Hiring writers: Are content production goals a good idea? Or pay them for performance?

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To hire writers is something most every company has to consider if they want to really rock their content marketing. Most every story has some kind of written component. People who can write can make those stories sing, drive performance and results. Are content production goals a good idea however?

And how do we hire writers and pay them in a fair way? Certainly some companies are using the “what kind of performance can I expect?” question as a negotiation tactic. That question can baffle some writers. Should I only get paid if people read my content? Ugh. That doesn’t sound like a financial model that will work all the time. Sounds like a gamble honestly.

As the author of “Content Performance Culture” – a Top 100 public relations book – I suppose I can take some of the blame. “Christoph, your book clearly states that performance matters.” It does, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay writers for the production time and expertise – which can include:

  • interviews
  • SEO research
  • writing for the web, social and maybe more channels –  like podcasts
  • review process management
  • etc.

Why content production goals are important

While marketing can’t be based on output goals only, outputs do matter. For example, I’ve seen many campaigns where 30% of the content or messaging drives 90% of the results. Certainly marketers try to be more deliberate but nowadays a lot of testing is involved. And the market changes. Sometimes content or campaigns work and sometimes they are lagging.

There certainly is an advantage to get on a production schedule. At the end of the day marketing and content campaigns work when we provide value to our audiences. To do that we have to understand the audience and keep going while trying to create value at every touch point.

How soon will content perform anyway?

Then we have to remember that content can take time to perform, as PR expert Michelle Garrett reminded me. Certainly, we can have quick success with articles, including through SEO, which I mentioned in this article.

Even when an article has quick success, in digital content the success can continue for a long time. Digital content is out there and can drive results for months to come. What company wants to track those numbers forever and ever and pay out performance bonuses?

[Tweet “Paying on evergreen content performance forever seems like a bookkeeping nightmare.”]

“It’s really about the long game,” Michelle continued. “With that said, of course you want to make sure the audience sees the content. Distribution via social media channels is important. You can also pitch a piece of content to a publication once it’s been published on your site. That can help more people see it. And you can get creative about drawing attention to it. Pull out quotes to share via social media, include it in your newsletter. Think of ALL the ways you can be plugging it in to your communications channels.“

Of course, keep in mind that creating a strategy with all those channels for your clients should come at a price. If they are hiring you at $0.10/word, that most likely shouldn’t include distribution strategy.

“There is some trial and error involved, too,’’ Michelle reminded us. “That’s part of the process. You see which pieces perform well – and which don’t.“
Case in point that articles can draw traffic and results for a long time after publishing here are my top 4 articles on this blog. The top 4 articles were published from No. 1 to No. 4:
  • 16 months ago
  • 6 months ago
  • 49 months ago
  • 27 months ago

[Tweet “Digital content can drive ongoing results over time.”]

Why do companies want to pay for performance?

It’s really a simple equation: Budgets are being stretched and examined more and more and every dollar spent should show some good use. If we spend $1,500 for an article and that article doesn’t get read in the first day, was that success?

This model can save companies money when content doesn’t perform, but it can also be a hassle when you have to track content performance and pay performances bonuses so to speak to writers.

Why writers shouldn’t write for performance pay only

At the end of the day, when companies only want to pay for performance they are shifting the financial burden from themselves to their content creators.

Writers really should just not take these assignments. I’m reminded here of the example of clients pushing for work to get done before signing the contract or paying the first fee installment. How do you avoid that scenario? Sounds simple in theory: Don’t do any work until the contract is signed. Don’t want to do performance-only projects, don’t accept them!

Ashley Cummings’ freelance writing rates study shares three ways of pricing:

  • by project
  • by hour
  • by word

Keep in mind: If no content gets produced no results can be driven. On the Business Storytelling Podcast I used the football analogy:

NFL teams have to field teams. They also need to practice. Players get paid for practicing, playing in a game, going to meeting, etc.  Heck, each team even has practice squads. Those players get paid for helping the team practice. Then there are expenses for the team like uniforms, travel, etc.

That’s the base pay and base expenses.

Then many players have bonuses for pre-determined milestones, like throwing a certain number of touchdown passes, starting all games, etc.

How many players would be able to join a team if they only get paid for performance and there’s no base pay? Probably not many. And why take the risk to not get paid at all?

Writing and content creation of all kinds do take time. Even when we use all the hacks in the world, it still takes time and expertise – including thinking time, interviewing experts, thinking about the different points to include. Oh, and did I mention the writing, editing, etc.?

“There’s no way around it — you do have to put in time to create good content,” said Rachel Allen, principal at Bolt from the Blue Copywriting. “And there’s never a guaranteed return on it.  But there are things you can do to give your content the best possible chance of performing well and giving you that ROI though.”

“The most important thing is to make sure it’s actually worth your audience’s time. It has to tangibly add value to them. The good news here is that there’s loads of ways to provide value. I often tell clients to educate, surprise, entertain, make it beautiful, and get it right.”

How to set expectations

I’m a big fan of writing out the deliverables with dates and have both parties sign off. This could be as simple as this:

  • One 1,500-word article with own perspective on topic
  • Draft 1 is due within 10 days after topic agreement
  • Each article includes 10-15 social posts
  • Each article includes one simple graphic (like the ones I use with many of my posts on here, including this one).

Author Sarah Townsend joined me on a livestream and shared even more ideas on how to set expectations and be good partners to each other.

Of course we also need content to be at least consumed.

And if content is not being read, that could be a syndication and distribution issue. Maybe the client email list is not reaching people, maybe the social media accounts have too few followers. The list can go on.

It’s also good to know how soon content is expected to perform. Michelle pointed out this info from Skyword:

  • B2B content peaks in organic search about 2 months after publication
  • B2C content peaks 2 years after publication

In either catergory, those results aren’t happening over night.

When you hire writers – good ones – they usually do this

Erin SchroederHire writers that have a conversation with you about the audience, topics of interest and what unique angles may be applicable. Erin Schroeder, a content strategist at Geonetric, reminds us of other important steps before the writing:

“I always advise keyword research and audience insight, at a minimum, to know what to write or produce out of the gate,” Erin said. “And part of that is knowing where your audience is – particularly when it comes to distribution and sharing, such as social media.”

“Not every article is going to be a home run, but you’re going to help SOMEONE. And even one conversion from an article can be a sign of success.”

Before any content ever has the chance to perform, it still needs to pass the approval of the client, too. I totally believe the client needs to be on board with the content produced on their behalf. Keep in mind that editing by preference can hurt content performance as well.


Content creation takes times and we get what we pay for. Of course, writers want to produce content that gets read! But they also should get paid for their work.

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