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Is it worth the money to hire a writer?
“Would you like fries with that?”
That was the uninspired retort of a boy in my high school class when I said I planned to major in English or journalism. To be fair it was the mid-90’s, when the reigning belief was science and business were the only paths to success, and the liberal arts were a waste of time.
But then the internet changed everything. Now the best brands rely on professional writers for quality blog content, high converting ads and emails, and customer case studies. And because writing was so undervalued for a long time, it’s a much harder skill to hire at a professional level. Sure, everyone can write, but how many people are truly great marketing writers who can use their skills to help your business grow?
A professional writer can bring a big return on investment—but how do you know if you’re hiring the best? Look for these skills in the writers you hire for your business, or learn them yourself, to improve your marketing results.
Skill #1: They understand voice
One of the top skills that separates an experienced, professional writer from a novice has nothing to do with memorizing a grammar book. It’s about understanding the nuances of voice, and being able to change their writing style to suit different brands.
Great writers don’t just write the way they speak, and they don’t write the same way all the time. Professional writers can read some samples of content you like, get briefed on your brand’s style, and then pretty quickly pick up that style like they’ve been writing in it for years. They should also be able to ghost write for different executives in your company and make each sound unique, like it really belongs to that person.
What is voice?
Writing voice is similar to speaking voice, in that it’s used to describe the unique, personalized way it sounds in your head when you read it. Established brands will have a clearly articulated voice, and the writers who contribute content for the brand will write in that brand’s voice.
This is not to be confused with tone, which can change depending on the situation. Think of it this way: when you speak, your voice stays the same, but your tone changes depending on who you’re talking to and the situation you’re in. It’s the same with brands. The voice (personality) is consistent but the tone can change.
So, for example, if Ikea’s voice is quirky, funny, and down-to-earth, the overall vibe isn’t going to change from one instance of communication to the next. But, they might dial down the humor part in an email to an upset customer, because they recognize that it’s not the right time for jokes.
A great way to see this in action is to look at two different posts from Google’s blog, and see what’s similar and what’s different. Here’s an excerpt from the first one:
“Now we’re thrilled to announce the winner of the 2018 Doodle 4 Google contest: first grader Sarah Gomez-Lane, who drew delightful dinosaurs to highlight her dream of becoming a paleontologist…We fell in love with Sarah’s rendering of her dinos, and were blown away by her big (you might even say “dino-sized”!) ambitions on her future, especially at her young age.”
Contrast that with an excerpt from the second one:
“AR lets creators project 3D objects into the physical world so you can interact with them as if they were real. This means that virtually any room can become a virtual playground or showroom, opening up infinite new creative possibilities.”
Both have the same voice—friendly, accessible, and human. The first one, however, has puns and colloquialisms, whereas the second one has a more professional tone. That’s because the first one is likely to be read by kids and parents who are interested in Google’s fun contest, where the second is more likely to be read by business people or investors.
How to recognize and cultivate voice
If you want to get better at writing in different voices, you first need to listen. Go online and read different blogs from well-known companies, competitors to your brand, and top players in different industries. Take note of the differences you observe, and consider why they might have chosen that approach.
Here’s an excerpt from a Samsung white paper Delivering excellent customer service:
“Customer service excellence requires consistently exceeding expectations, and banks can’t deliver that with digital alone. This report explores why banks concerned with delivering excellent customer service must execute well on when and how their customers choose to interact with them.”
And another from a post on Coca-Cola’s blog:
“People who love the original tell us they can instantly spot a sugar-free drink and they don’t get the same satisfying taste and experience. So we needed to do something different and ask people to think again. That’s what we’re doing with Coca-Cola Zero Sugar.”
The differences might seem subtle at first, but it’s those nuances that make all the difference in understanding voice. For example, Samsung uses the word “requires” and Coca-Cola uses “needs” (“needed” to be exact). They mean the same thing, but one is more formal than the other. What do you think that means?
Even though both are easy to read and clear, Samsung consistently chooses more formal words and phrases (“delivering,” “execute well on,”) where Coca-Cola chooses more conversational words and phrases (“spot,” “that’s what we’re doing”). These small variations add up to create two different voices that you can pick up on—and eventually emulate—with practice.
Finding a writer who understands voice
If you’re hiring a writer to help you create content, there are some things you can do to test their understanding of voice. This is also an opportunity for you to test your own understanding of voice when you evaluate them!
First, ask them to send you a few samples they’ve written that reflect different writing styles and voices. Read through the samples and see if there’s versatility in their writing. Take note of the publications or clients they wrote them for, and whether the samples match the vibe of those publications or clients. This will give you a good idea of whether they’ve mastered voice and have a deeper understanding of brands, or if they’re just pumping out versions of the same thing for all their clients.
