Content Strategy

Managing Outsourced Content Development (Using Songs by U2)

Note: This post was written listening to large amounts of music by U2 and Roy Orbison. However, vintage Orbison song titles such as “Lonely Wine” and “Ooby Dooby” don’t really lend themselves to the process of outsourcing content development. (Just be glad that I wasn’t on a Scandinavian death metal kick at the time this was written.) In the meantime, pick up a few tips for finding, managing, and building relationships with a great team of freelance writers and see how many U2 references you can recognize in this post.

When it comes to creating content, sometimes you can’t make it on your own. Whether you’re a content creation department of one or a well-staffed agency, you may not always have the resources you need to create something memorable for each of your clients.

Even if you have an in-house team of ace writers at your disposal, there may come a time when a content project becomes too large for them to handle or prior commitments prevent them from being able to give a project the attention it’s due. In other cases, a specialized (or heavily-regulated) industry may have a need for content that requires more extensive expertise and a writer who is far more familiar with a subject’s nuances than your own in-house team.

When you’re stuck in a moment you can’t get out of, that’s when it’s time to tap the freelancer vein.

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However, when a challenging project comes up, it’s quite difficult to pluck an industry expert copywriter out of the air, similar to an acrobat. 

Carefully cultivating relationships with freelance writers who have tried n’ true expertise in writing for a number of industries is the key to developing successful content.

Think of freelancers as an extension of your own in-house team. You hold them to as high a standard as you do your cubicle family (aka – your colleagues) who you see 40 hours each week in the office. And, by the same token, you should also extend the same professional courtesies to them as you do your cubemates.

Here are a few helpful tips designed to help you build your network of freelancers, vet them, and manage them once you’ve found your “extended work family.”

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Cubicle / Extended Co-Worker Family Portrait

Building a Network of Freelancers (or, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”)

Everyone has their own methods for finding freelancers they love to work with. If you’re fortunate enough to work with an agency, you may already have a stable of freelancers that has been built up over the years. If you’re starting from scratch, there are a couple avenues you can take to help beef up your network of contractors.

  • If your agency has a webpage, add a form where freelancers can contact you and submit samples of their work.
  • If you don’t have the resources to build a form and add to your page, put out an advertisement looking for new writers on Craigslist or various writers’ forums.
  • Check out sites like Odesk.com to search for freelancers with expertise in a specific area. For instance, you may find a college pre-med student who can write a dynamite — and accurate — piece for a hospital client.
  • Let your colleagues know you’re scouting for new freelance talent. Chances are, they may be able to recommend someone who would be a great fit.

Vetting Freelancers (or, Making Sure You Don’t Get a “Lemon”)

When you’re tryin’ to throw your arms around the world and channel your inner Bono, “vetting freelancers” seems like a rather cold, sterile way to describe this process. Think of “vetting freelancers” more along the lines of building relationships with co-workers who don’t necessarily work in your office.

Keep in mind that not every writer’s portfolio and resume that crosses your desk will be silver and gold. You know good work when you see it or who may be a good fit for the clients you’re currently working with. Trust your gut as to which new writers you want to take a chance on working with.

Before a freelancer becomes a trusted member of your outsourced content team, consider giving them a “lightweight” assignment that will give you a good indicator of their style, how well they adhere to deadlines, and (if merited) how well they take direction or editorial constructive criticism.  If the assignment works out, you’ve gained a new and valued member to your freelance content team. If it doesn’t, you can just make some edits to the piece yourself to be sure it fits your client’s standards.

Finding and working with people who take pride (in the name of love) in their work and who are passionate and knowledgeable about specific subject matter translates to smart, sharp, non-cookie cutter content for your clients. Personally, I prefer to work with independent freelancers as opposed to larger content-writing services. In my experience, I’ve found that working with independent freelancers gives you a chance to build greater rapport with extended members of your team and work more directly with them.

