Hiring Content Marketers? Try This Playbook to Vet Candidates Better


I recently wrote a story about how I almost didn't hire the best writer I've ever hired. If I'm being honest, I came close to screwing it up entirely, and the article was my attempt at telling others how to avoid similar mistakes. Based on feedback I received from the post, I wanted to explore two concepts a bit more specifically today: reviewing candidates and assigning them projects as part of the vetting process.

In my post on my near-mistake, I make the case for why businesses should adjust their hiring mentalities and processes away from traditional marketing roles and towards a more creative candidate profile. I go so far as to break down a few common job description phrases and how to tweak them to appeal better to writers. It's the kind of "come to Jesus" advice that often makes stuffier businesspeople uncomfortable.

(By the way, the staunch, suit-wearing, intercom-using, corner-office-having businessman is probably my favorite persona in all of business. As a B2B writer, that guy's always looming, taking himself too seriously as an "all-important" big wig. But he's just so ridiculous. I mean, look at how big his wig is … but I digress.)

In our industry, we seem to embrace that marketing has experienced a massive shift, but we keep trotting out our tired, traditional job descriptions and interview techniques. If the industry has really shifted that enormously, then we need to shift our hiring approaches too. We need to attract and hire people who understand and embrace all this change ... and they probably aren't the same people that were executing the old marketing playbook.

A Better Approach to Hiring Content Marketers

I've had more than a few facepalm moments lately when it comes to watching companies try to hire content marketers. (For context, I work with early-stage startups as director of platform at NextView Ventures, which has invested in roughly 40 startups to date. By night, I run a community group I co-founded called Boston Content, now at over 800 local members.)

One of the most consistent opportunities for improvement that keeps coming up is the process of reviewing and selecting candidates. Sourcing at the top of the hiring funnel is hard, but it shouldn't be the only focus. When there's a good candidate in the hiring funnel, too many companies botch the rest of the process because it's unfamiliar.

The familiar process that doesn't work for content usually runs like this:

  • Write a plain vanilla job description and post to the usual places.
  • Review incoming cover letters and resumes.
  • Review their work samples next. <-- Applicable but not exclusive to content hires.
  • Conduct a phone screen.
  • Conduct a few in-person interviews.
  • Before the in-person interviews, remember at the last minute that someone should screen for culture.
  • Assign the culture interview to the most junior person on the team. (They don't know anything about the actual work or strategy anyway, right? Plus, they seem like the "fun one" who would be unhappy with a bad culture fit, and culture is a squishy, fluffy idea anyway ... right?)
  • For a select few candidates, assign writing samples. <-- Unique to content hires.
  • Review those samples for ... who the heck knows.
  • Make a decision where the samples account for 5% of the reasoning and the brands listed on the resume account for 50%. 
  • Feel okay about the hire and pray this "content thing" works.
  • Pour a stiff drink.

Here’s what I’m proposing instead:

1. Write a more creative job description.

My past post goes into more details -- you can check that out here. For now, suffice to say that your job description should make the role sound anything but plain vanilla. It should emphasize the ability to produce creative, unique work, get bylines, stand out, experiment, and generally have fun with the process of creating content. THAT is the hard part to learn or teach, so attracting candidates who are naturally gifted and work hard to improve those skills can be a huge leg up to fill your pipeline.

Yes, you want to advertise that you’re seeking a rockstar in both content production AND marketing. Yes, you never want to hire an aspiring artist who rejects all business principles. But at least personally, I know I can teach someone how to be a decent marketer much more quickly and easily than I can teach someone to be a decent writer. So I look for writing abilities first, marketing second.

(As a quick aside: It’s also important to test for attention to detail in this role. There are SO many moving pieces in the job of planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing content. And though I don't recommend everyone do this, I often like to insert a bullet way deep down in the job description that says, “Attention to detail test: Use the word [whatever I’ve chosen] in your cover letter.” It shows me they've read the "assignment" carefully and meticulously. As a byproduct, the really good candidates often have some fun with that one. I had one candidate insert the phrase into a video, pause with the word on the screen and audibly clear his throat. Awesome!)

