Outsourcing Content Marketing: Hiring an Agency vs. Freelancers vs. FTEs
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Outsourcing Content Marketing: Hiring an Agency vs. Freelancers vs. FTEs

Should you hire a full-time employee, work with freelancers, or contract with an agency when it comes to content creation and promotion?

It’s a common question for CEOs, business owners, and marketing managers when it comes time to invest in content marketing. Each option has its own pros and cons, and what might be right for one company, may be completely different for another.

Between factors such as cost, flexibility, quality of work, and service offerings, it’s important to weigh the options carefully to make the best choice for your business.

To help with your decision, we’ve outlined the major decision factors when debating between hiring a full-time employee, working with a freelancer, or going with an agency, discussing the pros and cons of each and which option you should choose based on your own needs.

Let’s get started:

Option 1: Hiring a Full-Time Employee

Hiring a full-time employee may seem like the most obvious choice when it comes to expanding your business. You likely hired internally for other responsibilities like accounting, sales, and customer service, so hiring internally for content marketing makes sense.

There are definitely perks to hiring a full-time employee, like:

  • Having someone working directly with you in your own office
  • Developing a relationship
  • Having that person learn and understand your product better as they continue to work at your company

But when it comes to content creation and promotion, there are a number of things you should consider. The first is what type of content marketing hire will you make?

There are a number of different positions you could go with. On a typical content team, you may find a:

  • Content Marketing Manager
  • Writer(s)
  • Editor
  • Graphic Designer
  • Web Designer
  • Promotion Specialist or Growth Hacker
  • Email Marketing Specialist

The list goes on and on.

So you have to think about who your first marketing hire will be. In most cases, this will be a Content Marketing Manager who will have to do a little of everything. However, larger companies may decide to build an entire team.

Your next consideration is cost. You should ask yourself:

  • Which option is most cost-effective?
  • And can we afford it?

To really find out how much a full-time employee will cost, let’s take a look at the numbers:

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How Much Does it Cost to Hire a Full-Time Employee?

When considering the cost of a full-time employee (FTE), there are many expenses to account for beyond that person’s salary. You will also need to factor in the cost of:

  • Benefits
  • Health Insurance
  • Taxes
  • Vacation days
  • Sick days
  • Holidays
  • Equipment costs (such as a desk and office chair)
  • Office space
  • Software
  • Recruitment (time and money spent during the hiring process)

All of these expenses can add up. To illustrate this point, let’s cover an example:

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use an employee who earns an annual salary of $50,000 or $24 per hour (although many content marketing positions earn a higher annual salary).

This is how much the employee earns, but it’s not how much you (as the business) will pay to employ that person. You must consider all of the expenses we listed above.

First, we have benefits (like health insurance, tuition reimbursement, 401k match, etc.) and taxes. The cost of benefits and taxes is typically around 1.25 to 1.4 times the amount of an employee’s salary.

Multiplying by this rate, we get a yearly cost of $62,500 to $70,000.

Now, let’s add in the cost of the equipment the employee needs to do their job. We’ll budget $2,000 for a new desk, office chair, and a computer. Adding this expense, the employee’s yearly cost is now $64,500 to $72,000.

We should also factor in the cost of recruiting. Recruiting costs involve expenses for posting job listings or using job applicant software and your team’s own time spent reviewing applicants. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the average cost to find and hire a new employee is $4,129 (FYI, it also takes about 42 days on average to fill an open position).

Adding in recruiting expenses brings the employee’s total yearly cost to $68,629 to $76,129 or $33 to $37 per hour (rounded to the nearest dollar).

At this point, we’ve factored in all foreseeable expenses. However, it’s also important to take a look at an employee’s utilization of their work time, as this can also affect how much they cost your business.

So we’ll factor in vacation days, sick days, and holidays.

Let’s say that you offer a 10-day vacation policy, which is the average number of vacation days offered by U.S. companies (European companies must offer at least 20). Continuing on, let’s say that same employee takes five sick days throughout the year (the average is actually eight).

