739639C7-72B3-4179-8213-8C6B4FDAEA80 How to build a killer writing team on a shoestring budget | Ryan Hops

I’ll put it out there. The most overlooked link in your customer acquisition funnel is inbound marketing. And I get why. It’s hard to put out consistently good content. Even if you can, it‘s time-consuming and expensive — two killers for any startup’s marketing budget. It’s much safer to optimize the efficiency of your Facebook ads and Adwords to death, rather than plunge into the unknown waters of content marketing. I know it. This was me. But then things changed.

When I was at Wall Street Survivor, we pivoted from being a fantasy stock market site — think Yahoo fantasy sports for the stock market — to a stock market education site. On the surface, the shift feels like just semantics, but in reality, it required a dramatic reconstruction of the organization.

What once was a web application became a media company. The apparent problem was that nobody on the team knew the first thing about writing at scale or building a writing team.

So like all startups we improvised. And now I’m sharing this strategy so you don’t have to.

Here’s the process I used to build out an A-list writing team on a budget. Follow it, and you can too.

Step 1: Become an editor, of hire one immediately.

Ok. Let’s get the hard part out of the way first. Somebody on your team needs to own content. They need to eat, breath and sleep content and they need to share the cubicle next to you. Do not outsource this part, you’ll pay for it later. The content owner is the most important person in the process. She acts as the ultimate gatekeeper who stands between what your writers submit and what your users consume. The buck stops with her.

The gatekeeper needs to be able to hire and fire writers without emotion, proofread for typos and grammatical errors and have an innate sense of what your readers want to read and of the competitive landscape.

If you or someone from your current team cannot become this person, you need to hire one immediately.

Post a listing on Craigslist or Indeed.com for a content manager (gatekeeper might send the wrong message). Exhaust these options before spending money on premium job boards.

Here are some the skills you should check for in an interview:

  • Content vision: Ask them to come up with the first three blog posts they would write if they got the gig. If they can do that, they prove that they understand your industry and your company, did their homework and are resourceful. Resourcefulness is next to godliness when operating on a budget.
  • Negotiation: You’re on a budget remember; you’ll need the gatekeeper to hire the best possible writers at the lowest possible cost. You have two options here. Wait for them negotiate their salary — if they won’t negotiate for themselves, how will they fight for your P&L — or present them with a scenario where they need to convince a writer to write for your company.
  • Writing: Hey, they need to eat their own dog food. If they can’t write themselves, how can they be qualified to edit the work of real writers? Those who can’t do, teach? I think that’s bull. As a consequence, if your content manager can write, the writing team will respect them and will be more apt to take constructive criticism.
  • Best Practices: Make sure your gatekeeper knows what’s going on in content marketing. Ask them what their favorite content marketing blogs are. If they’re not reading HubspotKissmetricsBufferor Copyblogger, don’t hire them. Period.

Pro Tip: You want to look out for former journalists from related industries or from blogs you read who are ready to move away from freelance work. Don’t hire somebody who’s previous job was as an editor. They’re too far removed from the writing process, and their salary will be inflated. You should be able to nab a full-time junior content manager for $30,000.

Step 2: Construct a content roadmap.

If a writer has nothing to write, are they truly a writer?

Sit down with your new content manager and throw every thought you have on a whiteboard. Brainstorm titles, ideas, and concepts. When you’re done, compile everything in a spreadsheet. You can organize it later.

Once you’re done coming up with internal ideas, it’s time to look at your competitors. Use a tool like Buzzsumo. Find out what your competitors’ most popular posts are. Throw those in the spreadsheet as well. Next, use Buzzsumo to identify the most popular posts by topic. So, for example, if you’re building a stock market education blog, you’ll search for keywords like “investment ideas”, or “what to do with your 401k”.

Buzzsumo search for investing ideas

Now, you guessed it, throw those ideas in the spreadsheet also.

This process should take you around 15 hours of work, and if you’re efficient, you should harvest between 100–200 blog ideas, minimum.

Step 3: Start hiring writers.

