To Keep Content Development In-house or Outsource - A Blended Approach Might be Best

We spend most of our time helping organizations formulate and execute content strategies, and creating great content. It’s our bread and butter. I’ve read a lot recently, from a number sources, about how organizations should bring content production in-house. The reasons for these opinions fall into one of several common content creation issues, from external authors lacking industry expertise, to agencies ripping off their customers by doing ad buys and not passing along rebates. And, no surprise, there are a lot of issues that can come from hiring external resources to create your content. But making the blanket statement that any organization should bring content production in-house ignores a number of problems can come with that approach as well. Problems that can harm marketing efforts for products and services, or make content marketing completely ineffective. In this article I’m going break down both sides of the issue, then I’ll tell you strategies that can overcome the hurdles on both sides. Let’s get started.

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The Issues with Outsourcing Content Development

I’ll just paraphrase some of the statement’s I’ve read in a few articles recently:

  • You can’t outsource your content marketing because you lose control.
  • External authors can’t write about your products or industry because they don’t have the expertise or depth of knowledge needed to write something relevant.
  •  Agencies’ content doesn’t deliver your brand voice.
  • Many put their profit margins above the best interests of their clients, which results ineffective, and expensive content marketing.

Let me respond to each of these statements individually. On second thought, at this point I’ll respond to all at once: they’re all true. But the issues are not as black and white as those statements make them out to be. They are much more nuanced (see a good article on the dangers of outsourcing your content from Shane Snow). We’ll look at that in a little bit, before we do, let’s look at the issues surrounding bringing content in-house.

In-house Content Creation Challenges

As we said at the start of this article, bringing content creation in-house brings with it a new set of problems. These are problems we are often brought in to solve. These problems include:

  • Finding SMEs (or time on SMEs schedules) to create content: Your in-house marketing team are likely marketers, not subject matter experts (SMEs). To get that deep expertise into your content, you need your SMEs to create content. To do that they need time in their schedule, or as SMEs often put it, “time away from doing my real job.” Getting any time from SMEs at all can be challenging. Getting consistent time on the calendar every few weeks to develop a consistent content stream can very difficult. Getting time from SMEs as a product is about to launch or an event is about to run can be nearly impossible. 
  • Finding good and willing writers: The fact of the matter is, some people don’t like writing, some hate it, still others simply aren’t good at it. Getting written content out of these people can be like pulling teeth. It either doesn’t get done on time, doesn’t get done at all, or isn’t to the depth or quality your team needs. The fact of the matter is, if a SME doesn’t like writing or isn’t good at it, they will likely never produce good written content. The issue may not end there, many marketers don’t like or aren’t good at writing either, so there’s no guarantee the marketing team can pick up a piece of content and finish it.
  • Visual and video content challenges: Content isn’t all about writing, although that’s often the starting point. Great written content should include visuals, as written content with images are much more likely to be read, and shared ( see these stats from Jesse Mawhinney). But that doesn’t mean dumping a picture into an article to break up the text flow. The old saying goes that a picture speaks a thousand words. That’s what great visuals are supposed to do, bring home the point you’re writing about, in a compelling, emotionally provoking way that will connect with the audience and even compel action.  Even picking the best colors is part art, and part science asBethany Cartwright points out in her article. Beyond this, not all content is written. Content can be an infographic, a GIF, or a video, or an audio interview. Creating these types of content takes an entirely different skillset from writing. Bringing content entirely in-house means that you also need to bring graphic design, image, audio, and video skills in-house to do this other type of content.
  • Next leveling your content:  Great content tells a story. Storytelling is how we humans have passed on life lessons, our history, and our most important beliefs. Great content is about capturing the content consumer’s attention, relating with them on some level, and transferring knowledge or compelling action.  Great storytelling draws us in, makes us connect emotionally, and leaves us wanting more, or wanting to do something more. Storytelling is the natural evolution of great content. Telling your brand’s story well takes a lot of skill, knowledge, and preparation. From defining customer personas, to identifying pain points relevant to those customers, to determining which online channels to reach those customers. That’s all before you create any content!

The Results? Content Hacking vs. Content Strategy

No offense to all those individuals who call themselves content hackers (or content ninjas, or content what have yous), they’re great people who work hard creating content. That said, no organization should be content hacking. Organizations should be executing a thoughtful, well planned content strategy designed to achieve business goals.

When content duties are passed around internally, and some of these problems manifest themselves, the content strategy is what suffers. Good writers step up, and bad writers don’t show up. The content mix is inconsistent. You may get plenty of content for the product that has a SME who likes to write, and none for the product with the SME that hates to write. The makes it very hard to execute on content plan or meet publication and promotion deadlines around marketing initiatives.

The digital marketing team can end up suffering through an arduous process of planning content, coordinating with SMEs, not getting the content, then scrambling to back fill by writing content themselves. This is usually a stressful and thankless experience. Remember, the marketing team aren’t SMEs. They likely will not be able to create content that is as deep as the content being authored by internal SMEs. On top of that, if they are jumping in to finish something, it’s usually at the last minute. Working late to get something out that is substandard compared to other content, doesn’t work wonders for team moral or audience engagement.

The other option, of course, is to skip or postpone content that isn’t finished. That can create lopsided execution of a content strategy. Leaving some products and services with lots of supporting content, and others with little or none. If content on key product and service value propositions is missing, it makes it very difficult to create content that speaks to the overall value delivered by a brand across all of its product and service lines.

