Most organizations — 62%, in fact — outsource content creation. And they’re all faced with the same challenge: How to find a freelancer who gets you, your business, and your customers — and who knows how to write content that not only connects the dots, but makes people actually eager to read it.
That’s exactly what this blog post is about. I’m going to walk you through the steps of how to choose the best content writer for you and your business.
How to find your dream 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?
Before you outsource content creation, spend some time thinking about how you want to work with freelance writers. Some work strictly from a creative 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, providing content strategy services that help 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, somebody who’s a content strategist could spell the difference between success and failure.
It really comes down to this: Do you want to work with a freelancer who churns keyword-based content for SEO purposes, or do you want a collaborative partner who can offer guidance on 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 on what you want a content 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 pieces 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 filler just to drive traffic didn’t feel right. I kept asking questions about purpose and was pretty much told (although very 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 somebody just because they check all the boxes when you know in your heart it won’t work.
Step 2: Consider what you can afford
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 and money on content that’s not going to accomplish your business goals.
On the other hand, if you just need somebody who can create great copy from a creative brief, there’s no reason to pay more.
Most content writers expect that their role will be limited to content creation. Consider offering higher rates if you want them to do any of these additional tasks:
- Image sourcing
- Publishing their work on your CMS and optimizing metadata
- Promoting it through social media or by posting to syndication sites
Bylines have a capital value because they help writers get additional work. So expect to pay more if you don’t plan to offer bylines.
How much to pay content writers
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 someone to do that at the lower end of the pay scale.
But the best writers base their rates on creating value-added content. In other words, they still write from your content brief, use your keywords, and quote credible sources, but the 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.
Step 3: Decide what type of experience is most important to you
Content marketing best practices continue to insist that writers should have niche expertise, and I continue to call BS.
Here’s why: A subject matter expert 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 a subject matter 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?
The bottom line is that you want somebody who will help you achieve your business objectives. Here are a few tips:
- 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 prefer to communicate? 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 an assignment, or would you prefer to collaborate throughout the entire process?
- How will you pay the 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
The next step is to know where to find the content writers. Content marketing platform 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.)
However, a lot of top-notch content writers avoid those sites because the pay tends to be so low. They may use the higher-quality sites like nDash or Skyword, but they also rely on their own websites, their LinkedIn profiles, syndication sites like Business2Community, and their social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, 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 it like? Is the quality of the writing good enough for your needs? Do the posts illustrate the right level of knowledge (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. 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.
Honestly, my website — home page, about, and blog — tells you pretty much everything you’d want to know about me and how I work with my clients other than how strong my southern accent is. I designed it that way intentionally, both to attract clients who would be a good fit and to discourage those who wouldn’t. Most top-notch content writers do that because it saves time for both parties.
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.
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.
Step 8: Make contact with your favorites
You can skip this step if one candidate 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 content writer interview questions to get you started:
- Explain why you’re interested in having them help you with your project.
- Be as specific as you can about your needs.
- Be upfront about your budget. (Trust me, this saves a lot of time on both ends.) And don’t automatically dismiss a candidate 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.”
Step 9: Vet your top choices
Depending on the scope of your project, this is the point where you make direct contact.
Putting on my content heretic hat…
Pardon me for saying so,but most suggestions for content writer interview questions 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 viewpoints over and over (and many of the most popular blogs are the marketing arm for businesses, like those who do 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 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.
Or not. It depends on what you want. Top-notch content writers tend to see themselves as business owners selling a highly customized service. SEO writers tend to see themselves as freelancers trading their time for a fee. It’s a huge difference in mindset and can make or break your working relationship. I can’t tell you which answer is right — that depends on you and your business goals — but that’s the most important thing to look for.
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 your dream content writer doesn’t have to be a guessing game. If you follow the steps outlined above, you’ll be well on your way to finding the right content writer — somebody 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.