Strategic Tips for Writing Contributed Articles
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The public-relations world is changing. With 24-hour news cycles and the need for continuously updated websites, PR companies are stepping in and helping fill the void by offering contributed columns or pieces authored by their clients.
Editors at more outlets are seeking contributed pieces, preferably written by experts in a specific field. Ideally for the editors, the columns would require little fact checking and only minor copy editing.
By contributing their expertise, businesspeople can put their names out there and websites are provided much needed content.
Unfortunately a businessperson seeking publicity doesn't always have this expectation. (He is instead hoping to be interviewed by a news reporter who will write a profile describing the company's innovative business culture or technology or a CEO rags-to-riches story.) This is where PR firms need to do a better job of educating their clients about what’s required of them in the age of the Internet.
Business owners pursuing media attention (whether aided by a publicist or not) should be aware that contributed pieces require some legwork on their part.
And while there’s effort involved, the process becomes easier and less time-consuming with practice and the benefits far outweigh the minor challenges. In my experience, I have found outlets to be in need of articles and the more a client and the publicist are easy to work with, the more this type of writing is welcomed.
Another benefit is that clients can have some control over the message (although someone will edit the piece). But that's totally not the case when a publication writes its own article about a client.
About 90 percent of my public-relations work involves pitching outlets. Along the way, I have learned a thing or two about writing contributed content and op-eds. Here are my tips for securing media placements for contributed pieces:
1. Don’t be too self-promotional.
This is the golden rule of writing articles for tier-1 publications. Don't write articles on the five reasons the company's business is the best or the four ways an organization is better than its competitors.
Instead, executives should write articles based their expertise or what they've learned from their jobs.
This article is a good example of that, by the way. While it’s not about my business, the topic -- discovering what works for contributed articles -- is all about what I have learned from my business and professional career.
Remember: The purpose of such articles is to share knowledge -- not be a billboard for the businessperson. (That's called advertising.)
Related: Why Leaders Are Great Storytellers
2. Keep the piece concise.
Think about how you read articles online. In this day and age, people don’t like to read pages and pages of content, even on topics they love. Instead they browse, skimming articles. When I write pieces, I generally stick to a list format, offering tips that allow readers to view what I’ve written yet take away valuable information in an instant.
As a general rule, many outlets want articles to be in the 600- to 800-word range -- a good length for readers who are skimming (and the busy writers). Keep the article concise and focus on providing valuable information with real world examples.
3. Use life for inspiration.
Writing contributed pieces involves reckoning with the challenge of finding story ideas. One question I often receive from my PR clients is where I get my own story ideas from. This is easy: I pull them from my own life and business experiences.
Writing about industry trends is a great way to publically establish yourself as an expert in your field. I’m a publicist and often write about PR; that’s obviously what I know best.
I write about dos and don’ts, mistakes that people make or new ways of doing things. Industries are constantly changing, so you should always have something new to write about. Keeping up with the changes shows potential clients who are reading your piece that you’re at the forefront of your industry and stay current with what’s going on.
And contributed articles don’t necessarily have to be about your own industry. Along with writing about PR, I also author pieces about cash flow, time management and finding new clients -- topics that any small-business owner can relate to.
For my Entrepreneur.com pieces,I look for current concerns in my business. If these issues are plaguing me as a small business owner, I’m probably not alone.
I often write about how I go about solving the problems that I encounter in a workday. Or I interview other entrepreneurs and share what's working for them.
In this way, by discussing problems encountered, you can turn a potential weakness area of your company into a strength: You show off your problem-solving skills and expertise as a business owner in your field.
A person doesn't necessarily have to be the world's leading expert in a subject area to write about it. Instead describe the experiences encountered in running a business and successful tactics that have resonated. Common issues that many businesspeople encounter make for ripe topics in contributor pieces: client relations, billing, collecting payments, hiring, growing pains and management tips.
The lessons learned from difficult experiences could be tranformed into posts like “5 Ways to get Clients to Pay on Time" or “Interview Don'ts I Learned From Trying to Hire an Assistant.” Or after launching a successful marketing campaign, share your insights in a piece like “7 Things I Learned about Pitch Meetings.”
I've learned that many situations and scenarios can serve as the prompts for a contributed piece. And if you know what to look for, you can figure out what articles to write and generate a stream of press.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated with new insights throughout.