Turnover in the SaaS world is commonplace.
One-year tenures aren’t uncommon.
That means fast-growing companies are often promoting from within or cherry-picking talent from competitors.
I’ve had the (mis)fortune of being a freelance writer, before building content teams inside an agency, and now also in-house.
And I can tell you from experience that the #1 reason content teams fail is because they have the wrong people doing the wrong jobs at the wrong time.
Sounds trite. But anyone’s who’s tried scaling content from one person to five to a few dozen can tell you it’s true.
Look no further than the fact that most good writers make terrible editors and even worse content managers.
It might seem like those three roles are similar. However, the qualities that make someone excel at one often make them an awful fit for another.
Here’s why, and how to grow your content team from scrappy startup into million-dollar enterprise.
Why good writers make terrible editors and even worse content managers
It’s tempting to overlap.
Small companies don’t really have much of a choice. Limited resources = a limited amount of money to splurge on extra people to fill different seats on the content marketing bus.
So it’s true to a degree.
Small content teams DO need to overlap some roles. (Vs large content teams that often don’t, bringing in dedicated people for each role.)
BUT… this will put a glass ceiling on production. A cap on the amount of content. And typically a reduction in quality because your content will be forced into one dimensionality (is that a word?).
Let me explain.
Writers are good at the intangibles. At conjuring up images and visions and explanations out of thin air. Poof. Just like that. 2,000-words actually worth reading (instead of skimming).
I dunno what in the world “creativity” is at the end of the day. But I do know it’s not linear. You can’t always force it. Yes, a disciplined approach helps. The War of Art rightfully highlights the daily struggle with Resistance.
That’s where writers excel: the ingenuity to say the same thing over and over and over in slightly different ways. Take a basic topic like “how Google Analytics lies to you.” Hell, I’ve written this exact piece half a dozen times in the past few years alone. The trick is always to touch on the same themes, but constantly repurpose.
Recycle, remix, recycle. Just like the PSAs say.
Now, contrast that with an editor. Yes, they often need (but don’t always require) the same level of wordsmithing. However, for them, ingenuity isn’t a priority. In fact, it’s frowned upon. What they want is consistency.
My company has multiple editors working across 45+ writers. We’ve had teams of at least 10+ writers on one client account before. Their job, at the end of the day, is to deliver consistency to the client. Yes, voices and tones can (and should) be slightly different across all writers. That’s normal. But there should still be consistent editing across all pieces according to content briefs or style guidelines.
Here’s the thing that gets my goat.
An editor’s job is to edit. Not rewrite.
Lemme say that again. In all caps. Just in case you were scanning and might blow over this part. And throw in some stupid emojis to really drive it home.
👉 AN EDITOR’S JOB IS TO EDIT. NOT REWRITE. 👈
What do I mean?
This is a real, live, in-the-wild client example. Here’s a line from a blog post that a writer wrote:
- “The trouble pops up as sales grow, channels multiply, inventory balloons, inventory becomes distributed, and as your customer base expands across continents.”
And here’s the rewrite the editor made:
- “Potential obstacles can arise, however, as sales grow, channels multiply, products are added to your inventory, and as your customer base expands.”
So… why was this change made?
Sure, style and tone are slightly different.
- But does the second make the overall piece arguably better? No.
- Does it more accurately explain the overall point being made? No.
- Is the phrasing more unique or interesting to read? No. (In fact, I’d argue it’s worse on this point.)
In other words, the “rewrite” doesn’t actually make the line any better.
So… again… WHY is it being rewritten?
It’s because you’ve “promoted” a writer to editor, or are having them pull double duty — without the proper training or qualifications or underlying skill set and personality.
An editor that rewrites is like a manager that can’t delegate. It’s their way or the highway, like a maniac micro-manager that can’t let go.
The content marketing strategy might be legit. The content marketing effort might be there. But your content creation process sucks. And you will continue to struggle until it’s fixed.
This is a very specific example, I’ll grant you. However, it’s 100% indicative of the larger problem. Your content team isn’t good enough, or isn’t well rounded enough.
Ultimately, this is why execution breaks down. While you’ll never make the shift to content production at the scale most hyper-growth companies require. And why you’ll never get out of first-gear, publishing more than a post or two a week, while never really getting to revamp old content or off-site work needed to make a dent in your space.
Not necessarily because you don’t have the right people.
