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011: Kitchen Side: Finding, Vetting and Hiring Freelancers

Kitchen Side: Finding, Vetting and Hiring Freelancers

In this Kitchen Side series we show you behind the curtain at our own agency, Omniscient Digital. In this episode, co-founder Alex Birkett and Head of Content, Allie Decker discuss hiring and managing freelance writers.

They bring their varied experiences to the conversation. Previously, Allie was a full-time freelance writer, while Alex has hired and worked with freelancers for in-house roles as well as for his personal website.

They cover how to find and vet freelancers, how to onboard them and communicate your expectations, and some potential pros and cons of working with freelancers. 

For Allie’s complete guide on how to find, vet, and hire freelancers check out her blog.

The Long Game is hosted by Alex Birkett and David Ly Khim who co-founded Omniscient Digital to help companies ranging from early-state to scale-ups with growth strategy, SEO, and content marketing. Allie Decker, Head of Content, joins the conversation as well.

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1:22 – Ramp up your content output 

Allie describes four benefits of hiring freelance writers: increased production, a broader range of perspectives, more free time to focus on other tasks, and new ideas on tap. 

“Hiring freelancers can help with content production for just endless reasons. But my favorite one is to be able to increase production cadence so  you get more out faster without having to personally churn. I liked that working with a variety of people can bring in all kinds of experiences, points of view. You can make sure to feature people with different experience levels, different creative ideas of how to either approach a topic and approach a keyword, or maybe feature your product or your brand in that piece. Personally, I like it because I can focus on other things I don’t always have to be writing all the time, even though that is what I love.” 

4:14 – Specialty writing on demand 

When upcoming content demands in-depth knowledge, Allie points out that hiring a specialty freelancer can keep your schedule and content standards on-target. 

“It may make sense to bring out a bunch of freelancers instead of hiring a bunch of people. Just depending on the content type project, freelancers could be better at it than you can. And that’s okay. At my job right now, I have a limited scope of knowledge on the subject matter that we’re writing about, but I don’t want that to hold back the entire progress of our content marketing. So instead of me taking the time to try to basically learn something new, I can flex my content marketing knowledge and hire folks who have that knowledge to contribute pieces that tap into our audience and connect with our target readers.That’s definitely a pro of working with freelancers is you have a lot of flexibility, a lot of folks to tap on depending on what you need and if you can do it yourself.”

7:05 – Weighing flexibility vs reliability 

Alex explains how the benefits of hiring freelancers comes with the risk of freelancers choosing to leave your team –  and your project – in a lurch. 

“I think freelancers are probably less reliable overall. I don’t know, reliable maybe is not the right word, but you could theoretically leave a company without saying anything. If you were an in-house employee, it doesn’t happen that often. Usually you put in two weeks, you help the person transition, and usually you’re going to stay for at least a year more if you like the job. Not always the case, but with a freelancer, you don’t really have those same obligations. I guess you could do a contract. You could stretch it out to a six month retainer or something like that. But generally speaking, they have a lot more flexibility and you have a lot more flexibility. So that’s both a pro and a con, depending on what you’re going for.”

8:53 – Why freelancers aim higher 

Allie believes that freelancers are more likely to produce consistently quality work, since their portfolio and published bylines have a direct impact on future work opportunities. 

“Freelancers, I believe, are better reliable for quality. What they write is what they’re known for. That’s how they get their next job. And that’s how they earn new business. What they write  has a direct line to their future work. So they’re not going to skimp on quality because they know that can specifically determine who they work for in the future, how much they can charge, or how much they continue to charge. In-house writers, while they are reliable in terms of showing up, I think they’ve got the job and they know they’re going to be producing on a pretty frequent level.  So I think the quality reliability there is more likely to suffer than for an ad hoc freelancer.”

12:12 – Invest in the hiring process 

Allie strongly recommends not skimping on the vetting, assessing, and hiring process to ensure your freelancer can produce the content quality and style you expect. 

“You should spend nearly as much time as you would hiring an in-house writer, hiring a freelancer. A pretty big application window, lots of distribution, lots of vetting conversations, definitely paid test pieces. Because I think that would just weed out the folks who are either not interested, they’re a bad fit. Now I don’t know if people always have the time to do that, depending on what project they’re hiring for the agency, etc. That’s what I like to do because I think it saves time and energy down the line. And I did that for our blog. I think it really paid off for bringing someone on who would work with us for a long time.”

17:15 – Job ads that attract your dream team

Alex believes writing a unique, detail-oriented job description is a naturally effective way to weed out applicants and attract writers that speak your language. 

“I kind of filter for detail orientation. I always put a ‘brown M&Ms’ clause. Van Halen used to  say that they don’t want any brown M&M’s in their dressing room. And if they find them, then they can void the contract at the cost of the promoter. So I like little items like ‘use this exact subject line’ or ‘say your favorite album of all time in the email’.  And anybody who doesn’t follow those instructions, I just throw them out, because they can’t follow clear prompts. But other than that, I just wrote this very informal ‘in my voice’ thing. I got really good content from it. The writers who wrote some test articles wrote in that style, which is amazing.”

19:41 – What you need who you need 

Allie suggests doubling-down to decide which content you need in order to find a freelancer that has the specialization and expertise to knock it out of the park. 

