Updated Aug. 24, 2021
No matter how well thought your strategy is and how much buy-in and budget you secure, the success of your content marketing program ultimately hinges on a single, critical component: having the talent to execute your plans.
That puts skilled writers in a position of power. Despite the looming specter of artificial intelligence bots, even the most sophisticated systems aren’t yet equipped to match the emotional depth and resonance of a story crafted with care by humans (though they’re getting closer).
Score one for my fellow flesh-and-blood content creators – for now. Of course, the high demand for our skills makes it harder for marketing teams and agencies to augment their in-house teams with the best outsourced talent.High demand for #writers makes it harder to outsource the best #content creation talent, says @joderama via @CMIContent. #FreelanceWriter Click To Tweet
The proliferation of online marketplaces, creative recruitment firms, and other content-centric gig-economy exchanges may make it easier to find skilled writers. But without a smart plan for using these outsource services, you might struggle with a “the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are odd” situation. And if you’re lucky enough to find the right needle among their haystacks, you had best treat these professionals with respect so they don’t jump ship at the first sign of a higher hourly rate or a longer-term commitment.
I’ve played the roles of both content talent recruiter and recruited. Drawing on that experience, I’ve compiled the following guide to help you identify, vet, and onboard the right outsourced writers for your content marketing needs – no matter where you source them.
One note before I get started: Though I focus on freelance content marketing writers, this process can be adapted for hiring many content-centric marketing roles, including designers, editors, videographers, or even content agency partners.
Are you ready to outsource?
Companies typically outsource content creation once they admit they don’t have the time or talent in-house to produce content at the quality, volume, or scale they need to meet their goals.
Yet, acknowledging you need help isn’t the only point of introspection. You need to know what kind of help you need and what specific skills, abilities, and experience will get the job done right.
Outline your requirements and processes
Before you reach out to potential candidates, take an honest inventory of your content needs and expectations and how well a freelance writer would operate within your company’s operating conditions and content infrastructure.
- Kinds of content they would create. Identify the topics, formats, and platforms they will work with, expected word counts, and specifics of creating content under these circumstances. Will they need to conduct research? Interview experts? Create and edit video stories? Curate from or use reference materials?
- Role in creation and distribution process. Will they need to work with your company systems and tools? Is their job done when their draft copy is accepted, or are there additional tasks (e.g., incorporating backlinks, sharing on social media, sourcing in-article images)?
- Expected content volume and frequency. How often will you need them to deliver new assets? Will it be an ongoing, scheduled commitment, or will you only need their services on a project-by-project basis?
- Goals. What should their content help your business accomplish? How will you gauge their performance against those goals? How will you communicate those goals – and gauge their performance against them?
- Content governance and processes. Can you provide brand voice and style guidelines? Have you determined how their role will integrate into your team’s marketing workflow? Are there privacy, technical, procedural, or legal guidelines they need to comply with?
- Systems, tools, and team resources. Do you have the necessary tech tools and systems to produce and distribute their content assets successfully? Will they function as a fully integrated member of your team, or will they primarily work with a dedicated supervisor or contact person? How much access should they have to your company’s subject matter experts, intranets, knowledge bases, and/or other content tools and resources?
- Financial considerations. Do you have an adequate budget to attract and retain their services? Will you pay a per-project fee, a retainer, or establish an hourly rate? How will you handle invoicing and payment? (Remember, freelancer rates may be higher than what you pay your in-house writers because they’re responsible for paying their own employment taxes, insurance, and other benefits.)
- Legal compliance. You might remember the high-profile (and high-cost) battle rideshare companies Uber and Lyft waged in California in 2020 to retain the independent contractor status of their drivers. At the center of this controversy was a California employment law enacted in 2019, which protects workers from being misclassified as independent contractors if they meet certain conditions. If your business – or your chosen freelancer – operates in that state (or others with similar laws on the books), make sure to understand how that affects freelancers working in your office, keeping certain hours, or using company-supplied equipment. Remember: Ignorance of the law excuses no one from complying with it.
If you work out the criteria before you engage a freelancer, you’ll benefit from:
- Less friction across all content creation processes
- Stronger alignment with your company’s expectations and goals
- More trusting and mutually satisfying long-term engagements with the freelance writers.
Where to find great candidates
Assuming your organization doesn’t have a pool of preferred writing vendors, you can choose a few ways to initiate your talent search – each with pros and cons:
- Solicit recommendations. Tap into your professional networks to see if anyone has suggestions.
- Pros: Someone vouches for the writer’s work and professionalism.
- Cons: Just because one business found the right writer doesn’t mean that writer will be the best fit for your needs. Recommenders also may hesitate to offer up their first-string creatives because it could mean they’ll be less available.
- Post the assignment on a writers’ job board or online talent exchange. Consider freelancer services like Upwork or LinkedIn ProFinder; forums like Freelance Writers Den or ProBlogger; or associations that represent professional writers, such as Freelancers Union.
- Pros: Access to a variety of skills and expertise; search by narrow criteria (topic expertise, writing style, fee rate, industry experience, etc.)
- Cons: While most reputable marketplaces vet writers, not all are transparent about what their vetting processes entail. Less-experienced writers can slip through by … well … getting creative with how they characterize their work experience. It may also be hard to gauge a writer’s suitability for the task or sort through the ranks for viable candidates.
- Work with a creative staffing agency or recruitment platform. Platforms like Contently, Skyword, and Creative Circle, and recruiters like Robert Half, Writing Assistance, and Artisan Creative offer a range of services to help connect marketers with skilled freelance talent.
- Pros: These services typically vet their talent pool and provide tools to help you manage the writer’s work on an ongoing basis.
- Cons: The full-service route comes at a higher cost. These resources are more appropriate for long-term or ongoing writing needs or temp-to-perm situations.
