Publishing value-driven, quality content on your site is a major key to SEO success. And with the recent rollouts of Panda and Penguin, this meme is truer now more than ever.
But finding a pool of reliable freelancers who have great writing chops and knowledge of a specific industry isn’t easy.
Like many marketers, we’ve used a range of content brokers and freelance platforms with mixed results. While much of the content from these resources is passable and works for certain lower-value projects, you really can’t rely on it for client-facing projects, nor are they ideal for content marketing or link building outreach campaigns where well-written, authoritative content is essential for netting mentions and links.
Where we have had success, though, is through advertising on Craigslist and hosting a “writing contest.” Here is a step-by-step approach of how you can run such a contest that could yield some pretty excellent results.
Step 1: Place Your Ad
When placing your writing contest ad on Craigslist, it’s important that you be as specific about your criteria for participants as possible. If you only want local candidates, say it. If you want someone with extensive experience in a particular niche only, then state it.
Also, be clear about how much you’re willing to pay in the ad. Including your per-project or per-article rate helps pre-screen the candidates and saves you time with unneeded back in forth emails.
You should also insist the candidates send published writing samples, preferably hyperlinks to live articles and not scanned copies of a magazine article from a decade or two ago. This should be a prerequisite. If someone responds without links to writing examples or asks “do you want to see writing samples?” after you’ve explicitly stated it in your ad, hit the delete button.
Why so insensitive? Because when you post ads on Craigslist for freelancers you may become inundated with inquiries. So you need to have some strict screening rules in place to help vet and manage the flow of submissions quickly. Asking moronic or redundant questions is a great reason to eliminate someone from consideration.
Step 2: Assemble Your List of Writing Candidates
Given the volume of inquiries we usually get for these types of trial-run assignments, I usually let the Craigslist ad run for just a few days, which is typically enough time to get a pool of good to expert-level freelance writing candidates to choose from.
For example, with a recent “niche-specific” contest we ran, we received more than 40 responses in two days, with the majority of them being legit candidates. After reviewing everyone’s qualifications and writing samples, we narrowed it down to 10 strong prospects, with three to five of those marked as high-priority targets to give writing assignments to.
Some additional tips:
- Identify three to five candidates for the writing assignment stage of the process, which is a manageable number. Too few and you don’t get a big enough sample size; too many and it takes too long to sift through submissions.
- I favor writers who have their own blogs and are familiar with WordPress so I don’t have to:
- Load, format and publish their posts for them.
- Get them up to speed on WordPress.
- If they’re good on all the above criteria, they’re even more valuable. And it goes without saying, but it’s worth reiterating, that in their writing they demonstrate a high-level of knowledge or expertise about the targeted subject matter.
- Another key factor is if a freelancer has regular guest writing gigs, which shows they’re published and productive. It also means there’s a potential for netting links back to our site from other sites they write for (assuming they’re open to that), which is a nice bonus.
- To help manage all these potential writing candidates, create a spreadsheet where you can compile and organize your list.
I like to rate the writers on an overall scale of 1 to 5, identifying strengths and weaknesses, noting whether they have a blog and/or social media accounts (I want to work with freelancers who promote their work on social media, which only aids our marketing efforts; and if they have an active Google+ account, we can potentially tie them to authorship on our site), whether they have recurring writing gigs at other pubs, their level of expertise on the subject matter, etc.
Step 3: Hand Out the Writing Assignments
After you’ve narrowed down your short list of top candidates, give them writing assignments as part of the “contest.” Have each of them write a blog post or an article.
You can either choose to have them do it for free or pay them. We like to pay because not paying and expecting to get free content starts things off on the wrong foot.
As for tips here, have them each write a unique article versus all working on the same topic. Since we end up publishing most of these articles, it doesn’t make much sense to have five of the same articles written.
Now even though you want to keep the topic assignments unique for each person, they should also be closely related enough so the playing field is level.
