By Matt Keener published March 4, 2013

Building a Virtual Content Creation Team: 4 Secrets

virtual content creationTweet this, post that, share this, draft that. Sound familiar? The demand for quality content creation has never been greater. As your content footprint continues to expand, your in-house staff may reach a point where they are no longer able to keep up. Should you hire more salaried employees to keep pace? I vote no, and here’s why.

Online workers comprise one of the fastest growing segments of our economy. In fact, there are nearly 400,000 writers on Upwork alone, not to mention other virtual marketplaces like Guru.com. This rapid growth is being fueled by many factors, a major cause being convenience for the employer. We all know how much of a headache it can be to hire a full-time employee, particularly in terms of paperwork, multiple interviews, recruiting costs, and risk. Hiring online workers minimizes such issues. In fact, a recent study found that hiring online workers typically takes less than three days total (compared to 24 days for on-premise workers). 

So if building a team of online writers has so many potential benefits to your organization, what’s the best way to tap into the virtual workforce?

Here are four secrets that will make the process easier:

Secret 1: Stop thinking like it’s 2003 

Specialize, specialize, specialize. Thanks to the virtual marketplace, you’re now able to match your content creation needs to the skill sets of millions of contractors. Start by identifying the structural needs of your specific content development activities (those that are not adequately covered by your existing staff).

When building content plans for my clients, I typically start by considering the following “categories”:

  • General web content, such as products, features and benefits, company-focused information, etc.
  • Blog / blog categories, including content that is educational, timely, news, technical, industry-related, etc.
  • Downloadable content / assets, such as white papers, brochures, case studies, eBooks, or checklists.
  • Email content, like newsletters, product-related mailers, call-to-action blasts, lead nurturing, autoresponders, etc.
  • Social & microblogging content that is aimed at engagement, industry focused, and/or company specific.
  • PR materials, such as press releases or event-related content.

Next, it is important to begin identifying specific needs you have in each category. Start by compiling these needs into a matrix that matches your content generation processes to your human resource vacancies. I’ve created a sample matrix that you can use, below.

content creation matrix

For purposes of this article, let’s imagine that we’ve identified some holes in our blogging team, specifically for a new client in the software industry. The client needs three blog articles written per month: one technical, one about company happenings, and one educational. Here’s what this portion of the matrix looks like after assessing needs.

matrix-assessing needs

Secret 2: Systematically scour the virtual world for the right fit(s)  

Now that we’ve identified the client’s needs, it’s time to initiate the recruiting process on virtual marketplaces, such as Upwork or Elance.

Here are specific steps to follow:

1. Begin with a well-written explanation of needs: Focus on defining what your company actually needs. In doing so, you also create a pretty nice job description. Given our previous example, here’s an explanation for our “technical” writer:

We are seeking a technical writer to routinely produce content for a client’s blog. The ideal candidate would meet the following qualifications: 

  • Proven background as a technical writer, specifically relating to software
  • Ability to take abstract concepts and assemble them into a cohesive article
  • Pays close attention to details
  • Willingness to understand client’s software, from a technical standpoint
  • Commitment to quality assurance
  • Basic understanding of search engine optimization principles
  • Willing to sign an NDA (nondisclosure agreement)
  • Accepting of a “pay-per-article” arrangement 

2. Utilize filters to “drill down” into specific skill sets and indicators: Using a marketplace like Upwork affords you a wealth of recruiting tools and filtering options traditionally reserved to only the largest headhunting firms. As some filters are more important than others, here’s how I use each filter to find the perfect candidate:

  • Feedback score: I typically don’t consider hiring anyone with less than four stars. The rare exception to this would be if I identify a new online worker who has not yet established a rating. I say rare because it is risky.  Hiring someone with no feedback can be scarier than someone with bad feedback.
  • Hourly rate: I’d expect to pay more for a technical writer than someone who is managing my tweets. It’s simple supply and demand: The more specialized the need, the more you should expect to budget.
  • Tests taken / passed: Often overlooked by virtual employers, I actually view this as an important indicator. If a contractor has taken the time to pass relevant skill tests, it becomes easier to compare your staffing options. For our technical writer, I’d want to make sure my finalists score well on the UpworkoDesk test for technical writing.
  • Number of hours / projects worked: Similar to feedback rating, this helps determine how successful (and, in turn, how skilled) a prospective writer has been in the virtual marketplace. Lots of contracts and projects indicate the contractor is serious and valued.

odesk feedback-ratings

3. Pre-interview and interview best practices: The previous two steps will substantially narrow your candidate pool. However, you still may have a dozen or more seemingly qualified people to evaluate. Should you interview them all? My short answer is no. The virtual marketplace offers additional methods for zeroing in on the best fit(s) for your content team. I prefer narrowing the list further, such that only two to three candidates receive interview requests. Here’s how:

  • Pre-interview: First, take a look at candidate portfolios and examples of their work. For most writing roles, you can get a good feel by simply going through previous pieces they’ve written. oDesk’s portfolio feature makes it easy to evaluate a contractor’s past work. Below is a screenshot of what my portfolio looks like. Each project can be clicked and reviewed individually, further streamlining the evaluation process.

