By Chuck Frey published February 4, 2014

How to Choose the Right Content Marketing Agency

image-banner-CMI twitter chatsHiring an agency has always been more of an art than a science. And, according to the participants of a recent #CMWorld Twitter Chat with Paul Roetzer (@paulroetzer), author of The Marketing Agency Blueprint, it has become even more challenging in the era of content marketing.

One of the major problems is that a “gold rush” mentality has evolved around content marketing, so a large number of social media, SEO firms, ad agencies, and others have recast themselves as content marketing firms in order to claim a share of the business. This makes it significantly harder for marketers at medium- to large-sized brands to separate the pros from the posers.

During the #CMWorld Twitter Chat, participants offered many helpful suggestions to make the content marketing agency search and qualification process easier and more reliable.

Qualities to look for

Subject matter expertise: Outstanding, high-impact content marketing can’t be created without a thorough understanding of your brand’s industry or marketplace. In other words, subject matter expertise is a must.

Brands should always look for familiarity w/ their industry. If an agency doesn’t know how to navigate the vertical = bad news. — @lucasmillerwsu

This has always been an important factor in selecting advertising and public relations agencies. You want a partner who not only understands your industry or market, but has also established relationships with gatekeepers and key thought leaders that you can leverage in your content. In addition, you don’t want to be paying an agency to learn your business — that’s something that should be done on the agency’s own time.

Subject matter expertise is even more critical for content marketing initiatives because an agency can’t produce an ongoing stream of top-notch content if it doesn’t understand the challenges your customers face, your competitive situation, and the dynamics of your industry or market.

How can you gauge subject matter expertise? Follow the agencies you’re considering on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, for starters. Review their content streams on these channels. Do they demonstrate a depth of knowledge about your industry or market? How do they respond in comments and online discussions? Do their responses demonstrate that the firm is respected by others in the group?

Another way to accurately determine the depth of subject matter expertise is to speak with the agency’s clients, if possible. As part of your due diligence, you should ask them questions not only about the work the agency performed on their behalf, but on the real depth of their industry or market knowledge.

That they practice what they preach: #CMWorld Twitter Chat participants were universal in agreement on this key point — content marketing agencies should not act like the “shoemaker’s children.” They must have successful content marketing and branding initiatives in place to promote their services and nurture potential clients into sales. How an agency promotes itself is an important early indicator of its competence in content marketing.

Look for agencies that are using content marketing to build and differentiate their brands. Lots say they do it, few deliver. —@paulroetzer

Agencies better have a good content strategy themselves or why would I hire? —@JakeDParent

Look for the consistency of their posts on these channels. If the agency’s presence is sporadic, that’s a potential warning sign that its commitment to content marketing isn’t as ardent as it should be.

Content Marketing thought leadership: There are several ways agencies can cultivate thought leadership and get the attention of prospective clients, including:

  • Giving presentations at events like Content Marketing World and other leading, industry-relevant conferences
  • Holding a series of content marketing webinars
  • Writing authoritative articles with an intriguing point of view
  • Participation in online forums 

Key questions to ask when interviewing agencies

Asking the right questions during the agency interviewing process is critical to finding a good fit your brand. Here are some of the questions #CMWorld Twitter Chat participants recommended that brands should ask of their potential partners:

Ask them to tell you about clients in similar industries or who have faced similar challenges: This can help you discern if an agency has experience in working with a brand like yours, for which they have helped to solve similar content challenges. This type of “proof of performance” is a big plus, but it isn’t always easy to get. Several potential ways to find this information without asking the agency directly include:

  • Look for relevant case histories: If the firm has recently expanded its services to include content marketing, these may be hard to find.
  • Search within LinkedIn Groups, Google+ Communities and other online forums using keywords related to your industry, and look for agencies that contribute their expertise.
  • Search for articles profiling the agency in local newspapers or advertising and marketing publications.
  • Attend local advertising and marketing association functions and ask your peers for their recommendations: Which agencies are they aware of that have experience in your industry or market? Posting this sort of question in an online group is not recommended, however, because the reaction may be akin to throwing meat into a shiver of sharks.

