How to vet new content hires

The team you build is the company you build. Hiring well is the most important part of your content efforts.

We recently hired our second content marketer at Help Scout.

I wanted to share a quick and dirty run-through on how we evaluated candidates in hopes that it will help you with your next hire.

Stage 1 — Writing the job description

Covered in greater detail via my first article on hiring, but it deserves mentioning here: your job posting will cascade down throughout the rest of the process. It pays to get it right.

The main takeaways? To “intimidate” candidates in the right areas, so that the most suitable person sees the job as a way to showcase their strengths. Here are a few things we emphasized in our posting:

  • You’re a marketer first, then a writer. This isn’t a job for someone who thinks they are done once the article hits the CMS — you’ll be responsible for promoting what you create and making sure that each piece resonates with customers.
  • You’re a voracious reader. Great output demands great input. It is impossible to succeed in this job if you’re not an avid reader and a constant learner.
  • You love meeting new people. Cabin-dwelling novelists be damned, most content marketers have quasi-PR roles to fill as well. This means networking, creating relationships with journalists and other marketers, and in general, being a people person.
  • You are highly creative. Strapped for time and possibly money, everyone on the team needs to be a creative maverick — content folks included.

For a more detailed description on how we approached our job description, read this.

Stage 2 — Evaluating initial applications

The audition / bootcamp process found at many startups is excellent, however, there is a distinct problem with soft skill job opportunities like content marketing.

You’re going to attract a ton of people who are just looking to get in with a startup, and who have no real passion for the position.

These people generally take a very vague approach and speak in catch-all language. We had applicants outright state that they could, “Also be a community manager, if you needed that sort of thing.”

No. We know what we want.

Resumes and a first-contact submissions will help you sift out these people pretty easily.

Here’s what we required people to submit:

  1. Your resume / portfolio / website. If you have not published anything online, this isn’t the job for you. A resume will do in a pinch, but this was really to see how the person attempted to brand themselves — do you have writing published on sites we respect? Are you building an audience? Is writing a hobby or has it ever been a job?
  2. Links to 3 essays you are proud of. This is a daunting question to ask, but a necessary one. The use of the word “proud” was deliberate; it is an attempt to nudge the person to pick what they consider to be their best. Not every submission needs to be a homerun, but this is an excellent way to gauge what they consider to be quality work.
  3. “Why are you interested in working here?” You’d be surprised how many candidates this question will weed out. Let’s talk about the response, “Because I need a job.” Yes, that is a reason, but no company wants to hire someone who’s thinking is, “This will do for now.” While it may feel like a cliché, it really is important that they show and tell why they’ll make a great fit, and why they are passionate about this position.

If I were to pick one area where people most consistently fell short, it was in linking to their 3 best pieces of work.

If you are hiring, take these seriously — if you are looking for a job, take these seriously.

Stage 3 — Writing a unique essay

Once an applicant made it past initial inspection, we would ask them to write a unique essay.

We requested a piece on “how your favorite online company builds an exceptional customer experience.” The article was to be written as if you were sending it to me for final approval, to be later published on the Help Scout blog.

(Funny side note, Buffer was by far the most popular company chosen.)

There were a few reasons why we chose this topic, some of which might interest you:

  • Anyone can write this. Even without a ton of experience within the customer experience space, anyone can write an essay about why a company they enjoy is awesome. You may choose to be more domain selective.
  • The topic demands empathy. Writing about support requires empathy as the job itself is founded in this emotion. To be able to identify “how” and “why” a company might do things to delight customers is a great sign.
  • Avoidance of clickbait. With this topic you had to take a serious approach. I’d argue that many lackluster writers simply get by through excessive number use and disingenuous evocation of emotions (97 Reasons Why Your Mind-Blowing Blog Post Sucks).

Now came time for my feedback, in order to create a better, second version.

Experienced writers are callous shells forged hard by the scorn of a thousand angry commentors. Most newbies have no idea what it’s like to have their work torn apart.

Thus, I critiqued the article bluntly to see if they could take the heat. I did give a friendly heads up as to what they should expect, but spared no criticism.

This was an opportunity to shine. If you could take something average (nearly every original submission was) and turn it into something great, we knew that “inexperience” could easily be overcome with a little coaching.

The editing process narrowed down the field quite a bit. Most people did not put forth the effort into their re-write, and it showed. It was easy to count them out.

Stage 4 — Testing autonomy

The content marketer that is constantly asking, “What should I write about next?” is no content marketer at all.

The final project was therefore designed to ensure autonomy. The task was to write 3 post titles and a brief synopsis to explain:

  1. Why the post was a fit for the Help Scout audience.
  2. Why the post added value from a customer success standpoint (how does it educate, motivate, entertain?).
  3. What is going to give the post lift? Why might it get traction? (We don’t care about virality, but exposure still matters).

To this end, I shared an example of an actual post that I had in the works. I candidly listed the reasons why I was writing it, but gave no topic guidance.

A solid pitch here would outline a few essays that are a great fit for your company blog, each with clearly articulated reasons for why they help customers, with a final explanation of why the article is interesting or unique (or, why it could become popular).

Give them up to 2 days to work this out — good ideas take time, but as it only requires an outline, they don’t need all week.

Stage 5 — The phone call

Squarely filed under “things we would do differently,” we scheduled this last when it should have come earlier in the process.

Personality fit is huge and can only be deduced by talking with the candidate.

The person we ended up hiring, Paul Jun, really shined here for a few reasons.

  • Although nervous, he was easy to talk to. There is no use faking this, so just be yourself. It’s okay to pass on an opportunity where you don’t “fit” with the team. In Paul’s case, his demeanor matched with how we interact with each other.
  • He knew the job well. Besides casual conversation, I talked about the craft. I asked about his process. Again, all he needed to do was answer honestly, because he was familiar with how online publishing works. If you’re applying, think about common “What is your workflow like?” questions and answer concisely.
  • The mission mattered to him. While the application process couldn’t reveal everything about our culture, it was obvious with Paul that being a team player and having an impact with content was truly his objective; not just to collect a paycheck.

This is the section where I can offer the least advice, as what you value is only known by you and your team. Just make sure to give these calls the thought they deserve.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.