If you recognize my name or my crowned avatar, chances are you've read my work on the Buffer blog. For almost a year, I was a content crafter at Buffer, one of the most well-known and well-respected startups in the world of content marketing. Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich turned to content marketing early on to build a name for his company. He wanted to develop an audience that trusted the Buffer brand; a community that would consistently share valuable content.
After joining the Buffer team in 2013, I helped Leo increase blog traffic by 59% in one month, then double it the following month. We built up a consistent publishing schedule of 3-5 posts per week, and syndicated our content on top-tier publications, including Time.com, Salon, Fast Company, Lifehacker, and Entrepreneur.com.
That said, Buffer's content marketing strategy has humble beginnings. Leo recounts:
I was in the middle of College when I jumped on to the Buffer train. I had virtually no marketing experience. I just started to spend day and night on getting Buffer featured in the press—without any success. Because of this, I started blogging and do the writing ourselves and that's when things really took off.
I love hearing Leo tell this story. He didn't jump on the content marketing bandwagon because he thought it was the next great growth "hack." Leo turned to writing about his own product, because nobody else would.
Eventually Leo wrote content not only about his own product, but also on topics relevant to his audience. If you look at the Buffer blog today, you see a wealth of regularly updated information about all aspects of social media marketing. Buffer's audience gets value out of this content whether or not they use Buffer the product.
Leo's content marketing strategy developed from an effort to have someone writing about Buffer—even if he had to do it himself—into an effort to provide value to a targeted audience.
"Rand Fishkin taught me that content isn't for direct signups—it's to create loyalty, branding and familiarity," Leo says.
These days Buffer's content strategy includes webinars, eBooks, and email newsletters as well as the ol' favorite—blog posts. But every piece of content created is designed for the same purpose: to help Buffer's audience.
With so much involved in content marketing, a role at a startup like Buffer requires a blend of writing skills, marketing and networking skills, and the ability (and willingness) to pick up various other attributes along the way—from design and development to customer support and developer relations. Not to mention a content marketer needs domain knowledge for whatever industry he or she is in.
How do you hire someone who can do all of that?
To be honest, it's hard. Even with the growing popularity of content marketing as a strategy, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to finding the perfect person to implement it. Finding a candidate with the right blend of skills, experience, and culture fit is a major task.
With that in mind, I spoke with some of the best content marketers around to better understand the characteristics they brought to the position, and their duties now that they're in the role. Then I went straight to the top—to people who've hired content marketers—to learn how they sourced quality applicants and what they discovered along the way.
Content marketers learn a lot on the job. The position requires such a unique mix of skills and experience that it's nearly impossible to find anyone who posses them all. Instead of waiting around for a perfect match, seek out someone who shows a thirst for knowledge, and the ability to soak up new experiences.
Current Buffer content crafter Kevan Lee told me his desire to grow and his perseverance are crucial, yet intangible, characteristics for success in his position. "Obviously writing plays a big part in my role," he says. "I like to think that some of the specific ways we go about creating articles, putting thoughts together, and organizing can be learned along the way."
Crew blog editor Jory MacKay has a background in journalism, so he's had to pick up marketing skills since joining the team at Crew. "I've taught myself to use analytics to make better decisions, how to A/B test our e-mail campaigns, and how to reach out to people in the community for support and growth."
For Danny Schreiber, who runs the Zapier blog, willingness to learn is a big part of finding the right person to join the Zapier team. "I'm looking for someone who is driven to learn what works and what doesn't and then isn't afraid to put it into practice," he says. "Sure, they might have embarrassed themselves in the past with a podcast that had just 20 downloads, but that shows that the individual is willing to learn new channels and give it a go."
Kelsey Meyer, a co-founder of content marketing firm Influence & Co., told me willingness to learn is a must-have for her new hires, as well. "If you're going to continuously work on new pieces of content, you can't be satisfied with the knowledge you have. Our best employees are constantly teaching themselves new skills and get excited about diving into a new industry.
During interviews, Kelsey vets applicants by asking, "What have you taught yourself in the last 6 months?"
Danny told me that writing is one of the most important skills he looks for when hiring at Zapier. But perfect prose is just a foot in the door.
"With proficient writing skills, a candidate can fit into any position on our team," he says. "Whether or not they'll be a good fit for Zapier comes down to their interest in marketing, inclination to promote content and app savviness."
