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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 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.)
  • Don’t have time to hold real interviews? No problem! 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
  • 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.