Have you ever hired a writer — whether in-house or outsourced — only to start wondering if you’ve been had? I don’t mean that the writer intentionally tried to put one over on you. But, as I’ve been saying since I first started my business, [tweet]the internet is an all-you-can-eat buffet for writers — and it starts at value-menu prices.[/tweet]

If you’re an aspiring writer, you can find all the work you want with no experience whatsoever, as long as your rates are low enough. I think most brands know that the lowest prices (like the ones on bidding sites) won’t buy the highest quality, but they’re also nervous about working directly with freelancers. Is a freelancer going to be hanging out at the dog park while you’re sweating a deadline? Is writing a hobby or side job — something they do when they feel like it? (And what if they stop feeling like it mid-project?)

Add to that the fact that a lot of brands don’t really know what a good writer looks like (it’s not the same for everybody), and you’ve got a situation that’s enough to make you as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs (yes, I’m southern!). Either you keep interviewing writers without ever hiring one, or you hire a writer and start hearing that niggling voice of buyer’s remorse, constantly asking, “Is this the right writer for me? Should I be happy, or is there more?

It depends.

First things first: There are no cut-and-dried answers, because it’s completely dependent on what you want that writer to do. If you’re well-versed in content marketing and just want somebody to execute your strategy, then you need a kick-ass copywriter who follows directions to a T and churns out content that search engines love. If you’re not an expert in content marketing, you need a writer who is. You need someone who can pull double duty as a content strategist. But how the heck do you know the difference?

Content strategists drive you nuts with questions.

I don’t mean silly questions like, “Can I leave 30 minutes early today?” I’m talking about the kind of questions that bring you up short, making you stop and give a mental “uh oh.”

The non-negotiables

If you’re working with a content strategist, there are a few questions you should be hearing with every assignment:

Who is the audience?

This question goes beyond demographics to include things like:

  • How much does the audience know about this topic? Are they beginners? Experts?
  • Where are they in the sales funnel? Have they indicated interest in your product or service, or are they “cold calls”?
  • What are their pain points? Why would they care about this content?

A content strategist will try to get inside your audience’s heads rather than going on demographics alone.

What do you want them to do, think, or feel after they read this?

This is the “why” of your content. A writer who’s also a strategist will ask this for every single piece. In my opinion, it’s the single most important question, and a lot of brands don’t know the answer. They know they need content, so they’re producing content. But, without a clear purpose for each piece, it’s not going to matter much. This category of questions includes things like:

  • Is the purpose to get them to see the company in a positive light, so that we’ll be their first choice if they ever have a need?
  • Are you trying to grow your customer base by educating people who otherwise might not have been interested in your product?
  • Do you want them to make a purchase? Sign up for an email list?

Let’s take a home improvement store as an example. You might want your audience to think, “Hey, I can do this.” You might want them to feel, “It sounds like fun, and I like trying new things.” As far as what you want them to do, that could range from coming into the store and asking your employees a lot of questions to jumping right in and buying everything they need.

Why is that important?

This is one of the most enduring lessons from my corporate writing days. A lot of brands are very clear on what they want their audience to do, but they’re far less clear on why they want them to do it. You may think that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a really good writer will want to know the answer. Even if they don’t explicitly include it in the content, it will frame both the tone and the way the “story” unfolds.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you sell perfume. You hire me to write a post on why you shouldn’t leave perfume in your car.

Me: Why is that important? Why shouldn’t you leave perfume in your car?

You: Because when it gets hot, the bottle can explode.

Me: And why is that important?

You: Because people keep doing it, and, every summer, it drives our damaged returns through the roof.

Ah…that’s it. That’s the real reason. In my experience, it’s not that clients intentionally try to hide the real reason; they just don’t think it matters. But it does. The article I write to enlist customers’ help in lowering the damaged return rate would be very different from the article I’d write if you were concerned about people cutting themselves on broken glass or asphyxiating themselves on fumes. A pro will understand that and won’t start writing without a clear answer.

Bonus points: pushback

If the person you’re working with isn’t asking those questions (or similar ones…I’m not picky), you’ve got a writer, not a strategist. If they are — congratulations! You’re way ahead of the pack. Now you can raise the bar and start listening for the kind of pushback that lets you know you’re working with a writer who isn’t going to let you make an idiot out of yourself:

  • Do you/we own the rights to these photos? Does the source require attribution?
  • Does including that information violate any SEC rules (like insider trading)?
  • If  you write a blog post about why you don’t like to hire mothers of young children, you might get in trouble with the EEOC.
  • Are there any liability issues with saying Brand C (for competitor) is a dud?
  • What are the liability issues if someone follows your advice and it ends up causing a problem?
  • What’s the point of this post again? Are you sure there’s enough meat here?

That last question is subtle but important. I’ve had clients ask me for content that just didn’t make sense — like an article on how to prepare for OSHA inspections (they’re unscheduled). If you’re not a content pro, you want a writer who sees covering your butt as part of their job. If you’re lucky enough to find a writer who gives you pushback, be thankful! Sure, it can be annoying. I’m pretty certain I’ve gotten on a lot of editors’ nerves by pushing back. But what’s the worst that could happen? Either I’m right and they regroup, or I’m wrong and they tell me to just go write the article already.

Diamond or dud?

A word of caution before you decide that your writer is a dud. A lot of really good writers have gotten slapped down so many times for asking questions and giving pushback that they don’t try anymore. They’ve been told too many times that their job is to crank out copy, so that’s what they do. It doesn’t take much to change that, so give your writer a chance. If he or she does have the chops to be a strategist in addition to a writer, you’ll have an asset who’ll be willing to go to the mat for you every time.

The bottom line? If you know exactly what you’re doing and just need somebody to make it happen, your task is much easier. There are a lot of writers out there who can do that exceedingly well. If you’re a beginner, though, you need a writer who can also serve as a strategist…someone who can not only write your content, but help you figure out what you should write in the first place. These questions will help you distinguish the two.


image credit: freeimages.com/Candice Courtney

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