How a biz journalist built a “content” business
Margot Carmichael Lester founded The Word Factory in 1993 and spends her time focusing on providing quality content for her clients.
She began her journalism career as the high school correspondent for the Chapel Hill Weekly, edited by the famous Jim Shumaker. She’s covered business for a number of outlets including the Los Angeles Business Journal, Playboy and several airline magazines. She also creates content and writing coaching for clients like Staples, Baxter Healthcare and Tufts University Medical Center. Check out her blog.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about what it takes to make a living in content and how she’s built her successful business. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: The Word Factory turns 21 this year. Congratulations. How did you build a successful content business?
Margot Carmichael Lester: When I started, we called it copy and AOL was the gee-whiz technology of the day. There wasn’t anything called a “content shop,” so I’d be lying if I said I planned it this way. But from the start I knew — as someone who had worked with freelancers and contractors in my previous life — that customer service was critical. I operationalize that through:
- Quality. Clients appreciate that the content we file is clean and on time. I hate to call it a competitive advantage, but it is. In my first journalism class, we got dinged for typos and misspellings — and were using non-correcting typewriters! — so I learned early on to pay attention to small things like that. Anything you can do to make your client’s life easier makes you valuable.
- Reliability. Shockingly, I also get kudos for turning in content on time and giving clients early warning if there are delays or challenges. I think people who’ve worked in daily or weekly deadline situations are much better at this than people who haven’t, by the way. We know the downside risk of not getting content in on time and the upside value of keeping editors/clients informed.
- Speed. I’m also fast. I’ve always been an operations geek, designing processes to create more high-quality content in less time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was applying principles from Lean, Agile, Scrum and Kanban — all those manufacturing process — to content. So the content supply chain we create is more efficient and effective for everyone — us and the client. Being transparent about the process and the progress creates buy-in and trust, and keeps us all on track.
There are a lot of really great writers out there. So all things being equal, ability- and talent-wise, customer service is a key differentiator. To be successful in a highly competitive environment, it helps if you provide service, not just text.
TBN: Is that the key to client management?
MCL: Quality, reliability and speed are definitely critical to keeping clients. But the final component is managing expectations, not just about deadlines, but also about the meat and potatoes of the project itself. I invest a lot of energy working with clients to articulate purpose, target audience, desired results and other details before we do any actual writing. We use quantitative points like word count and style guides, as well as quantitative items like models (“we want an article that sounds like this one”) and audience profiles to nail down as much of the project as possible. The clients and I agree what we’re doing and why, and then my team and I figure out how to do it.
That clarity and focus dramatically reduces the risk of pursuing the wrong angle or creeping away from the purpose. It’s different — most clients don’t pursue projects this way—but these extra cycles at the beginning actually reduce cycles later on because there’s less revision and retooling. We also do a lot of rapid iterations, creating minimally viable products like pre-writes, drafts, etc., that give the writing team and the client team plenty of opportunities to check off the project before a huge investment in time and resources has been made.
TBN: Sounds a little like how editors and reporters work together.
MCL: Exactly. Editors decide on the overall coverage plan, and reporters and photogs and designers make it happen. The groups collaborate to revise the content and then publish it quickly. That’s why I’ve been saying for years that all of us old ink-stained wretches — I actually remember a functioning Linotype machine at my first writing gig in high school — are extremely well prepared for the always-on world of constant content. We know how to plan on the fly — daily newspaper or evening news show, right? — make solid assignments, do the reporting, write and revise, and produce quality quickly. We can’t afford to pursue the wrong angle or say, two minutes before deadline, “oops”. This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t new. It’s simply applying what we know from efficient newsrooms to a new environment.
TBN: How do you incorporate good journalism in writing for companies?
MCL: The tension between good journalism and corporate writing is always there. Although I’ll say that with so many former journalists taking corporate gigs, there are some bright spots in the landscape. To be fair, though, it’s not that corporate folks don’t value good journalism. Many of them weren’t trained in it, or are stymied by corporate style and legal/regulatory requirements. Still, I try to fight the good fight for basic journalistic standards, including AP Style and no marketing-speak. But at some point, corporate style, executive preferences and “the client’s always right” get in the way.
You can stand on principle, but you can’t buy groceries with principle. I’m not going to fight a client over a serial comma or what to capitalize. But I’ll go a little harder when the writing’s not clear, it doesn’t address the audience in the right way, or it’s incorrect. Unless they’re asking you to lie or something morally or ethically questionable, chances are it’s worth letting go. If you want to work, you have to learn to choose your battles.