Note: The original version of this article was written when I was working for a content agency. We had a lot of small business/startup clients that paid top dollar for our services but really just needed a good freelancer. The ROI meant most of these clients never renewed their contracts.
Who should create your marketing content – the articles, success stories, white paper, reports, blog posts, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook posts, infographics, videos and everything else that tells your company’s story and illustrates your expertise? It’s an important question, whether your company is hoping to start publishing content or you want to ramp up your existing efforts.
Bluntly stated, good content, a.k.a., the kind that gets your audience talking, thinking, and converting, and that opens doors for you and your product, doesn’t produce itself. So all of the good intentions in the world won’t get a success story out the door. You need someone (or even a group of “someones”) to drive the effort. Fortunately you have a lot of choices in how you put together that content team – in-house, freelance or agency.
Which one is right for you? Full disclosure: I’ve worked on all sides of this scenario – as a freelancer, in-house writer/editor/editorial director, with an agency, and in marketing and managerial roles in each. They’re all great options, but what’s right for you comes down to your resources and what you really hope to achieve.
Option 1 – DIY: Hire an in-house/staff writer (and a designer and web wiz, too)
Who: Always-available team member(s) able to commit to deep learning about the business. This person provides you with a single voice and creative mind to drive content initiatives that your entire team develops. Add more staff if you need assets designed and delivered, too.
How you do it: Hire a staff writer/editor to research and write the bulk of the content. This person may also own the content calendar and work with company leaders to formulate strategy so your content is meeting goals in terms of messaging, delivery and cadence. You’ll need access to a designer or art director as well as someone to code and publish content; while writers/editors may be able to handle some of these tasks, they’re usually not also gifted designers and often have limits beyond basic HTML coding. Be sure your writer/editor is poised to act as a project manager for all assets, too.
Your involvement: Company leaders and marketing teams help develop strategy and the content calendar and are usually the ones to approve all assets. Unless you have an entire content team, make sure someone you trust proofreads and fact checks everything before publication.
Great for: Big companies with budgets that can be dedicated to building out a full team. DIY is ideal for marketing teams that need content produced on an as-needed basis and organizations not ready to plan long-term messaging. Companies already producing considerable content and those that want to build a bigger team to tackle more or specific content channels may also benefit from in-house writers, although augmenting/supporting with freelancers can also add flexibility, expertise and creativity needed for those situations.
Downside: In-house writers/editors may lack the ability to see the company through the eyes of the audience, which makes lead-gen content more challenging to plan and create. You may also find that some writers/editors and designers are amazing with one aspect of your business or content but are limited in their experience or approach to other ones – so you’ll still need to bring on additional help.
Cost to staff writer per asset published: $$$$. Includes salary, benefits, training, plus time-commitment of other team members who help strategize, plan and edit. While it can be tempting to take the cheap way out and hire someone with just a few years experience at a bargain-basement price, if you’re only bringing on one content person, don’t be cheap. You’ll need someone with experience strategizing, creating, project managing and who understands SEO and business in general. In other words, you’ll need someone who’s been doing this forever, can wear all hats, and will be able to lead a content team as it grows. This is never someone fresh out of school, nor is this person going to be cheap. But the investment you make will be worth it.
Advice: Found a writer and/or designer you love? Keep the person happy and stay competitive with salary and benefits. If your in-house team leaves for greener pastures, the time and cost to find new content creators and train them on the company’s unique nuances can be big and can shut down the publishing efforts of a one-(wo)man show.
Opt 2 – The lone wolf: Work with a freelance writer/content pro
Who: Freelance writers and editors are eager editorial professionals available as needed – and who don’t hit your company’s payroll or benefits package. Good freelance writers may be willing to tackle almost any subject and are very professional and may have the experience to lead strategy and project manage, too. You’ll be able to ramp up and down quickly with freelancers.
