How to Find a Content Marketing Agency to Seriously Grow Your Business

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Every week I speak to a few startup founders, B2B marketers, some consumer brands, even real estate brokers. And they are all looking to find a Content Marketing Agency to help them grow their business?

Why? Because they suspect that Content Marketing has the power to grow their traffic, generate leads, and deliver real Marketing ROI. But they are not sure how to get started, who to trust, and they are overwhelmed at the thought of hiring an agency like ours or someone full-time.

Today, most of us know that Content Marketing is 3 times more effective than outbound strategies. It can increase organic search traffic, grow your brand, and boost your conversion rates six-fold. Most importantly, it can establish your organization as an industry thought leader that offers genuine value to your audience – while providing a welcome relief from the 5,000 plus ads (as per a study) consumers are trying to ignore every day.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Mediocre content will never boost lead generation or drive engagement. Most organizations aren’t equipped to create high quality content.
  • It’s easy for SEO and PR firms to claim that they “do” content marketing.
  • A specialized content agency will actually help you save costs on content creation and distribution by using the resources at its disposal.
  • You need to find an agency that has undying focus on business goals, understands your niche and your audience, and can serve your future needs too.

What’s Your Content Strategy?

The foundation of a strong content marketing strategy is quality content. You need regular, high-quality content to actually achieve results from your well-thought out strategy. It will never happen overnight. Or, next month. But, consistent, strategic content, created and delivered by skilled content marketers, can transform your business’s potential and open the door to exponential growth – at, on average, 62 percent less than the cost of outbound.

Mediocre content won’t drive engagement. It won’t endear your audience to your brand. It’s not going to offer much value to your customers nor can it distinguish your organization from your competitors. And, it’s definitely not going to generate noticeable leads or boost your conversion rates.

Which leads to the number one content problem for businesses and agencies – if your organization doesn’t already have in-house content creators, where does this quality, original, hyper-relevant, value-driven, expertly-crafted content come from?

For many companies, the answer is to look for a content marketing agency to support their efforts.

According to CMI, 56% of B2B content marketers and 62% of B2C content marketers outsource at least some of their content creation. By working with an agency (like ours) for content creation, you can leverage the skill, experience and specialized knowledge of content creators for:

  • Videos
  • Illustrations
  • Apps
  • Photos
  • Infographics
  • Blog posts
  • Ebooks and whitepapers
  • Social media posts
  • Case studies
  • Newsletters
  • Live events and brand experiences

Why are Some Agencies So Quick to Say They “Do” Content Marketing?

I go over a lot of tech and entrepreneur forums to stay connected to our community. A few weeks back a fellow marketer responded to a question and the name of the agency in her email signature caught my eye, so I visited her site find out exactly what they do.

It appeared their focus is on PPC and SEO, but they list content marketing as a service offering, too. I’d never heard of this firm before, so I looked them up on LinkedIn to see if I share connections with anyone working there and what they do.

I didn’t find any mutual connections, but I did find that out of 19 employees listed on LinkedIn, there were exactly zero people whose titles or profiles indicated anything related to content marketing, content development or writing. That’s a big red flag for anyone who’s interested in hiring them for content marketing. It’s possible that not every employee is listed on LinkedIn, but it got me thinking about a common issue we run into as a content marketing and storytelling agency.

Many other agencies, whose core business is SEO or PR, will claim they can “do” content with little experience or expertise. Sometimes they can … but it isn’t always easy to tell. How is a company seeking out content marketing assistance supposed to know who does it well and who doesn’t? And why would agencies say they do content marketing without the know-how in the first place?

It’s not 2008 anymore, and we’re not keyword stuffing pages, using invisible text, buying up links on link farms or gaming the Google algorithm with other black hat SEO techniques. And while SEO is still vitally important (albeit in different ways now), it’s also imperative to have helpful, well-written content.

Google’s algorithm has moved away from ranking pages based on short keywords to ranking them based on intent—that’s why you can essentially ask Google a question and get the answer.

Many companies realized that technical SEO and content optimization needed to be balanced with good content and, thus, content marketing suddenly appeared as a service many SEO agencies provide. It’s easy enough to add a new service to your offering, pitch it to clients and then figure it out when you win the business.

