Building a creative team is tough – and full-time hires are a serious commitment. Coupled with the challenge of producing “enough” content, it’s no wonder that 63% of B2C businesses and 64% of B2B businesses outsource their writing work. But outsourcing isn’t easy — bad vendors, sub-par services and lost talent are all pitfalls that often seem like the rule, not the exception.
How can you hunt down and keep strong writers? I’ve put together this guide to help answer those questions.
Before you go looking…
There’s some things you need to take care of back at the ranch. Part of finding and keeping talented writers is knowing what you need and setting a framework for content delivery.
1. Define your need
Creative copywriters might be incredible at coming up with catchy headlines, but miserable at writing the “used car salesman” style that’s effective for long-form sales letters. Some writers cross these boundaries effortlessly, while others specialize.
Likewise, you may need access to a subject matter expert – or, you might simply look for someone with interviewing experience who can pull all that relevant information from a subject matter expert and turn it into a compelling post.
Some criteria to consider:
- Is a particular style required?
- What is the format?
- What’s the level of understanding required? Do you have access to subject matter experts for interview?
- Are you hoping to leverage a writer’s existing audience or notable name to help drive amplification?
2. Create your workflows and establish processes
Don’t wait until after you’ve recruited talent to figure out how to work with them:
- Create a comprehensive style guide that covers the voice and tone of the brand, key personas being targeted, objectives of the content and guidelines for formatting submitted work. You’d be AMAZED how much time you can burn reformatting headers, re-capturing images and adjusting fonts. Don’t skip it.
- Establish the main point of contact. For sake of ease, limit this to just one person.
- Create your content briefs. Create templates that include all the information writers will need to know (Topic, resources, length guidelines, special instructions, etc.)
- Determine the approval process and give someone veto power. Set up workflows that allow for enough time for that person to review and contribute.
- Create contracts. Without these, you can run into ugly scenarios like unfinished work, scope creep, breaks in disclosure, etc.
3. Set your budget (and be generous)
The natural instinct is to go bargain hunting, but keep in mind that the higher fees of stronger writers usually come with:
- A higher degree of professionalism – Important if you value things like deadlines, honoring non-disclosure agreements and staying on budget
- Exclusivity – The writer won’t abandon your project for a higher paying gig
- Fewer revisions – Experienced writers put the bulk of their effort into nailing your project out of the park with the fewest number of revisions possible
- Experience with agency/client processes
Ask ANYONE who has worked with a bad writer – soft skills matter more than you think. When you pay a writer, you’re not paying them just to write. You pay for their creativity, their ability to research and cite, their communication skills – and their loyalty.
How to find ‘em
Stay far away from oDesk, Guru, Elance, etc.
Don’t look for love in all the wrong places. I make no secret of the fact that I hate oDesk. I think it’s bad for writers and bad for the writing industry. I also think it’s bad for your business:
- Such low wages promote a “volume first” mentality; writers work as fast as possible, not as best they can.
- It does not foster long-term relationships, critical if you want sustained quality of work across time.
- Low payouts and incredibly invasive models make the talent pool shallow.
If you’ve got hours to waste sifting through tons of applications for a diamond in the vomit, these are okay avenues. If you need content in bulk that requires little talent to produce, by all means, go here. But this is not the place to go for top-shelf work.
Here are some better alternatives:
There’s no better plan of attack than asking around. This is one of the few ways to assess soft skills before hiring.
2. Publications, Blogs & Hubs
Comb through other websites for writers who fit the bill. A few tips:
- Look outside the echo chamber. A great tech writer can cover multiple subjects; a great humour writer can adapt. Don’t write someone off just because they haven’t covered your specific topic.
- Use advanced search operators to help. In this piece from 2012, Kristi shares: site:domain.com “freelance writer”, site:blog.domain.com “freelance writer”, site:domain.com/blog “freelance writer” as three potential strings.
- Use “Write for us” and similar queries to find sites who allow guest bloggers/outside writers (Cracked, AListApart, Examiner.com and more all allow this) and then work backwards to find compelling writers on the site worth approaching.
- Check hubs. Does an Inbound.org, Hacker News or similar hub exist for your niche? Scope the highest “all time” rated pieces and look to see if any authors make repeat appearances, or scope out Reddit for well-performing pieces.
Find a writer you like? Whether they’re available or not, ask them for referrals. Writers themselves often know other talented writers who are looking for work.
3. Groups (LinkedIn, Google+ and forums)
Sometimes, the stars align and talented individuals group together for easy pickin’s. Such is the case on LinkedIn, Google+ and forums. Some quick searches should reveal different groups where copywriters hang out – simply drop in and make yourself known (being tactful, of course).
