If you’re a content marketer, you already know the value of guest posting. It’s a great way to build links and get some referral traffic and awareness to your site.
On the flip side, building your own guest writer program can help you:
- Scale content production
- Publish diverse opinions from industry experts
- Tap into their audiences to promote your content
It’s also a headache and a half working with external writers who aren’t paid on a 1099 or W2. At least, that is, if you haven’t built the proper system and expectations around your guest writer program.
I’ve built guest writer programs at CXL with a ton of success as well as helping past clients like Wordable do the same. To do so successfully, you really just need a few pieces in place.
I’ll cover them here:
- Define your acceptance criteria and guest writers guidelines
- Recruit the best guest writers
- Invest in content operations and process efficiency
- Maximize the value of your guest writer program
- The tradeoffs of working with guest writers vs in-house or freelancers
Define your acceptance criteria and guest writers guidelines
When I began working at CXL as a content & growth marketer, my boss, Peep Laja, gave me the following guideline for the blog:
“Every post has to be the best article in the world on that given subject. The reader shouldn’t have to read anything further on the topic.”
Talk about high standards!
The challenge, though, is in translating those standards to something that guest writers can follow — guest writers with much different incentives than me. I wanted to keep my job, get promoted, and build a career at CXL. Of course, I was incentivized to write “best in the world content.” But guest writers want different things depending on the person. Could be:
- Simple personal brand awareness
- Traffic to their website or awareness for a campaign
- A relationship with your website and company
- To share their knowledge on a subject and to use your platform to deliver it.
For some of those goals, your incentives will align well (such as sharing knowledge and building their personal brand). For others, you’ll have to deliberately and concretely establish guidelines and lower bounds on acceptable content.
My favorite tool to establish these expectations is a document outlining your editorial guidelines for guest posts. This can be separate from your brand guidelines or style guidelines you use internally (though they should follow those, too). No, instead, this is a document they should read and agree to before every beginning their outline.
When I was at CXL, here were our guidelines (which we called “The Guide,” cribbed from Tommy Walker’s “The Code” document he created at Shopify Plus):
- Stick to The Guide
- Opinions are Bullshit. Do Research.
- No Basic Bullshit.
- Write for Smart People.
- Find the Why.
- What’s the Takeaway?
- Carefully Craft Each Word.
You may disagree with these principles as an editorial strategy, but that’s a good thing; if that’s the case, you should guest post elsewhere. A good guest writer editorial guideline document is exclusionary as much as it is explanatory.
Otherwise, you’ll get a ton of shitty link builders writing 500 word guest posts that you’ll have to spend time cleaning up or mental energy turning down. Cull the participants before they enter the race and you save everyone time.
In addition to principle based guidelines like the above, we set standards that may appear arbitrary but acted as forcing functions for selection.
For example, here were a few lower bounds we used to force higher quality submissions:
- Minimum 1850 words, extra kudos for 3000+ word articles (word count isn’t the goal, it’s just a byproduct of seriously well-researched content)
- Every claim needs to be backed up with a link to a research or case study confirming it.
- No pen names, 100% authentic stuff only.
Restrictions like these create a pause in the potential guest writer. They then have to think, “oh wow, this doesn’t sound like an easy link,” and either continue with that knowledge in mind, or drop it and go plagiarize something for Neil Patel’s website.
Brown M&Ms Clauses
Van Halen put a clause in their contracts that stipulated that there were to be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area. If any brown M&M’s were found, the band could cancel the entire concert at the full expense of the promoter.
Why do such a fickle thing? Because it shows the promoter paid attention to detail.
I always add minor Brown M&Ms clauses when I hire for a job as well as when I take guest post pitches. It could be as small as a specific subject line:
I also like adding exclusionary functions like a determinant “no” if someone does a specific action. For guest posts, if someone asks if my links are “dofollow” I automatically delete the email. This is from my personal website’s guest post guidelines:
Spend an afternoon defining your blog’s editorial principles and write a “code” for guest writers. This should include highfalutin principles like “write for smart people,” but also tangible restrictions like your preferred word count or structural nuances.
There are many side benefits of doing this, too.
Principally, writing a document like this also helps anchor your internal team and freelancers to the same principes. It creates cohesion in voice and style.
In addition, when it comes to editing articles, no one will be surprised when you suggest changes that adhere to this document.
Recruit the best guest writers
After you’ve established your guidelines and acceptance criteria, it’s time to find the best guest writers.
If you’re already an established blog, you’ll have no problem doing this. Just put up a “write for us” page, and you’ll have writers knocking at your door to publish there.