PR firms have also expanded services to offer content marketing. While you’ve got a better shot at finding someone on staff who can write, it’s hit or miss there, too. Many PR pros are great at messaging but not great at writing helpful content that’s not overly promotional. Or they excel at media relations but are a little rusty when it comes to grammar and usage. However, it’s a more natural progression to begin offering content marketing services than adding content development to technical SEO.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s entirely possible that an SEO or PR agency can add services and staff and claim to do “content marketing,” but so often they don’t. A company that engages an SEO or traditional PR agency to handle content marketing might end up with some poorly-written blog posts with no strategy behind them or content that’s over-optimized for SEO and completely unhelpful.

Just any content won’t help much. Which is why, choosing the right content marketing agency for your organization is key to reaping the long-term rewards of great content.

Why Should You Work with a Content Agency?

Working with an agency isn’t just about seeking a high level of content. There are a lot of practical reasons why you may want to hire out rather than keep it in.

Cost-effective content creation

Hiring a full-time content writer, video producer, marketing event planner or other role is always going to cost more than outsourcing. When you work with a reputable agency, you pay only for the content you need for your organization without having to worry about the costs of onboarding and training, benefits and a full-time salary.

Resources to cope with high-demand projects

When your content needs spike for a new campaign or to fatten your overall strategy, a content agency will have the resources to cope with the extra work.

A broad content spectrum

Instead of limiting your strategy by the skills your in-house team has, by working with an agency – or agencies if you use a dedicated provider for content writing, video, event organizing, and other types of content – you can have all your content needs fulfilled by experts. You may have someone in-house to develop well-researched white papers and blog posts and a talented digital illustrator to create infographics, but with a content creation agency, you can access the full spectrum of specialized skills that go into developing great content where your team falls short.

Ability to stay on top of content marketing trends

We have delivered content marketing strategy for more than 70 companies. And I’ve been speaking and training marketing pros on the latest content marketing trends for more than 7 years.

When looking for a content marketing agency, make sure the people you are talking to have been in the industry, have led client-side content marketing projects, and have the ability to build the business case you need to succeed, to develop the content your audience wants, and to measure results your executives want to see.

Why Finding the Right Agency isn’t Easy

The challenge for most brands is in identifying a stellar agency that truly has the capability to well serve your business. The reason this is so difficult is rooted in the success of content marketing itself.

There are quite a few agencies out there that have rebranded themselves as content marketers to meet the industry demand and to grow their own business.

However, many times they excel in other areas of marketing, not necessarily content. Your SEO and social media strategists, digital advertising firms and website design services – a quick search will reveal dozens of these cross-specialty agencies that have started offering content marketing in addition to their bread and butter services.

But, this has led to a lot of confusion and blurred lines for the small to mid-sized, and even larger brands, who are trying to distinguish the true blue content marketers from the other marketing professionals who are offering content services.

Part of the reason I started this business was to differentiate myself from the vast array of consultants who have never worked a day inside a real marketing organization. Who have never actually done content marketing for a brand. And who don’t have a real framework for getting it done.

And just recently I had a conversation with a prospect who lamented being pitched content marketing for lots of money, with no real framework , or deliverables, and no ability to commit to delivering real results.

There’s a big difference between the fakers and the makers out there. And that difference will translate into real content marketing ROI.

To help you separate the good, from the bad, from the ugly, here’s an in-depth look at what you should look for when trying to find a solid content marketing agency partner:

  • Qualities you should expect
  • Traits of a good content marketing partner
  • Signs that usually distinguish a professional content marketing firm

The objective of hiring a content marketing agency is to help your organization grow and to maintain a competitive edge. Don’t make the mistake of hiring just any agency and missing out on what truly high-quality content can offer your company.

What to Look for in a Content Marketing Agency

What qualities should you expect from the agency you hire? Is it years of experience? A dynamic staff? A killer client list? It’s a no-brainer that you want a strategy that you can easily share with your peers and your boss. Maybe you also want skilled content creators on your team.

There are plenty of content creation agencies out there. But not all are ideal for your brand. Outside of the essentials of experience and skill – and maybe a few content creation accolades – when vetting agencies, here are the factors you want to consider to make sure you connect with the right one.

