Finding Great Writers & Producing Thought Leadership w/ FCM Editor Robert Beames

Maeva Cifuentes and Robert Beames

In today’s episode, we’re peeling back the curtain and talking with Flying Cat Marketing’s very own Head Content Editor Robert Beames. 

Rob has hired over a dozen freelance writers in the last year but had to test triple the amount to find his team of writers. With that sometimes quite painful experience in mind, he shares how he now casts his net so he gets to the creme de la creme of freelance writers without having to waste time on disappointing test pieces. 

Aside from figuring out a way to filter through writer applications faster, he also shares how he chooses between decent writers with industry-specific expertise vs. amazing writers who might come from a different background. 

Don’t skip this episode if you’re looking for actionable, tried and tested strategies to get your freelance or in-house writing team up to speed to deliver high-quality thought leadership content that stands out.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The challenges of finding good SEO content writers
  • How to find writers that reach high-quality standards
  • How to choose between a writer with heavy subject matter expertise vs really great writing abilities
  • Why your writers need a living TOV document
  • How to best manage a team of 10-15 freelance or in-house writers

Robert Beames

Robert Beames started his career studying film in university and becoming a film journalist. 

After moving to Barcelona he was active in sales for 5 years before wanting to move back to the written word, language, and journalism.

He’s been editing Flying Cat Marketing’s content for the past year. Apart from editing, he also makes the decisions on which freelance and in-house writers get hired and currently manages over a dozen freelance writers alongside a growing in-house editorial team.


Maeva: Hello, hello and welcome back to a new episode of the Flying Cat Marketing Interview Series. Today is a very special episode because my guest is Flying Cat Marketing's Head Editor, Robert Beames. How's it going?

Robert: It's going great, I'm super happy to be on the show. It's long overdue. We've been talking about this since I joined so I'm very excited to be here as a regular listener of the podcast.

M: I know this is really cool. You're actually the first, other than myself, the first team member of Flying Cat Marketing to be on the podcast. And like you said, I always wanted to get you on it because we're always chatting about content quality, hiring writers, and we've had such a big growth sprint, basically ever since you got hired a little under a year ago.

So I think that there's a lot that we can talk about today, but before we dive in, for those who don't know you yet, why don't you give us a little bit about your background and how you started, how you joined the team? 

R: Yeah, from a strange route, really.  My sort of career, if you can call it that, is that I studied film at university and then I was a film journalist for a while, which I think is one of the things that caught your eyes. For various reasons, my wife and I moved to Barcelona, which is where we live now, and where a lot of the Flying Cat team is based.

And because there wasn't really a market for an English film journalist in Barcelona, I was looking around for other jobs. I fell into sales for a while. I was doing sales for I think maybe five years. And then I just really wanted to change. I wanted to get back into stuff to do with the written word, with language, with journalists and tangentially and looking into avenues like that.

When I saw the advert for Flying Cat and saw your values and saw all the things about the company, I took a chance and applied and I was just really surprised and grateful to be given the opportunity really. 

So on paper, I'm not necessarily the traditional fit to come in and do this.And, I guess you were looking at other things in terms of skills and those kinds of aspects, but it's been a phenomenal opportunity and I've absolutely loved it.

Like you said, I've been here for nearly a year and it's such a nice sort of close-knit core team.I was actually hiring writers and one of the things I was asked was about how you can have a close-knit core team. How can you guys be a kind of a unit and have a bond and have that sort of comradery when you're all based around and you work remotely? And it's never really been an issue here because we have such a strong culture and everyone is,  but everybody's so nice.

Everybody's so friendly that it's always been a real pleasure. Yeah, I've been really lucky to join this team and to find myself in this team. And  I'm really excited to talk about some of the experiences we've had so far this year where, like you were saying, the growth rate has been crazy. Like where we started off I think when I joined the team, I was the, what fourth. 

M: Yeah, I think so. And Katie and Pilar had joined like a couple of weeks before. 

R: Okay. So I'd been like the fifth member of the core team. And then it's just snowballed, we're bringing in lots more people, loads of more clients, so it's, yeah, it's been crazy but exciting. 

