Freelancers are extremely useful for an online publicity operation, and are underused by companies on both the client side and agency side. They give you the capacity to take on more work without having to hire staff. When the overflow work starts getting too expensive, you can hire in and cut back on freelance services. Most freelancers have multiple clients and can take the ebb and flow without the resentment that could sour a relationship. Freelancers provide their own office space, equipment, and communication services. With freelancers, you can hire specialists to fill skill gaps in your own staff.
It takes time to find, evaluate, and hire freelance staff, and quite a bit of time to train them and build a good working relationship. Managers should budget their time accordingly. A typical scenario for me is that I find a freelancer with good experience and references, I teach them to do the work I need, and after a few assignments they either flake out or decide it's not worth the money. I go through roughly two freelance situations that don't work out for every one that does. But when they work, it's beautiful, and they usually last for years. I worked with one freelancer for three years and never met her face-to-face. She handled all my America Online and CompuServe postings. I paid her piece rate, and at first the money wasn't very good. As she gained experience, though, the piecework translated into more than $50/hour, she was happy to get more work, and I was delighted with the quality of the results.
I haven't been able to find freelancers who can handle the writing. The work is too important, I'm painfully obsessive about the details, and it's hard to price. Good assignments for freelancers include: discussion group postings, article syndication, chat or seminar coordinator, and especially ghost typist. Ghost typists call chat guests five minutes before a chat, then read questions to the guest and keyboard the guest's answers. Ghost typists and chat coordinators can be recruited from the staff of chat venues. Many web sites and America Online forums use freelance or volunteer chat staff. You can sometimes get away with posting messages right in the forums or message boards that you're seeking freelance typists or chat coordinators. These people have experience and will almost always jump at a paying gig.
One reason you need freelance ghost typists is that most chats run at night, outside of normal business hours. There may be problems giving employees access to the office at night, both for the safety of your business assets and the safety of your employees. But there are lots and lots of "stay-at-home" parents who have great computing skills, loads of experience chatting online, and want work they can do once the kids are in bed. I've used several freelance chat coordinators. They run the whole operation, from briefing the guests to cleaning the transcripts. But I have to create the chat profile in-house. The same goes with seminar coordinators: they're very good at booking venues and pulling off events, but I wouldn't trust them to write the campaign materials.
Some companies are willing to use freelancers, but draw the line at remote employees. I used to be in this camp, too, thinking that critical staff needed to be onsite to interact with the team and with clients. But in 1998, all that changed. My wife and I moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and my staff stayed behind in Port Townsend, Washington. I thought it would be impossible to effectively manage my business from 2500 miles away, but I was wrong. What a relief it turned out to be. If someone's computer broke, they figured out how to fix it or hired someone to do the job. No more tedious tech support. No more drawn-out staff meetings. No more distractions from work. Although my staff missed me personally, they loved not having the boss around. And I could easily monitor the effectiveness of their work from afar. I didn't care about their habits as long as the work got done on time and up to standards.
Since moving to New Orleans, I've worked with new employees who were interviewed and hired remotely, and who I have never met in person, despite being their manager for several years. I've never had a client in my home town--either in Port Townsend or New Orleans--and it hasn't reduced my effectiveness. In fact, I'm able to spend almost 100% of my time doing "billable work" because I don't have to attend an endless parade of meetings. If you've been avoiding hiring remote employees, I think you should reconsider. The technology is mature enough to let people work effectively from afar, and the burden they take off the corporation more than compensates for the extra work required to hire, train, and monitor a remote staff.
You can find potential freelancers and remote employees quite easily online. Once again, I recommend you stay away from the big online employment services and look for niche sites, such as trade associations or regional portals. One good service is eLance <http://www.elance.com>, where you can post a project and collect bids. You may have to work with a few vendors until you find someone worth keeping. Many of the sites listed in the Resources chapter of this book (and at the companion web site) have niche job boards tailored to your specific needs.