Want to know what people ask me about more than almost anything? Outsourcing content.
It’s a major pain point for lots of marketers, and it’s one of the most difficult hurdles to jump when start to seriously scale a site.
For most people, one of the most crucially important things to get right when building a content machine is finding a good, reliable source for content that allows you to scale.
I did, and my site took a massive jump forward (I’ll tell you which one of these I use for most of my content below).
Of course, not all content agencies are created equal, so we put them to the test. We gave 5 agencies the exact same assignment and let them duke it out. How’d it go? Let’s find out…
Why Test Agencies?
Mostly because finding a decent agency and getting good content out of them is a pain in the ass.
There are major upsides to using agencies (e.g. they’re scalable, easy, and sometimes even cost effective), but, of course, there are plenty of downsides (mostly that it’s difficult to get truly great writing out of them).
So, this test has two main goals: (1) to help you find agencies that provide the most benefits with the least drawbacks, and (2) to help you understand how agencies operate and how to get good work out of them.
In other words, we want to see which agency is closest to the perfect agency. For me, that means an agency that:
- Is easy and scalable;
- Is relatively cheap ($/article);
- Provides quality content; and
- Does well with suboptimal article briefs
Reason #2: No one’s done it. To my knowledge, there’s no good resource on this yet. We weren’t able to find any good case studies comparing the popular content agencies, and I think it’s a really important thing for you guys to know.
That’s a problem because when I was looking for ways to scale content, I had to try all of them one by one. It was a huge hassle, and I got a lot of crappy work.
Reason #3: Content agencies all look the same. From the outside, agencies all make the same claims. It’s difficult to tell how they really work. It’s even more difficult to know what kind of content you’ll get.
Even the basic stuff is hard to find without actually going in and ordering articles. Will you have a project manager? What’s the cost? How long does it take an article to be delivered? What’s the quality assurance process?
So, at it’s heart, this post is three things: a case study, a collection of reviews, and a good ol’ fashioned competition.
As much as I could, I approached this scientifically. I wanted to give all agencies a fair chance, and I wanted to keep it as objective as possible.
That was difficult in some cases, however, because some of these agencies operate very differently from the rest. TextBroker and iWriter, for example, are 100% pure marketplaces, and there is very little human interaction, while at WordAgents, you have a dedicated project manager.
Still, we tried to keep the process as similar as we could across the board. To that end, we set up three essential rules for this experiment.
Rule #1: Give everyone the same assignment.
Everyone got the same assignment. It’s a short, informational article. Here are the requirements.
- Topic: “Why Do Cats Purr?”
- Length: 700-1000 words (as close to 800 words as possible)
- Paragraphs no more than 3 lines long
- Include a link to one relevant video
- Include sources for your facts
Here’s one of the important things to note: the brief I submitted is more vague than normal. That’s on purpose. To really get a good feel for how well these agencies do their jobs, it’s not fair to give them the best possible brief. I want to see who can fill in the gaps.
That said, I think this is still a B+ brief, and in hindsight, I should have actually made the brief worse. Hopefully, I still left enough wiggle room for the good agencies (and writers) to show their stuff.
Here’s the brief I sent each agency (you can read the whole thing here).
Rule #2: Work within the system they provide.
As much as I can, I’m going to work within the systems set up by the agencies themselves. No more. No less.
I’ll use their submission systems. I’ll use whatever writers they give me. I’ll use their customer service system (if they have one and if needed). And I won’t go beyond that if I can help it, unless…
…Unless an agency representative specifically seeks me out to do so. For example, one agency (you’ll see below) sent me an email asking if there was anything they could help with for my first project. So I chatted with them a bit more, and they get a bit better feel for my project.
In other words, if they give me access to their personnel as part of their system and workflow, I’ll use it. Otherwise, I’ll simply go through their CMS like any other customer.
Rule #3: I won’t ask for any revisions.
