The Startup's Guide to Hiring a
Content Agency

Hiring a content agency is a significant undertaking. For those who aren’t entirely sure what to look for and how to maximize the return on that investment, it can be daunting.

That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll break down the most important things a startup or small business leader should consider when deciding to hire a content agency, including: 

  • How to get started with content marketing
  • Deciding whether it’s time for your startup to outsource
  • Weighing all your outsourcing (and insourcing) options
  • Choosing a content agency that’s the best fit
  • Maximizing your return on investment
  • Growing the relationship with your content agency

About the Author

Timothy Wier - Founder

Timothy is a prolific content marketer with experience working with startups, small companies, nonprofits, agribusinesses, tech companies, and more. A creative writer at heart, Timothy has written blogs, eBooks, guides, pillar pages, landing pages, websites, video scripts, interviews, podcast scripts, social media posts, email newsletters, white papers, fundraising letters, grant proposals, digital & print ad copy, press releases, and much more. He writes thousands of words per day, in addition to managing the day-to-day operations of FEARLESS, and is passionate about helping startups and SMBs reach their goals through content that establishes them as leaders in their industry and among their customer base.

There’s a reason every startup wants to engage in content marketing.  When companies start to create and post content on their website and social media, they start to see the following results:

  • 7.8x more web traffic than companies who don’t create content
  • 67% more leads than companies who don’t create content
  • Increased brand authority 
  • Improved search engine results

And beyond that, content marketing costs 62% less than other lead gen activities. 

But 62% of businesses want to capitalize on this opportunity not through their in-house marketing teams, but through outsourcing through a content marketing agency or other independent content professional. 

If you’re part of that 62 percent, then you’re in the right place! 

This guide will walk through the process of finding, evaluating, and hiring a content agency so you can realize those results mentioned above. 

But before we get into that process, you should consider starting out by leveraging your internal resources to create content. This may be a more appropriate first step, before bringing in someone from the outside to help. 

This chapter will explain why that’s the case, and give you some tips for making it happen. 

The Advantages of Creating Your Own Content

When companies want to invest in content marketing for the first time, the best advice I can give is this:

Start out by creating your own content. Only then will you be ready to outsource. 

This may seem counter-intuitive, so let me explain why this is so important. 

By nature of the fact that you actively listen to and serve your industry, you have a wealth of knowledge  to leverage in your content:

  • If you’re the founder, you’ve been listening to and responding to the market since long before your company was formed
  • If you’re in marketing, you’re listening to customers, competitors, and thought leaders in your space through your marketing channels 
  • If you’re in sales or customer success, you’re on the front lines and hear directly your customers’ questions, needs, problems, and pain

There’s a gold mine of industry experience and expertise for you to leverage. If you create your own marketing content, you can quickly and easily tap into it.

Most people are intimidated by creating content because of external expectations. They expect their content to compare to the giants in their industry, while realizing that’s not a reasonable expectation for their company.

But to tell you the truth, it doesn’t really matter. The number one metric of content quality is whether or not it addresses an issue or answers a question that your audience is actually interested in. 

That’s it. 

You don’t need a big operation to do that. In fact, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on content marketing services before you’ve firmly established a clear message and started to develop a content marketing strategy could be detrimental. 

Here’s a quick video where I explain why:

If you’re unsure as to whether you’re capable of creating your own content without outside help, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you write a descriptive email answering a customer question? If so, then you can write a short blog post.
  • Can you call a prospect and describe to them what you do and where you fit in the market? If so, then you can record an audio podcast.
  • Can you deliver a presentation over a video call? If so, then you can record and post a video on Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Now, there’s no substitute for having professional creatives creating and deploying your content. The question is: are you in a position to best leverage their unique skills and talents?

Starting out by creating your own content is a great first step to figure all that out. 

What All Does Content Creation Entail? 

Before we go any further, it makes sense that we should take a moment and define what all goes into content creation. 

The best way to think of it is not as a single task, but a process that involves multiple jobs and multiple skill sets. Here’s a quick overview: 

Ideation. Carefully select topics so you’re focusing exclusively on the questions your audience is asking and the things they’re interested in. 

Research. Substantiate your claims, find out what other thought leaders are saying, and see whether there’s a unique perspective you could take that makes you stand out. 

Outlining. Organize your collective thoughts and gather feedback before putting full sentences and paragraphs onto the page. 

Writing (or recording). Actually create the content.

Editing. Don’t just edit for grammar and punctuation, but clarity, logic, and relevance to your audience. 

Promoting. Spend more time distributing the content over social media and other channels than you do creating it. 

Analysis. Look at the quantitative metrics like engagement rates, bounce rates, & time on page, as well as the qualitative information like what people are saying in the comments. 

Repurposing. Make every piece of content go farther by repurposing them for use in other channels, including visual content or video production. 

Here’s a video explaining how we create content at FEARLESS as an example of what goes into content marketing. 

If you have a small team, understanding content marketing as a process involving multiple skill sets means that each team member can pitch in, lending their unique skills to the process. 

