Career in Focus

Our first focus on careers involving writing

Writing for different platforms with Katie Philo

Writing has never been more important, thanks to trends in technology. Increasingly, we communicate through writing, using email, text and social media. Businesses rely on strong writing for their smooth operation and professional image, especially online. Most people can write but not everyone can be a writer.

Enter Katie Philo. A millennial who has grown up with technology, Katie is an effective communicator with strong and, equally important, adaptable writing skills. In her current role of social media specialist, Katie demonstrates her knowledge of SEO, her research skills and her mastery of different writing styles, which reflects her understanding of a variety of audiences.

Katie Philo

Katie is a Writer, Digital Producer, Social Media Specialist and Digital Media Expert based in New York City. After spending four years working at the BBC in London, she crossed the pond to bring her expertise to the fast-growing TV subscription service, BritBox.

I had the opportunity to gain some valuable insight about writing for different platforms through talking to Katie:

Why writing?

I’ve always loved writing. It’s an age-old cliché, but I was forever making up stories as a child. If you love reading and storytelling, then I think it’s almost inevitable you love writing too. I’m an incredibly verbose person, so wordsmithing feels like an important form of self-expression. Painting a picture or evoking a feeling solely through words is special. While much of my writing now is short-form capsule content, there’s nothing like finding the perfect phrase or word to represent a thought.

What kind of writing have you done in your career?

Writing essays at university was undoubtedly the best training I ever had. Before I was taught to write succinct history essays, my writing was packed full of adjectives and read more like Harry Potter than an academic paper. The discipline involved in this kind of writing really forces you to communicate ideas in the plainest and clearest way possible. This skill was really handy while interning at a host of newspapers, but I quickly realised that features and think pieces were more my thing. While I’ve always kept different blogs on the go, I’ve spent the majority of my career writing for different brands and audiences on digital and social platforms. From BBC One, Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars beyond the UK), to Radio 2 and more, I’ve become adept at writing quippy headlines, snappy captions and captivating Instagram posts (all the while nailing the SEO and tagging). Writing for the Internet is another kettle of fish, but it’s the future, and any writer should know how to do it.

How do you write authentically for different audiences? Do you inject personality?

Audiences are at the heart of every piece of writing I do. When conceiving copy, I will always consider the most palatable way to communicate what I want to say. It’s important to remember that any writer comes to their work with a certain set of biases based on their gender, age, cultural background and experiences. The way I work around this is by reading and watching as much as I can, to really understand what makes people tick and as cliché as it sounds, to get inside their heads.

There’s the age-old trope of ‘pen portraits’, which are essentially a marketing technique for defining an audience and recognising that we aren’t always writing for our friends and peers. While having a clear idea of my intended audience at all times, I also like to look at how they write on social media – or indeed, wherever they write. There’s nothing worse than an account being too twee or try hard… it’s a tricky balance to strike!

How do you identify your audience?

Ultimately, this usually comes from a broader marketing strategy or brand positioning. For example, for BritBox, I know my audience are geographically based in North America because that’s where our product is available. Through audience data, it can be then refined further by age, demographic and lifestyle — which then serves to create a pen portrait. This was also the case on various BBC brands and channels in the UK — someone who listens to Radio 2 might like Strictly Come Dancing, but they won’t necessarily watch BBC One regularly. There are so many segments to audiences — and let’s not forget that each platform you’re writing on might have a different demographic on it.

A great example of this is the fact that the heartland BBC One audience is 45+, but the BBC’s ambition is to use social media to attract the sought after younger demographic, and as such, this skews their content and writing style. There are many nuances involved, but I do think it’s important to identify a top-level cross-platform audience that you target across all platforms, where possible. Trust me, it makes writing much easier, but also creates a much stronger brand personality. No one wants to have an identity crisis!

What do you have to consider when writing for different audiences on the internet? How much preparation do you do before you start writing?

The biggest thing you need to consider, in my opinion, is how fluent your audience is with the platform they’re on – and then how they use it. For example, when I was writing for 18-24 year olds on BBC One, I could assume a high proficiency and familiarity with all social media platforms and mobile technologies. Whereas, with BritBox audiences, I can’t assume and tend to be far more prescriptive. In addition to considering where your audience are going to read it, I think you also need to consider the time they have available. If they’re scrolling through a feed and you have three seconds to grab their attention, a 200 word thesis isn’t going to do the trick. But, if you’ve written a blog piece you want someone to spend time on, you have room to elaborate.