This extra churn may also prevent the marketing team from doing other key marketing tasks such as creating competency on content types like infographics or videos, or exploring new social networks. There are also a myriad of other things a content team should be doing to maximize the value of the content they create such as setting up gated landing pages to capture emails for content downloads, measuring and analyzing content effectiveness to optimize content strategy, and repurposing content in different form factors or on different channels to get more reach. All of these activities can suffer if the content strategy is reduced to a content scramble (see this Kissmetrics article on the ways in which a content strategy can fail). In the worst cases this sort of experience can suck the enthusiasm out of the marketing team altogether. 

Putting the Pieces Back Together to Make a Blended Approach

So insourcing has issues, and outsourcing has issues. What’s the solution? A thoughtful approach, that recognizes both internal and external issues, and plans for them. An approach where the organization remains engaged with content creation, distribution, and results analysis. All with a focus on achieving the goals defined in the content strategy. This can be done by your in-house marketing team. It can also be entirely outsourced. We typically recommend, and we find that most organizations benefit from a blended approach, in-sourcing what you can, but using outsourced resources and agencies to make your content better, or do the things you can’t such as graphics or video. Let’s take the issues from both sides and see how a blended approach might solve them:

  • Outsource Issue: You can’t outsource your content marketing because you lose control. You should never fully outsource your content marketing. If you just hand it off, you’re trusting to fate your content will be good and will work well to achieve your goals. That’s never a good idea. Your marketing team lead (be they a VP of marketing or Tom the owner/ sales lead / marketing lead), and any other marketing team members, product managers, or others who you deem essential need to have input and remain plugged into the process. Your organization needs to have approval authority over content decisions (that means it has veto power as well). Agencies often try to streamline the process because fewer stakeholders, and fewer reviewers makes it easier to finish content. From the agency perspective, unlimited iterations of content, and unlimited revisions is not acceptable. From the client perspective, neither is zero. Find an acceptable middle ground, such as two to five review cycles depending on the complexity of the content, and put it in the contract. They’ll bill you for it, you’ll pay for, the content will be better for it. Just make sure those key people are identified, and give their input when they’re supposed to. More than that, build a strong working partnership, not just a relationship, with your agency. Work as a team to execute the content strategy. Make how well the agency works with your staff a key performance indicator that is evaluated when contracts come up for renewal.
  • Outsource issue: Agencies putting profit margins above the best interests of their clients. There’s no substitute for due diligence. You have to do your homework up front, get client references, and ask questions about agency billing polices, rebate policies, and anything else that is concerning to you. Make sure your concerns are addressed in the written contract, and make sure to manage that contract well. Review content performance against content strategy, and costs against budget weekly or bi-weekly.  You should always remain highly engaged with both your content and the agency that’s helping you create and market it.
  • Outsource and Insource Issue: External people don’t have the expertise, and my internal SMEs and marketing staff don’t have the time or can’t write their way out of kindergarten. First, expertise is data, and it’s essential for great content. But what you’re actually trying to do is execute an effective content marketing strategy. There’s more to that than data. The best information, if created, packaged, and promoted incorrectly will go nowhere. So how do you extract the insights that only your SMEs have when they don’t have time and can’t write? Interviewing SMEs is a great solution. It’s less time consuming for the SME, and shifts the writing to the marketing team. Both things the SME and SME’s manager will like. Once the interview is complete, have a writer author the content, and have the SME review it. You’ll get better content, faster, with more consistency.
  • Outsource Issue: Agencies content doesn’t deliver your brand voice.Maybe not, but maybe. The interview process described above certainly helps. Interviewing key stakeholders to develop core messages and value propositions, and SMEs to get product details and insights should allow internal or external content developers to capture quotes and phrases the bring the brand voice to life. But, beyond that, brand voice, like all communications, has two components -- what’s stated and what’s heard. Looking at prior content, prior publications, and community interactions can tell a lot about brand voice. A savvy agency will also look at the engagement, broken out by audience, social media network, and other factors to see what works the best. Essentially stepping beyond what the brand is saying, and tuning into what their audience is hearing. Doing that, it is quite possible to discover that the best brand voice is different than the brand thinks it is.
  • Insource issue: Next leveling your content with images, video, storytelling and great marketing. Executing a great content strategy requires great marketing skills and great content. You need to have all the pieces in place for that. Identify your internal strengths and weaknesses early, before any content campaigns start. Do a content and audience analysis, build customer personas and identify how to reach them. Brainstorm topics, hand out writing assignments, and see who delivers. Task your marketing team with adding images that add impact, create emotional connections to the written words. Have the marketing team create infographic, GIF, and video content to see how it looks. Compare the results to content from competitors, and brands that rock written, visual, and video marketing. If there’s anything you can’t do, hire for it. Either insourced or outsourced, choose the model that works best for you. However you choose to do it, if you want to do it right you need all the pieces in place and working from the same content strategy. 

Conclusion

A blended approach isn’t our invention. It’s the way a number of our clients approach content marketing, by filling the gaps in their capabilities. Taking that a step further, our initial engagement strategy is to ensure that we aren’t just doing an ad hoc content piece. That there is a content strategy. That the strategy maps to real business goals, and that content performance is being measured. In practice, we find a lot clients fall short in those critical planning, and content campaign preparation steps. So we frequently end up creating or solidifying content strategies so that they map to real goals, and have real, measureable KPIs. We also end up doing a lot of the content and audience analysis, and persona creation. Then we help fill in the gaps in the content creation process where the client has need, often with image, infographic, and video work. We also often take long form content such as whitepapers and condense them into compelling shorter posts for blogs or social networks. This blended approach lends itself to good communication. We can’t do our job without the client’s input, they can’t get what they need from us unless they provide that input. Good communication helps build a good working partnership. That can lead to very long running and successful relationships that are good for both the client and the agency.

Over to you

What are your good and bad experiences with content insourcing and outsourcing? Let me know in the comments.