“Figuring out what you need is definitely going to dictate who you look for. If you have an ebook project or a white paper or blog posts or an original research report, it might change who you look for and how you do your research on someone. Maybe how you ask for recommendations. I don’t think that someone can write all of those things very well. There’s different purposes and different formats. And I think there’s great writers out there, but there are specialists. And if you’re going to outsource, I would definitely recommend outsourcing someone who could do something better than you.”

27:22- Starting your search 

Allie points out that finding a quality freelancer is a multi-step process: leveraging your network and social media to connect to potential leads and taking the time to properly vet your candidates.  

“If you’ve never heard of a freelance writer, definitely ask people who you admire or whose content you admire. Secondly, do some digging for content that you’d like to eventually write for yourself and see who bylined it. After that, maybe social media. It’s not supposed to be an easy process. If it’s easy, you probably aren’t finding the right writer. That’s where the vetting comes out. That’s at the start. I think over time it will be easier as you build your network. I’m not saying it’s always going to be hard, but it takes a little bit of time to find those good ones.”

28:13 – Judging a writer by the cover

For Alex, the proof is in their portfolio. Assessing a recommended writer’s previously published content, both paid and unpaid, is the clearest way to determine the quality of their output. 

“What you want at the core is somebody who you can see their work. You can see their past, the proof that they can write about the topic that you’re wanting them to write about. So that’s where referrals come in, especially if it’s a warm contact, somebody you both trust. You’re appealing to the authority and the respect and the trust of that person, so it’s a credible referral. If they have links to stuff written on the topic, I always prioritize those. Another way I like to do this is going on places that are a sort of passion – I don’t know how to describe this –  forums and review sites and whatever. And people aren’t paid to write, but they spend a lot of time writing these like really in-depth posts.”

31:00 – To negotiate or not to negotiate? 

Alex generally thinks low-balling freelancer rates is a no-no: you risk starting a resentful relationship with a key member of your team. 

“I would say probably one of the most important things in the pre-interview or the first interview step is getting their rate. Because you don’t want to waste their time. I actually think negotiating for rates is stupid, because if you get a better rate than they usually give, they’re just going to feel resentful about that. They’ll get a better client and you’re going to be degraded into the backburner client. I’m not a huge fan of saying, ‘Oh, like you’re usually $700 an article. Can we get that down to $500?’ No. I usually just pay what they want and make sure that I have my bands and my budget in place. And I’m only filtering for the people in that band. If they’re too low, maybe I don’t trust the quality.” 

32:47 – How and when to negotiate 

In Allie’s opinion, negotiating respectfully is a standard process. You need to be prepared to pay for quality but, as Allie suggests, feel free to request a package or bulk rate. 

“Quality is like my top thing for all of our client work and our blog work. Especially for our client work, given the frequency of posts that come through and that I have to work with, it’s important to me to know that they are near perfect right off the bat. For me, I know that that usually means a higher priced freelance writer, especially someone that has that subject matter expertise. I always try to negotiate just once, and I never want it to be like, ‘Oh, that’s dumb you charge that much.’ I believe that you should charge whatever you want, but I’ll usually negotiate with, ‘Hey, we have X amount per month. Do you have a bulk fee or would you give me a discount for the piece If I can promise you this many pieces?’ Usually folks are willing to.”

39:56 – Keep the team lean 

Alex suggests spending more time finding one or two long-term freelance writers that get your style and standards, instead of wasting time with a larger team. 

The end goal, in my opinion, is to work with as few writers as you need. So essentially, if you can get by with one or two, that’s what you should do because the more you have to deal with –  for one –  it’s a bunch of paperwork. Just getting people and contractors, taxes, 1099s and all that stuff, it’s more to manage. It’s just a complex thing to have to think about, ‘Oh, Steve’s writing this and Sarah’s writing this’. It’s just more on your head versus like one or two, a handful of people, with all those assignments. And then also the fewer writers, the more they build up compound knowledge. The more they know who to link to, who not to link to, what competitors to avoid mentioning, what topics to call back on. They start to build up that knowledge in the same way that an employee would. So you actually want to build for the long term.”

40:42 – Test, test, and test 

Alex explains how using a paid test project as part of your hiring process gives you a unique feel  for the freelancer’s quality and work experience.   

“Some come with a good recommendation or they seem really awesome from the job ad. You’ll give them a test assignment, and then they ghost you or hand it in two weeks late. And you’re like, ‘Oh, Oh, okay. I got you’. And then, somebody else you didn’t expect at all will hand in a perfect draft the day early. And you’re like, ‘Holy shit, let’s go with this one’. So there’s things you can’t learn until you actually have skin in the game and you’re actually working with them.”

43:15 – Bonus benefit: building a writer network 

Although a rigorous hiring process is time consuming, Allie says there’s no better way to build a list of hire-worthy writers – even if you can only choose one candidate for now. 

“The last thing is, of the seven people that I tested and I chose one, the other six were so great.

I kept them in my little Notion document. And I said this earlier, but over time, this process can get easier as you build up your network and build up your rolodex of people that you know.  If hiring freelance writers is something you plan to do for your company or your personal site, or just down the line, it’s always helpful to kind of keep that information handy and keep up that network of folks. And then over time, you won’t even have to ask for referrals because you’ll have a great list.”

Listen to more episodes of The Long Game podcast

Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.