So many business owners — including professional writers — find themselves overwhelmed when it’s time to create content.
- It’s creative work, which always takes a lot of mental energy.
- There’s a ton of tactical advice out there, and half of it contradicts the other half.
- And we’re constantly ducking dodgeballs like search engine changes, the rise of AI, and the collapse of Twitter.
Creating content feels like a full-time job — on top of the more-than-full-time job of running your business.
That leads to overwhelm. Which leads to procrastination. Which kills your consistency and therefore your results.
When you’re overwhelmed, it’s time for a better framework
In my experience, any time I’m overwhelmed in my business, it highlights the opportunity to put a framework or process in place.
VESPA is my framework for designing the kind of content that supports business goals.
I made up the acronym, but the components come out of the structures that emerged organically in the 10+ years I was at Copyblogger.
With that in mind, I want to tip my hat to Stefanie Flaxman and Pamela Wilson, as well as the entire brilliant and talented Copyblogger team.
How to use VESPA
Whether you’re working from a tight content calendar or just sitting down to wing it, you can run through VESPA to make sure this piece is actually worth your time and energy.
Each of these points has a power question to answer, to make sure this piece is on target and is moving toward a goal you care about.
Before we get started, I want to take a moment to remember the wise content creator’s mantra:
In a content-driven business, everything good comes from the audience.
(By “everything,” I include sales, list growth, partnership opportunities, professional reputation, product ideas, search engine authority, and lots more good things.)
VESPA will help make sure you’re building work that serves your audience in a meaningful way.
VESPA is a framework, not a formula.
Leaning too hard on formulas will generate the kind of thin, generic content that strands you in the sea of mediocrity.
I’ve been known to call it Content Regurgitated as Product.
Frameworks, on the other hand, are flexible scaffolds that lend structure to your best ideas.
You can use VESPA to stay focused and on-track with how you serve your audience — without giving up the flexibility to experiment and grow.
Here’s what’s in the framework:
V is for Values
Your most important values — the big ideas like Fairness, Justice, or Faith — are the “water you swim in.”
If your content strategy were a pot of soup, Values would be the broth.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at business values, because they’re often handled in a clumsy or cynical way. But avoiding them in your content — especially in 2023 — is a mistake.
Values set the context for the community you’re looking to create.
Buyers are scrutinizing companies for red flags, and failing to stand for anything is a major one.
But while values inform everything you do, they’re not always the most obvious element.
You don’t necessarily need to talk about your values all the time. It depends on who you are as a business and a content creator.
If you’re a Sonia Thompson, your values are a visible cornerstone of your business.
If you’re a Brian Gardner, they might be less front-and-center, but anyone who’s tuning in to your work regularly will get a feel for your principles and core ethics.
Whether your values are the focal point or more of a background texture, your audience shouldn’t be confused about what you stand for — and what you won’t stand for.
Robert Cialdini wrote about this as the “Unity Principle” in his 2016 book Pre-Suasion. Here’s my take, from Copyblogger, on what that means for us as audience builders: The Ultra-Powerful 7th Principle of Persuasion
➡️ The Power Question for this point is: What do I stand for?
➡️ You also want to be clear on: What won’t I stand for?
Keep in mind that the examples you use tend to say a lot about your values.
Using a Ben Shapiro quote to tell your story communicates a different set of values than using one from Michelle Obama. Even if (in some bizarro world) the story you were telling had the same message.
E is for Expertise
The world already has more thin content than it needs. And that’s been true for a long, long time.
This just took a big jump, with sophisticated AI that will cheerfully spit out an immense volume of content that simply makes up facts, statistics, and expert advice.
(I love Chris Garrett’s phrase for this: Mansplaining as a Service.)
Yes, I agree that AI in the hands of a smart, careful writer won’t do that. Or that the misinformation will be corrected when it does.
Is every content publisher always both smart and careful? Sadly, no.
My guess is that AI is going to usher in a (hopefully brief) golden age of misinformation.
That’s where you, in your human magnificence, come in.
Expertise is your set of skills and knowledge that benefits your audience.
You can stand out from the robots simply by actually knowing what the hell you’re talking about.
When we’re talking about your content and website, your expertise is typically your main topic — the practical (or even impractical) thing you teach or talk about.
Sometimes, it’s your excellent eye or a magnetic writer’s voice — like Accidentally Wes Anderson or The Bloggess.
Or your ability to make people feel like they’re at a great party with people who care about them, like Leesh Capeesh.
Usually, though, if you offer courses or services, your expertise is the topic knowledge that people pay you for.
➡️ The Power Question for this point is: What does success look like for my audience?
What does this piece of content allow my reader (listener, viewer, etc.) to do, be, or feel, that they can’t today?
What small but meaningful transformation could this piece of content facilitate?
