By most standards, Contently runs an advanced brand publishing operation.
We’ve currently got an in-house editorial staff of four people, with design and photography support, plus at least 15 freelancers from the Contently network. The Content Strategist and its sister magazine, The Freelancer, publish upwards of 25 pieces of content per week, including quizzes, videos, podcasts, infographics, comics, original research, and more. We put out a quarterly print magazine, attract over a quarter of a million unique visitors every month, and have a budget of… well, not everything is for public consumption I guess.
As hard as it may be to believe though, The Content Strategist wasn’t always the beautiful, intelligent, witty, and wise rag you find yourself reading today. We started out as a barely-designed WordPress blog without a budget, staff, or much of a plan. It was only through a lot of trial and error, and some smart hiring decisions, that we got to where we are now (though we are still on WordPress).
The Content Strategist circa 2010
But even though it hasn’t always been sunshine and Coronaritas for us, we’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way about the best way to hire for content marketing success. I recently sat down with Contently VP of Marketing (and all-around marketing sage) Ray Cheng to try to put some structure around those lessons.
And because I’m just that kind of generous guy, I’ll share our exclusive and proprietary methodology here:
Hard to believe, but Ray’s handwriting is actually better than mine.
So what does this weird series of hieroglyphics mean? Well, as a content program matures, there are a two different plates to balance: external and freelance hires, and the volume/complexity of content produced.
Here, thanks to Kristen Graves, our brilliant head of sales development, is a framework that a human can actually use (please note that this is just a framework—every content marketing program will have a unique timeline, budget, and KPIs):
As you can see, there are three main phases when it comes to scaling your content efforts: crawling, walking and running. After all, your content marketing program is your baby, and you need to know how to help it grow over time.
In a content marketing program’s infancy, there’s generally a low volume of content being produced: 1-2 blog posts a week, plus attendant social media. Having a full-time editorial staffer writing twice a week is probably a waste of money, and so I’d recommend starting with a freelance editor working closely with an in-house (content) marketing manager or marketing director. The editor should have some budget to pay writers, but should probably shoulder much of the writing work themselves. As you’re operation matures and your budget grows, you can bring the editor in-house without missing a beat.
One other thing to note here: Having budget dedicated to content strategy is key in this phase. A full-time strategist is probably a luxury you can’t afford, but a lack of strategy altogether is a necessity you can’t go without.
The Content Strategist, circa 2011
OK, so your content program is maturing. You’ve settled on an editorial voice and set of topics, and you’re consistently publishing 3-5 stories a week. Time to hire an editor/head of content full-time. This person’s title could vary—editorial director, managing editor, VP of content—but the important thing is that they are the chief executor of your content marketing strategy.
There are a couple of reasons this should be a full-time hire and not a contractor or freelancer, but the main one is that you need someone who can speak the language and needs of your brand while also understanding how to translate that voice into stories that people will want to read. It’s a tricky job, and one that is made harder if that person isn’t interacting with other parts of the business on a daily basis.
Your head of content will be able to do a lot of writing herself, but she’ll need help from another freelance editor (to help keep copy clean and new ideas coming in), and should have 5-7 freelancers on call for features and specialized work like white papers and e-books.
Strategy is important here too—I’d recommend having a trained strategist come in for 10-20 hours a month to help assess the competitive landscape, identify trends, and keep the ship moving in the right direction.
It’s a good idea to start firming up your multimedia strategy by now as well. As the web becomes more and more mobile, video, audio, and visual content are becoming must-have ingredients in the content mix. You probably don’t need to hire full-time for this role, but you should have a stable of go-to freelance multimedia talent you can turn to.
This is also the point where you should start testing and optimizing paid distribution, spending money on platforms like Facebook, Outbrain, and Twitter to drive people back to your content.
The Content Strategist today
Congratulations—you’re starting to look like a real publisher! That means publishing 10+ times a week, including video, infographics, and other multimedia. If you’re really cool, maybe you have a print magazine as well. Now you need to staff accordingly.
That means a full-time editor-in-chief, reporting to a head of content. They may have brought an assistant editor or a lead writer in-house as well. For the more behind-the-scenes work, I would also recommend a full-time social media person, someone dedicated to email optimization, and perhaps even an in-house photographer/photo editor. That team will work closely with the VP and director of marketing, and—depending on your organization—perhaps even the CMO as well.
Your in-house team should also be augmented by a large group of freelancers who can add scale and fill in any gaps in expertise, including heavy research, infographics, video, and photography.
At this point you’ll also want to integrate content strategy and distribution deeper into your day-to-day operations—maybe not so far as full-time hires, but certainly 15-20 hours a week for each.
Once you’ve built a sizable engaged audience, the hiring template kind of goes out the window, but the main idea remains the same: double down and scale what’s working.
Some brands go in the direction of Marriott, hiring large creative teams in-house and rolling out small galaxies of microsites, YouTube channels, and more. Some opt to stay lean internally and scale through a vendor like Contently or an agency; American Express Open Forum is a great example of this model. For the truly ambitious, nothing short of a stand-alone media company, with hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in independent revenue, will do—think Red Bull Media House, or Bloomberg Media.
1. You need to crawl before you can walk.
The holy grail for most brands embarking into content publishing is a loyal owned audience—but getting there overnight is nearly impossible.
2. Don’t spend it all in one place.
Getting the right people in-house is key, but so is finding the right vendor, freelancers, and distribution channels.
3. Balance freelance vs. in-house.
The right balance depends on what you value more at a given moment: budget flexibility or productivity and brand integration. In my experience a couple of in-house people working with a select group of expert freelancers is ideal.
4. Hiring your best freelancers in full-time roles is smart business.
Whenever possible, I try to hire my best freelancers full-time. As a growing company, we don’t have the budget flexibility to bring in dozens of people—but as freelancers prove themselves (and our content drives more and more results to the bottom line), I’m often able to make the case for them to come in-house.
5. Multimedia is expensive, but important.
Having a robust and unique visual style, and different types of multimedia content, is key for differentiating your content in the cacophony of the Internet.
Not every brand needs to follow this timeline—in fact, I think of it more like a set of ingredients than a recipe for success. At Contently, for instance, we hired our editorial director nearly a year before our head of marketing. But I’m confident that following these steps will have your content baby up and running sooner than you could believe—they grow up so fast!