Managing freelancers can sometimes feel like herding cats. Finding good writers can be even harder. But if you do manage to find a couple of good writers and you manage them correctly, you can build a content machine that runs almost automatically and makes you a lot of money.
As the SEO & Content Manager at Niche Pursuits, I've worked with a lot of writers. At one time, I was working with almost a dozen different writers on almost a dozen different sites. I've also been a writer on large editorial teams in very large organizations, writing for some of the biggest brands in the world. As if that weren't enough, I spent several years teaching writing classes at the college level and tutoring college writers.
I'm not trying to toot my own horn here; I'm just trying to make a quick point: you can't do all of that without learning a little bit about what makes writers tick, where to find them, and how to keep them both happy and productive.
Today, I'm going to share some of these writer management techniques with you guys because I really, truly think that learning how to find great writers and manage them efficiently is one of the best things you can do for your business.
Why getting this right is absolutely crucial…
In the current internet marketing landscape, I really do believe finding, training and managing writers efficiently is mission-critical. I probably don’t need to remind you of this, but in our last several blog posts (here and here), we revealed that we’d taken a massive hit to our business.
In a few of our recent podcasts, like this one with Gael Breton from Authority Hacker, we spoke with people who were absolutely crushing it with content-driven sites and promoting fantastic content to garner tons of white-hat links and social traction (you can read more about this in Brian Dean’s recent article on this technique, which he calls the “skyscraper method”).
I also mentioned a few times in several different podcasts that I’ve spoken to a few Niche Pursuits readers who were doing very, very well with a content-only strategy—meaning that they were making serious cash with no linkbuilding and no promotion. None. At all.
Let me distill that for you: we’ve seen sites earning many thousands of dollars per month with nothing but good content built on A+ keyword research.
In other words, in a very real way, as an industry, we are being yanked back to the old adage many of us find so annoying: content is king.
Plus, we know that PBNs have gone the way of every other gimmicky linkbuilding scheme, and they now carry substantially more risk. And that means you’re going to have to spend a lot more time promoting your site instead of building your own links.
So here’s why managing your writers is mission-critical: (1) if you’re currently building sites, content is probably one of the most important part of your business, and (2) you’re going to have to be spending your time on other stuff.
That’s why you need to build a content machine, and you need to build one that produces fantastic content. Or, if you only plan on buying batches of content, you at least need to have some systems in place to help get your content quickly and without stress. So let’s hash that out!
Why I almost never use content services (and why you need great content)
Typically, I only use content services if I’m in a bind and need lots of content fast. And it’s not because of a shortage of services. There are dozens out there.
Content services are very fast, but they have one serious drawback: the content is never great. It just isn’t. And you must, must, must have A+ content in today’s SEO landscape.
I’ll give you an example. When I do need to order a bunch of writing, my go-to content service really is super professional. They have account managers who manage your whole project and make sure the writing is to your specifications, and they do it at about $20 per 1,000 words, which is very standard in our industry. They’re fairly fast, and they have a very large network of writers who are comfortable tackling most topics.
And a lot of that is really great, and I always appreciate their work. Still, no matter how many rounds of revisions I go through with them, the writing never gets above a B+. Most of the time, it’s more around a B-. I often end up rewriting things and/or removing ridiculous, fluffy language.
Why? The writers don’t care.
This is the fundamental flaw in all content services: they’re trying to offer content for the industry-standard price, but they’re also trying to make a profit. That means they can’t hire the best writers, and the content suffers for it.
Even more importantly, though, their writers are typically wading through stacks and stacks of assignments, and yours is just another thing on their desk.
In my experience, it’s incredibly rare to find a content service that really yields the type of content that keeps people on that page, and keeping people on your site is what makes you money. And at the end of the day, shaving a few days off of a batch of content does not make up for the profits you’ll lose by having mediocre writing.
I guess what I’m saying is that this is the main lesson: invest in great content, not bulk content. That doesn't mean you can't have lots of content; I recently launched a site with 60 articles, and our current authority site has over 100 articles on it. It just means that quality should be the first priority.
Where DO I find writers?
If I’m not hiring content services, where am I finding my writers? This has always been my dirty little secret, and I’m sure it’s going to utterly disappoint some of you.
I find almost all my writers exclusively through my own social network.
I'll tell you why this works. Here are the things I’m looking for in my writers:
- Open communication
- Dedication to the project
If I find a writer that delivers on those four things, the quality will take care of itself. It’s extremely difficult to get any of those things with a content service (aside from speed). It’s extremely easy to get them if you hire someone you know.
First, you’ll get open communication because you’ll probably be Facebook friends, or you’ll be connected on gChat, or you’ll have each other’s phone numbers.
This, in turn, creates adaptability. If something changes, or if someone has a question, or if a revision needs to be made, it can be done totally on the fly. All it takes is a Facebook message. Obstacles stop being obstacles and turn into actual opportunities to improve the site. When this happens, you’ll find that your site will even get better over time.
