Letting Go: Why Brands Should Embrace Freelance Storytellers

It’s no secret that brands like to control their marketing messages as much as possible. And that vice grip on branded creativity continues to get tighter. The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is among many big-name brands changing their marketing operations from agencies to in-house creative departments. Fifty-six percent of brands now operate in-house agencies, up from 40 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Association of National Advertisers.

Econsultancy calls the in-house shift “the trend no one is talking about.”

“Their concern could be having less control over the voice of the brand,” says Amanda Maksymiw, content marketing manager of Lattice Engines, who personally relies on outside minds for about 80 percent of her content creation. “If it’s someone external writing, they might not fully understand your audience, your voice, your brand, your persona, maybe your overall strategy.”

Is control over messaging a valid and primary concern? Perhaps. The WSJ also cites cutting costs as a major factor for moving away from agencies. But something magical can happen when companies look outside their own walls for ideas from agencies, independent creatives, and freelancers. Take General Mills, who decided to break their own in-house content Jello mold when building their site Tablespoon.

“While we did have Betty Crocker and all of these large assets and and skilled content developers inside the building, we were tasked with finding new ways of doing it,” says Erin Anderson, manager of social media engagement for General Mills. “And we found some really strong bloggers, people who were really passionate about making food, creating recipes and doing it with a lot of heart and soul.”

The upside of outsiders

And Betty Crocker’s search for talent didn’t stop with bloggers. Independent web developers and design folks also came on board to create a brand new kind of content site for General Mills. It’s not that the well-established company didn’t have great marketers in-house, Anderson says, but in order to do something truly different, they needed fresh minds. They got a few extra benefits as well.

“What we got by working through with external partners is we got to find people who have really deep, strong expertise in their area,” she says. “They brought to the table that wealth of expertise from all their previous work that helped us build a really exceptional site.”

After all, each new project or story will require a special set of skills—and it’s tough to get those fresh skills with the same staffers already cemented in place.

The perspectives of freelance brand journalists are often so at odds with traditional marketers that they bump heads, which is actually a good thing. Their ability to connect with audiences and tell a great story in unorthodox ways can be invaluable.

“You have to let the writer write,” Rob Yoegel, VP of marketing at Gaggle told The Content Strategist earlier this year. “You have to allow them to have their own opinion and allow them to be not just a brand, but also a person. People aren’t buying the company anymore. They’re buying the expertise and trust and thought leadership.”

At Lattice Engines, Maksymiw values the injection of new ideas outsiders bring to the company. Not only does she work with freelancers, but also influencers, who, along with new ideas, bring their audiences and expertise to Lattice’s content.

“Once you’re in a job working for a company for a period of time, it’s easy to get a little siloed or short-sighted,” Maksymiw adds. “That external perspective helps open the box for more creativity and experimentation.”

It can also help with innovation. Thanks to the outside perspectives of her Tablespoon team, the suggestion to create a mobile optimized site was suggested by an independent contractor five years ago, before any other General Mills sites were thinking mobile. “We said, ‘Okay, great. You want to manage that?’ We were pretty much the first website at General Mills to have a specifically mobile-created website.”

The best of both worlds

Are concerns about content quality and control mutually exclusive? They don’t have to be. With the right safeguards in place, brands can have both.

“A great place to start is to have some type of style guide or branding guidelines,” Maksymiw says. “In a style guide you’d have information on defining what your overall messages are, value propositions, simple things like how you use and treat different words.”

If guidelines are in place, the job of meeting the brand’s standards fall to the agency or freelancer. And the great thing about working with the entire marketplace of independent creatives and agencies is that if one doesn’t meet a brand’s expectations, there will always be another one competing to impress.

In Anderson’s experience, a key factor of working successfully with outside creatives, especially in a large company, comes from getting leaders to buy in.

“Universally, the times when it’s most successful is when the people in your leadership understand that you’ve articulated the benefit of getting that external perspective or just trying something new,” she says. “When they believe in it and they give you the support and freedom to do it, it can actually happen.”

With such a variety of creative talent out there, it’s easy to see how brands are missing out by only looking inward for their content. Though the brands that are setting the in-house agency trend may have their reasons for doing so now, it will be interesting to see if and when the topical expertise that outside creatives bring to the table starts tipping the trend in the other direction.

Image by Terry Renna

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