With newsroom jobs on the decline, content marketing is on the rise–and increasingly, companies are recruiting journalists for their content and inbound marketing teams. However, you can’t hire just any journalist for one of these positions. You must make sure you’re hiring those who will work well with your team.
At Software Advice, the marketing team is growing rapidly, and a number of job candidates come from a journalism background. So I reached out to some of today’s leading content marketing professionals who gave me their advice on properly vetting journalists for a content or inbound marketing position. Here’s what they told me:
Qualities You Should Look For
In order for a former journalist to make a successful content or inbound marketer, they must obviously be a good writer. But beyond that, they must have a few other important qualities and characteristics, such as:
- Realism above idealism. Dennis McCafferty, Content Director at Welz & Weisel Communications, says some journalists believe editorial should be separate from advertising, marketing and PR. They think “real” reporting means calling out companies and governmental bodies in pursuit of the truth. There is a place for this in traditional journalism–but not on your content or inbound marketing team. Those you hire must realize that they’re going to be working for a business with commercial goals.
- The ability to translate “business-speak.” The journalists you hire should be able to translate corporate “buzzwords” and industry jargon into a language that’s accessible to everybody. This can be proven through a candidate’s past examples of business writing, or by giving them writing tests during the interview process. The goal of their writing is to express what the brand does and what benefits it provides to customers in plain, everyday language that has a human touch.
- The ability to write for different publishing formats. Content and inbound marketers produce all different types of content, from slideshows to social media posts to long-form articles. Hire journalists who understand how to write for these different formats, and who know how to achieve the objectives behind each type of content. They must recognize the appropriate target audiences and create content that speaks effectively to each.
- Basic Internet-savviness. The journalists you hire don’t need to be experts, but they should know the basics of Web marketing: how a good Google search is done, the essentials of SEO, effective use of social media and how to publish a blog post. However, most of these skills can be taught, while being a good writer is more of a natural ability: just make sure your candidates have the capability to learn new tech techniques.
- Strong interviewing and reporting skills. Just because a candidate has journalism experience doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good interviewer. Those you hire must be able to make sources feel comfortable, yet conduct themselves professionally and be able to get the answers they want. Strong reporting skills also means knowing a good quote when you hear it and knowing when it’s best to paraphrase, says Joanne Cleaver, President of Wilson-Taylor Associates.
- Effective use of facts and figures. These journalists must be able to find data that backs up a brand’s claims and proves the effectiveness of its product to customers, says McCafferty. They must be able to pull the most valuable statistics and identify important patterns–and express to readers why they should care. They must also weave these numbers naturally into a narrative.
- High-level time management skills. Journalists are commonly slaves to deadlines, says Cleaver, failing to see the big-picture view of where their content fits in. They may not be used to meeting interim deadlines between the commissioning and publication of a piece, which corporate projects often have. And they may not be aware that corporate clients often need to sign off on projects throughout the development process.
What to Do During the Hiring Process
Once you’ve found journalists who have the qualities you’re looking for, you must identify the ones who are the best fit for your content or inbound marketing team. Here are some things you can do during the hiring process to narrow down the right candidates:
- Assign a writing test or sample project. Put candidates’ skills to the test by having them complete a writing test or sample project, such as a short article or series of blog posts. This trial run will show you how effectively candidates can research and write on a topic on the spot, as well as their ability to communicate in the proper voice and style for the provided target audience. Whether you choose to pay candidates for sample work or allow them to complete the assignment off-site is up to you. Take-home assignments, however, have the added bonus of demonstrating a candidate’s reliability: many of our job candidates at Software Advice never even send their tests back to us.
- Get samples of past work. The writing samples a candidate provides can evidence not only their writing skills, but also their versatility in writing for different industries and formats, says Justin Belmont, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Prose Media LLC (and former Global Editor-in-Chief at Google). When evaluating these samples, he adds, think from the perspective of the average online reader: if they had stumbled across this article, would they remain engaged, or would they have clicked away to something else by now?
- Look out for heavily-edited writing samples. A great editor can make even a poor writer look good, so it’s important to try and determine how heavily a candidate’s samples have been edited, says Cleaver. Have candidates point out the pieces that have had the most and the least work done, and compare their writing test to the piece they identified as the least enhanced to see how it compares.
- Match candidates’ experience with your company goals. The experts I talked to don’t generally seek candidates with a specific type of journalism experience–but they agree that feature writers tend to have valuable experience using research, interviews and statistics to tell compelling stories. But you should also match candidates’ experience with your content or inbound marketing team’s goals: for example, if you just need someone to Tweet and write blog posts, maybe a former news beat reporter would be best.
- Look for talent before experience. The leaders I spoke with agree: a candidate’s work should speak for itself, regardless of background. Experience comes with time, but strong writing abilities are more nature than nurture. We hire for talent over experience at our company, and it’s led us to some great hires we might have missed otherwise.
- Ask about non-newsroom experience. Content and inbound marketers commonly work on projects that require intercompany collaboration, and must be able to work effectively with members of the advertising or sales team as well as their own. It’s helpful if candidates have prior experience with such collaborative projects or with work that had a commercial goal.
What to Watch Out For
There are some red flags you should watch out for during the hiring process, which can identify candidates who might not be a good match. Some of these warning signs include:
- They haven’t mastered basic mechanics. The candidates you hire must have mastered the basic mechanics of journalism. They should use perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation, and must be able to create engaging stories that effectively incorporate quotes, facts and figures, says McCafferty. One or two mistakes on a test is too many.
- They don’t provide the type of writing you have requested. If a candidate does not provide content in the voice or style you’ve requested, it may indicate that they either do not have the skills required or that they aren’t willing to follow instructions.
- They provide heavily-edited writing samples. If the candidate’s best writing samples were also the most heavily-edited, they likely don’t have the talent to succeed on your team. Even great writers still require editing, but their work shouldn’t require a substantial amount of improvement.
- They’re “old school.” Some journalists still have an “old school” attitude, and willfully disregard the adoption of tools like online publishing and social media. To be a good fit for your content or inbound marketing team, journalists should already have embraced the ways of the Web.
- They’ve historically freelanced. Some, but not all, journalists with a long history of working freelance may struggle with the switch to an in-house position, says Belmont. Try to get a feel for how candidates want to work during the interview process, and decide if you’re willing to let your content or inbound marketers work remotely.
- They can’t meet deadlines. If a candidate doesn’t complete their take-home test or assignment in the required amount of time, they definitely won’t be able to meet deadlines after they join your team.
An ever-growing number of former journalists are expected to enter the content and inbound marketing job pool. By following the guidelines in this article, you can find the ones that are the best match for your team.
photo credit: aspiration.inspiration
Holly Regan is a Managing Editor at Software Advice, where she blogs on a variety of topics related to small business and software products. Her writing has appeared online in The New York Times and The Huffington Post.