A lot of my freelance writing career has been defined by blogging about marketing and conversion optimization topics.
I don’t mind the work, especially since my corporate background in climbing the marketing ladder makes these topics really easy for me to write about, but every single marketing blog is after one thing with every single point they make: proof.
They want numbers, data, and pictures so they can show off to their readers that, yes, they know exactly what they’re talking about and there’s no way their expertise can be denied.
This is actually an admirable trait since the internet is so flooded with spineless “experts” who don’t actually offer any real career advice.
But, man. You try spending the time it takes to find a case study on how changing a landing page’s pronoun structure affected conversions. Or a screenshot of a company running that exact A/B test.
Then 10x that effort for every single post you write.
Suddenly, you’re spending hours researching the facts you already know are true, but you need visible proof for.
Some posts can take three hours or more just to fill out with examples.
I liked writing for these blogs because it gave me a lot of great exposure to my target audience, but I knew something had to give. I couldn’t keep spending three hours per post just on research.
I came to a point where I loathed doing this research so much, that I knew my only option was to either hire a virtual assistant (VA) or totally crash and burn.
I knew that if I could find someone capable enough to train to do this research for me after I’d written the articles, I’d be much happier in my day-to-day freelance writing career, and I’d be able to take on more projects, more than making up for the amount I’d pay to have it done.
So I started asking people in my network that I knew had VAs working for them for advice. Unfortunately, they didn’t really have anything magical to say.
Basically: “Hire a handful and give them test tasks that you pay them for… and make sure you spend lots of time over-communicating.”
So I put three different test assignments together – two with 30-minute limits, and one with a one hour limit, and put aside some cash to “waste” on this experiment. The cool thing is, with their rates and the two-hour time limit, I estimated that I’d spend less than $70 when all the tests were said and done. Which is a super affordable way to go about hiring, if you think about it.
I was lucky enough to find a decent research assistant in my first go-around, but I can see where I might have needed to run the test multiple times before finding a good research assistant.
But to help you not make some of the same mistakes and to know what to expect, here are some lessons I learned in the process:
Before I made the job listing, I went through and found freelancers that caught my eye—all people at $10/hour or under whose listed skills were in line with what I wanted and had at least a 90 percent job success rate.
On UpWork, you can choose to open your job to anyone on the platform to apply for, or to only open it to those you invite to it.
I’d highly suggest the second one.
I only had my job opening up for a couple hours before it was totally inundated with non-qualified applicants for me to wade through.
My favorite one was a lady wanting $30/hour who only read the headline and decided to scold me on what a bad job I did with my job description, because she didn’t know exactly how she could best help me. (even while others were thanking me for being so thorough.)
But once I closed the application to only those freelancers I’d picked out before and decided to invite to apply for the job, the process was much more manageable.
Not everyone I invited wanted to apply, but some did.
Out of the ones who were interested, I created individual “jobs” in UpWork and invited each one to their own paid test assignment.
While the idea that cheaper isn’t always better seems obvious, it can be incredibly tempting to shoot for the bottom of your budget range…especially when you get into UpWork and see people only charging $3.33 per hour with 100 percent job success rates.
I was particularly pulled that way when a lady in my network told me she has a $3/hour VA in the Philippines that she LOVES.
$3 per hour?!? And she does awesome work? I want that too!
But that particular VA must be a total diamond in the rough, because, geez.
One of my test assignments was to pick out grammatical errors, and the $3.33/hour VAs were ignoring things like “you’re” that should have been “your” and marking the entire sentence “They forgot it.” as a mistake.
Not to mention how bad they were at the research. Some spent an hour researching without yielding a single link or screenshot.
But, in case you do find one of those diamond in the rough VAs, you’ll only be out $10 or less by running them through a series of tests. Which is worth the experiment, in my opinion.
Just like the applicant who thought she should scold me on my job description, I came across a few other instances in the hiring process that made me question the integrity of humanity.
Because it’s on the internet, people are safe behind their computers and some will take advantage of that to senselessly scold you about whatever they feel like.
One applicant completing a proofreading task scolded me because I didn’t tell him whether he should be editing for MLA or APA formatting.
But still, it’s best just to laugh it off and dismiss these people from your list of candidates if things like style aren’t important to you. After all, it is the internet, and anyone can do and say anything they want.
When I did hire my VA after the series of test assignments, one thing he was very clear about was wanting more detail from me about my expectations and my processes.
We decided I would take a screencast of myself doing certain tasks while explaining the processes to help bring him up to speed.
For things that are too long or variable to be captured by video (like the different pieces of research required by the blog posts I write), I use color-coded text communication within Google Docs.
For example, within a Google Doc of a blog post, I’ll highlight the different research pieces I need in orange text, and we use red text for grammar.
I’ll even add comments on top of some pieces of orange text to give him ideas on how to go about finding the research, since he doesn’t have the same marketing background that I do.
This helps him feel more empowered and less frustrated in finding the bits of research I’m asking for, and it helps me because it gives him instruction to become better and more efficient with his job, increasing the ROI for the hourly rate I pay him. (He gets more done within our time limits.)
But even with all that communication, I’m finding I need to over-communicate more. Even about things I think are obvious.
For example, for the first full-fledged blog post he researched for me, it still took me two hours to prepare it for submission and publication…which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.
But I found that if I was asking for a screenshot of a Facebook page with a certain amount of fans, I needed to communicate that the number of fans should be visible in the screenshot, even if I thought it was obvious from what I’d written.
I guess the people in my network who I asked for advice weren’t joking about this whole over-communication thing being totally necessary.
With the mental stress and the time-consumption of doing all this research off my plate, I can focus on the kind of writing I actually enjoy and grow my business by taking on more clients.
It’s still early, but I estimate that having a VA help me with my article research and some other administrative tasks will save me anywhere from 5-10 hours per week.
Considering I usually spend around six hours per day working, this is like getting an extra day per week to either do more client work (and make more money), or to focus on the core aspects of growing my freelance writing business.
Plus, knowing that I don’t have to wake up and do the mind-crunching work of this research makes me look forward to doing my job so much more…making the freelancer lifestyle I was after when I quit my job so much more enjoyable.
If you feel like you’re finding yourself over-worked or annoyed with certain tasks in your business, take it as a sign that it’s time to hire a VA.
You don’t have to hire someone full-time, can put weekly time limits on the amount of work they do (and therefore the amount you have to pay them), and can choose an hourly rate that fits with your budget.
And as long as you set aside a small budget of time and money to experiment until you find the right person, you’ll be much happier and much less likely to burn out in the long run.