- Research and recruit writers directly. Visit a few top media resources (publications/blogs/news sites) that cover your industry and check out the bylines. You can also consider writers who are building their own content brands on sites like Wattpad or Substack. If you identify a few writers whose work resonates, introduce yourself and ask if they might be open to freelance assignments. Even if they aren’t interested, they may be able to recommend other writers who are.
No matter which of these techniques you choose, keep in mind that professional writers are skilled craftspeople, and taking on paid assignments is how they make their living. Unless you are a professional or trade media organization, don’t expect them to write “for the exposure” (i.e., without financial compensation).Treat freelance creators as the professionals they are. Don’t expect them to write “for the exposure.” Pay them, says @joderama via @CMIContent. #FreelanceWriter Click To Tweet
Vetting your candidates
Professional content creators can come from a range of disciplines – marketing, journalism, ad copywriting, technical writing, research, and more. While many writers have a flexible skill set they can apply to virtually any type of content, others struggle with assignments too far outside their fields of expertise.
To find writer candidates who can operate successfully under your conditions, look for:
- Relevant content creation skills: Do they have experience writing in the style or format you seek? Does their background and training match your requirements (e.g., ad copywriters who can create compelling narrative storytelling)?
- Technical and tactical knowledge: Are they willing to take on time-saving tasks like inputting or coding copy directly in your CMS? Do they understand how to create copy for SEO or target an audience? Are they familiar with the proper way to verify and fact-check their sources or attribute information/images they may reference or repurpose from outside sources?
- Adaptability: Can they take on different types of writing assignments, or do they prefer to focus on one type of content? Can they handle multiple assignments at once? Can they easily switch gears when writing for a different audience or adopting a different tone?
- Subject matter expertise: How knowledgeable are they about your industry – lexicon/jargon, relevant trends and issues, and the biggest players? Do they have contacts they can reach out to when needed for a story idea? A good writer can certainly learn these details as they work, but things go a lot more smoothly if someone innately understands the opportunities and challenges businesses like yours typically face and can contextualize their copy accordingly.
- Audience insights: Have they written for an audience like yours? Do they have a grasp of their pain points, preferences, and areas of interest? Again, they can learn this on the job, but if they are familiar with your audience’s point of view and perspectives, it will be easier to create compelling stories (which means less editing and revising on your part).
- Logistics/accessibility: Will they be available when you have a new assignment? How quickly do they respond when you reach out? Do they operate in the same time zone as your business? Do they live close enough to drop into your office, if necessary, for a brainstorming session or team meeting?
- Writing samples and professional endorsements: Do they have a website or online portfolio you can review? Can you view testimonials from current or previous clients? Are they a member of any writer unions or professional associations?
Testing their mettle
An interview only provides subjective evidence of a writer’s skills and abilities. As part of your vetting process, you should always take time to review a few samples from a candidate’s portfolio.You should always take time to review a few samples from a candidate’s portfolio. However, it doesn’t always give a full picture of their capabilities, says @Joderama via @CMIContent. #FreelanceWriter Click To Tweet
However, this doesn’t always give a full picture of their capabilities – or how many others (editors, product managers, etc.) may have had a hand in shaping the final piece. For instance, maybe you’ve found a freelance writer with great chops but little experience with your industry or whose work samples don’t include the specific kind of content you are looking to create. In cases like these, you might consider paying the writer to take on a brief test assignment first (one example is shown below).
Writing tests is a controversial topic for many in the creative community – and it certainly raised some strong emotions when I brought it up in an earlier post. While some commenters were adamant that a professional’s portfolio should serve as the only proof you need of their skills and versatility, others felt a test might be appropriate only in cases where their samples don’t show the required depth of experience in your focal area (e.g., writing for highly technical or tightly regulated industries).
The bottom line, though, is that if you decide a test is warranted, you should always compensate the writer for their time – at their usual asking rate. As commenter Cindy Dashnaw said, “Writers are professional people who are eager to do a good job for you … as long as we’re treated as professionals.”Writers are professional people who are eager to do a good job for you ... as long as we're treated as professionals, says @cdashnaw via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
Ask not what your outsourced writers can do for you …
Hopefully, your vetting and interview processes will lead you to well-qualified writers eager to work with your business. But before you unleash their creativity upon your audience, equip them with all the tools they need to perform successfully as a partner to your business:
- Your documented content marketing strategy. Share the key details of your content mission, target audience, and brand story.
- Your editorial plan. Include details of your brand’s preferred style and tone of voice, guidelines for content quality, and governance practices.
- Access to relevant team members. Include their names and roles in the content process, plus list helpful subject matter experts and their contact details.
- Performance KPIs and data. If the terms of their engagement require them to hit targets (e.g., number of leads, page views, comments, or conversions), give them access to performance reports in your marketing system or Google Analytics so they can check the data.
- Technical resources and requirements. Make sure they have access to the necessary editorial systems and services – CMS, stock image accounts, or cloud collaboration tools. Inform them of other editorial process details they might need – keywords/phrases, metadata structures, file-naming conventions, etc.
- Templates and other branding materials. If you have designed proprietary assets – like company logos or PowerPoint templates – share them.
- Clearly outlined contract and scope of work. The best defense against a trusted writer relationship that goes sour is a good offense by way of clear expectations and terms of engagement. List the exact deliverables, the submission process and contact, number of revision rounds, deadlines, and compensation.
Secure your content’s future
One of my favorite creative visionaries (Joe Strummer of The Clash) once encouraged his audience to make meaningful changes by pointing out that “The future is unwritten.” But you don’t want it to remain that way simply because you don’t have enough creative resources to fuel your brand’s content evolution.
Have you found great content writing partners through outsourcing? Share how you did it in the comments.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute