What does raising toddlers have to do with helping you find the right content writer for you and your business?
When my oldest was about 4, he and a buddy decided the town on his train table needed a snow day. Naturally, they went to the pantry and grabbed the salt. Not the salt shaker, but the big container you use to fill the salt shaker.
Salt was everywhere. In the buildings. In the crevices where the pieces of track connected. In the kids’ hair and clothes. Everywhere.
That’s the memory that comes to mind when I think about small businesses tackling content marketing. Sometimes a task seems so huge — so overwhelming — that you don’t even know where to start. You don’t know which questions to ask, much less where to find the answers.
That’s what I’m going to help you with today: how to find a content writer who will help you accomplish your content marketing goals. We’re going to start at the most basic type of content marketing: written content for your blog and/or website. And we’re going to assume that you’ll outsource content creation (62% of companies outsource at least some of their content marketing), because you probably wouldn’t be here if you had a professional writer on staff.
So how do you find the right content writer for you and your business? Let’s take a look.
How to find the right content writer
I know, I know…you want them to write. But what do you want them to write? And is that all you want them to do?
Spend some time thinking about how you want an outsourced writer to work with you. Some writers work strictly from a content brief: You get exactly what you ask for. Others offer suggestions on how to make your content even better. And some start from ground zero, helping you figure out what you want to say and why you want to say it.
Which is better?
That depends. If you’ve already done the groundwork — focus groups, brainstorming sessions, high-level approval and budget meetings, etc. — somebody like me would probably drive you crazy, constantly asking, “But what about…?” If you know exactly what you need, the last thing you want is somebody questioning you every step of the way.
On the other hand, if you’re just now in the “I think we need a blog” stage, a content writer who offers strategic input could spell the difference between success and failure.
It really comes down to this: Do you want a writer who churns out content according to your specifications, or do you want a collaborative partner who can offer guidance on content strategy? Either answer is fine, but if you don’t ask the question before you hire somebody, you’re probably not going to be happy.
Updated February 2020: Let me offer something from personal experience to illustrate the importance of basing your choice of a writer on what you want that writer to do. I recently picked up what I thought would be a few quick-hit gigs that were intended to be top-of-the-funnel, SEO-based content to designed to drive traffic to the site. The goal was to write articles around long-tail keywords that had high search volume and low competition. They weren’t really intended to add value.
And let me tell you…it was so hard! My entire business model is based on adding value, so writing keyword-based content just to drive traffic didn’t feel right. I kept asking questions about purpose and was pretty much told (although much more politely) to sit down, be quiet, and focus on the keywords.
In other words, it was not a good fit. They were happy with my work as long as I didn’t ask too many questions, but I wasn’t. So don’t hire a writer just because they check all the boxes when you know in your heart it won’t work.
Step 2: Set your budget to fit the type of writer you need
It’s a cliche because it’s true: you get what you pay for. If you know you need a content strategist but can only afford to pay $50 for a blog post, I’d suggest holding off until you can pay more instead of wasting time on content that’s not going to accomplish your goals.
On the other hand, if you just need somebody who can create great copy from a content brief, there’s no reason to pay more for strategic guidance you don’t need.
Unless otherwise specified, most content writers expect that their role will be limited to content creation. Consider offering higher rates if you want the writer to do any of these additional tasks:
- Image sourcing
- Publishing the content on your CMS and customizing metadata
- Promoting the content through social media or by posting to syndication sites
Bylines have a capital value because they help the content writer get additional work. Plan to pay more if you don’t want to give the writer a byline.
Pro tip: How much should you pay for content? It depends on what you need and how the writer charges: per word, by the hour, or flat rate. Here are some resources that can help you figure out what you should be paying:
Pay rate resources
I originally wrote this piece in 2018, and while I think most of the info is still valid, let me say this: As businesses realize the value of quality content, the rates for writing that content are increasing. If you just want keyword-based content for SEO purposes, you can probably still find a writer to do that at the lower end of the payscale.
