Dominick Sorrentino

When a business creates and distributes web content, it’s sending a message to the internet, so it’s only fair to ask a lot of the messenger.

A brand’s content creator must deeply understand the company values. He or she needs to adopt the brand voice (or help create one in some cases) and be able to speak confidently about niche subject matters in a manner that’s accessible to the target audience, yet true to the facts.

Then there’s the matter of craft: Writers who create copy for blog posts, white papers, landing pages and other web assets need to be highly skilled communicators who can tell a story to a human audience while optimizing content to rank in search engines.

It’s a tall order for in-house marketers at a small business who already have their hands full, and brands are split about who should be appointed to take on the responsibility of content creation.

In-house or third-party content marketing?

Outsourcing is the more popular option, but by a thin margin. According to The Content Marketing Institute, 56 percent of B2B organizations outsource some aspect of content marketing, most commonly content creation.

The other 44 percent do not outsource any content marketing activities. Given that 91 percent of B2B respondents said they use content marketing, we can take an educated guess that many of the companies that forgo outsourcing handle content marketing in house.

Findings were similar among B2C brands: 62 percent outsource some aspect of content marketing, but especially content creation.

Is it possible that some businesses steer clear of outsourcing content writing because they’re distrustful of letting anyone who isn’t them speak on behalf of their brand?

Sure. But it’s worth exploring why that might be the case, starting with a few statements of fact, followed by a thorough debunking of some of our least favorite myths.

Stating some facts

There’s more than one way to outsource content creation, and they’re not created equal

First, there’s outsourcing to freelancers. The pro is that some freelance content creators are cheap depending on experience and how desperate they are to queue up new projects. Certain outsourcing services may even recruit freelancers for you, which saves time creating job posts and sifting through applicant slush piles.

The con here is that freelancers won’t necessarily be willing to work closely with your internal team, especially if you pay them per article or per word (more on this later). If you expect them to be highly responsive over email, to hop on calls from time to time and perform keyword research, you’ll need to pay an hourly wage to get the working relationship you expect.

A team of freelancers also requires an in-house team of content managers to distribute assignments, schedule and enforce deadlines, help develop topic ideas, make copy revisions, fact-check the content, make sure it aligns with brand voice and abides by a style guide (AP, in-house or otherwise), and handle correspondences. A content manager or equivalent role will run you $66,000 to $90,250 annually, according to Robert Half.

Even then, it’s incredibly difficult to enforce quality standards, let alone motivate writers to become true brand advocates.

You might get the content you want at a price that seems favorable, but without the results you need.

Then there’s content marketing agencies, where you get predictable quality at a predictable price. An established, mature content agency has well-defined products, services and quality standards that have been carefully developed based on factors such as time and resources needed for a content creator to generate a desired business outcome.

You’ve probably heard terms like “content mill” and “content farm” thrown around when discussing content marketing agencies. Under these models, an in-house content manager might oversee a team of freelance writers. Content managers assign work, create content briefs with instructions to guide SEO efforts, handle revisions, etc.

An actual content marketing agency staffs its writers in house. Those writers have desks in an office, they’re on conference calls with clients, they occasionally make on-site client visits and, critically, they work directly with other content marketing experts in the company to help deliver on a larger content marketing strategy.

Execution at a content marketing agency is highly synchronized. Content strategists help define a client’s goals and figure out how to cost-effectively achieve them. They coordinate with consultants who provide granular data that guides content creation. Project managers and content creators use this data to collaborate with clients and develop topic ideas as well as delivery schedules. Once content has been created, edited, proofed, delivered, revised and posted, a strategist tracks key performance metrics and, if necessary, pivots strategies or makes recommendations for further action.

By the time a writer in an agency crafts content, he or she has a fundamental understanding of what the client is trying to achieve. The writer also has a relationship with the customer. Unlike freelancers, content creators in an agency aren’t a step removed from the brand they serve.

My esteemed colleague and one of Brafton’s most tenured writers, Nick Kakolowski, said it best: “I very much take pride in my relationships. I value the opportunity to help clients achieve their goals, to share in their vision for their brand and create content that’s really going to support and drive what they’re trying to achieve. It’s really how that relationship gets built and how it grows that’s the most fulfilling part of the job for me.”

In other words, he cares about his work, because he knows who he’s working for. That “care” is the ingredient that seperates “good enough” content from great content, and you just won’t find it as easily in freelancers or “content mills.”

Subject matter expertise is more common than you may think

Businesses, especially in B2B markets, are sensitive about SME, and rightly so. Their content should reflect credibility and expertise.

The modern content marketing agency plans for this. Good writers know how to perform research and conduct interviews with subject matter experts. If they didn’t, a competent content marketing agency wouldn’t hire them (yet another reason you should be wary of freelancers).

Furthermore, the best storytellers don’t necessarily come with advanced degrees in engineering, information technology or finance, especially if your goal is to simplify a message into a compelling piece of copy. Rather, true scribes know how to ask questions and dig up information that will help them weave a complete narrative for a target audience.  

True scribes know how to ask questions and dig up information that will help them weave a complete narrative for a target audience.

With that said, it’s nice to have writers who are steeped in certain industries, who can “talk the talk.” That’s why at Brafton, for example, new accounts are typically assigned to writers based on subject matter.