If your blog is actually well respected in your industry, some of these pitches will almost certainly be from high-quality writers. In that case, you simply need a good selection process (which the above acceptance criteria and guideline documents can help with).
If your blog isn’t well respected, but you have a Domain Rating anywhere from 50-70, most of the pitches you get will clearly be link-building pitches. Try not to fall for these; you’ll almost always get back a 500-word article devoid of any substance, and you’ll have to waste time editing it or mental energy turning it down.
Most blogs, even the top ones, have to seek out the best talent if they truly want their guest writer programs to flourish.
I’ve found there are a few guidelines and tips for doing this:
- Select experts
- Scour communities
- Poach prolific writers
- Ask for referrals
- Build the flywheel
1. Select experts
Having worked with hundreds of writers in different niches, I can say with full confidence that it’s almost always better to work with an expert that doesn’t write well than the reverse.
At CXL, my favorite writers weren’t “writers.” They were in-house practitioners, some of whom didn’t even invest in personal brand building activities. I worked with a handful that didn’t even have a Twitter, let alone a portfolio or dozens of speaking gigs under their belt.
The reason this is the case is most content is surface level, and to go beyond that, you have to have experience in the speciality (not just good research skills). If you’re writing beginner content, you can get away with generalist writers, but for advanced stuff, you need to look for the subject matter experts.
Here’s what Derek Gleason, SEO Lead Analyst at Workshop Digital, had to say:
“Everything comes down to getting people who *have actually done the work.* If you’re willing to let freelancers and generalists write for your blog, know right off the bat that you’re choosing second-tier content.”
I don’t say that to knock freelancers or generalists. I’ve been both and, in most cases, am still usually the latter.
But that second-tier content is really only useful if you’re trying to produce introductory content. So, if you’ve never written about Topic X before, but you’re planning on building out a hub, you can probably tolerate a freelancer/generalist writing the core content for a hub page (e.g., answering the “what” and “why” aspects).
But that won’t work if you’re trying to go after the advanced topics or the real in-the-weeds how-to’s. For that, you really need people who have done the work. Agency-side people will be more willing to write that kind of stuff for you (because they want the publicity), but in-house people can often go deepest—they’ll be able to connect their work to everything else in their organization, which, especially at the enterprise level, is usually the hardest part.”
The industry you’re writing about matters here, too. For example, in selecting writers for Wordable, I was able to pick professional writers. Why? Well, the product was made for writers and we were writing about writing. Generalist writers, then, were the subject matter experts in this specific case.
That’s not usually the case, though. If you’re writing about localization software or conversion rate optimization, it’s hard to speak the lingua franca of that target persona unless you *are* that target persona.
Now, how to find these experts who actually want to spend their nights and weekends writing…that’s the hard part. Tips below:
2. Scour communities
Your best bet is scanning communities — Slack groups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, Quora, and good old fashioned conferences — for the most passionate folks who love talking about what they do and have interesting things to say.
For example, one of my favorite writers I worked with at CXL (and someone I consider a friend and mentor now), Andrew Anderson, was someone my boss Peep had found because of his answers on Quora:
I’ve had at least a dozen guest writers come through via conversations at conference and meetup happy hours. It helped that CXL hosted our own conferences and monthly “CRO happy hours.” Even if you don’t host huge events, you should attend them and meet the movers and shakers.
I’m writing this during covid, which means there aren’t really any big conferences. So what? There are a million virtual events. Pick some speakers from there. They could probably write about the topic they’re speaking on (if they haven’t already):
In fact, finding writers online may be even better than through conferences; you can see their writing in communities like Slack, Facebook groups, and industry communities.
If I were still working on the CXL blog, you can bet I’d be watching for the most prolific question answerers in their Facebook group:
And if you find someone you want to reach out to, well, just do it! Say you like what they’ve written about a given topic on Facebook/Quora/Slack, and you’d love to work with them to turn that into a guest post.
3. Poach prolific writers
Another obvious pool of talent is finding blogs you respect and making a list of contributors to reach out to. Again, I could easily go to cxl.com and see who is writing guest posts, and reach out to them to write for my site. Who knows if they’ll say yes, but I already know a) they can write and b) they do write.
To do this, just make a list of 10-20 of your favorite blogs or publications in your niche. Extra points if it’s a media publication, not just a company blog (like MarketingLand or SearchEngineJournal). Find the contact information, social media profiles, etc of the writers you like, and just reach out.
Worst they can say is they don’t have time or interest.
