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Content Marketing: What to consider before you outsource

Rebecca Lieb
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This article first appeared in Marketing Land on Jan 20, 2015.

How many major brands want to create their content marketing in-house? One hundred percent.  That isn’t a made-up statistic. This was an actual finding a couple of years ago when I was conducting content marketing research, interviewing senior executives from over 50 brands such as Nestlé, GE, Adobe, IBM and Coca-Cola.

The next finding was even more interesting. We asked these brands what type of agency they were likely to select for content creation: an ad agency, PR agency, social media agency, or one of the much smaller breed of storytelling agency (e.g., Story Worldwide) when they did outsource.

Once again, a result was universal. While responses were divided more or less equally among the shops they would consider, some 95 percent of these executives said social media shops would not be considered candidates. “Too boutique-y” “too trendy” were the top reasons provided.

There’s no shortage of agencies of all stripes that are eager to get your content business. In addition to the aforementioned flavors, there are also the custom content divisions at established publishing brands, as well as more channel-specific tactical expertise from any number of companies that formerly branded themselves as email or search engine marketing providers, but are now in the content marketing business. Finally, of course, there’s no shortage of smaller, more local content marketing agencies.

The trend really picked up momentum around 2013 when, in the PR sector alone (just to pick one of these verticals at random) Weber Shandwick launched Mediaco, Porter Novelli birthed PNConnect. In early 2014, Waggener Edstrom created Content360. The momentum is still going strong – at CES just this month, FleishmanHillard unveiled FH ContentWorks, a global initiative. (As an analyst covering content marketing, I’ve worked with Edelman, Ketchum and their clients on content marketing training and initiatives).

So what should you look for when engaging a content agency? There are many criteria you should 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.

Industry/Vertical Expertise

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 & 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!).