Most content isn't unique because it's regurgitated from whatever everyone else is saying about the topic online.
Almost no one escapes this fact.
Businesses create crappy content in-house, or they hire a marketing agency to create crappy content for them.
Writers create crappy copy because most aren't taught how to create good content- mostly because they come from agencies and in-house, where they were creating crappy copy too.
I know this because I worked both in-house at the beginning of my career, and when I went freelance I worked solely with marketing agencies for several years.
In most cases, I'd receive a content brief with a list of keywords and a basic outline (If I was lucky). In other cases, I was handed a topic and set off to work.
You might be thinking, "Okay, what's the problem there? Can't you go and create unique content from that? Isn't that your job?"
You're absolutely correct.
But, you're forgetting something...
If the company I'm writing for is claiming to be an expert on PPC ads, which is the best option?
A) I look up a bunch of articles on PPC ads to learn before I write
B) Ask experts from other companies about PPC ads
C) Ask the PPC experts within the PPC company that I'm writing for
I choose C every time.
That doesn't mean I can't use experts outside of the company. I do that all the time. I have my own opinions about this topic, but I still asked several other colleagues what their take was on this as well. (You'll see if you keep reading)
But not once in the time that I worked with those marketing agencies was I given access to the client or someone within the company to ask questions.
Not once did they ever ask me to get quotes for the article or provide resources from the client about the topic (and no, they didn't expect I'd do that on my own either.
This sets a bad precedent for the writers who don't know any better and basically scams the companies out of good, unique content.
So how do you hire really good writers that know how to create unique content?
Well, we have to stop placing all of the responsibility on the writer.
In this post, I'm breaking down the flaws in the system and how to set up a new one- to make every post a quality post.
The flaws in outsourcing writers for your business content.
This topic has been stewing in my mind since the days of working strictly with marketing agencies. I knew I could write well, but I felt that there were a few things holding me back from producing the BEST content I could.
As I shifted into working with my own freelance clients, I realized that the problem of creating quality content isn't confined to agencies.
The entire system of hiring writers is flawed.
I started reaching out to other experts that I know produce amazing copy on a regular basis, wanting to know if they felt this pain too and wanting them to weight in on it for this article.
One of those people was Benji Hyam, the co-founder of Grow and Convert.
Funnily enough, he mentioned that he was writing an article on the flaws in outsourcing writers as well.
An email notification let me know it was live.
I read it, and thought to bring the topic over to LinkedIn. I needed others to chime in.
(Here's the full post if you're interested)
Writers and business owners alike were jumping in on this one, highlighting the fact that all of us are feeling this issue.
There are a lot of flaws in outsourcing writing, but knowing is the first step in solving the problem. So here goes...
Problem #1: People that know good content think good writers are hard to find.
Grow and Convert approached this topic after many of their clients (and marketers on social media) mentioned the difficulty in finding good writers.
One of my own clients hit upon that same point:
But like some of the commentors on my post mention, finding good writers is not so hard to do. You just have to know where to find them.
I did come back on this argument with the fact that I am a content writer without a byline. I've only just started guest posting (and recently did a takeover of Opt In Weekly's newsletter).
All of the work I do for clients is technically ghostwriting, since it's in the name of the company and my name is never mentioned anywhere on the page.
And there are thousands of really good writers who are in the same boat- operating in the shadows, maintaining a business with a very simple and low maintenance marketing plan.
So, yes, I can see where marketing managers and business owners are coming from when they say "good writers are hard to find".
It's easy how they can even look at marketing agencies and think, "man, if even the experts suck at content... how am I going to find a writer that can give me what I'm looking for?"
And it's easy to see how their ideas of good content warps their sense of good writing (there really is a difference).
But there's more to the argument.
Problem # 2: No one knows good content.
After reading thousands of company blogs throughout my career, and writing several more, I can tell you that most people think good content is simply cohesive, well-written content.
