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I've helped a lot of startup founders and marketing heads build a content marketing team over the last few years. One of the biggest mistakes I see them making is hiring a content writer to run their content marketing operations.
While a writer can write well, they may not be the best person to include the substance. The writers are not subject matter experts.
While a writer can and should promote their articles, it doesn’t mean they are the best person to do so. The majority of them don’t have distribution skills.
These are the people you need for your content team to work efficiently:
As a general rule, seed-stage startups should have 3 roles in full-time positions to run content marketing operations: writer, marketer, and strategist.
At series A, you can add 1-2 more writers and full-time designers to your content marketing team. For example, if you have any gap in your content marketing team, you can hire for that position, like a dedicated editor, social media specialist, or SEO specialist.
When building a team from scratch, it will take months to hire for these roles, and you can’t judge them if you have not done content marketing yourself/don’t have first-hand experience running content marketing.
Even someone from a marketing background but with no hands-on experience in the content will most likely fail.
Going with the cheapest option while building your content team only leads to time, money, and effort wastage. Is demoralizing. We’ve seen companies back to square one after months of working in this way.
One of our customers did not choose to work with us because they have found a less expensive option but came back to us months later only to do the whole work from scratch. When they came back, they had already published over 100 articles on their blog but it had generated 0 leads in 7 months.
Check out my post on hiring a content writer if you are doing it for the first time.
We are always looking for good content writers and markets and are in touch with them via many communities. If you need our help, you can take our content writer hiring service.
Let us see the responsibilities of each role:
Technical content writers are foot soldiers of your content marketing operations. They write articles for your blog.
Note that these writers should be dedicated to content marketing work. If you need content for other marketing or sales activities like newsletters, knowledge base, website revamp, or landing pages and copy for paid adverts, you will need another writer.
The content writers in the content marketing team must be well versed in the 3 key pillars of content writing for marketing purposes: target audience (TA), product, and market.
Awareness of the target audience is required because articles must be written considering your ideal customers. Though it may seem obvious, I’ve seen many content writers lose awareness of their target audience while writing content.
In effect, this means:
Writing for B2B is very different than writing for B2C. Most companies hire generalists or creative writers. As a result, the content is poor. The writer struggles to write.
Writing for travel or health niches is not very difficult as you can relate to these. We all have some experience in our personal lives. But when it comes to B2B, it is not easy to relate with decision-makers unless you have been in the position yourself.
We have seen such content writers making weird analogies. For example, when we were working with a freelance writer in our early days, the writer was explaining a point about getting discounts when buying assets for their company in bulk.
She explained that by giving an example of buying vegetables in bulk. Though there is nothing wrong with logic, since our target audience was procurement teams in enterprises, it was not an appropriate example.
This was not the only instance. Even after a lot of training, it is very difficult for someone to get this if they have never worked in a B2B setting.
We had constantly seen variations of such instances with many writers where we were frightened that if it went unnoticed, it would have posed the risk of losing credibility in front of the target audience.
Most content writers have little to no knowledge about the product the company sells. Most companies don’t provide product training to their content writers.
This is why we see writers not being able to sell the product in blog posts. Product expertise helps in weaving products in the blog post naturally—so that it doesn’t look forced at the bottom.
For example, take this article on employee retention.
This article discusses ways to improve employee retention.
In the best case, they would do something like this:
There is no mention of the product in this entire article. If this product helps with employee retention, why did they not show it?
If it is one of the product use cases, then this is a lost chance of showing the product in action. I think it is because the writer doesn’t have a deep product understanding.
But you cannot sell the product unless you know the product very well. If your goal is to sell a product, then product training is very important. If your content writer doesn’t know the product, they cannot sell it via content.
Contextual product appearance in the blog suits well with selling the product.
At PLC, we only work with companies who have nailed their positioning and messaging. That means you know your strengths and weaknesses compared to other products in the market.
At the beginning of our work with any client, we discuss and get comparisons with competitors so we can include them in the article.
So, we provide our content writers with product battle cards, positioning, and other product marketing collaterals that are generally used during sales (sales enablement content) to show not only that your product can solve the target audience’s problem but it can solve it in the best way in the market.
In fact, it is very easy for the target audience to smell the fakeness in such selling.
Note that content writers who are a part of a B2B content marketing team are very different from general writers, like those who write for hobby or social media, newsletters, copywriters, and B2C writers. It’s writing with a goal.
Normally, everyone thinks they can write. But it is a job that requires creative and analytical skills. It requires immense research skills and a truth-seeking attitude.