Danny's request for "app savviness" in his content hires points to the need for extensive domain knowledge. Though some of this can be learned on the job, it's helpful for new hires to start with some degree of knowledge about the company's product and industry.
Greg Ciotti, Help Scout's content strategist, learned much of his domain knowledge on the job. But he incorporates domain experience into job listings for new content roles. "Just because someone can write about sports, fashion, or traveling doesn't mean they have the chops to succeed in this space," he writes on his personal blog.
Greg says this is one of the hardest parts of a new content role to fulfill, but he believes it's a key part of choosing the right candidate. "At the very least, applicants should have a passing familiarity with a topic, and the motivation to learn a whole lot more."
For Crew CEO Mikael Cho there are two must-have traits of new marketing hires: prior experience publishing their writing and the ability to tell a good story.
"There are so many outlets for creative work today you don't have an excuse not to," he says. "Medium, a personal blog, Twitter; You should have published at least 3 things before applying for a position that involves writing."
Danny echoed this sentiment, comparing it to another key responsibility within a company. "Just as a software developer's ability to constantly ship code is important, so too is a writer's ability to constantly publish content," he says.
At Crew, when Mikael reviews a published piece that's submitted by an applicant, he looks for evidence of great storytelling skills. "We don't care as much about pageviews or shares so much as we care about you being able to tell a good story. Telling a good story means showing an understanding of the elements that make up a story (a hero, a problem, an overcoming of the problem, etc.)."
A related skill of a content marketer is what kind of questions they ask of themselves, of their peers, and of the world around them. Alyce Currier, content strategist at Wistia, told me this is something she pays particular attention to when hiring for new content roles.
"Quality, both in work and in other parts of life, has a huge influence on how good someone is at coming up with fresh topics and new approaches to old topics regularly, and so much of writing (at least for me) is just following through on a question you have!" Alyce says.
Danny's also after Zapier employees who are brave. One of his marketing team's values is "fearless," and to fulfill that he looks for people who are willing to work tirelessly promoting their writing. Though this might sound easy, Danny says promoting your work is a tough skill to master. And yet, it's important because publishing content that you don't promote can lead to tumbleweeds. "Without promotion, it's likely a piece of content—even the best post we've published—goes unnoticed."
Greg agrees promotional skills are important for a new content hire, though he focuses especially on networking and interpersonal skills. "Good content marketers only become great when they have the drive, ability, and interest in connecting with other smart people."
Part of Greg's process for assessing networking and promotional skills in applicants is to ask for examples of where they've built their personal brand online. He said marketers need to be comfortable putting themselves "out there," and even maintaining a small personal brand shows their willingness to do just that.
Jimmy Daly, head of content marketing at email marketing app Vero, began his position a freelancer, contributing to the company's blog and working on an SEO plan. After testing the waters for a while, both Jimmy and the Vero team agreed he would be a great fit for a full-time role.
"Working as a freelancer at first was great because I could dip my toes into the business, and Vero could make sure I met their expectations," he says. "Trial runs, especially for content marketers, tell you much more than an interview."
When I spoke to Kevan from Buffer, he told me he had several touch points with the company before interviewing for a content crafter role. "I signed up for Buffer and started following the blog right around the same time, and not long after, I noticed a Facebook post about a Content Crafter position on the team," he says.
Though Kevan wasn't hired for this first content role, he applied a second time and joined the team as Buffer's third content hire. During the intervening period, Kevan says he was encouraged by the feedback he received from Leo and focused on building up his skills and experience before applying again.
"I started guest posting as often as I could and I shared some posts with Leo for the Buffer blog," he says. "When the time came to add to the content team at Buffer, I had my foot in the door, so to speak."
When Danny hires a new marketer for the Zapier team, he always starts by looking at people who've already worked with Zapier in some capacity. So far, all three of his marketing hires previously had a working relationship with Zapier,
"Two started freelancing—one for three months, another for six—before they were encouraged to apply to work at Zapier and then hired. The other served on our customer support team and as she began to proactively do more marketing-related activities, she soon became a great fit for the marketing team," he says.
Wistia is lucky to have a group called Boston Content nearby with a job board and events throughout the year. Alyce told me this can help the team to find potential candidates since it's such a targeted audience.