...Content that makes sense and perhaps even ranks well.
You can rank really well and still write content that doesn't make sense for a brand, doesn't drive conversions, and doesn't inspire anyone to read more articles from the brand's blog.
There are a few reasons most people don't know "good content":
1) Writing to solve the pain points of businesses and consumers is entirely different from how we are taught to write throughout our education (even through college). So, we end up writing the same way for business- fluffy introductions, and queuing up key points with words like, "In fact" and "However".
You can work for 15 years (or your whole career) under marketing managers that don't understand good content. If you're new to writing for business, how are you to know good content (without learning from other great writers on social media and by reading their articles).
2) Most businesses have a marketing manager, but not a content specialist. Here's a little secret- a lot of people in marketing don't write. So, if you don't have a content specialist that already knows how to write for business (see point 1), then they're unlikely to know what needs to go into the content or even the right topics to write about.
3) Most businesses choose the wrong topics to write about. This makes a huge difference in whether this content is actually effective for the business or if it's meaningless.
That's just one part of the systemic problem, but there's more.
Problem #3: No one has time for good content.
There are millions of freelance writers because there's such a huge need from nearly every business and every SEO and content marketing agency.
The few that take content on themselves quickly realize that:
1) Content takes a lot of time to produce
2) They aren't good writers
3) They don't know how to create SEO content
There are a few ways to solve the problem (without abandoning content creation altogether):
Hire an in-house writer (or a few of em)
Hire a content marketing agency (who will then work with their own list of freelancers)
Hire freelancers directly
It's incredibly rare for a company to hire someone specifically to write blog content, and that's it.
If they hire a in-house writer, it's to tackle multiple projects- email campaigns, landing pages, website copy...
But blog content... the really good stuff... takes time.
Not to mention that there's usually a manager above the writer dictating the marketing material they need to create and selecting the topics for blogs.
There are deadlines and a lot of other things to focus on.
I took a poll on this:
Time management ties with lead generation, but it's very close to the other issues listed.
I also heard from a respected colleague working with a small team in a big company:
What if the company outsources writing to a content marketing agency?
Content marketing agencies have to produce content for several different clients, build analytics reports, content strategies, communicate with clients, SEO, plus their own marketing.
Of course, they generally have writers to handle client content, but from what I've seen, most agencies don't have enough in-house writers to handle all of that content.
Instead, the agency creates content briefs to hand to freelance writers, often for an unfairly low fee.
Writers that work for low fees are often undervaluing themselves or have little experience.
These wrtiers generally don't know what good content is, for reasons already mentioned, and/or have to take on more projects to meet their income needs, leaving them little time for interviews with experts and extra effort on the article.
If it's not the fees, its the quick deadlines, the workload, the lack of experience, or the lack of knowledge on business writing.
I'm not making excuses for writers. I think it's our role to continuously improve our content and our processes, but there are genuine systemic issues that make it more challenging to create better work (and the writer may not even be aware of it).
The workload often keeps agencies themselves from improving content.
They know they bring in traffic results from the content they're already creating. It matters little that the content isn't unique.
(Traffic is not a good metric of success)
What if the company outsources freelance writers directly?
Personally, I believe this is one of the best ways to get unique content and I find it to be the most mutually beneficial option- at least as far as content creation goes.
There's no middle man when you work directly with a writer. You're not paying additional fees just to have an agency hire someone for far less than what you've paid.
In most cases, you'll pay less than you would for an agency, get great copy, and communicate more fluidly.
Think of it as hiring an in-house writer... but you only pay them for the projects they do (and they're remote).
You should trust them the same way you would an employee. Communicate with them regularly. Expect results on time...
Don't think you're losing out by not working with an agency either.
Sure, some writers will only provide writing and editing services. Others provide far more, such as SEO, website content, content strategy, regular analytics reporting, meetings with clients and the team, and more.
The biggest restraint in working with freelancers is finding one that understands good content.
