A step-by-step breakdown of the pros and cons of partnering with an external team to deliver the content your clients need to succeed
The what, why, and wherefore of trusting your client’s content to a third party and coming out on top
How to win in the ongoing content wars without breaking the bank – or restructuring your firm – in the process
In a little over two decades, the internet has fundamentally rewired human society. It has altered how we purchase goods and services, acquire knowledge, and interact with one another.
But one thing has not changed since the dawn of the internet. In their 1996 book Rules of the Net, Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun defined “attention” as the hard currency of the digital age.
As the perennial “scarce resource” of the online economy, if you command attention, you command the future. And this is why content remains king.
This is borne out by results. A recent Hubspot study found that businesses can more than triple their website traffic by publishing four blog posts per week. That’s without taking into account video content, social presence and, of course, the website itself.
Most businesses recognize the potential of content to raise brand awareness, increase searchability, and generate leads by attracting more clients to the top of the sales funnel.
But, particularly in the case of small businesses, most also understandably worry that it’s a considerable time commitment to produce high-quality content on multiple channels at the kind of frequency needed to get results.
“I’m the CEO, but I’m also doing sales, and I’m also doing marketing. I know a lot of people who’ve started up their own companies who find themselves in that same situation – they’re spread thin.”Eric Carter, CEO, Approach Technology
Orbit Media Studios reports that the average blog post takes 3 hours and 55 minutes to write and that this time has increased by 63% over the past six years. They also found that there is a positive correlation between time spent and results, indicating that those who spend more time are definitely not wasting their efforts.
Why does it take so long to create good content?
Consumers are beset on all sides by content of all kinds, most of it free and much of it professionally made. The content that consumers connect with, however, is content that is well-researched, well-written, and SEO-optimized. While low-grade copy can be found plentifully and often for pennies, high-caliber content takes time and effort to produce.
“Suppose I want an article about house prices in Austin, Texas, and I want the information to be timely. With some providers, what I’ll get back often is old content relating to a different area, say New York prices. Or perhaps you’ll ask for an article on how to lose weight for women in their fifties, and they’ll come back with how pregnant women lose weight. That’s the biggest problem I have.”John Schroeder, CEO, RealWebsite
For high-quality, engaging, relevant content to be an option, the company in question needs to have both the talent to produce it and the time available to set aside for the task. Realistically, this is not the case for most business owners.
Some will plow on regardless, producing content that is either sporadic (hence less effective) or poor quality (most common). This approach will not only fail to generate results but may actually have a negative effect on brand and sales performance while drawing time and resources away from mission-critical activities.
Doing this cost-benefit calculation may lead some businesses to abandon the whole concept of a content strategy. But those determined to succeed will turn to their marketing agency for help. And increasingly, this help is available.
According to a report by Wordstream, 74.6% of agencies now offer content services, meaning that if you don’t have this as part of your offering, you are at a competitive disadvantage. Content creation is no longer a filler but a pillar; of a comprehensive marketing plan. As the client’s trusted advisor, you should be in a position to deliver a solution.
If you aspire to become a competitive full-service agency, your options are, as with all services, to build the in-house capability to do it or to partner with a specialist provider. We’ll cover the pros and cons of these options later in this guide. But first, let’s dive into the details of what we mean by ‘white label’ services.
What is white labeling?
A White Label service is, at its most basic, when Company A buys a product or service made by Company B and then sells it as its own. It is called ‘white label’ because Company A can superimpose its own branding, logo, and nomenclature. From the client’s perspective, it is Company A delivering the service.
In the context of content creation, white label means building or working with a virtual content or copywriting team where production can be dialed up and down according to the needs of your clients; whether the need is for social media posts, news articles, blog content, whitepapers, or even video and podcast scripts.
“Time savings is really what it’s about, and also the ability to scale up and scale down. If I have a certain amount of people on my staff and all of a sudden work slows down, or I change directions or I want to change directions, it’s very difficult when you have to in-source everything.”John Schroeder, CEO, RealWebsite
How does one partner with a white label provider?
