Outsourcing content marketing can be tough
After all, no outsourced content creator will understand your business like an insider would, right? Well…not necessarily. Trust me, it’s possible to work for a company for years without really understanding why the company does what it does, how it makes money, etc. Not to mention how things like an increase in the cost of raw materials or having to meet stricter regulation affects profit margin. If it’s not that…then what? What is it that sometimes makes outsourcing content marketing so frustrating? The thing is, outsourcing is a partnership. If you’ve been switching from freelancer to freelancer and agency to agency without seeing any improvement, that’s probably what’s missing. Even if you’re absolutely certain you’ve just had a string of bad writers, why not consider whether there are things you could do to improve the quality of your outsourced content marketing? I’ve got a few ideas, based on the things that frustrate from the other side of the table. So let’s take a look.
Know what you’re trying to accomplish
That may sound simplistic, but it’s not. Because if you get this part wrong, everything that follows will be wrong, too. Here are just a few of the decisions that flow from knowing what you’re trying to accomplish.
What kind of writer you should work with
If your main goal is driving traffic
If your primary goal is to drive traffic for ad revenue, the simple truth is that eyeballs are eyeballs. You don’t need to worry about converting those eyeballs into customers. That may also be true if you sell a general market product or service that could appeal to anyone who winds up on your site. In that case, you need a writer who’s an expert at SEO, keyword research and trending topics…someone who can write engaging copy and clickable headlines. You don’t need somebody like me, with my focus on the business impacts of the content I write. You’d be paying too much, and I’d drive you nuts with my questions.
If your main goal is to generate leads that will eventually convert
If you sell a product or service, driving traffic is less important, because not all eyeballs are created equal. The only thing you’ll gain from putting too much focus on clickability and shareability is a bunch of traffic that does nothing but slow down your server. And that makes a difference when it comes to choosing an outsourced content writer. A writer who creates content based on popular keywords and trending topics isn’t going to do you any good unless those keywords and trending topics just happen to be relevant to your product or service. But you don’t want to base your business on luck. Instead, you want a writer who can quickly get up to speed on what your target audience is looking for. This may sound like heresy, but all industries are pretty much the same when you look at things from the perspective of business fundamentals: You need to attract customers who see enough value in your product/service that they’re willing to pay more than it costs you to make or provide it. Obviously, there are many other factors from that point on that differentiate one from another. But a writer who doesn’t understand the basics of running a successful business is going to have a tough time connecting a given topic to your business goals. It’s a matter of mindset and context.
How you measure success
Your goals also shape how you determine whether your relationship with an outsourced content writer is “working.” If your primary goal is to drive traffic, then social metrics like shares, likes, and page views are important. If you’re trying to move leads through the sales funnel, then conversion rate and customer acquisition cost (CAC) are important.
Know what level of involvement you want to have
Do you want a writer to whom you can say, “Go write 800 words on this topic using these keywords” — and who won’t bug you again until they send you the finished product? Or are you willing to deal with questions and pushback if it improves the quality of the final content?
Be honest about your reasons for outsourcing content marketing
Are you outsourcing content marketing because you don’t have time to do it yourself? If so, you probably need someone whose experience, knowledge, strengths, and weaknesses are similar to your own…in other words, someone who can be you. Or, is it because you lack some of the skills needed to produce great content? If so, you need someone who’s strong where you’re weak, and vice versa. If you know the material inside out but have trouble explaining it in writing, then you need someone with writing expertise. If you’re a great writer but don’t know all the technical details of what your business does, you need a subject matter expert.
Don’t make your life harder by hoarding information
Seriously, y’all. I can’t tell you how many times clients have withheld info that, had I known about it, would have made a huge difference. Usually, they either thought I didn’t need to know or that I wouldn’t understand. Sometimes, it was the curse of knowledge at work: It never occurred to the client that I might not know everything that was in their heads. Unless it’s proprietary information and you haven’t had the writer sign an NDA, err on the side of sharing too much information rather than too little. Here’s an example I use a lot. Let’s say you own a chain of wine/liquor stores, and your rate of damaged returns goes through the roof every summer because people leave wine in their hot cars and then return it when it doesn’t taste good.
- If you ask me to write an article on how heat damages wine, I’d write a rather techy article explaining the process of how heat damages wine.
- If you asked me to write an article for the purpose of reducing the damaged return rate from people leaving wine in their cars, I’d spend a paragraph or so on the techy stuff and then create a list of tips on how people can protect their investment, which would also help accomplish the owner’s goals.
So please, please tell your writer the why, not just the what, of the content you request. The content creation process will be smoother, and the result will be better. Oh…and the more actionable, the better. “We want readers to understand the challenges of X and the range of solutions available” may be your corporate-speak purpose — the one that pops into your mind when someone asks — but it’s not actionable. It gives neither the writer nor the reader something to do.
Take the time to write a good content brief
The time you invest will more than pay for itself in the long run. There are a thousand (at least!) ways to approach any topic, and it’s up to you to help your outsourced content writer find the right one. In general, anything that you find yourself correcting over and over, whether from the same writer or dozens, needs to be addressed in the content brief. Same thing if you’re answering the same questions over and over. If you’re working through a content marketing agency, they’ll probably have a template that they use with all clients. Templates can definitely make the process easier, because all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Just make sure it addresses everything a writer would need to know to get the job done. Depending on your business, your content briefs might need to cover things like:
- Company size (sales, number of employees, etc.)
- Who your customers are (and aren’t)
- Where they are in the sales funnel
- Their level of knowledge or expertise
- Which of their pain points your product or service resolves
- What the company is currently prioritizing (growing existing markets, entering new markets, introducing new products/services, etc.)
- Whether there are any important obstacles/constraints (like regulatory matters, supply chain instability, technological disruption, etc.)
- The company’s overall goal for their content marketing initiatives (drive traffic, create awareness, educate, etc.)
- What this particular piece of content is intended to accomplish
- Word count (preferably a range)
- SEO preferences (keyword focus, semantic search, search intent, etc.)
- Linking preferences
- Content policies, style guides, etc.
- Preferred sources
- Sources to avoid
- How promotional to be (or not)
- Contact information
Frantically waving huge red flags…
That last point is my single biggest source of frustration. Going through a middleman can make it tough to get questions answered. Sometimes it’s because some poor assistant got stuck managing the outsourcing of something he knows nothing about. Other times, it happens when you’re working through an agency. Some content marketing agencies do it very well. (Shout out to Paul Adler, who set the gold standard for understanding my questions and getting answers in record time.) Their content managers understand the big picture and don’t hesitate to call the client with questions. And some agencies will facilitate direct contact between the writer and the client if that’s what it takes to get the job done. Other agencies, however, would rather have to do revisions than undermine their projected expertise by asking the client questions. Some protect their business model by putting a barrier between writers and clients. In other cases, the agency contact person serves in a project management role and may not have the knowledge to translate either the question or the answers correctly. I’m definitely not saying to avoid working with a content marketing agency. I have worked and continue to work with outstanding agencies. Just make sure you understand their processes as well as the role of your contact person, especially when it comes to getting questions answered.
On a personal note…
I hesitated to write this post, because the last thing I want is to come across as whiny (and just ask my kids how well I respond to “…but it’s not MY fault!). But any successful content outsourcing arrangement is a partnership. While the suggestions in this article stem from my own biggest frustrations (my value proposition is “Content that means business,” and I don’t like it when things get in the way of that), my goal was to present them from your perspective. I wanted to tell you about the things you can do to make your own life easier and to increase your chances for content marketing success. I hope you find them valuable. Want to talk one-on-one? I’m available for phone consultations and would love to help.