Send in the Clowns: An Experiment Outsourcing to Fiverr

Outsourcing used to be a dirty word. To some extent, it still is. That’s probably due to public confusion with offshoring, the migration of company operations to other countries to capitalize on cheaper labor. Offshoring connotes economic devastation: factories closed, jobs lost, communities destroyed. On the other hand, outsourcing—contracting work to a third party—is having…

tommccauleysmile

Outsourcing used to be a dirty word. To some extent, it still is.

That’s probably due to public confusion with offshoring, the migration of company operations to other countries to capitalize on cheaper labor. Offshoring connotes economic devastation: factories closed, jobs lost, communities destroyed.

On the other hand, outsourcing—contracting work to a third party—is having a fashionable moment, especially in the white-collar world.

Sites like Fiverr get brought up around the office with wearisome frequency, bandied about like a panacea for limited resources. Cult-of-personality entrepreneurs (have you heard of Tim Ferris?) advise uncritical audiences to outsource their professional and personal lives and thereby unleash time for more meaningful pursuits.

Let someone else do the mundane stuff, the thinking goes, so you can take drugs and start a podcast

But what about quality? Does outsourced work suck or not?

Our Team Shrank and We Couldn’t Keep Up with the Content Calendar

Recently, my company decided to experiment with outsourcing some of our blogging. We were down a person, and the marketing department (i.e., I) struggled to keep up with our writing duties while still trying to cover for the vacated employee, who by that point was dead to me. 

A well-meaning colleague suggested we use Fiverr. Not just as a stopgap solution, but as a long-term content strategy. 

“You can get really well-written SEO articles for $5 or $10,” they said. 

Now, I try not wear my professional talents like so much condescending armor. I’ve worked as a writer in some capacity for over a decade and even earned some accolades. But I also grew up poor and chubby and bespectacled and know almost anyone can learn a skill if they try hard enough. 

This is all to say I’m no elitist when it comes to my job. I’m not the greatest writer on earth, not even close. I used the phrase “condescending armor” one paragraph ago.

Still, I had to stifle a laugh at the idea that you could get a well-written article for less than the price of a panini. (It’s 11:27 a.m. as I write this. My metaphors are either bad or food-based.)

I mean, there’s no way an outside voice could provide meaningful content about the specialized work we do, right? How could someone who’s never shot a Nerf gun in our office say anything worthwhile about the Omaha tech talent gap? Why am I ending every section with a rhetorical question?

A/B Testing Outsourced Talent: Fun, Disquieting

The dizzying number of freelance writers selling their skills on Fiverr staggers the mind. Such overwhelming choice, of course, reminds us of French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s late-nineteenth century concept of anomie—“the malady of the infinite”—especially if that’s the only thing one remembers from Introduction to Sociology class, which I swear I attended. 

The prices on Fiverr ranged from $7 (no $5 articles here) to $300. I researched about 30 different freelance profiles before I got bored and watched a Youtube video comparing the frequency responses of various condenser microphones (I’m thinking of starting a podcast). But eventually I got back on task because I’m a good employee and also because I remembered how expensive everything in the world is.

Ultimately, I decided to A/B test a cheap freelancer against an expensive one, because although I may be two-parts dreamy headed artboy, I’m also one-part logic fangirl. I cherish the scientific method as one of the heights of human achievement.

Here’s What Happened

Precious corporate funds paid for a $7 article from a 4.8 star seller who promised they would “write a 500 words SEO optimized article in 24 hours” and a $105 article from a 5 star seller who would “write a stellar article for your blog or website.” The keywords we gave them were “IT job shortage,” “code schools” and “Omaha tech talent,” all terms relevant to our organization.

I expected to show my colleagues that a.) the cheap article would be terribly written, b.) the expensive article would be better, but not great, and c.) both would be unusable.

Two days later, two very different articles glowed black in my inbox, each of them somewhat related to the tech talent gap in Omaha, Nebraska.

Can’t Argue with Results

I’m not saying I’m clairvoyant, because I don’t want people asking me for advice. What I am saying is that the experiment was, well, judge for yourself.

The $7 article arrived first. The author included a Grammarly screenshot attesting to the article’s freedom from grammatical error, as well as a Copyscape report promising the absence of plagiarism. Huh.  

Titled “Omaha, Nebraska: the City of Innovations and Startups,” the article began, “It won’t be less than a wonder to know that a city which was known for the tag of “Over Grown Cow Town,” has been recognized as ‘Home of Investors.’ [emphasis theirs] Back in the 1960s, this city was most famous for malodourous stockyards” (sic). It won’t be less than a wonder.

