Content writing opportunities for freelance writers: Part 1

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So you’ve heard about the wonderful world of content. And, as a freelance writer, you want in. You understand that the world of content marketing has exploded and you’d like to ride this wave.

Before you launch into this space it’s important to understand where this explosion in content writing has come from.

In the past, if you wanted to get published as a freelance writer, your main options were to be published by mainstream or trade publication. For example, Real Living which is published by Bauer Media, Daily Life which is published by Fairfax, or Vogue Australia by News Magazines.

However, companies are now becoming publishers.

Custom publishing
Some companies have been publishers for a while. Think of the Qantas inflight magazine or the magazine you get in your letterbox from a health fund like HCF.

Traditionally this has been called custom publishing,

Those companies typically outsourced the writing and production of the magazine to mainstream publishers that had a custom publishing department dedicated to serving corporate clients.

Custom publishing is still alive and well.

Some companies choose to continue to outsource this to the custom publishing departments of the mainstream publishers. For example, the Qantas magazine is published by Medium Rare Content. And the HCF magazine is currently published by the custom publishing arm of Hardie Grant.

Other companies choose to do it in house. They employ their own editor, designers and so on to produce the magazine.

While this has traditionally been called custom publishing, some companies are now calling it content. But it doesn’t matter what the term is, it’s just semantics.

It’s content that is being written to appear in a publication published by a company or organisation.

This is a growing trend
An increasing number of companies are publishing their own magazines and this is partly due to huge reductions in printing costs.

Where it used to be impossible – or rather economically unviable – for a business to print a magazine, this is now a real possibility. And, often, businesses are choosing to print their own magazines or publish their own online sites because they are then in control of the content.

Some other examples of this are:

  • Jones, which is the David Jones magazine
  • Jamaica Blue magazine (yes the cafe!)
  • The Fitness First magazine.

The online explosion
The real explosion in content writing is online.

Back in the day, it cost a lot of money and talent and expertise to get a website up and running. If you wanted to create a website, you had to go to expert web designers.

I remember getting a quote for a four-page website back in the year 2000 and I was quoted $10,000. Now it can literally cost me nothing – not one single cent to get a website online, with as many pages as I want!

Thanks to advances in technology it’s really easy and very cheap to create an online site. And that applies to whether you are a big corporation or a small business owner.

This has become a boon for companies and business owners because previously, if you wanted any media coverage, you had to pitch your stories to mainstream media – like The Financial Review or The Age or the Women’s Weekly – and hope they would write about you…

If they weren’t interested in your particular story or angle, too bad!

Now, companies can simply write and publish their stories on their own sites … or magazines. And some of the those publications and sites have a decent readership.

So while some people say the number of publications is decreasing, in fact, the opposite is more accurate. The number of publications is increasing because now many companies have become publishers.

Some examples of this include Blue Notes by ANZ bank and the Mercedes magazine sent to all Mercedes owners, just to name a couple.

So where are the opportunities in writing content?
Let’s look at at the landscape so you can get an idea of where some of the opportunities are. It’s not an exact science but it will give an indication of where you might get work as a freelance writer. If we were quite simplistic about it, you could say that the content writing opportunities can be divided into two main types of clients. Big businesses or organisations and small businesses or organisations

Example of content by big businesses
Australia.com is the website of Tourism Australia. Previously it featured a lot of information and facts about Australia. But now you will see the bylines of many freelance writers who have written the articles on Australia.com.

These are written like travel articles in that they are engaging, informative and full of detail. But they all have a creative bent to them; they are similar to the articles you would find in the travel section of your weekend newspaper. These articles are not written like sales brochures.

Like “72 hours in Melbourne” which outlines what you can do in the morning and afternoon each day at various areas of Melbourne. It’s written by travel and lifestyle writer Ellie Schneider.

Or the Guide to Fraser Island, writer by freelance travel writer and photographer, Lee Atkinson.

Another example of a big business or organisation embracing the world of content, let’s look at Smarter Business from Telstra.

This site is full of articles aimed mainly at small business owners on better and more efficient ways to run their business  – often with a technology bent. And this content, like the other sites we’ve mentioned, has articles that would be at home at a regular news site like news.com.au.

It has articles like “Staff Christmas gifts without the fringe benefit tax sting”. I actually wrote that. And you’ll see that it’s written just like I would have written it for a site like the small business section of The Sydney Morning Herald. I quote a definition from the Australian Taxation Office and also interview an accountant and provide a bunch of examples of different types of staff gifts and their treatment by the ATO.

“Five signs your ecommerce platform needs an upgrade is an article by David Binning, a journalist that covers the digital and innovation sectors. You’ll see that after the hook, it includes research conducted by MYOB, then goes on to describe five scenarios that may point to the idea that a business should have an upgrade.

The kind of articles that you might find at home on a mainstream news site. A regular news site might quote one or two more experts than this article but that’s typically because the Smarter Business site tends to use writers who are already experts in their field

Similar style to regular feature writing
The main point is that the content found on sites published by big businesses and organisations is very similar to regular mainstream feature writing.