But if you approach hiring like you would for an in-house position (or just keep tabs on writers in your industry), you'll find a good one you can trust.
Problem #4: Most people don't know how to hire writers.
I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked by prospecting clients "what do you need from me?"
It's not an unfounded question. If you're not familiar with hiring freelance writers, then you're bound to have a lot of questions.
Agencies are better at hiring freelancers because they do it regularly. The process usually looks like this:
1) Writer shares samples of their work with the contact (whoever is doing the hiring)
2) Zoom call to discuss their experience and the work they do at the agency
3) Sometimes a sample article for one of their clients or a writing test
4) Sign contract and share tax info (w9)
5) Sharing docs like writing standards, formats, rules, etc.
6) Set up in some kind of project management system like Asana
7) Get new assignments and start getting to work
There's usually an adjustment period where the writer gets to learn their style and process.
Sounds very similar to if you were to hire an in-house employee, right?
That's kind of the point.
Agencies think of their freelancers as an extension of their agency.
But as a business, it's unlikely that you have a project management system you can easily add an outside employee to.
You aren't familiar with W9's (basically W2's for contractors), and NDAs to keep the writer from sharing proprietary information... or even signing a contract from the writer, who is just securing their work with you.
And, because most people don't know what goes into good content, they don't know what they need to provide the writer to do the job well.
This leads to the next problem...
Problem #5: Everyone places too much responsibility on the writer.
Consider all of the problems above:
1) People that "know" good content are looking for writers who know good content as well. No one can see that the writer can write well, but that they don't understand how to write for business.
2) There are a lot of people that don't know good content. They're stuck writing the same way for years and years because no one says otherwise and there are fewer good examples than there are bad.
3) The people that are supposed to know good content- marketing managers and content marketing agencies- hire out because content production takes a lot of time, but because they have so much content to produce, they hire cheap. The writers that know "good content" typically aren't cheap.
4) Hiring writers can be a challenge if you don't know what goes into content creation. Even agencies, who are pretty good at hiring writers, don't create the kinds of connections they should. They don't always provide the right resources. They think a brief is enough.
Now, combine all of that into this last problem.
Writers are already expected to be good writers who understand good content to get well-paying gigs.
But because they don't meet that criteria, they're stuck with lower paying gigs, higher turnaround times, bigger workloads, and businesses (and agencies) that don't put as much time into content (or don't know good content).
Businesses don't know what their content pieces should have to be unique.
Agencies don't have enough time to train a writer, and no one thinks they should train writers to be better.
So, if the writer doesn't spend a lot of time developing their writing, learning how to write for business (answering pains)- they're stuck in the cycle of creating lower-quality, regurgitated articles.
This places a heavy burden on the writer. They must know:
The business/ product they're writing about
The industry they're writing for
What makes content good (even if they haven't been trained to write for business- very few writers have)
How to optimize articles for search engines (which does change)
But they're given very few resources to meet these requirements.
Good content isn't something that just... happens.
It doesn't matter how good the writer is, they can't create unique and effective copy on their own. At least not without regurgitating what they find in a Google search.
It doesn't even matter if you hire a writer that's worked in your industry for 500 years, they still can't write effectively about your unique niche and product.
Of course, you want to hire a writer that writes well, but there is so much more that has to happen for every business to reap the benefits of good content.
It starts with knowing good content.
Don't expect to hire a good content writer if you don't know what good content is. You'll simply fall into the same roll as other businesses- not providing writers with the resources they need, hiring cheaply, and not recognizing good content when you see it.
But with all this talk of good content, I have to put out some guidelines.
Let's start at the beginning.
Beginning of the article...
Here's the beginning of an article I wrote for Dynamic Health on the signs that you need a chiropractor:
I'm directly jumping into the pains of the reader by addressing actions they're likely already doing to try to solve the problem.
