Should My Content Writer Be a Subject Specialist?

subject specialist vs generalist

Anyone that thought content marketing was a fad a few years ago is scrambling to catch up now. Businesses working to ramp up their content marketing efforts will inevitably need to hire someone for writing help, whether a full-time employee or a freelance content writer. Whichever route you take, you’ll find yourself faced with an important question: should you hire someone that’s an expert in your industry, or focus more on writing experience?

If you can find someone that has both, then you’ve hit the jackpot. But you may have a hard time finding that person, or find that once you do they’re either out of your price range or fully booked up.

If you do have to choose, which route should you take?

The Pros of Hiring a Content Writer That’s a Subject Specialist

When your hire someone who already has experience in your space, you’ll face less of a learning curve in getting them up to speed on the industry and audience.

They’re probably already following the top publications and blogs in your industry and will therefore have an easier time spotting trends and recognizing newsworthy topics than someone new to the space. They’re also likely to already have valuable contacts in your industry they can use as sources or contact about collaborative opportunities to strengthen your content and promotions.

And you know they’re interested in the subject. Someone who’s bored by what they’re writing about won’t be as likely to deliver good work as someone who actively cares about the industry or topic area.

The Pros of Hiring a Content Writer That’s a Generalist

If you find a content writer that’s written on a wide range of subjects, it doesn’t mean they’re not an expert on anything, it can mean they’re an expert at being a content writer. Most of the best content writers know how to dig in and do the research to learn about whatever topic they’re covering.

Those research skills are crucial to being a good writer at every stage in the process – even subject specialists need to know how to do research in order to produce quality content – generalists simply put them into use in overdrive in the first few months of working with a client in a new space. While a generalist content writer will never gain the level of expertise in a subject that, say, someone with a PhD or 10 years of experience would have, you’d be surprised at how quickly a good researcher can get up to speed on the main knowledge and topics needed to write content on the subject.

In addition, while a generalist content writer may be learning about your industry from scratch, they’ll likely already come to you with knowledge of writing in ways that are optimized for SEO and well formatted for the web, and come equipped with the adaptability required to learn about new subjects and audiences as they go. That adaptability also lends itself to staying on top of and responding to factors that shape trends in content marketing, like updates to the Google algorithm or new technologies that come onto the scene.

And sometimes a content writer that’s not a subject specialist will still have some experience or familiarity with the subject you need. Everyone’s got friends and family members that do different types of work than they do, and everyone has interests and knowledge that go beyond the things they do at work. Maybe a candidate has no clips related to elementary education, but it turns out their best friend is a 2nd-grade teacher so they have constant access to insights they wouldn’t get from a google search. You’d have to contact them first to find that out.

What to Look for in a Generalist Content Writer

Now that I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you all the great skills and knowledge a generalist content writer could have, I have to clarify that being a generalist doesn’t necessarily mean a content writer will be good at all those things. You have to do a little work yourself to figure out if a content writer you’re considering checks all the important boxes.

For a generalist to be a good content writer, they need to be:

How do you find out if someone you want to hire is all those things? To start, check their writing samples. You can get a feel for how much research goes into their work and how well they seem to know the various subjects they tackle.

Pay attention to the way they format things. Are their blog posts long lumps of text, or do they use ample white space and headings to make skimming easier? Do they turn lists into bullet points and link to relevant sources?

Finally, have an interview (over the phone is usually good enough). On your call, do they ask good questions? Do they pay attention to your answers and seem to get what you’re looking for? Ask them about their process and how they work on understanding the audiences they write for.

More Important: Find a Writer That’s a Good Fit

I’m writing about the question of subject specialist vs. generalist because it’s one that comes up a lot, but personally I don’t think it’s the right question. You should focus on finding someone that’s not only skilled as a content writer, but specifically a good fit for the way you work.