Speed and dedication usually come from hiring someone you know has a good work ethic. I don’t hire just anyone. I hire people I know work hard. And I don't do that for my own sake. I do it to protect my writers’ time.
If I’m paying $20 per 1,000 words, writing for me can be an incredible deal for a writer who writes 1,000 words in 30 minutes, since they can make $40/hr. However, it’s an atrociously bad deal for writers who write 1,000 words in three hours ($6.66/hr, which is less than minimum wage). I want to pay my people well, and the only way to do that is to hire people who work hard.
So, I hire almost exclusively from my own social network. Sometimes, it’s as simple as posting a message on Facebook. Other times, I’ll reach out to people I really want to write for me. Often, these are people whose writing I really love.
Here is just an example of the incredibly diverse writers I’ve hired this way:
- My dad’s former assistant
- My former philosophy professor’s wife
- Spencer’s friend’s wife
- Two of my former students
- Spencer’s uncle
- A few broke poets
- My own brother
Here’s why this works (and you may not know this): there are droves of writers or aspiring writers out there literally working for free in order to build a portfolio. I know this because I did it. Most of them will jump at the chance to actually get paid for their work.
These people care. These folks plan on adding the writing they do for you to their portfolio to show future employers. These folks are not going to write B+ stuff.
When I tell people this, sometimes the reaction is “Oh, but I’m not on Facebook,” to which I almost always reply, “Why not?! You’re an internet marketer! Get on the internet!”
However, if you need writing now, and you don’t have a social network, there are a few other places you can go, but you should expect to pay more. If you do go here, you should be looking for exactly the same things you'd look for in a writer you know (more on this below).
- r/Forhire: Fantastic talent pool here, but they’re usually all career writers who command higher prices.
- Craigslist: You might find some good ones here, but it’s going to be a crapshoot.
- Problogger: Great talent here, too, but usually much more expensive.
When you start trolling for writers, you're going to want someone who can produce good content fast. If I'm hiring outside of my own network (which means I don't know the person I'm hiring), I base most of my decision on their writing sample (ask for some samples). Then, I give them a one-article assignment with a short deadline (usually one day) to see if they can work quickly. If they can't, I thank them for their time and move on. There's no shortage of writers in the world.
Just to be clear, I’ve had about a million times more success hiring people from my own social network, and I’ve had the most success by far hiring people I really like.
Lastly, the biggest benefit of hiring folks this way is that it’s super easy to reach out to them for more work opportunities. In fact, you’ll probably find that they’ll reach out to you to ask for more work. Because of this, it’s very easy to find a consistent writer to do almost everything you need.
Enough rambling, Perrin! How do I actually manage my writers?
Alright. Let’s assume you’ve found yourself a writer or two. Now we can talk about how to manage them. To some extent, it’s going to come down to your personal management style. So take this with a grain of salt; it’s just what works for me.
Provide short, clear, simple guidelines in a short, clear, simple workflow.
A while back, Doug Cunnington from Niche Site Project polled a bunch of internet marketers to ask them about their favorite project management tools. I was totally baffled by some of the responses. I had no idea there were so many crazy tools you could use to divvy up assignments and manage work flow.
All of this stuff, to me, is highly overrated. So is micromanagement. When a writer agrees to work with me, they get one email, with one set of ultra-clear, ultra-concise instructions and a deadline. If it’s the very first time they have written with me, I’ll send a more detail set of instructions (still less than one page) for them to look over.
Here’s my email template (see how fancy it is?):
Those guidelines (what I refer to as the “Product Article Cheat Sheet” in the above email template) are very simple and very short. Here’s an example of what I’d send if I were working on a site about dog toys.
- Intro (100 words): Write a creative introduction about this type of dog toy
- Section 1: Informative section (500 words): Write about the benefits of this toy)
- Sections 2-7 (250 words each): Write a fun review of good 5 toys as if you owned them
I might include a few notes on the overall tone and style if the writer was brand new, but you don’t need much more.
After that, I follow up with them (usually on Facebook) to see if they have any questions. If they’re not 100% comfortable, I tell them to send me the first few paragraphs when they’re done or to hop on a Skype call.
That’s it. I don’t create massive workflow spreadsheets. I don’t write 5-page process docs. I don’t use project management programs. I send one email per writer, per batch of assignments. If I have three writers writing 15 articles each, that means I’m managing 45 articles with 3 total emails. Three emails per month. That’s my workflow.
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To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the work is over. There will probably be tweaks, questions and revisions along the way, and that will take some time, but this will still put you way out in front at the start of the race.
Train your writers really well, and then give them tons of autonomy.
This is very important. Writers are funny folk. I know because I am one. They usually come in two distinct types. The first, like me, is ultra-autonomous. The second, more analytical type of writer works best with lots of direction. However, even the second type of writer will be fine working autonomously after they understand what’s expected.
Your goal should always be to get your writers to a place in which all you have to do is send them a list of keywords.
Why? Because the more autonomous your writers are, the more they’re going to care about the project, and the more time you’re going to save.