Let's try another:
Here's an article I wrote on ELD violation fines for 3Gtms, a fleet management tech company (that produces and supplies fleets with ELDs, aka Electronic Logging Devices):
It's a slight introduction, but it's highly relevant.
Now, If you've read a few of my articles, you know that I'm a little more conversational than the average business blog. That's just my "brand persona".
But I still try to get to the point and the pain as quickly as I can.
If I don't, I'm usually leading with a relevant client story or interaction, like I do in the most popular article on my site on B2B content ideas.
Notice that I don't start with a big fluffy, obvious introduction like, "Coming up with blog post ideas is really hard".
Or, taking a look back at the chiropractor article... I could have started with something like, "Back pain makes it difficult to engage in regular exercise and impedes your ability to work".
But that's a little obvious, isn't it?
Here's a live example of a poor way to start an article:
Even if your readers are very new to a topic, they already know the basics. They know technology is everywhere and it's changed our lives.
Stop starting articles with obvious statements and fluff.
Stop introducing topics like high school papers- or at least start realizing that your readers already know a thing or two about the topic. Especially if they're in the industry.
Middle of the article (the good stuff)...
This is the section that inspired this article to begin with.
It's the regurgitated part of most articles.
What do I mean by regurgitated?
Well, writers are either:
A) Hired in-house
B) Hired as freelancers by an agency or a business
The writer is either segregated in their own department (marketing), segregated from the client (with the agency as the go-between), or working with a client that doesn't know what the writer needs.
Writers working in-house often feel segregated from the rest of the company. It's not like they're hanging out with the software developers or engineers, or jumping into lunch breaks with the customer service reps.
Almost every business is segregated.
Even company meetings happen within each department, rather than together.
It's a bit rare for a writer working in-house to call up engineering to gather information for a blog their writing.
So how do they solve this problem?
They use resources already created by the company:
-Handbooks and guides
-Google (if the topic isn't so specific to their product)
The writer may get a chance to speak to people in the company once in a while to get a better understanding of a topic, but in most cases, they'll use resources pre-existing resources.
Writers working in an agency or for an agency are just as, if not more, disconnected from the experts within the company.
These writers will likely never get to talk to the client.
They'll only be able to use:
-A brief given to them by the agency (which very rarely includes quotes or information from the client)
-Guides, ebooks, or other resources provided by the client
And remember, they often have a lot of content to produce, aren't typically paid well, and usually have faster turnaround times.
Working directly with the client: There are really great writers that understand how to create good content. But they also know that, to create that good content, they need a few things:
Access to the right resources/ people
A recent article took 12 hours to write, including the time it took to find and interview sources.
Some articles take even longer than that.
Translating that interview into an article takes some skill. As does finding the right keywords to use, formatting the article for readability (by people and search engines), optimization, call to action, etc.
It's not an easy job. All that skill comes at a higher cost.
Those that don't know that often can't justify the price. So, they hire less experienced writers at a lower rate and put all the responsibility on them to create great content, without knowing the product or much about the topic.
(It's not always misunderstanding great content and the costs of that. There are many marketing departments that know great content, but they need a writer. They're simply restricted by a budget they didn't set.)
Back to middle of the article content.
The middle of the article is the meat. It's where you break down the problem, offer a list of solutions, and/or share the most vital information.
A LOT of articles go from intro into sections like:
"What is (solve for X)?"
Here's what I mean:
This is the first section after the introduction in an article on electronic logging device (ELD) regulation fines for the fleet industry (all those semis on the road). ELD regulations outline the number of hours a fleet driver can work, known as hours of service (HOS).
Anywho... The reader already knows this. They're in the trucking industry.
They either already know the history of these rules, or they don't care. They came to learn about the updates to the rules.
Sections like the one above are huge indicators that the article was simply regurgitated from a Google search.
It's also an indicator they're filling up the required word count with some fluff because they don't know much about the real meat of the problem they're supposedly solving with this article.
You can't blame a writer for that if they don't know any better/ don't have the right resources to write the article.
