This is the third installment of the Content Partner Strategy series, where we look at the rapidly changing landscape of branded content partnerships. In this installment, we help you fend off posers and potentially bad fits.

You’re in the discussion stage with 10 potential freelancers (aka partners, aka content creators) and you can only choose three. Based on the work you’ve seen from them, you have no favorites. You want a mix of online and social posts. How will you decide who gets your budget?

My number one rule is: Don’t fall in love with anyone too early. It weakens you. Instead, look at all 10 people as having equal potential, and make your decisions based on how they are to work with — starting with how they answer some questions about idea generation, workflow and compensation.

In general, better candidates are more prepared to have a conversation about the client’s needs, and they ask questions more often than they throw out statements. Potentially problematic candidates are those who put their own value ahead of the client’s. They may be extremely talented, or on the flip side they may be completely messy. But the commonality is, they don’t like to be questioned or ask questions. And that will make the project unpleasant regardless how good their work is.

Here are statements that are red flags from a potential content partner — and by contrast, things you want a content creator to say instead.

content partnership red flags to note when looking for a partner

Red flag #1: Based on my past engagement, I deserve to be paid X per post.

Engagement doesn’t equal sales. It doesn’t even equal impressions. Also, engagement can be bought. If someone tries to argue payment based on engagement, it makes me think either they’re ignorant of business goals or they think I’m ignorant about bots.

A better response: I’m willing to get paid on a compensation structure that’s partially performance-based.

I always pay talent some amount upfront, but the individuals who are willing to work out performance-based compensation are precious to me. It means they believe in the quality of their work enough to bet on it. It makes me feel like I’m taking less of a chance on them.

Note: I do not believe in a fully commission-based or click-based payment model. Everyone should get some upfront fee for content creation.

Red flag #2: SEO keywords [or social media keywords/hashtags] don’t really matter.

I heard a person with 20 years experience say this, and 3 months later a college student said it. In both cases, I feel it should have been footnoted with, “All industry research and opinion to the contrary…” Because that’s the truth.

Companies can and do agonize over SEO and social strategy all day, every day. The best practices are always changing. To throw down absolutist statements that are entirely contrary of expert opinions and not backed up by data whatsoever is just ignorant.

A better response: What platform is your focus, and what are you hoping to get from it?

This is beginning a negotiation by asking what the potential client wants. Much smarter than beginning a negotiation by announcing your rate.

content partnership red flags to note when looking for a partner

Red flag #3: Does your company have a website and an Instagram?

Has this person not heard of Google? Worse yet, are they just incredibly dense? Seriously — I had a self-styled “digital content specialist” respond to an email with this question. I had emailed her about an Instagram campaign, from the company’s official website-connected email. This was what she sent. And oh, how I laughed.

A better response: I’ve noticed that you’re [fill in the blank content bucket or social media channel] isn’t very active. I think I can help with that.

This is a great way for the candidate to show they’ve taken a little initiative and identified an area they can bring value. It might be totally off base.* But putting in effort to find an area you can help still is appreciated, as long as the candidate phrases it the right way.

Note: I myself pitched ardently to take over one client’s Pinterest accounts for 18 months, before they finally told me that their website was not Pinterest compatible and that I should probably never bring it up again.

Red flag #4: I guarantee I can increase your Instagram followers by 1,000 per post.

With social algorithms shifting as they are, absolutely no legitimate business can depend on a steady or predictable increase in followers. If a platform does a particularly zealous bot-account cleanup, even a big account might see a decrease. The only way to guarantee a set amount of followers is if you’re purchasing them.

A better response: Here’s a campaign I worked on recently that performed really well, and here’s the feedback I got on it from the client.

In the unstable and sometimes toxic world of creative freelancing, not everyone’s going to have three recent professional references to call. That being said, anyone on the hiring side needs to do their due diligence. Offering up campaign results and screenshots of feedback is a great solution. I’m typically willing to pay more to a person who takes this step than I would pay a person with equally good content but no campaign results to show.

Note: Sometimes candidates have to seek permission to share campaign results from a client, yet may not get permission, or may only get permission to share limited stats.

Red flag #5: Here’s my media kit, but I don’t have any Insights to verify the numbers I’m claiming.

I could create a media kit and say that I have 10 million impressions a month on my Instagram. I could say that Prince Harry and Malala and 30 different Fortune 500 CEOs follow me on Twitter. A media kit is a pitching tool, not a legal document. If you want me to believe whatever numbers you’re claiming, show screenshots — or it didn’t happen.

A better response: I’ve attached screenshots of analytics from a recent project.

When hiring influencers, this is an absolute game-changer for me. Nine out of ten times, influencers are not willing to share their analytics. The person who does is instantly in the top 10% of candidates.

content partnership red flags to note when looking for a partner

Red flag #6: I don’t have a Facebook Business account. OR, I don’t have a website.

I’ve heard convincing arguments that websites aren’t relevant anymore. And with the way Facebook is squashing reach, I don’t exactly blame influencers for not focusing on them. Nonetheless, I do expect them to have a Facebook Business page and some sort of website. It’s the digital equivalent to having a business card and a resume.

A better response: Did you see any work samples of mine that you particularly liked?

Similar to  the question about review process, this question helps a smart candidate draw attention to their best work samples, while also letting the client know that the candidate is thinking along collaborative lines. Most clients expect their creatives to bring some ideas, but they also have things they’d like to see implemented. An experienced creative freelancer will be trying to figure out the balance from the beginning.

Red flag #7: I don’t work with clients who have a strict review and approval process. If you’re hiring me, you should trust my judgment.

Just because parents trust the nanny doesn’t mean they should never Facetime or Skype to check in on the kids. It’s kind of the same with a business. The owners or brand managers or senior executives know it better than the freelance creative who just entered stage right. It is logical and appropriate for them to oversee it — sometimes in meticulous detail. If a creative really does have great judgment on the brand voice, the oversight will ease in time.

A better response: What is the review, revision and approval process for content that I submit?

There are so many reasons this is a smart question. It’s a subtle way for the candidate to see if the potential client has a process in place. It’s a polite way to start a discussion about project parameters. If a client doesn’t have much of a review process, it tips them off that maybe this person can help them create it. And, it lets the client know that this will be a collaborative process.


                                                              Be a content hero


 Content Partner Strategy Series

Part 1: 5 Ways to Spend $5,000 on Experimental MarketingPart 2: Activating Local Networks
Part 4: How Big of a "Name" Do You Need to Win?Part 5: Where to Find Your Perfect Content Partners