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4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies

content-marketing-agency-truthHave you noticed the recent proliferation of “content marketing agencies” popping up on the scene?

You may be wondering why, but this trend has been happening for years now. In the search for “content gold,” providers of marketing services have been “heading west,” as more brands continue their move toward creating owned media programs and establishing content marketing dominance.

The fight for content

The battle royale to establish or increase budgets for content development and distribution is being fought by both the usual suspects and the uninitiated in our industry, including:

  • Pure content marketing agencies, formerly known as custom publishers
  • Advertising agencies that have a new-found appreciation for branded storytelling outside of media placement
  • Traditional media companies that either have editorial teams or full content divisions dedicated to working on editorial and branded content projects
  • PR organizations that are starting to focus less on placement and more on owned channels
  • Direct marketing agencies that are moving from “offer-focused” to “engagement-focused” content
  • SEO companies that are shelving the SEO business in response to Google Panda and Penguin updates
  • Social media agencies that are realizing that it’s not the channel, but what goes into the channel that counts
  • Web content and user experience agencies that are moving away from solely technical website production, audits, and analysis to advise on multichannel content
  • Digital agencies that are pairing interactive services with consistent content production
  • Research organizations showcasing industry experts and thought leaders for strategic content and consulting assignments

These agencies and more are battling for content marketing dollars from brands… some with legitimate budgets and some with a pile of Monopoly money trying to figure out the secret to social media success.

Whatever your feeling is on who owns the rightful mantle of  “content marketing agency” really doesn’t matter. The truth is that thousands of agencies formerly touting any one or a number of the above banners are now trying to “ride the wave” to content marketing salvation.

Reality bites

Brands have it tough. We receive multiple calls, emails, and inquiries each day at the Content Marketing Institute asking for content help… from strategy to blog posts, visual content, content distribution, integration, hiring, research, and everything else under the sun. Here’s what we’ve learned: There is good help out there, but it’s hard to tell the partners from the posers.

Below you’ll find some truths about content marketing agencies, and how smart brands should view the outsourced marketing services provider of the present.

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” — Steve Jobs

1. Most content marketing agencies don’t market with content

I hear it all the time: the “shoemaker’s shoes” conundrum. Agencies of all kinds have a long history of producing advertising and marketing programs for clients, while forgetting to market themselves. No clearer examples of this exist than with content marketing.

Marketing services organizations are notorious for focusing on sales-led marketing programs, where cold calls and sales relationships rule. Whether a lack of resources or a lack of patience is cited as the reason, agencies that offer content marketing services very rarely produce epic content that attracts and helps to retain their own customer base.

Excellent content marketing examples, such as Imagination’s Orange magazine, Pace’s research reports, BrandPoint’s blog, or Story Worldwide’s seem to be the exception, and not the rule (disclosure: these agencies are all CMI clients).

The lesson for brands: Before you hire any content marketing agency, ask to see the work they’ve performed — on their own behalf. Take a deep dive into all of their content. Is it truly great content, or is it “me too” blog content that you can find anywhere?

2. Most SEO agencies don’t know jack about content marketing

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an incredibly important top-of-the-funnel tactic. As Google gets smarter, it’s almost impossible to game the system. Today, getting found through search engines has more to do with amazing online storytelling than most anything else.

I had a recent conversation with an SEO executive team, and they were seriously contemplating taking the entire company in a new direction… to content marketing. Why? Their reasoning was (besides pure SEO budgets drying up) that the value they used to provide to customers (which used to be immense) simply wasn’t there anymore.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of SEO agencies are in the same position. I’ve seen a few — such as TopRank Online Marketing and Vertical Measures — make this transition incredibly well. Others have simply put the “content marketing” moniker on their SEO content production service and called it content marketing. Yes, they’ve added such services as infographics creation, video production, and blog content creation, but 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 lesson for brands: A holistic content marketing strategy includes up-front planning and multiple goals, which in turn must bring in non-digital channels (such as print and in-person vehicles). SEO is just one very small part that covers a few marketing objectives. Make sure your content marketing strategy goes beyond top-funnel considerations.

3. Most agencies are less concerned about strategy than they are about execution

Want to hear a dirty little secret that content agencies subscribe to?

Give away the strategy to get the execution.”

I was guilty of this many times. I would give away whatever strategic insight I needed to in order to win the content project. It was the ultimate “value add.” Why? Planning lasts just a short time, while execution can last forever. The thinking was that giving up the planning guidance for free could result in a content project contract (like producing a serial blog, custom magazine, or video series) that may last for years or more.

Like it or not, strategy and planning weren’t viewed as a useful service to customers, but rather as a closing strategy to get the execution business. This also meant that the majority of internal talent went to execution, not strategy.

And today? This is exactly the reason why so many brands are struggling to find solid strategic partners for content planning, while content execution increasingly is becoming a commodity.

And the worst part? I’ve never seen a content planning document from an agency that recommended less content or (God forbid) stopping the content program altogether (which is sometimes the correct remedy).

The lesson for brands: Regardless of whether you hired an agency to just do content execution, you must ask for a sample of an executable content marketing strategy from them, as well. You at least need to see if they understand the strategic argument for — and more importantly, against — content creation. There may be a time for producing less content, but without strategic guidance, the answer will always be more (and this is just short-sighted).

4. Most agencies still see content marketing as a campaign

Content marketing is not a campaign — it’s an approach, a philosophy, and a business strategy.

Similarly, a viral video — and its resultant success or failure — is not content marketing. A campaign is not content marketing. A campaign can be the result of a content marketing approach, but in and of itself, it is not content marketing. In other words, releasing the long form of a 30-second advertisement is not a content marketing approach — it’s just a clever form of advertising.

Most agencies aren’t built for consistent, long-form content creation and distribution. They’re built for speed; for great creative that makes an immediate (hopefully) impact. Compare this to what it takes to create content marketing efforts like  Procter & Gamble’s HomeMadeSimple or AMEX’s Open Forum: day in-day out content planning, production, and evolution over a long period of time, with the goal of attracting and/or retaining customers.

The lesson for brands: Be wary of any agency pitching you a “campaign” over a “program.” There is one thing that’s certain with any campaign: It has an end date. Not so with content marketing.

A review

Even though content marketing is 100+ years old, we are in the middle of a revolution. Total consumer control, combined with an absence of technology barriers for brands, has resulted in a content marketing renaissance. At the same time, it has forced marketing service providers to alter their business models, and their sales speak, to include editorial-based content creation.

While, overall, this is good for the industry, it has created a confusion of what true content marketing is — and what the practice of content marketing can look like for both agencies and brands.

And now you know. Good luck!

For more need-to-know details on what content marketing is — and what it isn’t — register to attend Content Marketing World 2013. If you are an agency, consider attending the workshop on Building/Growing your Content Marketing Agency/Consultancy to learn best processes for selling your content marketing services.

Cover image via Bigstock.