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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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The Content Designer: King Of The Conversation


Within smaller teams, one writer may be the beginning and the end of the content assembly line. On larger teams, however, there are often a handful of writers to manage, a little dev and a bit of design.

In these cases, a spec is just the tool for a content designer to facilitate the creation of great content. Further, multiple stakeholders may require signoff, and a great spec gives everyone a method for providing feedback.

Some of this article may seem outside the scope of traditional link building. That’s on purpose. Too many link building and even SEO teams consider content an afterthought, rushing into outreach with whatever blog post or sales page they have on hand. This is a mistake they’ll later pay for in wasted time, effort, and worst of all, wasted link opportunities.

NOTE: Pay attention to the conclusion of this post — we’ve added a “prize inside” to show off the final product of a content designer’s efforts.

Four Questions To Answer Before Creating The Spec

The content designer must please and engage with multiple audiences. Answering these four questions will start the right conversations with and about the people our project must please.

Question 1: Who Are Our Audiences?

Audiences include:

  1. Resource page curators (linking audience).
  2. Editors: bloggers/reporters/online publishers (linking audience).
  3. Existing customers.
  4. Potential customers (the company’s market-as-audience).
  5. Internal stakeholders (PR team, Legal, SEO team, Content team, Branding, IT team).

The first challenge the content designer must face is how to bridge the five-audience gap with a single spec. Define these audiences clearly, and you will make your job much easier.

Question 2: Where Will Content Live?

This is one of the most overlooked aspects of link building. We like publishing evergreen content in resource or education sections of sites; we believe resource curators prefer linking to these types of site sections. Editorial linkers don’t seem to mind as much if content lives on a blog.

The answer to this question (and its sub-questions) will help determine some of the content specifications.

  • Where will the content be placed within the site architecture to best benefit users and search engines?
    • Who is the company stakeholder in charge of this part of the site?
    • Do they have a brand handbook to follow or CMS-specific limitations we should know about?
  • Given the audiences and demographics we are trying to appeal to, what site section will fit their expectations for this type of content?
  • What counts as an on-site conversion, and how can on-site content contribute toward this/these goals?

Note: For any off-site guest placements, determine what criteria qualify a particular site for either branded or unbranded engagement.

Question 3: How “On-Brand” And “In-Funnel” Does The Content Need To Be?

It’s vital for the content designer to have a conversation with the link strategist and company stakeholders on how far from the “in-funnel” path their writing can stray.

The less in-funnel and on-brand, the more attractive your content can be to resource page curators (the classic “links page” editors). In-funnel and on-brand content, so long as it’s informative, is often better supported by guest placement efforts.

While there always needs to be a topical tie-in, “out-of-funnel” content can be wildly non-commercial, speaking to linkers’ informational needs — speaking, in fact, directly to the linkers’ valued audiences.

A garden supply company, for example, might be restricted to brand-limited topics like gardening tools and tactics — or they could venture a bit outside their traditional “in-funnel” topics and create content like “The impact of gardening on kids with autism” or “The environmental impact of chemical fertilizers.”

Question 4: What Will Make This Document Promotable?

The designer’s role involves properly understanding the needs of the audiences she’s serving with the document to be created. The linkers themselves are perhaps the most important audience here, which is where content differentiation comes in.

These are some key elements for differentiating content:

  • New content format (that better serves a specific audience).
  • Fills key knowledge gaps.
  • Thoroughness (provides full solution to problem).
  • Strong title that demonstrates differentiation.
  • True concern for linker-valued audience.

The Prospector and Qualifier can also help answer the question, “Will this content produce results?”

By this time in the campaign, the prospector should have identified several (hundred) promising outreach partners. The content designer needs to be in communication with him, and even his leads, to make sure that the content he’s planning fits closely with the selected audiences and market gaps.

The Content Designer’s Research Role

Content projects involve about 95 percent research (including professional experience, reading, data analysis, interviews, surveys) and 5 percent writing — on a good day. How much research does the designer do vs. the actual article writer? The answer is, “Enough to write a great spec.”

1. Speccing Research

Research workflow is a big deal. When doing research, stay aware of the audiences’ informational needs, and provide enough quality resources so that the writer’s research will be minimal and/or well-directed. You communicate with the Link Strategist to clarify her strategy and review existing website/client documents to understand what content is existing, so you know what to build on.

