The Freelancer’s Guide to Content Marketing

By Steven Threndyle

Chances are, you didn’t become a freelancer because you wanted to learn how to write something called “native advertising.” Maybe you’re a graduate from a journalism school, or you’ve honed your freelance career by pitching, researching, and writing stories for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Business, or Toronto Life.

But A-list magazine markets—the ones that used to be a major source of income for freelance editorial writers—have descended into freefall, much like their newspaper counterparts.

Just because print advertising isn’t healthy doesn’t mean, however, that opportunities for freelancers have vanished. Indeed, public institutions, professional associations and corporations are turning to freelancers to provide a wide variety of storytelling needs.

You’ve probably heard terms like sponsor content, native advertising, advertorial, and brand journalism before—and maybe you’ve even written some of these stories. These buzzwords belong to the world of marketing, which of course many journalists see as anathema to the very idea of objective reporting.

Given the state of today’s freelance editorial markets, however, it is quite likely impossible for even the most ambitious writer to make a decent, full time living without exploring any of these options.

Why is all of this happening?

Because, despite the proliferation of so-called fake news sites, people are hungry for authentic, verifiable information that does not overtly make a hard sales pitch and which respects their intelligence as consumers. It’s all part of the reputation management that institutions and corporations need to fulfill mandates for transparency, public engagement, and other corporate social responsibility (CSR) benchmarks.

In truth, all of these forms of storytelling have been around for a long, long time (the Imperial Oil Review, a glossy publication that has had stories worthy of Canadian Geographic, started publishing in the early 1900s).

However, with audiences becoming increasingly fragmented and circulation and viewership numbers dwindling, these days everyone from non-profits to auto companies to travel agencies are developing content strategies that seek to go beyond marketing or selling a particular product or service, instead creating stories that might only be tangentially related to the company’s brand.

These content streams are entirely legitimate methods for getting stories in front of an uninformed public. Writers—whether they are laid off journalists needing dough before the next job turns up, or freelancers who fully embrace these forms of communication—still must use the basics of doing research, identifying subject matter experts, creating storylines that inform and engage, and going through numerous drafts in order to achieve client satisfaction.

Know Your Terminology!

Custom publishing is a catch-all phrase that refers to any insert, special section, or stand-alone magazine that features stories about a pre-determined topic that are, generally speaking, not written by employees/reporters of mainstream media outlets. Sometimes, these stories might be less than a page long; a glorified advertisement, almost. They can also be glossy, stand-alone magazines like UpFront, (by Globe Edge for accounting giant Price Waterhouse Coopers), or the bi-monthly Costco Connection, which features book reviews, nutrition articles, and recently even published a story on workplace bullying.

Advertorial has been around for a long time and, as the word suggests, conjoins advertising and editorial. With advertorial, the writer or their managing editors must obtain “sign off,” or approval, from whoever is paying for the space. Normally, the writer is given a specific direction by the client for the story to take, along with key messages and the word length.

Sponsor content takes things further, and often develops into longer special, multi-page inserts that can even appear as stand-alone section. These sections might have a title such as Financial Planning, 101, Buying Your First Home, or Choosing the Best Credit Card Points Program. These sections will have multiple advertisers—whose products or services might be mentioned, and whose corporate spokespersons may be quoted. However, the context and angle of the story will not be subject to review by the advertiser. Often, these special sections are joint projects undertaken by professional associations, lobby groups, or even labour unions who want to amplify their message to the public. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the tone for these stories is definitely editorial in nature. Some consumer advocates believe that this kind of content needs to be more clearly identified as a “special supplement,” and in the early days sponsor content had to struggle with a reputation for forging fake news because its design template was often very, very similar to the actual fonts, typeface, and page layout of the magazine it was appearing in. Some sponsor content is managed directly by media companies—Globe Edge by the Globe and Mail is one such provider, while other content might be organized by a third party publisher.

Native advertising offers the newest wrinkle in this sometimes murky editorial world. In this case, stories often appear that are completely tangential to the advertiser or client who is paying the writer. A bank, for instance, might sponsor an on-line article about “moving to the country” (personal disclosure: I just wrote a story for on this very topic). These stories pop up on your mobile phone while you are scrolling through a favourite website and can often be embedded in apps—especially free ones. If you’ve done a Google search on your phone in the past little while about, say, the benefits and costs associated with rural living, then you might find your links to this kind of story (sent through Google AdChoices) while you’re reading a different story on your favourite daily news site as viewed on your mobile phone or tablet.

Brand journalism is an attempt by major institutions (think: health units, hospitals, universities, Fortune 500 companies) to utilize the storytelling techniques honed by journalists to provide authentic, transparent, and engaging information. It perhaps speaks to the sorry state of the media industry right now to mention that many of these institutions are hiring laid-off journalists to staff their communications departments because they “know how to identify good story ideas” within a particular company. The brand journalist’s job duties might include corporate blogging, creating videos for the company’s YouTube channel, or even producing content for a company intranet.

Advice from writers in the field

Randall Anthony Mang’s media and communications company commissions more stories written by freelance writers than most newspapers and magazines on a yearly basis. And you’ve likely seen many of these stories if you have a print subscription to the Globe and Mail, where Mang has successfully partnered with a wide variety of organizations to create sponsor content sections. Mang describes the stories which appear in his sections—which are both identified as sponsor content and that have information about how the section was commissioned—as “writing with a purpose.”

