By Dr Thomas Brown | November 28 2018
In the digital age, content writers play a key role in generating business and driving growth. But hiring a good content writer is harder than ever. Here’s our advice.
It’s what first attracts visitors to click through to your site. It’s what excites them, or informs them, or fires their imaginations. It’s what persuades them to subscribe or enquire.
Your marketers use it to fill the sales team’s pipeline. Your sales team uses it to nurture and close new customers. It’s the case studies and testimonials and knowledge base videos your customer service reps use to retain loyal customers and grow brand advocates.
It’s your brand and your brand story, helping to communicate what you do and how you help and why you get out of bed every morning in the first place.
I’m talking about content and the fundamental role it plays today in your ability to form meaningful customer relationships, generate revenue, and grow your business. That’s a whole lot of pressure on the content recruitment process.
Remember five years ago, when things were easier?
Rewind to 2013, when the words ‘content’ and ‘content marketing’ pretty much came arm in arm. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for businesses to maintain 'content mills’, siloed departments of writers shackled to desks (I exaggerate), churning out article after article to target as many keywords as possible and improve their chances of featuring in the SERPs.
When I first joined the industry, the content writing scene was beginning to mature, but quality still played second fiddle to quantity.
I frequently saw editorial steps being overlooked, if they were even considered by our clients at all. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and off-brand messaging just didn’t matter as much to businesses when the aim was simply to ‘hit another keyword with the blog.’
Today, this isn’t the case. As brands have become familiar with the nuances of content marketing and content as a practice has matured, businesses are looking much more closely at the impact of their content activities across the business growth flywheel, particularly in regard to the cost of, and return from, high-investment content strategies.
What does this mean for the way you hire and staff your content team?
As you might expect, today’s digital landscape, coupled with increasingly discerning online audiences, have acted like selective pressures on the look, feel, and shape of modern content roles. Only writers capable of adapting their form to suit this new environment have thrived, rare specialists in content writing and a whole range of other skills and traits.
If you’ve found hiring content writers especially challenging, this is probably why.
The ability to create informative, engaging, or persuasive copy has long been a staple of the content writer. And as consumers have become increasingly selective about the kinds of content they interact with online and the digital scene continues to busy, this bar has been raised, then raised, then raised again, then picked up and thrown into the sea.
To discover what your next content hire should look like, let’s dive after it.
The octopus is soft-bodied, short-lived, and utterly remarkable. The secret to its success lies in its unique evolution. As KQED Science explains, ‘[the octopus] has about 500 million neurons, the cells that allow it to process and communicate information. And these neurons are distributed to make the most of its eight arms. An octopus’ central brain doesn’t control its every move. Instead, two-thirds of the animal’s neurons are in its arms.’ Unbelievably, this enables an octopus’ arms to operate independently from the creature’s central brain.
The evolution of the content writer isn’t far behind.
While they might not have millions of neurons in their arms or autonomous limbs (if only!), proficient content writers can be recognised by eight core skills marking them out as candidates to invite back for a second interview. And while you probably don’t want to hire for skills alone, this list should provide a more objective way of knowing what to look for and measuring one candidate’s competency over another’s.
‘One of the most important parts of brand storytelling is determining what your prospects actually want and need content about,’ explains the first editor of branded content at The New York Times and Storyfuel founder Melanie Deziel for our article on the art of business storytelling. ‘So many brands feel the need to make content for content's sake and wind up creating content that their prospects and customers don't find helpful.’
Building on its 2011 Panda update, Google has led the trend for valuable, reader-focused content, firstly by rewarding information-rich articles in the search engine results pages (SERPs), then by factoring engagement into its rankings. The uptake of smartphones and growing connectivity has also made us more particular than ever as digital readers, zoning in on content that addresses our needs, questions, or interests and quickly moving away from that which doesn’t.
Under this hat, the modern content creator is expected to be an accomplished and prolific writer, able to recognise and create original or thought-provoking copy that speaks to the reader and addresses their challenges as though it was written for them.
Must-ask interview question: ‘Where does your love of writing come from?’
Content represents a phenomenal opportunity to not only attract new traffic to a website but nurture those prospects into customers and even improve customer retention. The modern content writer needs to understand the context in which they’re operating. ‘If you start with your audience — understanding what their challenges are, what they want, what they need — you can create content that actually resonates with them and ultimately better serves your business goals,’ added Melanie.
