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The CMO’s Guide to Building a Lean Content Team

Many marketing leaders say that content marketing is the future.  Hubspot found that marketers who prioritize blogging are 13 times more likely to have a positive ROI. As a result, content marketing initiatives are popping up across many industries. U.S. companies are expected to spend $50 billion on content marketing this year alone. Here at TINT, we’re big fans of using content to tell your company’s story and connect with customers. But content development can be a lengthy and resource-intensive process. It requires an ongoing commitment to producing high quality content and a solid strategy for promoting those materials.

So how do you build a stellar content strategy for your company, without making a huge investment upfront?

The truth is, there’s no one-size fits all solution for building a content marketing team. Because content is still a developing area of marketing, and an inherently creative one, the “ideal team” and the “perfect strategy” for creating winning content don’t really exist yet — which means you might need to test the waters before you commit to one system. However, starting out with a lean, agile content team can give you a solid foundation and help get your content ideas up and running.

Minimum Viable Content Team: The Lean Approach to Building Your Content Team

In the past few years Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology has been embraced by countless companies for being a fast, light, flexible way of getting ideas off the ground and into the market. Some of the key concepts of this method — such as staying lean, and focusing on developing and iterating a product quickly — can be borrowed when building your content marketing team. Building a lean, agile content team is a great starting point for companies looking to set up a content strategy, or to begin scaling their content production.

Many companies are having success building teams of distributed or freelance content writers, while keeping a very lean in-house team. TINT’s content team includes writers like me who bring fresh ideas to the table without becoming full time members of the team. If you aren’t sure how content marketing will fit into your broader marketing goals quite yet, or if you’re experimenting with scaling out your content team, leveraging freelancers is a great strategy that’s relatively low-risk.

The In-House Team: Your Strategic Core

There are a few key competencies that any content marketing team should have. You might want to hire people to fill these roles, or you might be able to leverage existing employees with the appropriate skill sets to fill some of these needs. Either way, be sure you have the capacity to fulfill these roles in order to jumpstart your lean content team:

The Editor

Someone needs to own your content strategy from end to end. They’ll serve as the gatekeeper to publishing, the arbiter of ideas, and the manager of writers.  Your editor needs to understand your audience inside and out. He or she should be great at balancing the big-picture strategy with a detail-oriented eye that catches even the tiniest of grammar mistakes. They need to be a good manager who can keep writers motivated and who will recognize great story ideas from the start.

The Promoter

Your content isn’t going to reach its audience if you’re not promoting it adequately, so you need someone committed to amplifying your content and building your online presence. Already have a community manager or a social media guru on staff? They might be a great person to take on this role, because community engagement and content marketing go hand in hand.

On this blog, we’ve turned social media into a public community listening tool — we created a TINT to pull in any mention of our blog posts from the social web. It gives our writers and editors insight into how our audience is engaging with our posts, and since it is embedded at the bottom of every post, it gives our readers a chance to engage with each other through social media.

The Strategist

Content marketing is all about telling your story, but having a strategist who’s great at gleaning insights from data is an indispensable component of a good marketing team. Once your content is out in the world and getting traction, you’ll need someone to keep track of its performance and decide what to do when a piece goes viral, or flops entirely. Having a data-oriented, results-driven strategist as part of your core team is the important to ensuring that your content lives up to its full potential.

When you’re trying to keep your team lean, finding the right mix of skills in as few people as possible is critical. You might find that these three competencies can be fulfilled by a single person. Or you might discover that existing members of your marketing team can perform these three tasks. No matter how you decide to develop your content team, it’s important that these core skills are present in order to make the most of your content strategy.

Developing a Freelance Writing Force

Why Freelancers?

You probably noticed that “writing” wasn’t one of the core competencies I listed above. That’s because with the lean model, the brunt of your writing power should come from freelancers and contractors. Leveraging freelancers helps you tap a huge knowledge base and continuously find new ideas and perspectives on the topics you cover, while keeping your marketing team lean and agile. Writers aren’t the only freelancers you can hire — visual designers, podcasting pros, and other specialists can be great resources to bring into the fold as you develop your content strategy.

