I’ve given a lot of thought to what I love about freelance writing, if only because for the past several years, my old elementary school has invited me to speak on the topic at Career Day. I tell the kids about the flexible hours, working in my pajamas, and not having a boss telling me what to do. They certainly like the sound of that. I tell them about some of the brands I write for, many of which are tech brands they recognize, and that always impresses. But they really become engaged when I tell them about how I first fell in love with storytelling.
I was in second grade at the very same elementary school they now attend, and my teacher instructed the class to write Halloween stories. I’ve never been into the horror genre—unless you count the Stephen King novels I would start reading a few years later—so I opted for comedy instead. I don’t remember the story in its entirety, but I know there was a monster loose in a city, and he was scared of humans. He somehow ended up in a woman’s bathroom, and she saw him and screamed, which made him scream, too.
(One kid always stops me at this point to say, “Hey, I think I saw that movie,” and I have to explain that, sadly, I didn’t actually write Monsters, Inc.)
My second grade teacher liked my story so much that she shared it with her husband, who took it to the law firm where he worked and showed his colleagues. When she told me this, I beamed with pride. Then she read it aloud to the class, and all of my classmates laughed. Not just snickered, but full-on laughed. They also seemed to feel sorry for the misunderstood monster.
Lightbulb moment: I wanted to be a writer.
No, I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to make people laugh or cry, to make them think or feel, to make them empathize with my characters and consider a different view—all by using my creative thinking, my curiosity, and my natural way with words (three things that had previously tended to get me in trouble more than praised).
This is why I majored in English and then got into journalism, book editing, and (in recent years) freelance writing for brands. After all, great content marketing is about storytelling, which happens to be exactly what I’m looking for in a job. And I’m not alone.
For brands that hire freelance content marketers like me, the secret to getting our best work is actually quite simple: Empower us to tell great stories.
With the rise of content marketing, brands need to attract and engage new talent with new skill sets, and they’re increasingly recruiting journalists and other writers from non-corporate backgrounds. For leaders, this means understanding the mindset of a new kind of marketer.
Most of us didn’t major in marketing. We aren’t inspired by selling products, cranking out content, or meeting performance metrics. We write because we like telling stories and sharing information, because we enjoy learning and then breaking down complex ideas and making them more accessible for others. We also like writing things that people want to read.
Translation: We don’t want to write about how great brands are, even if we truly think those brands are great.
That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the success of the business or the performance of our content. I personally care a great deal about the success of the brands I write for, or I wouldn’t write for them. I believe in their products and services. (In several cases, I actually use their products and services.) I understand their audiences and what they’re trying to accomplish. And I want to do a good job—to create content that helps them achieve their goals—not only for the sake of these brands, but for the sake of my own freelance writing career. (Referrals matter a lot in this line of work.)
Still, at the end of the day, while I’m motivated by the desire to create quality content, I’m far more inspired when I’m tapping into my creative thinking, stretching my intellectual muscles by grappling with interesting ideas, and of course, telling a good story.
Image attribution: Aurimas
Like anyone, freelance writers are motivated by many things (getting paid well, having enough assignments, collaborating with talented people who value our work, and other perks). Heck, sometimes when work is slow, just getting paid is more than enough to get our fingers moving across the keyboard.
But for leaders who want to get the most out of their investment in freelance content writers, here are five ways to tap into their passion and talent by empowering them to tell better stories:
I mean no disrespect to my colleagues in traditional marketing roles. I’ve done brand-heavy writing, too, and it’s hard. It requires a different type of creative thinking, but creative nonetheless. Done right, it requires wit, insight into the audience, data analysis, and serious passion for the brand.
But traditional marketers and internal teams are usually better equipped to write product-heavy copy. They’re closer to the brand and to the customer data. Besides, it’s content marketing where brands typically struggle to find the talent needed to scale. According to Indeed.com’s ongoing tally, there are currently more job postings for content marketers than there are job seekers for those positions.
It makes sense that many companies hire talented freelance writers and experienced subject matter experts. It doesn’t make sense to waste that investment by duplicating efforts.
Instead, let content writers do what they do best: Tell stories about your brand and your customers, stories about innovation and the future of your industry, stories about the causes that matter to your team, stories that make an emotional connection with your audience.
Quick, tell a story about smartphones. Go.
It’s not so easy, right? You’ve got questions: What about smartphones? (Designing them, using them, not using them too much, using them at work?) What’s the point of the story? (To entertain, persuade, inform?) Most importantly, who’s the story for, and what’s their interest in smartphones?
Good content writers want the answers to these questions, and not just surface-level answers. They want meaningful insights about what matters to their brands and those brands’ customers.
My fellow Content Standard contributor, Jacqui Frasca, puts it well in her article, “Why It’s Worth Investing in Your Content Writers.” She writes:
As an editor who works with multiple branded publications, I’ve learned it’s not enough to be familiar with each brand’s products and services. I need to know everything. What are my brands talking about? Who are they talking to? What keeps their audiences up at night, and what do they worry about when they have a few quiet moments to themselves? Most importantly, what would that brand say to them if it could respond in those moments?
And I’m not the only one. The freelancers involved with content creation need to be just as immersed in the answers to these questions if the content is to stand a chance (let alone stand out) in the loud, vast universe of internet noise.
Telling a story simply to make people laugh or cry is fine when you’re writing fiction (or in second grade), but freelance content marketers know there’s more to the job than just storytelling. They’re also charged with building credibility, visibility, and engagement for brands. To do that, they need to really understand those brands.
The takeaway for marketing leaders: Rather than simply sending out freelance writing assignments, help contributors understand the brand’s unique voice and relationship with the audience. It’s much easier to tell a good story when you know why and to whom you’re telling it.
Great brand marketing teams know their industries inside and out. They understand their customers and think up with great ideas for content. But quality freelance writers also tend to be pretty informed and up-to-date on the industries in which they’ve built their subject matter expertise.
Many of my clients regularly ask freelance contributors for pitches. Not only does this make me feel valued, but it also takes some pressure off their internal content marketing teams. Scaling content means scaling ideas, and that’s not always easy.
It can be difficult to come up with stories about industries in which one doesn’t work, even for the most well-read subject matter experts.
For example, I mostly write for B2B tech companies and healthcare organizations. While I understand those industries and the challenges my brands and their customers are facing, I don’t know what it’s like to be a software engineer, a business leader, or a healthcare professional. But my clients know plenty of people who do.
By connecting me with those people, they empower me to tell better stories. Rather than making up generic anecdotes to illustrate my points, I can share real-life examples from people with their boots on the ground. And that’s far more powerful.
Interviewing employees, customers, business partners, and other industry experts doesn’t just lead to better stories. By giving those folks exposure, brands also strengthen their relationships with them and often drive more traffic to the content. After all, people and companies are usually happy to help promote stories that feature them.
Brand guidelines are typically clear about point-of-view in their content. In my experience, most insist on second or third person—meaning no use of the word “I” and no personal anecdotes.
That’s often the best way to go. I don’t always have relevant personal experiences to share on topics I write about. Instead, I rely on extensive research and insights from interviews.
However, sometimes content writers have a good story that’s completely on topic, and it’s nice when brands are open to lifting the ban on first-person POV, at least when doing so adds value and is appropriate. Letting writers share their own experiences empowers them to make a stronger emotional connection with the audience and adds a story element to what might otherwise be didactic or dry content.
This doesn’t just help brand marketers retain freelance talent; it also helps those writers better engage audiences. After all, content marketing is more likely to make an emotional connection if it actually feels meaningful to the storyteller.