Back when I was a baby writer, content was measured in square inches. Magazines and newspapers published on a set schedule, and there was limited space available in each one. Since there were only so many opportunities for a writer to be published, clips were proof that you had landed one of those coveted spots — and you used that proof to help secure the next opportunity.

But content marketing turned that model upside down. This charming but disruptive lovechild of journalism and advertising obliterated previous restraints on how much content could be published and, in doing so, left bylines to wither away on life support. A lot of today’s content — especially branded content — is published either without a byline at all or, as with ghostwriting, under the name of someone other than the person who actually wrote it.

And that’s OK. I’d much rather have CEOs concentrate on running their businesses than sweating over guest posts (especially if I’m a shareholder). The problem is, as I explained in The Way We Buy and Sell Content is Broken, we still try to run the content marketplace the same way we did a couple of decades ago, when bylines and portfolios were the gold standard.

That leaves both writers and content managers in a pickle. Ghostwriting and the lack of bylines limit writers in their ability to use their previous work to land new clients and limit content managers in their ability to vet prospective writers.

Sometimes we’re slow to adapt when the world changes around us. (If you’re old enough to have written copy on a typewriter, how long did it take you to stop double spacing after periods?) But it’s long past time to restructure the content marketplace to reflect the way content is bought and sold today, not 20 years ago. Fortunately, after speaking to several editors and content managers over the last few days, it’s clear that things are starting to shift.

Fundamental shifts in the content marketplace

While nobody is shouting it from the rooftops yet, the assumptions that undergird today’s content marketplace are changing in two fundamental ways.

Ghostwriting is emerging from behind the veil of secrecy

Ghostwriting isn’t the dirty little secret it was when I first started in content marketing. Back then, ghostwriting was a lot like fight club: You never, ever, even acknowledged its existence.

Well, the secret’s out now. Readers might not know the details of who writes what content, but they know that ghostwriting is a thing. And, for the most part, they don’t care.

That gives both writers and brands more flexibility in navigating the content marketplace. Stephanie Roulic, founding team member of content platform nDash, told me that it’s becoming more acceptable for writers to list the names of brands they’ve worked with in their bios or on their websites, even if that work was non-bylined. Some even include their ghostwritten content in their portfolios. And most brands don’t seem to mind, primarily because people no longer assume that brands (or even thought leaders) write all of their own marketing content. There’s just too much content being created for that to be feasible.

Editors and content managers understand that there’s more to a writer than a portfolio

I’ve been a writer, and I’ve been an editor. I can tell you without hesitation that, the more experienced you are as an editor, the less importance you place on portfolios, simply because you’re too familiar with what goes on behind the scenes between the time a writer submits content and when it’s published. Especially at agencies, where a single content marketing manager may be juggling content production for a variety of clients, that process is just as important as the final product. And a writer who is easy to work with — something a portfolio can’t tell you — has a huge competitive advantage.

Advice from content pros

That shift in content marketing fundamentals paves the way for both writers and content managers to work more effectively. The tips below, courtesy of content marketing experts, tell you how to put those changes into action. They’re aimed primarily at content writers, but I included tips for editors and content managers, too.

Use your website to make yourself easy to vet

Your website can be so much more than a platform for your portfolio. Use it to give prospective content marketing clients a feel for what it would be like to work with you.

Tell people who you are — and who you’re not

I use my website to explain my approach to content marketing and to working with clients. My homepage highlights my value proposition, the thing that differentiates me from other writers. It makes it clear that my mission is to write content that helps accomplish my clients’ business goals rather than simply meeting the specifications of a content brief. It also shows that I understand my market’s pain points — the problems they’re trying to solve when hiring content marketing writers.

Putting that information up front saves time (for both myself and for prospective clients) by letting people cross me off their list right away if they just want somebody to churn out content. Those who are looking for someone who can offer more strategic input can find out more information through my About page, my blog, and my portfolio.

I’ve found this to be a good approach. In fact, Rachel Winstead, one of the content managers I work with frequently, told me that the way I presented myself on my website influenced her more than my portfolio. Based on what I said about how I work with clients, she was confident that we’d work well together.

A word of caution

I’ve also seen writers really mess this up…like the guy who said he started freelancing because he was tired of being “forced” to write content for clients he cared nothing about. (Gee….where do I sign up?)

Let me say this as clearly as I can: If you want people to hire you to write their marketing content, stating that you’re more interested in your “art” than in their business goals is going to send your bounce rate through the roof. Why in the world would a business hire someone who expresses such disdain for clients’ needs?

So…while it can be smart to use your website to discourage clients who aren’t a good fit, be strategic. Don’t scare everybody away.

For editors and content managers

Pay attention to what writers say about themselves and their clients — both overtly and between the lines. Assuming that they’re putting their best face forward, can you see yourself working with them? Does their description of what they offer meet your needs?

