As the person in charge of marketing a business, you are well familiar with the marketing funnel that starts at the top with awareness and brings potential customers down the funnel to converting into a customer or client.

It’s often portrayed this way:

Source: Skyword

You also know that it is hard to get people to move through that funnel! Without content that hits them at every stage in the funnel, your conversion rates will suffer and your business will not grow.

The SEO world will often talk about “content marketing”, which is usually little more than an updated term for link building. Old SEO and link building agencies produce content that they then use to build links and drive organic traffic.

And that’s great, because it feeds the organic channel to help the business grow.

But this doesn’t go nearly far enough because it collapses something large like content marketing into something smaller.

Content marketing is defined thus:

a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

Source: Google

When you think about it that way, content marketing is MUCH bigger than content that you can use to build links to.

True content marketing approaches the creation of content from the perspective of the marketing funnel and uses content effectively to bring the customer down the funnel.

With that in mind, how do you hire an effective content marketing firm who won’t just use it to build backlinks (though that can be a good thing to do for SEO) but actually use it to bring your potential customers down the funnel?

In this article you will learn the following:

  1. What content marketing looks like
  2. Questions to ask content marketing firms
  3. How to structure a content marketing engagement
  4. Red flags when hiring a content marketing firm

Let’s get started.

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What content marketing looks like

Content marketing is more than just renamed “link building. While content marketing does have many advantages for SEO, it is much more than just a rebranded SEO endeavor.

Content marketing is a strategic approach to generating content for your business that will help you reach new and existing potential customers so that you can convert and/or retain more of them as or to customers.

Content marketing involves two parts:

  1. Content
  2. Marketing

It may seem obvious, but just creating content is not doing content marketing. And just creating content like “how to” guides or blog posts is not content marketing.

That is content creation, and without a call to action it’s simply informational content and not marketing content.

To turn it into content marketing, you have to do marketing!

Content marketing involves two things:

  1.  Producing content that meets the user’s needs in a format that resonates with them;
  2. Using that content to generate leads/traffic to then affect your bottom line.

Too often, I see businesses producing content but not really measuring it and not understanding how content is contributing to their bottom line.

Content marketing is not about just producing content! It is about producing content that moves your business forward!

Questions to ask content marketing firms

If you’ve determined that content marketing could move the needle for your business and you’re speaking with a content marketing company, you’re probably wondering how to vet them properly to determine who to hire.

There are many questions you can ask, but there are really only five (5) that you must ask in order to properly gauge their capabilities.

These are:

  1. Do you have experience in our vertical?
  2. Who will be researching and creating the content, and what is their background?
  3. How much content will you produce in a month?
  4. How will you measure success?
  5. When will we review results and how will you report?

Let’s go through each of these and talk about what you ask it and what you should look for.

Do you have experience in our vertical? – When you’re engaging in content marketing, you need to be the expert. If you have someone writing for you around the topics that your customers know inside and out, that writer needs to know the content themselves. A true expert (aka your customer) will be able to sniff from a mile away that you’re not using the verbiage they use or referencing sites and people they know. Well written marketing content, just like well written copy, is the best conversion driver.

Who will be researching and creating the content, and what is their background? – You ask this question to learn about the firm’s recruiting process and how they think about putting the right writers or content creators on your project. You’re assessing how well they are able to hire so that if the person assigned to your project leaves (or gets fired) you can trust that the quality of the work you’re receiving will not suffer.

How much content will you produce in a month? – This one is kind of a trick question because content marketing success isn’t necessarily based off quantity of content. You want to understand how they think about content, and if they’re just rattling off numbers of content instead of tying it back to an overall strategy, you should avoid that company. At the same time, you should have your expectations set for how often you’ll need to publish or expect content to be delivered.

How will you measure success? – Just like the above, you need to make sure your firm is working towards your business goals and not just invoicing you for content created that doesn’t move the needle. While they should be hitting their goals of the content they told you they would produce, they should also be helping you understand the value you are receiving from it.

When will we review results and how will you report? – Every engagement should have a review time set in advance to look at the work that was done, provide feedback on both sides, and look at results achieved during that time. Along the way and between these check-ins, the firm should be reporting their efforts to you as well as important metrics that moved and adjustments in strategy being made to achieve the goals set forth.

How to structure a content marketing engagement

Marketing is not a one-and-done thing. You don’t “do my blogging” and then never go back to it. You don’t “do my SEO” and then not revisit it. You don’t stop pitching press with press-worthy stories.

Marketing never stops.

That said, there is a right and a wrong way to go about hiring a content marketing firm and engaging with them. And the right way for you to do it will be different from a business with a different team, market, and experience level from yours.

If you’ve never invested in content marketing, pay for strategy first

If you’ve never engaged in content marketing before, you should begin with a strategy.

Too many companies under-invest in strategy and over-invest in doing things.

In fact, you will probably see firms out there who offer to do the strategy for free if you sign a retained contract.

As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.

If an airplane takes off and they are 1 degree off course the entirety of their flight, are they going to arrive at their destination?

