In 2019, I celebrated ten years of full-time self-employment. I parted ways with my last newspaper job and embraced content marketing writing as my new career in 2009. Now, as a small business owner who works with multiple publishers, I’m perpetually somewhere in the onboarding process.
Let me tell you, successful first exchanges matter.
Whether it’s through a chain of emails or while lingering over a boardroom table, the first time you connect with someone who will be your business-focused partner in crime for a temporary time period, questions bubble up.
Will this collaboration work out?
What do they expect from me?
How can we make this work?
Is this a good investment of my time?
This piece draws on my personal experiences working with dozens of clients via various platforms, agencies and direct connections. The truth is, there’s no one way to kick-start a collaboration. But, there are some best practices to follow if you want to meet your goals and make the process enjoyable for all players.
Clients: Why You Need an Onboarding Process
You wouldn’t welcome a new staff member to the team without sharing an employee manual, signing them up for orientation or introducing them around the office. Extend the same courtesies (a la freelancer style) to your contract-based workers.
We need direction.
We wish we had psychic abilities and could download the last few months of your thought process that led to your need for a writer, but that’s not possible. However, there is something you can do.
Initiate a proper onboarding process.
Before you wonder how many hours that will add to your calendar, this task can be streamlined with many of the segments used over and over again in future collaborations, ultimately saving you hours of questions during the workflow phase.
Onboarding a freelancer intentionally makes the entire collaborative process — from welcomes to final asset delivery — more successful.
As someone who does both, I think setting expectations can be tough. Of course the contributor and editor both want to produce good content, but can have different ideas of how to get there and what that looks like. Just because I *think* I'm being clear doesn't mean I am!
— Jess Lulka (@jlulks) August 7, 2019
Disclosure: This blog is reader-supported, which means this post contains affiliate links and advertisements. I earn a small commission if you shop through them, which helps fund this website so I can continue to bring you amazing content. Thank you! ~Angela
Freelancers: Why You Need an Onboarding Process
As a professional who offers services for a fee, you require detailed instructions and insight on the client’s specific needs, expectations and goals.
These reduce time-consuming back-and-forth conversations during the workflow process, the number of pivots to new approaches and ensure that your time is used efficiently.
For a freelancer, active work is the only time we earn money.
Nobody is paying us to write that email, send that invoice again or dig through Twitter messages to piece together information that would be better displayed on one comprehensive project document.
We appreciate time-efficient collaborations.
Search engine marketer and freelance writer Seth Richtsmeier reached out to me via LinkedIn and offered his opinion on the initial collaboration between a contract worker and a creative.
“When a client has an onboarding process in place, it shows me they have their act together and know what they want from the freelancers they work with. It also gives me a glimpse into what working with the client might be like, whether it’s how they communicate, their best practices, or even how I’m treated during the process,” Richtsmeier explained.
“I’ve worked with folks in the past where I could tell my thoughts and questions were not a priority for them despite the fact they deemed their content critical, and those two things don’t add up. On the other hand, I’ve worked with fantastic people that held my hand and appreciated my participation in their process.”
I agree with this 100 percent. These first steps set the foundation for what’s to come, for both parties.
Making it Official With a Work for Hire Contract
Once everyone is ready to get started, the first order of business is a work-for-hire contract. This document ensures that all parties involved have clear guidelines for what is to be produced, by when and for what fee. Payment details and project deliverables should be clearly communicated.
In my experience, the client presents the contract to the freelancer being hired. The document should be discussed and signed by both parties to be valid.
With that said, I’m not a lawyer. If you have specific questions about freelance agreements and their legalities, please consult a legal professional.
Here are a few online resources to learn more about contracts:
- Work Made for Hire Agreement (Preview visible) from US Legal
- Work for Hire: Everything You Need to Know from UpCounsel
- Legalities 4: What is Work Made for Hire? from Owe
- Create Your Service Agreement from LawDepot
The First Hello of the Partnership
Earlier this year, I worked through an onboarding process for a large online technology company. After the initial email invitation asking if I was interested in the project, I received a welcome email from my main point of contact.
