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. We’re going to start at the most basic type of content marketing: written copy for your blog and/or website. And we’re going to assume that you’ll outsource (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 go about finding the Mary Poppins of content writers? Let’s take a look.
How to find your dream content writer
Step 1: Decide what you want a writer to do
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?
Some content 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 ground work — focus groups, brainstorming sessions, high-level approval and budget meetings, etc. — somebody like me would 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 somebody who churns out really good content to your specifications, or do you want a collaborative partner who can offer guidance? Either answer is fine, but if you don’t ask the question before you hire a writer, you’re probably not going to be happy.
Step 2: Set your budget to fit the type of writer you need
I know budgeting usually works the other way around, but 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 produce great copy from a content brief, there’s no need 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
- Promoting the content through social media or by posting to syndication sites
Bylines have a capital value because they help the writer get additional work. Plan to pay more if you don’t want to give the writer a byline.
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:
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 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
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?
- If you’re writing 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 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, 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 process?
- How will you pay the writer? If you use a payment platform, who will pay the fees?
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:
- 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, Business 2 Community, etc.
Step 6: Make your shortlist
After you’ve surveyed the landscape, go back and make a list of the writers you want to learn more about.
Step 7: Start digging deeper
Now it’s time to learn more about your best prospects.
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?
No website? 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.
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 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.
- Explain why you’re interested in their services
- 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 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 rates are, 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 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 writer are BS. Some of the crazier ones I’ve heard:
- Who’s your favorite blogger?
- What industry resources to you check every day?
- What style guide do you use?
Not one of those questions will provide actionable insight. Instead, just 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.
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. Some writers, however, require either a retainer or a minimum amount of guaranteed work each month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those approaches, but make sure you work well together first.
“Trial” doesn’t mean “unpaid.” You should still pay whatever the regular fee would be.
Finding your perfect content writer doesn’t have to be scary. 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.
This article originally appeared in www.pattipodnar.com.