Topical expertise isn’t enough to power effective content. (You may notice that Wikipedia always seems to be broke.)
But real, hard-won knowledge matters when it’s used to benefit your audience.
S is for Strategy
Strategy, in this context, is the intersection of your communication and your business model.
It’s the defined set of business goals you’re trying to drive with the work you create.
Different pieces of content often serve different goals.
- Some content is designed to grow your audience.
- Some educates the audience on the value of your approach.
- Some frames your topic in a new way, to let prospects become better aligned with your offers.
- Some chases the wrong people away.
None of us has unlimited time or energy. When you spend your wild and precious time making content, it needs to serve the business goals you’re working on today.
The kind of content you create has a direct result on how much traffic you get, the kind of people who make up that traffic, and the way that traffic converts to business.
Think of S as the front wheel of the Vespa. If your strategy is missing or misaligned, your journey is going to get dangerously wobbly.
➡️ The Power Question for this point is: What does success look like for my business?
What goals do I want to serve with this piece of content?
Can that success be measured? How will I know when I’ve got it right?
P is for Personality
Audiences engage with creators whose personalities appeal to them.
You might be quiet or loud, funny or serious, humble or maybe a little cocky.
Personality is one of the most effective ways to differentiate your work from a competitor’s — or from content written by a robot.
(I know, I know, AI can create content that feels like it has personality. I’m skeptical that it can do that as profoundly, over time, as a human being can.)
Sometimes, people confuse “personality” with “volume.”
You don’t need to imitate creators with shouty, over-the-top personalities, unless that’s actually what you’re like.
Gary Vee is great, but one of him is plenty.
➡️ The Power Question for this point is: Am I being a big chicken?
In other words, what aspects of my personality am I hiding, instead of getting real and making a stronger emotional connection with my audience?
Note that personality and values are not interchangeable. If one of your cornerstone values is social justice, you might express that in ways that are snarky, sincere, funny, introspective, or theatrical.
Stacey Abrams and Randy Rainbow have the same values but very different personalities — at least in their public personas.
A is for Acceleration
Once you’ve got the first four points working (even if they’re imperfect), you’re ready to put your foot on the gas — with what Brian Clark has called Acceleration.
Even the best content doesn’t magically find an audience.
Smart, strategic content needs your promotion, so it can get out into the world and do good things.
So when you have V-E-S-P in place, you’re ready to start using traffic strategies to grow.
➡️ The Power Question for this point is: Can anyone hear me?
There are lots of ways to accelerate your results by growing your audience, but some of the most successful are:
- Attention optimization (strong headlines and images, search engine optimization, thoughtful social media strategy, OCDC)
- Ads (this includes boosting your content)
- Appearances (guest posting, guest podcasting)
- Allies (who else has the audience you want?)
Strong acceleration is always built on having something worth promoting.
There’s nothing more pointless than getting the word out quickly about something that’s not worth audience attention.
When you use VESPA consistently, you have flexibility to experiment intelligently, without ever truly getting off-topic.
And when you’re ready to accelerate, you can be confident you’re going in the right direction.
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Photo by Ruslan Bardash on Unsplash
Love this, Sonia! It’s classic, yet modern … like a ponytail, or Paddington 2.
Ultimately, I like looking at this article as a straightforward explanation of the limitations of AI, even though I don’t think that’s your main point. 🙂
It’s tricky enough for human writers to strike the right balance of helpful, focused, poetic, clear, and concise. (HFPCC? Not as catchy as VESPA. This stuff takes finessing, right?)
If a professional writer continually needs to learn to be a Good Writer (and we all do), how is that a definitive standard we can program into a robot?
Shortcuts and mediocrity are never competition for those who strive to be Good Writers.
Althea A. McLeish
Great piece! Thank you.
VESPA, I like this as a framework.
This morning an email arrived from Stephanie Flaxman with a reference to your article. I’ve only recently discovered Stephanie’s writings and now you, Sonia.
I’m an Older person who failed English twice in his final years of secondary education. Now aged, I’m a wanna-be writer of dog and cat stories.
So looking to find my written voice has taken a journey into the unknown of an unorganised mind. At times, I’m amazed at what I find in this jumbled space of words and useless stuff.
VESPA – I owned a vespa scooter at 16 years old. It was blue with a tall windscreen, just like the Italian scooters you use to see in those exotic romance movies during the 1960’s. Except, I never had an attract girl on the back.
Vespa’s are great for scooting around back street to avoid heavy traffic and hold-ups when you’re in a hurry. My writings often collide into mental traffic jambs. So I’ll be happy to try your Vespa to scoot better within my writing journey.
The Vespa frame work, I consider relevant. When my readers comment they relate to my story, it’s gives me such a buzz. I hope this framework will help find pathways to collect words, explain my ideas and write better for my readers.
Thank you reading my ramble – if that’s what you have done.