By Jonathan Crowl |March 2, 2017
This morning, your CMO approached you about creating new content to be published online. Among several new ideas for campaigns, she mentioned having a ghostwriter create some thought leadership content that could be published under her name. You’re supposed to come up with a way to make this work.
You want to give your boss the answers she wants, but you’re uncertain of how to handle the suggestion of ghostwriting. For one, you may never have worked with ghostwritten content before, and might be uncertain of its efficacy. For another, you may be unclear on the rules of producing ghostwritten content and attributing it to a different source. Before you can have a meaningful conversation on the subject with your boss, you need to know where you draw the line on using ghostwriters versus producing original content in other ways. And that line’s location can depend on several factors.
When Ghostwriting Works
There are plenty of scenarios where ghostwriters can be useful in a content strategy. Companies inevitably have a need for content that isn’t necessarily inventive or dynamic: website content can fall under that banner, as well as white papers, press releases, and other straightforward content. In these cases, it’s more about communicating information than conveying a sense of passion or personal expertise, and ghostwriters are often all that’s required to get the job done.
Other types of content, meanwhile, require the creative touch of someone familiar with that specific content channel. Two great examples are social media and website landing pages: while they may not seem complex, each type of content is closely cultivated, and the stakes are high. More than a writer who intimately understands your brand, you first and foremost need a content creator who knows how to have success on these platforms. Your best in-house writer is worth very little on the social media front if they don’t know the nuances of creating Facebook content, for example, as opposed to Twitter, LinkedIn, or another social channel. Likewise, a landing page that doesn’t generate conversions is useless to your company. It’s common for brands to find that ghostwriters are the best experts to put in these positions.
It gets dicier as you move toward content that requires a deeper understanding of your brand. Blogs, articles, videos, and other digital content often take a longer form that demands a more developed understanding of your company. If you’re creating ghostwritten content in the voice of one of your executives, it’s even trickier to get the tone and details consistent and correct. Covering industry news in a blog may be manageable for ghostwriters, but the more specialized and authoritative the content, the tougher it is to find success through ghostwriting.
The Problem of Thought Leadership
In your industry, and as one of the faces of your company, your CMO is very important. She plays a crucial role in many aspects of your company’s success, all of which affect the brand’s bottom line and its future business prospects. So when she pitches the idea of having content ghostwritten, it’s important that she understands what she’s really asking for: she wants to hand over her voice—and, by extension, the voice of her business—to someone she hardly knows.
This isn’t to say that ghostwriters can’t be trusted, or that they can’t offer incredible value to a company in certain scenarios. But asking them to write content in the voice of an executive isn’t necessarily fair to them, either. For one, they don’t have your experience in the industry, or at that company. Their knowledge of the work you do isn’t as deep as an executive’s, even if that ghostwriter has worked for companies in the same industry in the past.
Ghostwriters also won’t have the personality of the executive, which is hard to match perfectly at every turn—and, since the executive is more visible to the outside world, inaccuracies will be easier to spot.
But a bigger issue, as HubSpot pointed out, is the problem ghostwriting poses to your credibility. Typically, one of two things will happen: Either a ghostwriter won’t be able to fill online content with deep insights and high value, which means the executive will still have to do the heavy lifting if she wants successful thought leadership content. Or, ghostwriters might pitch ideas independently—which means your CMO won’t develop as many concepts and innovative ideas of her own. Over time, the latter can erode the competence of your leadership. By outsourcing thought leadership to ghostwriters, in other words, you risk executives’ reliability as thought leaders in their industry.
It’s not a clear recipe for failure, but it’s a content experiment that is rife with potential pitfalls.
Finding the Right Balance
Ultimately, the answer isn’t black or white: a ghostwriter could be a great investment for your company—but only if you use him or her wisely.
You can start positioning yourself for success by hiring ghostwriters with a proven background in your industry. Establish clear parameters on what ghostwriters can effectively handle, and what should be reserved for in-house staff.
In general, it’s best to ease into the relationship with ghostwriters, making sure they aren’t biting off more than they can chew. As they establish themselves as competent and reliable, you can increase their workload and the types of content they create.
Thought leadership and other specialized types of content are always going to be risky to hand over to ghostwriters. It’s best if your c suite can take a more proactive approach in content creation, and thought leadership articles are a great way to do this: executives can create a first draft that captures their innovative ideas, and marketers can work to polish the piece over time.
If your boss is insistent on having a ghostwriter create content under her name, encourage her to offer ideas and provide feedback to help shape that content strategy. If you’re working with the same ghostwriter over time, this can help address some of the inherent shortcomings that ghostwriting often renders on thought leadership content. Additionally, suggest that your ghostwriter conduct an interview (either in person or over the phone) with your CMO to capture her ideas and get a sense of her personality. This will help synthesize the writer’s talents with your CMO’s voice and expertise.
In the end, every company has to make content decisions based on their own in-house resources and the outsourcing options available to them. If you do find yourself in need of ghostwriters, just remember to look for two key features: a solid body of work, and a commitment to working consistently with your brand.
Jonathan has worked as a journalist for the past 8 years. His journalism credits include employment at the Omaha World-Herald, Willamette Week, and NFL.com, with projects appearing in New York Newsday, WRITERS' Journal, and others. Other writing has regularly appeared on LiveSTRONG.com, Reputation.com and FindLaw.com, among others. He is the recipient of a First Place award in Sports Feature from the Society of Professional Journalists Northwest Region. He lives in Portland, Oregon and works as a marketing writer and a freelance editor.
Ghostwriter to the Stars
By James Bennett firstname.lastname@example.org
Feb. 18, 2017
High-profile political figures and celebrities trust Columbia's Nancy French to tell their story.
Milwaukee County, WI, Sheriff David Clark (Facebook)
The wife of David French, who came close to running for president in 2016 as a conservative independent candidate, has ghost-written books with high-profile figures such as Bristol Palin, Sarah Palin, former "Bachelor" Sean Lowe, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and actress Stacey Dash.
"I just ask my subjects, 'Give me everything you have, and I'll give you back the best version of you,' " French said.
French's latest book on Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Clarke comes out Feb. 28.
Three of her books landed on The New York Timesbest-seller list and turned her into a go-person for conservatives who need clarity and personality in putting their thoughts and unforgettable moments into print.