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Hiring

Your inbound content writer doesn't need industry experience: Here’s what to look for instead

When hiring a content writer, don't get hung up on a wealth of prior industry expertise. Instead, you should look for the opposite. Here's why.

By John Becker

Your inbound content writer doesn't need industry experience: Here’s what to look for instead Blog Feature

To win with inbound marketing, you need a library of content that attracts would-be customers to your website so they can learn about your offerings. 

Although many companies choose to hire an agency to produce their content, we’ve found this practice to be deeply flawed and highly inefficient. The biggest drawbacks of agency-produced content — other than the price tag — is the slow publication cadence (often just two or three articles per month) and a tendency toward “fluffy” content that might drive some traffic, but will not actually bring in leads or sales.

But there’s a better way. 

The more effective model of content creation starts with a bit of a leap of faith: Hiring an internal writer to oversee all content production at your company.

🎓 IMPACT+ Course: How to Hire a Content Manager

This “content manager” can produce two or three articles per week, as well as video scripts, social media posts, marketing emails, and website copy, depending on their bandwidth and what your company needs. All of this content will be more on-brand, in the language of your buyers, and focused on specific company needs. 

And, they can do it all much more cheaply than an agency can. 

However, hiring a content manager is an unfamiliar process for many business leaders. They worry about getting it wrong, about not being able to find the right person, or about a long, drawn-out interviewing and onboarding process that takes forever.

Here's the good news: First off, the hiring and onboarding process is not nearly as long as you fear. 

Second, IMPACT offers a wealth of resources to help you find and hire the right person. Here are a few to get you started:

And, if you work with us directly, we can walk you through the entire hiring process to make sure you’re getting the right professional who can elevate your entire inbound marketing effort.

Why your content manager (generally) doesn’t need industry experience

A perceived barrier for many businesses looking to hire a content manager is this: How can I find someone who knows my industry and has the writing skills necessary to get the job done?

According to Kevin Phillips, senior content trainer at IMPACT, your content manager does not need to come from inside your industry. In fact, he says, they probably shouldn’t.

Phillips works with businesses to help hire and train content writers. He says the most successful content managers he’s seen have been industry outsiders. “More important than industry knowledge,” he says, “are the skills they have. We advise hiring for backgrounds in either journalism, English, or communications.”

Even though these candidates lack industry experience, they are successful because they can come in and hit the ground running by asking questions to learn about the company and the industry.

Phillips outlined one case: A 22-year-old named Aubrey Barto who was fresh out of college. She joined a roofing company as its content manager. Within a year of hiring Barto, West Roofing Systems had grown its traffic by 820% — all from the work of an industry newbie who was willing to learn. 

And this is far from an isolated case. As Phillips says, 95% of the content managers he coaches are industry outsiders.

Instead of being a liability, this outside perspective allows them to think like your customers. They can ask the questions that a dyed-in-the-wool industry expert might not even think to ask. 

As outsiders, these content managers speak in the language of your buyers, which is central to inbound marketing success. 

But in a few cases they do need industry expertise

With all that being said, there are certain industries where your content must be written by someone who has extensive knowledge. (Or, if it better serves your purpose, you can have a writer ghostwrite a particular piece of content that is then fastidiously checked by the expert whose name will be in the byline.)

In these few cases, you’ll need your content writer and your subject matter expert to be one and the same. In these industries, credentials matter: 

  • First up, anything relating to healthcare. If your content could be perceived as medical advice, make sure that the information is checked by professionals. Even WebMD, which is highly trafficked and highly regarded, has the “This tool does not provide medical advice” copy just as large as the text that explains that its content has been reviewed by a medical doctor. These appear on the first page of this slideshow about liver health, for example.

WebMD-disclaimer

  • Second, legal services. If you’re a law firm, be sure to have an attorney review (or write) anything that’s on your website. If casual readers could interpret it as legal advice, it should come from someone with a J.D. Here, our client Minc Law has written an in-depth piece about how a CEO’s reputation impacts a company’s reputation. This is written by the founding attorney, Aaron Minc, which cements credibility and ensures accuracy. 
  • Third, financial services. Anything coming from a financial services firm should come from (or be reviewed by) a certified financial expert. Even investment giant Fidelity has a lengthy disclaimer on its blog that starts with this line: “This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.”

fidelity-disclaimer

There are possibly other industries in which a content writer should be highly knowledgeable about your specific industry, but these cases are few and far between. 

In nearly every circumstance, it comes down to the nature of your customer base. If you’re selling to relative novices, your content manager can effectively utilize their outside perspective to speak in the language of your buyer.

For example, if you sell software, it’s likely that your buyers will be software users who don’t need development or design experience to use and appreciate your offering.