2. Review applicants' materials in the right order.

The order is as follows:

First, look at their work samples submitted via their application.

This is the most important information you can receive from a candidate, bar none. Reviewing samples is also the best way to save time because, almost immediately, you can remove candidates who simply can't produce work. Despite all the "strategy" their resume may tout, you don't want to talk yourself into someone only to find by the end that they can't produce. (Even if they won't be creating content for you, you want someone who has done so in the past. They'll work much better with freelancers, agencies, and teammates this way. Trust me.)

Your temptation will be to justify why you SHOULDN'T make snap judgments based on work samples. I'd urge you: Do it. Make quick decisions. Rule out poor samples right away.

Second, perform a quick Google search for their name. 

Check for two things here: their online presence and their side projects. The latter is proof that they have creative drive and can be potentially prolific, in addition to caring about self improvement and pursuing their passions. The former -- having an online presence -- is decent proof that they understand the basics of digital marketing. Additionally, both their side projects and their online presence combine to help you understand who they are as people.

One thing to note here: I don’t think you should look for massive social following or blog readership from your candidates — though that’s certainly a huge bonus. Instead, this step is to ensure they’re using digital channels you care about in the first place. Are they tweeting? Blogging? Posting videos? Podcasting? What else?

If they have very few tweets, for example, I like to ask why. They're trying to work as a content marketer, so I want to hear their thinking. The same question applies if they don't have multiple types of content in their portfolio. Tons of free tools exist that let you create content without needing an employer to assign it -- why haven't they built a broader portfolio?

If they can articulate their reasons for NOT doing these things, then that's fine. In some cases, however, their answer triggers a few red flags about their lack of drive, disinterest in expanding their creative skills, or inability to produce content with either or both quality and quantity in mind.

For example, I once had a content marketer tell me that several employers had rejected her because she hadn’t created ebooks before. She asked me whether she should just create one in theory. My response, in different words: "!!!!!!!"

Of COURSE she should! The fact that she hadn't done so as soon as the first employer rejected her told me a lot about her candidacy.

Third, after work samples and Google searches, read their cover letter.

Unlike a software developer who ships code, a cover letter is actually a work sample for a content marketer, since they “ship” the written word.

Cover letters would normally be the ideal starting point in the review process -- it's a work sample and a cover letter at the same time -- but unfortunately, college career centers have done more harm than good for most of their students. So I drop it to third in importance. There's just so much miseducation from career centers about how to apply to jobs and communicate with businesses that most people turn in boilerplate cover letters. It's partly not the candidate's fault.

Take my time at HubSpot as the example. In a year, I reviewed about 50 to 75 cover letters for the content team. Despite applying to writing-heavy roles, I'd say 9 out of 10 of these candidates would STILL use the typical boilerplate. Some would start their emails, "Dear Hiring Manager," while others would write opening lines like, "I am very interested in the role of Content Marketer." Boring. Bland. Undifferentiated. Not a good work sample.

(If you can't tell, I had a bad experience myself, and I feel like the HubSpot candidates were all let down by their educators. It's sad. Why on earth do college career centers continue to advise students to do this?!?! These are not legal or public policy roles -- these are business-focused students applying to modern businesses. Teach them how to be unique and human, not bland robo-applicants.)

When it comes to cover letters, great candidates will occasionally understand that these are work samples and provide something more unique. For instance, a good friend who I’ve hired twice now (at Dailybreak Media and HubSpot) once submitted a cover letter that started simply, “I’m afraid.”

Period. Paragraph break. 

WOW! That stood out and totally reeled me in at the same time. I had to know more. What was he afraid of and why was he saying this to me? How did this apply to the job? He went on to explain a worrisome trend in content quality and why, given the chance, he'd combat that for our team.

