By Sarah Rickerd published December 2, 2016

Why Freelance Content Writers Aren’t Getting the Results You Want

Startup Stock Photos

You need content – and lots of it.

But you’re faced with only so many hours in the day and a finite number of content marketing team members. Most people will advise that the best way to get all that content is to outsource it.

You post a job listing. You pick the lucky applicant from the hundreds of proposals, assign an article, and offer a few insights on the subject.

You get a first draft … it’s lackluster at best (and unintelligible at worst).

Managing outsourced workers effectively comes with a learning curve. To adapt more quickly, you can take several steps to improve the quality of content you receive from your freelancers.

And when you want the kind of content that’s so brilliant, engaging, and revolutionary that it instantly brands your company as the leader to watch in your industry, freelance writers still can be a great option, but it takes more investment from you.

Whether you’re new to working with freelancers or an experienced pro, stop wasting money on outsourced content that doesn’t meet your needs. Start understanding what your freelance writers need from you to create content that’ll truly support your business.

Set the foundation for quality outsourcing

In 2007, Tim Ferriss highlighted the concept of outsourcing with his book, The 4-Hour Work Week. Though he oversimplified the process, Tim covered how to master outsourcing, although it’s something few have done well.

Communication is one of the biggest challenges. To act on your behalf successfully, your freelancers need to understand what you want them to do and how you want it done. That means providing them with:

  • Background information:
    • What does the writer need to know to write for your project successfully?
    • Can you recommend any good learning resources to help the writer get up to speed?
  • Content specifications:
    • What length should the content be?
    • What tone or style should be used?
    • Do any specific keywords need to be included and, if so, at what frequency should they be mentioned?
    • Does the piece need images, internal or external links, heading tags, bullet lists, or other formatting features?
  • Audience:
    • What can you tell the writer about the people who will be reading the article?
    • What do these readers need to take away from the piece?
  • Funnel position:
    • Does the content piece need a call to action? If so, how does the article fit into the sales and marketing funnel?
    • How is success defined relative to the article’s performance?
  • Project deliverables:
    • When do you need articles completed?
    • Do you have a preferred document format (for example, Google Docs or Word Docs)?
    • How will you communicate feedback and revision requests?

If you find your projects are clearly defined but you still aren’t getting good results, you may need to improve how you are recruiting writers. Here are some ideas.

  • Look for writers with web experience: Web writing is one of the few forms of professional writing that prioritizes engagement and action over simple education. Not all writers understand the difference. Look for those with a history of successful writing specifically for content marketing.
  • Find writers with subject-area expertise: Plenty of generalist writers can cover multiple topics successfully with a bit of research. But the best results generally come from those who have spent significant time writing about your industry and are familiar with its ins and outs.
  • Change up your hiring sources: Hundreds of places exist where you can find freelance writers; if you aren’t happy with your current writers, it could be that you aren’t sourcing from the right location. I typically find the best results on industry-specific job boards like the ProBlogger Jobs Board and Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers’ Den Job Board.
  • Ask for referrals: Here’s a secret: The best writers rarely advertise their services, and they rarely respond to job-board listings. To find them, ask around. Not everybody will reveal the name of the ghostwriter handling their content creation, but you may get lucky and find a few good leads this way.

Rethink your outsourcing expectations

What happens when you’ve gone through all the steps above, and you still don’t get the results you want from your freelance writers? It’s time to explore some of the more advanced challenges that can derail freelance writing relationships:

You expect your writer to deliver primary data

If I had a dollar for every client who told me, “I want something like Brian Dean publishes on Backlinko,” I wouldn’t have to take on clients that expect me to write skyscraper-level content out of thin air.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes Dean’s skyscraper technique content in demand. He created epic-level content (Google’s 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List) to trump other resources in his industry and earn the coveted “authority” publisher status. As a result, he increased his search traffic by 110% in the 14 days after that post was published.

In many ways, the post put Dean and his Backlinko blog on the map. He generated data, he made assumptions based on that information, and he gave his recommendations a clever name that caught on within the marketing community.

The key to his success, though, is that he created something new.

Now, imagine you told your freelance writer, “I want you to create a post like Backlinko’s skyscraper technique article that’ll help our company get noticed.”

Chances are good that your writer doesn’t have a massively popular website with enough traffic to run tests and draw conclusions in your industry. Your writer probably isn’t testing new strategies on their own or developing recommendations about what does and doesn’t work in your industry.

