So you’ve decided to enlist the help of a content marketing agency. You know that content marketing is a valuable tool to earn more traffic, more visibility, and a better brand reputation, but you also know there are people out there better equipped than you to take care of it.
But looking out at all the potential agency options can be more than a little intimidating. Your experience in content marketing may range from none to some, but the sheer number of possibilities is enough for even experienced content marketers to second-guess themselves.
That’s where this guide comes in. Throughout this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know to make an educated decision when contracting with a content marketing agency.
Why You Need Professional Help
First off, you may be wondering whether you even need a content marketing agency in the first place. Even if you have some content marketing expertise, or if you’ve taken the work on yourself up until this point, there are several critical advantages content agencies can offer:
· Cost savings. It may not seem like it, but agencies are often cheaper than hiring people full-time to handle your workload.
· Niche experts. Rather than relying on a single generalist, agencies put you in contact with multiple specialists, giving you access to niche experts for your campaign.
· Better material. This is only a generality, but most agencies will produce better content than individuals, since it takes a group to produce great content start-to-finish.
· Higher accountability. Agencies may be contractually obligated to perform; they at least have a vested interest in keeping you happy.
· Troubleshooting. When you hit a snag, you need someone with tons of experience (such as an agency) to figure out what’s going wrong and how to fix it.
With that being said, what other options are there to handle your content marketing responsibilities?
If you’re not completely sold on the agency idea, there are other options to get an expert on your team. These are some of the primary choices you have.
In-House Content Team
Your first bet is to hire a content expert (or multiple experts) to work for your brand on-site. There are several advantages to this approach. For starters, you’ll have more control over operations, and more transparency into the types of work your new hires are doing.
Agencies often strive for transparency, but there’s a fundamental limit in how much you can see. And because your full-time workers will be fully immersed in your brand, they’ll do a better job of staying within your brand voice. They’ll also do a better job of working with your other departments to produce more accurate content and tie other strategies into your content campaign.
Unfortunately, full-time hires tend to be expensive, costing you at least several thousand dollars a month per person. You also won’t be able to hire the full range of specialists that an agency could offer, and your workers won’t be quite as “on-the-hook” to deliver results as an agency would. If you can afford a full team, or if you aren’t worried about seeing specific results, it might be worth it.
Freelancers and Contractors
Your next option is enlisting the help of freelancers and contractors. The idea here is to piece together a team of independent, part-time individuals to cover all the responsibilities you need for your content marketing campaign. There are many advantages here, too; depending on who you hire and how you work with them, this could be a cheaper option than either agencies or full-timers. You’ll also have the advantage of being able to hand-pick specialists to form your team, rather than relying on generalists like with your full-time hires. And since they work on a per-job basis (in most cases), they’ll work hard to keep you happy.
There are a few downsides, however. Freelancers are generally not as immersed in your brand as full-timers, and you’ll have less transparency into everything they’re doing. They’re going to need some direction, which may require you to have an expert on your team to lead and organize them. They’re also somewhat difficult to find; tracking down exactly the right person for the job, at the right price point, with a good work ethic can be daunting, to say the least. Thankfully, platforms like Upwork have been making this easier, but it’s still difficult.
Now that you understand the motivations for pursuing an agency, and the pros and cons of the alternative options you face, let’s dig into the main considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when perusing your agency options. There are hundreds — maybe even thousands of content marketing agencies out there, so you’ll need to take a close look under the hood before you make your final decision.
The first area you’ll want to address is the services offered by your target agencies. Some agencies specialize in one focused area, while most offer a wide range of services. It’s up to you to decide what you actually need — that will depend on what other workers you have on your team, and what you’re hoping to get out of the partnership. However, you should at least be aware of the primary services you’ll encounter, why each is important, and how they can work together to get you the perfect package deal.
Branding and Research
First, work to understand how your agency approaches branding and research. These are preliminary services that take place before the actual strategizing and execution of your content marketing campaign, but they’re highly important to the campaign’s success.
· Brand familiarity. How much effort will this agency spend to get to know your brand? Are they going to spend a few days digging into your brand assets and what makes your company unique, or are they just going to start writing content without knowing your company at all? To be successful, a content campaign needs to have a consistent brand voice that appeals to its target demographics. If your agency doesn’t know what makes your brand unique, they’ll be unable to produce effective content. Make sure whichever agency you choose is prepared to get to know your brand.
· Market research. Market research should also fuel the direction of your content campaign; not all audiences are going to want or appreciate the same kinds of content, so you’ll need your agency to be on top of this information. Most agencies will do light market research before putting a strategy together, and some will offer it as a separate service. Either way, you can offer research you’ve done on your own as supplementary information to make the campaign even better.