Finding groups within your industry, or within a related niche (like a content marketing group) will also give you a whole new body of people to ask for (you guessed it) referrals, and are the real reason I recommend this tactic.
A little networking goes a long way. Look up meetups for local writers and drop by, or attend networking events like conferences where you know writers would be in attendance. It’s more incidental, but this is a chance to sum up a writer’s soft skills while also finding a local you can meet with in person.
5. Social Media
Searching Twitter is fast, easy — and effective. Search for people who call themselves freelancers, writers, copywriters, content creators and so on. Then, scan a couple key pieces of info:
- Their follower count (Are they influential? This is only one way to tell, so take it with a grain of salt.)
- Their communication skills with others (Yes, this is a casual forum – but what do they talk about? What do they share? Are they polite and professional?)
- Have they shared samples of their work?
- Pump their name into Google or a search operator to find live samples of their work (not just their shiny portfolio)
While I’m hesitant to call it social, LinkedIn is another great place to turn because you can see writers’ actual work experience on display – usually free of the hype and hyperbole of a professional portfolio.
6. Contently & other collectives
One last, heavily overlooked outlet is collectives. You have to be careful here, as often these are just glorified oDesks, but hubs like Contently or Ebyline focus on attracting stronger talent and doing the whole vetting and filtering process for you, which is hugely convenient. A few hints you’ve found a good one:
- Look at how much they pay their writers. You can sneak a peek at this by looking at the section on their site intended to attract writers to sign up. The lower the rate, the more likely the writers are terrible, inexperienced or outsourced from overseas.
- Check their client list. Who else has trusted these folks with their branding?
- Scope their work samples.
- Start with a small project. Don’t sign on for the whole hog – give them a small bit of writing to cover off and see how the process goes.
7. Craigslist & Job Boards
Frankly, I’m not wild about these, but some people do find success with things like Craigslist or the ProBlogger Job Board. Just like oDesk, be prepared to be inundated with candidates and spend a great deal of time sorting through a sea of applicants, and go in knowing that stronger writers probably wrote off these boards long ago (I only visit them for comedic purposes).
Make sure your job posting is compelling, detailed and makes experience required abundantly clear. Provide some sample topics the writer would be expected to cover. Don’t ask for spec work – it’s insulting, and YOUR job is to review portfolios. If you post the compensation, you’ll get more applicants – which means more work to sort through. Negative qualifiers (which I explain below) are critical here if you want to avoid hours of wasted time.
Time & Sanity Saving Tips:
- Always get the writer on the phone or in a hangout. You can learn much more about whether or not that person is a fit by talking with them for even ten minutes.
- Use negative qualifiers. If you do choose to post a job advert or brief on Craigslist, include negative qualifiers to weed out poor candidates. For example, in the middle of the brief, write a note that says every respondent should include a certain subject line or phrase within their email. If they don’t, they didn’t read your job. (Did you catch the “magic school bus” qualifier in the ad I shared above?)
- Look for writers with past roles that required professionalism. Even if unrelated to writing, a business or service background likely helped them develop soft skills.
How to Keep ‘Em
Retaining top writers isn’t rocket science; it comes down to paying them well, treating them well and having a process.
1. Pay them well
Talented writers can and will leave you as soon as they figure out they’re worth more than what you’re paying. Keep your payouts competitive (experienced writers will command anywhere between $40 – $150 an hour, depending on the type of content and level of experience) and keep them on time. The faster and more frequently you can pay a freelancer, the happier they’re going to be. If you can, accommodate a 14 day pay period – or shorter.
2. Treat them well
What does this mean, practically?
- Send them referrals. If you like their work, share them with others. Aside from a paycheck, this is the best thing you can do for a writer, and if you’re paying them well, you won’t be at risk of losing them.
- Give them credit. Even if you’re hiring them for a ghostwriting position, look for opportunities to have them create something with their name on it that they can use for portfolio work.
- Share detailed, critical and fair feedback. Writers want to get better, and want to do a great job. Show them where they’ve knocked it out of the park, and be tactful about pointing out places they could improve.
- Be a reasonable negotiator. There will come a time where the writer raises their rates or asks for a deadline extension. If it’s within your power to grant, and they’ve been worth your investment – do so.
- Treat ’em like a human. Not, say, an automated typewriter. Respect that writing is often the last part of the writing process, so constantly checking in on them is only going to frustrate you both.
3. Have a Process
I opened up this piece with a recommendation for building a process. Follow it. The easier you make yourself to work with, the more likely writers will want to stick with you – even if there’s better pay elsewhere. Just like you value the soft skills of a writer, they’ll value your efficient process.