But because you have them in the wrong roles, without the extra support and completely-skill sets to let everyone flourish with what they’re already good at.
So here’s how to specialize digital content team roles so that you don’t fall into the all-to-common trap of the wrong person in the wrong seat sabotaging your ROI.
✅ Step #1. How do you hire a content writer to get started? (0 -> 1+ people)
Most companies start with a single content creator hire.
I think this is a mistake. Here’s why.
First, you’re completely reliant on one individual.
What if they get sick? What if they burn out? What if you’re not paying them enough and their attention gets split between 20 other clients? What if you spend 6+ months grooming them (albeit, not in a Twitter, Cancel Culture-way) and they bounce after one year?
In other words, a single point of failure.
PLUS, putting all of your eggs in a single mystical “unicorn” writer (that doesn’t exist) sets you up for bad habits.
You never learn how to scale. You never learn how to formalize editing. You never learn how to add graphic designers to the mix. You never learn to appreciate different content styles. You’re not able to adapt to create both formulaic (e.g. glossary/term content) or high-brow (e.g. detailed customer case studies). You never learn how to run parallel processes.
Good luck going head-to-head with savvy competitors. They’ll eat your 2005 content marketing approach for lunch.
Remember your Sun Tzu: don’t pick fights you can’t win. Position 5 might as well be page 5, because the end result is the same: zero traffic.
Hire multiple writers like you’d hire multiple salespeople for one role to compete against each other, and give you a fair barometer of what you do, or don’t like.
These don’t have to be full-time hires right out of the gate. In facts, I’d argue they should almost never be. Load up on freelancers or agencies who can do all of this for you and focus on the hard part of content creation (consistently executing your content ideas).
- Freelancers offer more flexibility to increase or decrease volume each month if you have a smaller content team with limited resources. However, they don’t scale well, there’s extra training required, and you often need a more dedicated internal person just managing them full-time.
- Specialized agencies are better at scaling up in a shorter amount of time, allowing you to outsource everything, freeing up your internal resources to focus on other priorities or projects. “General” agencies, however, usually suck and aren’t worth their inflated price.
✅ Step #2. How do you start a content team from scratch? (1-2 people)
Starting with multiple writers will force you to hire/assign a dedicated content manager or editor.
Now, these are the roles you can overlap because the skill sets are usually more complementary. Whether you need one or both, depends on what you did in the last step.
- The less you spend on writers, the more you have to spend on editors,
- Whereas the more you spend on writers, the less you need editors.
There’s no right or wrong answer here necessarily. I’d argue that better (read: more expensive) writers or subject matter experts are easier to work with because you don’t have to edit as much and you don’t need to micromanage (saving you project manager costs down the line).
That being said, some consumer spaces can still get by on relatively shitty content mass-produced by shitty writers, so… get going while the going’s good.
IF you go with more of a content marketer to begin, this person’s background or aptitude should also highlight three things:
- Project management and operations ability. To completely beat a poor horse to death: scaling quality content comes back to processes, processes, processes. You need someone who can research, schedule, assign, coordinate, and manage due dates on a content calendar without breaking into a sweat. Remember: unicorns aren’t real. They’re just some faux influencer marketing bullshit designed to sell you more shit you don’t need. What you need is a better content creation process that’s boring and tiring to build.
- Marketing and SEO chops. Looking for “SEO” experience is kinda a loaded idea in my experience. 2005-level SEO? Run and hide. More recent, content planning + content optimization + distribution or link building? Yes, please.
- Target audience and brand voice. Only a dedicated internal content manager is going to truly understand your target audience and brand voice. Both qualities are often moving targets, especially when your company is growing and evolving. Therefore, that makes them highly intangible and subjective. It’s unfair to assume outside content creators, freelancers, agencies, or whomever to immediately understand this. So it’s the content manager’s job to train them.
✅ Step #3. What are the essential positions on a small content team? (2-3+ people)
The next step in your content marketing team evolution should be to transition from checkers to chess.
Here’s what I mean.
You should have identified and specialized three key content team roles:
- Content creators: Yes, multiple. You want to continue scaling this piece out, constantly looking for good writers, because ultimately the biggest bottleneck to “more good content” always comes back to having more good writers in your roster.