As far as preparation goes, it really does depend on what I’m writing and the level of familiarity I have with the subject matter. If I was writing a blog piece or article, I’d really like to spend time researching and considering the best way to present the information. However, if I am writing a social media post, I am so accustomed to thinking in 140 characters or less, that I’ve often got the copy ruminating in my brain before I even come to write!

What are the main considerations when writing on different platforms?

  1. Tone and voice: How would your brand communicate if they were a human? Think about what defines your brand’s personality and keep them in mind whenever you write copy. Tone and voice can be refined over time, but consistency is key.
  2. Clarity: You might like a metaphor or two, but you need to write to be understood. Remember, the modern attention span is small (especially in a world of non-stop scrolling on social), so be clear, concise and punchy. Use the fewest words possible to communicate what you want to say.
  3. Be honest and authentic: Audiences will be immediately turned off if your writing is littered with marketing spiel and acronyms. Remember, human beings were designed to communicate face-to-face. Be human.
  4. Know your audience: Speak their language, not yours. If you aren’t sure if it sounds authentic, get someone in said target audience to sense check or read pieces of writing by your target audience – whether that’s in online forums or on social media.
  5. Know your platform: Every social platform has its own format and best practices. For example, a tweet is likely to be informational and contain #hashtags, whereas Facebook posts should be snappy and shareable. Get fluent in the style and expectations of each platform, and don’t lazily copy and paste copy.

How do you learn what motivates your readers?

Social media is your biggest and best market research tool. Facebook, for example, is teeming with groups and communities in which you can join and spy on potential customers or audiences. I get inspiration on a daily basis from our audiences on social — and they are genuinely the best idea generators. I try to think like a reader, and get a real feel for what makes them tick.

Writing is a two way process. How do you connect to your readers?

A key way to connect with your readers is to create a community where two-way conversations can take place. The unique thing about writing on the Internet is that you can receive immediate feedback from readers, unlike print media. A key way I connect with readers to ensure there is a forum for conversation and that I demonstrate the brand is listening. For example, when writing for social platforms on BritBox, I ensure I respond appropriately and thoughtfully to audience comments.

What is your preferred style and voice?

I’m a millennial woman, so I think I feel most comfortable when writing for my peers. That said, I like the challenge that comes with finding ways to be real and authentic with an audience that you don’t necessarily identify with.

What’s the most rewarding thing about writing on the internet?

It can be both a blessing and reward, but I think it’s the connection you get with audiences and their feedback. When you’re writing, you’re already thinking about how particular word-choices or turns of phrases might spark conversation or debate. This was particularly important when I wrote for Strictly Come Dancing for two series (Dancing with the Stars globally). It’s a TV show that garners national attention on a daily basis, and peaks every weekend on broadcast. There’s always fierce audience debate and as the BBC, it’s imperative to show total impartiality to all contestants.

What do you find most challenging?

As I mentioned above, writing on the Internet is a unique task because it’s the rare kind of writing where you get instant feedback on what you’ve written. Instant publishing can be scary and every online writer will have slipped up on occasion. It’s vital to maintain the highest of standards, whether it’s a Facebook post or Tweet that’ll disappear into the ether 15 minutes after posting. You never know where your copy might end up out of context, so it has to be meticulously conceived.

How have you developed as a writer since you started?

The biggest improvement I’ve noticed is speed. The world of writing for the Internet is fast and instant. You need to be able to think on your feet and make snap editorial judgments. I set myself the highest standards, but after penning thousands of posts and articles, I’m now used to self-editing and self-publishing, often without a second pair of eyes. Editorial judgment is like a muscle you have to strengthen over time. When I first started out, the prospect of publishing even a tweet to millions on a BBC social media account was a terrifying prospect, but now it’s just part and parcel of the job. I’ve also noticed that I see the world through the prism of quippy captions or metaphors – I’m always trying to think about the wittiest way to frame something. Now I’ll often have the caption before the actual photo…

If you could summarise it in one sentence, what would you say that you have learned about writing on social media?

Your audience are at the heart of every decision.