Soon after Local SEO Guide hired me last year, one of our multi-location retailer clients asked us to produce a few hundred buying guides for all sorts of products they sell.
Bulk napkins, refrigerators, laundry detergent, you name it. My first big project!
The timeline was about one month, on top of overlapping deadlines for other client projects. As the new content guy, I had to figure out how to make this happen without drowning.
But hot damn, that’s a lot of words to research, pay for, edit, format, and internally link in a month.
You’ve experienced some flavor of this, especially if you work for a small, scrappy agency without an existing editorial infrastructure. Sure, you can turn to Upwork, Zerys, or another content writing service to get it done.
But then how do you decide what to spend on great editors? Should they be subject matter experts, or hired guns who handle any topic? How many do you hire?
What if the client doubles or triples the project for your next engagement? Do you have the resources to…scale your content production?
How do you build an in-house content process that can be scaled 10 or 100 times over?
Alas, scale. Love it or loathe it, “scale” (to me, anyway) just means delivering a proportionally bigger chunk of work while retaining high-quality content.
We’re working in a BERT environment where we don’t really optimize content. I focus on making content readable, logical, and unique enough that it stands out.
I don’t want to write one template, then apply a Find-Replace job across location pages for a national retailer, say. That’s too easy, and Google’s getting smarter about rewarding well-written copy with a purpose.
Call it craft content at scale.
So, how do you ensure you’re still brewing Lagunitas at the scale of Heineken?
Five key elements to scaling content
To scale up a content writing program that doesn’t suck, follow these basics:
Will this work? I can all but guarantee it. Since December, we’ve published new site copy on hundreds of locally targeted URLs for a multi-location national retailer. Check it out.
How to find writers
I prefer working with our own roster of writers, as opposed to a third-party service. I’ve found that it’s easier to communicate with them, from project clarifications to fixing snafus.
Writers tend to be more engaged and accountable when they’re working directly with us. In my experience with content farms, I cede an element of communication to the platform that makes it seem transactional, distant, and detached. And for some copywriting, I guess that’s OK.
It takes time to assemble a content team, there are endless job boards and groups out there. Some focus on content marketers, journalists, social media managers, and bloggers. But they’re all in the blast radius of “writing.” Chances are, you’ll find some great people.
Many of Local SEO Guide’s best content writers came from these (free) watering holes:
- Binders Full of WRITING JOBS Facebook group (I’m not a member – had a colleague post in the group for me)
- News Nerdery Slack group (heavy on data journalism, but there’s healthy overlap with analytics, SEO, and writing)
- Word-of-mouth referrals (from above, former coworkers, editors, friends, etc.)
Ask around, do some lurking, and give someone a chance to succeed. I recommend hiring freelance writers, as opposed to moonlighters with full-time jobs, so you’re not at the bottom of someone’s priority list. (I’ve never been a fan of writing tests—taking them, nor asking others to—but if you go this route, pay them.)
Regardless, building a rapport with whomever you decide to hire will make your job easier. Mutual trust reduces headaches for inevitable hiccups or, uh, pandemics.
For example, the Covid-19 lockdowns emerged in the middle of a sprint to produce 700 pieces of content for a multi-location national retailer (mentioned above). It was among our bigger content projects so far this year.
Many people’s lives were turned upside down—kids suddenly at home, schedules affected, you name it. We were able to contact everyone, figure out where we needed to shift assignments, or plan for late submissions. Wasn’t easy, but we did it.
Be flexible, trustworthy, and give helpful feedback. The writing quality will reflect that.
How to organize your content writing program
No top-secret solution here. We use G Suite’s Google Sheets to track our editorial progress.
Doing a great job? Client suddenly wants to double the copywriting for next month? Add the rows, boom. Scale me up, Scotty.
“What, you don’t use a sophisticated piece of project management software?”
I do for other stuff. Google Sheets works best for obvious reasons:
- Most people know how to use it and easily access it
- You can quickly add cells to track client-specific inputs
- You can have writers submit assignments through Google Forms, which can populate Google Sheet cells with assignments or other info
- You can create a tracking spreadsheet template, then copy it and tweak it for project-specific needs
- You can use VLOOKUP functions to feed data to or from other spreadsheets. For example, tracking invoicing payment amounts, populating keyword research, or validating completion to monitor writer progress
- It can be expanded to accommodate large-scale projects easily
- Searching and filtering is [chef kiss]
- It’s free (relatively—aside from G Suite costs)
Camayak vs. Notion vs. Asana vs. Workflowy vs. Google Sheets
There’s slick content project tracking software out there. We’ve looked at Camayak, Notion, Asana, Workflowy, to name a few.