SaaS products are more complex than other products and the writing requires technical (domain-expertise) understanding. I’ve seen many writers having fear when it comes to going into technical details. But you cannot write good articles and convince the TA without having in-depth knowledge/ understanding of the problem, product and competitors.
It requires storytelling skills. You cannot engage people for long.
They are marketers at the core. They are well versed in consumer psychology. Many people have misconceptions about this role. They think content marketers mean content writers. But they are very different.
Till a few years ago, (till 2018) a content writer was sufficient to run content marketing.
Earlier, just writing anything used to get a lot of attention because very few companies were leveraging content marketing. Just writing “top 10 tips” or “20 ways to improve your employee engagement” was enough.
Now, after the funding boom in the SaaS space, every startup wants to do content marketing because of the huge benefits it offers.
Because of this content supply is now more than content demand. So, there are dedicated efforts required to distribute content.
Because of this, the competition is very high. Now, just hiring a writer is not enough. To cut through the noise, you should be able to distribute it. So, having a content marketer and strategist is a must. It’s not optional anymore.
Earlier there was less/no competition, so people have no/fewer choices. Now the competition is more, to attract people you have to work with a distribution strategy.
Content marketers are people who can do the distribution. Content promotion is their key role. So, things like SEO, social media, and community promotion are done by them. Their goal is to get the content in front of the target audience. If you fail at this, no matter how good your content is, it is bound to fail.
SEO is a vast and technical field. So, you can’t leave it to content writers.
In SEO, one main task could be building topical authority. A few other things that search engine optimizers will do:
Apart from this, content marketers collaborate with designers to get the distribution materials:
They repurpose the content for distribution on various other platforms. Find opportunities for promoting every article:
Content strategists own the entire content marketing outcomes. This is a managerial role. They are the ones who make the strategy, come up with new ideas, and talk to content writers and marketers internally to get things done.
A content strategist hire and trains writers. They also work as editors in small teams.
They talk to various stakeholders to make KPIs and work on the same to deliver that. First, they work with CMO to finalize the KPIs, and then they report on the same.
They also enable insights from other departments. They are the one who talks with other people like product managers, sales managers, account executives, customer success, and support. They enable the flow of information from these people to content writers and marketers.
Content writers need to make a lot of decisions while working on a content piece. They need context. A proper content brief includes all these things which are required to make good decisions. Good decisions are a function of what information you have.
Some of the key tasks that a content strategist does:
A content strategist is not a project manager though it requires project management skills. Being a content strategist requires deep knowledge of content marketing to complete things on time (deadline).
Content writers without a content strategist (manager) are like an engineering team without a product manager and senior developers. First, they can execute many tasks, but these things don’t add up because of no clear direction.
Running content marketing operations without a content strategist leads to content debt (similar to technical debt for engineering teams.)
A content strategist can start with a raw idea and turn it into a thought leadership article. There is a lot of thinking required that a content writer can’t just do on their own. Before content writer starts writing, they need a lot of context and substance.
They are the pillars of content marketing operations. If the overall content marketing fails, they are responsible for it.
Content editors’ main job is to ensure the quality of the content. They are a very essential part of the entire content creation process. They give feedback to writers.
If you look at the profiles of most content writers, they are not from a writing background (especially in India). They are engineers (or from any other field/domain) turned writers. Hence, they don’t know the techniques of writing.
Even when someone says they are experienced writers, it means they have been writing for a long time, but writing techniques would be the same as those of beginner writers.
Why does this happen? Because they are not getting the feedback. Writing practice is a different thing than working on the techniques of writing.
For example, content editors help improve clarity. Help create a better narrative. But when writers don’t work on their techniques, their feedback is limited to improving the word choice and sentence structure. In the best case, they would work on improving the paragraph structure.
But great editors who have learned the techniques of writing will ultimately help you improve your communication, not just proofread your articles.
Examples of a few writing techniques:
Editing is a science because there are techniques involved. Most writers working on the company’s blog claim to be creative writers. But if you are working in content marketing, you need to be analytical as well. This is a very important skill for anyone working in the content team—content writers, editors, strategists, and marketers.
|Writing style/Editor||Substance (SME+ Research)||Distribution/Promote|
|Narrative||Matter: Claims backups|
Audience + technical + product
|SEO, social media marketers, email + HARO + paid ads|
|Word choice||Jargons, word make sense to the audience||Understanding of channels|
|Sentence structure: simple, compound, complex||Communication with other teams: product, sales, support, customer success||Audience + technical + product|
|Paragraph structure||Choice of arguments||Outreach + writing for outreach|
|Good command over the writing, grammar||Good command over the subject matter||Requires command over the channel|
|Content writer||Content Strategist/ Editor and Manager||Content marketer|
|Customer research||Market research|
Whatever roles we have discussed till now would be working full time on the content marketing team. There are a few others that play an equally important role. We are calling them a supporting role because they are not involved full-time in content marketing.