To do that, you first need to question yourself about what your work habits and preferences are:

  • Do you typically prefer to communicate by email or over the phone?
  • Do you usually plan things out well in advance (a month or more), or do you commonly need last-minute work?
  • Do you treat deadlines as set in stone, or are you ok with some flexibility?
  • Do you want someone that you can turn to for more than one type of work? For example, do you want someone who will run your social media profiles as well as write blog posts?
  • Do you want someone who brings their own strong voice to the work, or are you looking for a skilled ghostwriter who can write in the style of your executives?

If you’re a fly-by-your-seat kind of person and you hire a content writer that insists on a clear schedule in advance, then you’re going to have problems. If you prefer all your communication to be over the phone and you hire a writer who considers calls unproductive and insists on email, then you’re going to have problems.

Many potential problems you could have with a content writer can be avoided if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for in advance and seek out someone that meets those needs. If they’re a good writer and you can establish a positive business relationship that works for both of you, a lot of the rest can be learned as you go.

Why Content Writing Requires Empathy

What are the most important skills a content writer needs? Some of the obvious answers that may first come to mind are:

content writing requires empathy

Image via recitethis.com

  • Knack for language
  • Ability to research
  • Understanding of how to format content for the web
  • Ability to write easy-to-read content
  • Ability to create a content calendar and stick with deadlines

The two answers that came up the most often when I asked content strategists what skills the best content writers possessed were creativity and curiosity.

All of that matters. Good content writing requires a pretty significant skillset. But nothing on that list would be enough to create compelling content that people want to read without the skill that’s arguably most important of all: empathy. You probably won’t see it show up on a resume or the list of qualifications in a job ad, but without empathy, nothing a content writer produces will resonate with the target audience.

The Case for Empathy in Content Marketing

Marketers talk a lot about how important empathy is, but often in other terms. How many times have you heard your marketing colleagues use the phrase “know your audience.” It’s an easy thing to say, but empathy can actually be really challenging. It’s not something that’s taught in school. Most businesses don’t exactly cover it in their training. Trying to truly understand what someone else is thinking and feeling is difficult.

Our default mode is to view our own perception of the world as the most obvious, natural way to see things. It’s just how we’re wired. Getting outside of our own heads in order to figure out the differences in how others see things takes effort and practice.

No one’s arguing against empathy in marketing, but not many organizations are putting it front and center. Probably in large part because it is so much harder than it looks. It’s easy enough to think you know your audience, but much harder to actually go the extra mile to really understand them.

How Can Someone Get Better At Empathy?

Image via Natalie CollinsThat poses the question: what can we actually do about it? First and foremost, read.

If there’s one main way to flex our brain’s empathy muscle, it’s to get inside the heads of other people through books, short stories, and articles. Fiction and non-fiction are both good for this. Through reading, you can take a ride through the mindset and perceptions of the writer or character and learn about the experiences of others.

Devoting more time to reading is great advice for anyone who cares about becoming empathetic (or becoming a better writer in any format). But there’s a whole set of other steps you can take to become more empathetic to your particular audience.

Find them online. Then just hang out and listen.

Look for forums, social media groups, and blog comment sections where your audience hangs out. There are so many spaces online today where people share their thoughts and feelings, if you can figure out where those spaces are for your audience then you’ll have an easy glimpse into the kinds of questions and concerns they have.

Talk to your salespeople and customer service reps.

There are people within your company working directly with your customers and prospects every day. Your salespeople and customer service representatives hear first hand what your target audience is thinking about, the issues they’re facing, the questions they commonly have and the kinds of problems they regularly deal with. All of that information can help you understand your audience better and craft your content calendar based on the topics they actually care about.

Look to your data.

Marketers have more data today than they ever have in the history of the profession. You likely already have at your fingertips loads of information on what your prospects are searching for, the terms they use, and the types of content they’re most commonly seeking out. Data can seem dry and impersonal, but with the proper analysis, it can provide content writers with important insights into the minds of your prospects.

Revisit and refine your personas semi-regularly.

Personas shouldn’t be a project you tackle once and then leave alone. You’re constantly learning more about your audience – what issues they care about, what types of content they respond to, what topics they’re discussing online – your new insights should make their way into the personas you have. Commit to revisiting your personas at least once or twice a year to improve upon them based on new information.

