Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Hire a Freelance Marketing Writer

Don’t Overlook These Three Important Considerations

If you’re a business seeking to hire a freelance writer to help with your marketing, you’re in luck.  It’s a buyer’s market out there. 

You’ve got many choices.  There are senior people – including journalists – who’ve been laid off from their companies due to the recession.  There are kids fresh out of college who will work for little or nothing (internships). There are even writing “chop shops” in India and other places that will churn out “plagiarism-free” and “copyscape proof” articles for a song (at least according to a poorly written email pitch that I recently received).  There are established firms (like mine) that often will take on writing assignments for non-retainer clients.

Before hiring a freelance marketing writer, it’s important of course to ascertain that the writer has:
  • Verifiable writing samples (see here for a creative tip on how to verify work samples)
  • Expertise in your industry, the topic, and/or the type of writing assignment
  • Solid knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, standard proofreaders' marks and other tools of the writing trade
  • Recent references

Today it’s easy for almost anyone to hang out a virtual shingle as a freelance writer, given cheap broadband connections, computers, web services, free WiFi connections at coffee shops and libraries, and other technology.  While you may be able to get a great deal with a “newbie” freelancer, realize that there’s often a price to pay – in your time and money – associated with being a newbie’s first client.

Here are three equally important considerations when hiring a writer – things that aren’t often asked or ascertained up front that can result in events that can make the relationship go sour later.

Confidentiality and Security:  How does the writer handle your confidential information?  How and where is it stored, and how is it protected?  If your writer works remotely via WiFi from a work-sharing space or the local Starbucks, how does he make sure that your confidential information and work product don't get lost or stolen?  Does he use thumb drives or mobile devices to store your work?  Does he seem cavalier about privacy and personal security?

How does your writer treat the client relationship – as a confidential relationship or as public information to share on Facebook, LinkedIn, his blog, or Foursquare?  (Tip:  If client confidentiality is important to you, make sure to check out the writer’s social media profile before hiring him. And then agree up front on any confidentiality requirements.)

Technology Practices:   Does your writer regularly back up his work product to off-system and off-site media?  How frequently?  Is the writer sending your work product or confidential documents using free email or FTP services – or does he have his own domain name/secure email server and secure email account?  Does he have a clear-sounding telephone line, for conducting phone interviews or participating in conference calls with you?  Does he run a second digital recorder when interviewing an important product expert or a customer? 

Business Practices and Comportment: Does the writer have established rates and policies for billing you, or does he appear to be making it up as he goes along? Does he give you a defined statement of work and an estimate before beginning work?  If the writer works from a home office, will there be a dog barking or toddler crying in the background during your calls?  When interviewing an important executive, does the writer type notes while conducting the interview to “save time” instead of focusing on the interview and content collection?  Does the writer speak clearly and understandably during calls, without trendy speech affectations like vocal fry or up talk?  Does he listen?

Does the writer understand business email etiquette? For example, are his transmittal emails written with the understanding that they may be instantly forwarded to others?  Does he understand that his emails may live in your corporate archives far into the future, and act accordingly?

How do I know that these things matter when hiring a writer?  

First, because I am seeing more and more of my larger clients specify or prohibit behaviors in their contractor agreements. Which tells me that they have experienced some of these problems and their fallout frequently enough to warrant revamping a contractual document.

Second, because I’ve been hired by clients to replace other writers who practiced bad behaviors – not because of the poor quality of their work product or their inability to meet deadlines. (In fact, I once acquired a new writing client because the incumbent’s recorder batteries had run out during an important executive interview.) 

Experienced working writers will have answers to the questions above. They know that their business is not just delivering marketing copy, but also delivering confidence and convenience for the client.


  1. So here's a question relating to technology. I go regularly back up my interviews to a separate drive -- in fact, that's the first thing I do after I finish interviews. But as I get older, I worry about notes etc. that my client might need if I'm incapacitated. Any thoughts about using Dropbox, Carbonite, or some other online system to securely (key word) save in-process documents for clients? Keep in mind that I'm also concerned that they'll accidentally download material from the cloud that's not ready yet. How have you handled this situation?

  2. Howard, thanks for reading my blog and for your question. It's a really good one, and I don't have a good answer for it. I share your concern about sharing work-in-progress because of potential/accidental mis-use. Some of my clients have their own (secure) marketing project management systems, which generally work well for this. For clients that don't have such systems, I (for now) take a simpler approach. Because of my process, I am sharing (via email) parts of the work product as the project commences, starting with the input manifest and audio files or transcripts of the interview(s) and leading to delivery of the first draft of the text. So the client has "safe" WIP on file. Once I deliver the final draft of the text, all the key parts of the project go into a "public" project archive folder, which I can ZIP and send to the client if they want it. This "public" folder is part of the master project archive folder, which has all the info related to the project. I retain for X years so I have an audit trail.