Lastly, most companies provide at least the following seven holidays off:

  1. New Year’s Day
  2. Memorial Day
  3. Easter
  4. Independence Day (4th of July)
  5. Labor Day
  6. Thanksgiving Day
  7. Christmas Day

Some may also provide time off for the following:

  • Good Friday
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Veterans’ Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Friday after Thanksgiving
  • Christmas Eve
  • New Year’s Eve

This will differ by organization, but we’ll use the first seven holidays mentioned for our example.

Summing up our minimum vacation days, sick days, and holidays, we now have 22 days total (over four business weeks).

Therefore, out of 260 possible business days in a year that an employee could be working (52 weeks x 5 business days), you are actually paying $68,629 to $76,129 for 238 days.

Finally, we have to account for an employee’s productivity. In other words, how much time during a day do they actually spend working (and not taking a break or spending time on other non-work related tasks like browsing Facebook)?

Right off the bat, you’ll likely provide your employee a meal break and a rest break or two. Under the federal wage and hour law (known as the Fair Labor Standards Act), U.S. companies aren’t actually required to provide unpaid or paid breaks to 18 and older employees. However, some U.S. states have their own break requirements.

Regardless, most companies will provide a meal break and rest breaks. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll count this as an hour of the day (ex. a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute rest breaks).

Additionally, although an employee may be in your office for eight hours a day, that doesn’t mean all of that time is spent working. In a study by Scoro, a data-management software company, employees spend 60% or less of their workday actually working:

pasted image 0

(Source)

In a article published on Inc, employees spend less than 3 hours a day, or 37.5% of their workday actually working (with most of the “slacking off” due to social media and reading news articles).

But for this calculation, we’ll move forward with the 60% time utilization rate.

This means, that of the remaining 238 days in a year where an employee should be at work, they are spending just under 143 days actually working, or 4.8 hours a day.

In total, for an employee with a $50,000 salary, you could be actually paying $68,629 to $76,129 a year for 143 days of actual work.

Once this utilization of time is factored in, an employee’s hourly cost to a business comes out to $60 to $67 per hour (rounded to the nearest dollar). That’s a lot higher than the $24 per hour we started with.

This total cost also doesn’t factor in expenses like software, office space, and time needed to onboard or train a new employee. We didn’t factor these expenses because they vary widely by company and position. But, it should be noted that each of these expenses can add to the total cost of an employee.

As we mentioned earlier, many content marketing hires make more than $50,000 per year. So here is that same breakdown for well-known positions and their average salary:

These salaries were all U.S. salaries sourced from Glassdoor

Position Title Average Salary Hourly Rate After Benefits, Taxes, Equipment, & Hiring Costs Real Hourly Rate (With Time Utilization Factored In)
Content Writer $54,455 (Source) $26 $74,197 to $82,366 $65 to $72
Content Marketing Manager $93,125 (Source) $45 $122,535 to $136,504 $107 to $119
Editor $61,655 (Source) $30 $83,197 to $92,446 $73 to $81
Web Designer $64,468 (Source) $31 $86,714 to $96,384 $76 to $84
Graphic Designer $52,589 (Source) $25 $71,865 to $79,754 $63 to $70
Content Strategist $89,698 (Source) $43 $118,252 to $131,706 $103 to $115

As you can see, hiring an employee is a very costly addition and special attention must be paid to all of the expenses that go along with hiring an employee.

In short, hiring an employee is the most expensive option on this list.

However, cost likely won’t be the only thing you consider. So let’s recap all of the pros and cons of hiring an FTE.

Pros & Cons of Hiring a Full-Time Employee

Pros:

  • Pro: You’ll have a team member working directly with you in your own office. This can make communication and meetings easier. For example, you can walk right over to an employee’s desk to get a quick update on a project or ask a question.
  • Pro: You can develop a lasting relationship. Having an employee in your office gives you time to learn more about them, both in general and professionally. You’ll get a feel for how they work, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, and maybe even develop a friendship.
  • Pro: FTEs will learn and understand your product more the longer they spend at your company. Rather than freelancers and agencies who work with multiple clients, an FTE’s only “client” is your company. They spend all day working with one brand, which gives them time to learn and understand your industry.

