This story is part of Contently’s Accountable Content Series, a collection of articles, webinars, case studies, and events we’ve designed to help marketers deliver measurable brand impact and business outcomes with content. To see more content in this series, click here.
Prior to joining Contently, I worked on digital strategy for some of the world’s top magazines. In other words, I spent most of my time coaxing brands like Vogue, Glamour, and GQ to embrace online publishing—and it wasn’t always easy.
In order to convince the old-school print executives to adopt a digital strategy, I first had to learn how their departments created content. And one of the most surprising moments was when I realized that their editorial processes were incredibly laborious.
It was an insane amount of work. While many employees produced content inside of the “Vogue House,” executives still hired freelancers to write in-depth features for Vogue. Commissioning just a few pieces of freelance content each month was so time-consuming that many magazines had a whole job dedicated to coordinating them. A commissioning editor would typically spend about 160 hours a month wrangling freelancers to produce—at a maximum—six articles.
That observation stuck with me.
Today, if you’re a marketer trying to run a content team, that time commitment would decimate your operation. If you spent all your hours finding external contributors and editing their work, you wouldn’t have time to create sales-enablement content, analyze engagement data, develop a long-term content strategy, or even just write your own stories.
But that commissioning editor function is still important. Unless you have a budget big enough to hire a team of in-house writers, freelancers are an essential part of your content operation. At Contently, we think it’s possible to handle all of those responsibilities on your own, as long as you invest in the right marketing technology.
To show you how this breaks down on a per-story basis, I decided to take a closer look at how much time marketers and editors are committing to their freelancers. Here’s a comparison of many hours it takes you to finish a story with a freelancer on your own versus how long it takes using Contently.
Finding the right contributors
On your own: 2 hours
If you’re starting from scratch, expect to spend a few hours, at least, finding new freelancers.
Certain veteran marketers may be able to pull out a Rolodex of writer friends and ask if any are up for writing a niche brand story. But if that’s not the case, you’ll likely have to put out some calls on social channels and do research online for writers who have written about the same topics that your brand covers.
The big challenge here won’t be finding talented writers. It’ll really come down to identifying freelancers (since many will be staff writers unable to do work on the side) who are open to content marketing (not all journalists are interested in working for brands). What if, for instance, you need an experienced journalist who can play nice in an interview with your stern CFO? Journalists don’t typically put “good at interviewing mean people” on their LinkedIn profiles.
With Contently: 15 minutes
Our intake process includes a data-driven content strategy that’s ready for you on day one. Part of that includes curating a team of contributors from our freelance network who have the right expertise to manage any request, no matter how specific.
All of these contributors have already been reviewed before they’re added to your team. Our talent team puts these freelancers through four rounds of rigorous vetting. We read their work, consider their publication titles, put them through a training course, and run their published work through our Tone Analyzer technology to ensure they are a good match for your brand voice. Depending on your industry, we’ve likely worked with them before and have performance data to further corroborate our decisions.
You just have to look through the list and start thinking about what stories you want to produce.
Defining the story and checking availability
On your own: 1 hour*
The better the story brief, the less editing you’ll do down the road. How many words do you want? How many images do you require? Can the author use the first person? Speaking of, what is your tone? Is the goal brand awareness, thought leadership, or conversion? A good brief will impart all this info and more.
Assuming you have accurate contact information for a freelancer—which isn’t always the case—you’ll probably reach out over email, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Go the LinkedIn route, the process looks something like this: Send an InMail, where you’ll need to describe the project in enough detail to get them to respond. This is usually more difficult if the freelancer has steady work from editorial outlets like Wired and The New York Times Magazine.
Let’s say you and the writer are on the same page—you still have to worry about schedules. Maybe you can get started right away, or maybe the writer emails you an answer like this: “Sounds good, but I’m in Alaska for my brother-in-law’s wedding and working on another project, so I can’t start for two weeks. Is that okay?”
When your writer is back from Alaska she’ll have a flurry of questions. She’ll want to know about byline policy, syndication rights, and the approval process. Will she need to approve her sources prior to the interview? How many rounds of revisions are you expecting for a set price? By the way, what’s the turnaround for being paid?
*Note: The estimate is conservative. Don’t count on hearing back from a freelancer right away. It could take a few days, which is a problem if your project is time-sensitive.
With Contently: 15 minutes
Your brand editor will either assign the story directly to a writer on your team—who has been trained to accept or reject the project within 24 hours—or open it up to a team of relevant writers who are each eager to get first dibs.
We felt it was important to build a place for freelancer expectations into platform, so after you finalize your conditions—and your account manager inputs this information into the system—this requires zero effort on your part. Writers review your terms before accepting an assignment. Plus, all of our contributors sign our Terms and Conditions before joining the freelancer network, so you’re covered on the nitty-gritty legal details.
Beyond story logistics, we provide data that guides freelancers. Our Tone Analyzer runs an analysis of your brand’s content and assesses your collective “voice” based on five framework traits: expressivity, formality, inflection, authority, and emotion. It then tells you, on a per-story basis, how well that text aligns with your standards.
Managing content production
On your own: 45 minutes
As the person responsible for your content operation, it’s your job to uphold the integrity of the brand. You have to pay attention to everything from SEO to plagiarism to proper multimedia embeds. Those responsibilities drill down to really specific tasks that can drain your time, like double-checking to make sure hyperlinks work correctly and go to reputable sources. Depending on where your audience comes from, you may even have to preview the content for both desktop and mobile to ensure it’s formatted correctly on different devices.
With Contently: 15 minutes
Editing is a process. There’s no technological solution that can replace the human element of spending time with an article to make it more creative and coherent. However, technology can be really useful for identifying commons issues that editors can correct to be much more efficient.
In our Brand Assist feature, contributors and editors can see exactly where they’re using broken links or passive voice. Armed with this snapshot of what details need to be tightened, editors can get right to work addressing the problems.
Additionally, Contently has a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism. To ensure content is 100 percent original, we scan each story with plagiarism technology and have employees approve the software scan.
As far as optimization goes, we have SEO tools that check for headline relevancy, keyword placement, and approximate reading time. Once you’ve ensured your piece is optimized—you can push it straight to your CMS.
Paying your contributor
On your own: 1 hour
Traditionally, you have to ask for an invoice, review it, then submit it to someone in your accounting department. Payment is rarely a swift and easy autograph signature when you have to keep track of the taxes. Depending on how many freelancers you use or pieces of content you produce, this commitment quickly adds up.
With Contently: 0 minutes
We have a standardized rate card that all our contributors see when they sign up. That means there is no awkward negotiation or hard sells from freelancers.
During the assignment stage, your Brand Editor will look at your rate card and add the right dollar amount to the workflow. Voila. Once your contributor submits a draft, the rate gets paid instantly through PayPal, which handles tax logistics.
On your own: 4 hours 45 minutes
With Contently: 45 minutes
Saving four hours per piece of content is a lot. As you bring on new contributors to scale your content operation, that number could balloon to the point where you don’t enough time to handle your core responsibilities. What happens if, after all of that, your story doesn’t perform? The cost of entry to find someone better and explain your brand is just too high. As Vogue, GQ and the rest of the print publishers will tell you, running a top publication is a serious numbers game. So make sure you do the math before you start investing.