Here at Yokel Local, we made the transition last year from outsourcing our writing to third-party content companies (often called content mills) to cultivating our own team of freelance writers. The transition was a huge one, and in this article, I discuss the reasons why we did it, what we’ve gotten from it, and why you might want to do it too.
The Content Marketing Mindset
In content marketing, even just a single blog post is a huge asset to have in a website’s buyer journey funnel. It shouldn’t be just a one-off article that goes out on social media briefly and is then left in the dust forever after.
Blog posts (and other website content) work for you like employees, bringing you potential business from people who are curious or need a problem solved. Unlike employees, your content works for you 24/7 and doesn’t need an ongoing salary or benefits. So it stands to reason that a little strategy and effort should go into each piece to make it fire on all cylinders.
What It Takes to Develop High-Quality Content
Any content marketer could give you a laundry list of things that contribute to whether or not a piece of content can be considered “good.” However, here are some things that I find necessary before I can conceivably publish a piece of content:
- Understanding of the target audience (or buyer persona)
- Strategy on what information to include to lead them down the funnel (or buyer’s journey)
- Earnest desire to actually help the reader
- Familiarity with SEO and how to structure a blog post for search engines
- Cohesiveness with the brand’s established tone or voice
A good copywriter may inherently have a feel for some of these things, but not every freelance writer is a good copywriter.
Don’t Rely on Content Mills for a Volume of Quality Content
My opinion is that content mills don’t get the job done. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post on why agencies shouldn’t outsource their content to content mills, and I was, perhaps, rather harsh.
If you know anything about my background, I actually worked as an in-house editor for an awesome content provider here in Vegas, and I even crossed over to the other side to freelance for them for a while. Then, here at Yokel Local, I worked with two additional content providers and interviewed many more.
So don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t have worked for and with content companies if I didn’t find what they offer valuable. I believe third-party content providers are great for solopreneurs, startups, and agencies who have just started to grow. However, our agency reached a ceiling with our content strategy and how well the end product fit into that strategy.
If you do end up going with a content provider, be sure to check out the article our co-founder Stormie Andrews wrote for Forbes:
Here’s Why Content Mills Weren’t Meeting Our Needs
- Writers get paid per hour, so it’s in their best interest to create quickly (which is a barrier for quality)
- Anyone can sign up on these platforms to become a freelance writer, not just experienced writers
- Many content platforms don’t have solid QA processes in place
- There was no consistency in who we worked with and what the end product looked like
- We weren’t hiring people to get familiar with our clients and their products, services, and target audience; the end goal for the writer was an article, not a strategic marketing piece
So We Built Our Own Content Team
I started by drawing from my own network of individuals I knew to do writing work on the side, and I built an area in our project management system, Wrike, to assign articles to them and coordinate project details.
Then, I imagined every step of the process from each person involved: the writer, the content manager and editor (myself), payroll, and more. This is simply to get an idea of a content process that works for everybody from placing orders with writers to receiving completed orders and coordinating payment.
We’ve built relationships with our writers. I know when one of them has a family member pass away or when they’re having a dry spell with other clients and need extra work. They know what to expect from us on an ongoing basis, and I know what kind of article to expect from them. This has resulted in way higher quality, a more efficient process, and one happy happy editor.
13 Tips on How to Find, Hire, and Work With Freelance Writers
The paragraph above is all well and good, but it took a while to get there and some growing pains along the way. Here’s my best advice for doing it on your own (and some of these might even help for those who DO decide that a third-party content provider is right for them!):
1. In the Writing World, Experience Does Not Indicate Aptitude
Let’s repeat that: In the writing world, experience does not indicate aptitude. Once, I worked with a writer who had two decades’ worth of experience that could not tell a coordinating conjunction comma from their shoe while a still-in-college twenty year-old blew my mind.
So how do you tell which writer to hire? By requiring a portfolio. Here’s what to look for:
- Professional writing, not just creative samples
- Familiarity with writing for the web (SEO or marketing copy/strategy a bonus)
- A variety of tones and styles
- Multiple niches (or you can look specifically for your niche)
- An easy-to-read flow
- No grammar or spelling errors (within reason)
Bonus if they’ve already written for your specific audience.
2. Hire Writers from Craigslist and Indeed
Okay, okay. Here me out on this one. Craigslist has a bit of a reputation because it is completely free to post ads. I wouldn’t actually go that route because you’ll get every person under the sun responding to your post. Instead, go to the resume section and search the postings for a writer who fits what you’re looking for.
Indeed is fairly low-cost. I ran a $50 ad for less than a month and received nearly 100 resumes. First, I got rid of people who didn’t send me a portfolio like I asked as well as people who didn’t fit our style. Then, I categorized the applicants in a ‘maybe’ pile, a ‘yes’ pile, and an ‘awesome’ pile. I started calling the people in the last pile first.