If you posted a challenge similar to the skyscraper technique success to your freelancer, they have a couple options: 1) surf around top industry websites to see what other experts in your niche are saying, or 2) work from any primary original research or data you have.

If the writer pulls from what’s been written, at best you’re going to get content that rehashes existing articles in a creative, unique way. It’s never truly going to be the kind of revolutionary, expert-level content that launches a brand to Backlinko-style success.

Now, imagine that you’re able to tell your writer, “Here’s some data I’ve gathered in my work and how I see it could be applied in the industry.” With your combined powers, you and your writer are more likely to create something special.

But that brings me to my next point.

You aren’t willing to put in any effort

Forgive the expression, but hiring writers isn’t like a Ronco Showtime® rotisserie oven. There’s no set-it-and-forget-it option. Outsourcing is not a hands-off transaction. I frequently see that the companies that put the least effort into their content outsourcing engagements are the ones that are least satisfied with the content’s outcomes.

Outsourcing #content writers is not a hands-off transaction says @ConquerContent. Click To Tweet

Here’s how one of my clients takes a hands-on approach to outsourcing with me and my team:

  • At the start of each month, the client provides information on the general subject areas he wants his content to focus on over the next 30 days. We use those directions and what we know about his business to brainstorm potential content topics, which he then approves or declines.
  • Once the idea is approved, we outline the framework of what we plan to cover and share with the client. He adds copious notes, either changing topics we planned to cover or adding personal anecdotes or data points to incorporate in the final draft.
  • We send the client a completed draft. The client adds notes where he’d like to see more content (often providing the added details himself), as well as where phrases or sentences need to be reworded to better suit his voice. We go through a few rounds of revisions.

Once the client is satisfied, the final version is published (though it’s not uncommon for him to come back weeks or months later to add something he thinks will take the piece to the next level).

Are you that involved in the creation of your content?

It’s certainly not necessary in all outsourcing cases, but it’s certainly a contributing factor in the regular praise this client receives for his exceptional content and his rising profile in his industry.

A good writer can get you 70% of the way to great content – and in some cases that C grade may be good enough for your purposes. But truly, the best content results come from a collaboration between freelancer and client.

When using a #contentmarketing freelancer, the best results come from collaboration says @conquercontent. Click To Tweet

You expect your writer to drive your marketing strategy

This is another big problem I see in content outsourcing. Marketing department leaders have been told over and over, “You need content marketing.” They run out, hire a freelance writer, and tick the content marketing program off their to-do lists.

Let’s see how this winds up in practice:

A client approaches a writer, and says, “I need to do more content marketing.” The writer happily accepts the project and asks the client what kind of content they’d like to have created. “Oh, I don’t know – whatever you think will work best.”

You are, essentially, asking your writer to drive your company’s marketing strategy. And unless you’ve hired a writer for his content marketing strategy skills, your writer likely doesn’t have the skills or experience to create your company’s content marketing strategy successfully.

In my nearly 10 years of experience doing this kind of work, I’ve seen that the most successful companies are the ones that understand exactly how and why they’re using content marketing. They are the ones who are more likely to operate like this scenario:

The most successful companies understand how & why they’re using #contentmarketing says @conquercontent. Click To Tweet

Before ever contracting a writer, the client develops a strategic plan that details what the company hopes to achieve with content marketing, as well as how the individual content pieces will support the desired outcomes. When a writer is hired, the client is able to clearly say, “I need this piece of content, created in this way, to help achieve these goals for our company.”

Conclusion

As I mentioned, the best freelance writing outcomes occur when there’s a true partnership between the company and the writer. If you view your outsourced writers as a way to get as much as possible, while giving as little as possible, the quality of the work is virtually guaranteed to suffer. But if you view your freelancer as a valuable asset to the business with whom you share what you know while detailing your expectations, the content will be far more likely to succeed.

Certainly, this list isn’t comprehensive. A number of challenges can derail a freelance writing relationship or even prevent one from getting started in the first place. Share your challenges and/or solutions in the comments.

Want more tips and insight into how to operate a successful content marketing program? Subscribe to the free daily CMI newsletter.