We keep it simple with Sheets.
What I include in our tracking sheets:
- URL of where content will be published (or proposed path/slug for new pages)
- Word count
- Link to relevant keyword/editorial research
- Writer assigned
- Editor assigned
- Cost (per word, flat rate, whatever it is)
- Status updates from a drop-down menu (using Sheets’ Data Validation options)
- Date assigned
- Due date
- Approval (usually my initials, or another LSGer)
- Other client-specific notes as needed
Create a basic template and deploy it quickly for new projects.
You’re probably thinking, Whoa, this guy just discovered Sheets. Cool blog.
The point here: Don’t underestimate the value of being elastic to scale, tweak, and implement your content tracking with a simple organization solution.
Questions to ask when scaling up content production
Each project’s content strategy will raise different questions.
For any content creation project, we ask these four questions to orient our strategy. Be honest about the answers with yourself, your stakeholders, your clients, and your freelancers.
If you’re BSing your team members or phoning in the answers, you’ll have big problems with high-scale projects—especially if you’ve produced, published, and promoted the content.
What’s the goal of the content?
Are you looking to grow local search traffic for a national brand? Do you want to drive some type of conversion? Or are you simply looking to educate readers at the top of the funnel?
Figure out your target audience before you do anything, or you will be at sea.
What type of content do we need?
“Content” isn’t just a hand-wavy catch-all term for words. Yes, body copy might require heavy lifting. But content also refers to your keywords, title tags, meta descriptions, headings, slogs, anchor text, photos, infographics, captions and alt-tags, video/audio/podcast transcriptions, and call-to-action copy.
When you produce content, think about everything a user sees: every word, from the H1s to the fine print.
Where will the content be published?
Is there a category path under which your content will live? Or will it be published under the root domain?
Content alone doesn’t have the same effect as having a robust website taxonomy.
In other words, you could have the Best Piece of Content ever. But if the information architecture of a site won’t appropriately display or organize your content pieces, you might be embarking on a fool’s errand. Blobs of text do nothing.
You might expect readers to find your great content directly from organic search. The more logically a website is built, the easier it is for search engines to understand how information is organized. Work with your stakeholders to determine the best place to publish.
How will you measure the content?
What does success look like? Do you care about performance at the page level, or site-wide?
Learning about KPIs has been one of the bigger learning curves for me, personally. I spent the last 10 years in newspapers and magazines, where someone else worried about analytics.
As the scale of your content production process increases, the importance of what you measure gets magnified. That sounds heady, but I’m going with it.
It’s not just about lines on a chart. Your clients will make decisions about where to invest in their SEO program depending on how your content performs. Know that you’re measuring what matters.
Create a style guide (or ask your client for one)
Luckily, most of our clients have editorial or brand guidelines. This saves everyone time, and helps me low-key evaluate which of our freelance writers pay attention to our specs.
Even if your client has a style guide, there might be one-off requests, compliance updates, or other notes from an upstream marketing team.
Best to compile crucial information in an instructions shared document for your content creators.
This serves three purposes:
- It’s an editorial blueprint for your writers
- It’s a quality control reference
- It’s a form of redundancy in your own note-taking. We’ve all searched our inboxes for that thrice-forwarded email about some style note and can’t find it.
Avoid the headache of small errors propagating across hundreds of pages of copy.
Give feedback and iterate
A few pieces of writing advice I always give to freelance writers:
- Write like your audience is smart and busy
- Write the way you’d want to be written for
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
(I didn’t come up with these. Other smarter people did.)
We don’t have a crystal ball here at Local SEO Guide. And you don’t either. That makes it impossible to know what’s a perfect blog, a perfect sentence, and a perfect process.
If the content’s performance sucked, I try to understand why. It sucks to suck. So I improve it for next time, or propose a content refresh.
Give your writers and editors honest, actionable feedback. Offer to give it mid-process instead of at the end, so they can apply your suggestions.
Make improvements to your tracking process, your editorial guidelines, and the questions you ask throughout the content process. It’s not a sign that your methods were bad.
Make small improvements that gradually compound, rather than wholesale changes that move the earth beneath everyone.
Of course, You’ll know how your content program performed when it’s published. The benefits of knowing where to nip-tuck your content production process will become apparent the next time around. I smell another blog post…