The second test you can do is commission them for one small piece of work first to see how they perform before hiring them for a bigger project. Send them samples of writing from your brand (or if you’re hiring them to help you build that foundation, send samples of writing you like) and give them a creative brief and/or style guide. See how close they get to meeting your expectations when you’ve properly briefed them.
A great writer will be able to take those elements and come back with something close to what you’re aiming for. It doesn’t have to be perfect—some back and forth with writers is normal— but you’ll be able to tell if they have the skills to interpret a brief and help you bring your brand vision to life.
Skill #2: They know how to write for different media
The second skill that sets a great writer apart from the rest is being able to write differently depending on the medium. The way you piece together an academic essay is very different from how you structure a marketing email. Same goes for a print ad versus a landing page. A novice writer will often approach any writing task with one mindset, whereas a professional will have a different process to arrive at each of these very different pieces.
Understanding different writing approaches
The key to knowing how to structure and write different types of content comes from understanding two key things: the goal for the content piece and the audience’s mindset. If you start writing without first building a strategy to address each of those elements, your content likely won’t perform.
When a journalist writes a news article, their goal is to provide the facts of a situation as objectively as possible in an easy-to-follow story format. They have to take into account journalistic best practices and ethical standards, and writing for an audience comprised of a variety of different ages and backgrounds. They also need to conform to the conventions and political leanings of the publication they’re writing for.
On the other hand, when a marketer is creating a landing page for an online ad, their goal is to share some key messages about a product or service as succinctly as possible, and get that visitor to buy the product or take a specific action. They have to consider best practices for online conversion, and take into account the demographics of their target customer, and where that customer is in the buying cycle.
Each of these pieces would require a different approach. The journalist would take time interviewing experts or insiders with various opinions on their chosen topic, and then consider how to present the facts and opinions into a balanced narrative. The marketer would examine audience insights and get clarity on the business goals for the landing page, build a hierarchy of key messages, and work with a designer to build a page with the optimal user experience.
Finding a writer with experience in your chosen medium
It’s easy to see why you want to ensure any writer you hire has the right background and skills to match your project. Even the best journalist might not be prepared to think like a marketer, and vice versa.
To do this, ask your writer what types of content they’ve created, and where the bulk of their experience lies. If you need a marketing writer, make sure the person you choose has professional experience in creating marketing content. Ask them about the results from their various projects. For example, if they claim to be experienced in email marketing, they should be able to tell you something about open and click-through rates, and give you some success stories where they’ve improved those metrics for clients.
If you’re looking for a blogger or social media person who can help grow your audience, don’t just look at their copy. Ask them what goals their previous clients had for their blogs and social channels, and how they helped them reach those goals. Do they understand the algorithms at play on the different social channels? Does your blogger know about SEO best practices? These are key elements that separate a professional from a novice.
Skill #3: They understand the soft sell
The last major skill I’m going to cover that really marks a professional writer is the art of being subtle, also known as the soft sell. What I mean by this is a writer who has the ability to sell something to a customer without them feeling like they’re being sold to. It takes more strategic thinking and storytelling skills to soft sell than it does to hard sell.
We’re living in a world where the traditional style of heavy-handed marketing messages no longer works in a lot of situations. People no longer blindly trust advertisements and there’s also a lot of noise to cut through in their worlds. Today’s customers want to know what your brand stands for and they want to know how your product can benefit them, but they don’t want to feel like you’re pulling a used-car shtick on them.
Soft selling involves taking the key messages you want to the customers to grasp and weaving them into the copy subtly, while providing broader value through your content. This is a difficult skill to teach. It’s something that comes with experience and having a deep understanding of how audiences consume and interpret messages. It’s a key element of content marketing, and often it’s something that is built up little by little over a series of interactions with a customer.
A great example is writing a blog article that teaches your customers something that will help them reach a goal or solve a problem, without including a sales pitch on your product. Instead, you aim to leave a certain impression in their minds about your brand, without them feeling like you tried to push them toward a sale.
Let’s say you own a company that sells organic, sustainable clothing and products for children. A hard sell approach would be publishing posts that talk about different products you offer, how great they are, the various features, and how your brand is an industry leader. A soft sell approach, on the other hand, would be publishing articles about sustainability in the fashion industry, kids’ health, and issues that matter to parents. Doing this would build a narrative about your company that has nothing to do with what you sell, and everything to do with your brand’s commitment to the next generation.
If you’re looking to build a strong brand and grow your business, finding a great writer—or becoming one yourself—is a key way to maximize your marketing resources. In today’s world, quality matters more than quantity, so make sure you don’t underestimate the value of great writing.