How Frequently Should You Publish Content?

The more you publish, the more attention you’ll get. So how frequently should you publish content? 

As intimidating as it sounds, that’s why you should publish content as frequently as possible.

Consider the following graphic from HubSpot’s 2015 State of Inbound report:

HubSpot - blog post impact on inbound traffic

The more content you have on your website (blogs, webpages, and other), the more traffic you’ll get from inbound marketing. 

Getting to that volume of content – and realizing those results – takes time:

  • HubSpot saw significant traffic growth six months after they started their content marketing, and it was only much later that the effects compounded.
  • BuzzStream’s research-heavy content generated an explosion in social shares and features on other sites within nine months. 
  • Ebay’s domain authority started to see significant growth only after two years of consistent, quality content marketing. 

So the faster you publish, the faster you’ll get there. 

Plus, there are other benefits as well:

  • More sales touches. It takes anywhere from 7 to 13 touches in order for a prospect to become a true lead. Every post that a prospect reads is a touch. So in a sense, it is a numbers game. 
  • Set audience expectations. If you publish a blog post every week, you’ll train your audience to expect one at that time. on Mondays and Thursdays, that’s when your audience is going to expect you to deliver them. There’s no way to build this anticipation when you post infrequently.
  • More topics to address. The more you post, the more topics you can talk about, simply because there’s more “real estate,” as it were. 
  • Accelerated results. Each piece of content is a tool that simultaneously attracts leads, entices them to convert, nurtures them along the buyer’s journey, and continues to educate after they become a customer. The more you publish, the faster you’ll achieve each of these goals.

Start creating. Start posting. Start generating valuable content and listening to audience feedback

If you want to get started in content marketing, the best piece of advice I can give you is this:  Just start.

In the early days of a startup, time is an overvalued commodity.  Every minute matters.

When you work for a large company, it’s okay if things sometimes fall through the cracks, or if someone has limited productivity for a time. There’s an entire team to hold everyone up. 

But in a startup, that’s not the case. 

Time is valuable. And you’re responsible for investing that time in the best way possible. 

Everything you do must drive the revenue growth you need to get to the next fiscal year or the next round of funding. The copy for your website, the contents of your blog, the posts you put on social media, all of them can contribute to both short- and long-term revenue goals:

  • Building brand awareness around both your company and your products by keeping your company top of mind
  • Generating new leads by attracting your potential customers and offering them the opportunity to convert
  • Educating both prospects and customers on product offerings through demonstration of use cases and other promotional materials
  • Nurturing current customers to keep them engaged and, hopefully, convince them to spend more money in the future.  

The benefits of content marketing are clear. But that doesn’t remove the barrier of execution, especially if your team consists only of a handful of people. 

One way to help eliminate this barrier is through outsourcing. This chapter will help you figure out whether outsourcing your content, whether through a content agency or freelancer, is the right choice for your startup at this time. 

The Pros and Cons of Outsourcing Your Content

The decision to outsource your content may seem easy. 

You want to grow, scale, and improve the value of the content you create. Bringing in someone to help do those things seems like the obvious choice.

But here are a few other factors to consider:

  • Any content outsourcing requires you to build and maintain a relationship with a third party, which requires work on your part
  • You’re bringing in people who are not acquainted with your business or necessarily your market, meaning that you’ll have to take time to educate them
  • Your content defines your brand, so you really don’t want to leave that entirely in the hands of a third party

Outsourcing your content production isn’t just an easy, “set it and forget it” decision. If you aren’t ready to put in that work, then it may not be time to outsource. 

It’s good to think through the pros and cons and make the choice that’s best for where your startup is right now. 

Expertise

Pro: You can leverage your agency’s content production expertise. Bringing on someone who can help improve your production value in these areas can help take your business to the next level. 

Con: Your content agency will lack industry knowledge. Although your content agency will be an expert in content production, they’ll lack deep knowledge of your customers and business. 

Time

Pro: You’ll save time in the long run. Ultimately, it’s a question of math. When you leverage a third party, you can create more content in less time. 

Con: You need to invest time in the relationship. You will need to get your content agency up to speed on your business, customers, and industry. 

Scale

Pro: An agency can help you produce more content at scale. The more you post, the more likely you are to reach your audience, and the quicker you’ll learn about what they’re specifically interested in. 

Con: Scale has a cost. Many agencies charge either by the hour or by the project. You need to be prepared to pay for scale if you want it. 

Quality

Pro: A content agency has a higher production value. Your audience is the ultimate arbiter of whether your content is high-quality or not. That said, having a cleanly edited video or a headline that pops off the page certainly doesn’t hurt. 

Con: A content agency may struggle with the ultimate metric of quality. An agency simply won’t have the experience with your audience that you have, meaning that they may struggle with creating highly relevant content. 

Price

Pro: A content agency is a long-term investment. Since content marketing is a long-term play, then your investment in your agency is going to be a long-term play as well. Over time, as the relationship grows and you build up your assets and audience, that relationship will pay off over the long term.