I toyed with this rule for a while. On the one hand, revision systems are an important part of any agency. If you get content you’re not happy with, you need to be able to send it back and get it revised.
However, this article is really an addendum to our previous article on content automation, and I’m assuming most people want to use content agencies to scale.
And at scale, you won’t have time to revise many articles. You’ll either be paying someone to do it or simply relying on the quality of the agency to get good content you don’t have to edit much.
So I decided not to ask for revisions. Instead, I think it’s more useful for our particular problem (scaling a website) to find out which agency does the best job on the first try.
I wanted to establish a list of criteria that was faithful to the goal of the experiment: finding the agency that does the best job on the first try for the least money and the least work.
So, here are the criteria I thought made the most sense:
- Content Quality
- Ease of Use
- Cost per Word
- Speed of Delivery
Each agency will get a score on a 5-point scale for each criterion. Then, I’ll make give an overall assessment. I was going to come up with some kind of composite for the criteria, but since it’s subjective anyway, and because there’s an element of just how it feels to work with an agency, in the end, I decided just reviewing the agency myself was best.
Meet the Combatants (Agencies)
Now for the fun part! Let’s meet our combatants…
Of the agencies below, I’ve used three of them for my own site. The other two were totally new to me at the beginning of the experiment; they’re “higher end” agencies. Of course, I’ve tried a lot more than three agencies in my day, but most of them were crappy enough not to make the cut.
I also want to point out that I’m using the terms “agency” and “marketplace” interchangeably. There are important differences between content agencies and content marketplaces, and I’ll discuss them when I show you each company, but in general, I’m just calling everything an agency because it’s easier.
TextBroker: Best Bang for Your Buck
TextBroker is a content marketplace, which means you submit your article request to a pool of writers, and any writer who meets your qualifications can pick it up. No project managers. No editors. They do, however, have a customer support system that can help you resolve issues you encounter with either content or a writer.
Before we get to the ratings, a quick note: I ordered 4-star content from TextBroker. I did this for two reasons. FIrst, I know from experience ordering content from TextBroker for my own sites that the quality is pretty good compared to most marketplaces, and I wanted to make the experiment fair.
Second, though, TextBroker’s 5-star content is very expensive ($0.072/word). That outpaces every other agency on this list, and it’s way outside of a reasonable budget for most of us. So I went with 4-star, which I think is fair. Still, keep in mind that there’s one step above this one.
TextBroker is a true marketplace, so the submission process is essentially just choosing a quality level, uploading instructions, and letting it fly. Here’s what it looks like.
First, you’ll come to a screen that allows you to start an open order or submit an order, direct order, a team order, or an expert order.
For our purposes, we want to submit an open order (an order any qualified writer can tackle).
The others are a bit more advanced and really only useful if you use TextBroker a lot, although they do have their place. For example, you can slowly build a “team” of writers who have done a good job on your articles in the past and submit only to them.
Then, use their interface to create your article order. You’ll be able to create a new project, pick the content quality, and set a processing time and word count.
They have an “SEO Options,” option, but I strongly recommend you leave that blank. If selected, writers will try extra hard to stuff the keyword into the article, even if it’s unnatural and weird. In fact, you’ll see in the brief that I specifically ask writers not to write “SEO articles.”
When your article is complete, you’ll get an email and a notification. In the TextBroker backend, you’ll be able to see a quick overview for your article that includes the specifications and the cost. You’ll also be able review CopyScape results, which is an awesome feature.
The article will be at the bottom in a little text box. You’ll be able to view it as a final draft or as the raw HTML.
The HTML editor here is actually really useful. Most of the time, I’ll just paste the HTML into WordPress, which significantly speeds things up.
I thought this article was very good. In fact, I think TextBroker may have had a sixth sense about our little competition here because this is even better than the stuff I usually get.
You can read the full unedited article here.
It’s not possible to see the editorial markup in a shared Google Doc, but I did want to show you an image of what my edits for this piece looked like.
