How to outsource your content writing

Find out how to outsource your content writing - without wasting time, money or resources on content that goes nowhere.

 

How to outsource your content writing 

How to outsource your content writing without paying for copy that misses the mark, gets bogged down in signoff hell, and ultimately never gets published.


Introduction

Why bother? Why does this matter?

1: Defining the work

What exactly are you trying to outsource? What does your content production system look like? Adequately defining this early will make things much easier later on.w

2: Deciding what to outsource

Once you've defined your work, you need to decide which components you're going to outsource, and which components you'll continue to take care of in-house.

3: Your briefing process

Putting the right kind of brief together will go a long way towards getting great content out the other end. Here's how.

4: Getting started

You've laid the groundwork - now it's time for a couple final points before you get in touch with some writers and start making things happen.


Introduction: why outsource your content writing?

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Content writing is becoming an increasingly important part of modern marketing strategy. People use content to drive organic traffic through keyword-rich SEO articles, collect leads through gated content, nurture leads through automated email, and much more.

Here's the problem: writing content is time-consuming. Even something fairly short can easily eat up half a day. For all but the largest teams, that time represents a pretty significant opportunity cost - especially as you scale it up across a variety of different projects.

So more and more marketing teams are outsourcing this work. But, like everything, outsourcing content writing is less straightforward than it can appear at first blush. 

This guide shows you how to outsource your content writing in a way that makes it easy for you to produce good content, at scale, without endless false starts, feedback sessions and abandoned drafts.

One last point: I used Wardley Maps as a jumping off point for a lot of the ideas here. I highly recommend Wardley Maps as a way to visualise and understand your business processes. You can read more about them in this series of Medium posts by creator Simon Wardley.

Enjoy the guide. If you have any questions, just send me an email.


Part 1 : Defining the work

To get started, you need to figure out what you're outsourcing in the first place.

Let's say you've decided that weekly blogposts are an important part of your content strategy - but you can't find time to write them. So you decide to outsource this to a content writer.

You  might think that you already defined what you want: "write one blogpost per week."

In fact, you would be mistaken. Consider these three briefs:

  • "Write us one post per week, based on this set of titles and detailed outlines of each post."

  • "Write us one post per week, based on this list of post titles."

  • "Write us a post per week from scratch."

If you’ve been producing content in-house for awhile, you probably haven’t considered this level of detail. Content writing tends to be one of those things that just happens - there are a whole bunch of informal rules and processes that are stored in peoples’ heads, and tend to evolve over time. This is a lot easier to muddle through when you’re doing so with fixed-cost staff members.

But when you’re outsourcing, you’re going to want to be a lot more specific. Not only will these specifics define what kind of writer you hire, they’ll also determine your budget and time commitments.

Mapping the components

A useful way to map these components out is to sort them into a flow chart.

On the left-hand side, you have the very beginning of the project - the strategic and creative work that helps you determine what you’re going to write about, who it’s for and what kind of form it will take.

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On the right-hand side, you have the final touches - the proofreading, the loading into software (if relevant), and so on.

In other words, you have the idea on the left, and the execution on the right.

To map your content production system, you can ask questions such as:

  • Where do ideas come from? Do we work from a calendar? Are they ad-hoc? Do we get shoulder- tapped by bosses?

  • How prescriptive are our briefs? Do people need to see a draft to respond to before they know what they want?

  • How many rounds of feedback does our content typically go through?

  • Who is involved in these, and when do they get involved? Which rounds of feedback typically change the content the most?

  • How much of a brief do we have before we start writing? Is it an outline, or just a one-sentence idea, or something in between? Do we produce content on an ad- hoc basis, or do we follow a plan? Are we proactive, reactive or somewhere in the middle?

  • Who does the bulk of our content writing?

I've done a basic map showing the components of the guide you're reading. Take a look:

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I'm a one-person consulting shop, so there aren't many components between thinking of an idea, and publishing the guide. But my content still has at least seven components! Yours will probably have more.

Consult, consult consult

Once you have your set of components, share it around internally. Do people agree with your components? Can they add components you didn't think of? Do they reckon you've put components in the wrong place?

The consultation process is important for two reasons. First, and most obvious, is that you'll find any components you missed.

