Ask Me Anything
May 6th 2020

AMA With Mike Leonhard: Content Creation

Below is an excerpt from an AMA (ask me anything) with Mike Leonhard, the CEO of Compose.ly, a content platform that matches businesses with expert writers to help scale their content strategies. This event was held on our newly launched Slack community, the Content Strategy Collective. 

Past AMAs include Jeff Coyle, MarketMuse Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer on AI content; RankSense Founder and CEO, Hamlet Batista, on python for SEO; Right Source Marketing CEO, Mike Sweeney, on healthcare marketing, and more.

Join the Content Strategy Collective here.

What publications and thought leaders are at the top of your reading list?

Great question! There are many, but these are some of my favorites:

  • Brian Dean (Backlinko) – It’s a great newsletter with a lot of helpful marketing tips and tactics. His articles don’t have a lot of fluff; they’re just straight to the point.
  • Rand Fishkin (Sparktoro) – Rand’s an industry leader and provides a ton of fantastic insights in regards to SEO and content marketing.
  • Tim Soulo (Ahrefs) – I highly recommend listening to any of Tim’s interviews — he’s an awesome (and entertaining) speaker.
  • Ross Hudgens (Siege Media) – Ross offers great gems of wisdom on Twitter.
  • Neil Patel – With such a large audience, his surveys have a lot of insight.

I also like to consume a lot of news, especially during these crazy times, so I’m an avid reader of the Atlantic, New York Times, the Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, amongst several others.

How do you get a company struggling to find technical subject matter experts to see the value in outsourcing their writing and how they can help outside writers ramp up faster?

This is a really great question! In the end, I don’t think outsourcing technical writing is vastly different from non-technical topics. Outsourcing content, whether technical or non-technical, typically addresses logistical pain points of recruiting, vetting, and managing writers, which can be extremely difficult for companies that don’t have the bandwidth to do so. 

That said, when it comes to getting companies to see the value of outsourcing, it really boils down to whether that quality is present. In the early days of Compose.ly, we really struggled to have writers available for super niche/specialized topics (think AI, blockchain, cryptocurrency, API/developer tools, etc.). A huge part of successfully outsourcing technical content involves having a solid recruitment process. 

Over time, our recruitment processes got better, and we were able to bring on more writers that could tackle more technical specialized content. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. 

Since we run into skepticism from prospective customers, we often offer the client a trial run of a single project to demonstrate the efficacy of outsourcing. This helps companies to get comfortable with outsourcing their content to our writers and is a great way to get them ramped up. I imagine that these kinds of companies don’t immediately recognize the value of outsourcing because so many services promise quality for unreasonably low prices — and they simply don’t live up to it.

Do you have any tips for someone just starting their content game?

Absolutely! I think it all starts with a clear understanding of your target audience. We like to start by creating a user persona, as it is critical to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. Focus on carving out this persona and understanding them from a psychographic perspective. Think:

  • What are their hobbies and interests?
  • What publications do they read?
  • What are their specific pain points? And how would they go about searching for the solutions to these pain points?

This last point is especially important when you take your next step: doing keyword research for ideas on what content to produce. I’ve noticed that some content marketers focus on what I think of as “top-down” terms, using high-level, solution-focused keyword phrases that don’t resonate with their target audience. Try thinking “ground-up” from the vantage point of users, which tend to focus more on problems. 

For instance, we had a client that was selling what they saw as “external batteries” when unbeknownst to them; most customers are actually searching for “power banks.”

What trends in types of requests you are seeing. (By industry, by content type, etc.) 

In the last couple of months, we’ve seen an increase in health and wellness, finance, cannabis, e-learning while, as expected, tourism and hospitality have taken a hit. As for content types, we’ve seen a continued interest in blog content (both short- and long-form articles), white papers, and ebooks to support sales enablement and marketing initiatives. 

More recently, we’ve observed an increase in requests to support new digital efforts such as pieces that summarize webinars, conferences, and other online events that are replacing the live events companies used to have.

How frequently are customers taking advantage of your services in addition to the self-service model?

Roughly 80% of our customers are self-service clients looking purely for help executing content. In comparison, the remaining 20% represents Managed Service clients that request assistance with strategy, or project management, in addition to pure content writing. That said, our Managed Service clients produce vastly more content overall. So if you break down the total content production from Compose.ly, the lion’s share comes from Managed Service clients. 

Managed Service doesn’t always mean we provide the strategy, however. Often it’s more about us serving as a liaison between our writers and the client and assisting in the project management of their content. We have many clients we serve in this structure that will provide us with their keyword research and topic ideation, and we simply execute for them.

What were some of your biggest lessons learned when building a content operations platform? 

BIG lessons learned are:

  1. It’s essential to balance writer headcount vs. client project volume. It is critical that we have a continuous finger on the pulse of the volume of projects and how that balances with the number of writers/editors and their background/expertise. We need to keep the writers busy and satisfied with the amount of work (otherwise they’ll leave the platform), while also ensuring we have the proper writers for the projects coming in. This balance is not an easy one to achieve, and it took a lot of trial and error to make that happen.
  2. Quality assurance is vital. We had several writers that passed our initial testing and vetting and did an exemplary job when they first joined the platform. However, we found that we had to be vigilant to ensure the writers continued to produce exceptional content. We implemented a feedback loop between our editors and writers, implemented incentives on drafts that were accepted upon initial submission, and training/tips to help our writers grow their skill sets and stay in-tune with the latest/greatest best-practices.

What is on your must-have list regarding qualities & experience for writers in your network?

We pride ourselves on cultivating a robust and diverse writer community at Compose.ly. Our must-have qualities include:

  • Must be a native English speaker with a firm grasp of punctuation, grammar, and writing mechanics
  • Familiarity with SEO—not necessarily outright expertise because we understand that SEO is a nuanced skill set. However, on that note, we train writers to build upon their existing SEO knowledge.
  • Industry experience and/or research skills. This can be difficult to parse out at times, as a writer may have a strong resume that supports their knowledge and expertise in a particular industry. In contrast, others draw their knowledge from research savvy (e.g., someone who isn’t a lawyer but has done extensive research on legal systems and understands them very well). 
  • Reliability. Finding reliable freelance writers that can meet deadlines and consistently produce great content is not easy. We have an internal rating system. If the writers drop below a certain rating due to not meeting deadlines, sub-par work, etc., we’ll remove them from our platform.

Of course, the perfect candidate on paper may not always be the best fit. When recruiting writers, we look beyond the resume and focus on those that communicate professionally and promptly. Before officially onboarding any writers onto our platform, we test them to ensure a good fit.

Connect with your peers, ask questions, and share your experience through our new Slack community. Join the Content Strategy Collective here.

Stephen Jeske

Written by Stephen Jeske stephenjeske