And honestly, I’m being picky about style here. This was a strong article, and if I had a dozen articles to get posted, I likely wouldn’t even edit it.
Large pool of writers.
Like most marketplaces, one of the major upsides of working with TextBroker is that they have a massive talent pool. It’s not uncommon to get an article back the day you submit it.
Having a massive talent pool also makes it very easy to get content produced at an absolutely massive scale. They don’t care if you submit one article or a hundred.
Easy submission process.
This is something most marketplaces do well (mostly because they don’t want to deal with you themselves): they provide an easy, efficient CMS. It takes about 5 minutes to learn, and you’re all set.
Checking for plagiarism automatically isa massive perk. Anything that saves you a step will shave a lot of hours off your workload–even if you don’t notice it. It also keeps your site clean.
Articles delivered in HTML.
I love this feature. Nowhere else does this. Writers submit articles in HTML, which makes it very, very easy to upload to WordPress and format if you want. And, at scale, uploading to wordpress can be tremendously time-intensive.
It also gives you way more flexibility in the types of articles you can request. For example, I requested listicles from TextBroker and simply had them hotlink the images in the HTML. Saved me many, many hours downloading and uploading images.
Great customer service.
I’ve run into a few issues in the past, and the customer support has been extremely fast and very good. In fact, Jon over at Fat Stacks reports that with a large enough order, they’ll handle the entire process for you and even post the content to your site for you.
You can save your favorites.
As you submit more articles, you’ll probably come across a writer or two you really like. You can save those writers as favorites and, in the future, only submit articles to those people.
Quality can be hit or miss.
On the whole, the content is really very good (just look at the article above). However, I have gotten crap here, even at 4-stars.
They can be sticklers about guidelines.
Once, when ordering from TextBroker, the QA team rejected my article brief like 5 times in a row. Finally, after chatting with their support, I figured out that the word count I mentioned in my article wasn’t exactly the same as the word count I ordered. I’ve also had briefs rejected for other strange reasons. Ultimately, this is probably a good thing; it saves their writers a lot of headache and keeps them happy. But it can be frustrating if your briefs aren’t precise enough.
Sometimes, orders just sit there.
I’ve never been able to figure out why, but sometimes, orders will just… sit there. If I submit 20 article orders, it’s always a safe bet that 1-2 will just collect dust. I have no idea why this happens. It’s likely just a symptom of marketplaces in general, since it’s the writers who decide which assignments they want to take and which they don’t.
What’s the best way to use TextBroker?
TextBroker is best for large orders of highly systemized content that you don’t mind editing after you get them.
What’s that mean? Large orders of similar articles that all have the same structure and for which you have a really, really good brief (we provide those in Authority Hacker PRO).
It’s also best for folks who don’t mind doing a bit of editing. And, honestly, it’s pretty easy to make up the editing time because the articles in TextBroker come pre-packaged in HTML, which eliminates a good chunk of the editing work already, especially if you ask them to find an image or two.
That said, if you do have this kind of order, TextBroker may give you the best value-per-article of any agency.
iWriter: The Speediest
iWriter is another very familiar marketplace, and one that’s also been around for a long time. They have a similarly easy — albeit similarly impersonal — submission and order process.
If I was going to guess (judging by order speed only), I’d also wager iWriter has the largest pool of writers. That’s a good and a bad thing. Most of the time, you can get tons of work done really quickly, but it also makes quality control a nightmare. In fact, spinning (and blaming writers for spinning or plagiarism) has been reported to be a problem in the past.
That said, in my personal experience using iWriter over the last couple years, if you write a good brief, the quality as a whole has gotten better, and spinning/plagiarism is much less of a problem.
This submission process for iWriter is among the simplest of all the platforms we tested. That’s what TextBroker and iWriter do better than anyone else, though: they have an incredible streamlined (and self-explanatory) order process.
I don’t think you really need it, but just in case, here’s a quick walkthrough.
