The Trouble With Freelancers

One of the opportunities presented by the explosion in content marketing is that, thanks to the shrinking media, there are a lot of talented folks available for freelance work. In fact, there are entire platforms, built by smart people, devoted to creating marketplaces for brands to connect with and hire freelancers.

The act of content creation is still one that plagues marketers. According to the 2013 Content Marketing Institute/Marketing Profs survey, 69% of marketers say they don’t have enough time to create content; 55% say they can’t produce enough content; and 47%say they can’t produce content that the audience actually cares about.

So, hiring professional writers to do the work and deliver high quality seems like a perfect solution to the content creation conundrum. You need high quality writing, and freelancers are available, often at a good price.

But here’s the rub: Freelance writers complete assignments, but that’s all they do. They may do so beautifully and efficiently, but they are not bringing that extra oomph to the issue at hand. Typically, they are not thinking strategically. If a brand hires a freelance writer to complete a story, it’s a rare freelancer who’s going to suggest doing video, or an infographic, or turning the idea into a series of webinars. The freelancer is going to take the assignment, complete the assignment, and submit an invoice. With a freelancer, there is a beginning and an end, but there isn’t necessarily a big meaty middle, filled with strategy and brainstorming.

Clearly, sometimes all you need and want is a quick trip from Point A to Point B. Like the baseball manager sending up the pinch-hitter, you’re just hoping for a solid single. However, the Internet is filled with, let’s see now... carry the two… about one gazillion solid singles. Your content strategy needs some grand slams. And getting a grand slam from a freelancer is about as common as, well, a pinch-hit grand slam.

I have an obvious bias here. In truth, we do use freelancers for some projects (and I love you guys).

However, the way that brands tell stories is changing. There are some folks who think the article is an antiquated method for informing an audience, and that we need to explore alternative ways of delivering information: video, interactive databases, events. The question is, what is the best way to inform and engage an audience? Words on a screen or on a page aren’t always the best answer, but a freelance writer isn’t thinking about the task of audience connection that way. He’s thinking about word count, and what the fee will be.

The platform on which a story is told is an increasingly critical part of the equation; the medium is the message, and the strategic discussion that determines the medium should include a content creator ready, willing and able to have the discussion.

Remember, you usually get what you ask for -- and sometimes that’s simply not enough.

