The Dangers of Outsourcing Content Creation

You want to create some whitepapers, an e-book or maybe a brochure but none of your great product people are great writers.  No problem, you think to yourself, we can just hire some outside folks to write them for us.  You can, but it won’t be as easy as you think.

Your Writing Probably Sucks (not that there’s anything wrong with that)

Not everyone is a great writer even if they write a lot.  My writing is a perfect example of what a typical product marketer’s writing looks like.  People tell me my writing is “fine” but I know my grammar is lousy and I’m prone to using sentence structure that could politely be described as “creative” (hey, I’m an engineer by training and that English class I took in grade 12 is only going to take me so far).  I know this because I’ve had professional writers edit my work.  if you’ve never had a professional edit yours you might be shocked at how bad your “fine” writing is.

But my lack of writing skill hasn’t stopped me from writing dozens of whitepapers, brochures and articles and literally hundreds of pages of web content (not to mention 156 blog posts).  Most of the time good enough is good enough, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped startup.

But sometimes you will have some content that you know you are going to use like crazy in various forms and you don’t have the skills in-house.  Here are some tips on what to be careful about:

  1. Decide Why before Who – You might be launching a new product and need someone to help crank out a lot of content in a short period of time. You might just want help reviewing and editing pieces.  You might be looking to get content created by a recognized industry expert to back up your claims. Deciding why you need the help will make it easier for you to get a short list of who could help you.
  2. Industry Experience is Important – I can spot professionally written content from a mile away and sometimes that’s a bad thing.  The good side is that the language has a smoothness to it that few untrained writers can master.  The bad side is that it’s sometimes painfully clear that the writer has no clue what they’re writing about.  If I had to chose between smooth but stupid vs. a bit rough yet informative, I’m almost always going to go for the latter and I bet your customers will too.  Assume you are going to have to invest time in educating outside help on your product, messaging and value propositions.  Ideally you won’t have to start from scratch on your industry.
  3. Get Samples and Decide if the Style Matches What You’ve Already Got – Some folks like more flowery language.  Personally I like more journalistic-style writing that’s pretty plain. Make sure your writer is going to deliver something that fits with the tone of what you already have.
  4. Great Writing doesn’t Ensure Great Content (Great Management Does) – I’ve seen folks throw projects to outside writers with little direction and then they accept almost anything that comes back. Which is nuts!  A great case study, for example, is really hard to write.  You need to decide which parts of your value proposition the story will highlight, how to structure the story to best bring those points out, what quotes you will want to re-use from the story, what proof-points you would like to have to back up the value, etc. If you don’t clearly lay that out before the story gets written up, it’s going to be a crappy story.  No outside writer is going to nail that without a lot of help from someone who is much closer to your messaging.

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44 thoughts on “The Dangers of Outsourcing Content Creation”

  1. April,

    I have been thinking a lot about content lately and the challenge of being a good writer. It really is a tough job that I would argue can be supplemented with outside resources but should never be completely outsourced. Planning your content strategy takes product insights that are not going to be found outside.

    I really also love the idea that it is better to be “bit rough yet informative” than “smooth but stupid”.

    Thanks for the great post,

    Josh

    1. Hey Josh,
      Thanks for the comment. It really is a balance I think. Some folks outsource too much in my opinion, others could benefit from a bit of help, even if it’s just the occasional but of copyediting.
      April

  2. I liked this post…lots. (Particularly the subhead “Your Writing Probably Sucks”.) It hit home!

    I’ve worked in several capacities outlined above. Internal wordie, outside “consultant” and manager of outside “consultant”.

    A content/writing strategy should be more than just deciding that your HR Director’s nephew, an English Literature major, can handle the task because he got an A on his “Heart of Darkness” paper. Sometimes all you need is an impartial set of eyes (an editor) to make sure you’re on message and your commas are in the right spot. Again, not the nephew!

    If you do plan on hiring an external writer, I think it’s SO important to know what you need and who can deliver that.

    In a sense, I can understand why you would want to hire a writer with experience in your industry – the language/lingo comes easy; a familiarity with issues like legislation or limitations; etc. At the same time, there’s something to be said for using a (good) writer who is diverse, flexible and new to your business/industry.

    For example, who better than to professionally write customer-facing content than a potential (or even current) customer of your product? When you’re too close to the product or sector, it can be difficult to step outside of that box and position something objectively. A good professional writer can do so in many different voices (think: speech writers or ghost writers – both art forms in and of themselves!).

    In my experience, a good writer will do more than just put pen to paper, so to speak. A good writer will research the business, its competition and work closely with the client to make sure messaging, tone and structure are on track.

    So as April noted above, there are many dangers and pitfalls to hiring an external writer (or editor) for your content strategy; but if you head in that direction, as the client, it’s important to conduct your own research and set out goals and expectations from the outset. This way, you don’t end up with a 30 page, nephew written dissertation on the background, pros and cons of your product/service, when all you needed was some solidly written marketing/sales copy.

    Thanks for the post April!

    1. Really good writers can write in a style that matches the client’s objectives. Don’t just ask for samples, tell potential partners what feel you’re looking for and ask for samples that fit. If you’re not sure, work with the writer to find a few stylistic approaches.

      There are people out there with the ability to grasp highly technical concepts who can also write compelling copy. Finding someone with an aptitude for your product category accelerates the learning curve. You need someone who is really going to take the time to understand what the offer is before they start writing.

      Your last point is the most important. The fundamentals need to be in place first. I’ve been asked to write for companies who made their first sales without really understanding how their product fit in the market. In the most dramatic case, an initial assignment to write brochure copy evolved into helping the founders write an internal business plan and marketing strategy. Without those fundamentals, the brochure wouldn’t have been as effective, no matter how well written it was.

    2. Hi Sam,
      Thanks so much for the comment!
      the biggest reason you would want someone who knows something about the customer base you are selling into is that you might be able to save yourself some time and effort in getting them up to speed on that part of it (because you are for sure going to spend time teaching them about your products and messages). I totally agree with you though about the dangers of getting too close to a market. I see that as a bit of a problem especially where the market is changing quickly.
      April

  3. April,

    Another point for the check list: If you do outsource, don’t be afraid to edit the %&$^$ out of what you get back. Just because you are paying huge dollars for the writer doesn’t mean you have to accept what they write on face value. The writer will also expect significant red-lining of at least the first draft.

    And if you’ve done all the expectation setting, management goals, etc. and you still get junk, don’t be afraid to dump the writer and change course. Sunk costs are irrelevant and why spend good money after bad.

    On the other hand, if the writer you hire is fabulous, tell them so – and still do the redlining.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Good point! I think editing is really, really important. And just because your own writing might be crap doesn’t mean you have to accept what you are given, especially if the content sounds vacant.
      April

  4. Great post. Do you think it’s worthwhile to take a writing class or do you think it’s just a matter of reading and writing a lot?
    Mike

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the comment. I do think that you get better at writing the more you do it and I think there is a lot you can learn from reading well-written stuff. That said, grammar is actually harder than you think and a course would really help that. I personally could really stand to do a writing class for exactly that reason.
      April

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