And you want to work with an agency that is proficient at delivering that content at the right time, to the right audience, via the right channel, and then measuring the content’s value, tracking its progress and making adjustments along the way.

But, when you really break it down, what do you ultimately want from the content marketing agency you choose to work with? It goes much deeper than the right skillset. What you need is…

Well-written content

Seems obvious, but a good content agency should know how to tell their story themselves, and do it in an interesting way. That means clearly outlining services and their process, providing some helpful case studies and content to help you evaluate them and make a decision.

In our opinion, great writing is a non-negotiable must-have. Even if you’re creating infographics, video or less copy-oriented content for social media, the agency you hire has to be able to string together the words to tell the story.

A solid strategy and process

Content marketing is more than writing a few blog posts. It takes an understanding of the buyer’s journey and the client’s goals. Content marketing experts will help you figure out who to talk to, when to talk to them and what to talk to them about. And a content process will help you get from ideation to publishing and distribution smoothly.

An audience-first approach

Buyers are totally in control of the process these days, which means content needs to be helpful, not promotional, at least at the top of the sales funnel when you’re trying to attract attention and build trust. Audience-first means you have to figure out what your audience wants during every step of the buyer’s journey.

Subject-matter expertise

How successful has your content creation agency been in the past in the content they’ve made for other clients in your industry? The best agency for content creation on the planet may not be the most suitable for your organization if they don’t specifically excel in your niche. The only way to win at content marketing is to have a very firm grasp of the industry you’re writing for.

Look for case studies within the industry or work that’s been done with clients in a similar space. A content marketing agency can’t produce “high-quality content” without understanding the obstacles your customers face and the unique aspects of your industry.

There are obviously some SEO, PR and digital agencies that can nail content marketing, too. But it’s crucial to figure out who’s doing the work and what their experience is before making working with them. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting money and spinning your wheels at best, and damaging your brand at worst.

Ability to serve your current and future content needs

You do want to keep in mind, not just what you use now, but what direction you are heading in with your content. For example, if you work with a content writing agency that produces blog posts and social media posts, will they be able to write the scripts for your video series you were planning on adding to your content library next year or will you need to find another content provider?

An undying focus on business goals

One way to distinguish a standard content creation agency with one that knows its salt is intent – are they amazing at producing stellar content, or are they also working towards creating content that will help you achieve specific marketing goals?

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Ideally, your agency will be able to deliver tailored content for your specific objectives. As your objectives change, your agency should be working with you to tailor the content to meet your evolving goals instead of simply churning out the same content.

A strategic mindset

For the real deal, you want something much more important than high-quality videos and optimized blog posts. You need a smart, data-driven strategy that will work to achieve measureable results.

“Not many agencies are able to provide strategic counsel to clients with the understanding of marketing and sales attribution. What is missing is the ability to understand and ask the right questions about the client’s business objectives.”

Lynn Tan, Content Marketing Manager at TNT Express Worldwide B.V.

If your content marketing lacks strategy, you risk diminishing the impact of each piece of content and every dollar invested. When it comes to being able to deliver a winning strategy, you want to see a foundation of research and data, funneled through creativity, skill and foresight.

Ability to build actionable buyer personas

This is a useful litmus test for gauging an agency – ask to see samples of their buyer personas for other clients. How actionable their buyer personas are is a good indicator of how far they’ll go to understand your customers and make sure a positive customer experience is felt throughout your content.

Personas with a lot of detail, that are updated regularly and that draw upon both qualitative and quantitative customer and market research are hallmarks of a good strategy.

Excellent storytelling skills

Your brand’s story is the thread that strings together all of your content. Really proficient content marketers will be able to identify and express your brand’s history, personality, and vision better than you can.

A creative approach to re-purposing content

Repurposed content isn’t just about recycling good content into different platforms to squeeze more engagement out of your content budget. It’s a way for emphasizing your messaging and delivering a more holistic experience for customers. If your content isn’t being repurposed properly, you’re missing out on the benefits of having a really good multi-channel strategy.

