What have we learned about content in 2020 to help our businesses in 2021?

We’ve been thinking. So much has happened in the last 18 months. What have we discovered about the content challenge and opportunity to take forward from these most crazy of times?

We’ve been thinking.

It’s been 18 months since we put down our pens at Valuable Content and headed out for new solo adventures. Sonja spent most of the first year leading the content design team at Nationwide Building Society before returning to coaching and consulting world. Sharon has spent the time building a successful freelance copywriting and coaching business.

And then of course, Covid.

At the time it hit, Sonja was still at Nationwide, and witnessing the way a big organisation had to shift to move and communicate on a completely different scale almost overnight. Like many freelancers and small business owners, Sharon lost projects in those first weeks and had to rethink what she was offering and the way she was working.

What have we discovered about the content challenge and opportunity to take forward from these most crazy of times?

Sonja on content design, listening and the enduring value of valuable content – inside a business and out

After 20 years of working for myself, my time at Nationwide Building Society was a whole new experience. This was an interim role in charge of the 20-strong content design team within the Service & Experience Design department. My content team worked alongside researchers, UX specialists, visual designers, developers and financial service experts, on projects ranging from the spin up and design of new customer-centred products and propositions to creating a whole new corporate website (a mammoth task).

Content design is a fairly new discipline in the business writing arena. The main difference between this and other forms of writing is that content designers generally don’t move without research – music to my ears. It was great to see how content design was becoming embedded and valued across Nationwide. My team was highly skilled and passionate about their craft. I learned heaps from them about the discipline, and about design thinking, research, UX and agile development at scale (as well as management!). I’m grateful to them all.

When Covid and lockdown first struck, content design was thrown into the limelight at Nationwide. With branches out of action, fast changing information and UK financial services customers in serious need of help, the team worked around the clock to update information on our digital channels, ensuring it was findable, accessible, empathetic and super easy to understand. At this time of crisis, the need for clear, relevant, and downright valuable service-based content is greater than ever before. Nationwide stepped up admirably, thanks to its ethos of being there for its members, and to the design team’s dedication and skill.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I just couldn’t get away from the Valuable Content approach. Even an internal department like Service and Experience Design at Nationwide has to prove its worth to win more of the right work and so achieve its mission of shifting the business to a more design-led approach. Sharing stories and ideas with internal clients was a great way to spread the word, win hearts and minds and bring people onside. And our ‘help, don’t sell; talk, don’t yell; show, don’t tell mantra’ proved to be just the right mindset to start communicating from. I ran blogging workshops and coached experts on the team keen to share their ideas and connect with others. It was fascinating to see our philosophy and resources working as well for experts inside a business looking to build their profile and engage internal stakeholders as it does for marketing teams looking to forge closer connection with external customers.

Help don't sell

Since returning to freelance world, I’ve been working as a coach for a variety of independent businesses, helping them to work out how to create and share content that connects. Big ideas, brave business owners – what’s not to love about that! And I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the value of listening, in business and in life. I’m keen to hone the questioning, listening and insight process which has always been a big part of the journey to create valuable brands and content that people love.

I’m writing again – on Medium in the main. The last 18 months have been a time of soul searching for me, hunting for a direction that feels right. Writing and publishing my thoughts is helping me to get clear. I’m writing in a way that’s a lot more personal than ever before, and this content seems to be connecting. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, I know, but it’s heartening to see this motivating responses from fabulous people in my network and beyond, conversations that are leading to opportunities and meaningful work.

Sharon on collective content shock, creating a new digital marketing universe and the power of writing to connect

Creating valuable content hasn’t stopped for me. It’s still what I sell, and it’s how I market my business. Valuable Content the business ended, but I’ve carried on writing and coaching, using the same principles that Sonja and I developed together.

What changed for me was the business model, I made a decision to focus on getting retained clients rather than seeking project work. It’s made my new business more sustainable, and has helped me navigate a way through the pandemic panic that has hit many freelancers and small businesses so hard.

