You know that blogging is indispensable for a successful inbound marketing strategy, but despite trying all the tricks of the blogging trade, you just can't find enough time to consistently blog at the frequency and quality level you need to stay ahead of your competitors. When other marketers in your shoes reach this point, there are a couple of routes they commonly take. Many will hire an in-house blogger to create content and manage the blog's CMS. Others don't need a full-time employee(s) to manage their blogging needs, though, and will opt for a part-time, freelance blogger. Usually, freelance bloggers don't manage your CMS, but the content creation effort lies squarely on their shoulders.
Hiring a freelance writer to feed your blog with content comes with some bonuses -- namely, they cost less than hiring a full-time, in-house employee. But many marketers and business owners have been burned by freelance writers who are unresponsive, deliver poor quality content, disappear when they get busy with other projects (or a full-time day job), and miss deadlines. Working with freelancers like that not only presents scalability issues, but it also takes up so much of your time researching, interviewing, and reviewing writing samples that you could probably just use that time to blog for yourself.
So how do you get it right the first time? How do you ask the right questions to weed out the unreliable freelancers, and pick the ones that will create great content for your blog on a consistent basis? Here are the questions you should ask and indicators that will let you pick out a super star freelance writer for your blog who you can rely on for a long time to come.
Starting with open-ended questions like these should give you a good indication of how experienced the freelance blogger is -- if they can pointedly answer these questions, they are experienced enough to know what's important to mention in their response. If you're met with vague or generic answers, or they don't ask intelligent follow-up questions that help narrow down their focus, they might be a generalist that isn't specialized in your industry or blog writing, specifically. Or worse, they're simply unprepared for your interview -- not the person you'd like responsible for diligently creating content.
What types of content do you create?
Sometimes you'll encounter a freelancer who writes a great whitepaper, but when faced with developing a compelling blog post, he or she can't quite pull it off. Get your candidate talking about the types of content they write -- blog posts, press releases, ebooks, printed books, business proposals, manuals, etc. A good freelance writer is capable of writing more than one content type, but listen for which assets they emphasize most, as some offer more transferable writing skills than others. Former journalists, for example, are more likely to make great bloggers than technical writers.
About what industries do you write?
Freelance writers can usually write about more than one industry, especially those that make their living off freelance writing full-time (more on that later). But if on their resume or during your interview, a candidate claims they are adept at writing about every industry, it's more likely they are spreading themselves too thin. They are probably okay at writing about a lot, but not great at writing about anything. A good freelancer knows his or her limitations. If you're interviewing someone who claims such a thing, ask for writing samples around your industry and those related to yours. For example, those in the marketing industry would also ask to see samples of writing about technology and business to see if their claims really hold up.
Describe the tones in which you're comfortable writing.
Great freelance writers can adapt their tone based on the company for which they're writing. If you've written a content style guide, you already know the exact tone for which you're striving. See if they mention words that match those you've placed in your style guide -- objective, humorous, balanced, lighthearted, etc. If your candidate is able to do this, they are likely naturals at adapting tone on a client-by-client basis. It also means they've probably read your blog content and have the ability to distill style and tone on their own. That's a skill that is honed with experience, and you can be confident that they can tweak copy to make it sound appropriate for the business at hand.
All of the great freelance bloggers are capable of doing these things, and incorporate it into their regular writing process. Subpar freelancers, however, may position these as extras or add-ons -- or just something they don't know how to do. Ask these questions to separate the wheat from the chaff.
How comfortable are you conducting interviews?
Bloggers don't always have to conduct interviews to create content, but it's a skill that should be in their back pocket. Writers are sometimes characterized as introverts, but as your blog grows, it may become necessary that your blog content reflects opinions expressed by industry influencers, subject matter experts, and customers. If your freelance blogger is going to stick with you for the long haul, they should be able to comfortably conduct interviews on the phone, in person, or via social media to get the quotes they need to create quality content. When having this discussion, it doesn't hurt to ask whether your candidate has already forged connections in your industry, either. If they have specific industry experience, it's likely they've spoken to some people in your network. This is not only a good signal of legitimacy, but also an asset for your blog content if they've maintained their relationship.