Cons:

  • Con: FTEs are the most expensive option on this list. While you may offer a salary of $50,000, the actually cost you pay for that employee could be double that amount once you factor in expenses like benefits, health insurance, taxes, recruiting costs, equipment, software, and paid time where an employee isn’t working (ex. Holidays, vacations days, and sick days). Not to mention you’re paying for “time on the clock” where that employee isn’t working (ex. Spending time on Facebook).
  • Con: FTEs may have limited skills. For example, if you hire a full-time writer, that person likely won’t have the other skills to make your content successful such as conducting keyword research prior to writing an article or promoting the article after it has been published. In this case, you’ll need to hire a team with employees that have each of these different skills (ex. A writer, an SEO manager, a content promoter, etc.). Thus, increasing your costs even further.
  • Con: You can’t selectively work with FTEs whenever you want. Once you make a hire, that person is on your team for the long haul. With freelancers and even some agencies, you can work with them when times are good and hold off when work slows down or your budget tightens. If this happens with an employee, it can be more difficult to fire or lay them off if needed.
  • Con: You lose out on training and onboarding time. Most FTEs will need to undergo at least some training to get familiar with your company and industry. You’ll likely need to familiarize them with your team and get them up to speed on the software your company uses. This pushes back the time it will take to get started creating content.

Option 2: Hiring a Freelancer

Your second option is to work with freelancers.

Freelancers offer the added benefit of being able to hire and work with them as needed. However, finding a quality freelancer can take time, and going this route might mean you need to make multiple hires for each content marketing activity.

As with we did when looking at hiring an FTE, let’s consider the cost of a freelancer first:

The Cost of Hiring Freelancers

The most common freelancer you’ll work with when it comes to content creation is a freelance writer.

Freelance writers most often price their work is one of two ways:

  • Per word (ex. $0.10 per word)
  • Flat rate, negotiated fee per article (ex. $200 per 1,000-word blog post)

You typically won’t find a freelance writer who charges an hourly rate. This is because an hourly rate actually penalizes the writer for being efficient.

As the writer continues to work with your company, they’ll understand your style better and have a better grasp of what you’re looking for. In turn, it’ll typically take them less time to write articles for you. Plus, a high hourly rate can result in sticker shock for some clients. If a freelance writer charges $60 per hour, that might seem high to a Marketing Manager who earns $40 per hour.

What many don’t realize is that freelancers don’t actually earn their hourly rate. Freelancers have added expenses that employees don’t such as paying for their own health insurance, dental insurance, vacation days, sick days, etc. They also have unbillable time like invoicing, reading news articles to stay up-to-date on their industry, etc.

Once all of these factors are accounted for, their actual hourly rate will only be a percentage of what they charge. So when a freelancer charges $60 per hour, they may only make $30 per hour.

Either way, these two factors contribute to freelance writers preferring to work on a per word basis or on a flat rate per article.

Once you begin to search for freelance writers, you’ll notice that pricing can range quite drastically. You may find that some writers charge as low as $0.05 per word to $0.30 per word.

You won’t often find freelance writers that charge more than $0.30 per word, though. This is usually where agency pricing comes in. The exception to this is if a writer has extensive knowledge and experience in a field that requires a lot of schooling (ex. Healthcare, law, etc.) or this person is a well-known figure.

So with such a wide range in pricing, what should you expect to pay?

Personally, I’ve found $0.10 per word to $0.15 per word to be the ideal range for software, marketing, technology, and sales content writers. In this range, you will find writers who have experience in their field, have solid grammar and spelling skills, and can produce quality articles.

In more extensive fields like healthcare and law, this rate will likely be $0.20 per word or higher.

What you typically won’t get in this range are the other activities involved in creating and promoting content. For instance, the writer may only provide the written content along with any included images that support the article’s content.

However, you’ll likely have to conduct keyword research yourself (to identify keywords to target for your article), track keywords, analysis performance, and promote the content. Otherwise, you’ll have to hire other freelancers to do this for you.