But just as - if not more - importantly, you'll also get peoples' buy-in by asking for their views on how you approach your outsourced content writing. This will be very useful once you have everything up and running, and you're producing content at scale. The last thing you need at that point is someone holding things up because they were caught off-guard and they're feeling burned.

The right map for the right job

Your content production system map should be as detailed as the job requires. If you're just outsourcing a single blogpost, and your budget is $400 or so, then you probably don't need to have anything too overwrought.

But you should at least do a basic map, even if it's just on the back of a napkin. The exercise of thinking about where content comes from and how it gets published is important, because it gives you better visibility over how work gets done in your organisation.

So just tailor your map to the task at hand. A small job just needs a basic map; a large programme of content production will need more.

Recap

Let's quickly review before we move on.

  • Your content production process is probably more complicated than you give it credit for.

  • You should identify the components of content production before you think of outsourcing.

  • Mapping your process helps you identify the lay of the land, and make better decisions around what to outsource, and to whom. Be sure to consult others about these components, to make sure you capture everything, and get the whole team on-side. 


Part 2: Deciding what to outsource

There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to which components you outsource. Rather, it's a business decision with tradeoffs to balance.

Your mapping process should give you a good idea of how big your project is, and what kind of time commitment you're looking at. More complicated projects will have more signoffs, more input from others, more rounds of feedback and so on - these should all show up in your content production map. Generally speaking, something like a 300-word blogpost will have fewer components than a full-on, 5,000- word, technically detailed white paper.

So now that you (roughly) know what you're working with, you can start to make some decisions. Here's the bad news: for a given level of complexity and quality, the time required is going to be relatively fixed. Each of those components has to be done by somebody - either you, or your outsourced writer. The only way to shrink the net time cost is to change the nature of the final product.

In other words, the further to the left a component is on your map, the more time it will take your outsourced writer. The further to the right, the more time it will take you.

If you start passing things off to an outsourced writer on the right-hand side of the map, you'll have to spend time getting those components ready. Conversely, if you outsource things starting at the left-hand side, your outsourced writer will need to spend more time turning those components into a finished product

Example: different components for different clients.

To show how important this is, we can compare two of my clients. They both hire me to write the same thing: blogposts.

The first client hires me to write long-form SEO blogposts. Their briefs are tight. They'll have specific subheads, with instructions to the effect of "at least 100 words, starting with . . . "

The other client hires me to write educational blogposts for demand generation. In addition to writing the posts, I also help them figure out what the posts should be about. So we have a conversation once a month, and I write a series of "pitches" based on this conversation. Once we agree on some topics, I start writing.

Even though the output is the same (blogposts), the process to get there is very different, because they choose to outsource different components of the same product. When the SEO posts come to me, they are quite far to the right - they're the product of a significant time investment by my client. When the other posts come to me, they are quite far to the left. The client hasn't put much into them when they brief me, but it takes longer to go from that brief to a finished product that's ready to publish.

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Making the decision

The decision of which components to outsource is ultimately your business decision to make. The further to the left your outsourced components are, the more money you'll end up spending; the further to the right, the more time you'll end up spending. That's the fundamental tradeoff you need to grapple with.

If price is your top priority, then the answer is really clear: do everything you can in-house, and outsource the tasks all the way to the right of the content production map. This will save you money, but cost you time. Easy.

But it gets a bit trickier if price isn't your main priority. If you're looking for the best overall value, you should look at the different components of your content, and really figure out where you need to fill gaps.

You can ask your team a few different questions to figure out where these gaps are:

Question 1: How comfortable are we with uncertainty?

The more comfortable you are with uncertainty, the better-suited you are towards tasks on the left-hand side. This is the area where you're coming up with ideas, exploring different avenues, and often scrapping things.

At the extremes, this could be as uncertain as whether you're going to produce anything at all, or what the end product is going to look like.

So if your team is comfortable with and thrives on the uncertainty of this part of the process, consider outsourcing the stuff more towards the other end of the process, where things are much more regimented and obvious.

Question 2: Are we best at perspective or production?

People who thrive on the left-hand side provide insight and perspective. They come up with ideas, connect things and come up with new ways to communicate. People who thrive on the right-hand side do a great job doing the specific tasks they've been assigned.

Which way does your team lean? Are they "ideas people," who are constantly dreaming things up, but need someone to help with the execution? Or are they operational people, who can quickly deliver on a clear, specific brief - but aren't that interested in coming up with ideas of their own? There's no right or wrong answer, but it's generally useful to outsource the tasks that are on the other side of the spectrum from your team.