· Competitive research. Competitive research is important for all the same reasons as market research, but it focuses on the content strategies your competitors are using rather than what your target demographics want to read. Again, some agencies will offer this service by default as a precursor to a broader strategy, but if that’s not the case, you may need to provide some insights of your own.
Next up, we have the bread and butter of the content marketing agency’s wheelhouse — the actual content. You’d think this would be one of the most straightforward services to look at, but it’s actually one of the more complicated. These are just some of the options you’ll need to consider:
· On-site, off-site, or both? When most people think about “content marketing,” they think of content posted on an on-site blog. This is important, and a foundational element of any content campaign. However, off-site content can be just as valuable; will your agency create posts on your behalf to be featured on off-site publications? This is a critical strategy for building links and earning referral traffic, and can be indispensable for boosting the visibility of your brand. Some agencies provide only on-site content, others specialize in off-site, and still others will offer you both. However you source your content, doing both is crucial for a successful campaign.
· Length. Quantity doesn’t matter much (to a certain extent), but you should consider the length of the material you’re getting. If this is an agency focused on quantity, they’ll typically deliver short articles, typically around 500 words each. Unfortunately, those aren’t going to do you any good. If you want to be effective these days, your posts should be at least 1,000 words; this is a suitable amount of depth for most readers, and it looks authoritative to search engines (for SEO purposes) as well.
· Format/medium. Next, consider what types of formats and mediums your content agency is using. Again, the preconceived notion of “content” probably leads you to visualize written articles, but content comes in all forms — in fact, if you want to remain competitive and deliver the best range of material to your customers, you should have at least some of your content in the form of images and video. Most modern content agencies will package written articles and visual content together, but not all of them do — make sure you sign up for a package that includes at least some diversity in mediums.
· Quality. The quality of the material you’re getting should be your most important consideration. What do I mean by quality? Good content is content that appeals to a target audience, is easy to understand, it chock-full of details, is original, and isn’t bogged down with “fluff” or filler — and these are only some of your high-level considerations. It’s tough to judge this without seeing the content in action, so ask your content agency for a sample post, or some examples of their past work. They’ll be happy to oblige to show off their skills.
· Goals. You should also be familiar with the general “goals” of your content marketing agency, and whether or not they align with yours. One of the beautiful aspects of content marketing is its ability to address several goals at once, including promoting brand visibility, brand reputation, inbound traffic, and conversion; which of these are most important to you? Which of these does your content agency specialize in?
To make things even more complicated, most agencies will offer multiple options in each of these areas, so you’ll need to decide for yourself what you need and what you’re willing to pay for.
Content marketing is deeply intertwined with search engine optimization (SEO), the process of earning higher rankings in search engines. It’s impossible to advance in SEO without a content marketing strategy backing you up, and you’ll earn at least some ranking benefits just by doing content marketing by itself.
So if you’re going to enlist the help of an agency to manage your content marketing program, you might as well ensure they understand SEO fundamentals as well, in order to maximize the benefits of your campaign.
Much like SEO, social media is tough to alienate from content marketing. The process of posting and engaging with audiences on social media profiles is a kind of content marketing in itself, and the use of social media as a promotional tool can cheaply and easily boost the effectiveness of your entire content strategy.
Because of this, it’s a good idea to enlist social media services when you hire a content marketing agency, if you aren’t already managing a social media campaign for your business.
Just be sure to watch pricing here; it may be cheaper to seek a freelancer who specializes in social media marketing, or bring social media management in-house.
At least some of your content strategy will depend on making active changes to your website, including creating the blog, integrating social share buttons to promote social distribution, and changing the layout to optimize for readers. Your content agency may or may not be able to offer these services; even if they can’t, they should at least be able to provide you with blog design recommendations, or refer you to a professional in this area.
Beyond that, be sure to find out who is responsible for the publication and optimization of your posts once complete; some agencies will take your site login and complete the work themselves, while others will provide you content in the form of Word documents (or a similar format) for you to upload on your own. There’s no “wrong” setup here, but it’s something worth considering, especially when you look at pricing.
Metrics and Reporting
Finally, you’ll want to consider how your content agency considers metrics and analytics, and how it’s going to share those data-based insights with you on a regular basis. Generally, your agency representative will meet you once a week, once a month, or in some other periodic fashion to go over your results thus far and address possible challenges and concerns. But what are your needs here?
· What counts as success? I covered this briefly in an earlier section, but remember there are multiple possible goals you could have with a content campaign. From the outset of your relationship, you and your content agency need to be on the same page about what counts as “success.” They may use a single metric, or collection of smaller metrics to define their success; for example, they may chart rises in organic and referral traffic without paying any attention to conversions or qualitative survey results. This may suit your needs fine, or it may conflict with your vision; make sure you work this out early on, as most agencies are flexible when it comes to reporting.