Again, cost should your only consideration. So now let’s cover a few pros and cons to consider when working with freelancers:

Pros & Cons of Hiring Freelancers

Pros:

  • Pro: You have the ability to hire as needed. For example, you can hire freelancers when you have space in the budget and cut back when you don’t.
  • Pro: Working with freelancers is more cost-effective than hiring a full-time employee (and can be the least expensive option on this list if you know how to find and work with freelancers). For example, if you’re a software company, you can likely find a freelance writer who charges $0.10 to $0.15 per word. If you want to produce a 2,000-word article each week, the cost would be $10,400 to $15,600 per year (much lower than the “real cost” of a full-time writer at $74,197 to $82,366 per year). However, remember that you still have to either manage other content marketing activities yourself (like keyword research and promotion) or hire freelancers in each of these fields.

Cons:

  • Con: Working with freelancers can sometimes be a hassle. Some are difficult to track down and take time to respond to your emails. It’s not as simple as walking over to an employee’s desk to find out how things are coming along.
  • Con: It can take time to find quality freelancers. Finding a quality freelancer writer is a lengthy process that involves posting job listings, reviewing applicants, and testing out different writers. You’ll find that you need to work with a few writers before settling on one you want to work with long-term. Some writers will look good on paper (through their work samples) but then turn in shoddy work later. Additionally, some will start off good but the quality of work will deteriorate over time. Even further, some will be good writers but just won’t be a good fit. It will take time to find the best writers for your company, all the while you’re spending money to do so.
  • Con: Freelance writers may rush their work. While the pricing model of per word or per article makes things easier to budget, you may notice that the quality of work from a writer deteriorates over time. This is because they are cutting back on necessary research and writing articles quicker in order to effectively increase how much money they make.
  • Con: You will have to invest more time into other content marketing tasks. For example, if you only work with freelance writers, you will have to spend time reviewing and editing content. You’ll also have to complete keyword research, post the content to your website, and promote it all on your own. Otherwise, you’ll have to hire additional freelancers for each of these activities. So while working with freelancer writers may be cheaper, you’ll either have to invest more of your own time or spend more money than initially thought.

Option 3: Hire an Agency

Hiring an agency is your third option for content creation and promotion. The cost of an agency typically sits in between working with freelancers and hiring an FTE.

While most agency monthly retainers may seem high, often they are actually cheaper than hiring an FTE. Additionally, when you go with an agency, you’ll have a full team working on your content, versus a single hire.

On the downside, you won’t have full control of the process. Before we dive into all of the pros and cons, again let’s first take a look at costs:

How Much Does it Cost to Hire an Agency?

Much like the cost for freelancers, agency pricing will vary widely.

However, in an analysis of 25 content marketing and inbound marketing agencies that offer content creation services, we found that the average starting price was $2,916 per month. The average highest retainer plan was $8,470 per month. The highest price we saw was $17,000 per month.

These are openly listed prices, so these amounts could be higher for companies with needs that go beyond the scope of listed plans.

While these amounts provide a general idea regarding agency pricing, the numbers don’t really provide a clear picture of how much you can expect to spend by hiring an agency because every company’s needs are different and the available services in each of these agencies’ plans vary.

In general, though, the cost of hiring an agency will be the 2nd least expensive option. While we can’t cover every agency’s services, taking a look at our own pricing, our content retainer plans range from $3,000 to $10,000 per month. That comes out to $36,000 to $120,000 per year.

Our own plans include long-form, heavily-researched blog posts, keyword research, and a significant amount of promotion. A different team member with specialized skills in each area handles each of these tasks (ex. A writer create the content, a designer creates graphics, a web developer posts content to your website, etc.).

When looking at any agency, the value the agency provides is much more important than the total cost of services.