 

Empathy is a crucial skill to have as a content writer, but more importantly, it helps people to become better human beings. When you make an effort to understand what other people go through and how they feel, becoming better at communicating and treating people with greater compassion are natural side effects. The same skill that will make your content more relatable and successful will pay off in your life far beyond the effects it has on your work.

Content Marketing in 2016: 5 Trends to Keep On Your Radar

content-marketing-trends-2016At this point it’s old news to say that content marketing just keeps growing in influence. But it’s true this year, just like it was last year and the year before that. While a year or two ago, some businesses were still holding out, most have realized by now that content is an important part of any marketing plan. In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute:

  • 88% of B2B organizations use content marketing
  • 76% plan to produce more in 2016
  • Content marketing gets an average of 28% of the marketing budget
  • And 51% say they expect that amount to increase in the coming year

While most businesses have started to at least dabble in creating content to drive new leads and sales, many are still struggling to figure out what that investment should look like. If you’re trying to figure out where best to spend your content marketing budget in 2016, here are some of the main trends shaping the content marketing industry this year.

1. Long-Form Content

It seems distant now, but there was a point in time when marketers were singing the praises of short content. People were convinced that busy people simply would not take the time to read anything long. The popularity of social media seemed ample evidence of the preference for keeping things short and fast.

Perhaps because people do get their fix for short content on social media, plenty of evidence in the past few years has shown that when it comes to written content, people will take the time to read long form. In fact, it typically performs better on many websites than shorter pieces.

And then, there’s Google. The deciding factor for many content marketers is how their content will influence their website’s SEO. Studies by SEO professionals have shown that long form tends to rule in the search engines for a large number of competitive keywords. So think about lengthening your blog posts (think more like 1,500-2,500 words rather than 500), and setting aside budgeting for other valuable long-form types of content like whitepapers, guides, and ebooks.

Always keep in mind that length isn’t necessarily an arbiter of quality. If you choose to make the investment in long form, make sure you deliver both.

2. Content Personalization

Content personalization has been on the scene for a while, particularly in its most common form – including a recipient’s name in the emails you send. As content management technology gets more and more sophisticated, marketers are able to take their personalization much further.

Technology can track user behavior on your website and tie individual actions back to subscribers and customers when relevant. When you have that much information on individual customers, you can deliver up content that’s specific to their user persona and their point in the buyer’s journey.

That’s powerful. Marketers who use content marketing technology that allows them to align the content they provide with specific personas typically see a 60% increase in how effective their content is at meeting their goals. Content personalization works, which means many businesses will either continue to refine their personalization efforts in 2016, or start to dip their toes in and try it for the first time this year.

3. Data, Data, Data

Effective content marketing relies on good data. You can’t know how well your content is working if you don’t track its success as you go. Like most industries, marketing has therefore seen an uptick in how much decision-making relies on collecting and analyzing all available data.

Businesses that effectively practice data-driven content marketing see big results – nearly five times as much revenue from their marketing efforts, according to one study.

Data-driven marketing can play out in a number of ways. Content personalization relies completely on data. By collecting data on how visitors and customers interact with your website and content, you gain a picture of which of your personas they match, what types of content they respond best to, and can provide them with the right content accordingly.

Data should also shape your larger marketing efforts. Even if you don’t have the technology to provide sophisticated content personalization, you do have access to Google Analytics and other tools to help you measure how well your larger audience responds to your content. You should always be analyzing what’s working and tweaking your content plan based on what types of content and subjects perform best with your audience.

4. Interactive Content

Engagement is one of those words marketers throw around with great regularity. It’s a term that manages to be vague, while also serving as a holy grail of sorts in the world of content marketing. We don’t want people passively hearing about our brand. That may have seemed like enough in the era of outbound, but now we want them to actively interact with us, show us there’s a real connection there.

So much of how we gauge and measure our marketing efforts is based on trying to demonstrate this idea of engagement. That’s why interactive content has become an especially attractive form of content to consider. It requires prospects to perform a more active form of engaging during the process of consuming it than other forms of content.