A lot of resources go into your in-person events and heavy-research white papers – how will these big hitter content pieces be reformatted into infographics, ebooks, podcasts and blog posts? Ideally, your agency will take a creative approach rather than using a standard recap format for repurposed content. For example, using surveys and gathering quotes from participants and speakers at your marketing events to use for statistic-inspired infographics and unique social media posts that will keep your audience interested months after the event. This goes a lot further than merely posting blog posts to recap key points of the event.

Ongoing strategy assessment

Once your content marketing strategy is implemented, what system is in place for measuring its reach? You want more than a documented strategy and reporting on metrics. How will your content marketing agency evaluate how well both the strategy as a whole and individual moving parts are doing? What is the process for refining the strategy as needed?

This is where the use of an agile marketing methodology is helpful. But, even if your agency doesn’t use agile methods, you still want to see a level of flexibility and a process for tracking and responding to missed benchmarks.

Tech mastery

Next to being strategic, probably the most essential quality to look for today is being well-versed in marketing technology. You want more than vanity metrics and flashy campaigns. You want a deep understanding of what can be done today, how martech is evolving, and what is possible in the future.

Marketers have to move out of their comfort zone in order to think like data scientists, so you won’t find a lot of agencies whose strongest quality is being tech adept.

How effectively are they leveraging marketing automation, personalization software, content marketing analytics and other tools to deliver results? A digitally adept content marketing agency will give your organization a competitive edge, especially moving forward as the use of AI and machine learning in marketing technology becomes more sophisticated.

  • What does their marketing technology stack look like?
  • It’s one thing to use a dynamic martech platform – but what results are they able to get out of their technology?
  • How many (if any) staff at the agency have a computer science, statistics, or other relatable background?

And, how knowledgeable are they about how tech innovation is evolving digital marketing – from AI-inspired platforms to the use of voice search strategies and the latest breakthroughs in ‘alternate content realities’ like VR and augmented reality?

Ideally, you’ll choose an agency that will be a part of your brand’s marketing for the long-term. Right now, martech is evolving all facets of marketing, including content, faster than most of us are aware of. It’s critical to have an agency that is aligned with this reality on your side and that is proactively implementing leading technology tools to improve their work, and their content.

Vision and attention to detail

The best content marketing strategies stand out because every nuance – everything from email subject lines to event giveaways – all perfectly fit within the strategy, expressing the unique personality of the brand and answering the unique needs of the customers.

Great content is able to resonate with the ethos of the organization and of each individual campaign and piece of content, yet it should create a seamless experience for the audience. This means each piece of the puzzle needs to be well thought out as to the purpose it has and how it supports, complements or enhances other facets of the content strategy.

HubSpot is one of the best examples of B2B content marketing. Through their content marketing strategy they’ve coined the concept of inbound and have distinguished themselves as a consistent leading contender in the marketing software industry – a huge feat considering how flooded this market is. What they’ve focused on is customer education. From the HubSpot Academy to Inbound – one of the biggest marketing events every year – HubSpot sets the bar for value-driven content.

The best way to find a visionary, yet meticulous agency is to look at how they have pulled off this balance for other clients.

The right content services package or solution

Content creation agencies will sometimes do more than just write your blog posts and email newsletters and create your graphics. They may also offer other related services that can help you elevate your overall strategy:

  • Analytics to measure the effectiveness of your content
  • Consulting to help you optimize your content marketing strategy
  • Social media marketing to promote your content and ensure your social media channels are playing the most effective role possible within your overall strategy
  • Web services such as website design to better align your site with your content strategy and SEO
  • Editing services for the content your in-house team creates

If there are services you want out of an agency but they don’t provide them, that doesn’t need to be a deal breaker. In fact, there’s always a risk with a jack-of-all trades agency – they may not excel in all areas if they produce everything. What a good agency will do, however, is outsource or refer you to other specialized providers who they have built relationships with and know to be reputable.

What Makes a Good Content Marketing Partner?

When choosing an agency to work with, it’s not just about skill level and experience, but also alignment. The agency you hire will become a long-term partner. There has to be some value and vision alignment, or, at least, a deep-seated mutual respect.

Number one for finding a good partner is simply experience. We’ve helped design content marketing strategies for more than 60 companies!

