No matter how well thought out your strategy is and how much buy-in and budget you secure, the success of your content marketing program hinges on a single, critical component: having the talent available to execute your plans.
That puts skilled writers in a position of power. Despite the looming specter of AI bots that can create assets at lightning speed and impressive scale, even the most sophisticated systems aren’t equipped to match the emotional depth and resonance of a story crafted with care by humans.
Score one for my fellow flesh-and-blood content creators. Of course, the high demand for our skills makes it harder for marketing teams and agencies to augment their in-house teams with outsourced talent.
I’ve played the roles of both content talent recruiter and recruited. Drawing on that experience, I’ve put together some tricks and tips to help you find, vet, and onboard the right outsourced writers for your content marketing needs.
One note before I get started: Marketers outsource many content creation tasks – writing, editing, design, production, project management, video creation, etc. The process described can be adapted to the task of hiring for any of those roles. For now, though, let’s zoom in on outsourcing writers who can create compelling, SEO-optimized blog articles, e-books, social media posts, and the like.
Are you ready to outsource?
Companies typically outsource content creation once they accept they don’t have the time or talent in-house to produce content at the quality, volume, or scale they need to meet their goals.
Acknowledging that you need help isn’t the only part of the process that requires introspection. You also need to know what kind of help you need, and what skills and abilities it takes to get the job done right.
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Outline your requirements and processes
Before you reach out to writers, take an honest inventory of what your content needs and expectations are, and how well freelance writers can fit in with your content infrastructure.
- Kinds of content you want them to create. Identify the topics, formats, and platforms they will work with, expected word counts, and the specifics of creating content under these circumstances. Will they need to conduct research? Interview experts? Create and edit video stories? Are there materials they can reference or from which they can curate?
- Role they’ll play in your creation and distribution process. Will they need to work with your company systems and tools? Should they be prepared to function as a fully integrated member of your team, or would you prefer to plug in their services when needed?
- Expected content volume and frequency. How often will you need them to deliver new assets? Will there be a schedule, or will you use their services ad hoc?
- Goals. What do you want their content to help your business accomplish? How will you gauge their performance against those goals?
- Content governance and processes. Do you have brand voice and style guidelines for the kinds of content they will supply? Have you determined how their role will be integrated into your team’s editorial workflow? Are there regulatory, technical, procedural, or legal guidelines they will need to comply with?
- Systems, tools, and team resources. Do you have the necessary tech tools and systems to produce and distribute their content assets successfully? Will they have access to all your team members, or will they primarily work with a dedicated supervisor or contact person? How much access should they have to your company’s subject matter experts, intranets and knowledge bases, and/or other content tools and resources?
- Financial considerations. Do you have adequate budget to attract and retain their services? Will you pay a per-project fee or establish an hourly rate? How will you handle invoicing and payment? (Remember, freelancer rates may be higher than what you pay your in-house writers because you don’t pay their employment taxes, insurance, or other benefits.)
Ensuring that you’re properly set up to work with outsourced talent takes some up-front effort. But if you work out the criteria before you engage a freelancer, you’ll benefit from:
- Less friction across all content creation processes.
- Stronger alignment with your company’s expectations and goals.
- More trusting and mutually satisfying long-term engagements with the writers you bring on board.
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Where to find great candidates
Assuming that your organization doesn’t have a pool of preferred writing vendors on hand, you can choose from a few ways to initiate your talent search – each with pros and cons:
- Solicit recommendations. Tap into your professional networks and see if anyone has suggestions.
- Pros: Someone vouches for the writer’s work and professionalism.
- Cons: Great writers are hard to come by, and people may hesitate to recommend their best writers if it means they’ll be less available.
- Post the assignment on a writers’ job board or online talent exchange. Consider freelancer services like Upwork or LinkedIn Pro-Finder; forums like Writer’s Den or Problogger; or associations that represent professional writers, such as Freelancer’s Union.
- Pros: Access to a variety of skills and expertise; you can typically search by narrow criteria (topic expertise, writing style, fee rate, industry experience, etc.).
- Cons: Often open and unchecked marketplaces, where writers can … well … get creative with how they characterize their skills and work experience. It may be hard to gauge a writer’s suitability for the task or to sort through the ranks for viable candidates.
- Work with a creative staffing agency or content marketing platform. Platforms like Contently, Skyword, and NewsCred, and recruiters like Robert Half, Writing Assistance, and Artisan Creative offer a range of services to help connect marketers with skilled freelance talent.
- Pros: These services typically vet their talent pool and provide tools to help you manage the writer’s work on an ongoing basis.
- Cons: The full-service route comes at a higher cost. These resources are more appropriate for long-term or ongoing writing needs or temp-to-perm situations.
- Research and recruit writers directly. Here’s a publishing insider’s recommendation: Visit a few of the top media resources (publications/blogs/news sites) relevant to your industry and check out the bylines. If you identify a few writers whose work resonates, check their LinkedIn profiles to see if they are on staff. If not, they may be open for freelance assignments. It couldn’t hurt to introduce yourself and inquire – even if they aren’t interested, they may recommend fellow writers.