And it works. 93% of marketers have said they consider interactive content to be more effective at educating consumers than passive content.

From quizzes to games to interactive white papers, interactive content can take on many forms. Many of the content forms your team creates now could probably be tweaked to become interactive with a little creativity and the right technology.

A side benefit of interactive content is that it can often help with #3 – how your audience interacts with your content can provide valuable data on who they are, what they’re interested in, and how they think. You can use that when you’re refining your personas or determining what content to create in months to come.

5. Content Shock

In 2014, Mark Schaefer identified a problem that many content marketers were grappling with. Even those of us who fervently believe in how effective content marketing can be and are quick to proselytize to businesses that haven’t yet taken the plunge were starting to see that the recommendation should come with a caveat. For business getting into the game late, making a splash with content marketing gets harder and harder every day as markets grow more competitive and businesses (especially small and medium sized ones) have to do more and more to get anything from the content they produce.

Schaefer termed this idea content shock and it inspired a flurry of think pieces, rebuttals, and social media conversations in the marketing world. Content marketing does work, but it’s hard and requires playing the long game – and the more competitive it becomes, the less you can skimp.

 

Many of the trends we’ve covered so far in this piece are developing in response to content shock and demonstrate how important it is to make a significant investment in content marketing for it to pay off.

  • Long-form content takes longer to write and costs more if you’re hiring a freelance content writer to help.
  • Interactive content will usually require the work of several members of your team with different skills and the cost of the technology required to make your content interactive.
  • Data and content personalization both require the right technology to pull off, technology that can seem prohibitively expensive to smaller businesses.

 

No one likes to hear that doing content marketing well will mean spending more, but it wouldn’t be honest for professionals in the industry to suggest otherwise at this point. That can sound dispiriting, but it’s a business truth that’s long been true for most things a business bothers to invest in. Doing something well will always pay off more than trying to skimp.

It’s important to note that the takeaway from Schaefer’s argument isn’t that content shock means content marketing isn’t worth trying. If you want your business to be relevant and visible online, it’s pretty much a requirement at this point. Instead, it means businesses have to be careful to be strategic. Make content promotion a significant part of your marketing plan. Pay attention to how your content is performing so you can optimize your content strategy as you go. Use personas to make sure the content you create is targeted to the people you most want to reach.

In short, commit. Give your content marketing efforts the time, energy, and budget they require. That was important in 2015 and it’s even more important in 2016 as ever more businesses enter the content marketing landscape to vie for the attention of your audience. You can still reach the right people; you just can’t expect it to be easy.

 

 

 

7 Essentials for Quality Content Writing

A little while back, I asked a number of content strategists to share their tips on what makes a great content writer. They shared a lot of great insights, but they tended to fall more on the ideological side of things, citing curiosity and creativity as top attributes of the writers they worked with.

For anyone interested in succeeding as a content writer, those are hugely important traits to have, but there are also some specific steps and skills related to the technical process of content writing that those of us who have been at it a while learn over time.

For those of you who could use more specific, in-the-weeds tips on improving your content writing skills, these are the top suggestions I offer.

1.    Read (a lot).

This is a good tip for anyone who wants to be better at any type of writing. Don’t necessarily stick with

Image via kaboompics.com

Image via kaboompics.com

reading the type of writing you’re doing – just be a prolific reader all around. Fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles, blog posts – it’s more important that you read anything you can find that’s by good writers who use language well than it is that you read things that are in the format you’ll be writing in.

Spending time with the work of great writers is how you learn what kinds of words and sentence structures work well together, and what kind of language and writing styles feel awkward, haughty, or needlessly obtuse. Gaining a clearer picture of what you like to read will help you shape your own voice as a writer and replicate what works so well when other writers do it.

2.    Do the research.

You can’t write about something you don’t know about. Well, you can, but it will be needlessly difficult and come out sounding like BS (cause that’s what it will be). The first step to every writing project (unless it’s on a subject you already know inside and out) has to be spending time on research.

I spend more time on research than I do on writing. Unless I don’t do enough research, then the writing is like extracting teeth – slow and painful. And the results won’t end up any better for the extra trouble that goes into it.

3.    Actively work to empathize with your target audience.

Empathy requires work. It seems simple to say that different people see the world differently, but in practice it feels unnatural to us. The golden rule we’re taught as kids is flawed because how I want to be treated isn’t always how other people do. My interests aren’t always the same as my audience’s. My values aren’t necessarily the same as theirs. Etc. Etc.

That means understanding your audience –getting inside their head to figure out what they’re thinking and the kind of topics and writing they respond to – is an extra step that quality content writers have to make and a skillset in and of itself.

One of the greatest gifts I can come across in my research as a freelance content writer is a blog post with members of my target audience offering up their opinions in the comments, or a LinkedIn group where the people I’m writing for are active participants in the discussions. Or even better, a conversation with someone that’s in my target audience. The more you understand about your target audience – their wants, needs, concerns, values, interests – the easier it will be attain the level of empathy needed to write effectively for them.

Quick side note: this is something else that reading helps with. Learning about other people’s lives through nonfiction or getting inside the heads of characters different from you in fiction is a practice in empathy. The more reading you do, the more you stretch the empathy muscle you need to flex when it’s time to get inside the head of your target audience. (I’m not alone in thinking this – no less than POTUS himself agrees!)

4.    Pay attention to formatting.

You have to understand how people read and how their reading habits change on different devices and in different contexts. You’ll find a lot of variety in the particular preferences different people have when it comes to content consumption (some people vastly prefer short-form content, others are much more likely to take the time for quality long form; some are more likely to click on a video, others will opt for text every time).

This makes things complicated, but there are certain online reading preferences that are widespread enough to count on:

  • Headlines must be enticing. If no one ever clicks, they’ll never read anything you write. There are too many tips and opinions on what makes a good headline to get into here – but rest assured it’s important and worth spending time on.
  • People skim. Either to find the information they need faster or make sure they’ll like your content before committing to read the whole thing. Using headlines, bullet points, and lists helps make it easier for them to consume your content the way they want.
  • Visuals matter. I don’t just mean including images in your content (which is good form), but the layout of your content and how easy it is to read is important. You don’t want your writing to look cluttered on the page, leave plenty of whitespace so your words are easier to take in.

Start paying attention to the formatting on the blogs and other online publications you like best. If they’re popular sites, you can bet they’ve paid careful attention to what people respond to and are putting thought into how best to format every post according to reader preferences.

5.    Write at your best time of day.

When I try to write at 4 pm it’s soooooo tedious and slow and the work ends up needing more clean up in the proofreading phase. That’s because by late in the afternoon, I’ve usually used up a lot of my brain energy for the day. Writing requires a lot of focus and energy. Even if conventional wisdom says we have eight hours of work in us every day, few people could pull off eight productive hours of writing five days a week – it just takes too much out of you.

You want to figure out how to structure your day so that the work that requires the most energy falls into the hours of the day when you’re usually the most productive. It won’t always work out perfectly (I do still find myself having to do writing at 4pm some days), but at least having an idea of what those best writing hours are so you can plan as best you can will pay off.

6.    Track how you work.

This relates to #5, you want to understand your process and habits inside and out. Paying attention to how you do things is the first step to figuring out what works best and how to structure your work productively. Here are a couple of examples of how this has paid off for me:

  • Outlining – I used to poo-poo all the advice that insisted that outlining was crucial to writing. It time-trackingwas something I rarely did for the first year I worked as a professional content writer and my work was fine without it. But I realized over time that it made the work easier and better. By starting to create outlines for every piece I write in advance, my productivity and the organization of my content pieces has definitely improved.
  • Understanding where my time goes – I mentioned earlier that a lot of the time I spend on a piece goes to the research part of the process, and if I every try to spend less time researching, I spend more time writing. Tracking my time helps me make sure I don’t overload my days and that I do my work in the most efficient way possible (e.g. don’t try to jump to the writing before adequate research has been performed).
  • Carbs – This one’s personal, but I’ve noticed that whenever I have carbs for breakfast or lunch, I spend a chunk of the day drowsy and unproductive. How much I get done and how good it is has a direct relation to what I eat. So carbs are now for dinner and weekends only.

7.    Proofread (at least twice)!

It’s last on the list, but oh so important. You have no idea how many embarrassing errors or just awkwardly written sentences I’ve caught when proofreading. You never want to send that on to a client or publish it for the world to see. Ideally, someone else should also be reviewing your work before it gets published, but even so, read it at least twice before passing it along. Make one of those readings out loud – you get a better feel for how well your sentences work when you hear how they sound.

I can tell when I read something that hasn’t been proofread (or adequately proofread). You probably can too. It will make you look bad if you let a lot of sloppy errors or bad writing through. This is one of the most important tips I can provide to make sure you avoid that.

 

 

These are my experiences and I expect that most other professional content writers would agree with this list (with maybe a few things to add). Most people have the capacity to become better writers. Reading a lot and getting feedback on your writing will inevitably lead to growth in your skill. If being a better writer isn’t really a goal you have (not everyone needs to write well in their work), you can always hire someone to help.

Unpopular Opinion: Stop Calling Blogs Social Media

blogs aren't social mediaLanguage can be so complicated, can’t it? Especially when you’re dealing with words that are new and still evolving. The word “blog” only just came onto the scene in 1997. The first use of “social media” may have beat it by a few years, but the evidence of its earliest use is unclear. These are words that apply to technology that keeps evolving. And even as the technology itself evolves at a rapid pace, the way we use it changes even faster.

For a long time, blogging has been lumped in under the larger category of social media. I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that it no longer belongs there.

3 Reasons That Blogging Is No Longer Social Media

  1. Blogs increasingly resemble media properties more than they do the content on social networking websites.

Brands have spent years trying to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks when it comes to blogging. Recently, we’ve started to gain a clearer idea of just what does work and, in most cases, it’s well researched, meaty, long-form blog posts that more closely resemble the articles common to media properties than the short and pithy posts of social media.

The difference between this type of blog post and a tweet is comparable to the difference between a magazine article and a slogan – they’re completely different types of writing, with different goals, and vastly different work processes involved. The way we talk about them should reflect that.

  1. The most social thing about blogs – the comments – are only a prominent feature on a small portion of blogs.

If there’s one component of blogging you could use to really make a case for their being social media, it’s the comments. But how many blogs do you visit that don’t seem to have any comments at all, much less significant social interaction in the comments? Many prominent blogs have even done away with comments altogether, due to the increasing workload of sifting through comment spam. Copyblogger, a big proponent of calling blogs social media back in 2009, famously disabled the comments on their blog in 2014. They felt confident people would move the social component of interacting with their blog to social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

So if the blog is for putting quality, article-like content out there and social networking platforms are for talking about them (and anything else you want to discuss), perhaps it’s time to acknowledge they’re serving different purposes.

  1. The goals of a blog are different than those of a social media presence (although they’re related).

Social media is all about interaction, awareness and promotion. Blogging is about education, thought leadership, and traffic. The specific goals and KPIs for the two mediums should differ.

Social media’s a great tool for promoting your blog posts and ideally developing the community that will visit your blog, and blogging can be an opportunity to gain the trust of readers and turn them into social media followers – and both should be helping you work toward the larger goal of building trust and gaining customers. But they each have a distinct role to play within the larger strategy of content marketing.

 

When you hear the term “social media,” what do you picture? For the vast majority of us, the interfaces of Facebook or Twitter will be the main images that come to mind. I’d be genuinely surprised if you told me that the image of your favorite blog popped into your head. Blogs are a type of media, and they’re often social. But they don’t fit with how most us now use and understand the term “social media.” It’s time to acknowledge that, as important as the relationship between the two mediums is, they’re not the same thing.