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Deciding on an agency for content marketing is often a tough choice to make, and that’s mainly because:
Hiring one will cost — at least — $3,000 per month. Cost depends on your project scope and the agency, so you want one that won’t waste all that money, but will actually deliver ROI.
This decision will be a major part of your company’s entire marketing process (and the results from that process).
It involves checking out a myriad of content marketing agencies to select only one.
To give you some perspective, the popular marketing agency directory Clutch currently has nearly 15,000 content marketing agencies on their platform:
And that’s just Clutch. There are other directories with many other content marketing agencies. So narrowing them down can be a real hassle.
While you’re looking, keep in mind that there are two main types of agencies you’ll encounter:
Ideally, you want to work with an agency that’s a partner, not one that’s just a vendor.
“What’s the difference between a partner and a vendor?”
A vendor would simply have packages and a generalized approach they’ll use for all clients that, usually, can’t be customized to suit your goals.
Conversely, a partner is focused on the goals you’re trying to achieve so they can — as much as possible — build a custom strategy for your business. Here are two examples of what a typical conversation with a partner vs. a vendor looks like.
Example 1: A typical conversation with a vendor
You: “We need to increase traffic for our business. How can you help us?”
Vendor: “We can help you write SEO content that’ll rank on Google. We have four pricing plans…”
But you might sell to CMOs who are typically on LinkedIn and Twitter. So LinkedIn should be your primary content distribution channel, not SEO.
A partner, on the other hand, is willing to hear you out first before telling you about their pricing and packages. They’re more concerned about you and your goals than they are about just bringing you in as a new client.
Example 2: A typical conversation with a partner
You: “We need to increase traffic for our business. How can you help us?”
Partner: “Can you share a bit more about your business and the audience you’re trying to reach?”
You: “We sell a learning management software product and our target customers are HR and product managers in enterprise companies, who are looking to improve their process for educating internal employees and customers.”
Partner: “Okay, we just did some looking around and found that you do have opportunities to drive traffic with content and even SEO. For example, we found three keywords that generate 3,000 searches in total per month and they’re keywords your customers would typically search for. With a bit more research, we can find even more keyword opportunities. We have X packages…”
Or they can say something else that just shows they care about getting you results.
The bottom line here is: A partner — as opposed to a vendor — is an agency that’s not just there for the money. Before they sign any contract, they want to see that they can really help you.
So when looking for an agency, you want to hire a partner, not just a vendor. With that in mind, here are seven key questions you need to ask any agency you’re looking to hire.
1. Are they trying to determine fit first?
Good agencies would usually try to determine that your goals and their skill sets fit. They want to find out budget fit, culture fit, service fit, and any other type of fit that’ll enable them to do their best work.
So they’ll want to ask you a couple of questions first, or get on a call to make sure they can deliver results for you. When talking to them, you’ll notice that they’re actively trying to understand your audience and business as much as possible.
HubSpot’s director of editorial strategy, Jami Oetting, once shared some questions that good agencies would ask clients before working with them:
“Why did you change agencies?”
“What made you want to hire our agency?”
“What worked/didn’t work with your previous marketing partner?”
“What type of communication (calls, email, etc.) works best for you?”
“How could my team improve its communication with your team?”
Now, the agency you’re looking to hire doesn’t necessarily have to ask these same questions. The important thing here is: you shouldn’t be the only one asking questions, they should, too. It shows they’re not just in it for the money, they’re in it to be your partner.
2. Are they everything to everyone?
Because they’re not in it just for the money, partner agencies are transparent about what they can or can’t do. For example, let’s say you need to use Facebook ads for content distribution, but that’s not their forte. A true partner agency will tell you point blank: “Advertising is not our specialty.”
They won’t try to force it to increase their revenue. Instead, if they know another agency or consultant whose forte is running ads, they’d rather recommend them.
Senior Manager at Deloitte Digital, Patrick Gray, put it this way:
“A true partner might recommend another product than their own, or might bring you advice or market news that threatens their revenue from you, but is the right advice for your organization at the right time, free from ulterior motives.”
3. How exactly will they help your business, given your unique industry, budget, etc.?
This one is a no-brainer, but in the hustle and bustle of looking for the right agency, you just might find yourself forgetting to pay attention to this question — especially if it’s an agency whose brand you love and respect.
They might have a generic content strategy or framework they use for their clients, and that’s okay. But you need to ask them to show exactly how that framework can be customized for your business.
For example, they may typically advise their clients to create two 1,000-word posts per week. But your business might be in a different industry in which most of the content ranking is pretty in-depth, and you need to write upwards of 2,000 words per post.
You might also be working in a unique industry where your content agency has to interview experts to create relevant content, so you need to know they’re able to do this.
Make sure the content marketing agency you’re planning to work with shows you the strategy they’re planning to use for your business.
Shana Haynie from Hearst Bay Area puts it this way:
“Asking for some upfront strategic advice gives the agency an opportunity to show you what they’ve got. Based on their response, you can gauge how devoted they are to getting your business, how well they’ve listened, and how dedicated they are to staying in the loop on industry trends. Anyone who presents a broad, generic view or says something completely irrelevant to your business is obviously not a company worth hiring. ‘All of them’ is not an acceptable response.”
4. Do they have proof of results they’ve driven (not just work samples)?
If you follow an agency founder who has a large following on social media, you might be tempted to believe their huge following equals traffic or leads for clients that hire them.
But that’s not always the case. Their large following can attract you, but ask them for results, too.
And when asking for results, don’t just ask to see samples of their content. You also want to see their content has driven results for clients. Results can be traffic driven or leads generated for previous or current clients. If they’re able to show you any of these, it’s one of the biggest criteria you can use to decide to hire them.
Client case studies, screenshots of results, client testimonials, anything they can share to prove they’re worth their salt will help your decision to hire them (or not).
Splunk’s Global Marketing Director Mike Tomita suggests even going as far as asking them to provide names and phone numbers of their former clients:
“Do they have a client portfolio and success stories? Can they show you past campaigns that were successful? Do they have customer feedback? Are they willing to provide names and phone numbers for references?”
5. Do they have experience with your industry?
If yes, awesome! But if no, what’s their process for creating content for industries they don’t have experience in?
Think of your content as your company’s evangelist in the eyes of prospects. It represents you when your clients are looking for information and speaks to them on your behalf. And they take every word in your content as coming from you.
Your content agency must have good experience with your industry, or they won’t be able to speak your customers’ language as you would. And that means your content will do more harm than good to your brand — because it’ll end up creating bad impressions of your business in the minds of potential customers.
So it’s important that your content agency has industry expertise. But even if they don’t, they must have a process they use to work with industries they don’t have experience with, and must be able to explain that process to you.
For example, as a content agency, whenever we’re working with a client from an industry we’re not very experienced with, we ask them from the get-go, “We do our own in-depth research to create each content piece. But, we may also — from time to time — need to interview some of your team members (via Slack or email) to draw from their market experience to create unique content relevant to your audience. Would this work for you?”
If they say yes, then there’s a fit. Because that’s our process for working with companies in industries we aren’t familiar with. But if not, then we’re not able to work with them because we won’t be able to create content that’ll truly help grow their business.
6. Will your project be managed by a generic account manager or a content marketing expert?
The bigger the agency you’re looking to hire, the more important this question becomes. You need to know if the agency will be handling your project off to an “account manager” or a real content marketing strategist with years of experience.
If it’s the former, then you might want to reconsider your decision to hire the agency — unless the account manager doubles as a content marketing strategist. But in any case, they need to pair you up with an experienced content marketing strategist so your project gets the best care possible.
In one article, the Nuphoriq team defines a dedicated content manager as the expert in any agency you hire who “…serves as your brand’s confidant, tells you what strategies work best, knows your marketing goals by heart, and is actively working to make sure all your initiatives are on task and completed to the highest standards. Whether you’re interested in increasing your website traffic or improving your blog strategy, they make it a priority to help you determine the best possible ways to spend your marketing dollars.”
7. Will they need any third party products?
Not every content marketing project is the same. Some projects require more technology than others and you’ll need to prepare for that.
Typically, most agencies have their own stack and they pay for those themselves. But depending on your project, they might recommend some other products and you need to know what those are — so you can prepare for it.
They’ll usually provide their own content and project management tools like the agency Slack or Google Sheet templates. But they might need other third party tools as well.
For instance, they might need a product like IFTTT — or any of its alternatives — to integrate some content marketing products. And something like this won’t usually just cost you money, it might also need support from other teams in your organization. So you need to know which third party tools they’ll need so you can prepare accordingly.
What’s really important, even beyond these seven questions I’ve covered above, is to make sure you’re hiring not just a content marketing agency, but a real partner who’s going to care about your content like it’s their own.
What’s equally important is making sure they have the expertise to help you achieve your goals. This means you need to painstakingly look at the quality of their content samples and the results they’ve achieved for their previous clients.