Hire the Right Freelance Writers for Content MarketingMarch 12, 2014 by Holly Regan
As the content marketing trend continues to grow, an increasing number of companies are finding themselves in need of quality writers. However, not every business can afford (or has the need) to run an in-house content marketing department.
Hiring freelance writers for content marketing purposes can be a great solution for companies that want to start producing content quickly or supplement their existing content pipeline. But how do you find the right people for the job?
I spoke with experts in the field to discover what characteristics to look for, red flags to look out for and the important things for managers to consider when hiring freelance writers for content marketing. Here’s what you need to know.
What Qualities Do They Have?
Hiring freelance writers for content marketing is somewhat different than hiring writers for other purposes: the skillset required is broader than just wordsmithing. Here are some key characteristics you can look for in candidates to help you identify the best writers for the job:
They can write authoritatively.
Since conveying brand authority is an important part of content marketing, the freelancers you hire must be able to write in a manner that conveys subject-matter expertise.
“Content should be thought-leadership level,” says Michael Epstein, online marketing strategist at GetOnlineWithME.com. As a result, he looks for writers who are experts on the topic at hand. “It would be difficult for a writer to discern what constitutes truly valuable content if they don’t understand the industry to some extent already,” he says.
The Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI’s) Content Development Director, Michele Linn, also tends to hire freelancers who have insider knowledge. However, she notes, “any writer can write about anything if they have access to the right people to ask questions to.”
Indeed, excellent research and interviewing skills can substitute for firsthand industry knowledge. The writers you hire should have the ability to dig deeply into a topic they are unfamiliar with, conduct interviews with industry leaders and collect relevant data and statistics to help them tell an informative and persuasive story.
Of course, it’s also critical that the stories writers tell are trustworthy down to the letter: factual errors will quickly erode your brand’s authority. Corey Eridon, inbound marketing content manager at HubSpot, says it’s important to find “freelancers who will fact-check themselves, and whose content you won’t have to second-guess on accuracy and relevancy.”
While hiring writers with subject-matter expertise can be helpful, it’s not a requirement (especially if you’re producing content about multiple industries). In fact, many of the experts I spoke with suggested looking for freelancers who can effectively cover many different topics. Brooke Howell, editorial services director at content marketing agency Reputation Capital Media Services, says she often seeks writers who are “generalists” in addition to specialists. “I’m looking for someone who’s written about a variety of subjects, and is comfortable writing about multiple unrelated topics in a single day,” she says.
Internet marketing company Digital Third Coast’s Content and Social Media Manager, Rebecca Otis, agrees that adaptability is an important trait in candidates, since the writers you hire must be able to communicate in the appropriate voice for the target audience.
“We… review different writing samples for variance in tone based on the publication or client the writer is representing to make sure they can adapt to fit the style we need,” Otis says. “Print marketing collateral or traditional PR communications may require a different tone than on a personal blog, a website guide or an infographic.”
Traditional marketing mediums, such as informational or directly promotional press releases, tend to adopt a more formal tone, Otis explains. Blogs, websites and infographics, however, aim to be more accessible and conversational, with the goal of getting readers to engage and interact.
“Traditional tactics could be more sales-driven, brand-focused and comprised of one-way communication—vs. content marketing, [which] is intended to drive sharing and conversation with a brand or content creator,” Otis says. “Think a press release promoting a product release vs. a blog post comparing the newest products in an industry.”
Shivani Sharma, CEO of social media marketing agency Firefly Creative Inc., agrees that the ability to grasp the tone of the brand they’re working with is a rare but important skill among freelance writers. Those you hire should be able to gain an understanding of the target market and create content that engages the desired community.
They’re Internet-savvy and have a social following.
Look for candidates who have experience writing for the Web: particularly, for blogging and social media platforms. Blogs are one of the most prevalent content marketing mediums—and, almost invariably, a company’s larger content marketing strategy involves promoting the blog posts and articles it produces on social media networks.
Thus, it’s best to look for freelancers who are familiar with the formats and conventions of each of the social media platforms your company plans to publish on. Writers should also know how best to communicate with and engage the audience on each platform.
