had created a comprehensive message platform. But she was still getting mixed results on assignments. Messaging, voice and tone varied between content produced by different writers at the public relations agency and freelancers.
She solved the problem through specialization. She retained the agency to focus on media and analyst relations. But she took all content development in-house, assigning writing to a single freelancer whom she trusted to understand and execute the company’s brand voice, tone and messaging on every piece of content. Working with a single writer simplified her task. But she still could have enforced consistency with multiple writers.
Putting it all together
Message consistency starts with getting your message act together. Put your key messages down on paper. Get your boss(es) to sign off on them. Follow them the way a sailor points her ship with a compass. And make sure you have a writer or team of writers who thoroughly understands and follows the message platform on all of your communications.