· How will data be reported? You’ll also want some transparency when it comes to reporting data. Most agencies these days will have some analytics platform they rely onto help automate the reporting process and provide in-depth visuals about how you’re reaching your goals. Make sure you get dedicated reports at each interval, preferably in a digital format so you can share it with your team. If your agency is using a tracking platform, make sure you have authoritative access to it so you can log in and monitor your results at any time.
· What guarantee of progress is there? Imagine that you’ve gone two months without seeing a measurable increase in results. What happens at that point? It’s impossible for any content agency to quantitatively guarantee success — so if you see someone promising 1,000 monthly visitors within 3 months, you can be suspicious. According to Fractl, it takes at least 6 months to see results from on-site content marketing, and 6–12 means to see results from off-site content marketing — and I agree. Ask your vendor what their plan of attack is if you’re not satisfied with the results — most agencies will have a “troubleshooting” phase to identify and correct the source of the problem, or will volunteer to step up their efforts with more and/or better content.
· What software will be used, and how? You have a right to know what kinds of software your agency will be using, especially now that marketing automation has become so popular. The overuse of automated software could have a negative effect on your campaign, and if your agency is charging you to use software they’re getting for free, you could be paying too much for their services. There are pros and cons to almost any software system, so ask lots of questions and get as much information as you can.
Personnel and Experience
Once you’ve satisfactorily explored the potential services your agency offers, it’s time to move onto the actual people who work for your agency of choice. These are the people who have created the agency, work for the agency, and will be serving as conduits between you and the agency itself; you need to make sure the personnel is in order before pulling the trigger on a contracted campaign.
Agency History and Reputation
First, you’ll need to evaluate the history and reputation of the agency. Does this agency have a proven track record? What evidence is there that the people here actually know what they’re doing? This is where your due diligence can either expose an agency with a weak foundation, or validate your good first impressions.
· Leadership. Take a look at who’s leading the organization. Most of the time, a content agency will have at least one person as the “face” of the company, promoting the business and directing it internally. This person is the one who created the agency (in most cases), and is most responsible for directing the company’s actions. If there’s a strong personality here, with ample experience, you can generally trust that you’re in good hands. For example, the Content Marketing Institute was founded by Joe Pulizzi, who remains as the overseer of the company; he’s one of the foremost authorities in content marketing today, so it’s understandable why CMI remains so popular.
· Content strategy. You can file this examination under the “practice what you preach” category. If you’re going to enlist the content services of an agency, that agency better be using the same tactics they’re about to use for your brand. Put simply, if their content strategy sucks, you shouldn’t do business with them. Take a look at the quality of articles they publish on their own blog, how they promote that content, who’s writing it, and how they’ve grown over time. Their abilities here should be obvious, so trust your best judgments here. If you’re unimpressed by their content, it’s time to move on.
· Testimonials. There’s a reason why people trust reviews and testimonials; there’s rarely an incentive for someone to leave positive feedback unless their experience was truly positive. Ask your content agency if they can share any testimonials. Failing that, ask for the contact information of some of their past clients. Figure out what their past clients think of the work they’ve done; you should be able to figure out how reliable this agency is, and if there are any points of concern you need to watch out for. Between one and three testimonials or clients should be enough to give you an accurate picture.
· Case studies. Beyond simple testimonials and word-of-mouth recommendations, it’s a good idea to get some hard facts in the form of case studies, or at least some analytics reports. Satisfied clients may be satisfied due to their personal relationships with the agency, but what does the data say about the agency’s performance? Do clients tend to see steady increases over time? Is there an average return that clients tend to see on their investments? If your agency can’t provide this information, it’s a bad sign; they either aren’t tracking carefully, or they don’t have any success stories to share.
· Visibility. You can also gauge the reputation and performance of a content marketing agency based on where and how it appears to the general public. What’s generally said about your agency? What kind of social following does this agency have — are their followers participating actively in discussions, or remaining stagnant? Does this agency seem to be a thought leader, or are they following everyone else?
Next, you’ll want to find out who’s going to be actually writing your content. You don’t necessarily have to meet them in person, but you should know whether your agency will be sourcing writers from another agency or whether they have in-house writers.
Generally, the latter is better, as your assigned writers will be more likely to work with you repeatedly over time, allowing them to learn about your business, industry, products, and services.
Throughout the duration of your content campaign, you’ll be in consistent communication with your agency. You’ll be exchanging ideas, providing feedback, collecting information, and identifying sources of potential development or improvement. You need to know that this communication will go smoothly, so figure out with who and how you’ll be communicating in advance.
· Will you have a designated point of contact? Figure out whether you’ll have a designated contact at the agency, or whether you’ll be dealing with several people at once. Though your preferences may vary, it’s generally best to have one designated point of contact at the agency to take and filter all your inquiries; it’s easier to build a rapport this way, and is generally more efficient for the client side of things. If this is the case, see if you can meet your agency contact before finalizing your service agreement. Is this person amiable? Do they seem knowledgeable and confident in their work? What kind of experience have they had before?
