Understanding how to hire a content writer, particularly a good one, is not something that comes naturally to most business owners or managers. I know this because I’ve been a professional blogger, editor, and content manager for a decade now. I’ve witnessed client after client struggle to find good writers for their website or publication. That’s why in this article I’d like to share with you the lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years of hiring content writers (and being one!).
Things To Do Before Hiring Content Writers
You could simply post a job on a few job boards and hope for the best, but in my experience there are a handful of very important things that need to happen first. Beginning with your content strategy.
Understand & Believe in Your Own Content Strategy
I like to think of it this way: I wouldn’t hire a contractor to build me a house if I didn’t have some blueprints to work from. So why would I hire a content writer if I didn’t have a strategy I believed in to provide them with clear direction?
Unfortunately, this happens all too often in the content production world. I can’t tell you how many jobs I took as a freelancer where the job posting said they were looking for a good writer who knows a lot about topics x, y, and z. I’d send them a response that links to some of my past work on those topics and most times they’d hire me. I’d ask them what they wanted me to write about and most of the time they left it up to me as long as it was on topic. And they were doing this many times over with other freelancers for the same publication! As an editor for five years now, the only word that comes to mind is, yikes.
To me, that’s the equivalent of telling your home contractors you need three bedrooms, two baths, a dining room, living room, and kitchen–then leaving the rest up to them! I just can’t imagine anyone thinking that’s a good idea.
Instead, you start with an architect. You discuss your wants and needs. Come up with a plan that gets you what you want and need on the budget you have. And then you begin to work with the various professionals who will execute that vision.
It should work the same way with content creation.
If you’re not a specialist in content marketing yourself, then the first thing you need to do before hiring a content writer is work with a strategist.
A good content marketing strategist can help you create the following:
- Accurate marketing personas based on your existing and ideal customers.
- A customer journey map that highlights opportunities you have for engaging with your audience at various stages via content.
- Realistic content goals and objectives for your business.
- A benchmark for what “quality content” even means. Especially for your niche/brand, which can vary.
- A list of content types (with templates and/or examples) that are likely to help you achieve your objectives.
- Example content funnels that you and your team can iterate on.
- A solid list of content ideas to get you started.
- Organic and paid promotional strategies (because your content won’t just view itself!).
- A reliable list of metrics for measuring success or failure.
- An internal playbook for running a successful online publication.
- And more.
Fair warning, this process alone can takes months. But it’s worth it. By the end of it you’ll understand your business and customers like never before. You’ll understand where in their experience with your business new content can help the most. And you’ll have a blueprint your content writers can use to achieve your well-thought-out objectives. Which, by the way, you’ll be able to measure and adjust as needed because you’ll know which metrics indicate success or failure as well as how long you may need to wait for reliable results.
Create a Blog Author Handbook
Every successful blog I’ve ever worked for has had a robust blog author handbook. Usually in the humble form of a shared google doc. But don’t let the simplicity of this document fool you, it’s incredibly important.
A good blog author handbook is a combination of the following:
- A detailed outline of your collaboration expectations. This is where you outline your expectations surrounding things like communication between the editor and the writer, due dates, notes, etc.
- A blog style guide that will ensure all posts, even those by different authors, look and feel on brand.
- A detailed explanation of your editorial process.
There are many benefits to having a blog author handbook. It standardizes your content, streamlines your onboarding, simplifies the process of giving editorial notes, and gives you a simple litmus test for new hires. Are they able to follow it or not? And, as time goes on, you can make small tweaks to it where you feel improvement is needed and see those improvements take shape in your content immediately.
Create an Editorial Process
Although I mentioned that this will be a part of your blog author handbook, it’s also something that needs to be thought out in terms of whatever productivity platform you and your company use. Whether that’s Asana, Basecamp, Clickup, or something else–you need to have an editorial process designed there that guides content writers through the production process from concept to completion.
For us, that’s a staggering 58 individual tasks that need to be completed from the time an idea is submitted to the time a blog post joins our archive. And that doesn’t even include promotion via social media, email, and ads!
