As someone who has freelanced for most of the past 25 years — including some dabbles in what I had no idea would someday be called “content” — I was intrigued by a blog post I came across the other day: "Nurturing Freelancers Is the Key to Content Marketing."
“Of course it is!” you may have heard me shriek.
The conventional wisdom is that reporting and writing is at the nadir of what has always been a craft worth grumbling about, as far as pay, amenities and appreciation goes. Newsroom employment has dropped 35% between 1989 and 2013. The “Worst Job of 2015” out of 200 ranked by CareerCast? Newspaper reporter.
This new emphasis on brands telling engaging — okay, search-optimized — stories to consumers rather than interrupting them with clever :30s is famously opening up new ways for laid-off or burnt-out reporters to make a living in their pajamas, as an editor of mine used to put it, creating all sorts of “brand journalism.”
Public relations and corporate communications have always provided respite for those who have mortgages to pay, and advertorials, white papers and the like have always been options for freelancers plugged into a custom publisher or agency. But the cadre of capable freelancers has been expanding to fit the needs of marketers. It’s a trail blazed by the mommy bloggers of yesteryear and made all the more viral by today’s beauty vloggers.
The barriers to entry are no steeper than having a passion or expertise, being naturally articulate (or trainable), applying the sole of the feet to the base of the standing desk, and availing oneself of the one of the many available platforms circumventing the old boy/girl networks of not too long ago.
But the best of breed, as with any profession, need to be cultivated and appreciated if you want to hold on to them.
“One thing I always tell my clients to avoid is treating their freelancers like commodities,” writes Joe Breed, director of platform service at Skyword, in the post I cited above. “Your freelancers have the potential to be your greatest asset and can help with all facets of your content marketing initiatives including strategy, ideation, and execution.”
That also means freelancers follow through with social media posts and curation after their story is posted, says Breed in a phone interview. Indeed, Skyword encourages brand marketers to “treat freelancers as extensions of their team,” Breed says, relying on writers’ expertise on, and passion for, particular topics to drive content that gets read, retweeted and favored.
Skyword is one of a cluster of developing content marketing platforms (CMPs) that includes Contently, DivvyHQ, Kapost, NewsCred, Oracle, Percolate, PublishThis and RebelMouse. These companies are increasingly being used by marketers to “bring order to” the “cross-everything content mess, by putting all the people working on content into a common and shared space,” as Forrester analyst Ryan Skinner puts it.
Skyword itself works with more than 4,000 freelancers — pruned last year from an unwieldy list of more that 30,000 — who have a passion or expertise in areas that fit well with the needs of clients such as IBM, Veracode, HP, AutoTrader, Iron Mountain, United Way, MasterCard and New Balance. It is also building a roster of videographers, photographers and animators.
The platform matches a marketer’s needs to freelancers’ skill sets, manages work flow, assesses stories for variables such as readability and — do not underestimate the importance of this element — handles fees and payment in a transparent and timely manner.
Beyond the platform, Skyword offers “full service” teams that work with brands, agencies and publishers to first get a handle on their potential audience and then “ideate” content that not only will come to the fore in target–readers searches but also draw readers back to a brand’s website on a regular basis, according to Andrew Wheeler, Skyword’s vice president of strategic services.
A case in point is the Security Intelligence website, discreetly “brought to you by IBM.” Skyword community managers work with its stable of “knowledgeable” freelancers to develop “evergreens” relevant to IT security professionals. But IBM’s internal team has also leveraged the software to recruit more than 100 of its employees to contribute articles.
“They didn’t just want to create stories that people would eventually come to read,” Wheeler says. “They wanted to be a site that you come back to day after day because there’s always new information there.”
IBM also wanted a site, like the Daily Bugle of yore, that you go to when news breaks. Just hours after the Heatbleed software bug made headlines last year, the site had posted a couple of stories targeted to professionals in the field.
Skyword has been a steady source of work for Angela Tague, a journalism and mass communication graduate of the University of Iowa who has worked as a photographer and writer at several daily and weekly newspapers in the Midwest. “It was music to my ears,” she says, when she discovered brand journalism after starting to freelance in 2009: “more pay, better hours, less stress.”
“Content marketing is another egg in my basket,” she says. “I’m finding that brands really appreciate that I’m not hesitant or scared to do an interview or to dig in and do some real research and incorporate quotes into my writing.”
As brands increasingly entrust freelancers with the task of connecting with customers, it makes perfect sense for those brands to connect with and nurture writers such as Tague on a level deeper than “30 Days Net.”
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