The best content teams are hybrids.
In most world-class content organizations, you’ll find in-house employees, freelancers and content marketing agencies working in unison, a combined effort for which the result is greater than the sum of its parts. This isn’t unique to small content teams either. Outsourced content is more than a stopgap on the road to a full in-house team—virtually every big, established content team regularly partners with freelancers and agencies.
The best content teams are hybrids.
Hybrid teams have emerged for one simple reason: each of these three content contributors possesses unique skills, expert specializations and powerful networks. The best content marketing results from using these complementary specializations together.
To understand how hybrid content teams work in practice, I chatted with three experienced content leads: Alycia Mitchell (head of content marketing at GoDaddy), Rob Wade (content marketing director at CallRail), and Joei Chan (director of content at 360Learning).
In-House for Ownership, Product Marketing and “Content Services”
Alycia, Rob and Joei all lead content marketing at their respective companies. Their jobs, in a nutshell, are ownership of the company’s content marketing.
As Joei explained, “There are things that you cannot outsource, like making sure that every single piece of content, it's not just great, but also mapped with the strategy.” The team leads are in charge of the strategic direction, tasked with ensuring that every piece of content serves the business’ goals. They have to communicate the impact of their content marketing with company leadership.
Ownership is a big task. Joei explained that “managing the strategy and tracking performance and just making sure everything doesn't break is a full-time job.” Before the team leads reach the breaking point, they need to enlist help. As Rob explained, the next step is to ask: “What makes sense to keep in house, and what makes sense to get help for?”
There were two common themes among the “in-house” jobs-to-be-done:
- Product marketing. Some content requires deep product knowledge, making it faster and easier to create in-house. As Rob explains, “Our content team is four members, and we all do our share of writing too.... we may have one of us write a blog post that dovetails it into one of our products.” It’s a similar story at GoDaddy, where in-house contributors use their product knowledge to review the accuracy of content contributions from outside the organization.
- Content services. As companies grow, demand for content from other internal teams grows alongside—something we call “content services.” This content—like demand gen ebooks or sales collateral—often requires collaboration across multiple departments, giving the edge to an in-house hire. Rob experienced this at CallRail: “We started getting a lot of internal requests. And so that's how we ended up hiring the [in-house] writer.”
In order to get the best from collaboration with freelancers and agencies, there’s one extra necessity for the in-house team to handle: coordination.
A core part of Alycia’s role at GoDaddy is assigning the right content to the right resource based on a thorough vetting of their skills and interests: “I evaluate the samples that I'm getting from the freelancer or the agency to understand, Oh, okay, this is the realm of what they can speak to...then when you're ideating, you can already be thinking about who you might want to assign stuff to.”
In a similar vein, Rob spends time and energy on solid briefs to ensure partners have the information they need: “There's always a garbage in garbage out proposition. You've got to put yourself in the shoes of your agency and your writers, and ask 'Do I have the information I need to write it?' Proper briefings are essential.”
Freelancers for Diversity, Flexibility and Supporting Content
The GoDaddy blog gets most of its content from a network of freelance web designers and web developers. Many content teams take a similar path because of the perception of lower costs, but for Alycia, the benefit is more fundamental: it’s the best way to ensure a diversity of voice, opinion and expertise.
Rob echoed this experience: “We're the stewards and the curators of the content, but we're not dictators...good ideas come from everywhere.” This diversity has a knock-on impact on content distribution: many freelancers have their own engaged audiences developed over years of sustained content creation.
As Alycia shared, “There are some great people out there who have found a great niche of being connectors to specific audiences.” By partnering with freelancers, GoDaddy benefits from built-in content distribution and the social proof of their veteran authors.
Partnering with freelancers has pragmatic benefits, too. As Rob pointed out, “There are always going to be shorter term content needs, things that crop up and just need getting done,” like support for one-off marketing campaigns. Joei shared that these demands can be hard to meet through other channels—when it’s “not a sustained thing, you cannot just hire an extra person or increase the budget with an agency overnight.”
Freelancers can often accommodate this short-term demand, are able to create ad-hoc content on a shorter timescale, and are willing to ramp-down when the need is over. For Rob, this flexibility is particularly useful for creating supporting resources, additional content types that improve the performance of CallRail’s in-house- or agency-created content, including:
- Vertical-specific content: Taking an existing article and creating a new version tailored to the needs and idiosyncrasies of a different industry
- Email content: Creating newsletters to help promote new content or email drip sequences to help nurture subscribers
- SEO content: Providing freelancers with keyword-optimized SEO briefs to help create spoke content to support their existing content hubs
In each case, Alycia, Rob and Joei all shared the same opinion, summarized here by Joei: “I always recommend working with the same freelancers because then you don't have to re-brief them...if you find a good freelance person, you hold onto them.”
Agencies for Problem-Solving, Low Overhead and High Quality
Managing a network of freelancers requires a huge amount of organizational overhead—finding and vetting contributors, creating pitches and content briefs, editing and publishing the finished product.
That’s where agencies have the edge. By offering support across every part of the content marketing workflow, agencies can create content with little oversight. As Joei said, “As long as they understand the ecosystem, they can write more or less on autopilot, with minimum guidance.”
This help extends beyond just content creation. At CallRail, Rob partners with agencies when he’s looking for world-class expertise in a particular area—be it long-form content, video or design. For Alycia, content marketing agencies are specialists brought in to help with the hardest parts of content marketing: “[for] some of the other brands that I've worked for, [hiring an agency] was more about solving specific problems.”
Each team lead partners with an agency to ensure that mission-critical elements of their strategy are handled in the best possible way:
- Creating cornerstone content: Rob partners with agencies to create “tent-pole content,” crucial cornerstone articles and guides designed to have a lasting impact for months and years to come. “We're using you guys as our content experts...for deep dive, authoritative content.”
- Content ideation: It’s a challenge for Alycia to keep her freelance writers stocked with useful, strategic content ideas, so she enlists the help of agency partners to help translate keyword opportunities into concrete content ideas.
- Editorial guidance: As Joei explained, “The editorial aspect of [content marketing], whether it's up to standards, it's almost a separate skillset.” She partners with agencies that can help plug this skill gap, using their editing team to safeguard the quality of all 360Learning's content.
Alycia pointed out that great agencies can even function as the connecting tissue among different elements of your content marketing operation. They can interview subject matter experts, work with your in-house sales team, and coordinate with freelancers. The result: content that’s more cohesive and an in-house team that’s less stretched. “If you can take some of the pressure off your own operations and not have to do middleman stuff, if an agency is willing to do that, that's awesome,” said Alycia.
Content Marketing Is Hard; Get Help Wherever It’s Available
360Learning, CallRail and GoDaddy are three different companies at three different stages of growth. But instead of “outgrowing” freelancers and agency relationships and looking to bring everything in-house, they each see huge value from ongoing partnerships. As Joei explains, “We’re keeping the agency and we're scaling the in-house hiring at the same time.”
In Alycia’s words, “It's not like, 'Oh, agencies are great and freelancers are good and in-house is the best.'” The one commonality between each team is their recognition of the different perspectives, skills and areas of expertise on offer. The best content doesn't come from any single source but a combination—after all, growing a blog is hard work. A hybrid content team is a pragmatic solution to the hard problems of content marketing. As Rob, Alycia and Joei each explained, it makes sense to enlist help wherever it's available.