How you do it: Post for freelancers just like you would post for full-time workers or ask around for referrals. Avoid sites like Upwork (or Fiverr!) — sites with bargain freelancer are no bargain and the content you receive pales compared to what a full-time freelancer can provide. Also ask for recommendations from your connections on LinkedIn (note — the jury is still out on LinkedIn’s ProFinder; it currently doesn’t offer enough meaty projects for most freelancers to justify the $60/mo. subscription LinkedIn requires freelancers have in order to place a bid). With any freelancer, review resumes, look through samples and ask for references. There are a lot of different types of writers out there; pick someone who has experience creating the type of content YOU think your audience needs, too.
Your involvement: You have your choice with a freelancer: let your marketing team run the content show here and develop strategy, calendar, content, and assignments and have a point-person on staff to set schedules and edit and approve text from the freelancer — or work with a senior content professional who can do all of this and act as an extension of your content team. Highly experienced freelancers may be willing to post content, project manage, work with designers and even run the entire content program for your company. They’ll act like an agency at a fraction of the cost.
Great for: Small businesses and startups, marketing teams that lack editorial expertise, ramp-up projects and testing the water. Freelancers may be geographically anywhere, so you’re also not limited to talent in your own backyard (although it’s frequently nice to meet your content provider face to face to discuss strategy and goals).
Downside: Freelance writers are often the most affordable content-creation option but companies should always be cautious — you’ll get what you pay for. Want someone with subject or industry expertise? You’ll pay more. Need to limit the amount of time you spend fixing the article or white paper that the freelancer wrote? Work with a highly experienced freelancer ONLY. If deadlines are important to you, avoid the moonlighting freelancers — their daytime commitments frequently results in you receiving an email that opens with “I’m going to need a few more days. … ” And never buy a $5-75 blog. Send me a note and I’ll explain why.
Cost to freelancer per asset published: $ – $$$. Price varies with experience, subject matter, billing style (project vs. hourly). An experienced freelance writer can help reduce your internal effort to 10% of creating the content yourself, but inexperienced writers may cost you more than they’re worth. Be sure your freelancer includes ALL edits in the price of the project. No one likes a surprise on their bill.
Advice: Start with a test project to see what you’ll get and learn how your freelancer works (samples shown on a freelancer’s website MAY have been edited by someone else). If the freelancer does NOT request a kick-off meeting to discuss audience, project goals and all details, find someone else because you’re not going to get what you want.
Opt 3 – Go pro and sign a content agency
Who: Content agencies are teams of professionals that may include marketers, strategists, marketing writers, journalists, editors, videographers, designers and project managers. Larger agencies retain the majority of services in house, although almost every agency augments with freelance/contract assistance, too.
How you do it: Meet with a content agency to explain your goals. Your agency should do a deep dive into your product, company and service, competition, goals, and existing content and will put together content plans based on your specific needs (and price) rather than provide a list of canned content plans.
Your involvement: Avoid agencies that bill themselves as “turnkey” (you’re still the expert when it comes to your company’s goals, audience and initiatives) — often you’ll get canned content stuffed with SEO-focused keywords but that won’t benefit your audience. Otherwise, your involvement with a content agency will be almost identical to your involvement with a freelancer. Be sure you select an internal point person to answer questions and help coordinate any internal interviews and collect and share company feedback.
Great for: Big companies with big budgets or one-time, large scale ASAP projects. New to producing content? An agency could be great … or it could be overkill. Be sure you’re comfortable with pricing before you sign. Unlike a freelance writer/editor, nothing your agency does will ever go un-billed. Seriously, nothing.
Downside: Good agencies come at a high cost. Found a really affordable agency? Be forewarned that you’re likely only getting words, not custom content, the latter of which is usually required to help convert prospects to customers. Agencies that outsource to freelancers tack on a 15-300% (yes, 300%!) markup to the freelancer’s rates as well as charge for the time they spend conveying assignments to the freelancer, shuffling files, etc.
Cost to agency per asset published: $$$$$, usually based on an annual contract or linked to a specific project. Includes writing and editing, design (as needed), project management and strategy.
Advice: Speak up. Ask for details about what you’ll be getting and how great your involvement will be before you enter into an agency agreement. State your budget so the agency can create a custom plan.
Have a question? Send me an email and I’ll help you determine whether a freelancer, in-house hire or agency is the best option for you. Even if I never work on a project with you, this assistance is still free, free, free.