As content marketing leaps ‘the chasm’ and lands in Geoffrey Moore’s back garden, more and more marketers are on the lookout for a B2B content marketing agency that can make them famous. 

That’s a good thing. But almost every B2B agency out there is hurriedly carving a new ‘Content Marketing’ sign for their front door.

So it pays to have a think before you get yourself committed.

Reader Beware: taking advice on choosing a content marketing partner from a guy who works for a B2B content marketing agency is like asking Rupert Murdoch to hang on to your cellphone for a sec.

There just might be a hidden agenda somewhere.

But, in this case, no. Convincing you to let me write your next blog post or eBook really isn’t my motive. (Frankly, I don’t think I’d like you and I know you woudn’t like me).

I’ve been at the business end of a lot of agency searches and I really do believe marketers could use a few tips on finding the right content marketing partner. I promise not to make any of my tips self-serving things like ‘Make sure their agency name starts with a V.’

If you think I’m stacking the cards to win some business (or if I got it wrong or missed something) please correct my advice in the comments below. And a companion post from a client-side marketer would be a great addition to the conversation.

It’s about fit

Your search shouldn’t be about finding ‘the best’ content marketing agency. It should be about finding the right one for your company at this moment.

It seems stupidly obvious, but the single biggest source of failure in a content marketing relationship is simply a mis-match of cultures. Their idea of what good looks like is just fundamentally different from yours. So spending some time on your search will pay off. Here are my tips:

Look at their work (duh)

Ask to see a broad sampe of content and campaigns for a wide range of clients. Anyone can stumble into a great piece or two (that were actually conceived and heavily guided by the client). You need to see a pattern of:

  • Authenticity – each piece of content should feel like it comes from inside its market.
  • A point of view – great content takes a stand on an issue. Bland content just ‘explores’ issues.
  • Hitting the expertise ‘sweet spot’ – every client has an issue or a discipline where their expertise is undisputed. Great content works this zone and avoids topics where the client is just another voice.
  • Being really, really well-written – nothing matters more. You need to not only be able to read tot he end, you need to want to read to the end. This can be hard if you’re not the target audience, so pretend you are.
  • Being designed to sell the ideas – content design is under-valued. Great content design actively sells ideas to the reader. It makes your content open, inviting and easy to consume. it communicates the hierarchy of information so you always know where to look next.
  • Not being formulaic – every agency has some favourite approaches (We went through a ‘Ten Mistakes in…” phase) but if every piece is a ’14 Tips’ blog post or a talking-head video, you may be at the doors of a content factory. Great content rarely comes from factories.

Ask for whole case studies

Isolated peices can look great. You need to see a few cases with goals, strategies, tactics and outcomes.

Ask to see a content strategy

This stuff isn’t rocket science but success really does depend on a sound strategy that takes into account things like personas, buying triggers and buying stages. If you know exactly where you’re aiming, your chances of hitting the target tend to increase.

Your agency should help you aim before firing and you need to see evidence of that. (Don’t swallow the “our clients won’t let us share it” line. Non-competitive clients tend to give permission — and if not, it’s easy to anonymise a strategy.)

Think about your style

If you want to be human, open and a bit witty, make sure they can pull that off. If you’d prefer a rigorous academic style, make sure it comes naturally to your prospective partner.

If they have a distinctive house style, you may need to be careful: the art of content marketing depends on the ability to shape the content for the audience not just to push one thing to everyone. But if you know what voice you’re looking for, look for evidence they can write with that voice.

Think about depth

If you’re marketing wave-division multiplexing to mobile network technicians, you don’t need a clever copywriter with a great eye for puns. You need an articulate engineer.

Ask for evidence that they can go deep when necessary. Conversely, if you need to simplify your complex story, you want people who can boil things down.

Look for a bit of push-back

The last thing you need is an agency that takes dictation and spits back everything you told them. You need to know when your story feels weak or your arguments just aren’t convincing.

One of the most important things an agency brings to the content table is a fresh set of eyes. If you don’t like being challenged, you lose this value.

Check out their own content

The ‘cobbler’s children’ defence is a cop-out. Content marketing agencies have to practice what they preach. It’s the only way to really figure out what works.

Read their blog and ebooks and watch their videos; check out their YouTube channel, Twitter stream, SlideShare page and Prezi work. If they don’t do content marketing for themselves, be very suspicious.

If they don’t do it well... run.

Ask about promotion

Creating great content is only half the battle in content marketing. Getting it into the hands of your prospects is the other half. Ask about how they help clients promote their content.

If you’re already great at this, you might want to focus your partner on generating the content – but promotional techniques change, so an agency that’s good at it will still be an asset.

Ask about metrics

So if the first half of the battle is creating content and the second half is promoting it, the mythical third half is about measurement. The art and science of content analytics is evolving fast.

It doesn’t have to be fancy but your agency partner should at the very least be be comfortable with data if not downright addicted to it. Ask what metrics they tend to track in their content marketing campaigns and why.

Ask about lead nurturing

For most B2B marketing departments, marketing automation and lead nurturing are critical parts of content marketing success. Your agency ought to be able to help you set up a rigorous llead nurturing process — or at least be able to feed your existing one.

That means understanding the purchase stages your buyers go through, mapping content to each stage and tracking each lead’s progress through it. Yes, you can use a different consultancy to do this but your content partner needs to be able to speak the language. No piece of content is an island.

Look at SEO performance

You don’t have to take an agency’s word on how well their content performs at the altar of the Google God. You just have to plug the keyphrases into your browser. For most cllients, search is a hugely important part of content marketing.

You want an agency that understands how content drives search rankings and doesn’t just leave that to the SEO specialists. (A cheeky test: see how the agency does itself on their own key search terms.)

Meet the writers

It’s essential to have a good relationship with the account people — and they’ll no doubt be involved in winning your business – but the writers are the ones who will harvest your company’s expertise and turn it into content. You need to know you’re on the same wavelength You also need to be confident about exposing them to some of your company’s most important people.

Don’t over-value industry experience

If you narrow your search to agencies that have years of widget experience, you may find very few to talk to. Domain expertise is over-rated. What really matters is a demonstrable ability to learn a new market quickly and to really get a handle on the issues that shape that market. 

Agencies depend on the expertise and experience of the client. When that’s matched with the agency’s communications and content expertise, it can be magic. But you don’t really need someone who has spent years with claims processing companies or whatever. (This is NOT an excuse for an agency to skim along the surface. Just don’t expect the essential dive-down to have already happened before you start working together).

Ask about capacity and speed of delivery

Because it’s a lumpy business, content marketing agencies tend to use freelance talent to flex up to meet demand. So just looking for bodies isn’t the key thing.

Ask to see a few editorial calendars they’ve executed against. That will show not just how much content they can generate but also how quickly.

If you really need a firehose of content all the time you may want to ask yourself why (in our experience less content that’s better conceived and promoted tends to out-perform sheer volume) — but if that’s really what you need, find a partner that can create excellent content at scale.

Don’t be afraid to commit

This point is admittedly a bit self-serving but it does make sense: content marketing isn’t like the old-style, ‘fire and forget’ campaigns. You need a sustained program with a rhythmic ‘create-promote-measure’ cadence.

If you want an agency to commit to helping you do this, commit to the agency. Give them a contract with enough visibility to let them reserve capacity for you. You want planners, account people, writers and designers who understand your market, company and brand.

Giving your agency some commitment allows them to build the team and keep it together.

Look for the F word

Content marketing ought to be one of the most fun things you do in your job. Your agency should enjoy the hell out of it. If there’s no joy there – no sense of play or experimentation – move on.

That’s what I think anyway.

These are the things I would do if I were a B2B marketer and I needed a really good, long-term content marketing partner. If I’ve left things out or distorted the picture, please add your thoughts below.

For the record: there are LOTS of excellent B2B agencies out there who can do content well. Your own likelihood of fiinding the right one and getting great work out of them comes down to how much you put into the search and the ongoing relationship.