SMEs provide substance. Here we mean SMEs in a general sense, not necessarily someone who has experience working in the industry (or they themselves are the part of target audience).
That means anybody and everybody in the company that has consumer and market insights is SME for the content marketing team.
Weekly meetings with them are required, at least for the first few months. SMEs play the following roles:
SMEs may write too for content marketing if they are interested in writing but their main job is to provide inputs (by giving interviews, pointing to right resources, connecting with the right person, etc.)
If they are doing webinars or podcasts for the company, that content can also be repurposed for the purpose of content marketing.
SMEs also include people & teams who have the data or information that will be useful for the content marketing team, like salespeople and people in the customer service/support and success team.
People in the product and engineering team can also act as SMEs as they can have unique and deep insights into the product, customers, and market.
You don’t need to hire SMEs just for content marketing; just need to act smartly and work with other teams in collaboration. At Product Led Content, we develop our own expertise over time, but there is a good dependency on SMEs in the beginning.
Content marketing doesn’t mean just written content. There is a good amount of images required. Thus designers are an integral part of the content marketing team. The reason we include them in the supporting role is they may be working with other teams as well.
Designers start working on the image once the idea is conceptualized by the content marketers. They make images for blog posts and their distribution.
Now, you can’t use free stock images on your blog posts directly. You need to customize it to convey your message.
For images, we suggest buying access to premium stock image sites that aren’t available for free for everybody’s use (a good way of differentiation), for example, Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, PixaBay, and Evanto.
Here the main thing is to provide developers resources to your content marketing team when required. When there is no marketing buy-in from company founders, content marketing suffers whenever you need to make any changes to the website.
CTO has authority over developers and usually, they don’t allocate resources toward marketing. Therefore, it’s the job of business founders to make sure that the content team gets the necessary developer’s help as per requirement.
Usually, developers’ help is required for the following tasks:
These people—CMO or founder marketer—don’t take part in the day-to-day operations of the content marketing team.
Their job is to:
Founders also have good insights into the product, customers, and market. So, they are almost always the SMEs as well.
After talking with so many founders, I feel the core reason why startups struggle to build a content marketing team is because of a lack of awareness of content marketing operations.
I’ve seen people struggle to build a content marketing team are of these roles:
In all these situations, the common issue is no first-hand experience running a content operations.
Moreover, whatever advice you see on the internet is mostly obsolete information that doesn’t work in the current scenario. That’s why most startups just hire writers to run their content marketing.
So, there is low awareness about these roles. The main problem is not about money. We have seen even the funded startups making this mistake. There is no reason why they won’t invest. Content marketing is a key channel for B2B SaaS startups. It also acts as insurance in case of funding winter or any other negative market scenario.
At Product Led Content, every piece of content passes through at least one person other than the writer himself for quality purposes. This is because you cannot eliminate all errors by yourself. You need another pair of eyes for that.
For self-editing, our writers leave that piece for a week and start working on other things so that their mind is occupied with other things and they get a refresh. Then they can see the article with a fresh pair of eyes.
Writers can only perform when they are given support. Just like, foot soldiers can win or lose a battle depending on the leaders who make strategy, and provide equipment and morale, the same applies to foot soldiers of the content team.
This is our approach to content marketing at Product Led Content. When working with us, you get all of these things.
Just hiring a writer and thinking you will achieve the same results you heard a unicorn startup got will only lead to disappointing results.
To get the best results, you need to hire the right people and empower them to do their job. Support them in all ways. It is not cost-saving thinking you just need a writer. In fact, it is time wastage as well. This is similar to hiring a backend developer to do all the jobs.
The cost of a writer running your entire content marketing is very high. This is not obvious to many founders in the early stages. Only after a few months or a year, do they think that content marketing is not generating enough value that they have expected. By the time, you reach your growth stage; you need to have at least one marketing channel working that you can double down on.
At the seed stage, this pain may not be visible because you need a few clients that you can get via other channels, like paid ads or word of mouth, or references. But these are not highly scalable. They reach a plateau after a while and don’t help you much post series B and C growth stages when you actually need them.
Content marketing could be that channel. But if not taken the right approach, it fails.
Content marketing is a good channel, the one that will definitely work even if other channels fail. But it requires seriousness (involvement) from the founders to get the best from it.
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