This takes time and training, especially if you’re starting a new site. For our new authority site, it took about a month and a half to get our writers 100% autonomous. However, even though we were constantly tweaking and discussing on Skype (this is the training), I gave them lots of autonomy to start. I wanted them (mostly our best writer) to own the project, to feel like they had a stake in the site.
And believe me, it paid off. We now add about 3,600 words of content each day, it gets done in about 3 hours, and it’s 95% hands-off for me. My writers just give me a quick update each morning, and I glance at the articles each week.
Training your writers well and giving them as much autonomy as possible is where you can realize a truly massive ROI.
Offer long contracts.
If there’s any “top secret tip” in this piece, this is it. When at all possible, offer your writers longer, steadier contracts. That might mean $500 worth of work each month for the next three months, or it might be $1,500 worth of work each month for a year.
I want to be clear about this one: you don’t need to spend a bunch of money; just make the contract longer.
Writers love long contracts, especially freelancers, because it means they’re going to have some money coming in that they can count on.
But it’s also incredibly beneficial for your business. If you offer long contracts, you’ll be able to train one writer to do everything you need, and they’ll be many, many times more invested than they might be otherwise.
Additionally, longer contracts are bigger contracts, and bigger contracts attract much better writers. You’d be surprised at the quality of applicants you can get if you post “$6,000 writing contract available. Any takers?” on Facebook.
Long-term contracts are one of the best possible tools at your disposal.
Take care of your writers!
I don’t have any delusions about how important my writers are to our business. They are absolutely the lifeblood of what we’re doing here at Niche Pursuits. I depend on them to put the meat on the bones of my ideas. It would never, ever happen without them, and I really, really appreciate them for that.
So why wouldn’t I treat them as well I possibly can?
Some of my internet marketing colleagues often try to hire the cheapest possible writers and interact with them as little as possible. Usually, this leads to mediocre content because it’s clear to the writer that they don’t care.
I take the exact opposite approach. I make it incredibly clear to my writers that I care a lot about both them and the project. More importantly, I try very hard to show it. Here’s how:
- I track their time closely to make sure they are making as much money per hour as possible. If their earnings per hour is getting too low, we discuss and tweak until they are making good money. I want it to be a fantastic deal for them.
- When possible, I give them bonuses. I can’t do this every month, since our largest project is a new site that isn’t making money yet, but I still try to give my great writers bonuses when I can. For example, my best writer got a $200 bonus last month.
- Tell them they’re doing a fantastic job. This is so simple, but I’ll be dammned if people just don’t do this. My writers are vital to our business, and I make sure they know it. I tell them simply and often that I appreciate all their hard work.
- Treat criticism as a natural part of the process and don’t make a big deal about it. If I need to tweak something—or even totally rewrite an article—I don’t treat it like a big deal. Why? Because in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal, and my writers are working hard. That kind of thing is just part of the game, and it’s totally fine. Your writers shouldn’t be afraid of you; they should be coming to you with ideas of their own.
- Encourage feedback on your management and on the project. The best writers are going to be the folks who really feel like they have ownership in the project. So ask them for ideas, and let them know you’re totally open to taking criticism yourself.
If you find a great writer, keep them at all costs!
Lastly, you’ll want to hang on to your best writers when you can. It won’t always be possible, because you often won’t be able to offer them a full-time job. But if they like writing for you enough, they’ll often keep working for you even if they move on to other things.
In our case, our authority site has basically one awesome writer named Nina, and she’s incredible. She’s fast, funny and creative.
As soon as I knew the scope of our project, I offered her a 6-month contract, which will probably end up being a 12-month contract. She also knows that if the site becomes profitable, one of the first things I’ll do is go to bat for her and sell more of her services to Spencer—or possible even try to hire her full-time.
She’s by far the best writer I have, and in turn, I act as her advocate. We’re in this thing together, and the quality of the site reflects that.
A few words from Nina (our best writer)
There’s only so much I can tell you, so I figured it might be beneficial to hear from one of the writers I actually manage. So, here’s our best writer, Nina, who handles the bulk of the writing for our authority site, on my management style and our work dynamic. Before you read it, you should know that I asked her to provide criticism, too:
“Writing for Niche Pursuits has been a great experience for me. I started out as just a gal who liked to write with very little professional experience. If it wasn’t for the great working relationship that Perrin and I cultivated I doubt I would be any good at this at all. I am a firm believer that in order for a writer to be successful they need to have a solid support system. This is something that Perrin provides without a doubt.
We work together as a team and approach each project that way. This is possibly one of the most important things that we do. I know that if I have questions, concerns or even ideas, Perrin is there to bounce things off of.
Perrin works very hard to make me feel that they we are more than just writer and manager. I feel that I am a peer and important to the success of Niche Pursuits. He has an innate ability to know what I need as a writer to propel me and keep my motivation flowing.”
Final Thoughts & Questions for You
If you’re going to be treating your sites like a business, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t treat your writers as a pillar of that business. Even if you’re not spending a bunch of money, finding great writers and treating them well will make your life a lot easier and make you a lot more money.
What do you guys think? How do you manage you writers? What did I miss?