The Way We Work
August 3, 2011 by Brian McDonough

A business can't thrive without marketing -- you need your potential customers to know about your business. Yet few small and mid-sized companies have the budget to have marketing experts on staff. That's why various marketing positions are among the most popular hiring categories on oDesk. When you're looking for someone to write content, get your message into the media, or represent you on the increasingly vital social media platforms, a test hire is a great way to make sure you've found the most suitable candidate.

On Monday, we reviewed the basics of using test jobs to find the best contractor, with specific looks at how oDesk hires web developers, project managers, software developers and more.

Erica BentonErica Benton, oDesk's marketing communications manager, gave us the rundown on how she uses test jobs to hire writers, public relations representatives, and social media experts.

How to Test a Writer

“Make them write,” she says. “Writing test hires are the easiest to do. But you really have to make sure the test work reflects what the actual work will look like.”

That means that if you're hiring a blogger to write about new technologies, don't assign him to write about establishing good work habits. For Benton, it's easy to make use of these small assignments. She gives a focused assignment and a small, reasonable time limit, and if the result is good, she publishes it and gives the writer more assignments. “In writing, I'm usually not hiring for massive projects, but I need reliable writers who can regularly deliver smaller pieces,” she says. “When I have a bunch of candidates who look promising, I may give them same topic to compare how each handles the subject. Other times, it's more that I have only one likely candidate but I'm not entirely confident in making a full hire. In that case, she's competing against the expectation that her profile set for me.”

How to Test a Social Media Expert

“I hire most frequently for a 'social media concierge'-type role. These folks monitor our social media channels and respond with guidance and links to useful material,” she says. Because she doesn't want to turn unproven candidates loose on oDesk's social networks, she has developed a standard test. “I give each candidate a Google spreadsheet with about 50 user questions or comments, all derived from real posts -- the wording, the tone, the English level, all exact,” she says. “I ask candidates to go through the sheet and tell me which blog post, community discussion, or Help Center page best addresses the user's question, and ask them to formulate a response with that link.” She's testing them, she says, on their ability to read and understand, to search the mass of helpful content in our blog archive, community forums, and Help Center, and to pick the best material. “That's the number one characteristic you hire social media people for,” she says. “Judgment.” She says she gives each an hour and tells him to do as much as he can. “It's not about quantity -- I make it very clear when I assign it that the intention is not to complete the entire thing, but see how well they respond to the questions there in front of them.” How each person responds to the test is very revealing. “Some only respond to things they know answers to, or they find the similar ones and go ahead and fill in the same answers,” Benton says. “There is value to that -- we do get a lot of similar questions over and over, and our concierges will get a lot further having recognized that there's a lot of repetition." Anyone who completes at least 15 questions in that hour is a likely candidate, she says. “Then it comes down to judgment: which content they choose to share and also how they present it to that user. I look at tone, language, and word choice.” She notes that you can train people with shaky mastery of English to improve their written communication, but that judgment and the ability to find the right answer have to be there from the start.

How to Test a PR Specialist

“I hire a range of PR people, but the position I've done the most test hires for is outreach specialist, reaching out to the media on behalf of our company,” she says. “I test hire by asking each candidate to fill in a spreadsheet naming local publications, which reporters and editors there are the best to pitch our story to, and to provide the contact info.” She gives the candidates a bit of background about oDesk, and from there she wants to make sure they know the top publications in their local areas and which reporters to target. “It's about their ability to understand our business, do the web research, and find the contact info. I give them an hour, in which they should be able to come up with five or ten names.” If they pass that initial test, she then hires them for another hour to write a test pitch. “If you were reaching out, how would you contact them, what would you say?” she asks. Much of what results isn't perfect, but the hope is that by working together over time the pitch is one that can be polished. And the initial research test can prove very valuable. “Say I test five people to do press outreach for oDesk in Pakistan,” she says. “Those five come back in the first phase with 35 unique names, but I only hire two to move on to write the pitch. Then, whoever I actually hire gets the 35-person list to build from. There's some repetition in that investment, but it's not completely wasted work.”

A Little Success Insurance

The test hire requires you to build a little extra time into your hiring process, and it requires a little extra expenditure -- though in most cases you can make sure that money is spent on useful work that accomplishes your business goals. It also allows you to make sure someone with a good resume and a great interview style is really as skilled, and as good a fit with your company, as he seems. It's an investment that lets you get a little work done while you find the best way to get a lot of work done.

Employers: Do you have a test-hire technique? Contractors: What's the best test job you ever faced? Let us know in the comments.

Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.