“Malodourous” means “smells bad,” and in American English, the word is spelled “malodorous.” Within two sentences, the outsourced writer is saying our city smells like manure—but, like, with a British accent.

It won’t be less than a wonder the article gets worse and more enjoyable from there. We’ve curated some particularly spicy examples for you. Observe:

  • The economy of Omaha showed brutal growth in the era of the early 1990s. Now, Omaha, the proud city of Nebraska State, is under the radar for its innovation and tech startups.
  • When you search for ‘The Best Places for Business and Careers in 2019”, and going through the list, this city will be blinking in front of your eyes, right at number 38—according to Forbes. About the tech career scene, Telecommunication is one of the significant industry and career-pick here.
  • The City is a map with 5+ 500 fortune companies and much multibillion company’s headquarters. These high and long-standing empires always fulfill the job needs of this city.

It would be rude to go on. I don’t want to belabor someone’s failings. You can download the article here.

The point is, not only is the outsourced work not free of grammatical errors, it’s a supermassive black hole of bizarre syntax, odd locutions, and outright falsity. Take, for instance, the part about “high and long-standing empires always fulfilling the job needs of the city.” Omaha may technically have an unemployment rate less than the national average, but eight percent of people work multiple jobs here, 49 percent of people in poverty have at least one job, and unemployment in some areas reaches as high as 28 percent. Skills gaps, transportation issues—including the lack of affordable, reliable, effective public transit—and arrest records all hamper people’s ability to find a job that pays a livable wage. 

Anyway, let’s get back to making fun of Fiverr.

While I did receive more than $7 worth of amusement from the writing, the article was, as predicted, unusable. And by suggesting that no tech talent gap exists, the author contravenes our entire mission as an organization. Pretty funny when you think about it. I think. I’m not sure. I’m sad now.

Technically Better, but Irrelevant

The $105 article came a bit later. “Bridging the Tech Talent Gap in Omaha” was competently written, sure, but it still contained inaccuracies, generalizations, and the distinctly malodorous smell of an outsider trying to cop an insider’s perspective, like a male author writing from the point of view of a female protagonist. 

The opening line made me smirk. “Omaha is one of those charming American cities that offers a high quality of life for all of its residents.” Not only is that not true—see alarming statistics above—who would write that way about their own city anyway, as if they’ve only ever read a brochure about the local botanical garden?  

Content-wise, it’s not terrible. But it is vague, and it definitely does not make us look like we know what we’re talking about (full disclosure: we do). Some examples:

  • Regardless of their preferred programming language or specialty, companies in both tech and non-tech sectors are looking for candidates who know how to leverage the power of disruptive technologies. Some of those companies include Nebraska-located startups like Toast, Spreetail, Buildertrend, Flywheel, and Hudl.
  • Ultimately, metropolitan areas like Boulder, Austin, and others have taken advantage of the massive opportunities in the tech sector. Founders of small, scrappy startups and C suite executives at some of the largest tech firms in the country have recognized the available talent and sheer enthusiasm that exists in these cities. Because of this, these cities have attracted even more opportunities for individuals who are looking to build the next great startup or simply apply their skills at a young, scrappy firm.
  • While Omaha certainly has room for improvement, the potential for improvement absolutely exists.

The circular logic of that last sentence baffles me. To cast your own judgment, download the article here.

The Bottom Line

If you care about positioning your company as a thought leader, you either need a talented in-house marketer to know your work from the inside-out, or a contractor who can spend enough time with you to really understand and convey the story of your business. 

If you’re fine with just putting out random content only tangentially related to your industry, then Fiverr might work. But maybe you should rethink that strategy. No matter how many marketing people have told you otherwise, not every company needs to produce content, especially if the nature of your business is self-evident, like dentist or ninja turtle. 

Unless your strategy involves you positioning your company as exemplars of the field, people can do their own research about, let’s say, torte law if they’re curious. Put simply, try not to waste time worrying about creating content for content’s sake. A lot of useless, poorly produced content is worse than none at all.

The Absolute Bottom Line

You get what you pay for. Sometimes it stinks. 

Tom McCauley is a writer, musician and comedian living in Omaha, Nebraska. He works as the manager of digital content production for the AIM Institute and teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views in this opinion piece are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AIM Institute or Silicon Prairie News. Follow him on Instagram @tomdavidmccauley if you like memes and videos of people playing the drums.

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