Kristina Welch, our content manager at Citation Labs, uses deeperweb.com to get an overview of an entire topic area before assigning it to a writer. She typically spends an hour or two researching the type of content that comes up when she approaches a topic from various keyword searches, always looking for what topic niches are missing complete coverage online.

Warning: Don’t Boil The Ocean.

It’s easy to say, “Let’s write a great guide on visiting New York City.” But that’s too big, and it’s going to produce a piece that’s difficult to promote. So let’s take something smaller — a little pot of that ocean water — and boil that first. Say, “How to get dinner near a Broadway show without feeling like you’ve fallen into a tourist trap.”

The content designer can narrow the scope, but it’ll be up to the writer to make the final adjustment as he completes the research.

In conjunction with feedback from the researcher, a well-developed Content Calendar can help keep the scope in line.

2. First-Hand (“Custom”) Research

The writers, properly empowered and informed, can be campaign experimenters, too. Like prospectors of research, they should be open to new ways of gathering information. This may include phone surveys, in-person interviews, site visits, journalist contracting, and any other (legal and ethical) information-seeking tactic a content designer and his team can dream up. The more unique the research, the more unique and interesting — and therefore, the more promotable — the content will be.

At Citation Labs, we’ve specced research around phone interviews with several dozen US local police departments to gather their views on drug enforcement laws. We’ve worked with freelance journalists in Chicago to develop newspaper-quality stories for our clients. And we’ve interviewed funeral home directors to better understand veterans’ rights and services. Custom research is one of our favorite undertakings, precisely because it’s so experimental.

3. Web-Based Research

While a content designer can’t plan where her writers’ online research will take them, she can set policies in place to determine quality source material. Thinking ahead about which qualities will help a source site make the cut will help writers better focus their research (even if the writer is the content designer herself).

Some questions to ask to get a feel for source quality:

  • Is it a .gov or .edu website?
  • If you go to the home page, is this a generalist topic website or a specialist topic website?
  • If it’s a .com, what are they selling? Is this content a part of their sales strategy?

Finally, a lot of the research may come from the Prospector, who may already have identified authority, on-topic websites during co-citation analysis.

The Content Designer’s Handoff: When Specs Move On To Writers

Much of the advice in this section comes from our content manager, Kristina Welch, and our operations manager, Valerie Cecil. They spearhead the Citation Labs team of writers.

1. Over-Share Client Requirements & Research

The first thing many writers and/or key stakeholders may ask is, “How long does the content need to be?”


To hell with word count! Content needs to be as long as it needs to be to solve the problem it needs to solve. Utility, not word count, should define scope. What does this piece enable? What problem does it solve for the reader? When it solves that problem and gets tied up with a nice conclusion on top, ask your computer to count the document’s words. There’s your required word count.


Beyond that, let your writers know as much as possible about the client, especially when they’re just starting. Don’t hold back.

We tell our writers that we know they’re smart, but we’re going to share every tedious project and research detail we can think of anyway: target market demographics, potential research runways, style suggestions and more.

Every company has its own tone and content expectations, and the more of that personality we can distill into advice for our writers, the less we’ll have to worry about revisions later.

2. Keep Communications Open

Managing content requests and writer schedules is a constant conversation. A content calendar is not a static entity. You’re making and re-making it, always asking:

  • What’s a priority?
  • Where are we that month for this or that client?
  • What can get pushed back by a day or so?
  • What we can delegate, and what am I (the content designer) going to be taking on myself?
  • Which writer has room in their calendar, but also what else are they working on/what are they able to do?

It’s important to communicate to the client/stakeholder side, too. If you don’t have a representative for the writers on a stakeholder call, promises may be made for a turnaround time that can’t be fulfilled.

3. Remember: It’s The Client’s “Baby”

Even for the most well-informed writer, revision requests happen. This is why it’s important to hire writers who understand that client copywriting can’t have too much ego involved. One thing that makes a great content developer is someone who doesn’t own the content so much that they can’t change it.

Content Speaks For Itself (And Your Entire Campaign)

The content designer has a lot on the line — and between the lines. Their words will be the ultimate determinant of success, and they’re also setting the tone of the campaign for the next phase: prospect qualifying and outreach.

You’ve learned the role — now, let’s take a look at the final product. As a “prize inside” for this article, we’ve shared a real, live Citation Labs article spec. All the research and design in this example spec was eventually developed and written into a Spanish-language document.

Stay tuned for the next post in our Enterprise Link Building Team series outlining the key functions for such a team: The Qualifier. Check out previous installments:

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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