If you are thinking of opting for a white label partnership, a key consideration is how anonymous you want the partner to be. This depends both on your objectives and those of the client you are ultimately serving.
- A Closed White Label provider remains entirely anonymous to the end client. You deal with them directly and receive content from them in a typical supplier arrangement. The advantage of this is it maintains your image as a “full-service” agency. If this is important to you, and to the client, it may be best to manage the relationship with the white label provider as a strict “supplier” arrangement.
- An Open White Label provider is visible to the client. Although you manage the provider and pay their bills, you may openly incorporate a member of the white label service provider’s team in meetings and on calls with the client. The benefit is that you are less responsible for conveying information from the client to the white label team. This means not only less management time on your part but also less chance of miscommunication. If your client is concerned only with getting the job done, and content creation is not core to your brand, this may be a better option.
In cases where white labeling is not feasible or not necessary, it is still possible to use a 3rd party content creation agency for a particular engagement by endorsement or referral. In these cases, the client pays the 3rd party directly, and you are either involved in the engagement, retaining some responsibility for managing the 3rd party through the process (=endorsement), or not involved at all (=referral).
If, as in these cases, the client is responsible for paying the content creation team, you minimize your liability and management responsibilities but potentially lose the opportunity for profit and brand recognition that white labeling provides. You are also still partly responsible for the outcome, as the choice of 3rd party is based on your recommendation.
How do white label firms charge?
The commercial agreement depends on the nature of the work and also the extent of your need for white label services.
Broadly, there are three types of pricing model:
Project-based, fixed: A fee is agreed in advance, based on a carefully agreed set of specifications, and documented in a proposal after a bidding process and potentially some negotiations over the rate used to calculate the final sum. This model is appropriate for self-contained work, such as an annual white paper report, with a clear beginning and end and relatively predictable levels of effort.
Needs-based, variable: In this arrangement, the fee is calculated based on actual (realized) effort, and billed periodically, usually on a monthly basis. This is clearly more appropriate for ongoing needs such as regular articles and blog posts or quarterly media campaigns. Because they are continuous, these engagements are typically managed via an online dashboard provided by the white label firm and used by the end user to keep track of newly available content and jobs underway.
Dedicated resource: Some white label providers will allow agencies to second team members on a full-time or part-time basis. This could be to ensure consistency of voice across content or for intense projects where the workload is high enough to justify the expense.
Fees for projects are typically calculated on a per-word or hourly basis. Projects that require more up-front effort (for example in research or interviewing) are more likely to be hourly-based as this better reflects the additional effort involved. However, there are no hard and fast rules, except for rules of thumb.
In general the rate applied ($ / word, $ / hour) will depend on the level of expertise involved, which itself depends on the nature of the content. Higher rates will tend to apply to content that is:
- Niche (e.g. the sub-Saharan medical supply chain)
- Technical (e.g. the future of quantum computing)
- Customized (e.g. Company X’s response to Issue Y)
By contrast, generic content for mainstream topics (such as how to apply for a mortgage) can very often be purchased ‘off-the-shelf’ without the need for a briefing call or relationship.
What is “content”?
The fragmentation of traditional print, television, and radio into an ever-increasing number of user-driven platforms is one of the most exciting (and confusing) developments in the media landscape of the 21st century.
There is no need to be a master of every medium, but it is important to understand what different platforms are used for, and their target groups. Particularly in the case of a medium that is important to your client but not within their skillset (or yours), white label content can be a powerful tool.
Let’s briefly recap the various subcategories within the word “content.”
Social media: Essential for engaging modern clients, particularly those without time to read full-length content. While not lengthy, social media posts must be frequent, engaging, and tailored to the platform they are on, each of which has a different audience, culture, and etiquette.
