Build vs. Buy: Why Top Brands Are Leaning on Freelancers to Build Hybrid Newsrooms

By Alyssa Hertig January 21st, 2015

As we speak, marketing directors around the country are being tasked with an exciting but unenviable challenge: “Do content marketing.” But how? It’s difficult to know where to begin. Do you spend months building the perfect in-house team? Hire a bunch of freelancers? Or embrace some combination of the two?

Each brand will necessarily reach different answers to fit its specific needs. There’s no definitive best way to build a brand newsroom, but top brand publishers seem to have settled on a similar formula of in-house teams and freelance talent that lets them create content that matters—and at scale.

The freelance factor

Indeed, when you examine the most successful brand publishers, you’ll find a common theme: All of them embrace outside contributors to varying—but significant—degrees.

“I think that brands are using freelancers a lot more simply because it’s a lot easier for them to scale based on what their content needs and requirements are,” explained Michele Linn, the Content Marketing Institute‘s director of content.

And brands are finding other benefits for outsourcing some content, too.

Brands might want to maintain a “vice grip” over their message, “but something magical can happen when companies look outside their own walls for ideas,” Natalie Burg wrote in an earlier post on the Strategist about how brands’ use of freelancers often means tapping a well of creativity. Freelancers with deep expertise brought a bunch of unexpectedly rad ideas to the table.

Jay Moye, editor of Coca-Cola Journey, recalled how freelance writer Laura Randall came to him with a story about Coke-themed weddings. “It’s a thing,” Moye said. “Believe it or not, it’s pretty popular.”

After having her pitch approved, Randall wrote about the phenomenon. Her story features a few happy couples and their Coke-red weddings—and one couple that touched up the Coca-Cola ambiance with vintage attire.“That was not an idea that we can take credit for. That was Laura’s idea,” Moye said. “And there are many more where that came from.” Coca-Cola Journey invites pitches, including from writers in the Contently network. (Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a Contently client.)

General Assembly, which uses freelancers for some of their blog content, experienced similar benefits. “Freelancers are great for flexibility, but we can also tap more subject matter experts for content that way as well,” Erin May, head of content marketing for General Assembly, said in an email.

She added that freelancers get General Assembly more bang for their buck: “For instance, if we applied the same content budget to just one or two full-time writers, we could work with 10 or 20 writers (depending on how much content they write, of course) who are experts in 10 or 20 different topics versus having more generalist writers within say the tech or startup verticals.”

The glue that holds it all together

While freelancers are an important part of the equation, for top brand publishers, leaning on freelancers isn’t enough. They need a whole architecture that consists of the following three components:

Editors: Editors juggle many tasks. There’s the typical headline writing and grammar cleanups, of course, but in the brand world, an editor ties content to a brand’s voice and business objectives. The right editor works to build trust, which is important in an age where brands are still reeling from native advertisement missteps.

Editors also oversee freelancers and can mold the disparate voices of numerous writers into a cohesive brand voice. Nonetheless, successful content is contingent on choosing the right editor—one who can strike the right tone for the publication.

“I think that unless you have a very strong editorial group, and a managing editor specifically, it can be very difficult to train freelancers, to make sure that they’re all speaking on-message using a very similar tone and so forth,” Linn said. “Obviously, every business model is a little bit different. But I think there’s a lot of pros of having a person on staff who understands exactly what it is that you’re trying to do.”

Technology: Just as finding the right editor is necessary, so is finding the right freelancers—and it’s not a cake walk. While General Assembly has freelancers apply to write for their blog, many brands are looking to technology services to pool freelancers for them.

Coca-Cola is among the latter. “We’ve really tried to carve out a beat system with our Contently writers,” Moye said. “It’s nice to know who we can go to for certain stories.” Journey found a sports writer, a food writer, and business writers through the Contently network.

Moye calls Coca-Cola Journey a “virtual newsroom” since most of the employees, including Moye, work remotely. They communicate at a couple of weekly meetings, and a lot of the collaboration, especially with freelancers in the mix, occurs online.

Brands must also lean on other tools to coordinate digitally. BarkPost Editor-in-Chief Stacie Grissom calls their newsroom an “Evernote-style” setup, referencing the multi-device note-taking and productivity tool. “We have this gigantic Google Doc with the schedule where everyone can look at what everyone else is doing,” she said.

General Assembly uses “mad Google Docs,” May said, and Slack for real-time chat. Others noted the supremacy of ever-overflowing email. Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports, said he uses Percolate‘s cross-channel calendar for long-term planning.

A small group of in-house writers: Brands appear to be taking a hybrid approach to newsrooms: They have a few folks in-house, then staff up with freelancers for flexibility.

Kellner writes the bulk of the content on GE’s award-winning publication, but other writers contribute too. When they do, he prefers to tap in-house writers. “I think they do really do need people inside the company who really understand what’s going on,” he said.

Still, he pairs a half-dozen in-house writers with some work outsourced from the publishing company Group SJR. “I prefer the combination of inside writers—writers who live inside GE—with outside resources that can help with reporting some of the stories, or shaping or editing these stories,” Kellner said.

BarkPost, the mega-successful pub for dog lovers, also relies on the hybrid approach. The team consists of four full-time writers and 30 freelancers. Grissom manages roughly 20 herself, each at a different level of activity. While BarkPost relies on “typical writers,” she often taps people who just really, really love dogs.

For each brand, it’s a balancing act. While the stereotypical newsroom may resemble a heavily cubicled factory, there are a zillion types of brand newsrooms of all shapes and sizes. And the flexibility of a hybrid newsroom can make it easier, as long as the self-sustaining editorial architecture is in place.

So which way do you go? Freelance or in-house? May summed up the general sentiment: “Both are great. Ideally I like a combination of both.”

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