Blog about the things you want to get paid to write about

Trying to break into a certain content marketing niche? What’s stopping you? Write some relevant content and post it on your own blog and/or LinkedIn, or syndicate it to sites like Business 2 Community and Medium.

I know how important it is to get paid work, but don’t avoid writing content that will increase your authority and thought leadership just because you’re holding off for a one-time paycheck. High-quality content on your own blog or authoritative syndication sites can end up generating a lot more revenue than selling it to somebody else. If you’ve got great ideas but are hoarding them for a potential client you haven’t even met yet, be your own client.

For editors and content managers

The content writers create for themselves can be more revealing than what they create for clients. Sometimes writers give away more than they realize, especially when it comes to what they think about their clients and the work they create for them. In fact, that’s why it’s always smart to check Medium — writers sometimes convey very different attitudes and work ethics there than they do on their web sites.

Thought leadership content, on the other hand, can be a heads-up that a writer has a lot more to offer than 800 words of copy.

Cultivate a recognizable style

Yes, you want the emulate the voice of the client. But people in the business are surprisingly good at recognizing you anyway. If you sit down and read a bunch of your previous work in one session,  you’ll probably start to notice some subtle commonalities, even between content marketing pieces written for different clients and industries. Those are your breadcrumbs. Whenever you can do it without sacrificing quality, weave it into your future work as a clue to content managers and editors who might be trying to verify your work.

For editors and content managers

If you’re trying to verify that a writer wrote a particular piece of content, compare it to content that is verifiable, like the content they publish on their own website. It’s not really a technique that you can use to rule somebody out, because some writers are just that good at adapting their style and voice. But if you do find commonalities, you can feel more comfortable that a writer wrote the piece they’re claiming, whether it’s under someone else’s byline or has no byline at all.

Take a fresh look at your ghostwritten content

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t brands who would strenuously object if you claimed the marketing content you wrote for them, but those clients are nowhere near as common as they used to be. People are more relaxed about outsourcing content creation simply because they assume everyone else is doing it, too.

Keys to doing it right

  • For existing clients, just ask. If they’re not comfortable letting you link to the work you’ve done on their behalf, maybe they’ll let you post an excerpt or name them as a client. Some may agree to write a recommendation, which can be just as valuable as a link.
  • Going forward, revise your standard work agreement to include permission to include the content in your portfolio. If the prospective client objects, try to negotiate a compromise solution.

For editors and content managers

If you’re dead set on not hiring a writer without seeing related samples, get the writer on a phone call and ask general questions about the topic or industry. Give them a chance to demonstrate their insight and knowledge verbally, through an informal conversation.

A friendly tip from the other side of the table: Writers think it’s hypocritical for clients to insist on bylined writing samples when you don’t give your own writers bylines. Just sayin’…

Reach out to agencies

While not all content marketing agencies outsource their writing needs, many do. Being able to flex their “staff” to meet their work load is a huge competitive advantage, so they count on having a roster of reliable writers on hand.

The key is to demonstrate your understanding of the pain points an agency content manager faces (impressing new clients during a trial period, retaining current clients who have been unhappy with a previous writer’s work, finding writers who are willing to fill in sporadically when needs change, etc.). The single most important thing to remember is not to come across as if the content manager owes you work just because you did them the honor of making contact. And don’t ask for immediate work. Instead, explain your value proposition and how to get in touch with you if the content manager ever needs that type of service.

For editors and content managers

The “I don’t need any right now” excuse is a convenient way to get somebody off the phone when you’re busy. But compare a 10-minute conversation  to how much time you spend finding good writers when you need them. Even if you don’t need anybody right now, you may next week. Or even tomorrow. Don’t pass up the opportunity to land a gem of a writer just because you’re busy in the moment.

Be easy to work with

Trust me: No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough to be a pain in a content manager’s backside.

Collaborate

When writing for agencies, content writers typically rely on a content brief that the client supplied to the agency. A lot of agencies use standard templates, which is helpful. But, to be truly effective, the person completing the brief has to thoroughly understand all of the ins and outs of what they’re asking for. And the further removed that person is from the person who originally developed the client’s content marketing strategy, the more likely it is that critical information will be missing or unclear.

In a nutshell, there’s no such thing as a perfect content outsourcing arrangement. It’s incumbent upon the writer to pick up the phone and ask for clarification if something doesn’t make sense. Don’t write bad content under the excuse that, “Well, that’s what they said they wanted…”

Meet deadlines

Just do it. That is all.

Take feedback seriously

Writing marketing content isn’t about your creative genius.Revision requests aren’t an assault upon your talent. Marketing content doesn’t exist to be admired for its own sake; it has a job to do. Revision requests are the mechanism for making sure that happens.

