Scaling Content Creation: What Can Go Wrong and How to Mitigate the Risks

scaling content creation

Large-scale content projects can produce valuable results for organizations when executed well. However, too many project leaders underestimate the task at hand, causing major issues along the way or, worse, total failure. Plan, prepare and test early on to save yourself time and money down the road. Leverage technology to boost efficiency and keep your project brief straightforward. Taking these steps will start your project team in the right direction for success. Read the article below for details and examples.

Scaling content creation is hard. If you work with content and you’ve had a hand in managing a large-scale content project, you know what I’m talking about.

Most people don’t realize how difficult it is until it’s too late. It sneaks up on them mid-project and sends the campaign into a downward spiral that eats time and money, and even threatens its viability.

What’s worse, some project managers don’t find these issues until the project is completed and the content is published. That’s when the real problems start.

As the founder of Crowd Content, one of the Web’s most mature content writing services, I’ve seen a lot high-volume content projects. Some through our platform. Some elsewhere. Some were executed well, while some not so well.

These mammoth projects usually consist of product descriptions, location-based articles or blog posts.

The good news is, scaling content creation can go smoothly with the right preparation, process and team in place. When this happens, organizations create large amounts of high-value content that achieves their goals, such as increased SEO traffic or higher conversion rates.

In this post, I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned along the way and some tips for avoiding the most common, and deadly, pitfalls when managing large-scale content projects.

Too Much, Too Fast, Too Bad

I’m putting this one first because it highlights a fundamental issue that is commonly overlooked. Most project leaders underestimate the resources needed to properly review content production as the project begins.

In general, they also underestimate the importance of this first phase.

The result is large amounts of poor content that either need to be revised, rewritten or unpublished (if you’ve made it that far). It also causes headaches for your editors and adds unneeded frustration for the entire project team.

Sometimes, the content isn’t even that bad. It was created by good writers who put in a valid effort to get it right. However, lack of feedback translated into a green light from their perspective so they just kept going as is.

For example, maybe a key concept in your style guide wasn’t communicated well or was misinterpreted. If something like this isn’t caught and clarified early, you could be staring at a hundred or a thousand units (yes it happens) that need to be revised.

The point is this:

scaling content creation

If project teams take time and effort before the project starts and in its early stages to plan, prepare, monitor production and provide feedback, they’ll save hours of work and potentially thousands of dollars down the road. Not to mention, they’ll produce better content.

To avoid having your high-volume content project crash before it takes off, consider taking these steps:

Start Slow

Even if you do have a solid team ready to review production as the project gets going, take it slow at first. Your goal in this first phase is to develop each writer and editor into a reliable contributor who understands your style guide and requirements.

To achieve this goal, these workers need detailed feedback early. Even small errors that could easily be fixed by your QA team should be sent back and explained in this phase. Direct the worker to the specific part of the style guide that describes the issue.

Don’t worry. You won’t be doing this the entire project. You’re doing it now as a training exercise so that as the project ramps up, these writers and editors can create content on autopilot that meets project requirements. That’s where you want to be, but it doesn’t come without this dedicated effort in the early stages.

More From Clayton: How To Create eCommerce Content at Scale

Remove Poor Performers Early

Ideally, writers and editors can be groomed in this early stage and blossom into reliable performers. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, especially with high-volume jobs where you’re working with anywhere from 30 to 100 different workers. Every project is not for every writer or editor.

If your team identifies a worker who isn’t a good fit, you may want to remove them from the project now before you ramp up. If you don’t, you (and the rest of your team) may pay for it down the road with extra work editing or sending back revision requests when the volume picks up. Writers like this can wear down editors, too, meaning that subpar work can start to squeak through and could end up being published.

Run a tight ship and keep your standards high. It will pay off in the end.

Implement Soft Blocks

At Crowd Content, we use a feature called the “soft block”. Although it’s built into our platform, you may be able to implement it on your own in another way if you aren’t running your project at Crowd Content.

The soft block is an automated tool that stops a writer from claiming and submitting too many units before that writer’s work has been properly reviewed. It essentially forces new writers to “prove” themselves before gaining full access to the project.

For example, a typical soft block is set at five units. If a new writer joins your project, s/he will be allowed to claim and submit five units. At this point, s/he will not be able to claim any more jobs. However, once those five units have been reviewed and accepted, the soft block is automatically released and the writer can continue to claim and submit work.

We find this tool works wonders, especially in high-volume situations. It’s the insurance we need to keep the gates open and scale while still vetting new talent on the way in.

The Calibration Phase

Here’s another key concept straight out of our playbook at Crowd Content. We call it the calibration phase.

Calibration is basically everything I explained above wrapped into one coordinated process. The goal is to test your workforce, style guide, price points and overall requirements, then tweak as needed before hitting full speed.

The mastermind behind the Crowd Content calibration round is Lisa Rohner, our Director of QA and Enterprise Production. To give you some more specific information, I asked her how many units she typically includes in a calibration round and if she had any other guidelines for other project leaders out there.