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11 comments about "The Trouble With Freelancers".
  1. Michael Foster from OTR Global , May 16, 2014 at 12:02 p.m.
    The trouble is not with freelancers, it is with freelancing. Freelancers will not necessarily give that extra "oomph", as you call it, because they are not paid to do so. Sometimes freelancers may recommend ways to extend a project to make it better, but they shouldn't; it's not their job. If you want someone to do this, you need to hire a full-time writer to strategize about your content marketing strategy. Of course, some companies do this already--in which case the lack of content "oomph" is this person's fault. More often, companies will have someone managing the freelancers' workflow as one of many tasks, so the person won't have the time or energy to add "oomph". That person can hardly be blamed for being overworked. What does this mean? Organic media, just like paid media, requires real, sustained, and strategic investment--but content marketing doesn't get that. It gets a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach where companies just wait to see what sticks. And their ROI will follow. So will companies that actually make the investment needed, but they are few and far between.
  2. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , May 16, 2014 at 12:08 p.m.
    Well one of "us guys" think it may be you are one of those clients who limit creative folks to a "from Point A to Point B" and, by this practice, have contributed to the overall decline these last eight years in fees paid for graphic, copywriting, and video production services as commodities, nearly off the shelf, but not quite. The most common problem I run into as head of a small agency is a disconnection between the client and their audience coupled with lack of an expressed strategic direction and message platform for application across all appropriate media.
  3. John Miller from ScribeWise , May 16, 2014 at 12:22 p.m.
    Thanks for these comments! Michael - I think you make a good point, and perhaps I should've headlined this The Trouble With HIRING Freelancers. I believe most organizations can benefit from having a higher level discussion at the outset of a significant project, even when they believe the strategy is good and set. Obviously, some times that is not necessary... you just need execution. Ruth Ann - Actually, I run a small agency as well (and not some SEO chop shop writing articles for $15). Fixing the disconnect you speak of should precisely be part of that strategic discussion that is often missing when hiring a freelancer.
  4. Mayra Ruiz-McPherson from Ruiz McPherson Communications , May 16, 2014 at 1:19 p.m.
    John, this was a provocative post and I thank you for writing it. I am and have been a freelancer for a long, long time. There's no way I would have survived and/or be hired and repeatedly retained, year after year, if I behaved in the fashion you describe above. Sure, there are always some rotten apples in any career field bunch. One could easily apply some of the negative experience you cite towards web designers, accountants, sales folks and and infinite number of other positions, freelance or not. Couldn't the same be true for hiring an employee vs. hiring a freelancer? What "guarantee" does an employer have that when hiring an employee, that the employee won't in the end turn out to be a lazy, no good worker despite how shiny their resume and interview process had been? I do agree that some freelancers are focused on "the assignment" but I think quality freelancers, be they social media strategists, content marketers, bloggers and the like will always ask about those strategic topics. Knowing the bigger picture and what is driving the need for a freelance content piece is really important … it sets tone and expectations but it also allows for opportunities to integrate or extend the branded narrative in other formats or platforms. I assume this piece was inspired or influenced by your own negative experiences in hiring or working with freelancers ?? but you say you love the ones you work with ?? so it's a bit confusing. Ultimately, I cringe when freelancers like the one(s) you describe give the rest of us such challenged and negative stereotype to combat.
  5. John Miller from ScribeWise , May 16, 2014 at 1:43 p.m.
    Thanks for the comment Mayra. To be clear, I am not saying that freelancers are "lazy" or "no good." In fact, freelancers have to hustle and often work much harder than the staff employee; you obviously know this. If you're having those strategic conversations, I think that's awesome. This is not necessarily borne of a negative experience I had, but rather a conversation I had recently with a freelancer that could not get past "go" because she was thinking inside the box and had no interest in peering over the edges. It made me realize that freelancers are (rightfully, as Michael points out) not typically interested in pushing back on the client, and my belief is that sometimes you need to say "no, do this instead." Also, maybe we should talk :)
  6. Mayra Ruiz-McPherson from Ruiz McPherson Communications , May 16, 2014 at 2:06 p.m.
    John, my "lazy" and "no good" examples were just generic examples :) and only used as a point that some of what you share is also applicable to employees as well. I have seen many an occasion where an employee only sticks to their job description but never thinks out of the box or rises from their defined duties to be innovative, strategic or connect the dots well beyond their own, immediate bubble. Yes, there are those freelancers (and employees alike) that will ONLY stick to their job description or task as assigned and not go above and beyond or ask deeper questions. Sometimes it's a money or salary issue. Sometimes it's a lack of initiative issue. And sometimes, it's both :) The irony is that in order to increase the likelihood of earning more project work, a freelancer should show more interest beyond the task at hand. It's important to learn the impetus behind the phone call or the client asking for X, Y or Z. Often, the clients themselves are very task-focused and not thinking big picture themselves. This presents the freelancer with an excellent opportunity to lead the client, assuming the client allows themselves to be led, for the betterment of their content marketing. A freelancer who goes the extra mile, in my experience, tends to walk away with an increased project scope and a much bigger invoice to send out :) As for talking or connecting, John, feel free to find me in my inbox anytime: mayra@ruizmcpherson.com. Thank you for invigorating my otherwise freelance-project filled Friday afternoon!
  7. Michael Blumfield from Michael Blumfield Business Communications , May 16, 2014 at 5:17 p.m.
    John: I'm sorry that you had such an unfortunate experience with that freelancer. I know there are plenty of them out there who see their jobs as just making whatever copy is around sound better. Of course, to provide any value, the freelancer has to understand the business, its marketing objectives, its overall strategy, and the audience it's trying to attract. Without a solid understanding of business, it's very hard for a writer to accomplish that. I've had to clean up many an abandoned project because a writer didn't have an understanding of accounting issues, product differentiators, B-to-B relations and the like. The other thing to add is that in my experience, virtually every client I've worked with has had some shortsightedness about their product or customers because they're too close to the issue. As an outsider, I can -- and always strive to -- make suggestions based on my lack of previous experience. You lose the ability to think objectively and freshly about a topic if you've enmeshed in a topic for months or years. And as freelancers become more familiar with the client, they work more efficiently and better help everyone achieve their objectives. As I hope you've come to understand, the trouble isn't with freelancers per se any more than with employees per se. It's really just a matter of finding a smart, motivated and diligent person to do the work, however you want to classify that person. Michael
  8. Dori Fern from Content Strategy Consulting , May 17, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.
    John: The problem is your own expectations. Hiring a writer, freelance or otherwise, and expecting a content strategy is unreasonable. If you want freelance writers to create the best content, then you need to have a content strategy guiding what the editorial--and rest of the creative and technology team--is producing. That's the job of the content strategist, not the freelance writers. It still amazes me how many digital agencies and publishers (brand and otherwise) continue to think that jumping from a vaguely formed idea into content creation is going to produce the desired results. My experience is, if you hire good creative talent, give them clear, solid direction and have a well-defined end product, you will tend to get the best results, whether they're freelance or f/t. To your point about platform, it's always been important, but content marketers haven't--and still don't--always think about the interconnected role platform, channels, distribution, audience should play in digital content strategy and planning. If content marketers/brand publishers keep skipping this stage of the process (or start it too late), they will continue to waste a lot of money producing content that misses the mark, through no fault of the people producing it.
  9. John Miller from ScribeWise , May 17, 2014 at 9:13 a.m.
    Dori - thanks for your comment. I disagree, in that strategy must be an ongoing discussion, and must be tweaked/adjusted for every specific task... not big-S Strategy, which should remain constant, but little-S strategy, which should be about getting the most out of every effort. I think it is far preferable to have a content creator that engages in a strategic discussion at the outset of a discreet project in order to maximize impact.
  10. Dori Fern from Content Strategy Consulting , May 17, 2014 at 9:20 a.m.
    They're not mutually exclusive, John. Of course strategies are living, breathing and require adjustments along the way based on real-world findings. I just think you're expecting too much from writers, who often lack that kind of experience and--if they have it--(rightfully) expect more money than people often want to pay to do that kind of strategic work. It's not so much that one shouldn't work closely with creatives to develop the product, but they're called content creators because that's what they're being hired to do, not to build or adjust the big picture.
  11. John Miller from ScribeWise , May 17, 2014 at 9:24 a.m.
    Dori - I'm not blaming freelancers... I'm blaming the concept of relying on them exclusively. Doing so (usually) eliminates the type of ongoing strategic discussion that is needed to maximize impact and stay on track.