Blog: Allows a firm to dive deeper into an issue of importance to its target client base (e.g. how to retire comfortably), imparting information and conveying expertise in the process. As noted above, this form of content has been shown to get results. Companies that blog regularly generate 67% more leads than those which don’t; but also note, long-form content requires time and expertise to be effective.
Web copy: The website is a company’s digital HQ. Web copy is often subject to stringent limits on word count, particularly on the most important pages. Hence, word choice and phraseology require expert consideration to have the desired impact. Cramming the page with keywords is no longer a viable option!
Direct mail copy: Despite the fact that we live in a digital age, a large portion of the population (mainly the older demographics) remain loyal to offline media and both read and respond to messages in their physical mailbox. For clients with a focus on Boomers and upwards, this avenue is worth exploring (and getting right: as we all know, physical mail is a competitive landscape).
Lead Magnets: A foundation stone in any inbound marketing strategy, lead magnets can be content-rich articles, whitepapers, or e-books and are typically designed to equip the reader with actionable advice to solve a specific problem. Given that its entire function is to generate leads, this is clearly an area in which professional expertise will deliver a solid ROI.
Product copy: Basic as it may sound, the ability to describe the benefits of a product is vital to generate consideration, while at the same time often difficult for the company that deals with it day in and day out (this is particularly the case with technology-intensive industries). A 3rd party copywriter can provide an outside-in perspective and bring the language down to the level of the target consumer.
Video scripts: Videos are an increasingly necessary tool in outreach activities, particularly when marketing to the younger generation, whose first instinct will be to search YouTube rather than Google. Writing for video is a separate skill set that requires brevity and an understanding of voice-over dynamics. DIY content can create an authentic vibe that is appropriate for updates, but for flagship video content marketing your business and product, it clearly makes sense to go for a professional look and feel.
While the above list covers the main areas of content in which you might expect a client to have needs, it is by no means exhaustive. Not only this, but the list will continue to expand and subdivide as the digital metaverse develops.
There are also numerous services related to content creation – for example web design and social media management – where you might partner with a white label supplier focused on these areas. While these related services are not the subject of this report, the principles we set out can typically be applied here, too.
What are the alternatives to white labeling?
White labeling – outsourcing an important component of the value chain to a 3rd party – may not be the best strategy for some, and it is certainly not the only option.
Hiring your own team might be a more logical choice, particularly if you believe that content creation is or should be a core part of your offering.
This option requires careful thought, however, as the upfront costs of locating, hiring and onboarding a new team are considerable, and the ongoing costs associated with retaining and expanding can make a severe dent in your bottom line if you have not sized the opportunity correctly.
Assuming a team of two, say a content producer and an SEO analyst, at $50k salary each and adding in benefits and the required investment in technology, the ongoing costs of a modest in-house team could be approximately $150k per year.
This is more than double the cost of a white label solution that charges around $6,000 per month or $72k per year and which would make available the talents of a broader team (e.g. content strategist and professional marketers).
“Before we had upwards of 10 people doing writing for our clients. [Through white label services] we were able to basically reduce that staff to zero and make annual savings somewhere in the neighborhood of $360,000 a year.”Joe Amaral, CEO, Anthem Software
Working with freelancers could be a way to avoid the high overhead costs associated with hiring a fully-staffed in-house team. Nowadays, this is easier than ever. Online talent marketplaces such as Upwork, Problogger, and Hubstaff Talent make it possible for employers to identify and hire resources based on specific criteria at minimal or zero cost.
Although it is easier than ever, this is not the same as ‘easy’.
The additional work involved in sifting through proposals and potentially having to try out multiple candidates before locating the right one is a key disadvantage of the freelance option.
Unless hired on a long-term contract (which would defeat the purpose of going for a freelancer in the first place) even the perfect candidate is free to leave for other work at any time, which would require the employer to begin the recruitment process all over again.
So when would either of the above two options make sense?