Things were rolling along, as usual.
Next up: The onboarding phone call. Myself, the brand client, their marketing partners and additional writers on the team worked our way through greetings and a general overview of the project at hand.
This can also be achieved with an in-person meeting if everyone involved in the collaboration is local.
We discussed the general timeline for the project, who would tackle each segment and what the expected outcome would be for each step. Everyone had the chance to ask about their contributions to the project and the client offered to answer any follow-up questions via email.
Although nobody loves meetings or conference calls, this foundational step in the onboarding process makes the high-level goals, timeline and expectations known to everyone at the same time.
As a freelancer, it’s common to be left out of this initial step, and brought in when a specific service is needed. I think this is a fundamental flaw in the content creation process. A savvy writer wants to understand the content strategy and client goals, and how their creative energy fits into the overall picture.
Appointing a Central Contact Person
Both freelancers and the hiring client need to clearly communicate who to go to during the collaboration.
Some freelancers have virtual assistants or writing partners working with them on projects. The client may be working in tandem with a branding agency or marketing platform.
Don’t assume that your contact for the project will be the person whom you initially communicated with. When in doubt, ask who you should go to for key aspects of the project including editorial direction, editing and invoicing. These may be three different people.
Once you know who to communicate with, figure out the best way to connect. Is it through email? A Slack channel? Text messaging? Calls? Determine this early on in the partnership and you’ll have fewer headaches related to overlooked or missed messages.
Share Relevant Permissions and Data
Everyone on the team needs to have access to the programs and apps that will be required to tackle the project. Share pertinent logins, passwords, codes, links and IDs.
For one website redesign project I worked on last summer, everyone on the team communicated via Basecamp. It’s a central platform where we discussed various aspects of the project in dedicated threads, privately messaged one another, shared documents and could see how we were making progress overall via a master calendar.
I also find Slack groups and editorial calendars created in Google Docs to be incredibly helpful.
Bottom line: Be sure all parties have what they need to actually do the work, including a way to communicate with one another and access to the tools needed to complete the project.
Make the Workflow Timeline Accessible
Speaking of Basecamp, or any communication hub, everyone on the team needs access to the project/workflow timeline. This may be a simple spreadsheet or a dedicated workflow management program. Whatever it is, be sure the freelancers on the team have access too.
More than once, I’ve discovered that only employees of the hiring client had access to overall branding and strategy information (featured in a timeline document) what would have been helpful during my content creation process.
Posting the workflow also lets everyone on the team clearly understand who is responsible for each step and when to expect benchmark deadlines (drafts, revisions, final deliverables).
For larger projects, plan team check-ins using this document as a guide so everyone is aware of delays or bumped-up deadlines. When there are multiple players in a project, the timeline will be revised to accommodate unexpected shifts in the workflow.
Communicate Updates and Changes
Finally, during the onboarding process decisions are made, broken and reconstructed daily. Use your designated line of communication to keep everyone in the loop on these updates.
A handful of my retainer clients send out routine email-based newsletters. One informs us weekly where we are on content goals, pitches needed and how the client’s audience is responding to our work. The feedback is genuinely helpful and refreshing.
I have another client who sends out monthly updates to let us know about upcoming campaigns, content performance, helpful resources for writing and where we can improve on our collaboration. Sometimes a new tool is introduced or we get a save-the-date for a team call.
I look forward to these communications to not only feel like an included, valued member the team, but so I can effectively plan for what’s coming up, like an influx of work or intentional pauses on a campaign.
When a timeline is going to shift dramatically, your freelancers want to know ASAP. A delayed project equals a delayed paycheck for a freelancer.
Did you enjoy this insight on onboarding a freelancer? What Web Writing Advice do you need? Give me a shout on social media, send me an email or comment below. I’m listening.
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Note: This blog post was last updated on March 22, 2023.