An effective content marketing strategy is not implemented in a vacuum, meaning the individual responsible for its creation needs to understand wider sales and marketing strategies and where their content fits into these to deliver the biggest business impact.
Must-ask interview question: ‘Give me an example of a time when your content influenced or directly generated revenue for a business.’
The shift towards quality, not quantity, as well as tightening marketing budgets, has transformed many content writing teams from well-staffed mills to one-man bands. The role of the content writer has changed with them.
Content calendars still play an important role in organising and implementing editorial schedules, but this new environment emphasises autonomy, initiative, and the willingness to liaise with internal or external stakeholders when sourcing stories and conducting interviews. This content writer is visible and accountable for the success and failures of the company’s content strategies.
Must-ask interview question: ‘Tell me about a time when your content or content strategy underperformed.’
At the core of modern business strategies, particularly inbound marketing strategies, content writers and their work are typically subject to much higher scrutiny. Content writers are obliged to seek approval from interviewees they have involved in the content creation process, adding another chef to the mix. And with marketing automation platforms such as HubSpot making it easier than ever to track the ROI of content activities, senior stakeholders are increasingly likely to involve themselves in the editorial process, especially when database emails and other distribution methods like social media can put that content in front of large audiences.
These influences can make for a drawn-out and challenging feedback process. Today’s content writers need patience, resilience, and the confidence in their abilities to push back when the occasion calls for it in order to consistently create and distribute content that appeases stakeholders while successfully delivering on campaign goals.
Must-ask interview question: Provide constructive criticism of the candidate’s writing sample and note how they react to your critique.
According to Michal Litt, CEO and founder of online video hosting company Vidyard, ‘90 percent of customers say video helps them to make buying decisions’. Today’s consumers are engaging with brands in more ways and across more channels than ever before and it’s in your company’s interest for your content writer to be there when they do. In their role as wordsmiths and creators, your content writers are best placed to create the messaging that meets new visitors and returning customers however they prefer to interact with you.
To successfully achieve this, your content writers need broader capabilities than copywriting. Infographic design and video production are two skills proving particularly valuable in 2018, while content creators capable of crafting standout social media copy continue to play important roles across B2B and B2C. As the nature of SEO continues to evolve, a working knowledge of current best practice is important for maximising content’s organic reach.
Must-ask interview question: ‘Give me an example of a piece of content you’ve repurposed into a different form.’
In his article on content marketing trends published earlier this year, Wasp Barcode Technology’s director of marketing aptly remarked that ‘there’s never been a year when marketers didn’t say they were going to create more content’. As investment into content strategy and delivery continues to increase, the writer’s ability to track, report on, and optimise content performance climbs with it, ensuring that maximum return is delivered on content investment and campaigns perform as successfully as possible.
‘The art of storytelling in business comes down to the timing of when the story is told’, lifestyle editor at TUI Lucy Perrin reveals. ‘Use analytics to track when particular topics are popular (have high organic search volume) and make sure your story is optimised and ready to be told in its best form at that time. For example, if Iceland bookings become popular in September, make sure your articles are optimised in July, giving them time to rank. When that story comes to being told in September and people are searching for it, it's all prepared and ready to go.’
While content writers sought for their backgrounds in journalism and creative writing typically excel at sourcing and telling compelling stories, they may find themselves challenged with demonstrating the technical and analytical know-how necessary to ensure their content performs as promised and delivers the return the board is expecting.
Must-ask interview question: Ask the candidate to explain a time when they optimised a piece of content and the subsequent impact of their work on the article’s performance.
‘Those who tell the stories rule the world’, or so the Native American proverb goes. This is reflected in the kinds of content today’s consumers love to engage with and share. Stories trigger distinct biological responses that factual or informative pieces of writing don’t. ‘The audience’s pulses raced’, wrote Contently’s Head of Content Strategy for the HubSpot Marketing blog. ‘They sweated. Their attention focused. And something else interesting happened: At the same time, their brains synthesized oxytocin.’
Oxytocin is a neurochemical that tells us we should care about someone. It’s the relationship builder. For brands operating in crowded markets and competitive digital channels, the ability to harness this reaction to their content is invaluable. To elicit empathy in the reader or viewer, your content writers must possess it themselves: ‘The modern content marketer is marked by their ability to understand their target reader and create standout practical content that the reader absolutely wants to read, not what the brand, sales, or marketing team wants to pump out’, says global marketing and business leadership strategist Mike Tinmouth. ‘The art is writing great editorial and finely sowing a product thread through the story.’