No matter which of these techniques you choose, keep in mind that professional writers are skilled craftspeople, and taking on paid assignments is how they make their living. Unless you are a professional or trade media organization, don’t expect them to write “for the exposure” (i.e., without financial compensation).
As someone who has received numerous inquiries like this, here are my thoughts on the ask: If your company’s content marketing program truly has the power to take my writing career to the next level, chances are I’d be approaching you for an opportunity, not vice versa.
Vetting your candidates
Professional content creators can come from a range of disciplines – marketing, journalism, ad copywriting, technical writing, research, and more. While many writers have a flexible skill set that they can apply to virtually any type of content, others struggle with assignments that fall too far outside their field of expertise.
To find writer candidates who can operate successfully under your conditions, look for:
- Relevant content creation skills: Do they have experience writing in the style or format you seek? Does their background and training match your requirements (e.g., can ad copywriters adapt their voice to create compelling narrative storytelling)?
- Technical and tactical knowledge: Are they willing to take on time-saving tasks like inputting or coding copy directly in your CMS? Do they understand how to optimize copy for a keyword or to target an audience? Are they familiar with the proper way to verify and fact-check their sources, or attribute information/images they may reference or repurpose from outside sources?
- Adaptability: Can they take on different types of writing assignments, or do they prefer to focus on one type of content? Can they handle multiple assignments at once? Can they easily switch gears when writing for a different audience, or when adopting a different tone?
- Subject matter expertise: How knowledgeable are they about your industry – lexicon/jargon, relevant trends and issues, and the biggest players? Do they have contacts they can reach out to when needed for a story idea? A good writer can certainly learn these details as they work, but things go a lot more smoothly if someone innately understands the opportunities and challenges businesses like yours typically face and can contextualize their copy accordingly.
- Audience insights: Have they written for an audience like yours? Do they have a grasp of their pain points, preferences, and areas of interest? Again, they can learn this on the job, but if they are familiar with your audience’s point of view and perspectives it will be easier to create compelling stories (which means less editing and revising on your part).
- Logistics/accessibility: Will they be available when you have a new assignment? How quickly do they respond when you reach out? Do they operate in the same time zone as your business? Do they live close enough to drop into your office, if necessary, for a brainstorming session or team meeting?
- Writing samples and professional endorsements: Do they have a website or online portfolio you can review? Can you view testimonials from current or previous clients? Are they a member of any writer’s unions or professional associations?
An interview only provides subjective evidence of a writer’s skills and abilities. As part of your vetting process, make sure to review a few samples from a candidate’s portfolio.
However, this doesn’t always give a clear picture of their capabilities – or a sense of what it took the editor to whip the original asset into publication-ready shape. You may want to use a writing test (like the one below) to gauge their skills, creativity, and style for your needs. This is particularly important if you work in an industry with strict regulatory requirements, or if you expect writers to conform to a particular style or tone of voice.
Not only will this exercise help you gauge their creative abilities and technical know-how as a marketing writer, but seeing their raw copy will give you a sense of how much work it might take your internal team to move their assets through your company’s content review and approval process.
Ask not what your outsourced writers can do for you …
Hopefully, your vetting and interview process will lead you to writers who are well qualified and eager to work with your business. But before you unleash their creativity upon your audience, equip them with all the tools they need to perform successfully as a partner to your business:
- Your documented content marketing strategy. Share the key details of your content mission, target audience, and brand story with everyone involved in creating your content – including outsourced talent.
- Your editorial plan. Include details of your brand’s preferred style and tone of voice, guidelines for content quality, and governance practices.
- Access to relevant team members. Include their names and roles in the content process, plus list helpful subject-matter experts and their contact details.
- Performance KPIs and data. If the terms of their engagement with your business require them to hit targets (e.g., number of leads, page views, comments, or conversions), give them access to performance reports in your marketing system or Google Analytics so they can check the data for themselves.
- Technical resources and requirements. Make sure they have access to the necessary editorial systems and services – CMS, stock image accounts, or cloud collaboration tools. And be sure to inform them of other editorial process details they might need – keywords/phrases to target, metadata structures, file-naming conventions, etc.
- Templates and other branding materials. If you have designed proprietary assets – like company logos or PowerPoint templates – share them.
Secure your content’s future
One of my favorite creative visionaries (Joe Strummer) once encouraged his audience to make meaningful changes by pointing out that, “the future is unwritten.” But you don’t want it to remain that way simply because you don’t have enough creative resources to fuel your brand’s content evolution.
Have you found great content writing partners through outsourcing? Share how you did it in the comments.
You also may be able to find great talent among the thousands attending the world’s largest content marketing event. Make plans today to attend Content Marketing World this September. Use code CMIBLOG100 to save $100.
Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute