You know you need help producing content for your business, but don't want to hire a full-time employee. It’s time to call on some outside help—but should you get in touch with a freelance writer, or take your project to a content marketing agency?
We’ve been on both sides of the fence—my partner Jeff and I started out as freelancers (he as a website developer, me as a freelance journalist) before deciding to make the leap to becoming a content marketing agency. We have great respect for freelance journalists, and our agency would flounder without the great work of our team of talented freelance collaborators.
In some cases, an individual freelance writer is exactly who you need on your team—and in others, hiring a content marketing agency will help your business achieve your goals. When deciding who to choose for help with developing content, here are some questions to ask yourself.
If your internal marketing team's already nailed down your buyer personas, key messaging, and article headlines and bullet points, you may be ready to assign the pieces to individual writers if it makes sense (more on that soon). However, if you only know that you need to develop an inbound marketing strategy, but are not quite sure where to begin, you need to take a broader approach and work with an agency to develop your content marketing roadmap before assigning out individual deliverables. As Babcock Jenkins points out, spitting out content without a defined strategy will get you nowhere—so invest in a team of experts to engage in brand discovery and define a plan for your content marketing success before paying anyone to write a single word.
If you just need a single blog post or article completed by a deadline a few weeks in the future, hiring an independent writer is often your best bet. A word of caution, though: If you want to find someone highly skilled and professional, stay far away from Elance and the other job auction sites. Instead, ask for a referral from your LinkedIn network, or turn to a directory for established, professional freelance writers, such as the MediaBistro Freelance Marketplace or Freelance Success' Writer Directory, where you can search for pro writers according to specialty.
But if you want a lot of content—say, 4 or more articles each month—an individual freelancer may not have the bandwidth to take on the project in your ideal time frame. And even if she does, you’ll need to be careful about assigning too much work to any one person over the course of the year if you don’t want to hire her as a formal employee. Many businesses have gotten in legal or financial trouble for misclassifying workers as independent contractors when the company is their primary source of income—for instance, former Gawker writer Sheila McClear successfully collected unemployment benefits after being laid off, even though she’d been billed as a freelancer there.
If you have a need for a steady stream of content, and don’t want to go to the trouble of hiring new employees to produce it, a good agency can help you succeed. They should have a team of writers and editors on tap to produce the content, and as a business, there’s no risk of being chastised by the IRS for misclassification.
In our experience, pro freelancers are generally great about sticking to their deadlines—but they can’t always accomplish everything in your target timeframe depending on their life circumstances. If your writer is having a baby soon and wants to take 3 months off, you can’t tell her to put her maternity leave on hold just because you need marketing collateral for your next trade show—you’ll just need to find someone else to fill in. And if a writer needs to fly out of town for a family emergency, he’ll probably need to push his deadlines back without warning. When you’re working with an individual, you need to be forgiving when life gets in the way of work.
With an agency, on the other hand, there’s usually a big enough team that deadlines aren’t dictated by what’s going on in an individual writer’s life. If a certain writer has too much going on, the piece will be handled by another writer on the team. When more than one person is involved in your project, they can step in for one another to ensure it follows your schedule.
Most writers don’t necessarily bill themselves as multimedia experts, so even though they can write compelling articles, they might not be prepared to source or provide images to go with the story, upload blog posts to your content management system, design your white paper, or share a published story on social media.
Because content marketing agencies are larger, they can typically provide access to writers, designers, web producers, social media marketers and other roles that are necessary to complete your project. In our case, our agency doesn’t attempt to “do it all” for clients; we focus on projects in which content marketing is the main focus—but we add on complementary services as relevant, and have a great network of partners to refer our clients to for those services we don’t offer.
If you’re a small business that only needs occasional written content, and can be flexible with deadlines, choosing an individual freelance writer to work with can be an excellent choice for your company. But if you’re getting ready to scale up, a slightly larger firm might be the partner you need to support your growing business.
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