With that said, let’s wrap up by looking at a few pros and cons that go beyond agency pricing:

Pros & Cons of Hiring an Agency

Pros:

  • Pro: An agency will have a full team working on your content, with each person having specialized skills in their area of work. For example, a writer will write your content, a web designer will publish it to your website, a promotion specialist will promote your content, and so on.
  • Pro: The consistency of writing should be stronger (as compared to working with freelance writers). Most agencies vet their writers and have style guidelines in place so that content is consistent among clients and from piece to piece. Additionally, many agencies have an editor that reviews this content for grammar, style, voice, flow, etc. before the content is even sent to you (as the client) for review.
  • Pro: Most agencies will provide a content calendar and/or organize the flow of your content. Exact outlines will vary by agency, but they should at least provide you a rough outline of when to expect each content piece. At Jawfish Digital, we use Trello to manage our client’s content. We create a Trello board for each client and then organize this board into different lists for each step of the content creation and promotion process (ex. Queue, Writing, Editing, Promoting, etc.).
  • Pro: Agencies will handle the entire content creation and promotion process. Because agencies have teams members for each content marketing function, they can handle each step of the content creation process. A good content marketing agency will provide keyword research, pitch article ideas, create content, review and edit that content as needed, post it to your website, and promote it (via social, email, outreach, paid ads, and possibly even through link-building). Agencies handle the whole process so you can focus on other aspects of your business.

Cons:

  • Con: While not the most expensive option on this list, working with an agency isn’t cheap either. As mentioned earlier, hiring an agency is the 2nd most expensive (or least expensive) option when compared to freelancers or hiring an FTE. For quality results, you should expect pay around $3,000 per month or higher.
  • Con: You won’t have full control over the entire content creation and promotion process. Most agencies will provide a finished product as well as reports and updates along the way. But, you won’t have control of each step. For many, this is part of the benefit of going with an agency since it saves the company and managers or CEOs time having to manage each task themselves. However, for those that want to oversee every tiny detail, this may not be the route to go.

Which Option Should You Choose?

Making the decision between these three options is not an easy one.

Going with freelancers may be a good option if you’re a small company (less than 10 employees) and you have time available in your schedule. This will allow you to get up and running with minimal costs invested and as you grow, you can invest in hiring a full-time employee or going with an agency.

Remember, though, that you will still have to dedicate time to finding and managing writers, which a time-consuming process. Additionally, content promotion is just as important, if not more so, than content creation. So if you go this route, you will either need to hire other freelancers for promotion tasks or complete these activities yourself. If either of these will be a holdup, you will be better off going with another option.

Going with an agency will be a good option if you’re a medium to large company (10 to 50 employees) and you have a larger budget to allocate to content marketing. This route will still be cheaper than hiring an FTE, though. Additionally, this is a good option if you do not have a large marketing team (ex. You only have a Marketing Manager) or you do not have any marketing hires at all.

Going this route is also a good option if you do not have time to allocate to managing each step of the content creation process. A solid agency will handle this internally and deliver you a finished product. Additionally, they will have an entire team working on your project.

Going with an FTE is a good option if you have a large budget and want to have someone in your office who you can manage and who will grow with your team. Remember, though, that the real cost of an employee will be nearly double that of their salary when you factor in other expenses like benefits, taxes, vacation days, etc. So an employee with a $50,000 salary may cost your business closer to $100,000 per year.

Additionally, a single hire can only do so much. When it comes to content marketing, you’ll either make a single hire who is a generalist with limited skills in a variety of fields or have to build an entire content team with specialists for each marketing activity (ex. Writer, designer, promoter, etc.).

Jumpstarting Your Content Marketing

Regardless of which option you go with, you need someone who can create amazing content that gets results. It’s not enough to simply create content. Anyone can do that.

With over 2 million blog posts published every day, you have to do more to stand out and actually achieve the results you’re looking for (ex. traffic, leads, and sales). That means creating quality content (and not high-level “fluff”) and promoting the hell out of each piece.

So when considering either of these three options, think about more than costs alone. Judge the quality of content, each option’s workflow, and the results their content has received.

If you need any help in making your decision or you are ready to get started with a content marketing agency, feel free reach out to us directly.

Cody is the founder and owner of Jawfish Digital. He has over 5+ years of experience in Web Design and Content Marketing. He’s created content for companies such as Zapier, Patreon, Simplified Building, and more.

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