Alright, now that we have the infrastructure in place it’s time to start building the team. I’d call this strategy “spray and “pray”.

Post an ad on Craigslist for a “Freelance Blogger”.

The contents of the ad depend on the type of blog you’re trying to build. If you’re seeking a fun, playful tone then your ad should be written as such. In the post, be very particular about the type of blog you’re creating and the kind of writer you’re looking for. This matters.

Pro-Tip: In addition to asking for their resume and writing samples (both musts obviously), give the job hunter an assignment. In the past, I’ve asked writers to explain a mortgage to me in the simplest possible way in 100 words or less. You can also ask them to give you a list of 3+ blog ideas that they’d like to write. This has two benefits:

  1. You get a sense of their writing style and can quickly eliminate poor writers.
    2. You get a sense for their attention to detail. Too many people just apply to every job posting out there. Don’t waste your time on these people. Honestly, this will cut out 50+% of the applicants and is a HUGE time saver for you.

With the remaining candidates, assign each of them a blog post to write. You don’t need to set up a meeting with them first. I used to do this and at 30 minutes a meeting for 20+ writers it’s a huge time-suck for me, especially for writers whose true quality of work is yet undetermined. You’ll thank me later.

Assign them a post of around 500 words. Assign the same post to multiple bloggers, so you can judge them against each other as a measuring stick. For novice gatekeepers, this is essential. Also, always pay writers for their work.You’re on a shoestring, not a cheapskate. Start small, something like $25. Tell them that you need this step to evaluate whether they are qualified for the gig.

Also, always pay writers for their work. Remember you’re on a shoestring, you’re not a cheapskate.

Many people are lazy and won’t even write those first 500 words. So out of that list ~20 you should be down to around 8–10.

This is your writing team.

Step 4: Evaluate the writers.

Ok, now we have our writing team. You’ve gotten work back from them, and it is up to par. Now’s the time to meet them.

Set up 30 minute meeting. Sell them on your vision. Answer their questions. Welcome them to the team. Negotiate their rate.

I prefer a tiered system, where the first five posts are for $100 (for example), then next five are for $200 and so on…This way I only pay premium dollars for premium writers.

Plug that blog post idea spreadsheet (from step 2) into some type of Project Management system, like Basecamp ($$$) or Asana (free). I’ve used both but prefer Asana. I do this for a few reasons:

  1. It’s easy to assign topics to writers.
    2. It’s easy to store your documents there and chat inline.
    3. You can manage the flow: assign, submit, edit, post.
    4. It eliminates email. God, I hate email.

Now create a new spreadsheet. This one is private.

In this spreadsheet, you’re going to keep track of all the content that your writers post. You’ll use the spreadsheet to the evaluate your writers.

Your evaluation should be a combination of qualitative and quantitative. I combine a letter grade (A to F) to subjectively classify the quality of content with objectives measures, like Unique Visits and social activity (likes, retweets, G+’s) to quantify it.

Your spreadsheet should end up looking something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 10.31.55 PM

Pro tip: You can easily create this spreadsheet using the Google Analytics plugin for Google Docs and Buzzsumo.

Step 5: Manage your team.

Using the spreadsheet, you should quickly get a sense of which writers are working out and which are not. Don’t be afraid to cut the bad ones. It’s a numbers game and you need to be efficient on a budget.

The optimal size of your team depends on your desired content output and the efficiency of your team. Even though your writers are freelance and most likely remote, keep in contact with them frequently and make sure they feel involved in the success of your company.

Pro Tip #1: Double down on amazing writers. If you have a few killer writers, don’t be afraid to increase their rate even before they reach the next tier. The key to keeping costs low isn’t to underpay your writers, it’s to avoid paying for bad content. The cost of searching for a replacement to your amazing writer should not be ignored.

Pro Tip #2: Fire writers based on their quality, not quantity. If you have a killer writer who only submits once a month, who cares. Just be thankful they contribute at all.

So that’s it, my five-step plan to building a killer writing team on a shoestring budget. Let me know what you think? Do you have any strategies that work?