If control over personnel background and consistency of voice are of paramount importance, making a direct hire (whether full-time or freelance) could make more sense than going with a white label provider. What do we mean by that?
Control over the precise profiles of your team members allows you to specify the experience and education level down to the smallest detail. The reasons for this could be anything from the clients you serve to your own marketing claim (‘We only employ writers with X experience”), or simply personal preferences. In such cases, the additional effort and / or expense may be worth it.
Consistency of voice in output can only be absolutely guaranteed when working with a fixed team over a sustained period. Neither of these may be possible with a 3rd party provider, which retains control over who it employs, how its staffs projects, and for how long. Even if the provider is willing to offer dedicated resources, the unpredictability of timelines always leaves open the possibility that staff may change at the last moment or mid-way through a case.
“The more I’m bogged down with finding talent, vetting, talent, creating systems, scaling those systems – it’s just one piece of our service offering that’s taking you away from business development. It’s taking me away from my building, my own personal brand. It’s taking me away from a lot of other things that are going to allow me to scale much faster.”Will Palmer, Founder, BizFinderSeo
It is likely, in our view, that both of the above options will involve more money, time, and stress than they are worth for most agencies. White labeling offers an alternative that removes much of the friction while retaining a good deal of the upside.
In the next section, we’ll look at these benefits in more detail.
Advantages of white labeling
Using the services of a 3rd party lightens the workload, fills gaps in capacity, and eliminates the stress of hiring, training, and retention.
“Before we had two writers in-house, and that was an issue for scalability. We really couldn’t scale at the speed we wanted hiring and training our own internal writers. I just literally couldn’t hire enough high-quality writers simultaneously.”Tony Soares, CEO, Quanti Digital
But why in particular are white label services a popular choice for marketing agencies looking to support clients with content creation services? Here are the main reasons according to our experience and research:
- Enhance your value. It’s obvious, but nonetheless important to reiterate, that enabling your clients to fulfill their content-related needs is becoming a non-negotiable component of a marketing consultancy’s service offering. Without it, you are at a disadvantage compared with the larger firms. White labeling puts this capability one phone call away.
- Stay specialized. Your competitive strengths may well lie in a unique focus area, and there is no reason why you should compromise this by making large-scale alterations to your firm. White labeling allows you to offer a more complete solution while in the process making your core service more attractive
- Save money: As shown above, the costs involved in partnering with a well-chosen white label firm are more affordable than the upfront and ongoing costs of an in-house team. The right 3rd party provider will generate every bit as much value as an internal team. Therefore you are, in a sense, taking a more cost-efficient route to building out a quasi-internal capability.
- Remain agile: While it is possible to recruit a hand-picked team to meet a specific set of requirements, the ability to switch providers and select the best-of-breed for each situation makes it possible to react to new opportunities and changing client needs far more rapidly. One can even make use of multiple white label providers simultaneously if a single provider is not enough.
- Stay profitable: Working with a 3rd party means that you can handle spikes in demand and capture additional revenues, while in times of lower demand, you can eliminate cost and defend your profit margins. An in-house team is inflexible in both directions, whereas a white label provider will provide capacity as and when you need it.
Even if you’re employing a 3rd party, this does not remove the need for you to understand the client’s needs, preferences, and time constraints. You are likely to be, in most cases, managing the white label team to a successful conclusion. However, the additional bandwidth you gain by outsourcing the work itself means that you are able to focus on where you really make your money.
“We only have so much creativity to give. And if you tap yourself out trying to come up with content on a weekly basis, your organization is robbed of creative juices that you might need for creative problem solving and other tasks.”Eric Carter, CEO, Approach Technology
The point around agility is worth reiterating given the pace of change we are seeing in the content creation space. Rapid change can be a nightmare for businesses with entrenched processes and personnel, meaning that the narrow expertise of an in-house resource can turn very quickly from an asset to a liability. As well as being up-to-date, external providers also give a lens on the market that an insular team will be less able to provide.
