Editor’s Note: This post is co-written by Paul Zalewski, Verblio’s (formerly BlogMutt) head of marketing and Molly Krumholz, Verblio’s head of freelance content writers. We teamed up because we think we have, together, a unique perspective and lots of experience looking at both fruitful and disappointing working relationships between businesses & marketing agencies and their freelance writers.
So you’ve found a freelance writer to help you execute on your content marketing plan. (Wait, you haven’t? More on that here.) Now what? How do you most effectively work with your freelancer to produce great content for content marketing?
After running marketing and heading up our writer program, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to getting excellent content from freelance writers. At Verblio, we have more than 3,000 active freelance writers on our platform writing for over 1,400 different businesses each month, so we have a unique opportunity to see what our best customers are doing to succeed with their freelancers, and what less successful customers are doing wrong.
Based on all this experience, we’ve created a so-good-it’s-almost-magic formula for getting great writing from your freelance writers to power your content marketing. The Verblio platform is designed around this formula, but you don’t have to be using Verblio to get value from it. We recommend anyone who’s working with freelance writers follow this formula or some variation of it.
The Almost-Magic Formula for Getting Great Content Writing from Freelancers
Step 0: Start the journey with more than one writer.
Here’s the thing: it is really hard to look at a freelance writer’s profile or portfolio and determine whether they’re going to be great at writing for your client or business. Writing is just too personal—and brand voices too varied and unique—to perfectly extrapolate how a given writer’s style will mesh with yours.
You should go into this process expecting to “audition” more than one writer. You may come across a perfectly good writer who simply is not a fit for your team, and that’s going to be extremely tough to figure out ahead of time.
The best way to determine whether a freelance writer will work for your business is to give them a real project and set clear, concrete expectations for the final product. Even better: have multiple writers complete similar projects. Then, compare what gets written, how closely each writer matched what you were looking for, and whether there were any surprises (bad or good: a great writer might go above and beyond or introduce ideas you hadn’t thought of).
Step 1: Introduce writers to your business & writing style.
Ideally, freelance writers should feel like an extension of your team. They should be able to both blend their writing seamlessly with your company’s and push your content to the next level.
To do this, a writer needs to understand your business. Part of this goes back to the process of finding a writer: if you find someone who understands your industry, niche, or location, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to understand your business and write seamlessly for it.
But there is also critical information about your business that you need to provide to the freelancer to even start. Here’s a list:
- Your website. Have the writer poke around, point out your favorite pages (as well as any high- or underperforming pages), and have them ask questions.
- Social media. Another great place for writers to understand the voice of your business. Explain which channels are most critical to your audience and why.
- Your style guide or other marketing guidelines. Many businesses have a style guide or rough guidelines set out by the marketing department which include: preferred writing style, linking/citation practices, dos and don’ts for writing, formatting requirements, etc. If you don’t have this, you can use #4 as a pretty effective hack:
- Favorite pieces of writing. This is a critical and often missed way to get good initial results from your freelancers: point them to stuff you love and want to emulate! This can be from your own site or blog, a piece of writing from another industry or company you admire, an influencer you follow, etc. Send links and explain what exactly you like about it.
- Your customer and writer personas. Who will the writer be writing as, and who will they be writing for? Should the writing sound formal and educational? Young, fresh, and a bit cheeky? Are your readers likely to be older businessmen or young, tech-savvy moms? Writer and customer personas help you imagine and communicate your vision for the “feel” and reception of your content.
Step 2: Give clear assignments.
When we look at why clients are disappointed with the writing that they get from freelancers, it is actually a rare case that the writer has simply ignored directions. Much more often, we see a failure to provide clear direction in assignments. (This is also, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest complaints we hear from writers about clients.)
Here are a few things to consider providing to your writer in your assignment package or ‘creative brief’ (you don’t need to provide all of these, but rather pick a combination of what feels right for your project):
- A subject or headline. Obviously, your writer will need a one-sentence description of what subject they’ll be writing about. If you have a specific headline in mind, include that too. If not, make it clear to your writer that you’d like them to write the headline based on your subject.
