It’s a common challenge for many content marketers: You need writers capable of delivering highly readable content for your blogs, ebooks, and more; however, your writers also need expertise in your topic area if their content is to have the necessary insight, heft and authority your audience expects.
Finding a good writer who is also an expert on a niche or highly technical industry topic—and who is also available to write for you at an affordable rate—can be like hunting the proverbial unicorn. Yet the very exclusivity of those skills is what makes the hunt worthwhile.
There probably isn’t an industry or topic area that isn’t already buried under an avalanche of content. For your content to stand out it must be exceptional and it must be rare—and rare, exceptional content demands an exceptionally rare kind of writer.
A unicorn-shaped hole
Before I went freelance, I worked in the marketing department of a new cloud hosting business, where I was responsible for all content and social media. I had years of experience in another web hosting company writing reams of content for the average non-technical website owner. However, while many principles were the same, I quickly learned that the cloud hosting audience was very different. Our customers were software developers, sysadmins and CIOs—highly technical, distrustful of marketing and certainly more knowledgeable about cloud computing than I would ever be.
I’m certainly more technical than most people I know, but this was a whole new level. I know just enough web code to break my website in increasingly imaginative ways and with stunning regularity. So while I understand the general concepts and some of the technical details involved in cloud computing, I’m definitely no expert.
This posed a problem. I was comfortable writing the web copy, email promotions, case studies and other marketing paraphernalia but more technically detailed long-form content was definitely beyond me. No matter how good my writing, why would anyone read a technical white paper written by the least technical person in the building? I couldn’t offer any genuine thought leadership on the topics that mattered to them. Why should anyone care what ‘the guy in marketing’ wanted to say?
While everyone on the team was supportive of the content strategy, none of them were potential Pulitzer prize-winners. I needed professional writers capable of matching the technical expertise of our audience and I knew they wouldn’t be easy to find.
I had a unicorn-shaped hole in my content strategy.
Where unicorns roam…
The unicorn problem can become even more obvious when a business decides to outsource some or all of its content writing. The more technical or niche the topic, the fewer writers will have the necessary authority and knowledge to drive genuinely informative and essential content.
You might start by approaching a few content agencies. While any agency will tell you that they can supply exactly what you need, you’ll need to dig deeper to test their claims. Some agencies rely on internal teams of generalist writers working across all their clients so that I would be allocated a writer with even less expertise in the field than myself. However, others build large databases of experienced writers and subject matter experts from a range of fields, only offering them appropriate projects if and when there is a suitable match.
Ask how the agency will source and assign the right writer(s) for the job, insist on a shortlist of writers for your approval and ask for samples of their work.
This last point is extremely important. Is their experience represented by a list of generic blog posts with no exclusive insight and only basic, entry-level advice? Or, do they have any byline credits in reputable magazines or industry journals?
Remember, while you may be able to assess the quality of their writing, you may not be the right person to assess the quality of their ideas and information. Run a few articles past your team to see if they raise any red flags. Check social media to see how others react to their writing. If your target audience routinely shares or comments on their articles (or doesn’t), it can give you an idea of their influence and authority.
Alternatively, research any relevant industry news sites and publications. With many years researching and writing for industry columns or trade journals, journalists already know how to write for such a demanding audience.
Unfortunately, some journalists are extremely resistant to any suggestion of writing brand content. Their distaste is usually due to a misguided opinion that branded content and journalistic ethics are somehow mutually exclusive. However, there are many other journalists that not only see content marketing as a valid form of journalism but also may be keen for the opportunity as newsrooms and traditional media continue to cut back.
Whether you find the unicorn in an agency or a newsroom, be prepared to pay extra. Unicorns charge more—a lot more—and quite rightly too. After all, you’re paying for their years of experience, specialised insight and IP, not just their skill with words.
“The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!”
“No;—I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”
Building the unicorn
If you can’t find (or afford) a unicorn, don’t panic—most of you won’t. It might be like taping a cone of paper to a horse’s nose but you can still create a unicorn with the right approach.
The best subject matter experts could well be within your own business. No one knows what your business does and how it matters to your customers better than the team behind your products and services. That’s why they’re there. Yes, they’re not necessarily great writers—they may not even be okay writers—but they will be once you’ve finished with them.
In my experience, some of the most valuable branded content are derived from information and expertise that could only have come from within that business. While I can craft the story and add the words, the core of the content—the information, the data, the insights, the predictions, the advice—is provided by other team members with knowledge and expertise I could never replicate with a Google search. And this means the final piece of content will not only be informative and well-written but also unique to that business. It is their unique insight, their experience, their internal research, their specific data.
Back at the cloud hosting company, this is how I eventually filled my unicorn-sized hole from within. Once a month, our staff meeting included a call for blog post ideas. While many were nervous in the beginning, sceptical of their blogging skills, I soon reassured them that all I wanted was their expertise for me to build upon. If they could send me as much or as little as they could manage, in whatever form they felt comfortable, I would take their ideas and information the rest of the way.
All I needed was one contribution from each person every few weeks and the blog would have a variety of expert viewpoints and advice. And that’s exactly what happened. One might send me a few bullet points to summarise an idea or step-by-step advice for me to flesh out while another would send me quite serviceable first drafts. I quickly learned what each person was capable of and how much time they had to give me—adapting my approach to suit each. Some contributions required more work from me than others, but the result was a consistently strong blog that represented the genuine expertise—and, yes, even thought leadership—of the company.
As the team saw their bylines attached to the published blog posts, their enthusiasm grew. After all, I was making them look good and helping to develop their own online reputation and authority. It may seem a bit more pantomime horse than unicorn but everyone was a winner—including the audience, who got the content they deserved!