Bottom of the article...
A lot of businesses like to end their articles with a call to action.
It could be as simple as a paragraph at the end explaining how that business can help them do whatever the article was about.
I don't think there is anything wrong with having a call to action (CTA) like this at the end of an article- if it's highly relevant to the content.
Even two years ago, marketers everywhere would be telling you that you need a CTA at the end of EVERY article.
Today, they're changing their tune.
Because we've started to realize that it's better to frequently provide value without asking for anything in return (most of the time).
Value, value, value, value, nudge in the right direction, value, value, value, nudge...
We're also really working on trying to be less salesy (ugh, feel the slime) and more like a great neighbor that gives you a discount code for a better insurance rate (is that a thing? I don't know).
Another way to "end" the article is to add related links to the page:
It's a low-maintenance, unobtrusive way to keep an audience reading- in the hopes that they keep seeing value until they convert.
It doesn't seem salesy. It just seems relevant (and helpful).
If you're really looking for conversions, try a lead magnet:
Lead magnets are an excellent way to build your email list AND deliver even more value to your clients.
But they have to be highly relevant.
You can't just put any old e-book at the end of the article and think it'll convert anyone.
The lead magnet above is a content promotion checklist on an article about content promotion strategies.
The lead magnet simply takes the content one step further.
(p.s... it's always better if the lead magnet is something actionable. Something the audience can use/ implement)
How To Hire A Freelance Content Writer (& Be A Better Employer)
Okay, we've talked quite extensively about all the problems with hiring freelance writers.
It's rather tough coming up with these solutions, because they're a bit intertwined and someone eventually has to take responsibility for change.
I can't reasonably ask that all marketing agencies start paying a heck of a lot more for content when the writers don't know how to create content that merits a much higher pay.
I can't reasonably ask writers to work so much harder and push themselves to interview subject matter experts when they're being paid poorly and their turnaround times are rough and their workload is high.
(I do think writers have a responsibility to improve their content consistently, but they have to know what good content looks like and how to write it to do that. You have to actually know there's an issue with the way you produce content, seek out better examples, and learn)
I can't reasonably ask that all businesses learn everything possible about content and marketing before they start hiring out.
Yes, it's important to understand the value of content and marketing, but content and marketing are difficult to just... learn. You spend years and a lot of time and testing. That's why we do this for a living.
All of the above would make sense as solutions... but again, it puts a lot of responsibility on one party.
So here are a few actual solutions:
Working In-House: Manage OUt
"I had a lot of responsibility (producing ~30 content pieces per month), but basically zero authority over the resources I needed to get it done. So I was always chasing someone down for input, feedback, design. One of the biggest skills I needed to develop in this role was managing OUT."
Improving visibility across the company (and simply getting to know the various departments and people within them)
Helping people understand the mission of the marketing department and the content they created as well as their role in it
Making it very easy for people to contribute to content
Giving recognition to the contributions of others across departments (encouraging more input)
I love this method because it breaks down the barriers between departments and helps others to realize that their skills and knowledge are valuable.
Every employee has a role to play in marketing. That's the way it should be.
I mean, honestly, how do you market a company if you don't know anything about the parts that make the business tick (or the people keeping those gears moving)?
In other articles- usually about content ideas- I explain that, to build a content strategy and come up with the kinds of topics that your audience actually wants to consume, you HAVE to speak to your other departments.
You have to speak to the client facing employees who talk with them all day.
It's one giant step that makes a huge impact in the kind of content you create and the quality of that content.
In terms of hiring a content writer:
Speaking to other departments shouldn't be a solo mission. Every part of your marketing team should be in on this, and that includes freelancers.
Of course, it'sll just look a little different.
When I worked with Memory AI, I very clearly couldn't step into their office and speak with multiple departments.
1) Because they're based in Norway and 2) they're completely remote and have employees all over the place.