Must-ask interview question: ‘What does brand storytelling mean to you?’
Octopuses have three hearts. The modern content writer needs only one, so long as it sounds to the twin beats: ‘content — content.’ By scaling up and investing more in content teams, businesses are putting greater emphasis on the calibre of the individuals staffing them. Passion paints applicants with a flourish of colour that can’t be faked, illuminating them in both the interview process and against other applicants.
On the other side of the story, content writers operating in today’s commercial environment face a significant challenge. Passion for both content creation and personal development is key to ensuring they don’t just thrive in this ecosystem but survive it at a time when job satisfaction and work-life balance is the subject of much scrutiny.
Must-ask interview question: ‘What makes you happy?’
Taking the above into account, the modern content writer is less a marketing role and more a multi-disciplinary creature operating across business operations to deliver the exceptional, high-value content in whichever shape and form needed to move strategic needles and drive the predictable, repeatable revenue today’s businesses need to grow.
In our experience, the creative writing applicants coming from creative or journalistic backgrounds are typically cooler on the marketing and analytical skills, for example. On the other side of the coin, many of the content writer applications we receive from data-driven individuals with strong marketing backgrounds have less creative and writing experience.
Ask yourself: Do you have the capability and the capacity in-house to train the writer in the areas where they’re weakest?
When you do receive an application from an experienced, multi-skilled content writer, the salary bands they are working within can put them out of reach of many small and medium-sized businesses. Even larger organisations and corporate enterprises have strict departmental budgets that can make affording the best candidates a challenge.
Ask yourself: Would hiring the best applicant on a part-time basis make them more affordable?
We’ve already highlighted that content writers aren’t working in isolation anymore. Your business is a complex ecosystem inside (and outside) which the writer is constantly moving, interviewing colleagues, liaising with third-parties, supporting sales and marketing, and so on. Your content writer might even attend events. There’s also the editorial process to consider. We never publish a piece of content without having passed at least two pairs of eyes over it, for example. Mistakes are inevitable, but having right processes in place goes a long way toward minimising them.
Ask yourself: Who else in the business has the subject matter experience and editorial eye to review and, if necessary, act as ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure brand consistency before content is published?
Businesses hiring content writers for the first time are often uncertain where these roles fit in the wider organisation structure. Trust me — as content expands beyond the remit of marketing into sales, customer service, and beyond, even large enterprises and companies with mature content strategies can find themselves puzzling over this question.
Where content sits ultimately depends on your company’s unique structure, but as a safe bet, content writers can typically sit within or alongside marketing. If you’re getting the most value from them, they will work with all your business units at one time or another but as the custodians of the brand, marketing is often where you will find content writers grouped.
Want a second opinion on where your content writers could sit? Drop me a message.
We’ve already touched on this, but wherever your content team sits, it’s going to need an organisation structure. If your content team is a one-man band (and many successful content teams are exactly that), it’s important to clarify who the writer will be reporting to and who will be editing or, at the very least, proofreading their work.
If the content team consists of more than one person, how will the writers be working together? What processes are in place in terms of sharing and peer-reviewing work? How are you handling training, and who is the editor or manager the writers work under?
It’s at this point that many businesses begin to recognise the value of an agency capable of supporting or entirely assuming their content responsibilities.
While I’d urge caution when approaching a content marketing agency (how are they delivering tangible business growth and ROMI without end-to-end control over the process?), the market is saturated with agencies capable of taking on your content requirements. Crucially, they will have their own in-house research, production, and editing processes to ensure work is delivered on time and to spec. Assuming they achieve this, they can make the question of hiring in a content team redundant, easing what can otherwise be a stressful and time-consuming process.
Download our ebook and discover how to create content as part of an inbound marketing strategy that generates predictable, repeatable revenue growth.
Back in 2016, career coach and former Fortune 500 executive Lisa Quast wrote an article for Forbes on how to be ‘seen as a unicorn — a unique employee with special skills — at work.’ The rare content writers embodying all the aforementioned traits could be described as such, but I prefer to think of them as octopuses.
‘It’s more efficient to put the nerve cells in the arm’, said neurobiologist Binyamin Hochner, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. ‘The arm is a brain of its own.’ As such, octopus arms can work autonomously, for example when they’re searching for food under a rock or juggling multiple content assignments in a single day. Between a unicorn and an octopus, I know which I’d rather hire.
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Principal Copywriter at BabelQuest. PhD Creative Writing from the University of Southampton. Novelist with Sparkling Books.
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