At the very least, here’s what needs to be included in your editorial process:
- The individual steps required to get a blog post idea approved.
- The individual steps required to create a blog post.
- The individual steps required to submit a blog post.
- The individual steps required to edit a blog post.
- The individual steps required to address editorial notes.
- The individual steps required to schedule a blog post.
And remember, it’s important that all of these steps are designed to achieve your content strategy as well as enforce your blog author handbook.
For example, when someone wants to submit an idea for a blog post, it should never be as simple as popping off whatever idea is on the top of their head. Instead, we have a 14 point checklist that includes SEO parameters, checking to make sure we haven’t already covered the topic in the past, providing reference links to similar articles on other blogs, writing a short summary describing their take and why it’s valuable, and more. Only after this research has been done and the editor or blog author has been forced to think through why their idea is a good fit for our blog and how it can help us achieve our objectives, is any writing actually done.
Create an Interview and Onboarding Process Specifically for Content Writers
In my experience it’s easy to find someone who wants to contribute content to your website or publication, but it’s hard to determine who will actually be a good fit for your team. They not only need to be able to create the kind of content you need, but they also have to be able to do it consistently, on time. They need to be able to take notes when necessary and they need to show that they are good communicators/collaborators internally and not just in their writing.
Demonstrating this kind of skill and dependability takes time. Which is why the onboarding process needs to reflect that. Here is a rough outline of what our interviewing and onboarding process looks like for content writers, in two parts.
Onboarding pt. 1 (Freelancer):
- Review the writer’s idea submission and/or previous work.
- For those we’re interested in moving forward with we share the blog author handbook, invite them to our productivity platform, and assign a test article. If it’s good and they followed the handbook, we’ll pay for it and publish it. If not, then we will politely ask for notes to be addressed or simply reject the article altogether.
- For those who have a successful test article published, we establish a limited recurring freelance schedule. An example might be one article every two weeks or something similar. Each of their first articles are examined very closely and we pay special attention to whether or not they’re hitting their deadlines, following the handbook/editorial process, and communicating satisfactorily with the editor(s).
- If after 1-3 months the freelancer proves to be a good fit for the editorial team then we discuss increasing their workload or even coming on board as a staff writer.
Onboarding pt. 2 (Staff Writer):
- If we have an open staff position and the writer is a good fit then we extend an offer to join the staff.
- Once we’ve established their interest we schedule at least one interview and ask for a formal resume with references.
- Pending the results of the interview and references we begin salary negotiation.
- After salary negotiation we send over a contract and schedule a start date. Ideally, all the while, they’ve still been contributing as a freelancer by the way.
- Finally, on their start date, we begin a broader introduction to the rest of the company. Beginning with HR and the Content Team and extending to staffers on other teams, managers, and executives. Finishing with our general company-wide onboarding procedures.
How to Conduct Your Content Writer Search
How you conduct the search for your content writer will greatly contribute to the quantity and quality of candidates who apply. This five step process has served us well over the years.
Step 1: Write an accurate and appealing job description
Here is an example using our current job opening for a design blogger:
As a Staff Writer for Elegant Themes your main responsibilities will be writing design related articles for our blog and creating the visual assets to go along with them. You will also work on special writing, design, and video projects such as helping to update the design assets for the whole content team, participating in design related livestreams, or one-off tasks/projects related to design and/or special marketing campaigns.
Currently the Elegant Themes Blog is one of the most popular blogs about WordPress in the world. It is the most popular blog about Divi in the world and we’d like to make it one of the premiere destinations for web design in the world too.
We average over 1.5 million monthly blog visitors and our email subscriber count is over 300,000. We maintain high momentum in terms of content creation and publication, which in turn tends to fuel rapid growth for all our content channels.
Currently our primary content channels / community outposts are as follows: YouTube Channel (100k+ subscribers), Facebook Page (137k+), Facebook Group (46k+), and Meetup Network (5.5k+). All of which require skilled writing and well designed assets to maintain and grow.