· How easy is it to get in touch? Next, pay close attention to how easy it is to get in touch with this agency. Is your designated contact available almost every time you pick up the phone? Do they respond to your emails quickly? Or do you have to jump through hoops to get in contact with someone, navigating phone menus or even resorting to web-based contact forms. You might pay a bit extra for an agency that has more designated contacts and faster response times, but if something goes wrong and you need immediate assistance, you’ll learn why it’s worth it.
· How are you and your business treated? This is more of a “general vibe” than any kind of metric you can concretely measure. You’ll likely be dealing with multiple people through these stages of evaluation, so try to summarize how you feel. How are you treated? How is your business treated? Are you passed around callously, or treated like you matter to the organization? Do you feel listened to and respected, or like you’re being pushed through an assembly line? This is an important consideration, since you’ll probably be working with this agency for several months at least.
Finally, we get to price — which for many marketers, is the first and biggest consideration due to budgetary limitations. There may be a hard limit to how much you can spend, and if that’s the case you need to apply all the above criteria only to agencies that fall within your price range. But if you have even a little flexibility, there are a number of variables and factors you should consider.
Also, be aware that prices vary wildly ($2k-$50k/mo according to this estimate), so there’s no way I could possibly make a recommendation on how much you should spend; instead, I’ll describe the factors and processes you should use for your evaluation.
You Get What You Pay For… Mostly
It’s a saying for a reason; in general, more expensive agencies are ones with more advanced technology, better employees, more relationships with experts, more and better publisher relationships, more experienced & skilled writers, better editors, a higher dedication to quality, and better reporting.
Opting for a cheap content agency may save you some money in the short term, but it’s more likely you’ll be disappointed with the quality of some aspect of the work. So do your homework and be wary of pricing schedules that lean too far on either end of the spectrum.
Packages vs. Custom Builds
Many agencies will offer specific packages, comprised of items like X blog posts, X inbound links, and X hours of social media marketing, all bundled together. These are usually created to make decisions easier for clients, and you may find that there’s a package that best fits your needs from the get-go. Other times, it may be more strategic to find an agency that’s willing to work with you on a custom package based on your specific needs and goals. That way, you can ensure you’re getting everything you need (and only what you need) for a reasonable price.
Retainer vs. A-la-Carte
You’ll also find agencies that work on retainer, charging a flat monthly rate for a certain number of services to be provided. This stands in contrast to a-la-carte services, where you’re charged for services like articles on a per-unit basis.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, so consider which one is best for you, and seek an agency that’s able to provide it. Generally, there isn’t much difference between these two from an overall cost perspective.
Contract Length and Stipulations
You’ll need to sign a contract before your content agency begins work, but read it carefully before you sign. For starters, you’ll want to identify the length of the contract, and what the penalties are (if any) for being released early from the contract.
If you’re confident in your decision, you can sign on for six months or a year without much hesitation — this is typically how long you’ll need to commit to see real results from your efforts, and some agencies will offer you a discount for committing to a certain length of time.
If you’re unsure of your decision, see if you can opt for a month-to-month arrangement to start. You’ll also want to be aware of any stipulations in the contract, such as payment terms or ongoing requirements, that raise red flags.
Focus on ROI
When considering pricing, it’s important to remember that your bottom line here isn’t how much you’re spending, but how much you’re getting back — your return on investment (ROI). In many cases, it’s better to pay a little more up front so you can get back an even higher percentage of your investment.
However, it’s tough to project this figure accurately until you’ve worked with an agency for a period of time.
I covered a lot of ground in this guide, but I’ll try to reduce my arguments down to a handful of simple questions:
· What are your main goals? Are you opting for traffic? Conversions? Reputation value? And how quickly are you looking to build this aspect of your business?
· What services do you need? Are you looking for only content marketing services, or are you also interested in SEO and social media? Also, what kind of reporting will you need?
· What is the personnel like? Is this agency full of experienced workers? What kind of personal brands do the leaders of the organization have? Are your agency contacts easy to work with and communicate with?
· Can this agency be trusted? What evidence is there of their past success, and can they back up everything they claim?
· Is this a value? Price is a huge variable here, so what’s a “value” to you may not be to someone else. Think carefully about what you’re paying and what you hope to gain.
· What are your options if it doesn’t work? If you aren’t seeing good results, will this agency work to help you see better ones? If it still doesn’t work from there, can you opt out of the contract without penalty? Always be ready with a worst-case scenario.
Once you know how to answer these questions and look for these ideal qualities in an agency, you’ll feel much more confident in your choice to move forward with a content marketing agency. Remember, there’s always time for adjustment and an option to change your mind — but choosing the right vendor upfront will save you a ton of time, money, and headache down the road.