When companies build content marketing strategies, they typically include writing — whether blog posts, how-to lists, thoughtful articles, in-depth white papers, or full-on “brand publications” and “owned information hubs.” For these projects, brand marketers need professional writers.
But where can they find writers? As brand content has proliferated, a variety of solutions hit the market. Solutions include semi-famous subculture bloggers with devoted, niche fanbases; marketing agencies with an arsenal of versatile English majors; and tech platforms that want to be the “Uber for articles.” It’s bewildering. How do you know what’s out there, and what’s the best value for money?
I started by drawing from my own experience as a writer and content strategist; then I interviewed my media friends and surveyed a few technical products in order to help Sandi answer this question for Quibb. (During this process, I had to sign up for email lists run by content marketers with varying moral sensibilities, and I’m still unsubscribing weeks later! You’re welcome. :) )
First Things First: As Usual, It Starts With Your Goals
The metrics applied to any endeavor will shape its output, and content marketing is no exception. Written digital content can serve an array of money-related goals, such as:
- Improve the parent site’s PageRank so it comes up higher in search engine results (SEO)
- Collect as many pageviews (traffic) as possible in order to collect money from ads
- Lead a reader to buy a specific product or sign up for a service directly from the webpage (conversions)
- Convince an audience to trust the parent brand by demonstrating warmth, expertise, innovation and thought leadership, or other brand-aligned characteristics (branding)
- Serve a community, highlight their contributions, and increase loyalty (community management)
These goals can overlap, but they can also be at odds, especially when the skillset or tactics for achieving one goal don’t mesh with other goals. For example: A person who’s great at writing funny factoid lists might be less good at in-depth analytical reports. Even worse, clever factoid lists often draw clicks — but they might also lead an expert reader to dismiss the parent brand as fluffy or crowd-pleasing, and thereby harm the cause of thought leadership. So, in that sense, incentivizing a writer with pageviews is often not the best way to yield thought leadership.
Unfortunately, many non-pageview metrics are hard to track. Because pageviews are easy and come free with Google Analytics, they’re a really common metric — even though their most concrete use case is ad sales, and most brand content doesn’t serve ads. Analytics suites such as Chartbeat and Contently measure many non-pageview factors, like time spent on page, but those products cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. And other “free” solutions are typically highly technical or come with hidden costs — Upworthy open-sourced its code for measuring “Attention Minutes,” but in order to use the code, most editors require expensive help.
In my own practice of content strategy, both as an individual and a consultant, I value qualitative feedback very highly. I exult in results like fan mail, conference invitations, influencers who reach out for coffee, high-quality comments, famous journalists who choose to follow a client on Twitter, or rockstar applicants who get super excited to join a client’s team because of content marketing. But I acknowledge that these results are intermittent and hard to consistently measure when compared with SEO, pageviews, conversions, time on page, etc. And often, trying to hire someone who can do this consumes time and demands creative latitude.
In Quibb’s case, one of Sandi’s goals is to encourage new visitors to sign up for Quibb. After collating the different content that Sandi and other writers created, we noticed that content that gets the most pageviews doesn’t always collect the most new Quibb signups. For Quibb, articles about particulars of the tech ecosystem often result in more signups than broader popular articles — which makes sense, since Quibb the product is so useful for understanding the particulars of tech.
“Uber For Content Marketing”: Platforms For Finding Writers
Given these different metrical concerns, where are brand marketers to find writers? I’ve heard a many tales from people who turned to platforms. If they want very basic content for SEO purposes or to fulfill straightforward informational needs, then some get their needs met super cheap. But if they want higher-level analysis or creative, then they’re rarely satisfied by low-priced article platforms.
“I've commissioned three basic, just-the-facts articles at 150-200 words each on Textbroker,” says Matt Hampel, who works at LocalData, a cloud-based platform for collecting geospatial data. “Two were great on the first try; the third missed the mark but got revised for free. In fact, the first two pieces were so good that I was surprised. Total spend so far is about $15. We have about a thousand pages that need descriptions, so if we decide to spend $500 or $1,000, I think we could raise traffic.”
Another Silicon Valley regular, Taft Love, wanted more thoughtful content. He had trouble finding it over content platforms. “I was working on a side project for which I needed content,” he says, “and I went to Fiverr, where you can get any creative for $5. I also tried oDesk, the general freelance talent marketplace. The most expensive platform I tried was Scripted, which is just for writing. At the time, Scripted charged $49 for basic professional writing, and $99 for writers with industry experience.
“Out of the three services,” continues Love, “Fiverr was, surprisingly, the closest thing to a good blog post. The main difference between Scripted and oDesk was that Scripted sent a draft with better punctuation and spelling. Also, I had specifically told people from every service that I wasn’t looking for a keyword-dense SEO post, because I believe that the future is good content and not keywords — and Scripted was the only one that didn’t try to give me keyword soup. However, the actual content was poorly written and uninspiring on both counts.
