God, job interviews are awkward. They’re awkward for the interviewee, and often worse for the interviewer. Especially if you’re hiring someone like a content writer. And you don’t know what to ask them because you’re not a content writer yourself.
I know this is a huge pain for many people reading this. Because I have a Google alert for ‘content marketing’ set up, and I can see the number of jobs that are being posted. Demand Metric says 90 per cent of companies are practising content marketing now. And I know there’s not that many content writers out there.
But what skills do you need? And how do you tell if someone has them? I’ve interviewed old journalism colleagues for content writer jobs. They tell me, “I can do this content marketing lurk—it’s what we used to call Advertorials, right?” (No, it’s not.)
I’ve also had bright-eyed youngsters present me with a list of companies they’ve written for. Then I read it, and discover they’ve only written brochure copy and edited their own thesis.
How to test a content writer
Learn from my experience. Read on for a few basic tests that will tell you whether the writer you’re interviewing is faking it.
You can administer these tests on the spot. They will tell you straight away whether the interviewee has the skills you need.
No matter what they say, there is no other writing job that is the same as content writing. Some people say ‘hire journalists’. But journalists don’t have the full skill set needed. They are often willing to learn. But they are also often difficult to teach. They are trained to be cynical and self-confident. They are great qualities for chasing news stories. Not for content writing.
The first test—can they write?
If you’re not a writer yourself, how do you judge if someone else is good at it? Is it a feeling you get? Do you read something they write and nod in agreement? Or are you satisfied if there are no obvious spelling errors?
None of those methods will tell you if someone is a good writer. A good content writer is capable of turning to many styles and genres, based on the needs of the story. Just because someone has their own blog, it doesn’t follow that they are a good writer.
One day they might be producing a blog post. The next day it may be a native advertising piece. And a feature or a script after that. And a landing page after that. These are all different skills.
How do you test for that?
Ask the interviewee to supply links to stories they’ve written. Ask for two news stories, two long-form features, and two landing pages. It’s not asking much, but if they can’t do that, they definitely can’t write content for you.
And make sure you follow the links. It doesn’t matter if they’re linking to copies on their own website. In fact, it’s a good thing if they are savvy enough to have their own website. I’m pretty suspicious of someone who makes a living as a writer and doesn’t have their own site. How can they promote their work any other way?
In the pre-Internet days, a collection of your own work was called a ‘skite’ book. And everyone had one. If they don’t have any work worth showing off, then they aren’t committed enough as a writer to do good work for you.
The second test—do they know on page SEO?
Digital content should at least be a component of any content marketing you do. For many, it is the major component. If you ignore on page elements of SEO, you make it harder for search engines to index your content. And if it’s not indexed, your website won’t rank in search.
What is on-page SEO, you ask? It’s the basic tagging of the elements in your content so it appears the right way on a web page. It also involves knowing the importance of links and keyword usage.
They don’t need to bold keywords or anything like that (which is soooo 2004). But they do have to know where and how to use them. A sophisticated understanding of keywords for content—not PPC—is even better.
How to test their SEO skills
Give them a one-page article with no tags or anything on it, and get them to mark it up. They must define the H1 headline, any H2 headlines, the meta description, and alt tags for any images. They should also identify the keywords. If they can’t, they should make some suggestions about what you’re trying to rank for.
That should take five minutes. Four minutes of that time they should be reading the actual article. The mark-up bit should be super-quick.
Test three—check their social status
So ask them what social media scheduling tools they have worked with. At the very least, you would expect something like Hootsuite. Which is fine, but remember, there are blind monkeys who could work with Hootsuite. They should be able to suggest better alternatives.
At best, they’ll name a more sophisticated tool like Edgar. Even better, one of the marketing automation tools.
How to test it
Also, ask them to show you some social media accounts where they are the administrator. Or where they have done the job as the administrator. Get them to log in to the account from their own phone or iPad.
Because they’re logged in as an admin, there is a lot more data on the page than you would see if you checked it yourself. When you look at any post they have put on the page, you should immediately see who posted it, and what they used to post it. Underneath the strap, there should be a line that reads ‘Posted by…’ and the name of the scheduling tool they use.
If they can only show you their Facebook page, thank them for their time. They don’t have the skills you need.
The skills a content writer should have include journalism, SEO, and social media. A good content writer will already know how those skills combine. She won’t try to dazzle you with bullshit, because there is no need to do that. And she should be able to show those skills quickly, easily and efficiently.