The results were very good (remember, though, that we ordered from the highest tier possible). In my edits, I really only changed a few minor grammar and style issues. Other than that, it was a strong article, and I really liked the personality the writer injected into the piece.
You can read the full, unedited article here.
And here’s a snapshot of my edits.
It’s super speedy.
Of all the services tested, iWriter was the fastest. The article was submitted for my review in a few hours. That’s not always the case, but it happens frequently. If you’re looking to get tons of content quickly (and you don’t mind editing), this could be a good option.
Very simple order process.
Like TextBroker, iWriter’s order process is shockingly simple. It’s just one page, and it’s very straightforward.
It’s got the cheapest “top tier.”
The highest quality content on iWriter is going to be cheaper than the highest quality content at any other agency (except maybe a big bulk order from WordAgents). The top tier cotnent at iWriter is about $0.64
You can build a “team.”
Also like TextBroker, iWriter allows you to save writers as favorites. The cool part about this is that having a solid pool of favorites is a lot like having a “team” of writers. It takes time to find these folks, but if you do, your can pretty drastically increase the quality-per-dollar.
There’s a BIG difference between quality levels.
With lots of the other agencies on this list, the upper quality levels are really all pretty good. With iWriter, the top level is fantastic, but the next-best level is considerably worse. It’s still worth ordering in some cases, but it will require editing.
iWriter has the most spammers and spammy practices.
iWriter was more or less built with SEOs in mind (or, at least, it was overrun with SEOs looking for cheap content), and it really gained steam about five years ago, when black hats were absolutely running amuck.
Because that was most of their client base (I’m speculating here), they developed a lot of bad “best practices.” For example, if you don’t specifically tell them not to in your article brief, they’ll stuff your content full of keywords, and it’ll read like toddler wrote it. They also have weird black-hat features like automatically adding spin tags to articles.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get good content from iWriter. You can. You just have to pay for top-tier writers and specifically ask them not to do the black-hat stuff.
Writers aren’t allowed to hyperlink.
As dumb as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure why you’d have this rule, but in the end, it’ll cost you time because you (or an editor) will have to put all the hyperlinks in yourself. Typically, I just ask writers to include sources as raw-text URLs at the bottom. It’s a pain, but it’s the closest you can get on this platform.
What’s the best way to use iWriter?
I actually love, love, LOVE using iWriter for guest posts. It’s just the best place to get high-quality content as fast as possible (and speed matters in outreach).
The top-tier content is a bit too expensive (and lacks too many features) to be my go-to service for my site’s content. And the lower tiers aren’t good enough quality.
But… being able to hire a top-tier writer to knock out a stellar guest post before the end of the day is highly, highly valuable. After a bit of prospecting, using iWriter for guest posts allows me to keep my cost-per-link around $45 without me having to do any of the writing, which is very strong.
Of course, iWriter is also a good place to get ultra-cheap content you plan to edit heavily to keep raw-dollar costs down. If you’re into this, check out the guide by Chris Lee below (really, Chris, I feel like I link to this guide in basically every article!).
Other Good Reviews of iWriter
- How to Get Quality Articles on iWriter for $5 by Chris Lee (you’ll see I borrowed heavily from his brief and use elements for virtually all my orders for any agency).
- I Ordered 15 Articles from iWriter and Here’s What I Got! by Andrew Rezk
WordAgents: Best Overall Content Solution
**Full disclosure before my review of WordAgents: I use WordAgents for most of my content. I use almost all of the agencies on this list, but WordAgents handles the bulk of my stuff. So, yes, I really like them, and, yes, I know the team over there. Still, I’ll try to keep this as objective as possible.
WordAgents is one of the very few content agencies at which you can get a dedicated project manager without insane, corporate-level prices.
It’s a true consulting firm — only on a smaller scale that is accessible to independent site builders (like us!).
Orders are custom, content is custom, and your project manager will handle all of the management from start to finish.
That does not mean you don’t have to do anything. You still have to submit a good brief and communicate with your project manager.
But it also means that when you get to know each other, the process becomes almost completely hands-off, which is why I love it: it’s allowed me to automate my content to a very high degree.
The submission process is different than marketplaces like iWriter or TextBroker. Instead of picking a quality level and uploading instructions, you’ll be talking to a person.
So, like most consulting firms, the first step in the process is asking for a quote. You’ll use a form that looks like this:
Remember, WordAgents knows me and has worked with me before. Still, this is one of the reasons I love working with them. They got the same directions as everyone else but delivered (in my view) the best article of the bunch. And they especially did the best job with research. I’d only fix a few small grammatical errors and a bit of syntax.
You can view the full, unedited article here.
And here’s a snapshot of my edits.
When it works, it works really well.
If you can get in a good groove with WordAgents, the combination of quality, scalability and automation is unmatched. Personally, it took me a couple months to hammer out a good process with them, but now, my content is more or less completely automated.
You get a project manager.
This is one of the biggest perks. It’s something you really don’t know you needed until you have it. It’s an extra layer of luxury that allows you to focus on more strategic stuff. It’s just really nice to have someone else managing writers and editing content.
They offer blog management services to select clients.
They don’t offer this to everyone–and it’s not at all cheap–but if you’re laid back and have the cash, they’ll also post everything to your blog for you. Again, they only do this for select clients, but it can take automation to the next level.
They can handle larger, custom orders.
The real power of having humans handle your requests instead of automated backends (like the marketplaces use) is the ability to tackle trickier content. When I need a 5,000-word linkable asset with lots weird little requirements, I use WordAgents–simply because I can’t get the level of collaboration anywhere else. It feels like a team of colleagues.
Great customer service.
Again, I know these guys, so I’m biased. But in my experience, the customer service here has been a dream. That’s the trick with consultancies, though: be good to them, and they’ll be good to you. Invest in the relationship, and it’ll pay dividends.
If you’re a bad client, you’ll be fired.
WordAgents is a small consulting firm. They are profitable. They don’t want or need every last client. So if you suck, they’ll fire you. The easy way to avoid this is not to suck: be cool, submit good briefs, demonstrate flexibility, and communicate well.
Bad briefs = bad content.
I’ve heard mixed reviews of WordAgents from a few folks; however, those people also either submitted (1) hyper-complicated briefs or (2) incredibly vague briefs. Both will get you bad content. WordAgents can be a full-service agency, but you still have to tell them what you want in a way that makes sense.
Occasional deadline issues.
Because this is a consultancy, like all consultancies, they sometimes overbook themselves. It’s rare, but they’ve missed deadlines for me (or rushed to meet a deadline) a couple times. It’s never been regular, and it’s never been a problem, but it has happened.
Currently, as far as I know, their backend is only in-house. On your side, the backend will just be Google Sheets and email. It works for me, but it can make it tough to keep your content pipeline organized.
What’s the best way to use WordAgents?
WordAgents is best for either (1) big, regular orders you don’t want to worry about or (2) massive orders to launch sites.
I spend $1,000-$1,5000/mo with WordAgents. They know me. They know my site. They know my content. They know my briefs. They know my personality, tone, voice, and preferences. If something comes up, I have a quick chat with my project manager and then go about my day. If need something changed, I just shoot them a quick message. It’s great.
This didn’t happen overnight. We had to develop a working relationship. But now… it’s so, so good.
They’re also probably the only agency I would use to hard-launch a site (I’m talking 100 articles or more) — mostly because a project manager makes it possible for an agency to tackle a big batch of different types of articles all at once.
Constant Content: The Nichiest
Constant Content is basically a mix between an agency and a marketplace. You’ll be able to submit article requests to pools of writers, but you’ll also get an account representative (who will usually email you after you submit your first order).
It’s slightly more expensive than other places without a significant increase in quality. However, there are a few little perks here that may be just right for certain types of businesses.
Constant Content falls right in the middle of agency and marketplace… and their order process falls almost exactly in the middle of the two as well. Check it out.
The results were a little below average. The main problem with this article was fluff (extra crap that doesn’t move the article forward). You can see in the snapshot of my edits below that I deleted the first sentence of almost every paragraph.They just weren’t necessary.
You can view the full, unedited article here.
And here’s a quick snapshot of my edits:
You can buy pre-written content.
Sounds strange, but for the right business, it’s probably really useful. In addition to being able to order custom content, you can also search their article database for quality, unique articles that have already been written. Then you just purchase and download. Just be aware that the content is priced on quality, and it can get expensive.
Articles come in a Word doc.
Maybe I’m weird, but I love Word docs. You can copy and paste them directly to WordPress (and you even copy and paste them into Thrive’s content editor). Maybe it’s just familiar, but it really does seem to make things easier.
You can buy stock images with your content.
What an ingenious upsell. It’s expensive–a $8 a pop, it’s very expensive in fact–but, if you’re running a business like Jon from FatStacks, where you’re investing heavily in paying people to find images for you, it might actually be worth not having to pay a VA to go find them.
Another great upsell: editing and proofreading.
For a fee, you can have the good folks at Constant Content edit your article automatically. Very nice if you want to make sure you’re getting quality stuff, but it may also not be necessary with a good enough brief.
It seems to be exactly average.
Pretty much everything about this agency is average. The content is average. The service is average. The prices are average. In other words, it’s not a great option, but it’s not a bad option.
My article request didn’t get picked up until I emailed my account rep. And then they missed the deadline by a day. Not a huge deal, but it’s also not encouraging if you’re someone (like most of us here) who’s going to be ordering batches of articles at a time.
The quality-per-dollar is low.
It’s a tiny bit more expensive that most other places, and the quality is a tiny bit worse than most other places. That makes it less-than-optimal.
It’s not terribly complicated, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be.
You’ll see the absurdity of a really complicated agency below. This isn’t that. But it’s still a tad too complicated, and complexity is the arch nemesis of automation.
Again, it’s exactly average.
It’s not a bad option, but why wouldn’t you pick one of the many other great options?
What’s the best way to use Constant Content?
Although it’s not my favorite agency, there are two great uses for Constant Content. The first is buying a handful of pre-written articles for a new site.
Downloading several good articles without having to go through the order, editing, and revision process can help flesh out a fledgling web property, which is particularly useful if you want to build links before investing in a bunch of content.
It’s also good if you’re running an image-heavy blog, and you’re currently paying a VA to go find images.
Depending on how much you’re paying that person, Constant Content might actually save you some money with their pre-selected images, although it’s probably a still a stretch.
Zerys: A Form of Torture
What a disaster. I’m not even going to link to them because I don’t want you guys to waste your time, money, or sanity.
Believe me guys. This isn’t a smear piece. I have nothing to gain from writing a bad review here. I didn’t even really know about Zerys until I heard about them from Gael.
But holy sh*t.
I don’t think I could design a worse content agency if I tried. It’s a truly special level of bad. It’s way past incompetent. It feels like it’s difficult on purpose. It’s the Battletoads of content agencies.
It’s one of those things that, by the end, has you questioning whether or not you’re just a huge idiot.
I don’t even know how to describe it.
The submission process is like the 90’s TV show Legends of the Hidden Temple. Just when you think you’re done, some other bullsh*t pops out at you.
There are none because I didn’t get none. I submitted my order twice, and no one ever wrote it.
Other Agencies You Can Try
There’s no shortage of content agencies in the world. Honestly, there are probably hundreds. I just picked the ones I’d either had the most experience with or heard the most about. Here are a few more you can try (Jon from FatStacks actually reviewed a bunch of these in a recent blog post, so you can read about a few of those agencies here).
Wrapping it up….
Which agencies do you guys use? What do you think are the pros and cons? Have you found any undiscovered gems? Let me know in the comments!