As a company our closest held core value is Elegance. It’s in our name, we strive for it in our products, and we want our content to embody it as well. To us, this means written copy that is clear and concise–yet also friendly and enjoyable to read.
When it comes to the vast majority of our content, we’re creating tutorials that solve technical or creative problems at the intersection of WordPress and Web Design. So the ideal candidate for this position is someone who is not only capable of solving those problems, but of doing so in an elegant way.
This is a full-time remote position. Employment includes full benefits, paid vacation, a competitive salary, and participation in our annual company retreat.
- Writing articles for our blog on Design Principles, Web Design, and Divi specific topics.
- Special writing, design & video projects, such as: Asset design for our content channels; Design livestreams on Facebook and YouTube; One-off design and content related tasks for special marketing campaigns.
Required Experience / Traits:
- A passion for the written word and clear communication.
- Ability to understand and adjust to editorial notes.
- You must be driven to hit deadlines.
- Ability to research and solve the WordPress, Web Design, and Divi related problems our community encounters. And then to communicate those findings in easy to understand articles and video scripts.
- Ability to function within a small distributed team and startup atmosphere.
- A desire to stay up to date with the latest and upcoming trends in graphic design
- Excellent written communication skills
- Intermediate to Advanced WordPress User
- Knowledgeable of Divi
- Intermediate to Advanced Creative Software User (Adobe Creative Suite, Sketch, etc.)
- 3-5 Years Web Design Experience
- Coding Experience
- Proficient with Google Drive, Dropbox, Asana, and Slack
- Proficient knowledge of layout, typography, color theory, and imagery specifically on the web
- A keen eye for representing complex ideas with simple visual graphics.
- Audio/Video Recording and Editing Experience
This can function as a nice starting place for your own posting. You’ll want to take note of where we placed details about our company and this specific role in order to change the correct information for your own posting.
Step 2: Distribute your job description wisely
While there are tons of job boards out there that you might want to post your job to, here at Elegant Themes we’re big fans of JazzHR. Not only is it an excellent tools for managing the entire hiring process but they’ve also got a killer syndication feature that blasts your job posting out to all of the most popular free job boards on the web with a single click. This is always our first posting when we want to start promoting a new opening. It’s the definition of “work smarter not harder.”
Step 3: Publish the job description on your website
Next, we make sure to add the job posting to our careers page, with a link back to JazzHR of course. We do this because you never know who has been dropping in on your careers page just waiting for the right opportunity to come along. These are people who really want to work for you specifically and they are often very strong candidates.
Step 4: Look for candidates within your existing community
If you are already fortunate enough to have a thriving community then they are likely a rich reservoir of talent. For us, a company that creates content about the software we create, having a passionate community full of power users is an excellent place to mine for both one-off content, regular contributors, and full-time staffers. Just about every full-time member of our current content team began as a user/community member.
Step 5: If all else fails, seek out the talent you want individually
Sometimes it can be hard to get folks to bite on a job posting. Maybe the type of content you need is really niche and there’s not a lot of general interest. Maybe hiring content writers in your industry is not common and therefore finding qualified people is difficult. Whatever the reason, if you’re experiencing a lack-luster response to your posting then sometimes the answer is to directly approach people you think would be a good fit for the job and pitch it to them. This is how I was hired as a freelancer here at Elegant Themes! Nick sent me a cold email because he saw my blog posts on another blog about WordPress and wondered if I’d like to try submitting to the Elegant Themes blog too. Needless to say, I was interested and we’ve now been working together for five years.
How to Hire a (Great) Content Writer
In the previous sections of this post I’ve laid out many of the logistics of hiring a content writer. However, when it comes to choosing the right candidates for the job (and convincing them to say yes!), I’ve learned that there are some important factors worth considering. In my experience these factors can mean the difference between an average content writer with a high turnover rate or a great content writer who loves their job and performs well.
