Here’s a scene you’ve probably watched in any number of iterations: The feisty young journalist, armed with a notepad and youthful optimism, summons her courage and pitches her editor a story that she knows will bring down the house—if only he’ll give her the green light. He grumbles, but beneath his gruff exterior is a heart of gold, so he accedes to her request, and she heads off to conquer the newsroom.
Stop me if this trope sounds familiar.
Real-world journalists do in fact pitch stories to their editors, albeit in somewhat less cinematic fashion. Their counterparts in the marketing universe, however, are given far less opportunity to do so—and as a result, content marketers are overlooking a font of creativity that could be the difference between a ho-hum corporate blog and a vibrant branded publication.
Image attribution: Annie Spratt
Soliciting pitches directly from your content creators made a lot less sense before always-on publishing became a common feature of content strategies. A decade ago, when content was more likely to mean the occasional e-book than a steady stream of articles, videos, infographics, and more, brands needed to ensure that each and every piece of content served a clear strategic purpose. Individual assignments were, by default, far more cut and dry.
For modern marketing organizations, that intermittent drip—a case study here, a white paper there—has given way to a consistent flow of content spanning multiple channels. Brand storytelling is now a competitive differentiator, and brands are as likely to consider how the content experience as a whole nurtures prospects as they are to rely on individual pieces of content to push prospects to the next stage of the marketing funnel.
This state of affairs presents an enormous challenge and an enormous opportunity. Elevating freelancers from order-takers to creative partners is a giant leap forward for both.
The difficult part of an always-on publishing calendar is that, well, it’s always on. Regularly turning out fresh, original content is not just a challenge of process but a challenge of creativity, and a small team of content marketers can quickly burn through their creative juices. A wider group of contributors addresses the challenge of continual ideation in a way that a small team can’t.
The flipside of that challenge is that with scale, there’s additional room for experimentation: forays into interesting new topics, pilots of intriguing new content types, or exercises in new forms of storytelling. Bringing your content creators into the discussion can yield possibilities your marketing team alone may never have thought to explore.
Image attribution: Brooke Cagle
Creating an open pitch process means more than simply generating more ideas. While the immediate benefits are quantitative, the qualitative benefits amass in the long run.
There’s ample evidence that a diversity of viewpoints yields better insights, and while your immediate team’s shared experiences in your workplace may incline you towards a particular way of looking at your content, freelancers can widen your perspective in meaningful ways. The Content Standard’s Nicola Brown has argued eloquently for soliciting diverse perspectives from your contributor pool, writing that it “can help eliminate bias in your content and avoid narratives that may unintentionally reinforce singular viewpoints and cultural experiences.”
Beyond generating more and better ideas, opening up the floor to ideas from content creators reduces the risk of writer churn, creating needed stability for a fast-moving content engine. Allowing writers the creative freedom to pitch the stories that they want to work on is a clear win for engagement. Freelancers regularly lament not feeling part of a team; giving them insight and input into your editorial direction brings them into the fold in a way unidirectional assignments do not.
My own experience bears witness to this last point: Among our regular contributors for the Content Standard are several writers who far outstrip my one-year tenure as managing editor, having written for three, four, or even five years. They have shaped this publication’s voice as meaningfully as anyone on the masthead.
Image attribution: Maxime Bhm
Open pitching—successful open pitching, anyway—is far from the free-for-all the name might imply. To get it right, it’s important to lay the ground work.
Soliciting input from writers helps build a long-term relationship, but the inverse is true as well: Occasional contributors who lack an ongoing relationship with your brand will struggle to pitch stories that support your strategy. Begin working with new writers with the understanding that it will probably take a few rounds of pitching and feedback before they will consistently deliver strong, relevant pitches. A writer who struggles in the beginning isn’t an automatic poor fit; instead, they likely need more direction.
The more insight your writers have into your content strategy, the better they will be able to determine where their expertise and interests match your needs. Editorial guidelines and brand standards are a bare minimum—supplement them with detailed personas, keyword research, editorial themes, audience insights, and more. Share performance data of past content so your writers can see how your audience is receiving their work.
At the Content Standard, we’ve seen success augmenting our onboarding documents with a monthly contributor newsletter and occasional trainings via webinar to explain larger strategy shifts.
A free-flowing exchange of ideas sounds lovely until you have to manage it. Create a regular cycle with deadlines for receiving and evaluating a batch of pitches, providing feedback and additional guidance, and making assignments—a monthly cadence will be a good fit for most publications. A straightforward pitch template is an easy step to ensure you receive the information you need to evaluate each pitch.
To ensure you’re giving adequate coverage to strategically important topics, perform regular content audits and make topic suggestions to your writers to cover any gaps. If you are producing content at scale, content marketing software can greatly diminish the administrative burden of managing ideation and make it easy to review and evaluate ideas.
One of the more humbling moments I’ve experienced in this role came when a contributor who had started off strong began pitching tired variations of the same few stories she’d already written. On the verge of giving up on her, I went back to her with a new topic to explore, hoping to give her one more chance to jar herself out of her rut. She was surprised by my suggestion—somehow I’d inadvertently given her the impression I’d only brought her on to write about one narrow topic. I had been quick to judge her as a poor fit, when in reality I was the one who had failed her.
It’s not enough to show writers the content strategy and walk away. To reap the benefit of a broad range of creative input, you have to consciously cultivate a space that encourages exploration. By stressing to our contributors that our core topics are jumping off points, not limiting parameters, we’ve enjoyed articles on topics as broad-ranging as net neutrality, experiential art, and cryptocurrency.
An accepted pitch is rarely, if ever, a complete assignment. Give your writers additional direction on tone, scope, audience, framing, etc. to ensure the draft you receive is in line with your needs. Part of your pitch review process will be searching for sensitivities that may arise between pitching and drafting the final piece, and it’s incumbent upon you to coach your writers through any nuances in messaging they should be alert to.
Pitches you don’t accept deserve feedback too. Explaining why a story was declined—bad timing, off-brand messaging, poor audience fit, etc.—will help your writers develop stronger pitches in the next round.
Content marketers have been comparing our work to traditional media publishers for some time, and as the quality and quantity of our content grows, that comparison becomes more and more apt. Gathering ideas from content producers has long been the norm on the other side of the aisle; as brands resemble publishers in our output, perhaps we should resemble them in our input as well.
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Image attribution: Thought Catalog