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Exposing the great content outsourcing rip-off

Posted by Sarah Mitchell on 1st March , 2022 in The Write Fit
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I’m fuming. So is Dan. Wendy is not fuming, but only because we’ve spared her the gory details about a colossal rip-off experienced by a new customer.

What got us so mad?

Missed deadlines. Spelling errors. Unintelligible copy. All the most egregious violations imaginable rained down on some good people who needed content for a major new product launch. They got to us through a friend of a friend and, after speaking with them, I realised they did everything right and still got snowed.

The sad truth about written content is too many agencies see writing as an easy, high-margin product to sell. They think they can outsource the content for next to nothing. They can – and they do – but I’ve never seen anything good come of it.

When I dug a little deeper, it was obvious what happened. The agency worked in an industry niche so there was a high level of trust. From the website, they appeared to be a large operation, but I’ve since found out it’s two guys who are trying to make it look like a much bigger business than it is. There’s also an insinuation they have a sizeable network of influencers working for them. On closer inspection, their “About Us” page is a lot of photos of them with notable people, taken mostly at large industry conferences.

The whole thing looks like a sham to me. That’s what’s put me in an Aretha Franklin finger-wagging, “You’d better think about what you’re trying to do to me” kind of bad mood.

But there were other warning signs that, if you’re new to outsourcing content, might be easy to miss. Here are tips to avoid falling into the same trap when you outsource written content.

Agencies who do everything rarely provide good writing

The agency in question looks to be focused on PR (and mostly for themselves). I don’t know if they’re good at it because all the key press coverage was paid placements which ended up being written by us, not them. (The stuff they wrote wasn’t suitable to wrap fish guts.) Those are not hard to get because you’re paying for the advertising. The press release, which we also ended up writing, went out in mass distribution and probably used common PR distribution tools anyone could have organised.

Doing a test project will uncover a lot of issues

Before you commit to any writing investment, do a small test project of one article. It will tell you a lot. The first round of six articles that came back to our new customer were unintelligible. Our customer quickly realised the people who wrote them did not have a good command of the English language. The rewrites they requested were not much better. By then their deadline was looming and they’d lost confidence they would get anything useable. That’s when they got in touch with us. And, unfortunately, they ended up paying twice for promotional articles.

Missed deadlines are unacceptable

If an agency or freelancer misses a deadline, especially when they know it’s critical to the success of your business, you need to take immediate action. Do not wait patiently for them to deliver. In fact, ask for regular updates before the deadline, especially if it’s a new engagement. Any reputable content agency will be good at managing deadlines and your expectations. It’s also reasonable when putting in an order of several articles to see one or two of them as they’re finished. Don’t wait for the deadline (to come and go) before you review a large project.

The final product should be more than a rearranged brief

Our customer provided a detailed white paper as the basis for the six articles they commissioned. There was more than enough information in it for what should have been a series of related pieces. Instead, each one rehashed the same information in a slightly different but equally horrible way. There was no additional research, no insight, no persuasion, and no energy in the articles. There were no quotes from key people. There were no links to the company website or the product page. Some of the articles even missed the call to action – the entire point of the content series.

You should expect editorial rigour

I’ve already mentioned the spelling errors. There were also factual inaccuracies. Supporting “facts” were of the “They say” or “Experts report” variety with no citation to prove anything was more than hyperbole. The punctuation and grammar were abysmal. No one had looked at the six articles as a whole series. There was no evidence an editor, copyeditor or proofreader assured the brief was met or even the most rudimentary quality control processes were followed.

The takeaway

All kinds of agencies rely on content for their business models to work, but they don’t necessarily respect what it takes to write effective content, let alone great content. This is true of everyone from public relations to social media, to SEO and digital marketing, to everyone else who bolted on “content creation” as a new product when content marketing became a thing. Writing is a discipline and a profession all on its own. It’s hard, and it’s hard to get it right.

I wish I could say you get what you pay for. In this case, our new customer paid handsomely for garbage. And then they had to fork out more to us to get the job done. But, to paraphrase Aretha again, they didn’t get their propers after they gave their money. Worse, their agency did not respect their obligation to provide quality content, not even a little bit.

Sarah Mitchell
1 March 2022


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