Ask to see examples of top-notch strategies they have created for clients: You need to get a close look at how the agency thinks — and how they have translated that into content that has delivered bottom-line results for its clients Don’t be afraid to press agency personnel for specifics on their case histories — especially relevant data that shows just how much of an impact their content marketing initiatives have made.

Don’t settle for vague explanations & commentary. Get facts & obviously researched data from candidates.” —@z_Paper

A competent agency should be able to show examples of editorial calendars and personas, demonstrate an understanding of the customer’s buying process, and discuss how they developed content to nurture them along that path.

Ask for a list of their clients you can talk to: Relying on a canned presentation of agency capabilities doesn’t give you enough information to make an informed decision, especially when many agencies are claiming to be content marketers, but really aren’t. Talking to an agency’s relevant clients is an important part of any brand’s due diligence. These discussions can give you a more accurate and complete picture of how the agency works — and the results it actually achieved on behalf of its clients.

Educate yourself as much as possible, ask the specific questions, ask for case studies and talk to some of their customers. —@Posmay

Participants also suggested that you ask questions aimed at helping you better understand the agency’s culture and values:

Do they have a key understanding of your business? Are their values and approach aligned with yours? —@KelseySpellman

This is a situation where being well connected within your industry or market can pay off. The agency will likely give you a “sanitized” list of clients for which it produced successful results. But if you network among your peers and judiciously ask questions, you may be able to tease out stories where the firm wasn’t as successful and learn a few things about its potential shortcomings. As always, take these stories with a grain of salt. Learn what you can from them, and approach the former client directly, if possible, to get its perspective on what really happened.

Above all, when you’re interviewing agencies, don’t rush the process. An excellent agency relationship is a combination of skills and chemistry. Do your due diligence. Ask lots of questions. And leverage your network to learn what others know about the agencies you’re interviewing. Gather objective data about each agency’s clients and track record. For the rest, trust your gut. If the chemistry doesn’t feel right, chances are the agency isn’t a good fit for your brand.

How to measure the effectiveness of agencies

#CMWorld Twitter Chat participants were asked how a brand can measure the effectiveness of the agencies it’s interviewing, when all it has to rely on is the agency’s sanitized PowerPoint presentations, case histories posted on its website, and its answers to your questions. These content marketing professionals recommended several key indicators to watch for:

Beware of the agency that has all of the answers before finding out the questions. —@SueBrady

Do they conduct research in your industry to see where your content will work best for your audience? —@ProjectSocializ

Make sure they ask you the right Q’s — do they prod you about your goals, target audience, etc? —@atxcopywriter

Has agency 1-listened & learned 2-developed appropriate objectives, 3-did they deliver. Effectiveness is all 3. —@angusmacaulay

Determining the actual results an agency achieved on behalf of its clients is likely to be one of the most challenging aspects of your due diligence. As you learn about each content marketing firm’s strengths and weaknesses, you must connect the dots between disparate pieces of information you’ve gathered and, more importantly, discern what you don’t know and what other questions you ought to ask. Here are several ways to do this:

  • Trust but verify: Ask a lot of questions of each agency, but then verify the accuracy of what you hear with its current and former clients, as well as with the “word on the street” from your peers.
  • Capture all of the data you’ve gathered into a mind map so you can view a complete picture of it and identify gaps and areas where you have uncovered conflicting information. This will help you generate follow-up questions you should be asking of agencies and peers who are familiar with their work.
  • Place your key agency selection criteria into a spreadsheet and develop a rating scale that you and your team members agree upon. Include a combination of “hard” (quantifiable data) and “soft” (the agency’s culture and your team’s comfort level with each agency team, for example) measures. Then, after agency presentations and visits, have each stakeholder rank each agency on these criteria. Compare rankings, and use any significant discrepancies you discover as jumping-off points for discussion. Often, one member of your team may have noticed something you didn’t, and vice versa.
  • Talk to former employees of the agency who are in your professional network. They may be able to provide you with an inside perspective on its strengths, weaknesses, and culture. If you don’t know any of its former employees, ask trusted members of your peer network who they know. They may be able to refer you to someone who may be willing to chat informally with you over a cup of coffee or lunch.
  • Pay attention to the agencies and campaigns that are winning awards for outstanding work in your industry, market, or metropolitan area. Attend awards banquets for local chapters of advertising and marketing groups, where you may have an opportunity to view some of the agency’s work firsthand and may get to hear more about the thinking behind their work in a non-pitch setting.

