Thirty years ago, I collected my first paycheck from my first job. To mark this milestone, I’m looking back at how these experiences have shaped my career as a content creator.
Lesson 1: Know your audience
In 1990, aged a mere 13 years old, I landed my first paid job: working during my six weeks of school holidays as a “Christmas casual” at a local mall. I was tasked with selling thousands of Christmas gift packs — think Old Spice aftershave and Brut soap on a rope — pre-boxed, pre-wrapped and priced to sell.
Pretty soon I clocked that I wasn’t selling a luxury product. These gift packs were stocking stuffers or last-minute desperate buys for busy, time-poor customers. No-one wanted me to give them a long sales spiel. These customers were mostly interested in choosing a gift pack quickly that looked more expensive than it appeared. In other words: No muss, no fuss.
I learned an important lesson that summer: it’s imperative to know and understand your audience. Likewise, in content marketing, having an audience-first mindset is essential. Once you understand your audience’s intentions and providing a solution to their pain points, you have a much better chance of delivering a successful outcome.
Lesson 2: Attention to detail is critical
At my first job out of university, I worked in the marketing department for a leading radio station. I was the junior member of the team and I was given a crazy range of tasks to do — everything from mopping floors to running large-scale huge sporting events. It was frenetic, intense, stressful and exhilarating in equal measure. I was young and ambitious but inexperienced. The result? An increased risk of making mistakes.
Whether it was writing an on-air announcement for one of the DJs or packing up a promotional vehicle for an off-site event, I learned that when you do a job, do it well. Focus on that job in that moment — no matter how menial — and get it right.
Attention to detail was critical in every instance. If I forgot to pack a key item or misspelled an address for an on-air announcement or scheduled a meeting incorrectly, it mattered. The contract might not get signed, the event might start late, or listeners might go to the wrong address. The ripple effect of my minor mistake could be far-reaching.
I still hear the words of my manager ringing in my ears to this day: “ATD, ATD, ATD.” The devil is indeed in the detail.
Lesson 3: There are no stupid questions
When working as a staff writer and then associate editor for a leading general-interest magazine, my editor-in-chief gave me invaluable advice when I was writing a story about a subject I knew little about — if you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do. Ask, ask, ask. There are no stupid questions.
Because the magazine covered such a wide variety of topics — from health to travel to science to tech to pop culture — all editors and writers had to be generalists rather than specialists. If we didn’t know even a little, we needed to ask questions, find out the answers, check and double check the source and include context. The more the better. The reason? If we didn’t know, we shouldn’t assume our audience would know. If I didn’t know an acronym, would the audience? If I didn’t know that fact without doing extra research, would an audience know? Content may be king, but context is queen.
Years later when I was working as a subeditor for a monthly magazine with a whopping 40,000 words per issue heavy on science and tech (not my natural affinity areas), this advice rang true once again. Because the audience was a general audience and not a specialist audience, if the copy didn’t make sense to me, it likely wouldn’t make sense to the magazine’s audience either. The solution? Ask questions and include context in the copy. That doesn’t mean dumb down the content; it means that you make the content more accessible and relevant.
Lesson 4: Push harder to tell the real story
When I was editing an inflight travel magazine, it was always easy to commission stories such as “Two Days in Bangkok” and “Four Best Beaches”. But my Editorial Director expected more: evocative storytelling.
Instead of a magazine full of ho-hum listicles and thinly veiled promo pieces, I would push harder to commission writers with interesting tales to tell about a destination. Instead of using a desk writer in Singapore, I would commission an on-the-ground writer in Ho Chi Minh City to report on the city’s thriving tango scene; or a writer in Trivandrum to profile local artists. It was more expensive to produce, and certainly took more wrangling, but the results were always worth it.
Likewise, when editing travel copy, I developed a finely tuned antenna for lazy writing. Don’t say “a stone’s throw” when you can say, “three shops down opposite the lively open-air market”. The same goes for those tired old phrases in travel stories: “azure blue seas”, “shop till you drop”, “culture vulture” and more. Push harder, be specific, provide more value to your reader.
Lesson 5: Slow down to speed up
Having made the move from traditional publishing to content marketing in the last decade, it has become crystal clear to me that the onboarding process with a new client is critical. If you don’t have a full brief, you can’t just start creating content immediately. (Well you can, but the results won’t be as good.) Enter the next lesson learned on the job: the theory of “slow down to speed up”.
Having worked on countless content marketing campaigns for brands, I have always achieved better results when we all collectively stop, take a breath, slow down, ask questions and nail the brief. Then, we can speed up.
The questions I ask include: who is your audience, what does success look like, what are your objectives, what are your audience’s pain points, what is your budget, what are the important milestones you need to hit, who are your internal stakeholders, do you have any content benchmarks to share, what are the possible challenges ahead? The list goes on.
Once those questions are answered and everyone is aligned, then it really is possible to speed up your content creation. For example, you could write one test article or a synopsis before launching into full-blown content production at scale. It seems simple, but if you start a project without a full brief, it will invariably lead to rewrites, unhappy writers, underwhelmed stakeholders and — most importantly — disappointing content for your audience.
Lesson 6: Never stop innovating and learning
Over the course of my career, the marketing and publishing industry has changed significantly. The rise of digital marketing, data-driven solutions, new technology, new tools. It’s vital to keep up with tech and continually upskill, whether that’s via on-the-job learning or through external courses, workshops, study programmes and more. When you can use a tool to automate processes or find a better way of generating topics or measuring engagement, you should absolutely leverage the tech, and add it to your arsenal of skills.
That said, technology — and the jargon that accompanies it — can and does feel daunting to some. Including audiences and clients. So I return often to one of my previous lessons: there are no stupid questions! When it comes to tech, I have no problems whatsoever asking “why?” More often than not, I’m not the only one. Experience tells me that some lessons will always be important, even in a data-driven world: know your audience, nail the brief, get granular with detail, tell a good story, deliver value and innovate.