At Influence & Co., Kelsey has a similar leg up, as she can look to the nearest school for journalism students. "We're lucky enough to have our headquarters in Columbia, Mo., home to Mizzou with the No. 1 Journalism program in the country. Many of our hires have come from the strategic communications department of the journalism school."
In a similar process to Zapier's freelancer-first hiring, Kelsey pulls from her student interns when hiring new employees.
"We do a paid internship program so we can meet, train and vet potential employees while they are still in school and have great relationships with professors who refer the best students to apply to work with us," she says.
For Greg at Help Scout, hiring for a new content role is a serious process. He asks for writing examples to find the best writers for the job, but puts an emphasis on hiring marketers who can write.
When it comes to collecting writing samples from candidates, he makes sure to phrase his ask in a specific way: "Links to 3 essays you are proud of."
His use of the word “proud” is deliberate. "It is an attempt to nudge the applicant to pick what they consider to be their best," he says. "Not every submission need be a homerun, but this is an excellent way to gauge what they consider to be quality work."
Once Greg has a short list of applicants, he puts them through their paces with a test: writing a unique essay that matches the voice of the Help Scout blog.
Part of the test is the feedback stage, when Greg critiques the original essay and asks each applicant to rewrite it, incorporating his feedback.
"This was an opportunity to shine," he says. "If you could take something average (nearly every original submission was) and turn it into something great, we knew that 'inexperience' could easily be overcome with a little coaching."
In the past, Greg has found this to be effective in cutting down his short list of applicants. "Most people did not put forth the effort into their re-write, and it showed," he says. "It was easy to count them out at this point."
"I ask for a writing sample up front with a short word count and keep it very opened-ended," she says. "I want to see what they can do with their imagination and creativity … if it seems like they have potential, I'll then do a call for culture fit."
During her culture-fit call, Shannon looks for interviewees who know what the position entails and have the same values as CloudPeeps. "If they mention distribution and community building without me bringing it up, it's a good sign", she said.
At Wistia, Alyce uses a hands-on approach to test potential new hires. After looking through writing samples and a small questionnaire, Alyce asked her last content hire to write a post aimed at the Wistia blog's "Non Sequitur" category.
"During the second in-office interview, we workshopped that post together to get a feel for what it would be like to work together," she says. "Sort of a 'pair programming' assignment but for writers!"
Since creating content is a team activity at Wistia, it's important to test how well new marketing hires can work with others. "Once we have the idea, someone drafts it, and then we workshop it in a group of 3-4 people," Alyce told me.
Both Buffer and Crew run a paid, full-time trial period for new hires. At Crew, this period runs for 30 days. Buffer Bootcamp is a 45-day trial period. Each of these companies pays new hires to work full-time as a last test of whether they can fit into the team and their new role, before offering them a contract.
Working in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of content marketing means learning constantly. Each of the marketers interviewed for this post have grown in their roles and possess different perspectives from when they started.
For Jory at Crew, it's been the marketing and networking aspects that have surprised him the most. "I came in quite naive to what the role would involve outside of writing and editing. I've been running our social media accounts since I began as well as working on special projects and basically anything with copy."
Jory sees the broadness of his role as a good thing, though. "I was looking for a place to spread my wings and pick up new skills and this has definitely been the case," he says.
At Buffer, Kevan has learned to more readily admit when he doesn't know something; since adopting the practice, he's experienced significant personal improvement.
"It feels great to allow myself permission to be uninformed on a topic or to not have the answer for something," he says. "A lot of great content comes from that place of not knowing, admitting you don't know, and finding out the answer. And sharing about your process, of course!"
Jimmy at Vero says his growth has primarily come from improving domain knowledge. The Vero blog is focused on email marketing, and Jimmy admits his biggest change has been learning more about the topics he writes about.
"I only wish I'd known more about email marketing," he says. "If you read the blog now versus one year ago, you'll notice a significant difference in the tone and depth of the posts.
Part of the reason hiring great content marketers is so hard is that content roles overlap areas and skills. Finding someone with interest and expertise in your industry, along with excellent writing skills, a willingness to learn, and the ability to network with the best, takes time.
Hopefully this post helps you understand out what you need to look for, where to look, and how to vet content marketing hires, leaving you more time for the process itself.
If you have any tips to add yourself or questions for me, please leave a comment.
Credits: Typewriter courtesy Michael Klaus.
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