Handling content marketing in-house vs. outsourcing

Before a brand begins an agency search, it needs to get clear on what it can handle internally and what it should consider outsourcing. #CMIWorld Twitter chat participants were asked to share their tips on how to make this important decision.

One practical approach the group discussed is to look for skill gaps: Which content marketing competencies does your existing staff lack? Agencies can also help you accommodate spikes in your department workload, helping to keep your marketing programs flowing smoothly. But participants warned that quality control can be harder when you outsource to an agency:

Start w/ an assessment of your internal marketing team. Determine how talent aligns w/ goals. @paulroetzer

Use agencies to fill in skill gaps and manage workload. Fine tune based on where each get the best results. —@SFerika

How to identify content marketing agencies

How can brands find agencies with content marketing expertise? One excellent starting point is this list on the Content Marketing Institute’s website). CMI curated this list for educational purposes, and does not endorse any of the agencies listed in it.

Another way to locate agencies is to look for representatives who are sharing their experience and expertise in LinkedIn groups (like the one CMI operates). Once you’ve found someone whose perspective looks interesting, click on the company name in his or her LinkedIn profile. This should take you to the firm’s company page.

Finally, look for authoritative articles about content marketing on major websites, like CMI and MarketingProfs. Look for the author’s contact information and Google the name of the firm he or she works for.

Key takeaways

A content marketing agency can provide a valuable outside perspective. They’re not limited by your organization’s dynamics and internal politics, and can come at your content challenges with an unbiased view, as well as alert you to additional opportunities you may not be seeing. But utilizing an agency to handle part or all of your brand’s content marketing isn’t a slam dunk — nor does it make sense in all situations.

Content marketing has multiple facets; most agencies are not equally good at all of them. Look for a firm that has strengths that help you in the areas where you need them, and vice versa. Your goal is to have someone in place to cover all of the critical skills; whether they are internal or external is of secondary importance,” instructs Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi. Don’t just assume that the agencies to whom you’re talking have all the bases covered, he warns: “Content production is only one small part of the content marketing process. Strategic planning aspects of mission statement creation, audience persona gathering, internal content integration, and measurement outside of content consumption metrics are often absent.

The bottom line for brands is to do your homework. Lay out all of the competencies of content marketing in a spreadsheet and assess where your internal staff adds value, and where you need help. Consider the requirements of your strategic content plan, and what that means in terms of skills and competencies. Then develop a clear plan for how and where it makes sense to use an agency. You need to have all of this in place before you start searching for, selecting and interviewing them.

Want to take part in the next big conversation on content marketing opportunities and challenges? Join CMI for #CMWorld Twitter chats every Tuesday at 12 p.m. Eastern.

Author: Chuck Frey

Chuck Frey is the director of content marketing at Cultivate, a Milwaukee-based digital marketing agency. Prior to that, he served as director of online training for the Content Marketing Institute. He is also the founder and author of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the world’s leading website covering visual mapping. In addition, he blogs about creativity, productivity and personal development strategies on his personal blog. He has extensive experience in public relations, online marketing, content development and marketing, business strategy and creative problem-solving techniques. He is an avid photographer. You can follow him on Twitter @ChuckFrey.

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  • Clay Morgan

    Good points. Content marketing kind of reminds me of web design in the 90s and social a few years ago – suddenly “experts” were everywhere, but not all were actually experts.

    How heavily do you weigh the possibility of the staff having former journalists working on its content team, and the agency’s ability to produce not just great writing, but video and podcasts?

    • Chuck Frey

      Question 1: Journalists on the team – That’s certainly an advantage, because journalists tend to have a keen eye for what’s newsworthy and can communicate that in a concise, clear and often compelling format. I’d give that moderate weighting – it’s great if an agency has 1 or more journalists on their team, but seasoned PR pros are a good alternative. They, too, have a “nose for news.”

      Question 2: Agency producing video and podcasts – Definitely a big plus, but it really depends upon the brand’s needs. Does the product or service to be promoted lend itself to video and podcasts? I’d recommend you look for an agency that has a demonstrated ability to produce content across all types and formats – including video, audio podcasts, SlideShare, infographics and visual marketing.

