Voices

Why Marketers Struggle to Hire the Best Freelance Writers

By Brian Maehl January 19th, 2017

“Get us a nurse or a doctor… who can also write.”

While working as an account representative at Contently last year, I often heard this type of request from customers interested in our freelance network. Regardless of the industry, be it finance, insurance, technology, etc., many of our clients came in with a desire for that perfect hybrid of writer-professional. The request may sound smart, but it’s actually a damaging approach that can ruin your efforts to build a team of freelancers.

Unlike editors, marketers are trained to think about professional background when considering candidates. When making a new hire, for example, they’re accustomed to reviewing a resume and gauging someone’s experience. So taking this mindset to content marketing makes sense to them. But rather than reading through a writer’s clips to see if she can spin a compelling narrative, they’re prone to searching for job titles and responsibilities.

Here’s the crucial detail everyone in content marketing needs to understand: Being an expert and communicating expertise are two very different things. Clients that fixate on finding the perfect professional who can also write tend to struggle. Companies that understand the value of quality writing and subject-matter expertise usually execute successfully on their content plans right from the start.

To be fair, there are other factors at play that impact a brand’s readiness to publish (such as understanding how to work with a freelance team or receiving organizational buy-in). But it helps tenfold to understand that a quality writer is more important than a professional with an established background. Freelancers typically write stronger first drafts, track down sources quicker (and are familiar with using sources), and already know how to work with an editorial team.

Besides, if a freelancer has extensively covered an industry for a decade, then she’s already an expert. In fact, with a more widespread and nuanced view on an industry like financial services, a freelancer could arguably bring more expertise than a professional who’s been in the field with only a few companies. In the end, marketers that rely on trained writers avoid creating more work for themselves and publish quicker—two trends they’re very pleased to share with their bosses.

“If you haven’t worked in journalism, you may not recognize that good journalists can write well about practically any topic,” said Philip Garrity, a brand editor who has worked with Contently clients like Google and Citizens Bank. “A writer’s skill is communicating information accurately and effectively. You do that by doing the right reporting, reading the right sources, and interviewing the right people.”

Being an expert and communicating expertise are two very different things.

Last year, I transitioned within Contently from the account management team to the talent team, which vets freelancers in our network and recommends them to clients. A big part of my new role includes developing educational programming for our contributors. As you might expect, those who understand how Contently works turn out to be our strongest contributors.

My job also includes setting the right expectations with our clients so they understand what it’s like to work with a freelance team—often for the first time. (You should’ve seen me trying to explain this to my family during Christmas.) We’re making some substantial progress, like building story rubrics and in-depth training programs to track and improve the quality of the work that contributors submit. But the perception about professional background still remains and inhibits customer success.

The issue gets even more complicated depending on the type of branded content. For example, where does expertise come into play for thought leadership? What about ghostwriting? If brands need a strong opinion on a subject, the same rules apply. Talented contributors in our network pair up with our clients’ marketing executives to bring their perspectives to life. And in-depth whitepapers demanding niche expertise simply require an experienced freelancer who knows how to interview.

“Find experts, and have strong writers bring forth their experiences,” Garrity said. “Your top financial writer doesn’t need to have a CFA. But he or she should probably know how to track one down.”

Industry professionals who are also fantastic writers do exist, but based on my experience, they are rare. So if you’re trying to scale your content program or build a brand newsroom, you should focus on looking for writers who can deliver their own type of expertise. Not cardiologists.

Image by MHJ / Getty
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