There are times when hiring freelancers or contractors isn’t the best option. If you’re in a very specialized or technical space, where the content you’re developing requires a deep understanding of a specific topic, then you might want to invest in finding a few full-time writers. Alternatively, if you’re planning to produce tons of content, then having writers on staff dedicated to producing high-quality pieces constantly can be more effective than trying to outsource every single project. Nevertheless, even if you have a few full-time writers on staff, leveraging freelance writers can be a great method of bolstering your content production flow.

Sourcing Your Content Creators

The way you find content writers will depend on a variety of factors, from budget constraints to content volume needs. There are two main approaches to finding freelance workers, and both have their merits and shortcomings.

Contracting with Individual Freelancers

If you’re looking to build relationships with writers, you can reach out directly to writers to work with them, or post a contract role on a job board. Contracting with individual freelancers on an ongoing basis is the best way to ensure that you’ll get the highest-quality content, as you’ll work closely with the writer. They’ll get to know your brand, your style, and preferences. This type of freelancer can be expensive, depending on their level of experience, but when you find one that fits well with your marketing team, their experience and work ethic can be invaluable. If you want to have the most control over your content, contracting is the way to go.

Using Content Platforms

In the old days, “content farms” churned out fast content for dirt-cheap, but the quality was generally pretty low. Today, content platforms like Scripted and WriterAccess provide high-quality pieces at an affordable rate. These platforms are more cost-effective than working directly with writers, but give you a little less control over who writes your content, and how well they do so. I’ve written and edited projects for some of these platforms, and while I’ve noticed that the quality of the work they produce can be somewhat hit-or-miss, overall they provide solid content writing services with a decent turnaround. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, content platforms can be worth giving a test run at the very least.

Here’s an insider secret to getting the very best content out of these content platforms: be specific about what you want. Here more than anywhere it’s important to be explicit about what you’re looking for.

I’ve had plenty of projects on these platforms that end up being time-consuming headaches because a client didn’t provide appropriate guidelines from the start. I’ve also had great experiences, where the client gave me a detailed explanation of what they wanted, and examples of pieces they liked. Since clients generally don’t interface directly with writers on these platforms, it’s important to give the writers as much information about what you need as you can. If you can do that well, then content platforms can be a great resource for building out your content capacity.

Developing a Freelance Team

Once you have some great freelance writers on board, it’s time to start cultivating them as resources for creating great content on a regular basis. While there are plenty of freelance writers out there to choose from, taking the time to find and keep those writers who will consistently produce amazing work and click well with your team shouldn’t be undervalued.

Treat freelances like part of your team

The best freelancer relationships are often ongoing ones. While your freelancers and contractors probably won’t be coming into the office and spending the day with you, it’s important to make them feel like they’re part of the team. Do your best to communicate with contractors regularly and keep them in the loop if any major changes are being made to your team’s structure. You might even want to bring them into the office every once in a while for a brainstorming session (or happy hour!). Cultivating strong relationships with your freelancers is the best way to make sure that they’re giving you 110% all the time.

Leverage their experience

Freelancers aren’t just content-generating robots; they often have creative ideas and unique skills to bring to the table. Many of them are great at thinking strategically about the pieces they write, and can help not just with content production, but with developing ideas. If you have regular contractors that you like working with, feel free to include them in brainstorming sessions to tap into their content expertise.

Communicate Goals Clearly

Whether you’re bringing someone in for a one-time project or working with them on an ongoing basis, communication can make or break your relationship with a freelancer. If you have specific requirements or needs, don’t leave your freelancers guessing. Instead, try to be as clear and thorough as possible when explaining the parameters of a project. You may want to develop an in-house style guide to share with contractors, or you might just provide examples of awesome content that you want to emulate. By making your needs and expectations clear up front, you can avoid having to go through long cycles of revisions and rewrites.

An Evolving Team

You don’t have to set your content team’s structure in stone. The lean approach to building a team is a great starting point, but you might find that as you grow you need more content writing and marketing bandwidth. Starting with freelancers gives you the flexibility to figure out what skillsets and knowledge bases are most important to your content strategy. As you get a better sense for what your company’s needs are, you can continue to evolve your content team to produce the highest-quality content that gives you the best ROI, whether that means staying lean and light, or building out a powerhouse in-house team