      • taulbeejackson

        Chuck, I think your answer here contradicts the need for “subject matter expertise” – the point of using “journalists” isn’t that they can write, it’s their ability to independently research, use sources, etc. to create a story on ANYTHING, regardless of the subject matter. In fact, I think agencies that have exposure to a broader range of verticals does a couple of positive things – first, it keeps the writers fresh and helps them maintain an external “audience” perspective rather than an insiders POV, and second, it allows those content producers to be exposed to lots of best practices from multiple industries. Great article, thanks for contributing this!

        • Producer2

          In technical areas journalists are over-rated and deep subject matter expertise is mandatory. Journalists merely repeat what someone tells them – they often cannot parse out agendas and hype and they seldom have the insights that come from credentials and experience in solving problems and implementing solutions in a particular area.
          I routinely see errors, oversights and omissions on specific subject (aviation and sustainability to name a few) reporting even in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other top-tier publications.
          Also left out of this commentary was the need to involve the sales force – who are keenly aware of the competitive environment and how the products and services are used to solve client’s problems. If the sales force uses the content, it’s on target. If they don’t – that tells you something.

          • taulbeejackson

            Well – in the context of content marketing, you are kind of supporting my point . . . the job of a subject matter expert is to be an expert at what ever the topic is, not to be a storyteller. Asking those people to actually produce content that is meaningful to an audience and accomplishes a marketing goal is a very bad idea. Every publication you mentioned is in the audience business – not the “make sure we include everything in every story” business. Oversights and omissions? We call that “editorial”. And when you’re talking content marketing, agendas and hype is what it’s all about. We’re trying to sell something at the end of the day.

            The job of a journalist is to find and tell compelling stories. If they are just “repeating what someone tells them” then they are “reporters” not storytellers using a journalistic approach to gather the information they need for a story. Subtle but important difference. People often confuse the concept of journalism and that approach to storytelling with it being “hard news” reporting. They are two closely related but different things.

            The point I am making is that the same kinds of journalistic storytelling skills a reporter uses can be applied to content marketing, and is a superior approach to having a bunch of subject matter experts who know everything about a topic, but nothing about how to engage an audience. That is an entirely different skill set.

            The disconnect is that people think because you know a lot about something, you should be able to create great content about it. Absolutely not the case. In fact, most of the PR and Marketing people I have met can’t even make great content. They can make great ads – and great press releases – but not great content. Everyone can type, but few can write. Everyone can draw, few are artists. Everyone can sing, but few are singers. Everyone can take pictures and shoot video, but few are photographers. Everyone can tell a story, but few are storytellers.

            I agree that subject matter experts play an important role – but only as a source. They definitely are not mandatory. I wouldn’t let an aviation subject matter expert write a blog post for my plane company any more than I would let them fly my plane. If my job is to use content to build an audience and monetize it, I’ll take one good professional journalist who’s never even flown before over an entire army of sales people, marketing and PR people and subject matter experts any day of the week.

  • Nisha Salim

    Why the insistence on the agency to have expertise in the particular industry? If it is for content creation, can it not be accomplished by other means? Ideally, each company should look within to generate content that can add value to their customers, because no one (not even an agency who is experienced in the same vertical) knows a customer’s business like they themselves do. If this is not a viable proposition, content generation can always be subcontracted to industry experts who specialize in that sort of thing.

    My opinion is that you could end up being a little too selective by insisting on hiring an agency who specializes in your particular vertical. Content marketing needs a lot more than subject matter expertise. Focusing too much on an agency’s knowledge of your vertical can detract from their other possibly valuable abilities to actually do, well, content marketing. And if it is a matter of reaching out to influencers and thought leaders of the industry, I would imagine that the top level executives within the company would have a good network to tap into.

    • Chuck Frey

      Good points, Nisha! I’m saying if there IS an agency with subject matter expertise in your vertical, start there. I realize that brands aren’t always going to be able to find such an animal. You also imply that a brand should cultivate content within, which can also be very viable. I just read an article this morning about holding an internal workshop to bring all of your internal contributors up to speed about what’s needed and how the editorial process works.

