According to CMI’s 2014 B2B Content Marketing research report, 55 percent of B2B businesses are challenged with producing enough content, and 47 percent are struggling to produce the kind of content that engages.
While many considerations factor into meeting these challenges, it’s a safe assumption that the need for skilled writers is near the top of the requirements list. In fact, 64 of the B2B organizations surveyed are already outsourcing content creation to stay in step with consumers’ voracious appetite for relevant news, information, and advice. And, one topic that came up repeatedly during CMI’s Executive Forum was the challenge that content marketing leaders had with finding great writers to create original content or translate ideas from subject matter experts.
The issue is not in finding a skilled writer (or at least one who knows enough not to commit any of Weird Al’s “Word Crimes“) in so much as it is finding a skilled writer who is right for your project. While basic writing skills are, of course, essential, more important are often those intangible qualities such as having a conversational yet useful tone or the ability to tell a story in an uncontrived way. As with great design, it can be challenging to express what you need until you see it, but this can be a very frustrating process.
As the content manager for the CMI blog, I’ve seen firsthand just how difficult it can be to find the right writer to craft a particular piece of content. Insight and writing skill both play a part, to be sure; but in truth, it’s not always about talent and knowledge. Producing quality content also involves communicating information in a unique and compelling way. As I often tell writers, “What makes a post work for us often has more to do with the approach it takes to making insights actionable than with the insights themselves.” So every organization will likely have its own criteria for identifying the perfect candidate.
To get some additional perspectives on the topic, I asked a group of our blog contributors, Online Training instructors, and Content Marketing World speakers to answer the question, “How do you vet new writers before hiring them, and how do you know if a pitch from a writer will translate into strong content that is right for your organization?” Following are some of the best advice points they shared:
One of the best hires of my career was a bartender for the 10 years prior, so I just won’t believe anyone who says hiring great writers is like hiring other marketers.
To adjust, I try to focus on four criteria, in no particular order:
- Their portfolio: This trumps the resume, and it’s not even close.
- Culture fit: If your company does content right, writers will end up working with tons of people across the entire company.
- Adaptability: At Google, we used to talk about hiring the best “mental athletes.” That absolutely applies when hiring writers. Being great at research but not SlideShares, or advice columns but not interviews is a deal-breaker where I’ve worked. Content marketing changes too often to succeed without being adaptable.
- Attention to detail: This is huge. It’s hard to test for, so I try to bury small tests somewhere deep in the job description. My last one said, “Attention to detail test: Use [word I’d chosen] in your application.” If they missed it, that told me they don’t pay close enough attention to important assignments.
After testing for all this, I’d end by assigning a relevant written project. If I published it, I’d pay the writer regardless of whether we hired them. #DontScrewWriters. —Jay Acunzo, Director of Platform & Community, NextView Ventures | @Jay_zo
I vet new writers by giving them a writing assignment. Even if they show you a portfolio with great content, you have no idea what it took to get it that way. I want to know if they can follow directions, write to a persona, and can show me solid structure. And I want to know how much editing they’ll require and how well they take and respond to editorial feedback. If the content turns out to be something that can be used for a client project, I’ll pay them for it and hire them to produce the rest of the content for the project. —Ardath Albee, CEO, Marketing Interactions, Inc. | @ardath421
Officially, we don’t accept unsolicited guest posts or new writers, but unofficially we sometimes plug in new writers with interesting new angles. We look at previous samples of the writer’s work, of course, but mostly we’re interested in finding digital marketing approaches and ideas that haven’t been beaten to death elsewhere. Our perspective is that if we’ve read it before, we rarely run it. Now, that’s certainly not the perspective that everyone should take, but we’ve found it to be a good guideline for us. —Jay Baer, Author; President, Convince & Convert | @jaybaer
Ideally, they came as a reference and I can read their work before talking to them.
I also look at:
- Formatting and quality of writing: If they hit me with a wall of text (long paragraphs, no subheaders, etc.) it’s over before it begins. This means they don’t understand web visitors. If the formatting and headers draw me in, then I can judge the quality of the writing itself. This part is about connecting and converting.