In the interest of full disclosure, I question feedback a lot. I question content briefs. But that’s not because I think my writing is perfect. My pushback is based on what will drive the best results, not pride in my writing — and my clients know that, because I’ve earned their trust. Honest questions to clarify direction or to improve the overall quality of content are fine. Whining because the client doesn’t think your writing is as perfect as you do is not fine.

For editors and content managers

Writers who get their undergarments in a wad because you disagree about the use of the Oxford comma aren’t going to become easier to work with. Cut your losses and move on.

On the other hand, be open to legitimate feedback. In today’s marketplace, it’s not unusual to come across a writer who has more experience than you do, and they can help you get better at your job. Don’t blow off their experience just because you’re the one handing out the assignments.

And I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to be specific with your feedback. Comments such as “This misses the mark” (I actually got that one recently) don’t do one darn thing as far as letting the writer know what you didn’t like. And if they don’t know what you didn’t like, they won’t know what to do differently. So, unless you want to waste time with multiple rounds of revisions that go nowhere, make sure your feedback is actionable.

Be willing to write a paid test piece

I have to eat my words on this one. For the past few years, I’ve been reluctant to write test pieces, even if they were paid. Between my blog and my portfolio, I thought I had as much proof as anybody needed.

But my conversation with Rachel Winstead changed my mind. She made me realize that I was focusing on finished product over process. A review of my existing content doesn’t offer a single bit of insight into how easy I am to work with. It doesn’t say how receptive I am to feedback, how well I follow directions, whether I meet deadlines, etc. Those things are a huge part of how she vets writers, and the same is probably true for a lot of other content managers.

So go ahead and do a test piece — just make sure you get paid your regular rate. You want to build a relationship, but you don’t need to give content away. If someone isn’t willing to pay you for a test piece, you probably wouldn’t be happy working with them anyway.

For editors and content managers

Only use test pieces as a legitimate part of your vetting process, not to get cheap or free content.

Ask for referrals/recommendations

The value of referrals is indisputable. The hard part is getting up the nerve to ask for them. There are, after all, legitimate objections:

  • A good content writer is kind of like a good babysitter. People worry that, if they recommend your services, you won’t be available when they need you.
  • People who don’t want the world to know they use ghostwriters will be reluctant to out themselves by giving you a recommendation.

The key is to be prepared with persuasive responses to objections. You can reassure your main clients that you will always make room in your schedule for them. And clients who don’t want to admit they outsource their writing needs can be identified by title and industry. If a client really values your relationship, you can work around any concerns they may have.

For editors and content managers

Recommendations and referrals have a real capital value. Whatever concerns you may have, find a way to work around them. You may not have the wiggle room to pay more, but you can certainly help a favorite writer get more business.

Pitch brands with ideas that showcase your knowledge

You don’t need portfolio links to demonstrate your understanding of a client’s needs. Instead, take the “Here’s what I can do for you” approach and pitch ideas that illustrate an in-depth understanding of both their offerings and their customers (not to mention making it possible for them to scratch “come up with ideas” off their to-do lists). Platforms like nDash (full disclosure: referral link) make this easy. Once you sign up for nDash, you can pitch any individual brand or an entire industry. It’s a great opportunity for writers who have content marketing experience that isn’t reflected in their public portfolio. One of my favorite things about nDash is that it removes any barriers between writers and brands, enabling the kind of direct communication that produces better results for everybody.

For editors and content managers

Even if a particular pitch isn’t right for your immediate needs, keep the big picture in mind. If a writer’s pitch shows the kind of insight you need, keep the lines of communication open.

More gems from content managers

This is already an incredibly long post, and I didn’t even get to everything. Here are a few additional tidbits from content marketing pros:

  • Don’t set your prices too low. Brands and agencies committed to high-quality content aren’t likely to give serious consideration to writers with bargain-basement prices. It’s more likely that your prices are too low than too high.
  • Worry less about bylines and more about building relationships. A nice, fat portfolio doesn’t prove you’re not a pain in the butt to work with.
  • Speaking of butts…cover your contact’s. If a project clearly isn’t going well, or if a request doesn’t make sense, give your contact a chance to fix things before they go any further. You won’t win any favors by letting your contact make a mistake that attracts the boss’s attention.
  • Some brands and agencies value certifications. Just make sure the source of the certification is credible. Copyblogger and Hubspot certifications tend to carry the most weight.

Conclusion

The content marketplace has changed. A robust portfolio doesn’t carry quite the same capital as it used to. And the lack of a content marketing portfolio doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of experience. It’s high time for writers and brands to move beyond typewriter-era methods of connecting and find each other using methods suited to today’s marketplace.

Additional commentary

Content Standard: The Case for Bylines

How Brands Should Navigate Content Authorship