Mang says, “We did special sections on climate change and clean energy when it wasn’t even on the radar screen of the mainstream media. The David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute and energy companies like TransAlta Utilities—all bought advertisements and helped support the publication.”

Indeed, sponsor content and content marketing can even serve to get messages out to the public that newsrooms—with their ever-dwindling resources and staff—cannot do.

Sponsor content, however, has not been entirely free of controversy. In the past, Mang has had to caution his freelancers that while they are writing stories for special sections that will appear in the Globe, they must make it clear when they call their subject matter experts up that they are not Globe staff reporters. The subtleties and nuances of sponsor content are often lost on readers themselves, despite the fact that new guidelines are in place to ensure that sponsor content is clearly identified as such.

“It’s incumbent to be as transparent as possible throughout the entire process. If the Globe wasn’t respected for its journalism, I wouldn’t have a platform, and if what you’re producing is crap, it’s not going to go anywhere. You need to bring forward intelligent points of view that are germane to any quality storytelling.”

If that doesn’t convince you to seek out these opportunities, perhaps the money will. The potential for big bucks is there—well into “six figures” according to some sources—putting it in the same ballpark as salaried journalists, with the added bonus of working from home in your pyjamas.

For writers like Toronto-based freelancer Marjo Johne, the myriad tales of woe told by many journalists are irrelevant. She’s made a solid income by taking on a dizzying number of projects for major brands like Dell, SunLife, and RBC.

“I have a lot of freedom in pursuing these stories. Sometimes the client suggests interview subjects, but I get on my own sources. I research and write them as I would any article, and work on these stories with pride, generally crafting the story the way I want to. If the story is about a topic I’m not terribly familiar about, I do a ton of research before I even interview the first person.”

It’s important to note that a large percentage of sponsor or custom content is not bylined, so Johne advises writers to maintain a byline elsewhere, and to create a website where prospective editors and clients can find samples of your work. It goes without saying that you must maintain a high level of professionalism, otherwise you won’t ever get re-hired. Johne has also found work through All About Words, a full-service Toronto communications agency that keeps a roster of freelance writers handy for special projects.

There are, however, things you need to know before searching for this kind of work. Advertorial writing for some publications can be notoriously lousy to start off with, largely because these custom publishing contracts are awarded to the lowest bidders. Pay can range from as low as .30 per word to .50 per word which is fine if you have a background in the field. However, projects where multiple stakeholders must be contacted and where permission to publish needs to be signed off on are often fiddly and time-consuming. Getting a story to completion can be time consuming and stressful.

If you don’t have clear direction from the client at the outset, you might end up doing a ton of work afterwards that you didn’t expect. If you’re in a position where you can set your rates—which is sometimes the case—you might want to make sure the terms of engagement are well understood; the due date, the time-line for revisions, and the final sign-off.

It also takes a bit of a change in mind-set, especially if you’re a journalist who’s been used to slamming copy in on super-tight deadlines. Mang says, “You can be a hell of a newsroom writer but you might not be able – or willing— to do client service. Ideally, we’re looking for people who have journalism skill but who also understand marketing and PR. Many writers come to us through word of mouth but we do get solicited by writers quite frequently and have always had an open door policy.”

It also really helps if you’ve developed a reputation for excellence within your field of expertise. Anne Mullens is a Victoria, BC based writer who reported on medical issues and public health for over a decade at the Vancouver Sun, and became a freelancer when her family moved to Victoria (her husband is Keith Baldrey, the Global News TV reporter covering the BC Legislature). Mullens has carved a niche by distributing important educational health care stories through her Santé Communications Group.

She says, “Healthcare groups come to us to help them communicate, and we come up with a proposal and a workplan. I would actually bring doctors, patients, and families, and current research and would create a process – there aren’t always journalists around who will write about this. It’s evidence-based writing that will save people’s lives. We also pitch regular journalists, but we will write op-eds, public service announcements, and stories on important issues. As an example, we did a series of twelve columns, co-written with a psychiatrist, on common mental health issues and their treatments.”

She notes that smaller newspapers often run these stories and columns verbatim, and “we make sure we put boilerplate copy on the bottom to let people know where the funding is coming from. We are helping people by providing information that isn’t available anywhere else.”

Isn’t even the best content in the world destined for obscurity if no one is reading daily newspapers to see it in the first place, though? That’s where the brave new world of native advertising could become the future for all of us. Native ads show up when we’re consuming stories on our tablet, or even an app.

Bryan Borzykowski graduated from Ryerson and got a job with Rogers Media in Toronto and went up the corporate ladder quickly, essentially progressing from intern to associate editor at Canadian Business.

“I would work on one floor until 4:30 and then run upstairs and work on a different floor working as the music editor on Rogers Wireless magazine.” Along the way, he decided that “There’s something about this custom content magazine world that I really like.”

Now, his communications company is in charge of content for The Investors Group MORE website, which could represent the future of digital marketing and storytelling. While some stories are provided directly by Investors, the tablet and mobile friendly web format utilizes leading edge infographics and offers the kind of “life advice” columns you might read on Lifehacker or Medium.

“I work on 96 stories per year, or eight a month,” he says.

And for Bryan, life is good, indeed. He has also done a lot of stories for the New York Times T Brand Studio and reports that his income has steadily increased since leaving Rogers to go full time in 2010.

“Custom content is not advertorial. The companies I’ve worked with give you a ton of leeway to produce good stories.”


Steven Threndyle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @threndyleski.

Posted on December 15, 2016 at 12:59 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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