- A description or outline. Tell your writer, either in a few paragraphs or an outline, what you’d like them to write about. What are the key points you’d like covered? The questions the content should answer? For longer pieces, what sections should be used? You should also include a specific goal for what this piece of content should do for your business: “This post should teach the reader X, so that they think of our brand as an expert in subject/industry Y.” Here’s an example: “This post should teach the reader how to do a DIY dishwasher repair so that next time their dishwasher breaks, they think of our brand as a source of expertise for repairs.”
- Keywords to target. If the content is being written with SEO as one of the goals, you’ll want to tell your writer what primary keyword you’re targeting with the content along with any variations or secondary keywords that should be incorporated.
- Research links. What resources exist on the web that the writer can use for research purposes? These could be on your own site or others. Be sure to specify whether the writer should link to these (usually a best practice) or not (if they’re direct competitors).
It’s also worth noting on this subject that a clear assignment can be short or open-ended, but when you do this, expect the writer to take more license with what you’ve asked them to do. This can be a really powerful tool, but if you know what you’re looking for, providing that direction up front will save both you and the writer time and energy in the long run.
Step 3: Ensure excellent bi-directional communication.
Even with a clearly-crafted assignment, your writer will almost certainly have questions, especially if they’re new to your business. Make sure you set up a clear system for communicating with your writer, and let the writer know you’d like to hear from them with questions, ideas, etc.
Step 4: Set up a system for feedback.
Building a relationship with a freelance writer takes time. Whatever you do, don’t expect the very first piece of writing you get back to be exactly what you were looking for. Just as it would when onboarding any new employee, it takes time for a writer to get to know your business, and it will also take time for you to perfect your communication strategy.
Providing timely and useful feedback is the best way to accelerate this ‘getting to know you’ process. (On a related note, make sure any freelance writer you hire is transparent about how many rounds of edits are included in their pricing package.)
When you get a piece of writing back from a freelancer, think about your feedback in terms of two buckets:
- Overall feedback. What did you like about the draft? What needs to change? Is the tone right? The length and depth? Was the main goal of your content achieved by this writing? It can be easy to just point out what you didn’t like, but adding some positive feedback is helpful, both for your relationship and for the writing.
- Line-level edits. Use these to highlight specific things in a piece of writing that need to change. This could include: word choice, typos, links, etc.
Step 5: Keep writers happy and fairly compensated.
If your writer is happy and compensated in a fair manner, they’re going to produce better content. Compensation is certainly one key to writer happiness, but it’s not the only one. Let’s break these down:
Compensation. The goal here is to pay writers enough to do great work. If you’re paying your writer too little, they’re going to have to rush through some element of the project (research, writing, editing) as a way to make up for the fact they’re not being paid enough. In addition, a writer who feels like they’re being fairly compensated is more likely to go above and beyond for you.
Compensation choices range from a monthly retainer to per project or content piece to hourly. Calculating a rough hourly wage of $30-$35 per hour is a good starting point for thinking about this. If you’re not sure how to go about doing this, ask the writer how long they expect the project to take them before you ask them how much they charge. It’s also fine to just ask your freelancer what they charge and negotiate a price from there. Don’t try to negotiate them down too much though—there will be consequences.
Happiness. (We won’t go too existential here, promise.) To keep your writer happy, think about their goals. For most writers, this includes fair compensation, clear expectations, a process for good, respectful communication, timely and constructive feedback, and reasonable deadlines.
To Sum It Up
The prospect of using freelance writers to execute on your content marketing strategy can feel daunting: how can a freelancer possibly understand your business well enough to create unique, powerful content?
Well, we can tell you from experience that it’s possible to do this and generate results. Start with solid freelancer(s) and follow the framework:
- Provide a detailed and useful introduction to your business.
- Give clear assignments.
- Set up a system to allow bi-directional communication.
- Give timely and constructive feedback.
- Keep your writer happy and fairly compensated.
And you’ll be on the road to creating excellent content to power your inbound marketing strategy.
If, after reading this, you feel like you need more help finding those perfect writers, you can read more here.