M: It's been such a pleasure to have you in the team and we're lucky to have you, Rob.  You got hired and we were like, we just need somebody to edit these blog posts. And it turned out to be so much more than that because we need more and more writers and then it's a balance between how do we find writers who get the product, who can write well, who work within our systems, who like working with us…

So you've been doing a lot more hiring writers lately than I have. What has been the biggest challenge for you and hiring a team of writers? 

R: I think there are a lot of challenges when it comes to hiring writers.

I'm going to go, even though I've only got the experience in English, I'm going to go ahead and make the claim that it's even harder in English, just because I think that English is so widely spoken that even if you put “native level of English” on the job ad, that doesn't exclude anybody applying, you still have hundreds of applications from people who aren't at the desired level of English. 

I think the other thing, which people in all kinds of writing jobs experience, like my wife's a copywriter, and she has this issue a lot where writing's one of those jobs where everyone's got an opinion because everyone can write, everyone thinks they are a writer.

I think for that reason as well, because everyone thinks they're a writer, cause everybody can literally write. It's also, I think you've mentioned before, freelance writing is a job where lots of people do it because they want a certain lifestyle.  They want to be a digital nomad. They want to travel. They want to be a freelance self-employed. And it's a way into that. So I think that the thing is when you throw out an advert, when you cast a net and you say, I want an English writer, you're casting it to just so many people.

And you've really got to be very careful, how you whittle that down and that can be time-consuming. So I think that's one of the big challenges. 

One of the ways we experimented with addressing that is in a hopefully unobtrusive, non-irritating way. We've added more barriers to entry if you like.

For example, if you request a Loom video for the writer to tell us a bit about themselves and things like that beyond just a CV or samples and things like that, that does filter it somewhat. And it makes it easier to tell from early on in the process.

But it's also really tricky because one of our core things is that, which hopefully all of the listeners know if they've been following you for a while or following your social media presence, is that we're not a typical SEO agency. We don't believe in boring book standard SEO content. And the problem I guess we're addressing in the market is that most SEO content is that. 

And so when you're asking for writers and they give you their samples most of the samples have been written in a boring SEO formula way, and that's not even necessarily the fault of those writers.

To some extent, I think a lot of them are writing SEO as they know it and as they've been told about it. So the thing is as well, when you're looking for somebody to write for us, which is, I would say, slightly unique, but all you've got to go on is what people have done in the past. So that also makes testing them risky. 

And you're having to look at their samples that are in that very traditional SEO format with an eye on trying to spot things, to see can they break away from this? 

I mentioned earlier that I know you like your journalistic background and things like that, which is something that we're quite into having in our writers. So sometimes people will have samples that are not from a traditional SEO background where they're showing that they're a storyteller.

Maybe they've written for a magazine or something along those lines. And those things always stand out, because they're not the typical formula.  I think those are some of the challenges, basically a lot of people who come to write English SEO, they're used to writing it in a particular type of way. And writing, being a, a desirable job with almost no barrier to entry at the lowest level.

M: Yeah. I've found that a lot. If you read any kind of blog posts "How to become a remote worker", "How to become a digital nomad", "Ways to make money at home", you're gonna find at the top of every single one of those lists:  “Start writing! Businesses will pay you to write stuff for them!” And then everybody goes and applies for it. And it does not mean that they're passionate writers. 

So you've mentioned that we've added some barriers to entry. We've experimented a lot with this form. At first,  I don't even remember if we had samples at the beginning, it was just like, “Apply to work for us!” And then we were like  “whoa, most of this is so bad!”

Of course, we've had some gems. So I would love to dive into the ways that we've changed the testing format, the hiring, and how it's gotten us better writers. 

R: Okay. So one of the things that I added was to try and add slightly more of a barrier. Most writers don't want to write an unpaid test piece. There are a lot of writers who will tell you, completely fair enough upfront, they're not going to do that. Or even entertain that.

On another level, we do need to see an example of something they've actually written off the cuff for us. So one of the things we introduced along with introducing this idea of a little loom video, where they can talk about themselves is a short intro.

So we always ask what their verticals of expertise are. It's part of the Typeform, and then we've been asking them to write a short intro,  how they would introduce an article. I think it's about a SaaS tool in the area of their vertical. And from that short intro and the loom video, you get a really good sense of how this person fits.