- Search and social hacks: Next I want to see how they craft content that drives traffic. Do they understand keywords and rankings? Ideally, the writing is search friendly (or already ranking) and uses internal linking properly. Do they understand emotions, visuals, and collaboration? Ideally, the writing has social potential, using strong visuals, tweet-able soundbites, and quotes from socially active collaborators. This part is all about traffic.
- Working style, deadlines, and personality.
Finally, nobody likes a jerk. So they must be a nice, empathetic human. I also can’t work with slackers, so they have to be motivated, punctual, and a lifelong learner. This part is about working with a happy team. —Andy Crestodina, Principal, Strategic Director, Orbit Media | @crestodina
I try to find writers who think. I want writers with a unique perspective and voice. Most importantly, I look for writers who have a unique hook: a simple twist of a familiar theme that can entrap or ensnare my audience. I’m looking for someone with Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals, or Gary Vee’s “Sportscenter for Wine.” I want someone interested in creating unique content. I don’t need another writer. I need real talent. —Andrew Davis, Author, Brandscaping | @TPLDrew
We vet by reading what they’ve written. And a lot of it. If someone isn’t writing a lot, then they don’t yet have the skills required to create top-level content. They also have to read a lot. Magazines. Newspapers. Fiction. Non-fiction. Writing is an art form. A well-honed craft. Sure, you can take any bit of research and craft a 500-word article out of it. But is it interesting? Creative? Does it grab the reader? Make them want to continue reading? Or is it just a bunch of regurgitated ‘business speak’? The latter comes from a person who had a love for language, and storytelling. And that person is the person who would get a shot writing for, or with, Spin Sucks. —Gini Dietrich, CEO, Arment Dietrich, Inc. | @ginidietrich
One thing I’ve learned over the years is rates often don’t reflect talent when it comes to writers.
The most expensive writer I ever hired had awesome credentials but couldn’t string a sentence and had to be heavily edited or rewritten before publishing. Conversely, I’ve had amazing writers who asked for very little in the way of compensation. This is especially true of traditional journalists, although they’re waking up to the reality they can earn good money from brands. I always ask to see references and then I make sure I read them with an editor’s eye. Ideally, I like to see writing samples from more than one place so I can gauge how much is the result of good writing or whether it’s good editing.
One of my tips for making sure the pitch meets requirements is to ask for the call to action before the article is written. If a writer can’t provide that information, chances are they haven’t thought the topic through. —Sarah Mitchell, Content Marketing Consultant, Global Copywriting | @globalcopywrite
At Scripted.com, writers are vetted through our custom English proficiency test, which includes word scrambles, idioms, and multiple choice questions. Additionally, they’re asked to submit their best writing samples and are given a timed writing prompt.
In regards to knowing if a pitch will translate into strong content or not, it’s important for the pitch to be narrow and focused. The writer should include the core summary of the story, along with potential sources and an idea of how the story will be presented (for example, article format and type). Once all of that information is provided, a content marketer should have a good idea if the pitch will pan out to be high-quality content or not. —Sunil Rajaraman, Co-founder and CEO, Scripted | @subes01
While writing skill and technical proficiency are certainly prerequisites for success as a content creator, it’s equally important that writers practice their craft often, and know how to apply it to the task at hand. Content creators must be able to work in multiple media platforms and formats, and need to be comfortable with the latest tools and technologies, so creativity and adaptability are also particularly desirable qualities to look for.
Certainly, few writers can be expected to excel at every format and style, so the best content creator for your needs will ultimately be determined by the specific functions they will need to serve within your organization. Fortunately, as you can see from the advice above, there are some strategic ways your business can approach the task of sourcing writers, including:
- Testing their skills with a writing assignment: This will help you gauge how well equipped they are to handle specific types of content they will likely need to create.
- Looking for variety in their writing samples: Specialized skill is great, but if you only see white papers, or the writer only covers one vertical industry in the work shared on their website or portfolio, you have no way of knowing whether their skills will translate to other formats or topics.
- Examining the “meta-information” contained within their work: Does the writer “practice what she preaches” — i.e., do her samples demonstrate that she has embraced content marketing best practices, such as using strong calls to action, engaging subject lines and titles, links to other relevant content, and compelling visuals?
Looking for more insight on building content marketing capabilities? Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, will take the stage at Content Marketing World 2014 to deliver his keynote on Creating a Digital Storytelling Experience Team. Register now.
Cover image by Joe Kalinowski