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Content Marketing In The Echo Chamber

“The best argument against democracy,” said Winston Churchill, “is a five-minute argument with the average voter.” It’s as true in the social/ digital realm as it is in politics. Sure, it’s wonderful that everyone has a global communications supercomputer in their pocket, and can bring mighty brands to their knees with their broken guitars and so on. But the leveling of the playing field has a dark side: It’s opened up pseudo-careers for a lot of charlatans hoping to get rich quick selling the magical elixir of social media.

They don’t get a lot of press, but you know whom I’m talking about: Self-proclaimed online marketing gurus, social media technicians, and digital brand consultants. They have no experience, but man, do they speak the lingo. They clog your LinkedIn inbox and + you to their Google circles; they follow one another on Twitter until their numbers are fashionably impressive. And there are lots and lots of them.

Missing from their bag of tricks, their slick profiles, and their canned comments, of course, is any know-how about actually doing content marketing such as creating great content and spreading it in ways that drive conversations and promote more sharing and spreading.

So they drift, zombie-like, from conference to conference looking for crumbs of consulting work, sniffing out the last unpaired-up clients to sell ‘em the same five or six boring truths, like how brands need to “get involved in the conversation.” And thanks to the democratizing magic of social media, they get to pretend they know what they’re doing on the world stage.

But understanding the language of social media doesn’t make you a practitioner any more than speaking French makes you a chef. Content marketing at its core — the good stuff we try to do whenever clients let us — is about engaging target audiences by producing things people actually want. Nothing more, nothing less. And if your content agency or partner isn’t actually doing that — helping brands to publish things people want — they are just creating white noise.

The art of content marketing, like any art, is easy to do badly. Digital democracy means social media experts will continue to hawk their wares,  which means agencies that actually practice it will continue to have to work that much harder to stand out and differentiate themselves from the social zombies. And in turn, brand managers will have to learn to be increasingly discerning or get taken in by the exaggerators, the inexperienced, and the outright charlatans.

Here are five quick ways you can kick the tires of any potential content marketing service providers to make sure they can actually help you reach your content goals.

Google-stalk their staff
Content marketing is publishing, and pleasing people in the real world is a different beast than pleasing brand managers, (which is all the typical ad agency is really set up to do). Scour the web to see if any of the agency’s people have actually published anything such as  articles, books, comics, or even a blog about something besides marketing. Scour their bios — official and unofficial — and look for creative team members who have real-world publishing experience and marketing services team members with brand management experience. When you find both, you’ll know you’ve found an agency that is staffed up for real content marketing success.

Punch holes in their logo wall
The nature of marketing work is so fragmented these days that everyone’s got a “logo wall” slide of all the big corporations they’ve done some tiny bit of test work for. So interrupt the presentation and ask exactly what they did for, say, Coca-Cola. Odds are they didn’t do the Polar Bears, if you know what I’m saying. But if they actually did any of the brand’s content-based social media initiatives, you are on the right track.

Shake down their online profile
Content marketing is sort of unassailable at the theoretical level, but putting it in practice can be hard. So how do they put it into practice for their easiest client…themselves? Look at their owned media properties (their Facebook profile, blog, etc.): Do they publish any original content beyond paid brand work? If they don’t, they don’t truly believe in the value of the content marketing channel. They’re just paying lip service to the ideals of content marketing. And if they do have original content, but it doesn’t seem to have much value, don’t expect them to be able to produce better results for you.

Dive into the audience
Do a deeper dive into the audiences of their paid media sites and see who exactly is paying attention to their social media footprint. Don’t get hypnotized by their number of Twitter followers, for example,  that’s easy to game. Look at the followers themselves and see who’s there, what they’re saying, and whether they’re retweeting or otherwise showing evidence they are taking this content marketer seriously. If they are faking it for their existing clients, it’s a fair bet you’ll get the same treatment.

Ask to see a mistake
It’s a fast-changing world, and clients, agencies, and consultants are all learning on the job. Success today is about being nimble and  on the edge of what can be done today. If a content marketer can’t tell you an entertaining story of something they got wrong or something that didn’t work out, they’re either not being honest or they’re not playing close enough to the edge. Either one’s a bad sign.