And then you can decide to look at the samples and go into more detail. But basically from that intro, you can tell the people who really just write a very generic intro. And also I think the thing is as well as samples, and I know if I've seen content on LinkedIn for very experienced people who've had this view, you don't know how truthful those samples are either, and I'm not suggesting there's a lot of nefarious freelance writers out there. I think most of it's been good faith. But I think that you've got to accept that those samples have possibly also been heavily edited, possibly by the company that they've written for.

See you don't exactly know. Even in some cases, maybe they're not even that person's work or I think that's probably very rare. And so what this intro thing does as well, is it just says can you string words together in a nice way for us here, please? Just now., I think that's been really helpful and I think we did see definitely an improvement, certainly, from my side, rather than from the side of the writers, because I have more to go on when deciding who I want to bring in and test on a piece. 

Rather than just going off the back of these samples, you can be more selective and see these loom videos and see these intros. And I think that paints the picture a lot better. 

M:  I remember once I was just browsing through the applications and in the section where it says “ link to your loom video, just record one minute” or whatever saying why you want to work with us, somebody just wrote "not applicable".

R: I was going to say that does also filter people out on that end of the process because recently not just with the freelance writers, but as I was saying, we've run a process recently where we've been hiring for some in-house writing and editing talent and the number of people that on a form would just write "no" or something. It does sort of help you make a decision.

M: Yeah. Because those people, they would have put their samples in and we would have read through them and spent that time. 

R:  Yeah, exactly. So I think there are lots of challenges and we've, it's still not a perfect system.

Like I think most people out there who are involved in this, I've experienced this, but agree that there isn't like a kind of a perfect silver bullet way to do this.

Obviously, like any other agency, we have a budget and it sometimes can come down to  prioritizing someone who's got heavy subject matter expertise, or amazing writing ability. And ideally you want both, but people who are both and in budget can be a bit of a unicorn.

 A lot of our process was about trying to find the people who have the good writing ability or the written ability where possible, obviously the expertise as well, but prioritizing written ability. And we're doing a lot more work upfront now to help our writers in terms of getting subject matter expertise into the pieces.

Because another one of our USP's as an agency and the kind of values we bring is about trying to make sure SEO content is true thought leadership and is actually offering something new, and it isn't just regurgitating the top five pieces on Google. And I think that we've added a lot of processes in conjunction with improving the processes for finding the writers.

We've also improved the processes internally for making sure our writers are armed with the information they need to bring real insights into the pieces as well. 

M: Let's talk about that because this has been so much work. With all of the team to get this new subject matter expertise into the process. And we haven't shared very much about it publicly yet.

Obviously we've talked about it with our clients. I may have posted about it once, but let's dig deep and we haven't perfected the process yet. It's still underway. We're still finding the right way to do it. And it might end up being a kind of case by case thing, depending on the client and the content strategy that we're doing.

But I think it's useful to learn about, even if people aren't working with an agency, but for example, if you have a big company and you've got a content marketer, how do you pass on the subject matter expertise to them so that they're writing with the same knowledge level as one of the executives, for example?

So walk us through the draft of our subject matter expertise or what we have going on now. And how do you pass that onto different writers. 

R: Yeah that's a great question. And it's a complicated one. I'll start by saying that, like to flesh out again, why we need it, which you've just spoken a little bit about, is like we do expect our writers to do research, or we expect them to go and often find things in the pieces.

Lots of our writers will submit HARO requests, which is like help a reporter out, or they might go on Reddit or Quora or explore forums and Facebook groups and those kinds of things. We encourage our writers to do those things. 

So this isn't a pass for writers not to do research, but it's an acceptance of the fact they freelance writers, who need to write with the real kind of thought leadership authority position of a CEO for a company that's hired us. They really need to have genuine insights, and it's not necessarily realistic to expect them to knock those out of the park completely on their own.

What we've done in addition to the research that we expect them to do is it's a process that involves first off at the stage where, and I don't know how deep you want to get into sort of how the sausage gets made, but like at the stage where the briefs are being created by the strategy team, now we will go into each one on a semi-regular basis, a quarterly basis, or even a six month period.