- Dedicated content editor: Once you get to publishing ~3-5 pieces per week, it makes sense to have at least a part-time (if not full-time editor) to help pick up the slack, provide a fresh pair of eyes to help your small writing army, while also freeing up the content manager to focus on more strategic things…
- Content marketing manager: … those strategic things should mean more time spent on distribution and link building, finding other promotion partners, spending more time analyzing current content success, identifying content gaps your competitors are doing well, flagging content pieces that should be revamped or rewritten to keep them high in the rankings, and more.
What happens if you don’t break out editing as a separate function at this stage?
Your content manager simply won’t have the time or mental bandwidth to spend on those higher-leverage activities that will get you from ~10-20k monthly visits to ~100k+ over the next year.
So waiting too long to separate out these functions is like a massive opportunity cost lost, because you’re foregoing the massive upside that much traffic can bring (we’re talking millions of dollars in revenue if your product or service doesn’t suck).
✅ Step #4. How do large teams scale their content marketing team structure? (3-10 people)
Those three dedicated content roles should also allow you to start bringing in additional specialized roles.
Here’s where things get fun.
Having dedicated content creators or writers, an editor, and a content manager gives you the infrastructure to start pumping out some serious quality and quantity.
There are two obvious ways to continuing scaling from here:
- Bring in additional content creators like graphic designers or videographers or international translators, allowing you to get more mileage out of the content you’re already producing on a daily basis. These extra resources will make your content more engaging and sticky (making sure people read and consume everything), and allow you to easily repurpose content (to ~2-3X your ROI by promoting one piece of content across multiple channels).
- Reinforce your existing infrastructure. Instead of forcing your content manager to do everything, bring in a content analyst to focus on analytics full-time. Or bring in a content strategist to spend all day on content strategy and keyword research. Or a social media manager to beef up your distribution. Or another content editor to double or triple the amount of content you’re able to produce.
Think of this point as building out your content “middle managers.” They’re an unnecessary expense when you’re small and resources are strapped. But they’re absolutely essential when you scale, and it’s impossible to break through the glass ceilings holding you back without them.
✅ Step #5. How to find a head of content? (10+ people)
Everyone covets a marketing flywheel. The point where word of mouth spreads organically, far exceeding what you’re personally pushing out, and where people basically do most of the work for you.
However, based on the cold hard data, most people are unprepared (or unwilling) to actually invest and sacrifice enough to build one. The marketing efforts that report the most success are also the least practiced on a daily basis.
Because it’s hard.
The only way you’re going to get there is with a well-oiled content machine. And the only way you’re going to build one is with senior-level talent guiding the ship.
- You can promote from within. However, be careful. Don’t repeat that first mistake: promoting a pretty good writer to senior roles they’re unqualified to handle. I love Michael Scott as much as the next person — the stereotypical salesperson who gets promoted to manager without any actual managerial aptitude. But this will kill your content team.
- You can recruit from outside. But again, it’s tough. Plucking a Chief Content Officer off the street might work for Coca Cola. ‘Cept, you ain’t Coca Cola. Ideally, I’d look for a Director of Content or similar with deep SEO + content skillz who has a track record of scaling up content at similar companies. Like a needle in a haystack, sure. Ultimately worth it, though.
- You can hire agencies. This is what good specialized agencies do well. The people running these things are usually too talented and mercurial to hire full-time. They also possess something that most internal hires can’t touch: pattern matching. Success one time for one company in one circumstance might be laudable. But success many times for many companies in many circumstances? A proven track record. One to recommend? I like: my company (duh).
Conclusion: How content teams survive & thrive over the long-term
The old saying is true.
You wanna go fast? Go alone. You wanna go far? You’re gonna need a team structure.
I can write an article like this by myself in about two hours. Easy peasy. Not because I’m smart, but because I’ve (painfully) lived all of these experiences first-hand.
I’m not the one who’s going to edit it. I’m not the one who’s going to upload, format, and prep it. And I’m not the one who’s going to promote it.
‘Cause I don’t like doing that stuff. And I arguably suck at most of them.
Today’s hyper-competitive SERPs require both high-quality and quantity content. The only way to get near that, is with a larger supporting cast who each excels at a specific skill set.
Hiring or training the right people is half the battle of assembling a content team. The other half is getting those people to work together (especially for a remote team spread across boundaries and time zones).
Neither of those things directly address the actual words-on-the-page part. And that’s the main takeaway for today.