4. Ask for referrals
Our best job candidates and writers tend to come through referrals. Actually, our clients typically come through network referrals, too. Since you both know the connector, there’s already a warmth to the introduction that doesn’t exist when you’re cold-emailing people asking to write for your blog (or when they’re cold applying to write for your blog).
You can ask anyone in your industry if they know good writers, but it’s especially helpful if you know other writers and editors who can suggest names. This is my default action now. If I ever work with a writer I like, I always ask them to suggest a few people I can reach out to that they respect. Your network will grow like crazy if you do this.
5. Build the flywheel
Finally, a lot of talent will come simply by investing in your content program.
When you’re a startup, you’ll have to work harder to get good writers (you’ll have to work harder at everything related to content, but that’s another post). But as you grow, you’ll have people coming to you asking you to write.
HubSpot probably gets dozens of great writers applying every day. Once you’re established, it’s more of a culling process than an outreach process. So be scrappy, but also, be patient.
Invest in content operations and process efficiency
Once you have a list of writers you want to work with, it’s time to think about operationalizing all of this so you don’t go insane and so you maximize the value of your time and guest writer program.
The biggest tip I can give here is to get a good editor that gives a shit. That will solve almost everything. Beyond that, we’re going to wade into the waters of project management, automation, and collaboration tools, to make sure you’re hitting deadlines, quality standards, and not duplicating efforts.
A Good Editor Solves Almost Everything
As I mentioned before, you’re almost always better off going with an expert who is a bad writer than a good writer who has no experience in the topic. That is, if you have a good editor who can clean up the copy.
Here’s how Derek Gleason described it:
“Personally, I’ve always found it super easy to align content for tone or tidy up someone’s prose. I would take an SME who’s a terrible writer any day over a great writer with a modest grasp on a subject. Honestly, I rarely bothered even talking about style to guest authors; it was a waste of their time and energy (and a really hard thing to communicate for a one-off post anyhow). Plus, if they’re *trying* to write in a style that’s not their own, they’re going to (1) struggle and (2) lose their voice. A fun part of editing guest posts is making a post “feel” like it’s on-brand for your blog while still letting the author’s voice come through.”
Aside from preferences in who you choose, a good editor can build a pipeline or a process that promotes consistency and cadence.
In the past, I made a rule to have no more than 3 versions back and forth between myself and the writer. More recently, I’ve shortened that. Now, my process goes like this:
- Choose writer
- Choose topic
- Create content brief
- Have writer produce outline based on brief and guidelines
- Accept or alter the outline
- Writer hands in the first draft
- Either revise and hand back or publish
- If revisions required, it should only take one more spruce up from the writer.
- After that, it’s on the editor to get the thing in shape to publish
Derek Gleason agrees here. Here’s how he put it:
“I really can’t stand editors who take it as a mark of pride that they go through a million revisions with their guest authors. That’s bad editing. If you can’t identify the key issues in a single read-through and provide guidance on how to correct them, you’re not doing your job well. There’s nothing more frustrating as an author (and I’ve been there) than when you answer every ask of an editor only for them to return with different asks, which often conflict with what they asked you to do the last time. (This is also to say nothing of the wasted effort in the endless back and forth.)”
This, truly, is the power of a good outline plus all the editorial guidelines and acceptance criteria you went through. If you did your job there and communicated your expectations effectively, you won’t waste your time or your writer’s time.
Collaboration & Automation
If you have an in-house team, freelancers, and more than one guest writer, things will get complex quite quickly. When you’re a single person blogging machine, you can operate everything from your brain and a Google Doc. But more people require more project management.
At Omniscient, we use a spreadsheet to plan our Content Roadmap Report. We then slot our topic ideas onto an Asana board, where we grant access to our freelance writers and guest writers. This way, everyone can see what’s currently in progress and what stage it’s at (as well as outline criteria and deadlines).
We’re a small team, so we’re still agile and don’t have a huge tech stack to bog us down. But it is helpful to have some sort of strategy repository (like the above) and some sort of time-based project management or kanban board (especially if you have a designated cadence):
At CXL, I used to run all of this from Trello. You can also use Airtable or a dedicated editorial calendar tool like Coschedule.
Tommy Walker, the owner of Walker Bots Content Studio, is my idol when it comes to content operations and process management. I don’t have his current setup I can give as an example, but he used to have a crazy automated system all based on Airtable that automatically triggered notifications when things moved from one stage to the next and assigned tasks based on the progress stage.