The above advantages apply in various measures to firms of all sizes. A white label solution clearly makes sense for a smaller marketing agency, offering a quick way to expand a firm’s service portfolio and capacity at an affordable cost. For a larger business, it offers a way to streamline overly-complex operations, ease strain on management, rationalize the payroll, and reduce liability.
How to work with a white label partner
Working with a 3rd party to deliver a key client service may well be a new experience for many marketing agencies. Although the process need not be stressful or complicated, knowing the best practices in advance can help avoid common pitfalls.
Step 1: Clarify the goals
Since you are entrusting a sizable portion of work to the provider and are likely the primary liaison to the end client, starting with a thorough brief is fundamental to a successful partnership.
Using the journalist’s ‘who, why, where, what, when’ approach is a good place to start.
- Who: Give details on mission, background, and voice.
- Why: Provide the goals for the engagement and the target client.
- Where: Define the channels to be used (e.g. Instagram).
- What: Share any further specifics that the client has stipulated (e.g. keywords, word count, required links, acceptable sources, style guide).
- When: Specify period and frequency (e.g. cadence of post).
Designing a template for the above not only helps to ensure that the correct process is followed but also enables future engagements to be handled in the same way.
If you are sharing responsibility for the initial fact-gathering stage with the white label provider, be sure that you know who is responsible for finding out what!
Step 2: Detail ways of working
The above points should ideally be documented in the formal scope of work and service level agreement that covers your collaboration on the engagement.
It should also detail the chain of command, the division of responsibilities, processes to ensure that data is delivered on time, and as precise a definition of the final deliverables as possible, so that it will be clear when the engagement has been completed successfully.
If revisions are likely, the limits on number and extent of alterations should be agreed in advance, along with the commercial impact (e.g. hourly fees for additional work beyond a certain time budget or calendar date).
The dreaded “long tail” can be a significant source of additional effort in many cases, and knowing who is responsible and what (if any) compensation will be due to them will make for a more harmonious relationship between all parties if a project does see significant overrun.
In a “closed” white label arrangement, where the white-label provider cannot interact with the client directly, there will be a need for more structure to ensure that the information flows unimpeded from the client to the content team.
If an “open” arrangement is being used, and members of the white label provider will come into contact with the client, protocols should also be set out describing in what circumstances this contact is permitted to take place (e.g. independently, or always in the presence of an agency team member).
Step 3: Ensure you are protected
The initial documents should contain a legal agreement that offers protection to both sides in case of certain eventualities. You should include in this section a non-solicitation clause that prevents the white label provider from approaching the client for work after the engagement is over without your consent and knowledge. Clauses relating to the confidentiality of client information and provisions for compensation in case of contract breach or early termination should also be standard fare.
While it is clearly in both your interests and those of the white label provider to ensure a successful project and a happy client, adequate legal protection not only clarifies the limits of the relationship but also insures against the remote possibility of reputational and financial damage resulting from actions beyond your organization’s control.
How to select a white label partner
While finding the right partner can unlock a multitude of benefits, as outlined above, choosing the wrong partner can be a costly error. If a mismatch emerges after a partnership has begun on a live project, it will be difficult, and potentially embarrassing, to disentangle and re-group with a more appropriate provider.
“It’s a crapshoot. We’ve tried a lot of different services.”John Schroeder, CEO, RealWebsite
The selection process should therefore be undertaken with great care, making use of all the information at your disposal.
Here is a checklist to give yourself the best chance of success when finding the right partner for your needs:
- Basic research: Gaining as full a picture as possible of their offerings from publicly available materials will give you an initial sense of whether they are a good fit.
- Team capabilities: How much of the content creation process does the team handle? In addition to copywriting, this could include conducting, research, interviews, and SEO.
- Industry coverage: This is important if you are focusing on a highly technical or niche area but is less important than the team capabilities, which are typically where the value lies. Research ability, for instance, can more than make up for lack of familiarity in a given field, but the reverse does not apply.