 matt's odesk portfolio

  • Interview: Once you have narrowed your list down to two or three highly qualified candidates, it’s time to hold interviews. I could probably talk for hours about the dos and don’ts of interviewing for your virtual marketing team. However, it may be more beneficial to give you a few tools for facilitating the interview process. Here are three of my favorites:
  • Skype: In the virtual workforce, most interviews are conducted via Skype. The face-to-face video option provides some semblance of a “traditional” working relationship. It also helps you gauge body language and other nonverbal communication during the interview process. (You can download Skype for free.)
  • JobOn.com: Don’t have time to hold real interviews? No problem! JobOn.com offers a unique service in which applicants can, as their motto goes, “apply by video.” Instead of hosting a Skype video call, applicants record themselves answering your desired interview questions. You can review their answers when you have time. (Learn more at JobOn.com.)
  • Applicant tracking systems: There are many cloud-based applicant tracking systems available. I’d recommend using an ATS when you begin recruiting across multiple virtual marketplaces. Zoho offers a free edition of its ATS, which seems to get the job done.

Secret 3: Date before you get married  

My wife and I dated for several years before we decided to get married. When hiring online workers to your virtual content team, I believe you should do a little “dating” too. I’m not saying go to extremes here; I’m simply saying you should be cautious before you allow new writers into your “inner circle.” That’s one of the beautiful things about the virtual workforce: You don’t have to commit to a lot of up-front risk with new team members.

To start the dating process, let your new writers prove they mean business by working on a test project. For example, offer a competitive fixed-price budget to your new writers. Let the finalists “compete” to see whose writing style is the best fit for your needs. Be sure to set clear expectations and deadlines on the test project.

Upon the completion of the test project, your goal should be to objectively assess expectations to results:

  • Overall, did the writer meet or exceed your expectations?
  • Can you realistically picture this writer creating content for one of your clients?
  • Did the writer follow all requirements of the project (deadlines, content specs, etc.)?

If you cannot answer yes to all of the previous questions, it may be a warning sign that this person isn’t a good fit for your team.

Secret 4: Match skills, needs, and budgets 

The net result of the previous three secrets should culminate in a rock-solid virtual content team. Use your matrix (identified in Secret 1) as a living document. As team members leave or join your team, update the matrix to ensure no gaping holes exist. Continuously recruit using the secrets outlined in this article.

In addition to continuous recruitment, it is important to keep your existing team happy, thus reducing turnover. Below are a few additional tips for keeping a cohesive virtual content team:

Tips for keeping a cohesive virtual content team 

  • Set clear delegation guidance: How will you delegate new writing assignments to your team? Are you going to use a project management tool like BaseCamp or FreedCamp? Or will you use something a bit more basic like Google Drive? Make sure your team knows how you will delegate to them to reduce confusion. 
  • Avoid billing and payment friction: Luckily, if you hire via Upwork, most billing issues are avoided thanks to its time tracking software. However, if you’re paying writers via PayPal or wire transfer, you’ll need to come up with a standard billing and invoicing system. 
  • Identify your “virtual liaison:” The virtual liaison is typically an in-house employee whose job is to help bridge the gap between in-house and outsourced workers. Most companies who have successfully implemented blended teams use a virtual liaison. 
  • Foster open communication: Communication will help you avoid a lot of issues that occur when managing virtual teams. Make sure you over-communicate and avoid sending contractors the wrong signals (even if you don’t mean to).

Your clients have a growing demand for excellent content. How will you choose to accommodate their requests? The virtual workforce stands ready to support your needs. Take the first step toward building your virtual content team and achieving scalable growth. You’ll thank me later.

For more tips on putting an effective content marketing team together, read “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi. 

Author: Matt Keener

Matt Keener is President of Keener Marketing Solutions, LLC and is also the author of the book, Executive in Sweatpants. Visit his blog for helpful tips on managing online workers, growing virtual teams, and more, and follow Matt on Twitter @ExecInSweats.

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  • http://twitter.com/KatieHenriksen Katie Henriksen

    I haven’t used ODesk, but as a freelance copywriter, I’ve got to say I don’t like Elanceand similar outlets. It tends to encourage bidding wars where jobs go to the lowest bidder. If you’re looking for an experienced, quality writer on those sites, you’ll have a lot of unqualified bids to weed through. However, as long as you’re willing to go through the additional steps you’ve recommended in your article – viewing portfolio, interviewing, working on a test project – you probably can find a good writer there. The problem is you’ll be inundated with bids from a lot of writers who don’t fit the bill. I think the best place to find writers is LinkedIn. You can search specifically for the type of writer that you want, and even find that some might be personally connected to your colleagues, so that you can get references. That way you can profile the writers who you think will fit the bill and reach out to them directly, narrowing your search. Some writers balk at test projects, but I am happy to prove myself to new clients. When they ask me to do an interview or test project, I know they value writers with experience, and will be professional to work with, rather than just looking for keyword stuffed content from the lowest bidder.