I’ve definitely been quieter on the content front than I was as half of Valuable Content, but I sorted a website, (thanks to Lizzie Everard) and have stuck to a steady rhythm of a fortnightly newsletter and blog, and some time on social media. I created my own digital marketing universe, just like we taught people to do at Pub School. Consequently my list is growing, and the right kind of clients are finding me. I know what I need to make my business tick, and content is the way I fuel it.

Left to my own devices I’ve become a bit more geeky about headline writing and clear positioning. I’ve become more focused, and more analytical.  I know more than I did before about open rates, click rates, and conversion rates. But layered on top of that is an unshaken belief that a really good story can connect better than anything else. Something that makes people laugh/cry/feel will always outperform content that just ticks all the right boxes.

I kept writing and sharing content through the early days of the pandemic, even though at times I felt lost for words. These blogs seemed to resonate with people, and led to a flurry of new coaching work. For a few months over the summer I had a life as a kind of content midwife, helping clients write their way through the panicky fog to create content that would help them either reposition their business, or get their marketing back on track.

In retrospect, I think that period was one of collective shock. It was the experience of trauma shutting people down. But writing has always been the way I make sense of things. It’s therapeutic for me, so I persevered even when it felt much harder than usual.

At that time any kind of salesy marketing felt so wrong, consequently the posts were more personal and more heartfelt. And they connected with people more deeply. They also led directly to more work, even though that wasn’t my intention at that time. I wasn’t selling a content midwife service, I developed the content midwife service to meet the demand that my words created. (I didn’t call it that at the time, but I like it. Maybe I should add it to my website!).

And that, I guess, is a beautiful example of valuable content in action. Share your expertise and experience, make it helpful, make it personal and the right clients will find you.

What does this content navel-gazing mean for all our businesses in 2021?

Different paths, a lot of water under the bridge, crazy times. But no matter where work and life took us, we both kept returning to our old Valuable Content approach and mantra. What you say and how you say it matters now as never before.

So if you want to develop and grow your business next year, here are a few lessons from our experience that might be helpful to keep in mind.

  1. Listen, help, share, love. The fundamental principles behind creating valuable content are needed more than ever right now, if we want to connect with those we serve, and change the world for the better after this.
  2. Embrace a valuable mindset. ‘Help, don’t sell; talk, don’t yell; show, don’t tell’ – the valuable content mantra works as a business development philosophy to win people over both inside your company and out, even in tricky times. Hold this in mind when you think about developing, marketing or selling what you do.
  3. Create your own digital marketing universe. Like Sharon, sort out your website, stick to a steady rhythm of a newsletter and blog,  share and connect on social media. Keep writing and sharing content. It works!
  4. Write your way into a new direction. If, like Sonja, you’re at a time of change in your life and your work, writing can help you work out your new path. It’s a great way to get your ideas straight and make sense of complexity.
  5. Risk making your writing more personal. Both of us have found that our more personal and vulnerable blogs have resonated most strongly with readers over the last few months.
  6. Keep listening and learning. To your community, and also to yourself. Reach out and listen to your customers and clients to understand what they value. Pay attention to the way your own content is performing. Think wider than open rates or click rates. Which content gets shared? Which blogs start conversations? Which articles prompt that old contact to get back in touch? Understand your strongest points of connection and amplify them.

As we hurtle towards the end of this year, and start to look forward to 2021 we’ll be taking these lessons forward and invite you to do the same.

Like us, you might want to delete 2020 but hard as it has undoubtedly been, it has also proved an incredible learning experience.

We’d be fascinated to hear what you’ve learned too. Do let us know.

Sonja and Sharon


Writing this post was so much fun, we’ve decided to start collaborating again! Alongside our solo endeavours we are going to come together for a few special events and training sessions from here on in. The first one is a Content Planning Fiesta to help you get excited and focused on your valuable content ideas for 2021. If you’re curious, you’ll find details on our new Special Events page.

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