Voices

The Biggest Mistake Marketers Make When Working With Freelance Writers

By Brian Maehl March 16th, 2016

Last year, there was a Contently freelancer on two accounts for B2B software companies that were both fairly new to publishing. One client raved about this contributor. Her pitches contained sharp ideas that were always on brand. “Find us more writers like her,” the company told us.

But later that week, something strange happened. The second client asked for the same writer to be removed from the company account. A contact said, “She’s just not getting what we’re trying to do.”

For obvious reasons, the feedback confused the account manager. How can the same freelancer have a knack for nailing one brand’s voice while consistently missing the mark for another? The answer, at least to me, is fairly simple: The first client was willing to give honest feedback to the writer; the second client expected her to turn in near-perfect drafts on the first try.

This example may sound like a convenient hypothetical, but it’s true. I would know. I was the account representative who worked with these companies—and several others—that frequently requested new writers. I saw marketing departments that were hesitant to relay candid feedback, opting instead to sweep away minor problems and solicit the services of new writers.

From a short-term perspective, that approach can seem appealing. More fish in the sea, right? Our freelance network consists of 60,000 people, so our clients have plenty of talented contributors to choose from. If one freelancer doesn’t quite get it on the first assignment, the next person can perfectly capture the voice right away.

Yet more often that not, marketing departments are turning their backs on promising creative talent. Even worse, marketers are creating more work for themselves. By repeatedly bringing on new freelancers, they’re going through the same introductions, the same onboarding process, and the same legwork that it takes to repair a problematic piece of content. When you’re not giving clear and honest feedback to your freelancers, you’re going to have a hard time scaling your content program.

Why does this happen? For starters, brands—especially those new to content marketing—may not be familiar with the editorial process. As any editor will tell you, it’s very much a process. It’s normal for articles from your favorite publications to go through five, six, seven rounds of revisions before going live. But to a first-time publisher, that can seem daunting and abnormal, which leads them to make knee-jerk reactions when a first draft needs work.

Perhaps more importantly, there could also be a lack of trust when brands start collaborating with freelancers. What happens inside company walls is sacred, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of “No one really understands what we do.” While there’s definitely some validity to that mindset—at least initially—it’s also very limiting. Brands need to help make their freelance content creators a reliable part of their team, not just a gun for hire.

“Brands aren’t always able to successfully articulate what exactly they want,” said Danny Borderick, a managing editor who has worked on several Contently accounts. “Look for tangible things that can be addressed, and try to avoid stringing together subjective adjectives.”

This goes well beyond just revising stories. Soliciting story pitches from your writers is one of the most effective ways to build your content pipeline. If a writer pitches a story that is off the mark and you simply move on, you could be missing an opportunity to give feedback that will lead to great pitches in the future.

“As long as you’re asking the right questions, you can get great stories out of otherwise unimpressive pitches,” Broderick explained. “I love it when a client says, ‘Make it look like this,’ and shows me a perfect example of what they’re trying to create. Many writers and designers are able to imitate rather easily, and this is not a bad thing. It means you can build a whole team of contributors who are prepared to consistently deliver what you’re looking for.”

Of course, giving direct feedback can be difficult, and in some cases, candor and criticism can bruise egos. But in most relationships, openness is beneficial in the long run. “It’s in the freelancer’s best interest to please you so they can get more work in the future,” Broderick said, “so they’re much more willing to adapt than you may think.”

In the rare cases a contributor refuses to talk through feedback, there’s a legitimate reason to pursue new talent. But if you’re always waiting for a freelancer to strike lighting on the first try, you’re just going to be sorely disappointed. Be honest, give feedback, and trust that your freelancers have the experience to learn and adapt—after all, these are professional creatives.

To close the loop on the story of our two clients, we encouraged the dissatisfied company to leave comments on pitches and stories that directly addressed concerns. As expected, the freelancer took the notes in stride and tweaked her approach. They gradually got in sync over the next few months as work ramped up. By the time the client wanted to commission a series of longform stories to close out the year, the freelance writer whom they wanted off the account was now their first choice.

Brian Maehl is the talent development manager at Contently.

Image by Shutterstock
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