Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
For the past 13 years, Sean Kenalty and Justin Parker have helped companies stand out from the competition. The duo's firm, itracMarketer, sells software that helps businesses send e-mail newsletters, manage social media campaigns and track customer relationships.
But along the way, the co-chief executive officers are realizing that itracMarketer itself needs some of its own tonic as it faces competitors such as MailChimp and HootSuite.
"We've really grown it organically and haven't spent a lot of money, time or effort on marketing," says Steve Vermeiren, vice-president of customer success and marketing at the Toronto company. "We get a lot of business through referrals." Among its customers are Enbridge Inc., Keg Restaurants Ltd. and Massage Addict.
Where they are falling short, Mr. Vermeiren says, is in brand presence. "I'd say having great content and an engaging brand is probably more important than the technology at this point," he says.
To produce relevant and interesting content for its website, itracMarketer has looked beyond its 11-person team and outsourced to freelancer writers. Articles cover such topics as complying with anti-spam legislation, drip-marketing campaigns and automation.
"It doesn't make sense for us at this point to hire a whole marketing team," Mr. Vermeiren says. "But we're having a lot of challenges working with a bunch of independent vendors and freelancers."
The company must bring content producers up to speed on best practices in the financial sector and how to use their industry-geared software, for instance.
"We're spending a lot of time and effort just educating content writers and graphic designers or even website developers about what our competitors are doing and what the best way to write [industry-specific] articles is," he says. "We don't want to put something basic out there – real content is something that is unique and offers some value to the people who find it online."
Mr. Vermeiren says that when the company has tried hiring specialist writers, the costs were high and the content creators weren't as flexible, requiring longer lead times. "We need to turn things around quickly, like building quick test campaigns as well as building collateral for our own brand," he says.
Finding general writers or freelancers through aggregating services such as UpWork or Behance is inefficient, says Mr. Vermeiren, adding that it often results in multiple rounds of edits.
"You're almost rewriting a lot of it yourself," he says. "What we want is to get to a point where we have some go-to people we can count on – quality, as well as people who can turn things around."
The Challenge: How can itracMarketer make its freelance content generation more efficient?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Angie Kramer, founder and CEO of Job Bliss, an online platform that connects employers with freelancers, Toronto
These freelancers have to live job-to-job, and it's a scary existence. So the more security that itracMarketer can give them – that they have work not just a couple of weeks in advance but a couple of months – the more relaxed they're going to be. Put a plan in place so that both sides can feel comfortable and they'll put more effort into the work.
They need a content calendar and to be looking into the future. Sure, there will be onboarding and there will be bumps in the road, but they need to put care into the people writing content because the freelancers are representing your brand. Planning ahead is an upfront cost, but the quality will pay off in spades over the long term, because when they need them they can send a note and say, 'I need what you did before but this time about another subject.'
Ning Su, assistant professor of information systems and J.J. Wettlaufer Faculty Fellow at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School, London, Ont.
Three words: long tail strategy. They should always keep a long tail of many suppliers to experiment with. Keep the best ones and let the others go. To make that happen, they'll need to invest in governance capability in-house, some sort of human resources, one person at least, to oversee those relationships. That person would regularly look at the portfolio, pick out the best players and eliminate the weaker ones. C-level supervision is critical.
They should also invest in a technology platform that tracks these relationships and can generate reports. They also need a database in-house so that these vendors can access the information about the company in order to make the onboarding process more efficient and centralize the information.
Vera Gavizon, co-founder of Workhoppers, an online marketplace that connects employers with local freelancers, Montreal
We like to get freelancers who are in Montreal so we can really build a relationship with them and they can understand our business in a much better way. What we try to do is include them in company activities; like if we have events or meetings we invite them so that they can understand the culture. If it's not possible for itracMarketer and the freelancers aren't close by, I would strongly suggest using technology like Skype to discuss and help them understand the challenges at the company.
As for content, let company staff suggest story subjects. Whenever they find something interesting or they're having a challenge on some subject that they think is relevant for the business, put them in contact with the blogger. Steer it so that they can have conversations with everybody in the company.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Develop a long-term content plan
Give freelancers plenty of time and access to information so they can research their stories.
Invest in a platform for tracking
Develop a large portfolio of bloggers with specific niches and create an editorial director role.
Include freelancers in group brainstorming sessions and company events to foster loyalty.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.