I asked him what he’s currently doing and here’s his response:
“To make this smooth, there has to be a process. I’ve always broken this out into all of the necessary steps, which at their core are, ideation, in production, first review, staging, and published. From there, I try to use smart automation to notify people who are responsible for each step in their communication platform of choice – Slack, email, etc. – This allows everyone involved to focus more on creating good, and get the technology out of the way.”
Tools for Guest Writer Management
Depending on the size or scope of your program, you may find some of these tools useful.
Project management tools:
These tools help you operationalize your content marketing roadmap and put everyone in the same collaborative and time-based environment.
Collaborative writing tools:
These tools do different things, but each helps you actually write and edit the piece. Google Drive is obviously for storing, sharing, and working on articles. Nothing worse than someone sending you a Word document.
Wordable helps you upload articles to WordPress at scale. You can give guest writers access if they’re regulars and save massive time.
Clearscope, SurferSEO, and MarketMuse all help you optimize on-page SEO. It basically outsources a huge aspect of editing work and makes it likelier that the content will rank.
Maximize the value of your guest writer program
Working with guest writers has tons of benefits:
- You outsource some of your content production needs
- You can include different voices and perspectives on your blog
- Working with guest writers is a good way to build relationships and partnerships
- You can maximize social shares by borrowing their audiences
- You can build a more consistent content marketing program
To ensure you’re maximizing the value of your program, I have four tips:
- Prompt social shares
- Seek reciprocity
- Play the long game
- Ask for referrals
1. Prompt social shares
First, make sure the author is sharing the content they wrote for you. They’ll almost always do this naturally, but a quick email prompt with lazy tweets and done-for-you social media images makes it easy for them. Get a Canva account with some templated images and pre-write a Tweet/LinkedIn post, and they’ll almost always post it.
This helps with traffic and traction.
2. Seek reciprocity
Sometimes the guest writer you work with also runs a blog. In most cases, they at least work for a company that has a blog.
Quick win: see if you or your team can write a post for their blog.
Now, if guest posting isn’t in your content plan, this doesn’t matter. But if you’re doing link building, this is an easy way to pull another backlink from a typically high DR site. And usually, mutual guest posts can pave the way to deeper partnerships since you both learn how each other works and meet deadlines.
3. Play the long game
If you work with someone who is awesome, keep working with them. Sign them up for more guest posts. Do whatever you can to get a consistent article from them. One per month is a great pace.
As Derek Gleason put it, “From a behind-the-scenes perspective, the hardest aspect of planning is that you (usually) work with everyone only *once.* So, you don’t know if someone’s, “I’ll have it for you by next Monday” is spot-on, a bit optimistic, or completely unreliable.”
Once you know someone is high quality and can deliver, you’ve done most of the work. Now put a ring on it.
4. Ask for referrals
Build a flywheel. Every great writer you work with probably knows 1-3 other writers who are also good. This is how you build a program, not just a one-off guest post.
The tradeoffs of working with guest writers vs in-house or freelancers
There’s no such thing as free lunch. A guest writer program, if done poorly, will introduce some additional stress. In many cases, guest writer programs fail completely (though not if the initiator has read this guide).
The biggest downside is you’re introducing writers of unknown quality to your pipeline, which at minimum increases your editorial time and costs.
This is compounded by the fact that a vast majority of people pitching guest posts are looking for an easy link. You’ll get tons of content that is just barely not plagiarized – just rehashed fluff with a link at the bottom. You’ll get some content that is completely plagiarized, too (ask Neil Patel – though his problem seems to be paid ghostwriters, not guest authors).
Mark Lindquist, Marketing Strategist at Mailshake, elucidates here:
“On the Mailshake blog, the topic areas are fairly broad, which means it’s easy to create a lot of fluffy content, especially from guest “writers” who are really just marketers trying to build links. Much of the content you get from these folks is ghostwritten by professional writers who have no experience with the topic they’re writing about.”
Mailshake still works with tons of guest writers, though. So how do they combat this?
All the stuff we talked about in the first section.
“First, the author needs to be someone with direct experience on the topic. Second, the content needs to talk about the author’s personal experience; they should say things like “when I implemented this at my company, this is what happened.” If there are no personal stories in the article, then the author probably doesn’t have any experience with what they’re writing about.
I always send a few examples of the type of content we’re looking for from guest writers, and make it clear that if it doesn’t meet that level, we won’t publish it. This generally scares away people just contributing to get the link. There are many other blogs out there where they can write mediocre fluff and get it published, they don’t need to waste their time on a blog that will probably reject them anyways.”
If you can establish strong process guidelines and can hire a good editor, a guest writing program will be a benefit. If you can’t spend the time or resources, it’s unlikely to pay off.