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From the Trenches

Don’t Buy Content Marketing from a Content Marketing Shop

Mike Sweeney | May 16, 2013

I cringe when I hear terms like “content marketing shop.”

Shops are where you go to buy things—commodities. You can put the “things” in your cart, check out, and use them when you get home. Content marketing isn’t a “thing” you can put in your cart and start using right when you get back to the office.

But many companies— at least 44% are outsourcing their content creation, according to the 2013 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends annual report—are out there looking for businesses that they may call “content marketing shops” or “content marketing agencies.”

Let’s assume you’re one of those companies that has made the decision to outsource all or part of your content marketing effort. You’ll attempt to scope out what you need. You’ll ask for and receive referrals. You’ll inevitably start Googling (we all do it, don’t be ashamed), perhaps starting with a search for content marketing firm.

Go ahead. Google it. I made it easy for you.

Skimming both the paid and organic results for 30 seconds, here’s what I see. A firm that clearly thinks content marketing is all about social media. All kinds of software companies offering magical tools and platforms. An agency that claims to have the best writers. Another one with a “system” that will get you leads.

How am I supposed to choose?

I don’t envy you, Mr. or Mrs. Content Marketing Buyer. Many of these companies, despite the fact that they believe they specialize in content marketing of some sort, clearly don’t know who they are. So how can you sort them all out and figure out what they really do?

Let me offer one piece of advice: Don’t buy content marketing from a content marketing shop.

Content marketing is not a tactic, or a program, or a campaign—it’s not a thing you can put in your cart at the “content marketing shop.” It should be woven into every facet of marketing, and some not-so-obvious areas of your business, as well.

What should you be looking for? Here’s a starting five.

1. Strategy first, planning second, execution and tactics a distant third

One of the most commonly uttered phrases from companies looking for an outsourced content marketing solution is, “I just hope you guys can execute on all of this, because I know we can’t.”

Meanwhile, I am thinking, “We have to nail the strategy and plan. Without that, all the execution in the world won’t matter.”

In a sea of me-too approaches from me-too marketers, the better strategy always wins. Be wary of any firm that jumps right into execution and tactics.

Here’s an actionable test: Tell the firms you are considering that you already have a content marketing strategy and plan, and then shut up. If you hear crickets instead of questions, walk.

2. Content creation is not content marketing

You know what separates a well-written blog post from a superbly written blog post? Words. Structure. Maybe the tone.

You know what allows that well-written blog post to generate twice the readership and three times the engagement and sharing than the superbly written blog post? Marketing.

Here’s another easy test to separate the pretenders from the contenders: Show your potential firms a piece of content you’ve published. Ask them what they’d do with it. If all they talk about is the content itself and how they can create more of it, they’re probably not marketing with content.

3. A belief (and approach) that focuses on quality over quantity

Believe it or not, sometimes the best approach is less content, not more. This is especially true when that approach translates into content of higher quality.

Beware the content factory. You’ll know them when you see them. Their PPC ads say things like “Thousands of branded articles” or “Boost traffic instantly!” They will wow you with their portfolio of 2,000 content marketing clients…all of whom are on the $49.99/month-for-562-absolutely-craptastic-articles plan.

Avoid producers of crap. If there’s a winner in this content marketing game, I promise it won’t be them.

4. Embrace the power of SEO

While there are exceptions to this rule, I would not hire an SEO firm to handle my content marketing.


For such a long period of time, SEO (and therefore, SEO firms) was focused on things like links, keywords and rankings. Quality didn’t always matter as long as rankings improved and organic search traffic increased.

A bird and a bear named Penguin and Panda started to change all of that, and more changes are coming. Today’s SEO values original content, in-depth research and thoughtful analysis.

Again, the litmus test to determine whether your content marketing contenders understand the evolution of SEO is not complex – they should be able to point to some specific examples of clients who improved organic rankings and traffic through content marketing and they should be able to articulate their general approach to optimizing content for search engines…and for people.

5. Practicing not just preaching

Remember: you’re a business of some sort, looking to attract and transact with customers of some sort, and you’re thinking that content marketing may be able to help with that.

The content marketing service providers you are considering likely fall into that same boat, so if they believe in it enough for you to invest in it, then they better be investing in it themselves.

And if they’re not doing it, ask why not. And just listen. If they can’t get past the typical content marketing obstacles, you might be facing the same thing. Their excuses may become yours.

Off you go

Don’t make this process more complex than it has to be. You’re going to run into SEO firms, PR firms, digital agencies, design shops, direct marketing services, and everything in between.

Outsourcing content marketing is not all that different than outsourcing other areas you’ve likely already conquered. While there will be plenty of shops out there daring you pull their content marketing version off the shelf and throw it into your shopping cart, take a more strategic approach. Start with finding someone that understands business and the business challenges that can be addressed with marketing. Then determine whether that person or entity understands where content marketing fits within a broader marketing approach.

Then you can get into the details of what they know about content marketing – if they’ve made it past the business and marketing test, my guess is that they’ll pass the content marketing test as well.

Before you start your search, I encourage you to download our eBook, How To Grow Your Business With Content Marketing. I suspect you’ll come away with at least a few new ideas, and perhaps an entirely new perspective, on maximizing your content marketing investment.


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 LinkedIn.