However, if you sell to an esoteric customer base, a more knowledgeable voice might be preferable. But in these cases, a non-specialist writer can still be highly effective as a ghostwriter or editor. They can either draft content that can then be reviewed and tweaked by a subject matter expert (SME), or they could help edit and shape a piece written by the SMEs themselves.

4 skills your content writer needs (and how to identify them in the hiring process)

So, if they don’t need industry experience (except in a few cases), what skills does your inbound content manager actually need? 

1. Adaptable writing ability

There’s a good chance your content manager will need to be a jack of all trades. Yes, they will likely focus primarily on blog content, but it won’t stop there.

Within my last 12 months at IMPACT I’ve written over 100 blog posts, but I’ve also written video scripts, strategic planning documents, social media posts, website copy, client communications, newsletters, and more. Each requires its own approach.

The right tone for a Tweet is different from the tone required by a vision statement for your organization.

If you want your writer to excel in multiple situations, make sure they have the chops. 

How to hire for this: Ask to see a portfolio of work that demonstrates their range. Even if the person you’re hiring is fresh out of college, they should still be able to provide a few varied pieces. Look for a spectrum.

Can they be funny and breezy? How about detailed and neutral? Can they be persuasive and readable? Every writer has a “voice” that feels natural, but it’s good to see a wide skill set because that level of adaptability will certainly come in handy. 

✳️ Bonus resource: My 8 best blogging and content creation hacks that actually work

2. Comfort with deadlines

Google rewards frequent publication. To be taken seriously as a trusted business, you’ll need to publish content at a steady clip (again, we recommend two or three new articles per week). The person running this inbound show needs to be able to hit deadlines. They must turn content around quickly so they can meet expectations. 

A deadline-loving writer can also serve the company by being responsive. If the sales team has the need for a certain piece of content, the quicker it’s in their hands, the better. Any delay could hinder a sale. 

How to hire for this: Beyond looking at writing samples during the hiring process, give your candidates a writing task with a short deadline. If they can turn around a sample piece of content in 24 or 48 hours, it’s a good indication that they are punctual and efficient workers.  

✳️ Bonus resource: Content calendar template for digital marketers

3. High-EQ interview skills

The word “interview” can produce anxiety, bringing flashbacks of college admissions or your first job application. To function as an inbound marketer, though, your content manager will have to regularly interview SMEs about a range of subjects.

To succeed, your content manager needs to make the SMEs actually like being interviewed. This means building a thoughtful process, establishing rapport with dozens of colleagues, and being able to confidently turn a transcript into a document that’s ready to publish. 

How to hire for this: Liz Moorehead, IMPACT’s editor-in-chief, wrote this guide to evaluating the interview skills of a content manager candidate.

In short, give the person a topic and access to an SME. Have them conduct and record the interview. If they can handle interviewing a total stranger, they’re likely to be an effective interviewer for team members once you bring them on board. 

✳️ Bonus resource: Content managers need to get information from SMEs; here’s how they often do it wrong

4. Precise, team-oriented editorial ability

Your content manager could be an army of one, in which case they’ll need to meticulously edit their own work. Or, they might direct all your inbound marketing efforts, in which case they could be editing work drafted by colleagues or freelance writers. In either case, their editing skills need to be top-notch. You don’t want a site full of errors and typos.

When editing for colleagues, a writer can’t just take a (virtual) red pen and tear a piece of writing apart. They need to coach and encourage as much as they critique. Thus, it’s about more than style-guide expertise. As Moorehead says, your content manager also needs to be a relationship manager. 

How to hire for this: Ask your candidate to review and critique something your company has already published. It could be a blog article, website copy, or something else. Ask for their edits, including praise and critique. You’ll see their ability to be judicious, perceptive, and candid. 

✳️ Bonus resource: How to give better content feedback with 1:1 video

Remember who your customers are

Think about your buyer. Do they speak in industry jargon? Are they looking to be steeped in the details of your process? Most likely, the answer is no. They want to know that you have a process, but they’re going to be overwhelmed and stymied by specialized language and too much detail.

Hiring an industry outsider to manage your content marketing can allow what you publish to be written in the voice of your buyer. If you hire an industry expert, it can be much harder to have that perspective. 

Thus, you should hire for skills, not for knowledge. If you have someone who can write, who can edit, who can interview, and who can turn content around at a steady clip, you’ve found a great candidate. Any industry knowledge they need they can learn along the way.

Then, once they're on board, use the free courses and resources available in IMPACT+ to get them to the top of their game. Start with Kevin Phillips’ Your Role as a Content Manager course. It provides a great primer to get started.

Topics:

Hiring
For Organizational Leaders
Content Management
Published on July 12, 2021

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