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From the Trenches

Selecting a Content Marketing Agency? Full-Service Firms Need Not Apply

Mike Sweeney | July 31, 2020
Selecting an Agency

By whatever measure you use or article you read, there’s no denying that content marketing has become an increasingly critical driver of a B2B marketing strategy. The pandemic has only served to shine a brighter spotlight on content marketing’s value, which when done right is indisputable.

Given that ever growing focus plus a host of other factors, many B2B product, service, and software companies are on the hunt for a content marketing agency.

So what exactly should you be looking for in the right agency partner? Before you can know, it’s important to understand why more and more corporations are selecting specialist agencies and how that impacts your process.

Full Service Sounds Good, But Rarely Delivers

The idea that a “full-service” marketing firm can deliver a variety of marketing services, each at the 99th percentile level, is dead. As marketing has become more and more specialized, executive leaders have realized that to get the most sophisticated work done in every discipline, you cannot do it through one firm.

As a matter of fact, full service is simply a horseshit, outdated term. Think about it.

If you want the best steak, do you go to TGI Friday’s or The Palm? If you want a high-performance German vehicle, do you go to Carmax or head straight to BMW?

The business logic is simple. Full-service agencies, regardless of size, cannot and do not invest equally in every service line nor in every vertical they serve. So naturally, some service area will get more attention and resources and rise to the top and something else will head in the opposite direction.

If you are a reasonably sized organization ($5MM+ in revenue) and want to invest in content marketing done the right way, look for a firm that a) specializes in content marketing and b) if possible, specializes in your industry.

Now, on to your tactical guide for selecting the right firm.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Ask Your Content Marketing Partner

The search for a B2B content marketing firm usually starts in one of two ways. Either a VP or director-level person asks and receives referrals from their network, or a junior-level person is assigned to do some research and outreach to a handful of potential partners.

Both approaches are fine, however, most ignore the concept of getting to know yourself (in this case, your company) before getting into a relationship.

Here are the questions to ask yourself before you consider a relationship with a content marketing agency.

1. Do you know how to work with an agency successfully?

This might seem elementary to some but hear me out. There are many types of client-agency relationships, and each one presents its own set of opportunities and challenges. If you’ve experienced a failed agency relationship, did you do some post-mortem and ask yourself what you could have done to make the relationship work?

It takes two to tango. Like in any relationship, usually each party makes a contribution to either its success or failure.

2. How important is content quality?

Sure, everyone says that quality is of utmost importance. In practice, though, are you willing to sometimes sacrifice volume for quality and patience for urgency?

It pains me to admit this, but in some industries, you can get by with above average but not exceptional quality. In others, you don’t stand a chance if your content is not remarkable.

3. What are your expectations for results? What, why, and when?

Repeat after me: Content marketing is a long-term play. Especially if you are investing for the first time, areas like readership and SEO will start off slow. Eventually, though, those areas will not only pick up but show compounding results that you will never, ever see from something like advertising. Joe Pulizzi, widely regarded as the founder of the modern discipline of content marketing, says that the average time for content marketing to start showing results is 12 to 18 months.

Before you reach out to content marketing agencies, ask yourself what types of results you are looking for, why, and when. And if you have no idea, ask the firms you’re speaking to. If they can’t explain what they usually see in terms of results, cross them off the list.

4. What parts of content marketing do you need the most help with?

We break content marketing down into five components: strategy and planning, creation and optimization, repurposing, distribution, and reporting and analysis.

Depending on your firm’s content marketing maturity level, you may think you need help with all or just a couple areas. But evaluate your current effort honestly and ask your prospective agencies to do the same. Often, companies we speak to think they have a plan and, in reality, it’s half-baked — full of words and lofty goals, but devoid of an actionable plan. Remember, you need both a strategy and a plan.

5. Have you considered the budget required?

No one budgets for content marketing the same way. This may be because it’s less mature than other disciplines and tends to cross over into every aspect of marketing. In public relations, for instance, it’s generally assumed that to hire a reasonably sized firm for a reasonably sized effort, you’re starting at $10K/month.

Content marketing is far less standard. We see companies spending as little as $100,000 annually and others spending $750,000K+.

There’s no magic bullet to your content marketing budget — no standard formula. All you can do is look inside your organization and consider content marketing’s importance, and then ask the firms you’re speaking to provide their own guidelines.

There are some other questions you should be asking about like the availability of your subject matter experts and who has decision-making authority, but start with the above and you should be off to a solid start.

What to Ask Your Content Marketing Agency Suitors

Now that you’ve done some soul searching, it’s time to vet your content marketing agencies.

For every vetting parameter you should consider, there are also scenarios and common pitfalls that warrant caution.

1. Look for extreme comfort in how the content marketing agencies talk about themselves, in terms of their company, their focus, their people, and their process.

In personal relationships, you know when you meet someone who truly feels 100% comfortable in their own skin — who they are and, more importantly, who they’re not?

That exact feeling is what you’re looking for in a content marketing firm. If they’ve done this successfully, the confidence should exude from their pores. You should see it, feel it, and hear it from multiple people — not just the CEO.