Cover image by Startup Stock Photos via pixabay.com

Author: Sarah Rickerd

Sarah Rickerd is the owner of Content Conquered, a content creation agency dedicated to producing high-value, conversions-driving blog posts, case studies, e-books, and more. Sarah has been writing professionally since 2007 and has helped her clients publish more than 8 million words online in that time. Follow her on Twitter at @Conquer Content.

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  • Dave Vigna

    Very well done Sarah. Helpful for the freelancer to keep in mind as well!

    • sarah@contentconquered.com

      Thanks Dave! I have a thousand thoughts on that side of things as well… 🙂

  • Carol Pearson

    As a freelance content writer, I agree wholeheartedly with this. The partnership idea is so critical to success…and good writer will insist on it! Thanks Sarah

    • sarah@contentconquered.com

      Absolutely! A good working partnership, in my experience, makes the difference between content that works and content that never drives results.

  • Mary Rose Maguire

    Excellent article. I shared this with my fellow freelancers, and on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m going to incorporate some of this into my own onboarding process for new clients. Sarah, you clearly articulated a true “game plan” for marketing departments and outsourced talent partnerships. Well done!

    • sarah@contentconquered.com

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing! Very much appreciated 🙂

  • Scott Barker

    I cannot say “amen” enough. I have a client whose primary instructions to me are “write something brilliant.” And that’s it. I think the problem is that sometimes people don’t understand that good thinking is what leads to good writing. One particular challenge are those clients who have an idea on “thought leadership” and then suggest a topic that, within five minutes of googling I can see was covered five years ago. When I suggest we need to come up with a different angle on the topic I get crickets. I thought I was doing something wrong, and routinely wrack my brain trying to figure out how I can solve this “on my own.” I’m somewhat relieved to see it’s not just me.

    • sarah@contentconquered.com

      Oh. my. gosh. yes. The “write something brilliant” very much strikes home for me!

      To be honest, I feel partially complicit in the problem. I’ve written easily a hundred articles on why people should build personal brands through content, but the reality is that, to be successful, you have to understand a) what you bring to the table that makes you a thought leader, and b) how the content you’re creating supports your larger funnel. It’s very, very difficult for a freelance writer to manufacture authority out of thin air.

      • Scott Barker

        Totally agree. A good writer can help a client or SME clarify their thinking and work with them to pull the most interesting or thought-provoking kernels of insight out of their thinking. We can act like a lens that focuses the light into an intense beam. The problem, as you so thoroughly document, is that we rarely get that chance, having to work, as you put it, with nothing but “thin air.”

  • sarah@contentconquered.com

    Out of my control to change, but thanks for reading!

    • James W

      Understood. Hopefully whomever manages it sees this as I’d hate for people to skip reading it because it told a completely different story.

      • http://realtimeparadigm.com Joan

        James is right. I almost skipped the article, it is downright misleading, puts the issue on the freelance writer… and then points out the need for a partnership collaboration.

        It’s time to speak up about headline manipulation a/k/a clickbait.
        Sarah wrote an excellent article, but obviously something else motivates clickbait.

        Thanks Sarah, I’ll share the article though because it’s relevant.

  • Nigel Charig

    Very interesting article, and one that I can relate to as a freelance writer! My ‘favourite’ scenarios from my own experience are:

    – “We know we should provide more information, but we don’t have any, so please get on with it”
    – Clients that don’t understand the difference between being a specialist on a topic and being a specialist in how to write about it
    – Best of all: Clients that give me the wrong information, then complain when they don’t like the copy!
    I realise the above makes me sound a bit grouchy, so I’d like to add that I also have plenty of clients that do understand the issues and brief me properly with adequate information – and I’ve had many years’ happy relationships with them.

    • sarah@contentconquered.com

      Haha, all of those ring true for me as well 🙂 I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible clients who really do “get it,” but there are always those few bad apples that just make you shake your head!

  • http://www.Savvy-Writer.com/ Amandah Tayler Blackwell

    Great article. I’m no longer shocked when I ask a potential client a series of content related questions [Who’s your target audience? What social networks do they use? Have you conducted keyword research? Who’s your competition? What types of content do they publish?] and they don’t have the answers. The same goes for a potential client who asks me about ghostwriting a book or eBook. Most do not understand that publishing is an industry. There’s more to it than writing what you think could be a bestseller.

  • http://www.pcmate.org/seo-techniques seo techniques

    Hi there Sarah,

    Since I’m looking to read every article about freelacing, this is the best one that I read so far.