But the best writers base their rates on providing “value added” content. In other words, they still write from your content brief, use your keywords, and quote credible sources, but they way they write leads readers to draw the conclusions you’re looking for. If you hired a dozen writers to write on the same topic, you’d get a dozen different articles. But only a couple of them may employ true persuasive writing.
In the interest of transparency, I accept only flat-rate projects. I believe that’s better for both parties. Per-word and per-hour rates put you and the content writer at cross-purposes. Per-project rates are structured to put quality first.
Let me add one more thing: Expect to pay more if you work through an agency, because the writers have to charge more to make up for the agency fees. I’m not knocking agencies — I’ve had and continue to have a lot of success working for agencies — and they make the logistics easier for everyone. But they have to make money just like the rest of us, and writers tend to up their rates to cover the agency’s percentage.
Step 3: Decide what type of experience is most important to you
Best practices continue to insist that content writers should have niche expertise, and I continue to call BS.
Here’s why: Somebody with niche expertise might be able to describe all of the intricacies of your product or service, but will they be able to make people think they can’t live without it? Will an industry expert be able to connect features and benefits with the pain points they solve?
Or — and here’s the real kicker — will an expert remember what it’s like to not be an expert? Will they be able to anticipate customer questions? Or will they write from their position as an expert (commonly called “the curse of knowledge”), and end up writing way over readers’ heads?
Here’s the bottom line:
- If you’re writing content for people who do what you do, regulate what you do, or invest in what you do, you need a writer with niche expertise.
- If you’re writing content for people who buy what you do, you need a writer with business or marketing expertise.
Step 4: Think about what the ideal process would look like
There’s more to outsourcing content creation than budget and talent. Logistics matter, too, so take the time to identify any of these behind-the-scenes factors that are especially important to you:
- How do you plan to communicate with the writer? Email, a collaborative app, a content creation tool, phone calls, video chats, etc.?
- How important is it that the writer be receptive to feedback?
- How willing are you to accept feedback and/or suggestions from the writer?
- Do you want to be hands-off once you give a writer an assignment, or would you prefer collaboration throughout the content creation process?
- How will you pay the content writer? If you use a payment platform, who will pay the fees?
Pro tip: Keep in mind that time is money. Unless you specify four-hour editing sessions upfront, expect the writer to either start charging more or leave for greener pastures.
Step 5: Survey the talent landscape
Before you make overtures to any writers, it’s a good idea to spend some time taking scope of the range of available talent. Sites to check out include:
- nDash (Disclosure: referral link)
- Copyblogger (Note: Copyblogger is, without contest, the best content marketing certification out there. But they charge $1,000/year to remain on their list of certified writers. So, just because a writer isn’t listed, that doesn’t mean they haven’t achieved certification.)
You can also use social media and search engines to find independent content writers. I regularly post on Twitter, LinkedIn, Business2Community, etc.
Step 6: Make your short list
After you’ve surveyed the landscape, go back and make a list of the content writers you want to learn more about.
Step 7: Start digging deeper
Now it’s time to learn more about your best prospects.
Content writer website
First and foremost: Check out the writer’s website, paying special attention to the language the writer uses to describe their value proposition. Do they talk about how awesome they are, or do they keep the focus on prospective clients? Do they talk about what they’ve done in the past, or what they can do for you?
If the website has a blog, what’s the content like? Is the quality of the writing good enough for your needs? Do the posts illustrate the level of understanding that you need from a content writer (regardless of whether that’s niche expertise or business expertise)? Do the posts portray the writer as a professional, or as someone who picked up writing because they didn’t like reporting to a boss?
Pro tip: The standard blogging advice says that you should post regularly — at least once a week for a content writer. But a long gap between posts may just mean that the writer is busy with paid work. I haven’t had time to post on my own blog in months, because my pipeline has been full. So don’t assume that infrequent posting is necessarily a bad thing. That particular writer may just be in high demand.