3. Keep a List of Writers You Don’t Hire
The coolest thing about the last tip is that you now have a backlog of potential writers that may be interested in your opportunity. Even if you don’t need them now, the ones you didn’t hire (that were in your ‘yes’ or ‘awesome’ pile) can be called at a later time when you need to scale your writing team up. No need to run another ad until your backlog runs dry.
4. Include the Rate of Pay on the Job Ad
The range that writers get paid for projects is HUGE. To make a crude analogy, there are Lamborghini rates and Ford Explorer rates. Decide which you can afford, and don’t waste your time or theirs by being secretive about the pay. Writers who expect more pay can just move on instead of submitting their application and ultimately having that awkward conversation when compensation expectations don’t match.
5. Draft Up an NDA and/or Project Agreement
Protect yourself and them. Clearly define the scope of what the project entails, how much you’re paying, and what your expectations are. They’re ghost writing for you now, which means that all work they produce is your property once they have been paid. In addition, you should define what they are and aren’t allowed to disclose (what they’re allowed to use as portfolio pieces) and how/when the work is to be delivered.
6. Make Sure Everyone’s Doing Taxes Properly
Unless you have a different setup, freelance writers will use the W-9 tax form: they are not your employee; they are an independent (self-employed) contractor, and you are their client. You will not need to withhold any taxes on their behalf as it’s their responsibility. Ensure that anyone you hire is aware of this if they’ve never done freelance work before (taxes are so confusing, and you don’t want your writers to get into a bind).
7. Find an Easy Way to Coordinate Payment
This depends on how you currently handle payroll. At our agency, our writers send invoices to us via PayPal on a certain day of the week. This may not work for everyone, so sit down and decide the payment system that is the most convenient for you. You may wind up working with multiple writers, so these tasks could end up accumulating fast.
8. Be Clear About the Revision Process
- What constitutes a revision being needed?
- What is the revision process like?
- Do you pay for revisions?
Be up front about these things, especially if your writers get paid on a per project basis rather than per hour. That way, the writer can better be able to gauge whether this is the right gig for them, and you’ll reduce payment conflicts down the road.
9. Always Set Clear Deadlines
By deadlines, I mean both the deadline for them to deliver the completed work as well as the deadline for you to pay them. This helps avoid any disputes along the way. You want to know when you’ll have your writing assets ready to move forward with a project, and the writer doesn’t want to guess when their invoice will be paid out.
10. Make a Centralized Location for Communication
I failed to do this when I first put together our writing team, and it cost me a few headaches. Because some of my writers were former associates of mine, I had communication coming in via Facebook, email, and text message. We also have a project management system. Once I had 15 writers, this was a nightmare.
If you have a project management system, let the writer know that all communication should take place there. If you prefer email or some other way, tell them, but be sure to create boundaries—freelancers work at all hours.
11. Put Together an Editorial Style Guide
You’ve hired your writers and nailed down the process. Now make sure that you give them what they need to create content for you and/or your clients: this should include your preferences for voice, tone, and language. You’ll want to include any branded terms or idiosyncrasies they should be aware of as well.
12. Give the Writers What They Need to Create Great Content
Here’s what they need to know:
- What is the project scope? - Do they need to do market research? Are there any branding or SEO considerations that must be followed?
- How long the piece is supposed to be?
- Who is the target audience? - A post about social media would be different for a teenager, a business owner, a marketing guru, and a baby boomer. Even the language would vary.
- What the piece is intended for? - A web page? A blog post? Organic SEO traffic? Social media? A sales page?
Be available and open to answering any questions they may have. It’s all in the effort of doing a good job for you!
13. Match Writers With Their Passions
As an agency, the clients we have are the clients we have; there’s not much to do about that. However, if I have a writer who has a ton of experience in a certain niche or enjoys writing about a certain kind of content, I do my best to send them projects that match those interests. Here’s why: writing about something you love instills a certain kind of passion within the work that shows. The quality is that much better, and readers notice it.
Plus, you reduce the turnover of your writing team when they’re actually enjoying the work they do for you.
A Couple More Actionable Steps for Building Your Content Writing Team
If you’re only hiring one writer, you’re pretty much good to run with it and learn along the way. However, if you’re building a content team, you may need to consider some infrastructure as you scale it up. Managing content can be time-consuming if done right, so you might want to consider getting an editor or assistant to help out.
Lastly, paying for content purely for content’s sake is a bad move. If you aren’t a marketer yourself, you’ll want to ensure that the strategy behind your content is sound. Alternatively, you can hire a content marketing company to help you in your efforts, but they likely have their own teams of writers and processes already nailed down.
Download our guide to get an understanding of the content your writers should be creating and how they should be creating it. That way, you can better work toward a higher ROI from your content.