Content marketing: Is it time to call in the experts?

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Content fuels every marketing channel. Is it time to consider a content marketing agency to amplify your business' efforts?

Chances are, you are one of the marketers who woke up this morning and realized – once again – that you won’t have enough time to do everything you and your boss require. Not surprising, considering more than 50 percent of employees acknowledge that they are overwhelmed by how much work they have, according to the Families and Work Institute.

The more I speak to marketers, the more I hear about the growing gap between the amount of time they have and the volume of goals they seek to accomplish – but content marketing isn’t something that should fall by the wayside. It offers invaluable SEO advantages according to 92 percent of marketers, and content is increasingly becoming a top focus for lead generation.

On a recent call, one marketer told me he was hesitant to work with a third-party content agency even though his business had no in-house editorial expertise. Making an internal hire would have cost his company more money than entering a business partnership – and there was no guarantee that his hired content writer would be versed in SEO or possess social sharing know-how. As we discussed his reservations about using an agency, he conceded to the benefits of working with an external team that can provide strategic consultancy and manpower in an area where he lacked experience – and perhaps some of the insights I shared can be just as eye-opening for others who are on the fence about turning to outside content experts.

Marketing is more consuming, and every channel needs content

There is a proliferation of online channels where customers are interacting and engaging, making it essential to think about how to best reach prospects – on which channels, with what content and when. The basis of an integrated marketing communications strategy is targeted, fresh content that speaks to a particular audience member’s informational needs at the optimal time and on the appropriate channel. More than 50 percent of CMOs are ill-prepared  to face the challenge of increased collaboration with customers, and half don’t know how to measure clear ROI for marketing campaigns, according to a recent report from the IBM Institute for Business Value. Surveyed marketers say they are overwhelmed with channel and device choices, social media and data explosion. The study suggests “they will have to make fundamental changes to traditional methods of brand and product marketing” to remain competitive.

“Most of our site success is the [agency-produced] blog content … I’ve calculated the expenses, and it would cost us a lot more to do this internally.”

Barrett Riddleberger
CEO
Resolution Systems, Inc.

The multitude of channels that a person uses to obtain information can be mind-boggling. The constant flow of information makes it difficult for a marketer to remain fresh, relevant and engaging to the audiences that matter most. And advertising and promotion only goes so far in an era of storytelling and brand evangelism – Brafton has reported that branded content drives social engagement and content converts site visitors.

You should be getting ready to engage clients with compelling content wherever and whenever they are online, and it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have channel experts for every marketing medium in-house. The key is recognizing and appreciating the need for a comprehensive cross-platform approach. Strategic definition is a world apart from tactical execution, and while the two must go hand in hand in order to implement an integrated marketing communications strategy, you can find partners to execute certain elements on your behalf.

Working with Marketing Agencies: On its way to the new norm

As I’ve been speaking with marketers in a diverse assortment of industries, many are initially afraid of surrendering even partial control of their brands to an outsider, let alone an agency that’s outside of their geographic region. Worse, some are worried that they’re outsourcing their own job responsibilities. There’s no doubt that every marketer has, at some point, struggled to stimulate attention, interest, desire and action in a measurable, repeatable manner. But rather than shouldering this alone, you can’t underestimate the value of having an experienced and fresh pair of eyes on the brand and its accompanying marketing strategy – a school of thought that is slowly making its way mainstream.

As Brafton has reported, more than 40 percent of businesses are dedicating one-quarter of their marketing budgets to hiring third-party services. Fourteen percent of businesses spend 91 percent to 100 percent of their SEO budgets with agencies, compared to just 3 percent who did so in 2010. Marketers still need in-house talent to be able to service the accounts they’ve won, but today more and more are seeking outside expertise in order to achieve the marketing and acquisition goals they’ve set for 2012 and beyond.

Editorial investment rises

While content marketing is cited as a top strategy for both SEO and lead generation, nearly three-quarters of marketers say they struggle to produce original content in-house and/ or don’t have the time to do so. It’s understandable that 72 percent of businesses are investing in editorial talent this year - and not necessarily by making internal hires. With content becoming the fuel for cross-channel initiatives, businesses are looking for added editorial manpower and expert strategy to launch their campaigns and main competitive edges. Marketers are increasingly pointing to the need for more branded content, with dedicated budgets poised to exceed $12 billion, 75 percent saying they are investing more in blog creation (according to the latest Social Media Marketing Industry Report) and 59 percent investing in unique content specifically for social audiences.

CONTENT AGENCIES offer full-service solutions

In the current search landscape, where engines place emphasis on quality and relevant results, businesses have to strike the balance between demonstrable expertise, search and social optimization and high-quality editorial copy. This is something that came up at this year’s SMX East. As Brafton reported, the experts in attendance discussed Panda-proof content, agreeing that people with editorial experience should be tasked with writing site content. This makes sense – content that reads like it’s been written by a robot doesn’t do much to engage, whereas a dedicated brand journalist can add stylistic nuance and possesses a distinct storytelling capability.

