Content Marketing
How to Best Manage Freelancers (And Guide Them With Strong Research Practices)

How to Best Manage Freelancers (And Guide Them With Strong Research Practices)

October 11, 2016
6 min read

As someone who’s been freelancing full time for three years, I’ve learned quite a few ins and outs of working with clients – and there are many.

From getting on the same page at the beginning of the working relationship, to maintaining open communication, there are definitely a few ways a freelancer likes to work with clients. Freelancers approach research for assignments in a unique way, too.

If you’re a content manager or editor who wants to know how you can best approach the freelancer relationship, this is a great starting place. We’ll cover:

  • Getting on the same page about brand and audience
  • Giving direction to optimize the content creation process
  • Research practices of freelancers
  • What to avoid and bad habits
  • Insights from experienced content managers and editors

Let’s jump right in.

Getting on the Same Page About Brand & Audience

Before any writing or thought about content begins, freelancers and clients need to have a conversation about the brand, the objectives of the content, and the audience you’re working together to reach.

Without this conversation, your freelancers are writing in the dark. They don’t really know a lot about your company, it’s target customer, and what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish – because, well, no one ever told them.

And yet, they’re writing this extremely important content for sales enablement, but they can’t picture in their minds who exactly they’re writing for. That’s a problem.

Be sure to have an initial conversation that covers:

Customer Personas

Who will they be writing for? Who’s the target persona they should invision when writing? Do you have any customer research you can share with your freelancer?

Brand Insights

What are the core values of the brand? What words represent what the brand stands for? Most marketing departments lean on certain messaging that is iterated often – the freelancer needs to know these angles or even specific vocabulary.

Content Goals for Target Audience

List the objectives for the blog. Is it to be simply informative, or is it to drive sales? Product focused? Or unbiased? Make sure the freelancer knows the angle that he or she should be writing with in mind.

List of Competitors Not to Reference or Link to Within Content

If there are certain companies whose content/research you don’t want mentioned within your content, list them out so the freelancer can get familiar with those and can refer back if necessary.

From here, you can start giving more concrete direction about the writing of content itself.

Giving Direction to Optimize Content Creation Process

A freelancer needs to be given a certain amount of direction at the very beginning of the working relationship so that he or she can optimize the content creation process. And, yes, of course there should still be room for style and creativity – but the writer needs some guidelines and parameters to work from.

So how can you give direction in an efficient, helpful, and consistent way for all freelancers?

Create a ‘Getting Started’ Deck

A simple deck that onboards new freelancers with expectations, a company background, content objectives, etc. helps get new team members up to speed and shares a large amount of important information in a professional, branded format.

Rather than having to devote 30-60 minutes to a phone call where you attempt to get your new freelancer updated on what’s expected, a deck can help prepare the freelancer for the task ahead. Plus, this is a handy reference material that the freelancer can go back to at any time he or she needs to.

Take a look at a slide from Campaign Monitor’s freelance writer “Getting started” deck to get a feel for what this might look like:

Assemble a Style Guide

If you’re not putting together a full-blown deck, at least consider assembling a style guide that helps create a cohesive voice, tone, and overall sound for the content generated by your team of freelancers.

Within your style guide, you’ll note how written content should look, sound, and feel, while also providing majors dos and don’ts for writing style. If you want your freelancers to follow MLA or APA style, you can note this here, too. A document like this one can help cut down on editing time and gets both freelancer and editor/content manager on the same page before any writing begins.

The Economist has a great example of a style guide that they share openly:

Read the full Economist style guide here.

Put Together Project Briefs

Once you get down to handing out assignments, you can also give solid direction by handing over a project brief that outlines expectations, background, goal, and any other important information the freelancer needs to know before he or she gets started writing.

Project briefs can be as simple or detailed as you like (often times, even a quick email outlining the assignment will do), but will help ensure you’re getting a deliverable that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

If you’ve done one (or all) of these things, you’ve given a freelancer a lot of fantastic materials to get up and going.

Maybe at this point you’re wondering, “How does a freelancer like to research?”

Research Practices of Freelancers

Sometimes freelancers need some guidance on how to research a specific topic. It’s also helpful for editors and managers to understand the freelancer approach. Researching content involves a few different steps.

Here’s a quick walk-through:

Step 1: Based on the assignment topic, begin by looking for studies and research online that add depth to the topic – and then look for interesting connections that can be drawn.

For example: If the topic was “Discovering new ways to inspire eCommerce sales,” start out by looking for eCommerce experiments that boosted revenue.

Step 2: Incorporate stats, case studies, and images that reinforce the data. Content thrives with hard numbers and visuals, as these make the copy more easy to digest –  try to find complementary research that helps drive the message home while making it easier to understand.

Step 3: Tie in existing company content. If there is existing blog content or relevant company research to integrate, make sure to weave that in, too.

Step 4: Construct a narrative that connects these pieces. Building a story that ties these pieces together makes the content more interesting for the reader.

This process is different for every freelancer, but research is important for a well-rounded piece of content.

Next – what to avoid and bad habits that sometimes creep up when working with freelancers.

What to Avoid & Bad Habits

A few tips for things to avoid when working with freelancers:

  • Not using a content calendar/last minute assignments. When there’s not enough time for research and thoughtful writing, your deliverable suffers.
  • Not sharing recently published company research/insights. This creates missed opportunities to link up relevant, authority-building content.
  • Unconstructive feedback. Freelancers want you to share what you do and don’t like – not just negative feedback – so that the he or she can learn and improve for future projects.
  • Poor communication. When there’s no open dialogue, it’s difficult to know what both party wants and needs, and content suffers.

Insights About Working With Freelancers From Content Managers & Editors

So what do editors and content managers have to say from their end of the spectrum about working with freelancers? I spoke with a few who shared their best tips for constructively working with freelancers to get the most out of the partnership.

Ray Hennessey, former Editorial Director of Digital Content at Entrepreneur said,

“The biggest issue for me is communication. The best relationships I’ve had with freelancers have all been based on free and open back and forth. It’s not just setting expectations at the beginning. I find that regular check-ins during a project, before it’s delivered, make a world of difference.”

Kim Courvoisier, Content Manager at Campaign Monitor said,

“When working with freelancers: Hire the best. Be organized. Give realistic deadlines. Pay well. Pay them quickly. Edit in a way that respects their work. Treat them like gold.”

Kiera Abbamonte, Content Manager at Grasshopper said,

  • Take the time to thoroughly explain edits, particularly at the beginning of a working relationship. That way the writer understands, and you hopefully won’t have to make that edit next time.
  • Make sure everyone is comfortable with the process and tools you’re using, and be flexible. I try to work with freelancers as much as I expect them to work with me.
  • It’s okay to have high standards, but remember we’re all human. Compassion first always. (Sometimes easier said than done through a computer screen!)

How a Freelancer Likes to Work: Keep the Information Flowing

The main theme here: Freelancers thrive on open communication, with direction, and when their content managers and editors give them feedback and company information that informs the content they’re helping create.

Yes, they appreciate freedom and creativity, but they also welcome constructive feedback and notes from their clients that make the task at hand more clear.

As with any business partnership, it’s important that both parties be open and honest about what they need. As long as this is happening, they can produce incredible, valuable content together.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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