The Secrets of Scalable Content Production

See also - How to systemise your link building without compromising quality

It’s no secret that we recently opened up our content production team to external clients (previously it was a part of Skyrocket that served only our outreach team) but after much persuasion from various clients we decided to look at how we might be able to help brands and other agencies to produce content that people actually want to consume.

In this post, I want to cover some of our internal processes and look at how to build a scalable content production process in your organisation. To many content is ‘creative’ and I agree however, behind that creativity needs to be a fundamentally well-oiled process that keeps things flowing. This isn’t about automating to the point where quality suffers or plotting to squeeze writers fees, it is about adding structure.

I rarely agree with Michael Martinez but I do agree with his questioning of why people continue to pump out “search friendly” content with little thought for users so I am really not going to be showing you how to drive down the cost and drive up the volume of content. I aim to cover how to add structure, organisation and financial and time efficiencies to this creative process.

Note – this post will cover “management” of content creators, if you are looking for some tips on efficiency as a one-(wo)man content production department then take a look at “How to write a blog post in 60 minutes“.

How to bring scalable content production into your organisation

[shameless pitch] The following is the process we use to create an efficient and largely scalable model for content production within Skyrocket SEO. It can by and large be deployed in most organisations. However it isn’t without its challenges and initial financial outlay – if you want to leverage a world class creative team, and would rather hand this off to avoid the hassle – you can of course hire us. [/shameless pitch]

Step 1 – Content Ideas

I fully recommend the establishment of a creative/content ideas team in your organisation, even if they also work as writers. I believe it is important to separate the function so that ideas can be devised then organised and approved before being written. There are so many instances where you just need some ideas without a piece being written…whether that be to pitch as a guest post or to show your client or manager a new content calendar.

If you leave this process to the link builder in your team or an unengaged client, you’ll likely end up with a set of article titles that read like a keyword research report. I am of course generalising here but my emphasis is on the importance of dividing the labour in this process in the most sensible and efficient way.

Handing this over to the experts, you reduce frustration within your business as someone who “likes spreadsheets” isn’t forced to ponder what the writer should write about next – utilise them for other things. The most qualified person gets the right job. No matter how good a writer is, if the brief sucks the end result will be little more than a well-executed turd.

Step 2 – Structured briefs

You could let everyone in your organisation, email you or the writer a lengthy, inconsistent and clear as mud email with assignments for them OR you could put together a form which brings much needed structure to the process. We use Google Docs which allows us to create a form that perfectly fits our requirements and which passes the details through a spreadsheet that our content managers can then work from. This is simple, free and easy way for us all to track everything.

From there it is a copy and paste task into our system and the communication with the particular writer.

Our form covers:

  • The title/working title
  • A brief description of the piece
  • The type of piece required e.g. blog post, whitepaper etc
  • The appropriate “language” (we only work in English at the moment but obviously whether that’s US or UK really matters!)
  • The target audience
  • Tone
  • Goals for the piece
  • Deadlines
  • Special instructions
  • Keywords to be used – we took this out because we found writers were focusing way too much/worrying about including keywords and quality suffered

One big reason content production at scale fails is because it is too ‘fluid’, call me a bureaucrat but I love forms in almost every business process because it helps even creative minds to focus their thoughts. I want the person ordering the content to succinctly describe what they are looking for from the piece and be forced to answer the questions to give our writers the information they need. Too little detail at this stage gives too large a scope for completely the wrong output at the other end.

The result of all this… fewer rewrites (faster turnaround, lower costs), happier writers (lower contractor turnover) and lower costs (less time is spent pondering, deliberating and going back and forth).

Step 3 – Assign

I think one key thing that sets us apart from other content service providers is that we are proud of our freelance content creators. We don’t pretend to have an in-house writing team, we hire contractors as a conscious strategic decision because we feel it offers significantly higher quality content as it allows us to approach, recruit and retain really talented writers who are subject experts. We test and fully vet all of our writers to ensure they are a good fit and have a working knowledge of the subject area they are going to be working in for us.

