How to Nail the Content Brief

Why explain the nuances of a content brief to readers of a marketing blog?

After all, the brief is ubiquitous. It’s the starting point for anyone charged with creating content.

Yet, content briefs are easy to both overlook and overthink. In the first instance, especially for in-house marketing teams, issuing a brief can feel like a formality.

If the content has been discussed, putting it in writing might seem like a poor investment of time.

Conversely, it might be tempting to add to the brief, given its starkness. New additions, rather than clarify purpose, usually muddy the waters.

Without a reliable content brief, the creation process will stall.

Writers, not having a mandate, resort to guesswork. Editors, not having a reference point, ask for revisions.

Costs rise with delays. Quality suffers. Morale declines.

What the content brief is

A content brief is an all-text document. It’s similar to other documents used to manage products, like the Scope of Work.

The best briefs use plain, dispassionate language. They state the content’s objective and provide a timeline for completion.

A brief, as the name says, is brief–one or two pages. Anything longer probably indicates scope creep. A quick fix is to reduce the number of goals for the content. The magic number is two, a primary and secondary goal.

Here are the essential elements of a content brief:

Title: Give the brief a working title that will be easily identifiable, for quick retrieval.

Background: Describe your company, your audience, and the rationale for the content. This is written as soundbite or elevator pitch. You can always supplement this section with attachments, links, and comparison charts.

Background information on your company and audience is usually reserved for outside partner agencies. Nonetheless, you might find providing it to your inhouse team makes the familiar new again.

Goal: State what you hope to accomplish with the content. The goal(s) should be specific i.e., “the reader downloads our checklist.”

Aspirational goals that would be hard to quantify (“the reader tells three friends about our new feature”) should be omitted.

Message: Articulate the content’s key message. Think like a PR person. What should the reader, listener, or viewer absorb from the content? The message, like the goal, should be concrete.

Deliverable: List the parameters for the content. Include features like word count, formatting, and supporting assets.

An example of a deliverable: 700-word blog post, optimized for Keyword A, with a header picture, also optimized. The post will include links to articles A, B, and C, with a prominent CTA to download checklist Z.

Schedule: Insert the due date for each phase of the project. This is as simple as “Aug 30-First Draft” and “Sept 14—Final Draft.”

Brand voice and tone: Explain your brand’s voice and tone in a few sentences. This probably isn’t necessary to include for an inhouse team, but it’s essential for outside partners. For best results, attach the company style guide.

There are others who recommend including more in the brief. For example, payment terms (for outside agencies). I prefer separate documents (e.g., an invoice) for anything unrelated to the creation process.

Other elements, such as editorial compliance issues, are better treated as addendums.

What the content brief isn’t

A content brief is succinct. It’s not a deep dive into the demographic or psychographic profile of your targets.

It doesn’t revolve around your company’s mission statement or your content marketing plan. These may influence the brief, but they shouldn’t–and can’t–drive it.

Content briefs are not the place for puffery, superlatives, or branded language. Why? Because they impede understanding and make judging faithfulness to the brief harder.

If the minimalism of the brief concerns you, deliver it in person or on the phone, so as to prevent misunderstandings.

Creating a brief can be uncomfortable. It forces you to concentrate and narrow your thinking.

That’s not how many busy marketing managers prefer to spend their time. Its why briefs don’t get written, even in companies pursuing a content marketing strategy.

“If you don’t have the time to issue a content brief, stop the project.”

Content produced without a brief will not build equity for your brand. Neither will it attract an audience, advance a sale, or fit naturally into a promotion schedule.

Poorly conceived content is usually a sign of a disconnect with the intended audience. Content briefs are a good way to reexamine the relationship you have with your targets.

Real-World Example

The brief for this article would read as follows:

Goal: Demonstrate content marketing expertise by explaining the purpose and nuances of the content brief.

Deliverable: One article, 700-1000 words, optimized for keyword(s), 5-7 internal links, with a relevant thumbnail image and blurb for social sharing.

Audience: Anyone who hires freelance writers including marketing directors, managers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Alternatives to the brief

The brief is the best vehicle for ensuring new content matches its intended purpose, but there are second-best alternatives.

An outline, a rough draft, and a favorite example require less articulation from you and can stand in for projects with very quick turnarounds.


A descriptive outline can get a writing project started. Preferably, the outline includes a title, subheads, and content bullets.

Rough drafts

Incomplete content can be an effective substitute for a brief. Drafts are likely to include much of the necessary information for a brief, at least covertly.

Writers can often see the intended finish line in a draft and bring it to fruition quickly, without losing its key message.

Favorite examples

Keeping close tabs on competitors means recognizing what they do well. Showing the writer examples of good content—the kind you’d like to publish—can fill in for a missing brief. The caveat is that you can explain with precision what it is you admire in the examples.

Using a brief is restrictive. That’s a good thing.

Content briefs put your ideas under scrutiny, a prerequisite for a sustainable content marketing strategy.

Good briefs limit revisions and reduce production bottlenecks.

Briefs, as handy references, promote alignment among team members. They make teams more productive.

And, with experience, you’ll find them easier to write.