Ask each agency what their weaknesses or blind spots are. If they claim they don’t have any, either you just met the perfect agency, or you met a firm that lacks self-awareness.

Beware of:

  • The sales machine: There are plenty of agencies, both full service and specialty, whose commitment to new business exceeds their ability to deliver services or retain clients. Their sales folks are trained to the Nth degree on what to say and when. They know all the possible objections, how to mention specific client results, and how to bring a prospect from initial inquiry to close systematically. Use your gut here. Ask to speak to other non-sales team members.
  • The CEO-as-salesperson: In most small- to mid-sized agencies, the CEO is going to be the best salesperson…by far. However, the CEO is often not involved in the operational execution. Again, make sure you speak to someone who is involved in the execution of content marketing programs.

2. Look for results, but really dig into how they got those results — what it took from a commitment, structure, and resources standpoint.

Sure, I could tell you about a client for whom we drive hundreds of thousands of page views and almost every blog post eventually ranks top 10 on targeted search terms. The client whose earned media comes naturally from publishing on-topic pieces monthly.

But this client is a company that carried brand name cache before we started working with them. Domain authority in the high 80s. And they spend $500K+ on content marketing.

That doesn’t diminish our work at all. But each company comes into a relationship with its own strengths and weaknesses. You need to find out what it will take for you to get to where you want with a potential content marketing agency on your side.

Beware of:

  • The one-client wonders: More agencies than you know rely on one client to drive over 50% of their revenue. It’s a dangerous scenario for agencies, but no one is going to willingly depart with that type of revenue. It’s not that their one example is invalid; the work may be phenomenal, and the scenario may look exactly like yours. But you want to at least understand a few examples (you don’t need 10) of their work and results so you can see where your company may fit in.

3. Check content samples (lots of them). Assuming the work is great, ask them how they’re able to generate such high-quality content.

Here’s where you should be focused purely on content creation. If the samples aren’t great, then you obviously walk away. But if they are great, your next step is to ask how they did the work. Is there a secret sauce to producing high-quality content? How does this agency approach their process that ensures the highest quality possible? Is it in the upfront strategy? In using the right writer? In software tools used for optimization?

Speaking of samples, make sure you ask for multiple formats from an array of clients. If it’s of concern for you, ask for samples in your category and/or budget level.

Beware of:

  • The “content factory”: You will notice volume in everything they do. Hundreds of clients. Thousands of pieces of content. Dozens of service lines inside content marketing. Hell, they have 10 offices worldwide. They probably even have their pricing “packages” listed on their website.

Someone senior may be involved on your account for a couple weeks, then you’re turned over to Stevie, your junior account manager, and Becky, your writer. And maybe Monica (just graduated with her undergrad last week), who “handles all your social media.”

Welcome to the factory. Your results will be limited and your satisfaction with client service will wane. Your stay here won’t be long.

4. Don’t just ask about the types of reporting you’ll receive. Ask about how the firm masters the balance between the art and the science of content marketing.

Most companies ask, “What kind of reporting will I see?”

Most companies do not ask, “How will these particular reports guide our strategy?”

And so, company and agency carry on their merry way, with the agency often delivering reports to satisfy requirements for a board meeting instead of giving you reports that can serve as a beacon for what to do next quarter.

Taking this a step further, content marketing success in the next decade will be determined by how a company masters the balance between art and science in content marketing. One doesn’t work without the other. A firm that specializes in content marketing knows this, correctly staffs to achieve this, and their process reflects a dual focus.

Beware of:

  • The crossover plays: Some firms were hatched out of disciplines that historically relied far more on science. A PPC or SEO firm will drop data on you in every meeting, sometimes so much so that your results-oriented self thinks, “I have to pick these guys. Just look at the data.” Remember, though, those firms may be doing a land grab in content marketing without the art or the artists to execute in that area.

5. Ask about their process to pin down core messaging.

Identifying and documenting your differentiating messages may be the most important part of your early content marketing effort. And it absolutely drives your content themes and topics, which form the basis of your editorial calendar.

Every agency places different levels of value on core messaging, and uses it in a different way to inform content choices. You’ll want to understand each firm’s process, how they arrive at a messaging framework, and how they use it for near-term and long-term editorial calendar creation and decision making.

Beware of:

  • Different types of “messaging”: What messaging means to one person or company may be dramatically different than what it means to another. Know the flavor of messaging you need and see if it matches up with the flavor offered by the content marketing agency.

Bonus: Ask the firms rising to the top of your candidate list how they select their clients. A good firm is always considering the qualities that create solid partnerships because short-term, contentious relationships erode employee confidence while damaging the agency brand and its bottom line. Hence, a sophisticated firm is almost always willing to walk away from a deal that seems less than ideal.

You may just want that firm as your content marketing partner. Now you know how to figure that out.

Related Resources

About Mike Sweeney:

As Right Source’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Sweeney creates, plans, and implements our vision, mission, culture, and strategic direction as well as serving as an advisor to our clients. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame and has more than 20 years of experience in B2B marketing strategy, including digital, content, and marketing technology. You can find Mike on Twitter and LinkedIn, or read his other posts.