We'll go over in bulk of topics that we have that we're going to be covering from a strategy point of view. And then we'll get the insights from the customer themselves and the client themselves to actually say what are the key things? Let's say we're doing a tool comparison piece.

Well, which really are the real USP's want to hammer home? Which other tools do you really want to talk about? What's the angle here you really want to have? But beyond that we're also speaking to their customers, which feeds into it. 

These things will get put into a unified document, which I'll talk about a bit more in a second, but we'll pull what the client says into it. We'll pull what their customer is saying to it. We'll find out what their customer's voice is from that as well, and try to write in the voice of their customer.

And we'll also, on a piece by piece basis, go out and find subject matter experts in the wild as well. We'll put those requests out there ourselves. We'll go and interview people. I know you did a lot of interviews, one of our customers to absolutely make sure we nailed a piece we did for them.

And you spoke to lots of senior people in that industry. And that's the sort of thing we get that informs our pieces. 

That was like the overall tone of voice document, which is something that by its nature is being very nicely presented in Canva, but it was something that was very hard to actually update and edit and also something being in a PowerPoint presentation kind of format. You're also limited for space cause loads of text makes for a very ugly slide as well.

So it ended up being quite high level and it wasn't very easy to update. So what we're doing now and what I'm in the middle of trying to do and roll out across all of our clients, we're getting there, is replacing those with what we've called internally “living tone of voice documents”, living TOV documents.

That's a slight misnomer because they're more than a tone of voice document. They're also the ideal customer profile. We're also bringing in that customer voice information. And also any feedback or subject matter expertise we pick up along the way. That gets fed into that document. 

If a brand new writer comes in tomorrow on a project, they can read that document and refer to that document and they should in theory, be as up to speed on that project as other people who've been writing on it much longer. 

Obviously there's still a learning process and giving people a lot of information upfront, like people naturally don't immediately get everything, but it's something we found is working very well actually to capture a lot of those things we learned along the way on our projects and pass them to writers. 

We can also use that to pull in examples. So for example, we had a client who really wanted a very specific tone of voice. They had specific ideas about using GIFs and things like that. So in the tone of voice document we can put in, okay, these are examples of how they want to use a GIF. Here are examples of what their tone of voice sounds like. Here's a piece from their website or here's a piece from a website of a client of another company that they aspire to sound like. So we can pull all that information in to inform the writer as well. 

M: Yeah. That has made a huge difference. I think these living tone of voice documents, something that we can keep updating. Because it's true, when we had those Canva PowerPoint presentations, when we got feedback from the client, there was nowhere really to put it except for our own brains. Oh, remember that the client likes it this way. So now we can actually put it into those documents, refer to it and make sure that it keeps getting better and better.

And also when the new writer comes on, you don't have to keep reminding them. Oh, by the way, the client likes it when you say things like this. 

R: Exactly. And it's really good for specific small things, because obviously with big things, if it's a major issue, then even with our old process, we could have probably found a way to update all the writers on that or something.

But when it's the really small things, like they don't like this word, or please avoid saying this product is, I don't know, "toxin-free" we say "it's without bleach" or whatever is, right. It's much easier to feed that very specifically into this document very easily. And just to build that into the overall thing we have:  words to use -  words to avoid, phrases to use - phrases to avoid, in a way that's really hard to update in a piecemeal way because they're these tiny things and they'll just get lost if there's no single source of the truth on it.

M: How many writers are on the, I feel like I should know how many writers are on the team now.

R:  It's 10 as a freelance writers. Yeah, we have around 10 to 15, I'd say.

M:  So what is it like to manage all of them? Tell us about your writer knowledge base and the process you have for keeping them motivated and enjoying continuing to write for us. 

R: Recently we did a feedback survey for our writers and we tried to get their input on how they like our communication, how they like our workflows and how they feel about writing for us. And we're very lucky that all of our writers came back, well it's not really luck, but we're very grateful that all of our writers came back and said pretty much unanimously, I would refer you to a friend.I do really like working with you (not for me personally, for the company.) And I think part of that is, and this is something that was in the company before I got here,  this is something you've instituted, but we're a company that really likes using loom videos as I've mentioned already. 

So if we've got a lot of feedback to give, rather than just dumping it all in track change, suggestions in the document and leaving it there. One of our values is actually that we over-communicate.

We do that internally. We do that with our clients. We do that with our, with our writers. And we don't just dump this “adjust to changes” in the Google document. We will also record a loom for as long as needed. I've recorded one just before this for one of our writers, which was an eight-minute-long video. But it was just going through piece by piece, reassuring them about, "Hey, this is really great, but also I think this needs this, and this done, and we can pull this from here and take a look at this" and I think that is one of the reasons that all writers appreciate us. 

And that one of the ways we manage that relationship as well, because obviously receiving a lot of feedback just from somebody, when you think you've done a good job and it comes back with loads of red lines that it's it just seems like everything's gone to hell on it, that could be really daunting. And I think one of the approaches of doing it with Loom is we always put a human face on feedback. We always explain what we want. We always try and explain it in a nice way and remember that we're dealing with a human being. 

So that's one thing. Another thing is that in the workflow tool that we use, which is ClickUp, I also do a kind of a monthly roundup info dump where I'll collect together bits that maybe we've realized need improving and processes.

Maybe it's something all the writers are doing that's not a best practice or something that needs to be improved, or, maybe they're not requesting images in a very useful way because we've got a graphic designer and, sometimes we do bespoke images and I think one of the ones recently was there was some confusion about how that was done.

So I use this regular once-a-month kind of memo to all the writers to address those concerns. And I think that's really important as well, because I think if we're constantly telling them as these things arise we've got to be realistic about the fact that for a lot of them, we are not their only client.

We are one of many clients. And if they're constantly getting notifications from us in ClickUp saying "Oh, read this!", then they’ll start seeing that maybe two out of three of those things don't directly relate to them. They're very quick and you get tuned out of even reading what we tell them.

So I think they appreciate as well that it's a once a month thing that they're given all that information in one job lot. And then they give us a thumbs up in, click up, say they've read it. 

And I think that's been a very useful. 

The way to make sure the writers all kept up to date as well because they're not in-house kind of team members, they're not in our meetings, they're not in all of these other calls and they're not living with Flying Cat day-to-day.

So I think things like recording the looms of the human face and giving them these regular, but not too regular updates are ways that we have a feeling of a team of writers that work with us quite closely. 

M: Yeah. It's been an adventure and I'm very excited to get this in-house team of writers as well.I love working with freelancers. I have a lot of respect for freelancers but I'm also excited to have this editorial team be a part of what we're doing. I wanted to ask you just about the relationship between editors and writers.  Why do you, I know why I believe in it, but,  what's the benefit of writers always having an editor? 

Obviously, if you're trying to publish a book or things where it's quite common to have an editor, they say, of course, you need an editor on this, but we're in a very fast-paced environment. We're publishing SEO content. It's really about ABP, always be publishing. I think that an editor is vital. And necessary. And that it doesn't matter how good the writer is. You need an editor.

R: Yeah. I would say that even our very best writers, it's uncommon to go through an entire draft and not find anything that could be improved. That's really uncommon. It's happened like twice, it's like in here, it's rare.

I think that even the best writers, like even, not kissing *ss, but you're a very good writer and you've written very good content. And even if I look at something you've written, I'll see mistakes.

M: I always need editing. The other day I published a case study. I published a case study two days ago, I got at least three messages from people on LinkedIn being like, “Hey, did you notice this mistake?” Because I didn't even review it myself. And I was like, oh man, I really got to give my stuff to Rob before I publish it. 

R: To go back to the example of my wife working with copywriting again, like she writes short for marketing copy and that will go through loads of rounds of approvals.

And it will get seen by a lot more people than look over our content and they'll still find mistakes later in the process. People will still go, I don't like this. So the thing, is that it is a vital thing to be doing and to have those rounds of review. And I think as well, that there's been occasions where either because I've had to rewrite something. Or when I started, I was doing some of the writing internally as well, on a few projects like I would make those mistakes as well. When I've had to do a lot of rewriting on a piece I'll often say to you, like Maeva, can you just read the, not rewritten it, if I've done a lot of heavy editing, I'll go to you sometimes I'll say, can you look at this? Because I've been looking at this document for two hours and right now I'm lost. And I can't see through the trees now. So I think if you're a writer and you're the best writer in the world but you've spent however many hours in that document, you are you're no longer really able to view it objectively, I think even your brain will trick you into thinking things that are spelled wrong or phrase poorly are fine because you've read them so many times.

