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Six Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Brief

  • 6 Minutes
The success or failure of a project, campaign or content asset begins with the briefing process – and that means avoiding the most common mistakes.

A bad brief can handicap a project before it starts, wasting time and money while risking the quality of the completed deliverables.

A brief isn’t just about documenting what you want from the agency or contractor; it should also provide them with the key information they need to begin the work.

There are certain bad briefs I encounter again and again. Do any of these briefing mistakes sound familiar?

1. The psychic brief:

Leaves out crucial information by assuming some requirements are standard by default or that people already know what you know.

For example, if you don’t ask for the new blog redesign to include social media sharing buttons, don’t be surprised if the developer doesn’t include them.

List every specific requirement, even if some of them might seem obvious to you.

2. The lazy brief:

“Have a look at our competitor’s website. The products and selling points are pretty similar, so that should tell you everything you need to know.”

No. Just, no.

3. The back-to-school brief:

Uses the briefing process as a way to extract a ton of free marketing advice.

A little guidance and a few recommendations can be par for the course, particularly when working with small businesses and inexperienced owner-operators. But if you’re hiring someone to do your copywriting, for example, you’re not also hiring them to tell you what your product’s selling points should be, or help you establish who your campaign should target.

4. The “one more thing” brief:

Continually adds new details, tweaks and small requests that keep nudging the finish line a little further away, while gradually morphing the project beyond the originally agreed scope.

While a scope of work will usually include one or two rounds of feedback and minor corrections, these shouldn’t be treated as opportunities to introduce new requests not stated in the original brief.

Changes or additions to a brief should be agreed separately and may attract additional fees.

5. The War and Peace brief:

Includes way too much information, or too many lengthy attachments.

Do they really need to read an entire 65-page sales deck and three white papers before writing that 150-word marketing email? You’re paying the creator to create, the producer to produce, the writer to write. You’re not paying them to read the equivalent of a Russian novel.

While a brief needs to be comprehensive and detailed, it also needs to be … well … brief. Summarise for them only the most important or relevant information.

6. The jigsaw brief:

Not so much a brief as a casual series of instructions sent in bits over time; some in emails, others as comments during Zoom meetings or within Slack threads.

This can often happen when the agency or freelancer is engaged too early, while internal discussions and deliberations are still ongoing.

A good brief needs to be one document that can serve as a single reference point – a single point of truth – for what is required.

How to brief effectively

Sometimes, an agency or contractor might send you a briefing template to fill out, full of questions and text boxes, to extract the necessary information for a project. Needless to say, one of the most obvious briefing mistakes is not answering all of the questions.

Other times, you might produce your own brief, which means the onus is on you to anticipate what the recipient needs to know to fully understand the scope of work, accept the project and start work.

Here’s what a typical content brief should include:

Contact info:

Who is the main contact for the project? If the work needs to be sent to a different person – for example, as part of a workflow – provide those details as well.

Fee and payment info:

Sometimes, negotiating quotes and payments will be a separate conversation. Other times, the agency or freelancer will need to know what the budget is for the specific requirements of this brief, along with any reference numbers or purchase order details required for invoicing.

The business:

A brief summary of your business, what it does, and any relevant products or services. Highlight anything that distinguishes you from the competition.

The audience:

Who should the content or campaign target? Why might they be interested in this content or campaign?

The project:

What is it you need? For example, is it a blog post or a white paper, an email campaign or a set of social media assets? What should it/they be about?

Provide as much detail as you can, particularly if you already have a preferred angle in mind or specific ideas about how it should look or what should be included.

If you need the content to take a certain position on a topic or need it to support a key message or conclusion, make this clear. Also list any calls to action.

Specific requirements and instructions:

Is there a word count, runtime or established structure to adhere to? What is the format, aspect ratio or design template? Should the work be submitted as a Word Doc, Google Doc or something else?

Related assets:

Will they need to refer to your brand guidelines or include certain images? Are there other documents that might help with research? (Again, beware of overloading the brief with too much extra material.)

Talent info:

Some projects will involve others, such as when interviewing a customer for a case study, or key people within the business available for quotes.

Be clear about whether these people are aware that someone may/will be in contact, as this can avoid some rather awkward conversations.

The deadline:

Whether a fixed date or a series of delivery milestones, be specific. “ASAP” isn’t a deadline.

Spend time to save time

While it might seem odd to spend as much as an hour writing a brief for what might only be three hours work, remember that you’re not just outsourcing time – you’re accessing skills, capabilities and experience beyond what you can achieve internally.

Plus, if you turn your well-written brief into a template, each subsequent one should be quicker to produce as much of the background information can be simply copied across. It’s not as if your branding, key messaging or product details are likely to change in between.

The time you spend preparing a brief will ensure those outsourced hours are focused on producing great work, free from confusion and ambiguity about what you really want.

The quality of your outsourced content begins with the quality of the brief.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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