Attributes of a Great Content Writer
Obviously the most important thing is that your candidate actually meets the qualifications and requirements in your job posting. Assuming that is the case, here are the attributes I’ve focused on to build what I consider a world-class content team.
Dependability – When someone says they are going to do something, like hit an important deadline, I need to know that they’re going to do it. You would think that this is a no-brainer but I guarantee you if you go through the onboarding process I mentioned above enough times–specifically the test article and limited contribution schedule parts–you’ll see that dependability for an extended period of time is rare and highly valuable.
General Competency – By this I mean someone who is capable of learning new skills, someone who takes ownership of their tasks, who asks for what they need, and knows how to take notes or follow instruction. The best test for this is to simply send a link to your blog author handbook to a new writer, ask them to review it, and then when they say they have immediately give them an article to write. That first piece and how they turn it in will tell you a lot about their general competency.
Multi-Disciplinary Skillset – Content on the web is made of multi-media. It’s made of words, images, animations, videos, and code. I typically look for folks who are really strong in one area but who have a combination of experience and potential in others. Then, banking on their strong general competency, we work on upgrading their skillsets across the board once they’re on staff. In the end these folks turn into powerhouses that can make excellent content with whatever media is required.
Bravery – It can be daunting to try new things. Especially if a lot of people are watching. Which is the very nature of creating and publishing content on the web. A blog like ours will have potentially millions of views in a given month. A new post, at least thousands of views on the first day. It can be scary to attempt a new skill in front of that many people. Whether it be a design aesthetic, a written tone, a video, a livestream, or something else. But a great content creator will be able to take that pressure in stride. Understanding that they have to rise to the occasion, at least to an established baseline of quality, and then improve from there. And they’ll do it.
How to Attract and Keep Top Content Creator Talent
Now if you’re wondering, wow, the person you’ve just described above sounds amazing. How am I supposed to land someone that good? I’m glad you asked! Here are my tips for attracting and keeping top content creator talent.
Offer a compensation package that shows you value them. This doesn’t have to be outrageous, but it must be competitive. There should also be room to negotiate based on factors like cost of living in their area, industry norms, and of course both workload as well as skillset required. The rarer the skillset they bring to the table the more they should be paid. If you’re wondering what that means, just ask yourself: how many people do you know who are competent in the subjects you require, good writers, good designers, able to code, good on camera, and able to edit audio/video?
Trust them. This is relevant in several instances. Assuming they have proven themselves to be dependable, competent, talented, and brave–when they inevitably do make a mistake or need some sort of special allowance, cut them some slack. It’s hard to embody all of those excellent qualities I mentioned above if you’re terrified of the consequences of small mistakes. Or even bigger ones that happen rarely. Another important instance of trust in this relationship is in their craft. Brand new hires always need more oversight, but as folks prove themselves give them more and more autonomy.
Limit work hours and provide paid time off. Creating content day in and day out is a grind. It’s hard work, often tedious and technical. Not to mention the sometimes emotionally draining reception that content gets after publication. Lots of content creators are not getting paid what they’re worth. Which means they often feel they need to take on extra work, work the weekends, and make ends meet by grinding even harder. This leads to massive amounts of burnout in the field. Protecting content creators from this common fate will make your company very attractive to them.
Provide growth opportunities. At Elegant Themes we provide two growth tracks for our team: individual contributor track and management track. A person on the individual contributor track is someone who’s long-term goal is to remain a content creator but still progress in skill, autonomy, and of course compensation. Someone on the management track is ultimately looking to take on a leadership role. It’s our job, once we’ve identified who belongs on each track, to provide ways for them to grow in these directions.
Bad content creators are a dime a dozen. Finding and successfully hiring a truly good or even great content creator is rare indeed. However, I hope that I’ve shown you it’s not impossible. In fact, we’ve managed to do it time and again here at Elegant Themes–using the best practices outlined in this post. I hope you have similar good fortune! If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to answer them.
Featured Image via aurielaki / shutterstock.com