Rewarding and incentivizing freelance writers:

Some of my best topic ideas come from questions I read on other forums, in particular LinkedIn and inbound.org. They serve kind of like customer service/help desks, offering insight into what people are wondering about or struggling with. This particular post was inspired by a discussion on inbound.org, where someone asked about the best ways to reward and incentivize freelance writers. First, kudos for realizing that a good writer is worth holding on to. But it got me thinking…what should brands do to hang on to a gem of a writer? In a lot of ways, it’s not that different from incentivizing and rewarding employees — you just have to tweak those best practices a little bit to take into account that freelancers aren’t really employees. These are my top suggestions:

Get real about pay.

There’s one thing all brands need to understand about freelancers: It’s very easy for us to say, “No, thank you,” and move on. We don’t have to worry about benefits and pension accounts, we don’t have to reroute the best way to work, we don’t have to move our kids to a different daycare because the current one will now be completely out of the way, we don’t have to spend six months as “that new person in marketing,” we don’t have to say goodbye to friends, etc. We simply say, “No, thank you,” and fill up our schedules with clients who pay better. It may help to think of freelancers as business owners rather than employees. It’s not about loyalty; it’s about business acumen. You can’t turn down higher-paying work in favor of lower-paying work and still stay in business. Would you?

Base incentives on criteria that make sense.

When it comes to content marketing, most people seem to think that a post’s success can only be measured by social metrics — page views, shares, likes, etc. And, if your company makes most of its money from ad revenue, that makes sense: The more eyeballs a piece of content attracts, the more money you make. But if you sell a product or service, what matters is conversions. Offering bonuses based on shares and likes can actually backfire. Let’s say you sell safety equipment (personal protective equipment) for the plumbing industry. I can’t imagine a lot of plumbing business owners or their procurement managers sitting around on Facebook clicking the “like” button for a post about safety equipment. It’s just not the kind of content people get excited about sharing. So if I were being compensated based on shares and likes, I’d write something with more popular appeal, like “How ‘Plumber Pants’ (you know what I mean) Got to Be a Thing.” Even if that article went viral, it would be unlikely to lead to a sale. On the other hand, an article about the newest OSHA regulations might generate no shares/likes at all — but it might motivate a dozen businesses to order the equipment they need to get up to speed. To be effective, rewards have to be linked to business objectives.

It’s also crucial to think about unintended consequences — when you accidentally incentivize the wrong behavior. I read an article recently about a major prepared food company whose customers had been finding insect parts in their frozen vegetables. So they started giving employees bonuses for finding them. Not a bad idea, but it worked a little too well — employees started bringing insect parts in from home so they could “find” them. There are always people who will try to game the system, especially if they already feel like they’re underpaid. That’s one of the nice things about goals that are linked to business objectives — even if somebody does try to game the system, you still win.

Offer a byline.

If you’re not a professional writer, it may have never occurred to you that a byline has a monetary value. It’s free advertising. It boosts your SERP rankings. It builds your portfolio and gives your completed work a second life as marketing material. It’s important enough that I offer a discount to clients who will give me a byline and a short bio that links to my website. Ghostwriting definitely has its place — if you’re trying to establish a CEO’s thought leadership, for example — but I strongly encourage you to ask yourself if it would really cost you anything to give your freelancer a byline. If you decide that attributing the article to someone else is a business imperative, at least consider giving the writer permission to use the article in a portfolio or to show prospective clients as a writing sample.

Offer to write a recommendation or testimonial.

As with bylines, recommendations and testimonials have a tangible value in that they help freelance writers attract new clients. Write a glowing referral that the writer can put on his website and LinkedIn profile. And make it specific — explain in detail what makes the writer so awesome; don’t just write “Great to work with.”

Refer them to your network.

Referring a freelancer is very different from referring a permanent employee, because almost all freelancers work with multiple clients — so no hoarding! You probably wouldn’t think twice about referring a painter or roofer who did an outstanding job, so why not do the same with a freelancer writer? Again, think of them as business owners: You’re not giving a resource away, you’re sending a deserving entrepreneur new business.

Give them first shot at the best projects.

One very effective way to reward your best writers is to give them “first right of refusal.” Whether it’s a tiered system or a personal email, it’s a huge incentive. Nobody likes getting beat out by a writer with half the skill just because they didn’t happen to be online at the right moment. I would suggest, however, that you not base it on customer reviews. Those are always skewed to the negative — people like to complain when something doesn’t work out right. Exceptional work might motivate someone to post a review, but “good” work often flies under the radar.

Make rewards personal.

People are different. What one person sees as a valuable reward might hold no value at all for another. I, for instance, am an introvert with noise issues. Concert tickets — even to my favorite artist — would be more stressful than motivating. A weekend away? Forget it. I have three young children and no one to leave them with. A couple of bottles of fine wine and a box of filet mignon? How high do you want me to jump? Incentives that are personalized mean a lot more than those that aren’t — partly because the recipient might actually enjoy the reward, but also because a personalized reward shows you care enough to find out what would make that particular writer happy.

Freelance writers aren’t that special (OK, maybe we are…but we’re not a different species). Take what you already know about effective recognition programs, and modify it for people are business owners instead of employees. Pay them fairly, make sure any incentive program makes sense, and never forget that things like bylines, testimonials, and referrals have a tangible value.

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