- Typical audience: For example, does the firm usually produce for technical experts (e.g. specialized engineers), small business owners, or C-level executives? Each audience requires a different tone and level of detail. Probing this will give you a sense of the kind of writers they employ.
- Types of content: It is unlikely that a single provider will be equally proficient in all of the varieties of content we outlined earlier in this report. You should be able to get a sense of whether they are specialists in the platforms you are looking for. If they claim to do everything, this requires further investigation.
- Writing samples: If the information above is not explicitly stated, looking at examples of past work may well be helpful in understanding their typical audience as well as gauging their range and quality of output. The samples will obviously be the best they have available so are more likely to represent the high water mark.
- Past clients: While the company may be able to project a good impression, bear in mind that you are dealing with a content creation agency. Snappy taglines and sky-high search rankings are to be expected, but past clients are harder to magic up out of thin air. Look for case studies and named testimonials that give a clue to how good a reputation the firm enjoys for its work.
“Tonality is a big deal – who are we talking to and who’s the audience? If somebody writes in a really formal style and it’s going to people that are relaxed and loose, it’s just not going to connect.”John Schroeder, CEO, RealWebsite
- Conduct an interview: Not all of the above information may be available publicly, and a follow-up interview, either as a formal expression of interest or a simple inquiry via the switchboard, will help to close any gaps in the basic information, as well as offer a chance to dig further into other questions, including:
- Background of writers: You should be comfortable with the caliber and experience of the copywriters they will use to serve your clients. If the firm is not willing to share information on this, or is unable to give a clear set of guidelines they follow, this could be a warning sign.
- Flexibility on demand: The website may or may not indicate how they price for additional services, but it is important to understand in detail how they plan for a “surge” in capacity in case you are constrained by a sudden increase in client demand. Probing this with a few real examples will help you understand if their framework is clearly defined or vague.
- Past KPIs: Ask them to back up their performance claims with numbers, ideally taken from case studies that they can share. This will not only give you an idea of their standard of work but also whether they are internally well-organized and well-enough equipped to track these important numbers over time and across different channels. If not, they may be disorganized in other areas.
- Customer service: Ask them to describe their service commitments (e.g. response time, deadline assurances) and how they train their staff to adhere to these expectations consistently. Again, KPIs, if available, will indicate both quality and organization levels.
“First we did some test runs with them, then I hit them with volume to see if they could handle it. It’s important from a timeline deliverable standpoint, because when you’re dealing with two internal writers, if one gets sick, it might throw off a week’s worth of content.”Tony Soares, CEO, Quanti Digital
- Ask for a test-drive: It should be possible to experience in advance what the systems are like to interact with (for example, if they have a management dashboard system, what is the functionality and ease of use?). This process is important so that you can gauge what the end client’s experience will be. Clunky systems will reflect badly on you, and at best make it harder to demonstrate the success of the eventual engagement.
- Consider price last: Cost is a crucial consideration, and the partnership must make commercial sense in order to proceed. However, it is only possible to interpret price in the context of the value being offered. Rock bottom rates are not much use if they are linked to poor customer service and minimal flexibility in times of increased demand. Similarly, higher prices may well be an indication that they are employing the best writers in the market. Your decision to move ahead should ultimately be based on the value you receive, and this is why looking at price last, rather than first, can lead to an optimal decision.
How SteadyContent can help
At SteadyContent.com, we understand the importance of targeted, premium content for our agency clients and the businesses they serve. Our white label content puts the client at the center of the equation, providing tailored copy, images, SEO optimization, and social media management every week.
Agencies can grow their businesses with our done-for-you content marketing automation service, providing all the benefits of a white label offering at the flick of a switch! We offer specialized content and comprehensive support, and our set-your-own-price approach gives you even more control over your revenue.
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Visit our website to review writing samples and check out our blog, which contains even more valuable information about content marketing in the digital age.
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