For example, in a recent Craigslist contest, we assigned five candidates the following blog post topics from the same product niche:
- [product niche] gift ideas for girls
- [product niche] gift ideas for boys
- [product niche] gift basket ideas
- unique [product niche] gift ideas
- creative [product niche] gift ideas
I’m basing these topics on search demand, since the ultimate goal is to drive traffic. If you’re struggling to find a range of closely-related topics to assign, check out my post on coming up with high-demand ideas for content in this post.
As for a deadline, I usually give them anywhere from three to five days to a week, which is more than enough time to write a 600 word article. If they need more time, that’s a sign that they’re not that really interested in the project or they aren’t deadline-oriented and probably not a good fit.
Also, I highly recommend letting them know that this assignment is going out to other candidates, which helps put a little pressure on them to do an even better job.
Step 4: Have Them Publish the Article
Besides writing the article, I also like to give the authors access to our CMS to load, format, and publish the content themselves. That way, we can get a sense of how organized they are, how much they pay attention to detail (hyperlinking correctly, uniformity in formatting, grammar) and whether they know their way around a CMS, particularly WordPress.
So this assignment isn’t just about quality of writing, it’s also about presentation, pride of work, and CMS familiarity.
Things I want to see at this stage are:
- Grasp of the topic matter.
- Good use of titles and subtitles as well. Subtitle use is far too often ignored and helps break an article up and improves readability.
- Use of formatting: bulleted lists, italics, bolding, etc.
- Some external links added to trusted sites.
- Second person narrative: I hate writing in the third person, and these assignments really aren’t journal entries, so first person narrative is also out of place here.
- Use of additional media, like images, video embed, etc.
We had one writer include internal links to relevant sources on our own site, showing that she took the time to review our website content, which really helped set her apart from the crowd.
I also like to get asked questions that show initiative and they really want to land this gig, like “Is it OK if I write a much longer article than assigned?” “Can I include a range of images and pictures?” “Can I add affiliate links for you?”
The answers are yes, yes, and yes. Go nuts!
Things I don’t want to see at this stage are:
- Poor grammar or misspellings. With auto-correct, typos are totally unacceptable and shows they don’t take the project or themselves seriously.
- Bloated writing. Keep it simple and be concise.
- “SEO writing”.
One author recently “did SEO” for an article they submitted, which made the content virtually unreadable. If we see any signs of “SEO writing,” it’s a one way ticket to the WordPress trash bin.
Step 5: Have Them Conduct Outreach
We also like to raise the bar even higher and drop hints (strong hints) that they should “feel free” to promote the article on social media and do some outreach to try and get a mention, a retweet, or a link.
Because, let’s face it: getting a quality article written is important, but netting distribution from other blogs and garnering as much exposure for the content as you can get is really the objective here. So if you can hire someone who writes well and will do some promotion too, then all the better.
And when it comes to the outreach component, we don’t get into specifics, or give them a crash course in using advanced search operators, or point them to pro prospecting tools like Citation Labs or Buzzstream. We intentionally leave it open-ended because we want to see what they come up with.
Step 6: Pick Your Winner
Once you get all your writing contest entries, you review, assess, evaluate the articles and pick your winner based on your own criteria and factors. To recap what we look for in our own projects, we want writers who:
- Demonstrate good to excellent writing chops.
- Have a solid to expert knowledge of a particular niche.
- Run their own blog.
- Write regularly for other pubs.
- Aren’t shy about being self-promotional and doing some outreach.
- Can meet deadlines.
- Take pride in their work.
- Are easy to work with.
A Final Note
Whenever we run a contest like this, we usually find more than one freelancer worth hiring, which is great because it gives us options for other potential projects and helps us reduce risk.
It’s like the old adage about pitchers in baseball: “you can never have too many good arms on your team.” The same can be said about freelance writers for your content marketing or linkable asset projects. Having too many qualified writers is never a bad thing.