What's your research methodology?
No matter how prolific a blogger, no candidate should claim they don't usually have to perform research when writing posts. At the very least, bloggers should perform cursory research on topics to ensure they're covering all necessary angles. But more importantly, a freelancer that works with you in the long term will (and should) pursue topics that are challenging and outside their immediate realm of knowledge.
So ask -- how do you learn about new topics about which clients ask you to write? When new features, products, or technology comes out in your industry, how do you learn about it? What publications, resources, and researchers do you visit to inform your content? In their responses, consider whether they are citing reputable sources, and whether they have an actual process in place. If they flounder through the question, you know they aren't used to pushing the envelope when they blog, and are instead content to rely on a limited knowledge set to inform blog posts.
Do you know how to optimize content for search engines?
Some freelancers may peg search engine optimization as an extra. In this day and age, professional and experienced freelance writers are adept at optimizing blog content and consider it part of the regular process of creating blog content. That doesn't mean they perform in-depth keyword research for you or coordinate your SEO strategy. It does mean that, armed with knowledge from you of the keywords for which you're trying to rank and some brief time spent in a keyword research tool when necessary, they can optimize a title, headers, and blog content, write a compelling meta description that makes readers click, and internal link to pre-defined pages on your site with the appropriate anchor text.
Describe the proper layout and format of a blog post.
An effective blog post holds a different structure than any other content type. Does your candidate know how to lay out and format a blog post? If you're conducting an in-person interview, ask them to draw a properly laid out and formatted post. If you're conducting an interview over the phone, provide a blog post and ask them what about the layout and formatting is correct, and what is incorrect. Look for responses like:
Include an image.
Visually break up any long blocks of text.
Use formatting devices like headers, bullets, check marks, and numbered lists.
Include a call-to-action in every post.
Break up content into sections or steps.
If you hire a freelancer who turns in work without properly laying out and formatting content, you're creating unnecessary work for yourself that negates the reason you've outsourced blog content creation in the first place.
If you find a candidate who, after asking the previous questions, appears to be a good fit to write for your blog, get into some logistics around both of your schedules. Freelance writers all carry different schedules and workloads, and working out those kinks before forging ahead in a long-term relationship will help set the right expectations from the onset.
What are your freelance work hours?
This is a loaded question, but it will let you know if they are full-time freelancers, or freelance in addition to maintaining a full-time job. It's a critical difference that may present a problem for your business, depending on your blogging needs.
Those with a full-time job other than freelancing have less flexibility to respond to content you need on-demand. For example, you may need some quick content turned around when you're trying to capitalize on a breaking news story in your industry. Or perhaps you need a revision on a blog post slotted to go up at the end of the business day. Will they be able to respond in time? And will their work be diligent, or rushed through during their lunch break?
This is not to say a freelancer with another full-time job can't blog well for you. But it is information you should ask before making a hiring decision so you can put safeguards in place -- like an editorial calendar, stringent due dates, and revision cycle guidelines.
Describe your typical revision cycle.
Speaking of which, the way your candidate describes their typical revision cycle is telling of how seriously they take their work with clients. Anyone you hire to blog for you should be open and happy to perform revisions you request, especially during the beginning of your relationship when your blogger is just getting ramped up. Your candidate should not only be able to describe how they tackle revisions (indicating they are actually used to performing them), but also volunteer that he or she is happy to perform 2-3 revisions on blog posts within a pre-determined timeframe.
If, after you ask all of these questions, you are blown away by your candidate, don't pull the trigger quite yet. Always, always, always ask for two things: samples of his or her work, and multiple references. It's easy for a writer to get published on the internet these days, so existence of work doesn't mean the working relationship was good or that the quality of work necessarily meets your standards. Jot down notes during the interview, and compare those notes with what the freelancer's references say about their work ethic, capacity to learn, and flexibility. If you see great blog samples and hear good reviews, then congratulations -- you're no longer solely responsible for feeding your blog!
Have you ever hired a freelance writer that turned out to be amazing (or a total bust?) Share what you learned about the process in the comments.