BUT, I asked the marketing manager to create a channel in Slack for me to speak to the various teams... and they did. That very same day.
(I like to ask all of my clients to give me some level of access to others in the company, but it doesn't always work out as smoothly- if the company isn't that open to this kind of communication.)
I can tell you that it made a huge difference in the ability to communicate and get all the information I needed to do my job more effectively.
Think of freelancers as an extension of your team. Connect them to department heads and leave channels open for them to communicate.
If your entire company understands the value of that communication, they'll be more open to conversations that progress content.
What I'm trying to say is: Let your writers talk to the experts within your company about the topics they're writing on (and more). You'll all benefit.
Working in an Agency: More transparency and training
Agencies very rarely want writers that take more time to create content.
Content marketing agencies generally have a full plate and a lot of content to create. This means they want to move fast.
The onboarding process is fast. The writing process is fast. The editing process is fast.
Freelance writers generally have one contact in the company, and that person manages their projects (giving them tasks and editing their work).
It's rare that the writer has a chance to speak to the client or anyone else within the company.
There's really very little motivation for these agencies to change because the clients don't know the content is bad (because they don't know good content), and the content produced still generates traffic and engagement.
These articles still even rank on the first page in a Google search.
So everyone thinks they're winning.
But I've said this before: you can rank number one for all of your articles, and still not bring in the right traffic or generate leads.
So what should agencies do when hiring content writers?
1) Extend the onboarding process to include speaking with other team members, and involving them in discussions about content planning and strategy.
2) Be more transparent. Connect writers with clients. You can train them on how to speak to clients beforehand if you feel uncomfortable with it, and even join in on the calls. Heck, that's the best way to do it, let the writer listen in on calls with the clients. They don't even have to speak and already it's better.
3) Don't put so much responsibility on the writer. If you're not going to connect them to the client, at least give the writer good directions.
Put the following in their brief:
The goal of the article
Related articles they should link to
Keywords (and how to use them if they aren't trained)
The angle they're meant to take in the article
Any pieces of data, quotes, or other resources
The searcher's intent (why someone is reading the article & who is reading it)
Provide them examples of excellent content during the onboarding stage, so they get a better understanding of how they should write.
If you're going to hire "affordable" writers, they'll likely need some kind of training, so provide them with as much guidance as you can. You'll benefit from this as well.
Working directly with freelancers: See above
The above points work here as well.
1) Create more open communication with all members of the marketing team and the freelancer, and give them access to speak to other departments in the company.
2) Have them jump on calls for meetings about strategy or talks with other departments.
3) Have a better understanding of what "good content" is by working with a content specialist/ strategist (or a freelancer that really understands good content and help guide you).
4) Give writers enough time and the proper compensation to do their job well. If they're working with experts in your company or subject matter experts in the industry, they'll need extra time for that. Don't rush them.
5) Understand that you play a big role in the content creation process. Don't leave it all up to the writer.
For freelance writers: Continue to update your skillset
Writers... no one is going to help you to write better.
Don't listen to all that stuff I say above, about how they have responsib--- no, it's your responsibility to improve your skills.
1) Read A LOT... about content strategy, SEO, blogging... everything.
2) Find really good writers, and learn from them. Follow their blogs. Read their email newsletters and social media posts... basically be a content stalker.
3) Ask questions. Ask aaaallll the questions. Seriously, I want you to ask your clients and the agencies about the topic. Ask to speak to an expert. Ask for resources. Ask to learn more about the company. Ask for training on SEO (if they're an agency)... just ask.
4) Start charging more for your skills and work with clients that understand good content. Of course, you need to be able to write a higher caliber if you expect to work with better paying clients.
Do not ask for more money if you can't live up to it.
But if you CAN write better, but you aren't putting all of your effort into it because you're being paid poorly... just stop.
Seek better clients. There are millions of them out there.
The overall message:
Know that good content is:
Unique only when writers speak to experts.
You're the experts...