At Skyrocket SEO, I am lucky enough to have 2 content managers (Alison and Theo) who have developed excellent relationships with all of our writers. They know each writers strengths and can assign an article in lightning fast time, confident in the knowledge that the writer is going to do a great job.

Failure to assign to the right person will likely result in project failure as the writer won’t be specialised in the area (meaning more research, time and “money” they’ll need to spend = frustration and often a higher charge to you!). I will be covering this and other reasons why a project manager for your content is so essential for this to be successful.

We have a bespoke ordering system where we can upload briefs and notify writers when new work is coming their way.

Step 4 – Get it written

This isn’t really an action for you to be taking because now the assignment is in the hands of the writer you’ll need to count on them to get it done. If you have set them clear deadlines then you can relax in the knowledge that this will be getting done.

Step 5 – Quality control

At Skyrocket SEO we have two layers of quality control that ensure a piece is unique and hits the exacting standards we require for all of our output. This means that we have 2 independent editors who will check the work of the writer and offer constructive feedback where necessary.

The first editor (can be a virtual assistant of sorts) will fire up Copyscape and run the piece through to ensure no plagiarism has taken place, after that it will be sent to a second editor (who really needs to be qualified) will perform a full readability and higher-level quality check – this means spelling, grammar, structure and content all go under the microscope. Rewrites may or may not take place at this stage.

This is by and large the start to finish process that we use for all sorts of content projects. Obviously within each of these steps there are various sub-steps which may or may not be needed (approval from the legal department for example). I wanted to leave the model flexible so that you could then develop and tweak to fit around your organisational needs.

Best Practices

Establish clear communication channels

We have our bespoke ordering system which allows writers, editors and our content managers to all talk to each other and pass content through the various stages without a single attachment. Email and spreadsheets worked just fine for us when it was all internal but now we need much clearer visibility for our external content clients hence the move to our new system.

Depending on the type of project, you might consider options such as Gather Content or Basecamp.

However you choose to do it, make sure you are consistent and have everyone’s buy in and commitment when it comes to communication. We had no end of issues about a year ago when writers were missing emails because they’d only check their inbox once a week for example.

Have a content project manager

I have touched a little on the importance of hiring a content project manager and they truly are invaluable in making scalable content production happen.

  • They take responsibility for all the moving parts (maximum efficiency)
  • They develop relationships with your writers and editors (creating a cohesive albeit virtual team)
  • They take the strain – if your job is something else then your content production is always going to play second fiddle – neglect leads to inefficiencies and likely project failure.

Set rates

I’ve said it once before but I’ll reiterate it here, we always pay our writers a fair rate, squeezing writers inevitably leads to lower quality content as writers (understandably) rush in order to make the piece worthwhile for them.

That being said, we have agreed set rates with all of our writers and editors on a per unit basis e.g. 1 piece of content. In return for regular work, some writers who often charge a higher rate are happy to fit into our requirements. In an ideal world, we’d pay everyone their ideal rate but I don’t run a charity and it makes it very difficult to scale something that has wildly different variables. It helps us keep a firm eye on costs and it helps to avoid any time-tracker happy freelancers who want to spend 5 hours on an article if it only needs 2.

Where to find freelance writers

This is a common question that I get asked and in truth we don’t have one magic answer for you. We find our writers in all sorts of ways…

  • Ask for introductions – Writers often know writers, this has been a big source of building our bank of freelance content creators.
  • Find writers on the Problogger Job Board & oDesk - there are of course other places to find freelance talent but we have found these two to consistently provide the highest quality writers (if you do a bit of sifting through applicants!).
  • Seek people out – using Followerwonk we have managed to track down a number of niche writers to work with.
  • Keep your eyes open – see a blog post you like, get in touch with them.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments below…

13 Comments

  1. avatar
    Anthony Pensabene September 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    James, I’ve spoken a lot with those in business, from agencies through small boutiques regarding content management/working with writers.