“I look for a content writer who already has a fan following on his or her blog and Twitter page,” says Sharma. If a writer’s own content is engaging readers and earning shares, “likes” and “Tweets,” she explains, it’s likely they can curate the same type of following for your content.
Otis adds that writing social media posts may be part of a freelancer’s content marketing duties. She looks for writers who have Google+ profiles and who are members of industry-relevant social communities.
They’re familiar with business and marketing concepts.
The experts I spoke with agree that it’s helpful to hire freelancers who know how to put the “marketing” in content marketing, and who possess some degree of business acumen.
“A truly professional content marketing freelancer will concern themselves with not only writing a strong piece, but also [with] the promotion of the piece,” Eridon says. “[They will] come to the table with ideas to make it perform better, and think through things like formatting, [keyword] optimization and even image selection. Needless to say, it’s much harder to find a content marketing freelancer… than it is to find a great freelance writer.”
For example, someone who can not only write a great article, but can also use keyword research to select a title for the article that is likely to rank highly in search results (and thus draw more visitors to your page), would be an especially attractive candidate.
Liran Hirschkorn, founder of BestLifeQuote.com, commonly looks for writers who can help with the marketing side of the equation. He asks his freelancers to send him a list of 10 potential topics for blog posts each week, then selects his favorite topics for them to write on. When writers submit posts, “They will also include relevant images for me to use that make the article more ‘shareable,’” he says.
Linn notes that the writers you hire should be able to achieve the strategic goal of content marketing: They must be able to tell a good story that engages a defined audience and compels them to act. The desired action could be buying a product, using a service, learning more about your brand or visiting your company’s website.
How Do You Spot Problem Candidates?
Just as there are some good qualities to look for in applicants, there are some warning signs you can look out for to alert you that a candidate isn’t going to be a good fit, including:
They can’t write an email.
As Linn notes, “writers who can’t even write an email” are a surprisingly common phenomenon. Eridon agrees, noting that “a shocking number of them have egregious spelling and grammar errors. Many others adopt a strange tone, or read like templates.” If candidates can’t write properly or communicate clearly in a simple email, there’s no reason to assume the finished product will be any better.
They aren’t sufficiently responsive.
Lack of responsiveness and poor communication are other red flags that tend to surface early on in the hiring process.
“There are three tell-tale signs for me: lack of communication on a project, unwillingness to take edits and feedback and missing deadlines,” Eridon explains. “I can usually work on the first, but the latter two are deal-breakers. And the first is usually a sign that the latter two will be problems, anyway.” Poor communication indicates a lack of engagement on the writer’s part; often, candidates who aren’t fully engaged will end up flaking out altogether.
“I’ve had people simply drop off the map for days or weeks at a time, with not a single word of explanation,” says Software Advice’s own Victoria Garment. “There are… signs to gauge how reliable someone will be from the start, [such as]: Do they sign the contract and send it back within hours? Do they proactively email you updates?”
They don’t produce accurate, original content.
Adam Connell, marketing manager at content marketing agency UK Linkology, agrees that you can typically get a sense for who is and isn’t going to work out from the beginning. Some of the red flags he commonly encounters include an inability to follow project instructions, and inaccuracies in areas writers have claimed to be subject-matter experts.
Epstein reports trouble with candidates plagiarizing content. “Some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced are writers copying portions of other works. So I’ll often Google some of the more detailed or technical sections to see if any of the content was pulled from other articles,” he says. (He also uses Copyscape to check for plagiarism.) Obviously, any candidate who’s turning in duplicated work should be turned away immediately.
What Can You Do As an Employer?
No matter how thorough you are when screening candidates, there are a few inherent challenges to working with freelance content marketing writers. However, there are steps you can take as an employer to circumvent these challenges and ensure a smooth working relationship with your freelancers:
Clearly communicate project requirements.
“The majority of problems are caused by a lack of clarity,” says Connell. “If the employer and the freelancer are both clear on what needs to be accomplished, then that will definitely go a long way.”