Does the agency you are considering, have a high level of experience in content marketing? Can they show you content hubs they’ve built? Content they’ve created? Have they worked in both B2C and B2B?

Chuk Frey, director of content marketing at Milwaukee-based digital marketing agency, Cultivate, offers two ways to determine subject matter expertise. One way is to follow the agency’s social media profiles, namely LinkedIn, Google + and Twitter, to get a feel for their depth of knowledge and how well they are respected by other key industry players. Look to how they respond in discussions and how others respond to them.

Another way is to talk to former and current clients, if possible.

It’s also important to take an honest look at relationship potential. Just as with any partnership in business (or life in general), there has to be some level of compatibility. What about their ethos, work ethic, organizational culture? Does it resonate with your organization?

How do they communicate with their clients? Virtual meetings, phone calls, emailed reports? How intimate or professional are they in their client relationships? Will these practices and traits mesh with your organization in the long-term?

There should be a lot of back and forth, discussions, and ongoing communications. Communication and character compatibility may be difficult to assess before you begin working with an agency, but it’s worth it to play close attention to your interactions during the vetting process to try and get an idea for how well you’ll work together.

Signs that Distinguish a Pro Content Marketing Agency

An agency may have an alluring marketing campaign themselves (always a good sign of high level marketing skills!), as well as experience in your industry. They may also seem like a great character fit for your brand. But – are they genuinely qualified?

How can you tell they are a top-level content marketing agency – content thought leaders rather than ad agency or SEO expert crossovers?

The following are all telltale signs of content marketing expertise. Any reputable content marketing agency that’s been creating and delivering successful strategies for years will have at least two of these qualification beacons:

  • Regularly presents at digital marketing conferences
  • A large online library of industry-related content with a unique voice and perspective
  • Plenty of webinars, eBooks, white papers and other educational resources available
  • Active in conversations on online forums and social media
  • Awards and other types of recognition for their work in the past with other clients

These factors will give you a better idea of the level of experience an agency has. It can be difficult to discern how qualified content marketers are simply from talking to them and looking at their past work. But, from researching the footprint they’ve made on the industry, you can get a clearer picture of how experienced they really are.

This isn’t to say that a newer content marketing agency that hasn’t had the chance yet to build up a large repertoire of qualifying signals isn’t worthwhile. But, even a younger, yet brilliant agency will already be establishing their organization as thought leaders with plenty of content across mediums. After all, they are content marketers.

Your Content Marketing Agency Checklist

So, your content marketing agency has to be strategic – preferably staffed by international chess champions – have analytical minds that rival the employees of Deepmind, and the visionary aptitude of, let’s say, Stanley Kubrick. They need a trophy room at the office for all their awards. And, you have to get along with them.

That’s a tall order.

Skilled and experienced, innovative, creative, analytical, brilliant. How are you going to find your perfect content marketing partner? In practice, no content marketing agency is going to get a gold star for all of the qualities and qualifications you are looking for. But, if you are thorough in your search, you’ll find a content marketing agency that will:

1. Be able to help your organization achieve your marketing goals – more leads, build brand awareness, increase conversions and customer retention, and boost sales.

2. Be a good fit in terms of communication, organizational structure, and vision alignment so you can cultivate a long-term partnership.

To find the right agency:

  • Do your research – tracking the voice, track record, reputation, and recognition of potential agencies through their social media profiles, industry conversations, and their own content.
  • Narrow down your list to two to five of the agencies you want to work with.
  • Then, make your spreadsheets, listing out the strengths and weaknesses of each of your top picks.
  • Talk to all stakeholders to get a more dynamic perspective and to make a better-informed decision.

And finally, choose the content marketing agency you want to partner with and take over the world. Well, at least, your industry.

Don’t settle for mediocrity with your content. Content marketing is a powerful tool only when it is well-produced and strategically delivered. Your organization may have the strategy down. Just make sure you are using professionally-created content to make that strategy come alive.

If you are ready to get more traffic to your site with quality content that’s published consistently, check out our Content Builder Service. Set up a quick consultation, and I’ll send you a free PDF version of my books. Get started today–and generate more traffic and leads for your business.

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Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.

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