    I’ve been privy to theoretical assumptions to practical processes that work. This post is one of the more practical, transparent, and real-to-life collection of thoughts presently available. Cheers.

    • avatar
      James Agate September 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Awesome, 2 Anthony’s commenting on the same post :-)

      Appreciate you taking the time to read it as always and good to hear some feedback from you because I was thinking about your reaction to this when I was writing it as I know how keen you are for writers to be taken care of in our industry, so I wanted to make it extra clear what we’re doing for all our freelancers even though we have built a robust, systemised process.

      Cheers again Anthony

  2. avatar
    Anthony D. Nelson September 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Hey James,

    I’m just curious how you go about handling imagery and design. Do you leave that up to the client, or is it part of your team’s content production process?

    • avatar
      James Agate September 10, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

      Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for your comment. We actually handle imagery, I think I should have pointed out in the post that we leave this up to the writers after we put together a process manual that helps them to source and include creative commons licensed imagery.

      James

  3. avatar
    Anthony Pensabene September 10, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    Oh yeah.. I wanted to know of any tips or suggestions you may lend to other agencies/boutiques who do not leverage outside writers/practitioners.. for instance, one source you and I highly respect does not use them because that is a ‘big selling point’ with clients..

    In your experience, is it just a matter of getting particular clients to understand the advantages of using some outside sources? For instance, as you recognize, one advantage may be due to their intel within a particular niche..

    • avatar
      James Agate September 11, 2012 at 7:11 am #

      I think some clients will always favour the agencies that have “in house” writers but to me it just makes so much sense to utilise outside sources not just because of the talent but because it helps to make costs clear and gives you tremendous ability to scale (which you can sell back to the client as a “good price” and “big enough to cope”).

      I think too many people have this misconception that using freelancers means you are saving money and by “outsourcing” the writing you must be handing it off to somebody to whom English is a second language – that of course just isn’t true.

      I’d love to say everyone gets it when I “sit down” with them and talk it through but we’ve certainly lost a few clients who have decided to go with a competing agency because they have a team of writers in-house. Never mind the fact that the same writer will be producing content for maybe 20 different clients and will likely be forced to churn as much as possible for the company on any given day.

  4. avatar
    Gary Viray September 11, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Hi James,

    I am just curious on your average turn-around time from your content writers for a whitepaper or a blogpost.

    • avatar
      James Agate September 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Gary,

      It really depends, I mean sometimes we can turn a really solid blog post in 24 hours, it may take up to 10 days to produce a whitepaper. Unless it is a really large project, most of our content is ready for our clients within 7 days.

      Hope that helps.
      James

  5. avatar
    John Abrena September 11, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Cool post here James! Share worthy much :)

    I believe that people need to spend effort mostly on the research and development part of creating the content. Of course everything you listed is very important, but like you said, you cannot just make half-baked content that no one would probably notice. Once the ideas are listed and optimized, everything will follow smoothly (if they follow necessary processes, like the ones you listed). And proper communication will always, ALWAYS (I just can’t emphasize on the word always enough) be the key in whatever scalable content production campaign you are doing. Proper coordination with the team will help avoid a lot of mistakes and crisis management situations that will definitely eat up time.

    • avatar
      James Agate September 12, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

      Absolutely John, couldn’t agree more. Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

  6. avatar
    Jeff September 19, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    Hey James-

    Do you have any recommendations for when this needs to be done with 1-4 people versus having access to a larger team?

  7. avatar
    James Agate September 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Hi Jeff,

    I think the beauty of this is that you can scale or contract to as many people as you wish. The important thing is designing the process, the same person can do more than one of the roles but it just helps to streamline if there are clear ‘stations’ a piece of work has to pass through.

    There is a limit to this, 1 is probably too few :-)

    If you have say 4 people you could divide the responsibilities quite easily I would think according to people’s skillsets. As long as you have the dedicated content manager to ease the flow of the whole thing I do think you would be OK.

    Let me know if I can help any more?

    James

  8. avatar
    Joel K October 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    Read it. Loved it. Trying to apply it.

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