For example, Eridon says, freelance writers won’t be experienced with the positioning of your brand or the personas it’s targeting, and getting them up to speed on this can be difficult. “When you’re really busy, it’s easy to cut corners and tell yourself, ‘they’ll figure it out,” or just email them a bunch of reading material,” she says. “But really, to make the engagement worthwhile for the freelancer and the editor, you have to carve out time to explain all of this background information up front.”
Otis agrees that it is important for managers to let freelancers know exactly what they’re looking for in order to get an end product that meets their standards and guidelines. Specifics such as word count, style and voice, formatting and key points to cover should be outlined clearly at the project’s outset in order to avoid any confusion.
“As the industry evolves, we meet the challenge of helping the writers adapt by providing guidance on the output we are looking for, asking for their ideas based on their industry knowledge, sharing examples of published and successful content and collaborating with them more than ever before,” Otis says.
Create a feedback loop.
Garment and Howell also emphasize the necessity of not only establishing clear requirements, but also creating an open feedback loop. They recommend scheduling a phone call with freelancers at the beginning of a project, so that you can clearly explain what the project entails and what you are expecting. This also provides an opportunity for the freelancer to get any clarification they need.
“Ideally, your freelancer should be asking smart questions that demonstrate their grasp of the subject matter,” Garment says. “A good way to test this is to ask them to describe, in their own words, what the article or blog post you’ve assigned to them is about, and what they key points are they need to cover.”
Sharma agrees that freelancers should start by asking smart questions that indicate an understanding of the subject and the assignment, and notes that they must be willing to dig deep and gain a thorough knowledge of the topic before writing. “If they don’t start by finding out what’s new, what’s being talked about and what could be leveraged as an interesting topic for your audience, you know you’re about to get a lot of generic fluff,” she says.
Of course, regular feedback from managers is also critical to ensuring a thorough, accurate finished product. They must inform writers along the way of what’s working and what isn’t.
Use agile work to complete projects.
The best way for managers to provide clear feedback throughout the process is to take an agile approach to the project (a concept popularized in agile software development). This means that projects are completed in an iterative fashion: after a specified amount of time or after the project has reached an agreed-upon phase (e.g., an outline or a rough draft is completed), the freelancer submits the project to the manager for feedback, goes back and revises accordingly and so on.
“You need to see the project in stages, and respond with clear feedback that doesn’t change the scope of the project,” says Clifford VanMeter, marketing manager at Express Auto. “Working with a freelancer should be collaborative, on both sides. Good managers manage. They set clear expectations.”
One expectation that’s important to be clear on from the start is the final deadline. Garment never proceeds with a freelancer without first having a signed contract and fixed deadlines for the rough and final drafts. She also requires freelancers to provide project updates every few days. VanMeter takes this a step further, setting milestone deadlines before the final draft is due to “break projects into smaller bites.”
When working with freelancers, who are typically juggling multiple projects for multiple clients, it’s helpful to ask them what their capacity is like before giving them an assignment. Some freelance writers take on more than they can realistically handle, causing the turnaround time between drafts and revisions to lag. If possible, work with your freelancers to set deadlines that are acceptable and realistic for both of you.
Know when to give up.
Even after rigorous vetting, you’ll probably end up with a few freelancers along the way who aren’t the best fits for the job. When you find that a particular writer isn’t working out, it’s best to cut your losses as soon as possible. It can often be a lot more work, says Garment, to try and salvage a poorly-written article through edits and rewrites than it would be to just start over with a new writer.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to kill a project when I first realize it’s in trouble, rather than spending countless hours and energy trying to get it back on track,” she says. “Know what your time is worth.”
Hiring freelance writers for content marketing purposes can be a great way for your business to curate a steady stream of content on a variety of topics. Freelancers can substitute or supplement an existing content marketing department, allowing you to reach more people more quickly. If you know where to look and who to look for, maintain a clear and consistent feedback loop, set firm deadlines and know when to throw in the towel, you can hire the right freelance writers and establish lasting, mutually-beneficial professional relationships.