Otherwise, you risk outsourcing something that you're already good at, while still being weak in something you're not good at. For example, if you have a production- focussed team, at first glance, it may look like you need to outsource someone on the production end - after all, things aren't getting done!

But if the real reason things aren't getting done is because nobody's coming up with things to do in the first place, you're going to be in the exact same position once you start briefing an outsourced content writer.

Question 3: Do we need fresh ideas?

Sometimes you outsource just to fill a gap. But other times, you outsource because - like all internal teams - your team is starting to miss the forest for the trees. This is just an inevitable outcome of working for one organisation for ages; after awhile, you become immersed in that organisation's product, market, internal language and way of doing things.

If you're happy with your way of doing things, or your content doesn't need fresh perspective, then great!

Outsource the stuff on the right- hand side and call it a day. But if you feel like you're getting into a bit of a rut, and could use an injection of fresh ideas, think about moving your outsourced components over to left. A fresh set of eyes can be really useful for these components.

Recap

  • There's no right or wrong answer when you're deciding what to outsource.

  • In general, the further to the right a component is, the more time it's going to take you, and vice versa with components on the left.

  • Ask yourself and your team these three tough questions, and be honest about the answers, to figure out what you need.


Part 3: Your briefing process

Great! We now have the lay of the land and we've decided what to outsource. Now it's time to put together a brief .

A tasks's spot on your content production map will determine what kind of brief you need to create.

Different tasks will need different kinds of briefs, and different levels of detail in those briefs. But it's not just about the level of detail - it's also a matter of the kind of detail you include. Tasks on the left will need a different kind of detail from tasks on the right.

Generally speaking, tasks on the left will need big picture details, while tasks on the right will need more granular details. And remember that it's a sliding scale. You will probably end up mixing and matching briefing styles, depending on exactly where on this spectrum your project sits - and what kind of writer you hire (more on that later).

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Briefing tasks on the left- hand side

Tasks on the left-hand side need big-picture information. These are tasks where you want to give people space to come up with a solution, so you don't want to be so prescriptive that you stifle their ability to do so. However, you need to background information, such as:

  • What is the problem you're trying to solve?

  • Who is the audience?

  • What do you want the audience to do after they read this?

In fact, a written brief is often going to be more trouble than it's worth for these tasks. Rather, have a conversation to brief tasks on this end of the spectrum. A writer who is skilled at these tasks should be equally skilled at asking you the right questions to pull the brief out of you; it's part of the job for these writers.

Otherwise, you're going to end up writing a multi-page epic brief that manages to still miss some key issues.

Briefing tasks on the right-hand side

These briefs are going to need to be more detailed, because by this stage, you've done the big-picture thinking and made decisions around how you're going to pitch it, the angle, where it's going to go, and so on.

So at this point, you're going to need something closer to an outline. The more detailed your brief, the fewer surprises you're going to get when the finished product comes back to you; if you're outsourcing tasks on the right-hand side, this may be exactly what you're looking for.

At the extreme right side of the scale, you'd need an outline complete with subheads and bullet points of what each section should cover. A bit to the left of that, and you might just have subheads. To the left of that, you might just have an article title. To the left of that, an overall topic. And so on, and so forth.

The right brief for the right job

This all seems fine in theory, but it can fall apart in practice if you're not careful. This happens when there's a mismatch between the type of briefing you give your writer, and the kind of work you expect from them.

For example, one common time- saver people use is to draft something up themselves, then pass it over to a content writer for a once-over. When you do this, you'll get back a version of whatever you wrote, that reads slightly better, with no spelling or grammar mistakes. This is fine if that's what you expected - but it's not uncommon for people to do this with the expectation that the writer add value to it by contributing ideas of their own. Of course, you can't do that with only a single document as your context.

The opposite is also true. You might give your writer a very vague brief, and invite them to contribute ideas, but actually have something very specific in mind. If your writer doesn't know what you have in mind, it's going to be a fairly torturous road getting there from your high-level brief.

Finally, there's one more situation you should be aware of: when you approach your writer with a specific brief, but once you see a draft, you realise you wanted something else entirely, so you have another go.