  • Simon Applebaum

    This article speaks huge amounts of sense about an expensive lesson I’ve learned in recent months. I now massively advocate bringing content marketing in house; if you need to outsource anything find and pay people directly rather than allowing an agency to do a poor job for a marked up fee. The ability to seed and place content effectively is still a role for a digital PR agency in my experience.

  • Doug Kessler

    Excellent guide. I do think that subject matter expertise is often over-rated at the start of a relationship.

    If I were a client, I’d want to see that the agency can learn a new domain quickly and leverage the expertise in the company and in the market.

    But if, after a few months, there’s still no domain expertise in the agency, you’re in trouble!

  • Abbas Sarfraz Sheikh

    Great article Chuck. Domain Expertise is definitely a key ingredient often over-looked by most clients. The important of Subject-Experts become more evident in technical fields such as IT, Telecom, High Tech and Cloud.

  • rogercparker

    Congratulations, Chuck: This is an instant classic.

  • Justin McGill @ Workado

    This is a great buyer’s guide. It amazes me how many people don’t do their research!

  • Craig Hodges

    Nice article. Agree with the guys below around subject matter expertise. I’d be more interested to understand the approach a content agency would take when going into a new segment. Will certainly give you a good idea of what sort of engine room and brain power they have.

    Other important issues include understanding their thinking and methods behind developing strategies and how they adhere, what are their technology strengths/weaknesses (becoming more and more important these days) and of course their thinking on developing solid ROI’s for any content marketing program. Then again all those tie in together these days.

    Another point is making sure they practice what they preach…… if they cant manage to write a decent strategy and execute it for themselves how are they going to do it for someone else!

  • Rob Cleeve

    Great guide, and more important than ever to do this research, as more and more content agencies pop up out of nowhere every day. One thing I would say from the viewpoint of an agency is to be reasonable with requests to speak to an agency’s clients. We have a lot of very happy clients, but if we asked them to speak to every prospective client that asked for a referee, then they would soon get tired of doing so. As a result, this is an area we have to manage very carefully.

    I’d also add a point about subject matter expertise: most agencies we’ve come across outsource content production to freelancers, so their real subject matter expertise can be hard to gauge. IMO what then becomes important is how they produce content. IMO an agency with a well resourced, full time, in-house editorial team, who don’t outsource content production, can offer much greater editorial consistency and accountability, while giving you a direct, close and long-term relationship with the actual people producing your content.

  • James Meyers

    Great article on the importance of quality content that’s written specifically for the brand’s customers by trained journalists who have a deep understanding of the brand, the subject matter and the target audience. Yesterday, I interviewed an editor who works for a brand who’s current paying $10-50 an article to content farms who are just cranking out words. In her words, “the articles are crap, but my boss just wants words to fill up our website. He doesn’t understand that you get what you pay for”. We recently signed a New York client who came to the same conclusion after interviewing more than a dozen agencies who talk about content but then don’t have the journalists to produce content that is meaningful and relevant to their customers.

  • Craig Hodges

    Good call James– we’ve seen that a lot as well around the Asia Pac region. Agencies using offshore networks, employing university students in the north of England and more! Im hoping that as the market matures, common sense will prevail and brands that have used these resources will come back around and understand that quality journalism as part of a well thought out content strategy is worth its weight in gold.

  • Darin Swick

    Concise and accurate article Chuck — I particularly agree with a confirmation process to see that the agency “eats its own dog food”. That’s probably the best case study of all. While I think it’s important that the agency has some industry familiarity, I don’t see this as a determining factor; rather the agency should be staffed with seasoned consultants that are strategic listeners and understand how to get at what a customer persona is for any industry. The only thing I see missing is the need for a simple, but effective content distribution platform that can easily post content to a multitude of digital destinations while also tracking the engagement of that content. This one piece of technology is critical and can contribute to more aggressive services pricing but more important, shows results if these marketing investments. Great summary, thanks again.

  • Guest

    In my opinion it’s better if you chose a top notch digital marketing agency for content marketing companion. Content marketing do have its place in SEO but there are various other technical factors that play there role in getting your business on top of the Google.

  • De Webian

    In my opinion it’s better if you chose a top notch digital marketing agency for content marketing campaign. Content marketing do have its place in SEO but there are various other technical factors that play there role in getting your business on top of the Google.