I’ve written professionally about various aspects of information technology since 2015. And while I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent poring over Data Center Knowledge articles, or sifting through AWS product literature and NIST documents, I can tell you all about Green Grid’s power usage efficiency (PUE) metric, or highlight how S3 Reduced Redundancy Storage can save you money, and elaborate on how security orchestration can expedite incident response.

But don’t worry, I won’t, at least not here.

Dispelling a few myths

I’ll preface this section by noting some disadvantages of outsourcing content creation.

For one, you’re working on or outsourcing the business process into your marketing workflows. You also open the door to learning some hard facts, or being challenged on things that you thought were “best practice.” Not to mention, you basically give someone permission to speak on behalf of your brand, which is scary at first, especially for perfectionists.

Will you and your vendor see eye to eye on style preferences (Oxford comma or no Oxford comma?), or will your writer stumble over subtle but important nuances in the early days?

Then there’s the possibility that you just won’t like the service or quality you get.

Our advice? Grill whoever you’re outsourcing to. Request writing samples. Inquire about internal processes. Ask to talk directly to a writer if you’re so inclined. Do what you must to be sure that your expectations for content quality align with the reality of what can be delivered.

But whatever you, don’t succumb to these myths:

Myth 1: Freelancers are more cost-effective than agencies

Resist the temptation to conflate “cheap” and “cost-effective” when evaluating your options. Here’s why:

Almost everyone participates in content marketing. If your website is involved at any point of your sales funnel, you’re doing content marketing. The problem is that a whopping 91 percent of web content gets no organic traffic from Google, according to recent research from Ahrefs. If you want to be heard, every aspect of the content you create needs to be deliberate.

Keywords need to be carefully selected based on the types of content they map to. The top-performing articles for these keywords need to be dissected to understand the subjects and queries that web users care about and that Google rewards. Any sources you link to in your content need to have strong domain authority – something as simple as linking to a site that Google perceives to be of low quality or trustworthiness can hurt your ranking. You know those sites that say “Not Secure” in the address bar? Stop linking to them.    

Giving your business to the lowest bidder without taking these and other factors into account might be cheap, but you won’t get any return on your investment. The same goes for trying to handle content creation in house without performing the requisite analysis or adhering to SEO best practices in written copy.

If it’s the choice between bad content marketing and no content marketing, go with the latter. With the former, you might as well float a message in a bottle to your target audience by throwing it in the nearest ocean.

Myth 2: Outsourced writers get paid per word, incentivizing them to fluff up content

Not so much a myth here as a tragic oversimplification of content creation pay scales.

First, it’s not entirely true. I’m a full-time, salaried content marketer with benefits, as are my editorial co-workers. Sure, I’m expected to get a certain amount of work done, but aren’t you?

Furthermore, I’ve encountered agencies in my past that pay a flat rate to freelancers for any article between a fixed word length. That rate per article varies based on the writer’s portfolio and level of expertise. I might add that one of my earliest gigs was as a freelancer for a company that paid per the hour, not per the article or the word and I had my own invoice for my freelance gig. Point is, not all third-party content creators pay per word.

More importantly, there’s a huge difference between charging a client per word and paying a writer per word. A mature agency can charge a certain amount per word because it has taken the time to create and enforce a company-wide value system that helps meet and often exceed client expectations. Part of that dynamic is running each piece of content through a series of quality checks by peer editors and project managers.

There’s simply no incentive for an agency that prides itself on results to pad content; Google despises fluff, and it has no place in a good story.

Myth 3: ‘You Lose Your Writer’s Voice’

Et tu, Search Engine Journal?

I guess we’ll cut them some slack since they made this assertion in a 2013 article. Still, it’s ludicrous to make a blanket statement about all writers’ abilities to adopt a voice.

Copywriters have existed for decades. Not only have they mirrored brand voice when necessary, they’ve created and enhanced them in many cases.

A professional writer knows when to flex their creativity and when to just state the facts. That said, we’d almost argue that too many brands pass up the opportunity to be more authentic in their content, which is something a strong content writer with an outside perspective can deliver.

As one of Brafton’s most prolifically talented writers, Jess Wells, pointed out, “always, always, always be sure to include a bit of yourself in each post that you write.” She punctuated that statement by acknowledging you need to be relatable to your target audience.

But her initial point is especially noteworthy. Every marketer intuitively knows you need to relate to your target audience. What not everyone dares to accept is that you need to do something different to be memorable.

To outsource or not to outsource? That is the question

And so we arrive at the final question.

The choice is yours, and we’ll shoot straight with you: It may not always be in your best interest to outsource your content creation.

If you’re creating instructive coding manuals, don’t expect a content writer to know more than your in-house developers. A content agency can generate interest by creating blog posts based on your expertly crafted document, but they’re not fluent in Java, and if they were, they’d be off coding somewhere, not writing content at an agency.

Putting content creation on hold also makes sense if your brand is undergoing an identity crisis, as happens from time to time. Just take a minute to figure out who you are before you commission that shiny new Corvette of a content agency.

But if you have a need for content, or suspect that you might, don’t assume a third-party content creator will be unable to articulate your brand’s values, nail its SME requirements or capture its culture in written content – especially if you’re basing that on something you read somewhere.

Go out there, make a few phone calls, ask for some writing samples and make the decision for yourself.