Is content a DIY project, or is it a job better left to professionals?
Major brands want to create content marketing in-house. A couple of years ago I conducted research and asked major organizations such as Nestlé, GE, Adobe, IBM, and Coca-Cola what their preference was. Do it yourself, or farm it out to an agency? Everyone -- 100 percent -- of the executives I spoke with said their preference is in-house.
Their own staff know the company, the products, the culture, the brand, and the voice better than any outside handler ever could. But there's another cold reality: resources. Few brands have the staff, time, and tools to meet all their content marketing demands internally.
There's no shortage of agencies of all stripes that are eager to land your content business -- ad agencies, PR agencies, "storytelling" agencies, PR agencies, content marketing shops, publishers' in-house "content studios." Service providers who are more than happy to create content for you are popping up like mushrooms after a strong rainfall.
The trend really picked up momentum a couple of years ago when, in the PR sector alone (just to pick one of these verticals at random) Weber Shandwick launched Mediaco and Porter Novelli birthed PNConnect In early 2014, Waggener Edstrom created Content360. The momentum is still going. FleishmanHillard unveiled FH ContentWorks, a global initiative. And at Cannes last week, the unlikely bedfellows of WPP's Group SJR teamed with Snapchat, the Daily Mail to launch the latest and most questionably-named shop, Truffle Pig.
What should you look for when engaging a content marketing agency? There are many criteria to consider. Here are the primary ones.
Why do you want an outside agency?
Content creation? Technical expertise you lack in-house (e.g., video production or mobile app development)? Strategy development? There are myriad reasons -- nailing yours down will help to limit and focus the range of candidates.
Don't expect them to be peers in the knowledge sector, but they should possess a fundamental understanding of your vertical and/or industry, audience, region, or other individual criteria that are essential to your strategy. At the very least, they should be great listeners who are genuinely interested in you, not just the job.
Strategy before tactics
If a documented content strategy doesn't already exist, you need one in hand (or to commission one) before diving into tactics with an outside provider. If you need to create one, make sure you choose an agency with a proven capability for developing strategic frameworks.
Reminder: "You need a Facebook page" is not a strategy. It's a tactic.
Are the cobbler's children wearing shoes?
Does the company practice what it preaches? Look at its own content marketing: the quality, quantity, channels, and responses to it. Its dedication to both strategy and practice will be demonstrated if it is as dedicated to content marketing as it likely claims to be.
Relevant case studies
Request them and evaluate them. Discuss them with the firm. Even if they don't reflect your industry or vertical, the shop should help you to understand how they relate to your issues.
Talk with current and former clients
References matter. A reluctance to put you in touch with former (or current) clients also speaks volumes.
What are the success criteria?
Any plan or proposal should be accompanied by success criteria and key performance indicators (KPIs). How will the plan be measured? What indicates success? Look for metrics that impact business results (e.g., increased leads, revenue, shorter sales cycle), not mere volume metrics (30,000 likes!).
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