M: Yeah, every time I see the word calendar, I'm like, is that how you spell it? I had one scene a keynote talk, I think I've told you about this before, by the lead copy editor at the New Yorker, can't remember her name, that's so embarrassing, Mary Something. And she was saying that it doesn't matter if it's Hunter Thompson or whoever submitting a manuscript to them, it goes through nine different editing rounds. Nine!

There are so many agencies that are like this one writer, we're not going to give them any subject matter expertise,  the only research they're going to have to do is summarizing the top 10 Google articles and rewriting that. And we're not going to give them an editor. And yet we're supposed to come up with a thought leadership piece because of that.

R:  Yeah, absolutely. I also think that you have some writers as well, they might be really good writers, but writers can be very blind to their own affectations. So I think we know one or two writers we've got, who've got certain things they'll fall into doing and they'll get out of them and it's fine, you'd say oh, you're doing this again and they'll stop it.

But there are writers as well that have particular maybe phrases they continually go back to or things they keep doing, that when they're writing the piece, they're second nature and they haven't even noticed. So that's one of the things we catch as, well. I think as well, another one of our values is this kind of zero fluff approach.

And I think as well that there are many things that couldn't be edited down a little bit for to improve clarity or just to get to the point faster as well. You see a lot of 700 to a thousand, maybe a thousand pushing it, but very long intros in SEO as well. So I think editing is good for that stuff as well. 

M: Definitely. It doesn't matter how good the writer is at the end of the day, just having a second pair of eyes on it to bounce ideas around with, or just to say I've looked at this sentence so many times, I can't figure out another way to say it. And that happens to anybody. So having that as a part of the team, Is vital, I think. And it's such a valuable position in the editorial team.

R: I'm glad you feel that way.

M: Rob, what do you think is a major takeaway for a listener here?

R: Yeah, I think one of them is if you're hiring writers and you're really struggling, don't worry. All of us, everyone is I think that anything you can do to get more information from the people who want to write for you earlier is probably going to be a massive benefit, whether that's doing what we're doing and having them record you a short video.

I think like you said of that really does root out as well people who aren't really their heart's not in it. One of the things we ask our writers as well, that I didn't mention, why do you want to write for Flying Cat? And that gets a lot of interesting response because you get people, I've had people write, not applicable in that field and that's a big red flag..

It's yeah. But when you get people who are like, oh, I follow your CEO. And I really like your content and I like your values. And I think I also have this value, whatever that makes you go, okay they actually even if they've just done some research to talk to us or whatever, but it's it just shows they've put the effort in as well that they are somewhat invested in working with us.

So I think that's one of the main things is to put those things in place. For sure. And not to get disheartened when it's hard. 

M: Definitely keep, just keep going. Amazing. It's been a pleasure spending this time with you, Rob, and I hope everybody enjoyed this episode. If you did enjoy this episode, please give it a like, subscribe, share with a friend or colleague and a pop on over to LinkedIn and say hi to Rob 

Is there anywhere else that you would like for people to connect with you?

R: I'm on LinkedIn Robert Beames, Flying Cat Marketing. I do also have a couple of very nerdy film podcasts on YouTube, I do one called "The Auteur Limits", where we're looking at the films of a very obscure American B-movie director called Sam Fuller at the moment.

Prob if that happens to be as a very small crossover maybe between the podcast audience and people who are into the films of Sam Fuller. But, if you are, check out"The Auteur Limits".

M: The whole podcast is about this? It's about Sam Fuller? 

R: It's about one film by Sam Fuller each week.

M: The Auteur Limits? Okay. I'm going to listen. 

R: It's very niche. But yeah, so probably for most of you just hit me up on LinkedIn.

M: Who knows, you might get another follower. All right. Thank you so much. And thanks everybody for listening and we'll see you next time.