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Hi Katie – You bring up some valid concerns. Rest assured, you’re not alone. Virtual marketplaces such as oDesk or Elance are what you make of them. As you mentioned, if you’re willing to put in the recruiting time, you can often find a good fit for your needs. However, one of the challenges certainly involves narrowing down the search. If you are able to find a writer through referral methods, go for it. I too have hired many contractors based off of referrals.

  • ravekrishna

    Matt, Great article! While it is impossible to find fault with what you say, I do agree with other comments (like Katie’s) that online communities often work based on “cheapest” as opposed to what is the “best” option for the job. As a content creation company, we use freelancers for 90% of our content creation for our clients. I have had extremely limited success with websites like elance (to get writers).

    The reason could be the mindset regarding content outsourcing. True, they may just need a $40 blog or a $100 research, but outsourcing by itself needs to be engaged in, only if the company’s mindset is ready for sharing, communicating, editing, providing feedback, and project managing. Virtual workers “work” only if the team is willing to work with the freelancer as if he or she is part of the team.

    So the first step, even before they put their requirements into a sheet, is to find out if they have the mindset to outsource.

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Great points! Finding a team member with the proper mindset is so vital. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to assess this simply by using oDesk’s filters. In reality, it can even be challenging to assess this in an interview (especially a virtual one). I’ll let you know when I invent the secret to overcoming this hurdle. 🙂

  • http://writtent.com/ Sasha Zinevych

    Dear Matt, it’s a very valuable article and I am glad it is finally here. What would you say about the tools that a virtual content team could use?

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Hi Sasha – I’m glad you find the content helpful. I’m actually keeping a running list of helpful (mostly free) tools on this page (http://executiveinsweatpants.com/free/). Scroll down to the “free resources and tools” section. Some are specific to content development, while others are general tools which foster a more productive virtual work environment. I suppose I should probably also add Hootsuite to the list.

  • Kathleen_Booth

    Great article. I haven’t tried ODesk or Elance, but I do rely heavily on Zerys and have had a great experience there. I find that if I put the time in and really scope the project out, I get much better results. I’ve also found that it pays to cultivate a small pool of “favorite writers” and go back to them time and time again. The more I source from them, the better they seem to get – I think, in part, because they are getting to know my clients’ needs better (I’m an agency).

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Hi Kathleen – great points. You really hit on an important point about scoping the project. The more specific you can be, the better. Sometimes we take it for granted that people inherently know what we’re looking for. I find a combination of Screencast training videos and written instructions helps scope the project nicely. If you have any secrets, feel free to share with the group too!

  • Anne Miles

    There is a real skill in being able to make virtual services work well, from my experience. I’ve used a few of these online job posting businesses for creative services but the results are very hit and miss. For a business marketing purpose I feel it needs to be more certain and deliberate than this level of random virtual services.

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe in virtual businesses these days as a way to get the very best people without the overheads, and my businesses is founded with that in mind. But for me it is about the quality that big businesses get without the overheads that produces the best work and having someone who works for the client to be there to buy well and manage the process for the best results.

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Hi Anne – thanks for your feedback. I too have had job postings that didn’t work out the way I had hoped. However, I’d recommend you view oDesk (and others) less as a “posting board” and more of a virtual marketplace. When hiring, I typically look for people who can benefit my team for the long haul and are committed to working in a virtual setting. More than anything, it’s much like Linkedin but with the added benefit of handling the transactional side of things. Best of luck in future efforts.

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    Matt, your recommendations are generally on the right track but I agree with Katie that LinkedIn is a better resource for finding specific types of writers quickly. I wrote an article with tips for finding and evaluating freelancers on LinkedIn: http://tinyurl.com/y3bl94u

    Also, there is a distinct difference in the skills and focus of a technical writer and a technical copywriter. Content marketers will want to understand this difference so they can find the right resource for a project, as I explain in this article: http://tinyurl.com/ac248el

  • Allen Graves

    I’ve been building and maintaining a relatively large team of freelance writers for the last three years and honestly it doesn’t matter where the writers come from (there are great writers everywhere) or what resources and tools you have at your disposal.

    In my experience, what holds true is that you get out of it what you put into it.

    If you go out with a poor mindset and only give it half an effort, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. You’ll end up chasing sub-par writers and overpaying them for content you’ll have to edit the heck out of anyway.

    On the other hand, if you are diligent in your strategy and you really give it all you’ve got, then you can have a team of world-class writers that are ready to really perform for you.

    And you can never stop either, as attrition always seems to steal away your momentum when you finally think you’ve got it made. LOL

    Nice article – great tips. Keep the great information rolling!

    • http://twitter.com/ExecInSweats Matt Keener

      Hey Allen – the part of your comment that especially stands is “you get out of it what you put into it”. This is exactly correct. Many people get overwhelmed by the volume of potential contractors on virtual marketplaces. For every good contractor, there may be 5 or 10 bad fits. It really comes down to diligence and patience. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. This is certainly true for virtual staffing. Great points!

  • http://www.dynamicsgolf.com/ Mark Kemp

    Good article Matt. I’ve tried a few freelance writing sites to find candidates, but I guess I didn’t follow the process in as much detail as you mentioned i.e interview almost style. I think I will re look at this and see if I can find a suitable candidate. Thanks again.