Here’s what Lisa had to say:

There’s no real average for the length of calibration, as it really depends on how complex the project requirements are. But what remains standard is that the FIRST round is very small – usually around 1% of the total project words.

  •  If the project consists of 500 articles, buying guides, blog posts, brand/category pages, etc. that are 500 words each, we’d probably do five pieces.
  • If the project consists of 500 product descriptions at 50 words each, we might do 50.
  • If those 500 PDs are 100 words each, we might do around 25.

 However, I would never start calibration doing more than 100 to 150 items max. Let’s take our recent client [NAME OMITTED] for example. I believe we started with 150 pieces, which was roughly 0.25% of the overall batch. From there, we moved to 1.000 (around 1.67% of the total batch), then we did another 1,000 and then onto full launch.

 That first round is supposed to be really fast — dipping your toe into the water, so to speak. It’s where we’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes. We’ve been fortunate in that most of our projects haven’t gone more than one calibration round, but for those that do go badly, you want to mitigate your risks right out of the gate because you know you’ll have to redo all the work if things go badly. That can really slow things down AND eat away budget.

 Once the client has had a chance to review, we debrief on what went well and what went badly. From there, we tweak the project brief and:

  •  If we were way off the mark, we would revise the batch and do another batch of the same size.
  • If we were close but not quite there, we would revise the batch and increase the next batch — perhaps double the size.
  • If we were right on the money, calibration is over and we go into full launch.

 The max number of calibration rounds I’ve ever had to do for any project was three. I do think if you don’t have it right after three rounds, it’s time to really step back and take more drastic action. You might need to try a different kind/caliber of writer, or take the project brief apart and rebuild it (give it more information, structure it differently or just add more examples), etc.

Production Is Crawling and What We’re Producing Is ‘Meh’

The second major issue about scaling content creation I want to discuss in this post is when your production slows to a halt and the few pieces you are seeing do not meet your requirements.

In other words, nobody wants to work on your project. And those who do don’t meet the required qualifications.

This happens often enough, and it usually means the price you’re offering does not align with the work required to meet your project requirements, or your project is too complicated.

In these cases, it’s important to think of the entire freelance writing world as a marketplace. Writers and editors have various work opportunities available to them around the Web — for example, at platforms like Crowd Content, with direct clients or at general freelance marketplaces such as Upwork.

Each of these work opportunities has its own unique levels of effort and skill required and a certain price point. Some are more complex than others and some require more research, while some are easy and straightforward. Some are priced well and some pay pennies.

The top freelancers, especially, have choices and will naturally work on the best-paying projects, while avoiding the more complicated or lower paying projects.

The point is this:

To avoid having your project trickle along at a snail’s pace, consider taking these steps:

Use Calibration to Test Price Point

As mentioned above, price point is important on large-scale projects — for the freelancers, but also for you. Your company has a budget in place and every penny counts when you’re adding up thousands or hundreds of thousands of units.

One way to make sure you’re in the green zone is to test pricing during your calibration phase (mentioned further up in this article). When doing this, make sure to talk to some of your writers and editors to get their feedback. Try to find out how much effort or time your workers need to deliver what you’re asking.

If you get this step right, you’ll put your team in a good position to succeed  by having access to a strong group of writers and editors who are happy to eat up as much work as you can offer.

Try Not to Overcomplicate Your Requirements

Every project is different. In some cases, by nature, it’s just flat out complex. I get that. But, in most cases, we can do ourselves and our freelancers a favor by simplifying requirements as much as possible.

Sometimes, this just comes down to making your instructions, style guide or project brief clear and concise.

I’ve seen project briefs that were so complicated, messy, unnecessarily long or poorly written that you couldn’t even get through them, let alone read and understand them. In these cases, freelancers run for the hills.

Put yourself in the mindset of putting your best foot forward to attract the best writers and editors out there. Use short sentences and short paragraphs, and rephrase key concepts several times until you find the most concise manner in which to explain them.

By nature, instructions and requirements create “friction” that can deter top notch workers. Do your best to reduce the friction, and you’ll have top talent commit to your project for the long-term.

Keep Reading: Lessons From Writing 100,000 Product Descriptions

Use Technology to Increase Hourly Rates

I’ll let you in on a little secret in the freelance writing world. Smart writers and editors don’t care about price per word or price per unit.

All that matters is how that translates into an hourly rate.

Especially with longer term high-volume projects, the freelancers working on your gig do this full time. They most likely have accounts at several marketplaces and platforms around the Web. As they work throughout the day, they track their hourly rate on each job.

Here’s a quick example:

  • Your project pays $30 per for a 500-word blog post, which is the rough equivalent of 6 cents per word. Because of the research involved, writers can complete one unit every 2 hours, achieving an hourly rate of $15 on your project.

Compare that example to this:

  • You need 50-word product descriptions written, and you’re paying 5 cents per word. Most writers can complete a minimum of 10 per hour. Their hourly rate nets out to be $25 per hour.