Some of many signs it may be time to consider an agency include:

  • You aren’t sure what to say or how to identify prospects’ informational wants/ needs and addressing these issues with content
  • You struggle to update your web pages on a regular basis (which is good practice for SEO and for engaging site visitors)
  • You aren’t sharing any branded content with social fans and followers or are generally struggling to engage these audiences
  • The landing pages, blog posts, articles, etc, published on your site aren’t attracting organic traffic
  • The landing pages, blog posts, articles, etc, published on your site aren’t generating social shares
  • There’s no overarching strategy for content messaging and/ or keyword placement
  • You think you have good content, but aren’t seeing success in your metrics
  • You think you have good content, but aren’t sure how to measure its success

Reader-friendly content and SEO content are becoming one in and the same – and this seems to be a struggling point for businesses; a recent Forrester survey shows that just 3 percent of B2B companies think they “wow” prospects with content. A team of people professionals who research the subjects that matter to potential customers and then write about these issues in a compelling editorial style can help.

With an agency that’s a good fit, you get social-friendly work from professional content writers and the strategy to best leverage this content to drive leads across the web. The value of targeting, optimizing and distributing content can’t be underestimated – half of B2B firms believe they offer educational information, but just 14 percent think they’re able to position these stories to encourage purchases.

Creating content without an ever-growing understanding of the target audience, without knowledge of the overall objectives of the content marketing strategy and without direct visibility to the results is what I’ve heard called “content created for content’s sake.” An experienced content marketing agency can make all of the pieces work in synergy  - and if you make the decision to outsource, such an agency can provide a fuller picture of results than vendors who work piecemeal for each of the content-related elements of a marketing strategy. There are very few agencies who can own responsibility for the strategy, the cross-channel implementation and the analytics to justify your investment (of course, working for Brafton, I’d argue I know a good one…).

So what kinds of questions should you ask when you’re looking for an agency that is a fit for you?

Choosing the right agency brings the right results

In a down-economy era of  lean budgets and having to do more with less, outsourcing can be less expensive and arguably more effective than in-sourcing. Marketers have to be honest with themselves about their skill sets and what types of agencies can add value, especially considering the increased pressure from BoDs and executive teams for marketers to be quantifiably accountable for ROI.

You should create a checklist for assessing potential marketing partners, including criteria such as:

  • Does the agency have experience within your business’ industry?
  • What (realistic) results metrics will they show and how frequently?
  • Depending on the level of brand control you hope to retain, how much will you be involved in the process?
  • Depending on the amount of time you hope to save, how much autonomy can the agency take on?

Considering the buyer-centric, highly competitive nature of the outsourced marketing services arena, third-party firms are working increasingly hard to continuously earn your business (or they should!). After all, the goal of outsourcing your marketing activities is to achieve a more significant return on investment than in-sourcing. A good agency will also offer new solutions to build on successes as you develop your business relationship.

The process of selecting a service provider can be complicated if there are quite a few competitors in the space, especially when the firm of choice must complement a marketer’s internal team.  In order for these relationships to be successful, marketers need to have specific marketing objectives and metrics for each vendor, both qualitative and quantitative. But is the task of choosing an agency feels daunting, remember that they should be offering up metrics and ideas for your consideration: Inasmuch as you’re investing with a particular third party, this company should be investing in you.

Are you a marketer who works with third-party agencies? What roadblocks or benefits have you seen?

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Kimberly has an analytical mind and a creative spirit which she put to profitable use as a former Business Development Executive at Brafton. Backed by an MBA in Entrepreneurship from Bentley, she finds herself always in hot pursuit of tomorrow’s big idea.
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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    If you’re going to work with a third party agency, you need to trust them.  Sometimes clients just can’t “let go” and allow the agency to do the job that they’ve been hired to do.  If you can’t trust an outside agency, you will need to hire someone in house.  

    • Kimberly Waldbillig

      The key word here, Nick, is risk. In an ideal world, a
      marketer could remove all risk from a decision to outsource. Going the in-house
      route carries risk as well, especially when extrapolating the time delta
      between the new hire’s experience and their eventual performance, or between
      that hire’s current and eventual ability to leverage their resources and
      achieve the objectives set forth for them.

      Put more simply, one person may have more of a disposition
      for trust than the next. Marketing is a field unlike others that is
      traditionally internal and relationship-based. People are assets and time is
      valuable, and any third-party firm needs to provide a specific level of
      accountability in order to build the value of their time aside from their
      reputation.  To help the marketer control
      the collaboration, third-party agencies should have a set of standard operating
      procedures or even go so far as to add forms of contractual assurance to help
      mitigate the inherent variability of results.

      Beyond that, I’m convinced that at the end of the day people
      buy from people. Building trust in the early stages of discussions helps both
      sides to manage expectations and make the relationship a win for both
      businesses.