Again, there's nothing wrong with this - but it's much better to make sure your writer knows this ahead of time that you like to have something to respond to, then iterate on. This will save you money - if your writer knows they're working on a first draft of ten, rather than a first draft of two, then he or she will put less effort into perfecting the first few drafts.

The best way to avoid these problems is to make sure your briefing process matches your culture. If you tend to get things done by having lots of iterations and feedback sessions, then you should incorporate this same way of doing things into your outsourced briefing process. The same applies if you tend to be much more regimented. The fact is, a briefing process is fairly easy to change - your culture is not. So take the path of least resistance.

Recap

  • Tasks on the left side of the production system will need higher-level briefs about the wider problem and relevant business issues.

  • Tasks on the right side will need more granular briefs.

  • A good brief matches both the task at hand and your workplace's culture around getting things done.

Case study: the wrong kind of brief

In a past life, I worked for a centralised marketing team that served multiple regional sales and marketing teams. Our team had a regimented culture, where we wanted all the details of our projects paper before we started; the regional teams had a much more emergent culture, where they liked to see drafts, respond to things and develop content iteratively.

To "get on the same page," we put together an enormous questionnaire for regional people to fill out for every project. It was something like 15 or 20 pages. Our thinking was that this would capture all the information ahead of time, and we wouldn't have to go back and forth as much.

Of course, it didn't work. They tried their best, but it just wasn't in line with the way they worked. Even those in regional teams who did support it had to convince those who didn't.

After a few weeks of simmering resentment on both sides, the overwrought brief fell by the wayside. Instead, we started doing what we should have been doing in the first place: we got rid of written briefs entirely, and instead started picking up the phone and having a conversation.


Part 4: Getting started

You've sorted out your brief and you know what you want. Now it's time to get started.

Finding a writer

First things first: you need to find a writer. There's two criteria you should use when assessing potential writers:

  • Whether they can write the kind of content you're looking to outsource.

  • How comfortable they are working in the component of the production system you've decided to outsource.

This second factor is much more important than the first. There's lots of shared ability between different kinds of writing tasks; a writer who can write a media release is usually able to turn out some FAQs, a blogpost or a case study with no drama.

However, a writer who is most comfortable on the right-hand side of the content production system is never going to be that comfortable on the left-hand side, and vice versa.

In a perfect world, you'd find someone with lots of skills and experience in the specific project you're looking to outsource, and lots of experience and comfort in the specific component of that project that you're looking to outsource. But if you can't find someone who meets both of these, then prioritise component expertise.

For example, if you need some case studies written up, and you're outsourcing left-hand components of the process, it's much better to hire a media release writer who is comfortable working in that space, than it is to hire a case study specialist who is used to working on the right-hand side of the production system.

Start small

If you’re outsourcing tasks on the right-hand side, you can test a writer out is to give them a small project. This is a good, low-risk way for both you and the writer to "interview" each other.

If your organisation has a blog, outsourcing a single short post to a potential writer is a great way to do this. Even if you don't intend on outsourcing blogposts long-term, it's useful to use these to test how the writer works.

When you do this, try to match the small project's components to the components you'll be looking to outsource in the future. So if you're looking for a proofreader, get them to proof a post you wrote. If you want them to write from an outline, then ask them to do that. And so on and so forth.

What to look for

This process will show you how good the potential writer is at writing. That is - putting words on a page. This is most useful for tasks on the right-hand side; on the left-hand side, it becomes more difficult. This is because there really are no small tasks on the left-hand side. Left-hand tasks involve brainstorming, customer research, audits of existing content and more.

So while a test like this is useful, you should be keenly aware its weaknesses as well. If all you need is some content written, and you’re going to do all the thinking and research, then great. But if you are outsourcing more than that, you’re going to have to also look at things like the writer’s track record, reputation and so on.


Wrapping up

Congratulations! You now have a solid framework for outsourcing your content writing.

If you take just one thing from this guide, I'd like it to be this


Successful outsourcing is entirely dependent on how clear your internal processes are.

A clear process gives you a much clearer idea of exactly what it is you're buying from your outsourced content writer - the brief, the job and the writer you choose will all naturally flow if you've done a good job defining the work in the first place.

So take the time to cover those first steps and map out your content production process. You'll find that everything else becomes a lot easier once you do this.

And of course, if you need help sorting this out, just drop me a line: sam@samgrover.co.nz.

Thanks for reading.