Working with freelancers on a one-on-one basis lets you find someone who you know can capably speak to a specific audience or industry. As an added bonus, you can find out some of your writers’ other interests and what topics they enjoy writing about. A writer who may turn in terrific work for a client in the financial sector may also be a closet video game junkie. This can come in handy if you have a client in the electronics or video game space. Score!

Managing Freelancers (or, “Do You Feel Loved?”)

Having previously worked on the other side of the freelance equation myself, I can safely say that some days are better than others and some editors are better than others. Treat your freelance team the way you’d want to be treated yourself.

  • Be respectful of your freelancers’ time and prior commitments to their own clients. Many freelancers have a day job and do freelance work at night. By giving them a decent amount of time to complete assignments, you ensure that they have time to ask you questions about the piece or allow time for revisions, if needed. Best of all, in giving freelancers ample time to complete projects, you’re able to give your clients great work that doesn’t feel rushed and has an added jolt of creativity to set them apart from the pack.
  • I hate to bring money into the equation here, but it’s a necessary evil: Ask your writer his or her rates. Depending upon your client or agency budget, he or she may or may not be the right fit. If you want good content, you’re going to have to pay writers more than just crumbs from your table. Be respectful of your freelancers’ pay scale. A writer who feels that they compensated fairly is one who will give an assignment their all.
  • It’s not just enough to promise your writers fair compensation for their work. Make sure they’re paid promptly. Ask them to submit their invoices in a timely manner and pay them on a regular schedule. (Having toiled in the freelance trenches myself back in the day, there is nothing more frustrating that turning in solid work on-time and then waiting months for a paycheck to materialize, or feeling as if you’re being a pest and asking if the check is in the mail… or if it’s been sent to where the streets have no name. Not fun and so cruel.)
  • Ask your freelancers to fill out a W-9 form (or W-8BEN, if they work outside the U.S.) for their tax purposes and yours. Additionally, you may want to ask your writers to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to ensure that any work they do on behalf of your agency or clients stays confidential or within a realm were all parties are comfortable.
  • Go the extra mile to make sure your freelance team has what they need to get the job done.If your client has a style guide, pass it along to your writer in advance.
  • It may take a few extra minutes on your part to find trustworthy resources and links they can use to help create their own informed, original content, but by giving your team some additional direction, it makes the final product that much better. (You might even say it’s even better than the real thing. *insert groans from the peanut gallery*)
  • Check in with your writers regularly to make sure they’re on-schedule to complete a project on time. If you’ve already vetted and built a sound relationship with your freelancers, you know that they consistently turn in great work on time. However, life happens and sometimes a writer needs an extension and a bit of understanding. By keeping lines of communication open, you’re able to tell your client that there is a slight delay with a project on rare occasions.
  • As part of keeping an open dialogue with your freelancers, don’t be afraid to have a hard discussion — in a patient, diplomatic way. If a writer turns in great work, but turns it in too close to a deadline, gently inquire about their workload and whether the amount of projects / work you’ve sent their way is too overwhelming. If so, scale it back and parse out more work to other talented members of the team or recruit a few new freelancers to help round out the workload. This prevents you, as an editor, from getting stuck in a bind and putting your client in the lurch.
  • Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask for revisions, if needed. Freelancers are professionals and can handle a bit of constructive criticism. (We’ve all been there.)

Last, and most importantly: talk with your freelancers. Treat them as your fellow co-workers and teammates and treat them how you’d want to be treated. The freelance writer you work with today may very well become an in-house member of your team — or a client’s team. By building a relationship with your freelancers, they will feel comfortable enough to ask you for a reference or refer other great writers to you and your agency.

Sure, it’s great to receive an assignment from an agency or editor, but it’s also the sweetest thing to work with an editor who ask you how you’re doing, what you’d like to write about, and genuinely cares about not just your work… But you as a person. Plus, it breaks up the monotony of the day to share a joke, sloth meme, or see what’s going on in another person’s life as you’re creating content together, hand in hand.

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