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4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients

Joe Pulizzi recently wrote a blog post, 4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies, that gave us agency types a good kicking.

Of course, Joe is right: Many “content marketing agencies” are just old-school marketing agencies with a shiny new label. And, tellingly, there wasn’t much squealing or protesting responses from the agency community. (I guess we all read it and thought, “You nailed it, Joe. Those pretenders are making us real guys look bad.“)

But, while criticizing agencies is like shooting big fish in a small barrel (low barriers to entry means our average performance is shockingly low), I thought it was important to turn the tables a bit and look at this issue from the other side.

So here are my own thoughts on the issue, compiled as four truths about content marketing clients. If you’re a client-side marketer, rest assured: I don’t mean you — I mean those clueless guys in the office across the way.

Most importantly, if you’re one of Velocity‘s cherished clients, this has nothing whatsoever to do with you. You’re brilliant, you look fabulous, and you are in very capable hands.

So here’s my list. Does any of this hit home?

1. Most clients see content marketing as a tactical, tick-the-box exercise

Damn. We need content. Go get some content. It says here it has to ‘map to personas and buying stages,’ so let’s do a matrix and make sure we’ve got content in every box.

If agencies are failing to create solid content marketing strategies, it’s often because clients come to them with short-sighted, tactical briefs. Yes, it’s our job to transform those briefs into strategic gold, but that’s hard to do if the client is in panic mode.

Marketers need to stop seeing content as a flavorless fluid to be pumped around their marketing machine. Instead, they need to see it as the only way to engage with prospects early enough to shape the purchase process. That means it’s a strategic asset, not just a box in a matrix.

The lesson for agencies: Marketing is a service business, and you need to give the clients what they want. But it’s also your job to get them to want the right things. If a given client fails to accept your advice time and time again, you need to find a new approach — or a new client. Don’t blame the client if you become stuck in the “Land of Tactics.” It’s your job to reach the higher ground — and then pull the client along to meet you there by any means necessary.

2. Too many content marketing clients don’t understand their own business

A lot of content marketers — especially, but far from exclusively, in B2B companies — aren’t really professional marketers at all. They kind of backed into marketing via sales or some administrative or operational role.

Real content marketers know their own market, business, products, and customers inside out. It’s a lot easier to get great work from an agency if you know the themes, topics, and issues that drive your prospects — and if you’ve actually met some customers.

But too many brand-side content marketers are really just process people. They know how to manage a project and hope that the agency will fill in the Siberia-sized blanks.

That can be okay — agencies have had to get good at creating our own briefs and mining our own input — but it’s far, far better if there’s a professional marketer at the table with us who knows her stuff.

The lesson for agencies: When you do find skilled content marketers, bend over backwards to make them embarrassingly successful. You can invest thousands of hours trying to turn a process wonk into a content marketer and never really get there. Better to find and invest in the ones who produce great work — and recognize it when they see it produced by others.

3. Most content marketing clients hide from accountability

Businesses invest in content marketing to make money. But far too many content marketers stop far short of discussing revenue metrics.

They pack their slide decks with all the vanity metrics in the book and are surprised when their sales people or board members yawn and answer their emails during review sessions.

This is the era of accountability. If you’re still taking out your tap shoes when it’s time to talk money, you’ll soon be tapping off into the sunset.

The lesson for agencies: Work hard to connect your work to revenue — even if the client is reticent about it. Put in the time to align your programs with your sales teams’ goals right up front. Get them to agree on the definition of a sales-ready lead, and make sure that’s what you’re delivering. Use lead nurturing, marketing automation, and CRM integration to prove your programs are generating revenue. Remember: Money talks; bullshit walks.

4. Most content marketers have a weak power base

As a result of points two and three above, most content marketers don’t have a lot of power and influence in their own companies. They haven’t earned it.

But content marketing demands more than old-school marketing. It means you have to champion this new model and become the main catalyst of change in your organization, if that’s what it takes.

If you want to tie your content marketing efforts to revenue (as I’m sure you do), you need to get the sales team on board. If you want to earn some runway for your content program, you’ll need buy-in from above. And if you want your content to be packed with authentic value, you’ll need the product guys to invest their time.

In short, content marketing success often requires a cultural change within an organization — and top marketers are the ideal people to lead the charge. But they need to assert themselves, make the business case, and get other team members on board to reach their goals, and that takes power — or at least respect.

The lesson for agencies: You can play a hugely important role in helping your clients rise to the challenges of cultural change; but not if you ignore the issue and hope that they can earn all that power and lead all that change by themselves. Together, you can attack the change management challenge, instead of becoming the victim of it. The need to sell in content marketing shouldn’t be viewed as a barrier to you doing your job — it is your job.

The bottom line

There’s never been a better time to be a marketer — and content marketing is probably the biggest, most exciting opportunity of all.

As Joe pointed out in his post, there are thousands of agencies out there that will offer to help your business on its branded content journey. And unfortunately, it’s true that many of them don’t know their asses from their elbows.

But this is your brand and your company. You get the agency you deserve. So get your act together, and deserve the very best of the bunch.

For more guidance on selecting marketing partners who can put sound content processes in place for your business, read “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi.