We’re excited to present you with a guest post from our pals over at Stipso! Check out Stephen McIlkenny’s tips for successfully outsourcing your content to freelance writers:

The most common blocker to successful content marketing is an actual or perceived lack of resources — there isn’t enough time or space in the budget, or we don’t have great writers on the team.

My company, Stipso, works in the visual content marketing space — and the same is true there. It’s often difficult for companies to find great designers to work on content projects — and even if you’re lucky enough to have an in-house design team, more often than not they’re already overstretched.

What’s interesting is how the market is moving to correct this: companies like Content Runner are providing a platform to connect freelancer writers with people commissioning web content; in the visual content realm, platforms like Visually and Dribbble have sprung up as marketplaces for freelance designers.

For many companies, the obvious solution to the latter is to outsource the problem, and hire freelancers to produce content for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that — it can be a cost-effective way to produce content, especially in the early stages while you’re still determining how content marketing can work for you. But only — and this is a big caveat — if you go about it in the right way.

I’ve worked in journalism and in content marketing, and freelance commissioning in both industries share many of the same conditions for success:

1. You can’t outsource strategy

No one knows your company like you do. From the initial concept, principles and values on which you built your company, to the processes that govern your product or service development, sales and marketing, right through to your daily interactions with customers — you built that house. All of that learning informs and shapes your content strategy — and you can’t outsource that.

Before starting down the outsourcing road, you need to have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve and how you intend to go about it. The freelancers you hire — whether they’re writers, designers or videographers — are there to execute a plan. If you don’t have a clear content strategy and a firm understanding of how you define success, you won’t be able to give a clear brief. And if you can’t communicate what you’re asking for, and explain how it fits into your larger marketing strategy, how can you expect to receive it?

2. Find your voice

The best brands have a distinctive voice that not only connects and resonates with customers and content consumers, but which is aligned with your company values. How you communicate — your tone and register — is crucially important in ensuring your marketing and content have impact, but it’s something many companies either don’t consider deeply enough or get hopelessly wrong.

Your messaging needs to do three things:

  • communicate information
  • be relatable to the consumer
  • fit your brand values and objectives

Those three objectives are critical to successful content marketing — which means you need to communicate them clearly to any freelancer you’re working with. The most straightforward way to do this is to compile a style guide which explains clearly where your company is positioned (more on that in a moment), what your brand values and personality are, and how you communicate with your audience.

By giving your freelancers a clear reference point — what your company stands for, what you sell and who to tell — you can help them produce the kind of quality content you want, and ensure consistency in all of your marketing communications. This process can take some time, but it’s worth the effort — your style guide is a valuable resource in the long term, not just for external contractors, but also for internal use (think new hires.)

3. Develop your brand personality

The development of a clear, relatable company voice is actually one part of a much bigger challenge: building your brand as a whole. Brand development isn’t about getting one thing right — rather, it’s a series of strategic and tactical considerations about how your company is positioned in the market and viewed by your audience.

A company’s brand encompasses everything it does, and is the ultimate distillation of its identity: your new style guide is one part of it — but so is your logo, your company colours, the graphical cues you use in your advertising or marketing materials. You always know when you’re watching an Apple ad, for example.

How you present your brand, and the tone you choose to do it, embed themselves in people’s understanding of you as a company. We know brands by how they act and interact on social media — just as, in the early 2000s, Budweiser’s iconic talking frog TV ads defined their lighthearted brand image.

Communicating your understanding of where you fit in the market, how you relate to your competitors and partners, and how seriously (or not) you take yourselves to freelance content creators is critical — like your style guide, it gives them context for the work they’re doing, and a clearer understanding of what you expect from them.

Try out this interactive infographic we made using Stipso!

Try out this interactive infographic we made using Stipso!

4. Outsourcing = delegation + collaboration

Some would argue that outsourcing is always a bad idea, but that prescriptive attitude is the wrong way to approach things. In lots of ways, working with freelancers is no different to working with a marketing or advertising agencies: you’re bolstering your own skill set by seeking skills and expertise from outside your organisation. You’re paying for a service, but just as you can’t outsource strategy, working with freelancers isn’t a fire-and-forget process: you have to communicate and collaborate all along the way.

At the commissioning stage, you have to agree realistic goals, communicate clearly what you’re asking (and paying!) for and explain the purpose of the content you’re commissioning. But in many cases, your writer won’t get it right the first time — and just as in any editorial endeavour, you have to work together on refining and developing content into the finished article. You may be outsourcing, but you still have to take ownership of the process. Ideally, you’re trying to develop an ongoing relationship with freelancers, so that their understanding of you and your needs — and what they produce to meet those needs — develops and improves over time.

5. You get what you pay for.

It’s not necessarily what you want to hear, but it’s as true in business as in any other aspect of life: you get what you pay for. If you want top-quality content, you’re going to have to pay for it. Poor quality content can cost a business dearly — and not just in capital terms.

Recall the old adage that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is — if you’re paying $50 for that whitepaper, odds are it’s not going to rock your world. Moreover, the time you spend fixing silly mistakes, correcting grammatical errors or re-orienting bad content to fit your needs adds up.

Remember that writers don’t work for free, and that good writing can unlock real value for your company. This isn’t a Mechanical Turk job: you’re paying for skilled labour. That, in a nutshell, is why building longer-term relationships with freelancers is so important: hiring good writers, and working with them to build familiarity with your corporate style, is how outsourcing should work, in terms of saving you time and labour. By owning the process and approaching freelance commissioning in a structured, organised manner, you vastly increasing your chances of producing content that fits your company, that will actually get read, and that ultimately will work for you.

Stephen McIlkenny is a content marketer at visual content marketing startup Stipso. Stipso is a creative marketing tool for building interactive infographics to drive engagement and conversion.