TL;DR: There are some straightforward ways to measure the productivity and effectiveness of writers, but there are many hazards too. These include the difficulty of quantifying creativity, the influence of bias and the writer’s limitations in being able to have high impact when the assignment is misguided or the output isn’t marketed effectively. Bottom line: Track a few KPIs but don’t focus on them exclusively.
You’ve probably heard “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” By benchmarking and measuring the things that matter most, you can tell where performance problems lie and achieve goals faster.
Companies have created KPIs for every aspect of their operations including individual performance. The ultimate synthesis of this information is the dashboard – a one page snapshot of performance.
But the writing world has been slow to embrace this concept.
Would setting KPIs for writers and content teams lead to more effective content, better writing or greater efficiency? Since I’m always trying to improve as a freelance writer, I wanted to know if using KPIs could help me, and if so, which ones I should be tracking.
Can we quantify which writers produce the best copy?
There are a lot of KPIs for online content marketing generally such as website visits, page views, bounce rate (how many people leave your site after viewing just one page) and time on page.
But what about content producers? Wouldn’t you love to identify in an objective way which writers produce the best copy? Or which practices are more closely correlated with high-impact content?
The beauty of KPIs is that they remove some of the emotion and bias from the equation, so theoretically at least, you can make decisions and improvements based on facts.
To arrive at a dashboard for writers and content teams, you need to ask yourself two important questions:
- What kind of writing are we talking about? – Fiction writing is very different from writing a corporate annual report, website content or an advertising slogan. The goals of different writing types and styles vary enormously, so it’s unlikely the same KPIs would be equally meaningful. The first ground rule is that each writing niche needs unique KPIs, although there may be some overlap.
- Is it possible to quantify success? –Within a specific niche, are there aspects of writing that can be statistically measured? The answer is yes. These fall broadly into three main camps – measures of productivity, impact and quality.
The writer’s dashboard for productivity, quality
So let’s look at what KPIs writers could use in each of those areas.
KPIs for productivity – These are things like words or articles written per hour or day. (Read this post on how Australian writer Rachel Aaron quintupled her daily output.) Obviously as both a writer and a customer, you want to production to be high and time wasted to be low. If procrastination is your problem, read this post on the best way to break that habit.
KPIs for impact – Among the benchmarks here:
- Dollar/copy sales of books or writer income?
- Sales and profits earned by a business as a result of marketing communications
- Clickthrough rate on online content (how many people saw a headline and clicked to read the full piece)
- Conversion rate for promotional/sales writing (how many people were motivated to take your desired action such as donating money, voting for a candidate or buying a product after reading the writing?)
- Number of times the content was shared or liked on social media
- Response rate to your call to action
- Where your online content ranks for your keywords on Google (known as search engine ranking)
- Number of leads generated
- Repeat sales or loyalty of customers you gain from a piece of content
- ROI (return on investment) – the amount of business you won compared to the cost to produce the content.
- Cost of customer acquisition
- Exposure or impressions generated for your idea or brand
The limitations of KPIs for tracking content producers
Each of these measures offers value, but here we run into some of the inherent problems of KPIs. There are many factors that influence all of these beyond the mere words a writer has written. These include:
- Was the right audience targeted?
- How widely was the content distributed?
- Did attractive graphics accompany the content?
- Was the underlying topic or cause compelling?
- If a product was being promoted, was it priced appropriately, well made and meeting a true consumer need?
The greatest writing in the world won’t be effective if the answers to the above aren’t yes. So you can’t pin the responsibility for achieving these KPIs on the writer.
The most fraught KPIs for writers: Quality metrics
KPIs for quality – We are getting on tricky ground here, but several possibilities come to mind.
- Number of errors (grammatical, factual, spelling etc.)
- Critical reviews or prizes, but remember these are subject to all sorts of bias (conflict of interest, bigotry and social, political and cultural bias).
- Automated grading by tools like Grammarly.com and the Hemingway App.
- Longevity –Writing is a hugely competitive field. If a copywriter, author, playwright or freelance writer is able to stay in the game and make a living at it, you can be pretty sure he or she has some talent. It’s hard to reduce this to a real-time KPI, but number of years can be a helpful measure in the long run.
- Ratings, endorsements and testimonials from customers, users and readers, but again these can be highly political.
- Authority and search engine rankings for authors, blogs and content
- Was the writing original (free of plagiarism)?
- Was the tone geared to the audience (i.e. conversational for a blog, erudite for a PhD thesis)?
- Did it achieve whatever goals it outlined for itself in the writing (e.g. was a how-to article genuinely helpful?)
The most important KPI: Was the writing good?
This list ignores some of the most important metrics of all: Was the writing great, or at least clear and easy to understand? Did it move me? Did it stand out from the crowd for insight, comprehensiveness or the lyricism of the writing? Was it persuasive? Did it cause the reader to view the subject in a new light?
Creativity is hard to quantify aside from the “I know it when I see it” metric. There’s usually little consensus on what constitutes this sort of quality except at the extremes of amazing and abysmal. It is personal and subjective and arguably the most important KPI out there. Is it possible even to measure that?
I like the suggestion in this Reddit thread of measuring writers on article ideas per month, if you ask writers to come up with their own topics. For myself, I am going to start tracking productivity (words per hour) and income per word or hour. At the very least, I think it will help me understand more clearly how to price different writing projects.
And all writers for hire should be in close contact with clients to get feedback on how their work aligned with the client’s goals and how easy they felt it was to work with the writer. Repeat business is an important metric for freelance writers.
Of course, using a dashboard or KPIs for writers isn’t an end unto itself. You have to figure out how to interpret the results you get and then decide what action to take to change them if you aren’t happy with them.
I’m curious to know what KPIs you track if you are a writer or someone who commissions writing. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and if you found this piece interesting, please share it with others. I’ll come back and compile any suggestions.