How Content Creators Can Stay Ahead of the Competition With Design Thinking

He messaged me on LinkedIn and asked to arrange a call. He wanted to discuss the possibility of hiring my services and was keen to explain what he was looking for in his own words. Of course, I agreed. And it was during this first conversation that he said something which took me by surprise: “I don’t want to give you too much instruction, I want you to be able to apply your creativity freely.”

Now, this would probably have made other freelancers twirl with joy. Yet I heard alarm bells. I’ve been working as a freelance writer for nine months, but my background isn’t particularly creative. I studied law, economics, and I’ve worked in both a strategy consulting company and a law firm. The objectives were always clearly defined, quantifiable, instructions were set in stone; I was there to execute as directed.

And it worked. Our clients came to us with a business goal in mind and that’s what we worked to deliver. No room or need for maneuver. That’s how we kept our clients happy; we understood their needs and we worked to satisfy them.

So, although I was grateful for the room to stretch my wings, I was a little taken aback by this newfound leniency. Not because I didn’t trust my ability to deliver a great service, but because when a client says “I want you to be able to apply your creativity freely,” what they really mean is “I want you to be able to apply your creativity freely to meet my business need.” Without satisfying this second part, your creativity means nothing to them.

The quality of your service as a content creator is largely subjective. The value of your work is dependent on how well it meets your client’s specific needs. And if they don’t tell you what these needs are, it becomes your job to find out.

This approach to doing business has gained notoriety over the past couple of decades, and as single individuals, freelancers are acutely well-positioned to adopt this methodology.

Design Thinking

The concept of design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation. It involves businesses understanding their customers’ needs and holding these in center focus as they design their products and services, in a way to better meet them; a problem-solving process that prioritizes customer’s needs above all else.

It was first popularized by design consulting firm, IDEO. But, according to the firm’s CEO, Sandy Speicher:

“Design thinking is not limited to a process. It’s an endlessly expanding investigation.”

Though it may have begun as a process for creating sleek, new, tech-products, design thinking can be applied to any context that entails one business or individual, providing a product, service, or solving a problem for another.

The reason why this approach is so important is that every business (yours included) operates in an environment susceptible to disruption; changing trends, customer values, economic shifts, and fierce competition are merely a few of the many factors that can render businesses obsolete. And this is where design thinking comes in.

Overcoming these external forces requires innovation; a change for the better. And in order to innovate, businesses worldwide, including you as a freelancer, can benefit from adopting a design thinking approach to your provision of services. Here are some ways you can start:

1. Offer a free initial consultation

The main idea with this is to maximize your chance of exceeding expectations and avoiding bad surprises.

I’m not an advocate for doing free work. I’ve come across a few opportunities that involve submitting a ‘sample’ of work, and I’ve dismissed them outright (of course, it’s entirely dependent on your specific circumstances). However, I always schedule a free one-hour phone call with every new client I work with, so I can begin to build an understanding of what they want and need.

Oftentimes the client isn’t sure exactly what they want; they might know the impact they want to have but they have no idea how to get there. This call is my opportunity to find out. If it’s someone I’ve never worked with before, I like to get to know their background, their ambitions, their motivations. By getting them to open up I can get begin to get a sense of their voice and reflect it in my writing.

It’s also a good way to clarify logistics; how they like to manage their workflow; how involved they want to be; what the timeline is like; what the review process entails; who my main point of contact will be and if they want to receive regular updates or schedule them. This way everything is clear, expectations are managed, and alignment is ensured.

2. Understand how they will value the outcome of your service

It’s important to understand what the value of your final product/service depends on. If you’re in a long-term project made up of several milestones, this might be less clear. But wherever you can, try to identify how the result of each task you’re working on will be measured.

For example, imagine you’ve been asked to write an article for a company’s blog. Are they most concerned with increasing the number of visitors to the site, or the number of new subscribers to the newsletter, or are they looking for engagement from their audience through comments for example?

Knowing your client’s ultimate goal can help you subtly shape the form of your article as you write. Maybe add a rhetorical question if you’re looking for engagement or embed a link to another article. It’ll simply boost your chances of “success” by your client’s standards, which may differ from your own.

3. If they’ve created content before, read/watch/listen

This might seem obvious but I’ve been surprised to learn how little other freelance writers do this. Perhaps it’s because the bulk of the work I do is ghostwriting, but one of the questions I make sure to ask my clients during our initial call is whether they have produced other content I can take a look at.

The reason I find this so important is twofold: (i) it allows me to get a feel for their voice, and (ii) it’s an opportunity to learn what they did and didn’t like about the last piece, and hence improve from it.

I find in general, clients like the work I do for them the most when they can relate to the writing. When they see themselves reflected; as though it’s something they themselves would have written. Without having a good sense first of how they talk and how they think, there’s no way I can transmit this on paper. Having a point of reference is crucial. If not through work they’ve produced themselves, ask them to refer you to an example of content they enjoyed reading/watching; something that spoke to them and use that as leverage.

Final Thoughts

I’m sitting on a terrace in Spain, loving the fact that I was born in the tech era. Technological advances have presented us all with an overwhelming number of wonderful opportunities, which we can seize from pretty much anywhere in the world thanks to the internet!

Yet, as freelance content creators, we too are susceptible to competition, to changing trends and economic factors that can stunt our progress. Developing the ability to stay ahead of the wave and continuously innovate to meet our client’s needs and desires is crucial to our survival. I hope these three simple tips will serve you well!

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