Earlier this week, Sharon Flaherty wrote a post for Econsultancy, titled “Want quality content? Produce it in-house”. I bookmarked it, which usually means I disagree on several points so here are some reflections and tips on deciding whether your content (and what content exactly) should be created in-house or not.
I also added my thoughts on the in-house versus outsourcing question regarding content marketing in general.
Let me begin with a few basic, yet crucial postulates.
1. In marketing, business and, yes, life itself, there is never a universal truth. What works for one company or person is not replicable for another. You cannot define the best day to send an email for a specific campaign or company, you cannot say what the best approach to social media is for all organizations and you cannot say that, in order to have quality content, you need to produce it in-house. It always depends. Furthermore, “this or that” answers are black and white and ignore the many shades of grey in between. Finally, there might be answers you don’t even consider because you focus on two possibilities only.
2. Content production, and content marketing as such, are very broad concepts that hide a rich variety of purposes, reader oriented needs, content types, processes, etc. In order to answer the questions you might have to produce content, you need to know what the content is for, what’s its’ place in the overall marketing approach and much more. The context matters a lot, and content really is not something that you can reduce to a simple tangible object. It has a social, individual, emotional and business aspect that is very diverse.
3. Producing content is not a matter of writing (or filming, for that matter). Content production is a matter of understanding the global picture, collaboration, defining goals, understanding the topic, identifying the needs of readers, getting all aspects right (social dimension, personality, conversion,…) and, probably most of all, a lot of empathy and good understanding of the psychology of the company and the reader. Content is not a written object. It’s a social and emotional object that has a relational and contextual dimension.
Why would a business produce content in-house?
Let me resume Sharon’s thoughts for you.
- First of all, she has experienced that “having someone in-house producing editorial content produces better quality results” than hiring an agency.
- Next, she has experienced that agencies overcharge and under deliver.
- She splits up the content decision in two parts: defining what type of content you are going to produce and, next, who will produce it.
- She claims that, when you hire someone in-house to produce content, this gives you more control over the process (quality control) and that people who are part of a company “just care more” and, on top of that, they know the business inside out.
Sharon is not against outsourcing but a company should hire at least an in-house content writer and only use freelancers when necessary (for instance: urgencies) or for specific kinds of content such as infographics.
Finally, Sharon has experiences with many so-called quality content providers, who sent her copy with typos (which is failing at the basics, she says) and advices to avoid agencies when outsourcing part of content production and build a network of solid freelancers instead.
So, in a nutshell she advices to avoid “someone who has been given a brief and may never have stepped foot inside your company and may never even have heard of it” and likes the idea of someone working in-house who is then also “directly accountable”.
What is quality content?
Sharon has several valid points. You really have to be careful when working with content agencies, I had personal experiences myself whereby you want to bang your head against the wall when looking at the results but, then again, I must admit I’m probably not the best person to give a solid briefing. Obviously, there are also several kinds of agencies and freelancers and it never hurts to have someone in-house and a good network of freelancers.
However, these personal experiences are not really the key issue here. It’s more a question of having an overall perspective on content marketing, defining processes and hiring and involving the right people while looking far beyond the content itself. Content is not a goal, it’s a means to an end. You cannot measure its quality and efficiency, using typos (they bother me as well though and I have lots of them) but by using business and engagement KPIs. Content does not equal a text. Content production also doesn’t equal SEO copy writing and even not copy writing in the traditional sense. It’s exactly this restricted view that still makes so many businesses see content as a commodity with a fixed price. When you produce content, your aim is to produce results. Those results matter first and foremost.
Decisions regarding the content marketing and content production process
I found this nice little post by my friend Michele Linn (hi Michele, been too long) on the blog of Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing Institute: “Looking for Help with Content Marketing? Tips on What to Outsource.” where a few industry people share their thoughts on the matter. Here are some quotes I find particularly relevant in the context of this post:
“I believe that the writing part of content production is easier to outsource than people think. I think it is a fallacy that content production has to be 100% by the internal expert to be genuine » (John Bottom)
“While starting content marketing can be overwhelming, it’s most important to keep elements that are most critical to your business in-house”. (Heidi Cohen).
“First take an assessment of your internal staff skills, and perhaps more importantly, the time you ha veavailable”. (Scott Frangos). BTW: did you notice the typo in this one?
Obviously, Junta42, the company behind the Content Marketing Institute has some interest in having people outsourcing part of their content marketing and production processes. However, this doesn’t mean many of the answers are very relevant. And the conclusion is clearly “One of the most common aspects of content marketing to outsource is creation”.
My tips, based on my experience and on a more holistic view on the content production process
1. Find out what matters most for your business, customers and readers. Whether it’s content for a blog, website, landing page, customer case or other formats: the quality of content is not defined by grammatical rules, typos and writing skills but by the readers and their needs, as well as the results you aim to have (which is not an excuse for badly written content).
2. Define the place of content in the marketing process. Make sure you have someone on board who looks at the content from the overall perspective in a channel agnostic way. Look at the place of content in the buying journey, social interaction, generating relevant traffic, engaging people and whatever else you may find. In this stage, you can hire an experienced content marketer that very often can also guide you through the production process and even actual production. The sooner you involve someone, the more they will understand your business, customers and goals.
3. Make an inventory. What content do you have? What can be used to produce the content you need for your blog, website, etc.? Presentations? Cases? Even brochures and manuals? Furthermore, identify, depending on goal and medium, who in the company can be involved in the content production process. This is especially true in blogging, for instance: show the faces that constitute your brand and let them speak. Train them.
4. Do the math. The in-house or outsourcing decision depends on the goals and resources. Do you have the time? Do you have the skills to make it engaging, found, shared, converting, etc.? Can you hire someone and is it necessary? What about the outsourcing alternative? It all depends: do the math for your business. Finally, don’t forget the opportunity cost.
5. Don’t hire monkeys. It’s wrong to assume that in-house people are more motivated to produce quality content. A good content partner will want to be involved in an early stage, get to know your business, its culture and customers, the people working in it, etc. For him or her, the production part is nearly a detail. They want to make you succeed, and some will even charge a part depending on the results they achieve while working with you, instead of just the “production cost”. The problem, however, is that most businesses still don’t see the overall picture and pay per hour or per number of words. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys. Define goals with your partner that go beyond “word count”. If you recruit in-house: don’t hire monkeys either.
6. Define processes. Every business function is about people and processes. “Control” over content is a very archaic approach. You want to control the business outcome. Furthermore, content marketing and production is team work since it involves so many dimensions, as well within the company as regarding business functions.
In the end, you are responsible for whom you hire. You are also responsible for setting your goals. If you hire people or agencies that deliver bad content, it’s probably your fault as well. You might have a traditional view on the value of content as a commodity (in that case, please never contact me), you might not have done the math (and simply look at content as copywriting) or you might have recruited someone too late (content does not come at the end of the chain).
There are many other tips and possible reasons for failing when outsourcing content production but whatever you do, never look at content as a “product”, always look at it as a means to a measurable end.
Oh, and it’s better to get the business know-how in-house. However, most businesses don’t have it though. A good content marketing partner and even content production partner will want you to succeed and transfer his know-how as well. If he is really good beyond the production part, you will not want to lose him. Trust me.