No website all, though? That’s a huge red flag. If their writing is so good, why don’t they use their skills to promote themselves?
Don’t, however, put too much weight on a portfolio — or the lack thereof. So much of today’s web content is either non-bylined or ghostwritten that a lack of links doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of talent or experience. A top-notch writer should, however, be able to discuss past work in a general way and show the kind of knowledge you’d expect from somebody who had written about a topic.
Social media can tell you a lot about a person. I’ve seen writers who come across as quite professional in business communication trash their clients on social media. If you want to know what somebody really thinks, follow them on Twitter.
Step 8: Make contact with your favorites
You can skip this step if one content writer is already standing head and shoulders above the others. But if you still have several you’re considering, the way they respond to your initial inquiry can provide more information about how well you’d work together.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- Explain why you’re interested in their content creation services.
- Be as specific as you can about your content needs.
- Be upfront about your budget. (Trust me, this saves a lot of time on both ends.) And don’t automatically dismiss a writer who says that your rates are too low, but do pay attention to the how. I usually say something along the lines of, “The rates for this particular project are below my minimum, but please keep me in mind if you should need more strategic input in the future.” No matter what your content marketing budget is, there’s no reason for a writer to be rude about it.
Step 9: Vet your top choices
Depending on the scope of your project, this is the point where you want to get the content writer on the phone. (This is especially important if you’re looking for a long-term partnership.)
Putting on my content heretic hat…
Pardon me for saying so, but most suggestions for questions to ask a prospective content writer are BS. Some of the crazier ones I’ve heard:
- Who’s your favorite blogger?
- What industry resources do you check every day?
- What style guide do you use?
Not one of those questions will provide actionable insight. Not a single one! Why?
Well, for one thing, following a few blogs religiously means the writer is exposed to the same view points over and over (and many of the most popular blogs are the marketing arm for businesses, like keyword research).
I’d much prefer a writer who seeks multiple sources of knowledge. For example, I have a “content marketing” stream set up in Hootsuite that exposes me to a wide variety of viewpoints and thought leadership. I also have streams set up for industries/topics I write about frequently, so I can keep myself up-to-date.
And style guides? The style guide a writer uses isn’t important. What’s important is the writer’s ability to adapt to your style.
But none of those questions really gets to the heart of the matter. Instead, ask the writer about their business model and how they work with clients. (An awkward pause probably means that they haven’t given it any thought, in which case I’d say, “Thank you” and move on.) That’s a conversation that can lead in many different directions, telling you a lot about the writer’s working style and whether it will mesh well with yours.
Pro tip: One question that is important to ask is how the writer handles revisions. Some writers charge extra after the first round or two of revisions. My policy is a bit different: I’ll do as many rounds of revisions as it takes to get it right, with the caveat that changing your mind mid-project is not a revision. If I don’t deliver what you ask for, that’s on me. If you change your mind about what you want, that’s on you.
There’s not really a right or wrong way to handle revisions, but it’s a good thing to address in the beginning to avoid surprises down the road.
Step 10: Start working together on a trial basis
I don’t require long-term contracts because I’m happy to work with clients on an as-needed basis (which also means an as-I-have-bandwidth-for basis). Some writers, however, require a retainer. That’s just a way of protecting their income, so that they don’t turn down other projects because you’ve promised them work that never materializes.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those approaches, but make sure you understand your agreement.
Pro tip: “Trial” doesn’t mean “unpaid.” You should still pay whatever the regular fee would be.
Finding the right content writer for you and your needs doesn’t have to be a guessing game. If you follow the steps outlined above, you’ll be well on your way to finding a writer you’ll be able to work with for a long time.
You could, of course, just hire me. I don’t bite, and I specialize in making sure your content supports your business goals. I’d be happy to chat about any project you’re considering, no matter how fuzzy it may be right now.