Knowing this, you can do other things to help your freelancers increase their hourly rate than just upping the price per unit or per word.

One way is to streamline their workflow. In other words, make it easier or faster for them to create and submit content to you.

Often, you can make improvements in this area using technology.

Lots of little tasks can mean huge time losses for freelancers or brands if they aren’t managed in the most efficient way possible.

scaling content creation

Consider a short writing project where the client wants a sentence or two written, and the research and writing only takes about 2 minutes. You might think freelancers can complete 30 an hour, making $1 each a great rate. If the process you use to get work to and from freelancers adds substantial amounts of time, you eat into productive earnings capability. Even if the process to pick up and deliver each piece only takes 45 seconds, the freelancer can only complete 21 items per hour rather than 30.

That’s less work people can do for you and less money they make per hour on your work. (Hint: that makes your work less attractive, so you won’t pull the best talent).

Leveraging the right technology tools to reduce this “unproductive” time is one of the best ways to ensure everyone benefits. And it’s not just true when you’re working with freelancers. Enterprise and brand teams can also spend a lot of time on mundane tasks that generate no revenue.

One example is a team using Google docs to general long product descriptions. The team might opt for Google docs as an inexpensive, accessible resource that lets them add formatting, edit on the fly, and leave comments.  While it sounds great, it comes with a lot of extra labor.

First, they have to spend time managing links to all this work. They’ll also likely have someone take the work from Google docs and put it into a format for uploading onto an eCommerce solution. If the team has 400 products to manage and it takes 3 minutes to complete that final process, they’ve added 20 unnecessary hours to the work.

The right content management platform lets you create, comment and edit within a single, automated workflow. Once the work’s done, you can save those 20 hours by clicking a button for an export.

Another way to help workers increase hourly rates is to provide more information. For example, you may have a project where writers need to search the Web to find a product and then write a description of it.

If you provide writers with a URL that goes directly to each product, you eliminate the need for them to search for it.

Yes, this may result in additional time or costs for you when preparing inputs, but the benefits may be worth it. In cases like this, you’ll need to run your own calculations to see what makes sense for your specific project.

Support Rigid Formats with Technology

Does your large-scale content project require writers to submit content in a very specific format? If so, you’re in for a big challenge.

I’ve seen a few projects like this. Here’s an example:

Start with one paragraph that is between 100 and 150 words. You must use the primary keyword in this paragraph. Your second paragraph should be about three sentences long, but no more than 300 characters. Next, add exactly seven bullet points listing the main features.

 As you can imagine, with multiple writers working on your high-volume project, it can be a real nightmare trying to keep everyone on track and submitting content that meets this specific format.

Usually, your editors and QA team end up spending hours requesting revisions from the writers or revising the format themselves. Overhead like this slows production down big time and still doesn’t catch all the errors.

At Crowd Content, we use a feature called “Layouts” that helps us eliminate human error and automates quality control with these detailed formats.

scaling content creation

Layouts is a drop and drag tool that lets the project team create a custom input form where writers will enter their content. It lets you add individual fields that represent a specific section of your content template .

You can also add a snippet of instructions that appears directly beside that field, so that writers don’t miss it.

The best part? For each field, you can set rules or guidelines, such as character or word count limits or even a mandatory keyword.

If we were building a Layout for the example above, we’d add a field for the first paragraph and set the word count rule to minimum 100, maximum 150. We’d also set a rule that our primary keyword has to be mentioned in it.

Then we’d add another field for the second paragraph, with a maximum character count of 300. Finally, we’d add seven text fields for the seven bullet points, with a rule that each must be filled in.

As writers enter their content into these fields, they can see red and green indicators that let them know if they’ve met the requirements for each or not. If the requirements have not been met yet, the system won’t allow them to submit the content.

Using a tool like this takes a huge load off of editors and QA, while also making things more straightforward for writers.

If you aren’t using Crowd Content for your high-volume content project, consider how you might develop something similar to help control the inputs of your writers. You may not be able to build something this sophisticated, but even just a template to follow might streamline workflow and shave off a few minutes from each content piece. Across hundreds of thousands of units, this adds up to a lot of time and money saved.

Knowing What You’re Up Against Is the First Step

Properly assessing your project and acknowledging the challenge ahead is the first step toward successfully scaling content creation. When project leaders underestimate the task at hand, they risk derailing a massive “content train” that costs organizations thousands of dollars and days of wasted time.

By taking the time early in your project’s life to plan, prepare and test, you can successfully execute your large-scale content project. Doing this reduces overall time and cost, while also resulting in higher quality content.

Start slow, price it right and use some technology along the way to speed things up. Always be concise. And, please, keep your project brief as simple as humanly possible.

If you follow these tips and give your project the attention it deserves, you’ll be putting your organization in a good position to succeed and achieve its content goals.

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Clayton is the Founder and CEO at Crowd Content, a content marketplace for clients and high performance writers. He enjoys writing about marketing ideas and content trends.

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