No. Just being one degree off course will have that airplane hundreds of miles (if not more) away from where they want to be.

It’s the same with marketing or any efforts you are doing. If you don’t know where you are going and why you are going there, how can you be sure that the efforts you are doing will get you to your ultimate goal?

So, if this is you and you’ve never invested in content marketing before, you should begin with what people in the industry call a content strategy.

A content strategy should involve:

  • Customer research
  • Competitor research
  • Gap analysis
  • Topic research
  • Content type research and recommendations

A good content strategy will come away with more than just a list of topics that you should write about. Years ago I wrote a post that I still stand by called A Blog Is Not A Content Strategy, which I still stand behind, because I was seeing too many companies just invest in blog content and not other content.

A good content strategy will help you devise a plan for creating content across your website and company that is on-brand, on message, and helps you build the company.

It will and should involve editorial content as well! But don’t forget that there are two parts to content marketing:

  1. Content
  2. Marketing

Producing the right content is important, but if you’re not using that content to grab audience and customers then it’s just informational content.

Marketing content captures leads, captures emails, and captures customers and encourages them to go deeper.

If you have invested before, commit to it

If you have a content strategy that you are comfortable with and that is working, then working with a content marketing firm can help you take it to the next level.

Usually, a company that has invested in content marketing in the past has done so because the founder/CEO creates content (this is Credo’s case) and has become too busy to keep producing and marketing content at the level needed to sustain growth.

As already established, content marketing isn’t a one-and-done thing. So you need to decide to embrace and invest in it into the future while putting growth goals against it and measuring as you go.

It takes time to produce a piece of content that is going to move the needle on your business. A good piece of content that is a few thousand words long with lists, images, quotes, and more can take upwards of 10-15 hours to produce well.

And then, you need to promote it. Content marketing experts like Ross Simmonds of Foundation Inc say:

Content promotion is what will take your content production to the next level, and is where it truly turns into content marketing because you are accessing a new audience to then turn into customers, or at least leads that you can then take down your conversion funnel with more content or other channels.

“So how long of an engagement should I agree to?” might be the question you’re bringing up now.

Well, like most things in life, it depends.

It depends on the strategy, the opportunity, your budget, and more.

But to give general guidance, I’d say to commit to at minimum a three (3) month initial engagement to make sure that you work together well, that content is being produced and outreach/promotion are being done, and to give it enough time to start showing some results. We recommend that if you do this, then commit to an ongoing retainer relationship with a 30 day notice of cessation of services.

Ideally you’ll commit to a six (6) month arrangement as that gives even more time to see traction, customers, and leads coming from your efforts. Then go into an ongoing retainer with a 30 day out.

The worst thing you can do here is invest too little for too short of a time only to not see results and to then conclude that “content marketing doesn’t work for us”.

It does and it can. But you have to give it time.

Red flags when hiring a content marketing firm

All of this said, there are some major red flags that you should watch for when hiring a content marketing firm.

They are, in no particular order:

  1. No good answer about results they’re measuring
  2. Lack of transparency into anything
  3. No reporting
  4. No interest in a cohesive strategy before beginning
  5. No subject/matter expertise

Let’s look at each individually. Any one of these should be a major red flag and enough to cease discussions with them about potential work.

No good answer about results they’re measuring

Any time you’re doing something for your business, it should be to move a major metric forward. The thing you’re doing might be sending t-shirts to people, but the metric is word of mouth referrals.

Got it?

Now, if your content marketing firm is just talking about the things that they will do but they are not tying it back to the results that you are looking to move in a positive direction, then you should walk away.

Let me be clear: they should absolutely talk about the things that they will do. They should also talk about the metrics that they will report on and be moving forward with content. They should also tie the strategy back to those metrics.

Lack of transparency into anything

If you ask your prospective firm something like “who will be creating content for our account” and they tell you “that’s proprietary” or something similar, then you need to walk away quickly.

Your firm should let you see under the hood. They should teach you what they’re doing and why. You should understand what they’re doing so that you can properly support them in being successful.

No reporting

If they’re writing and promoting content for you but not reporting on the metrics or even the things they’ve done, then you need to walk away.

The way to avoid this is to ask them up front in the discovery and sales process how they report and how often you can expect reports.

Note: we require monthly reporting through the Credo platform.

Make sure it’s written in the contract. Then, if they don’t deliver, you can hold them in breach and lean on them to do it because otherwise you’re taking your business elsewhere and they may face legal ramifications.

No interest in a cohesive strategy before beginning

I said this on Twitter:

I stand by it. If you’re only investing in “doing things” but are doing them without a strategy then you will likely end up way off course.

No subject/matter expertise

Finally, if they’re producing content for your business they need to understand your space. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that the person or team creating content for you has subject/matter experience.

That said, many agencies have research teams whose job it is to research your space and come up with ideas and topics that will fly and be able to spread. Those people don’t necessarily need subject/matter expertise (though it does help). What they need is a rock-solid process for discovery, research, and reviewing it with you before any work is done.

In that case, you are the subject/matter expert.

What other questions do you have about hiring a content marketing firm?