Need Content? How to Choose a B2B Marketing Firm that Creates Content
As with any major business decision, when it comes to choosing a marketing agency, you will find endless advice. And, as with much advice, the guidance provided tends to reflect the priorities of the one giving it. So, in the interest of full disclosure, as Content Director at an agency that focuses on actually producing content for clients—not all agencies create content—I tend to see quality content creation as the central consideration.
Of course, not all companies are looking for help with content creation. But if you are planning to have your new marketing partner help you with the complex and time-consuming work of creating and then marketing content, think long and hard about how that content might be developed, and then vet your prospective partner accordingly.
Make sure to take a close look at your prospective agency. From a distance, content creators may all seem alike. This is a dangerous perception. When selecting a partner, make sure to take time and do the necessary research. Ask specific questions. Request evidence to back up the answers. Specific questions will help you clarify the less obvious differences that mark one agency from another. As in many industries, content creators operate on many tiers. At one end, you have your content factories; at the other, you have content partner. Let’s look at the difference.
Content Factories produce content on a mass scale. Operationally, they employ a Fordist model of mass assembly within little-to-no customization. Henry Ford said, “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” Content factories operate in the same way: To maximize production, they minimize customization. Producers of dime-novel posts, content factories roll out commodity blogs like burgers at McDonald’s. Mass production, however, is more than a paradigm for the efficient assemblage of content. Mass production also presumes a marketing strategy that privileges quantity over quality: The more content, the better. The more-is better-strategy sees “awareness" as the end goal of content marketing. Content factories may even talk a lot about SEO and lead generation. There are two main problems with this strategy:
- It rarely works. Google’s perpetual pursuit of a better search algorithm long ago eliminated quantity as a factor in search ratings. Quantity alone does not improve SEO.
- More importantly, strategies premised merely on awareness stop at the top of the funnel.
Depending on your marketing objectives, commodity content may have a place. If your goals involve little more than maintaining brand awareness, dime-novel content can in fact represent a cost-effective option. However, bland content can do more harm than good. It’s better not to be seen at all, then to come across looking generic.
More importantly, commodity content fails to inspire or maintain the kind of long-term brand trust that will carry customers through the full journey of a sales cycle. The latter concern has particular relevance for effective marketing in B2B industries, where high-stakes contracts require longer sales cycles. Beyond awareness, extended sales cycles require content designed to foster and maintain long-term brand authority, value, and trust—both throughout and beyond the sales process. To this end, B2B industries require researched content that speaks effectively to a select target audience of highly trained professionals.
B2B brands depend on content to articulate the value proposition of products and services that utilize highly specialized knowledge to answer very particular, often highly technical needs. Content must not simply grab attention and SEO; it must also speak a professional language, understand the culture of an industry, present authoritative knowledge, and convey deep understanding of unique industry challenges. Dime-novel content may grab attention, but it will undermine the long-term customer trust required for truly meaningful business growth.
To develop content specially crafted to meet these kinds of highly specialized marketing needs, companies must know how to discern content partners from content factories. Simply defined, while content factories operate as external vendors, content partners operate as extensions of an in-house marketing team.
The problem is that lots of agencies — LOTS of them — will tell you they know how to create content. Maybe they do. But you don’t just need a bunch of copy. Effective content requires a careful, concerted effort, informed by consistent communication, real planning, and high-quality content creation from a highly skilled staff.
What you should look for and why:
A Genuine Partnership: It’s About Relationships
First of all, you need a true partner—not a vendor. An old friend of mine would say, “Life is about relationships; everything else is just raisins on the matzoh.” You need not know anything about matzoh to get the main idea here. The essential importance of relationships certainly applies to effective content marketing. Content marketing is, in fact, all about relationships. After all, the whole point of effective content is to foster meaningful relationships with potential and existing customers. So it follows that effective content creation also depends on meaningful partnerships between companies and content creators.
What does a meaningful partnership look like? A true partner operates as an extension of your in-house marketing team. Accordingly, when meeting with a potential partner, all your questions should focus on how a firm meets this standard. Many companies will claim to take time to know your business. However, can they back this claim up with specific details regarding how they intend to understand your business? As with any member of your team, you should have regular access to professionals deeply familiar with your needs. Does the firm schedule regular calls and meetings? How long will these calls last? Will they make an effort to meet with you in person? How deeply does the firm seem to know its existing partnering clients? Do they seem to have close, long-term relationships? Can the firm provide client references?
Who oversees the creation of content? Those who oversee content creation may not be the same people who will do your writing, or editing your video content—in fact, they should not be the same people (as I explain further below). Still you need to meet the people in charge of content—ask for someone like the “Director of Content.” Ask her or him specific questions. Does this person have a specific philosophy about the elements and purpose of effective content? Does this person possess relevant background and training? Does, for instance, the person in charge of writing actually have expertise as a writer? Ask to see samples of work. Ask this person about the creative process—the planning, research, drafting/writing, and editing process involved in crafting effective work.
Industry expertise counts among the greatest concerns clients seeking to partner with an agency to develop content. Clients have a relevant concern regarding an agency’s ability to understand the needs of a particular industry and market. Tasked with the work of developing and producing a content marketing campaign, clients turn to internal staff to create content. Without an internal team of trained writers, staff must do double-duty, taking on work that distracts from their field of expertise: Doctors, architects, software designers, engineers must suddenly become writers.
Effective content agencies have resources and processes in place to answer these needs. Ask how the content creation process incorporates steps required to develop the necessary understanding of your industry. Find an agency that has a well-developed plan for developing content for niche industries and then let them ghostwrite for your staff. Your content will be consistently better across the board, you will be able to publish more consistently, and your staff can focus on their actual jobs.
Your partner should have the resources and expertise to guide the development of a content strategy. Again, when inquiring about content strategy, make sure to ask for specifics, backed up by evidence. Can the prospective partner provide a documented history of strategy development for other clients? Can the partner provide a detailed process for creating that strategy? Does the plan include a process for understanding and targeting specific audiences? Does content strategy include the necessary editorial planning for content optimization? How does strategy incorporate distribution to audiences in relevant social media? Does the strategy include the reporting and analysis of data? Will you have access to that data? Does strategy also include methods for developing, meaningful themes and topics? Does strategy include a variety of content forms—methods for presenting information in effective styles and voices that support brand identity and speak to target audiences? Can the Director of Content explain the strategic rationale behind these different forms?
Ask your prospective partner for the types of content programs/strategies they are providing to other clients after planning. What types of content do they suggest, and with what frequency? The message should be that every client and situation is different, because every client’s goals are different.
Find a great marketing partner who can create your content. You can focus on your job (as can your staff), and your partner will focus on creating remarkable content, which will make you look like a superhero. But use these tips to choose the right group. An effective partner can be invaluable to the success of your marketing goals. The wrong partner will get you nowhere, cost money, and even hurt your brand.
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