(By the way, his name is Erik Devaney, and you need to follow him on Twitter. His work is incredible, and he’s going to be a star in this industry.)

Lastly (yes, lastly), review the resume

Resumes are just not that important when it comes to production-oriented roles, including content marketing, software engineering, graphic design, and more.

The only things that matter for content marketer resumes are achievements (like "Grew the blog 50% year over year"), rather than responsibilities ("Wrote and edited blog posts"). I don't care that your resume says you can write. I care that your samples, your Google search results, and your cover letter all PROVE you can write.

By the time I hit the resume, I’m relatively assured that I want to talk to this candidate, since I’ve already learned so much about him or her. The resume affirms that, yes, all that great writing and great work yielded actual results. Even if the resume doesn't list any metrics, there could be a million reasons why, and I'll probably still talk to the candidate.

We're now done with the "review" step and can move onto the interview step.

3. Run the usual phone screen/interview playbook.

A lot of these steps are completely broken too, but it's not my area of expertise, nor is it the main point of this post. So I’ll just add one suggestion for your interview, which is to ask the following question:

“If I handed you a bag of money and you didn’t need to work for the year, but you still wanted to write … what would you write about?"

The great ones absolutely light up at this questions and ramble on and on about their passion area. I’ve had people talk at length about their love for movies and TV and how they’d do a funny spin on critiquing those things. Erik would probably write about Irish music and history, since that’s his personal passion. I’d write about sports just given my background in sports journalism and my love/hate relationship with the circus that is the New York Knicks. 

It doesn’t matter WHAT they say. It matters HOW they say it. You want excitement and clarity. If they hem and haw and struggle to come up with anything, I'd be worried about their love for their craft. Will they want to learn and improve upon it? Will they be prolific? Are they TOO focused on the marketing mechanics and not enough on creating stuff? That could cause them to take shortcuts and yield poor results and not experiment on high-impact projects.

4. Assign a highly relevant project.

This is the final step. You’re just about ready to hire someone or perhaps have two or three good candidates and need to decide between them. This project ultimately helps both the company and the candidate make the right decision and find a fit.

There are dozens of ways to assign a project, but my favorite approach is the following:

  1. Give the candidate three headlines for blog posts you'd probably want to publish yourself, along with a tight deadline. Give no more details. A good writer will figure out the rest by reading company content to determine voice, data, industry trends, etc. They may reply with questions too, but don't offer that window proactively. See what they do on their own.
  2. Let the candidate choose one of the three headlines to write as a blog post. (I like to ask them why they chose a particular post after the draft is submitted. This provides another data point into their thinking and approach.)
  3. Read the draft and mark some notes privately. I say "privately" because, next, you should ask the candidate to edit their own work and reply with those proposed edits. You want to see their edits but also compare to your own.
  4. Along with their edits, ask that they submit 10 ideas for potential headlines, plus their pick for which headline they'd actually publish.
  5. Lastly, in addition to their edits, 10 headlines, and pick for the winning headline, ask that they also reply with an idea (a few sentences of description) for one "pillar" piece of content that could relate to this topic, like an ebook, white paper, template, etc. (This piece would be a call-to-action that would go into the blog post to convert subscribers or leads -- a familiar playbook that good marketers understand.)

To me, steps 3-5 are the most revealing. Do they get content marketing, or do they just like to write? You can do a lot with someone who just loves to write, and we need to embrace that profile much more often in our industry. However, when someone nails all the steps above, you should initiate Step 6: Do a happy dance on your desk.

Why? You've pulled the rabbit out of the hat, my friend. You've found someone who gets both halves of this job: writing/creation AND marketing. They possess the "sight" -- the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, which is the most important soft skill of a good content marketer.

Talent in this field is tremendously hard to come by, given the need to think with both halves of the brain, the recent uptick in demand, and the relative newness of the career path. But if we're indeed riding the wave of a massive industry shift, then it's high time we shifted our approach to hiring along with it.

Posted on November 17, 2014 .