The exact sample principles apply for both regular feature articles for mainstream publications and content writing for companies and businesses. You still need a great hook, a strong angle and various subtopics in your story. In many cases, you also need to have expert opinions and case studies.

But here’s the difference …
The only difference in writing content for companies and businesses is that there may be a different angle or emphasis in the story compared to what would be featured if you wrote the same story for a mainstream publication.

Think about it logically. If you were writing a story about how hard it is for the average Australian to save up a deposit for a house, then in a regular feature article you might quote an expert from the Commonwealth Bank, a spokesperson from the Westpac and some case studies of people on how they saved up their deposit.

However, if you’re writing content to go on the Commonwealth Bank website, you’re not going to quote someone from Westpac are you?

Or let’s say you’re writing an article on how to soothe eczema in babies. If you wrote it for a parenting magazine you would interview an expert and you might mention the product they recommend.

However, if you’re writing content for the Procter & Gamble website, you may still quote the expert but it’s very unlikely that you’re going to mention all the products the expert recommends if the expert is recommending products from competitors of Procter & Gamble.

How do you get to write for these kinds of sites, the ones published by big organisations? There are various ways but let’s look at how this typically works. These large organisations are banks or insurance companies or telcos or industry bodies – and so on.

The core function of these companies is not to publish great content so most of the time, they outsource this function to a content agency, or the content arm of a mainstream publisher (for example Bauer Media – who publishes the likes of Cosmopolitan and the Womens’ Weekly – has a content marketing arm called BauerWorks. It draws on its expertise and contacts with freelance writers to provide content for a range of clients – mainly big businesses.

Medium Rare Content is a dedicated content agency which is a joint venture between NewsLifeMedia, the lifestyle arm of News Corp Australia and its operating partners Gerry Reynolds and Sally Wright. It has the Qantas magazine and the Foxtel magazine, mainly written by freelancers.

Mahlab Media is a content agency and has clients like HBF, which publishes consumer-friendly content on its site Direct Advice for Dads.

I’ve just given you three examples of content agencies. However, you can easily find out the content arms for various company publications by Googling. You can also often find stories about which content agency has which clients from sites like Adnews, Mumbrella, B&T and so on.

Specific guidelines
As mentioned, in most cases the same principles of feature writing apply to writing this kind of content. However, the company – or the content agency – may have its own guidelines or  parameters as well.

So how do you get more gigs writing content like this? The same way you get gigs as a freelance feature writer: by writing quality material where you fulfil the brief and deliver on time.

It’s a myth to think that it’s “easier” to get your foot in the door with content writing for big businesses. It’s just like pitching for any other job or gig. You need to show that:

  • You have skills in this area, that is you’re a quality writer
  • You understand the product, which may be a website or a company magazine or a custom publication
  • You will deliver quality words on time.

So what’s the difference?
The only difference is that you’re not pitching to an editor of a consumer publication. You’re dealing with the editor – or the equivalent of an editor (they may just have another title) – of the company or content agency it uses.

When you’re dealing with an editor who works at a content agency, the agency is effectively the middle person who liaises between the clients and the writers. Many large organisations prefer to use an agency to commission all their content instead of dealing with coordinating and multiple writer because they then only have to deal with one person at the agency. Using a content agency streamlines the process for them.

How do you get on the radar of these content agencies?
There are two typical ways:

  1. Contact them directly and introduce yourself.
  2. Get their attention by getting published in mainstream publications so they can see you understand the principles of writing feature articles. Many of these content agencies like to get writers who have already proven themselves in mainstream publications because they know that these writers are experienced. They have been known to ask the editors of the mainstream publications for recommendations of writers.

For example, the HCF magazine used to be published by Pacific Magazines. And they approached me to write for them because I had done a fair bit of work at Voyeur (the Virgin inflight magazine) which was also published by Pacific. The editors of the HCF magazines asked their colleagues for recommendations for writers and I was recommended.

Smarter Business approached me because they had seen my byline on many small business articles at Fairfax and they wanted a writer with small business expertise.

Put simply, you will be more valuable and appealing to a content arm or agency if you can show you have been published in mainstream publications. It’s just an easier foot in the door.

However, if you have not been published by mainstream publications, you can still approach content agencies directly. It’s just that you probably need a niche or expertise or SOME published work before they are likely to pay attention. Writers with niches can be in demand.

Pitching versus being assigned stories
Some content agencies will cast a wide net asking for story ideas to be pitched to them. However, in many cases, content agencies typically determine the content – that is, they decide on the stories and angles and people they want to feature – and THEN they find the writers to fulfil those story ideas. That’s not always, but it happens often.

Editors at the agencies often come up with the story ideas – often in consultation with the client – and then commission a writer who they know will deliver the goods. That’s where having a byline in mainstream publications comes in really handy.

If you have absolutely no interest in writing for mainstream publications, don’t worry, there is still plenty of opportunity in writing content – especially for smaller businesses, which is covered in Part 2 of this series.

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