“I ended up doing a lot of the writing myself,” he concludes. “I’m no writer, but I was better than these services.”
Two platforms, ArticleBunny and WriterAccess, are similarly priced to Scripted, and they use rating systems for their writers. In fact, WriterAccess directly connects compensation to a writer’s star rating — there’s a calculator on the site to show how much a 1-star writer would cost for a given piece, compared to a 5-star writer. I’d love to hear testimonials about either platform, but I didn’t find any during my research.
This situation probably has a lot to do with how much writers enjoy working for these sites. Here’s a 2013 article from MakeALivingWriting.com that delivers “14 writers’ true stories of working for content mills.” From a hiring perspective, the article is helpful in that it lists rates (though some of the rates are out of date now), and it’s even more helpful because it showcases the average writer’s attitude about “Uber for articles” platforms. “From what I observed, all of them require a lot of time and effort for little pay,” says one writer quoted in the piece. Another notes, “The only reason some people stick around is for the knowledge you gain in the earlier stages. I’ve seen many people comment on how much it has helped their writing so they’ve managed to go onto bigger and better pastures.”
Not all article platforms are low-end “content mills,” though. The highest end of content marketing platforms is best represented by a company named Contently. My professional writer friends reported that out of all these platforms, Contently pays the best rates — hundreds of dollars or more per article. (In fact, most of my professional writer friends don’t bother with other platforms.)
Predictably, Contently deploys killer content marketing to advertise its services, including an excellent blog. In their in-depth writing about metrics, they don’t even bother to acknowledge SEO as a motivation for content marketing, but focus on more lucrative and widely-respected goals like thought leadership (they call it “ambitious content”). Their platform’s network boasts journalists with bylines from world-famous publications like The New York Times. Contently offers an agency, analytics, and a payment solution to go along with their network of writers. As a result of all this, using Contently costs a minimum of several thousand dollars per month.
Contently seems reliable when it comes to quality, but the cost put it out of Sandi’s range. I also think Sandi can do better for Quibb because she can connect to great writers directly.
Hiring Writers Directly
This appears to be the best value for money, although it’s hard for people who don’t know any writers. Sometimes, good writers will work for as little as a hundred dollars per article, especially if they’re new. Other well-established writers can charge up to a thousand dollars for a corporate blog post (more for a white paper or other long piece). “The higher deals have an expectation of quality and retainer-style relationships,” says Kate Gardiner, a digital strategist from New York. “The low end are kids just out of or nearly out of school.”
This can demand a lot of guidance from the person managing the writers — although there are workarounds for that. Nell Taylor, a content and business strategist from Chicago, says that she helps some clients hire writers and then she assesses the writers’ strengths and weaknesses. Once she has a sense of where a given writer is coming from, Taylor generates a guide tailored to the writer. For instance, if she’s hired a fantastic journalist who knows nothing about SEO, Taylor will write an extensive SEO guide for that person, with examples and tips specific to the task at hand.
When it comes to finding writers to work with, here are the suggested approaches for people who don’t already know any:
- Try to find someone who you could work with regularly, on a retainer agreement.
- Kate Gardiner suggests posting to journalist-oriented job sites like Mediabistro and JournalismJobs. “Additionally, the majority of journalism schools have a jobs board or listserv worth posting to,” she adds.
- A number of editors suggested looking for writers in relevant publications, then contacting them directly. For instance, if you want a writer to generate business content on the level of the Harvard Business Review, then you can try combing HBR articles and contacting your favorite authors.
- Looking through social media communities that are relevant to the audience you want to reach can be productive, too. (Twitter, Tumblr, and reddit all came up as great sources.) This is especially true if you’re targeting an audience that’s well-represented on one of those platforms.
So, if you’re a content marketer seeking writers, what should you do?
For a straight-up SEO or advertising play, then cheap platforms seem doable — although Google is always seeking to orient its algorithms towards high-quality content, and the bottom is falling out of the digital ads market, so these may not be the best long-term strategies. Still, it seems that paying mid-low rates (like $50 an article) doesn’t get a meaningful increase in quality over the lowest possible rates (like $5 an article). So, for marketers hiring writers, my key takeaway is that these goals can be served very cheaply, if they are your actual goals.
My recommendation to Sandi is for us to co-create some carefully-defined starter projects for a writer to complete, and to hire a competent writer who can work on retainer by searching through our respective social networks. It will take time to recruit that person, but it’s worth it. I would recommend the same to anyone who’s interested in community management, branding, or conversion-related content marketing goals.
Thanks to Lydia Laurenson for her work on this post