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: