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Should we do this work ourselves, or outsource it?

Recently, an engineering firm client approached me with the idea of outsourcing to Global Reach the function of writing project descriptions. It raised the intriguing question of how professional firms should determine which marketing functions to retain in-house, and which to outsource to an external service provider.

In case you’re not familiar with this aspect of professional services marketing, project descriptions are, well, descriptions of projects. They’re about 1000 words long, and describe the original situation or problem, the steps taken, and the outcome. They show the kind of projects that the firm has been successful with. They can be published on the firm’s website, included with proposals, or handed out in face-to-face meetings.

So, does outsourcing this function to an external service provider make sense, or is it something that the firm should keep in-house, to be written by the firm’s marketing staff or client-service professionals?

Let’s take, for example, a project that involved improving the efficiency of a container port operation such as the Port of Vancouver, Canada, shown above. I think that the following questions can help answer the question of whether a project description about this work should be outsourced or not.

Is the function being considered, essential to the firm’s success?

“Do we have to do this at all?” should be the first question asked. A function should be carried out only if it’s really important to the firm’s future. It sounds obvious, but even in today’s economy many firms are producing marketing collateral that isn’t being used as part of the business development process.

If it doesn’t move prospects and clients to take action, don’t do it. 

Project descriptions should be done only if they illustrate the kinds of work for which the firm wants to be known.

  • If the container-port project was such a disaster that the firm fired the leader of the team, and the firm never wants to go near another container port ever again, then …
  • I suggest, don’t do a project description.
  • If there’s no market for this type of project, or the firm doesn’t have the ability to out- bid a competitor, then don’t do a project description.
  • If the firm wants to get out of logistics projects entirely, then don’t do a project description.

But in general, if the project is of the type that the firm wants to do again, then yes, a project description could help sell the next container port efficiency study.

Is the function unlikely to happen unless we outsource it?

The firm in question might handle some marketing functions quite well internally -- such as producing a blog or newsletter, keeping its website up to date, and sending out holiday cards.

Project descriptions sometimes don’t lend themselves to this efficiency. Reasons:

  • Client-service staff are rarely rewarded or applauded when they turn in a projectdescription.
  • The collateral produced may be long on sales talk and short on information.
  • The grammar and spelling may reflect badly on the firm.

But all too often, anyone putting together a proposal finds few current project descriptions available.

So, project descriptions likely pass this test -- they simply won’t get done, unless they are outsourced to someone for whom the work is billable and a revenue source.

That means that the person doing the work is likely to do it.

Is it easy to define what the function actually is?

It’s important to be able to identify the need, the process involved, and the expected end result. Otherwise, there’s no way for the external service provider to know whether she or he is doing a good job -- or for the firm to tell, either.

Client needs such as “We need you to motivate our staff,” or “We need to have our Managing Partner be seen as a thought-leader” are not likely to turn out well, because the assignment has no boundaries.

But it’s relatively easy to determine what project description writing involves. It can be clearly stated how long the descriptions should be, whether the service provider is responsible for providing images, and whether the firm will take responsibility for the layout and design of the descriptions.

Is it easy to gauge the effectiveness of the service provider?

Some processes, such as sales coaching, are hard to quantify. If the BD team has an amazing list of closed orders in the next quarter, for example, how much of that is due to the sales coach’s efforts, and how much due to sheer chance?

Project descriptions are easier to quantify. Either they got completed or they didn’t. This needs to be measured based on the expected length, number of pictures and design, but project descriptions would pass this third test.

In the case of project descriptions, it’s easy to determine:

  • How often was the project description accessed on the system?
  • How often was the project incorporated into a proposal?
  • How many times was the document printed out, for use in meetings with prospects or clients?
  • Is there anecdotal evidence that the project description helped to win new business?

On this basis, I’d conclude that preparing project descriptions is a function that can be a good candidate for outsourcing. So, ask yourself:

  • What functions are we doing in-house (or not doing, and should be) that we could outsource?
  • What are we outsourcing that should be brought in as an internal function?
  • Do we have a clear idea of what success looks like, for every function that’s outsourced?
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