Con: A content agency requires a monthly financial commitment. While it’s true you get what you pay for, for startups, sometimes having that money to pay in the first place can be a challenge. That means you have to really do some work on whether this will generate a return and how quickly that’s going to happen. 

Should You Outsource Your Content Marketing?

With those pros and cons in mind, the next question to ask is: are you ready to outsource?

You know your company better than anyone else. Even if you can’t produce at the same level that a content agency can, you start to get an idea of what your audience responds to and the results your content drives. 

Once you start directing your marketing team to create and post content, the wheels are going to start spinning. 

You’re going to come up with ideas. Your team’s going to start coming up with ideas. Your salespeople will come up with ideas based on conversations with customers. Your product team will come up with ideas based on what they think buyers need to know to get the most out of the product.

Best case scenario, you’re going to have so many topics that you need to address, and not enough time to create that content. That’s not a sign that you’re failing or struggling, but actually moving in the direction of growth.

If you have a list of topics that you feel like you’ll never catch up on no matter how much your team is able to work on them, that’s a sign that you need someone to come in and help. 

The conventional wisdom out there says that if you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, outsource it. Once you grow to the point where this is a financial option, then it’s something you should consider. 

As you grow and build your audience — and start bringing in revenue — there will be an expectation that the quality of your brand and content will grow as well. 

There’s a lot in terms of creative work that virtually anyone can do if they scrap it together. You can write blogs, create some basic graphics, get started with social media marketing, record short, low production value videos and podcasts. 

But if you want to step up the value, you need to bring in people who are experts in these areas — whether they be writers, graphic designers, producers, search engine experts, or content managers. 

Freelancers. Agencies. Copymills. In-house hires.

If you want to start creating content and need to bring in someone to help, there are plenty of options available to you.

But each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to audit your company to figure out exactly what you need before you bring one of them one.

This chapter will cover these options to help you figure out the right one. We’ll cover:

  • The difference between content writers and copywriters, and why you shouldn’t go to a copywriting firm for your inbound marketing content
  • Looking at an in-house content writer and where your company needs to be before you consider that option
  • The ups and downs of working with freelancers
  • How to know whether a content agency is your best option

When considering all these options, you should always ask: do they provide value to us, and are we in a position to take advantage of that value?

If the answer to both is yes, then you’ve picked a good option.

Why You Need a Content Writer, Not Just a Copywriter

When businesses start outsourcing their content marketing, they often look for a copywriter, even though content writing vs. copywriting are different skill sets.

If you’re looking for someone to write clever and enticing ad copy, you should go for a copywriter. But if you want to establish your company as an authority in your industry and drive leads and purchases from your website, then you need a content writer.

What’s the big difference? And why is it important?

A helpful, albeit simplistic, way to distinguish the two is that content writing is all about substance, while copywriting is about style:

  • A content writer will be focused with answering audience questions, educating your audience on your business and products, and engaging and helping them along the buyer’s journey.
  • A copywriter will be focused on catching your audience’s attention, communicating in your brand’s personality, and enticing them to take that next step.

Like graphic designers and video producers, writers are often lumped into the “creative” category. But content writers are unique in that they’re not only creatives, but also marketers.

Much like brand managers who function both as a designers and brand strategists, content writers function both as writers but also marketing strategists, constantly thinking about the value and the overall strategy behind what they’re writing.

Just like your marketing team, content writers are going to be engaging in the following activities:

  • Learning the key questions your audience and customers are asking
  • Discussing the subject matter with your founders or executives and other experts in the company
  • Continually growing in their understanding of the business
  • Understanding the competitor dynamics to not only point out competitor flaws, but also bringing up key differentiators where appropriate
  • Growing in understanding of the industry to keep aware of trends to address in the content

One major and rather obvious difference between a content writer and a copywriter is that a content writer is not going to be interested in advertising or promotion. They’ll be focused instead on that content that is educational and engaging. The purchase decision is something that’ll come later on down the line. 

Don’t take this to mean that content writers don’t write about products, or that all they create is top-of-funnel, awareness-stage content. In fact, content writers who are conscious of ROI are going to go after those bottom-of-funnel questions to engage buyers who are closer to making a purchase. 

But that means that you won’t be seeing a “Buy Now” sticker or 20% OFF coupon from a content writer. Nor would you want to. That’s not where they shine.

If your primary objective is advertising and promotion, then by all means, bring on a copywriter. But if you want to move beyond that and build a brand that has authority and weight in your industry, bring on a content writer who can do the necessary work to grow that aspect of your business.

A Full-Time Hire May Be a Ways Away.

Every startup founder is thinking about their next hire or series of hires. So when you start to invest in content marketing, it makes sense that hiring a full-time content writer would be on the brain. 

While most companies are content (no pun intended) to rely on agencies and other vendors for their content creation and marketing, an in-house content writer gives you value that you won’t get from outsourcing:

  • They can create more authentic and organic content because of their proximity to the business
  • They can be more agile and adaptive to changes in your priorities because your startup is their sole client
  • They (likely) can create content faster because they’re an integrated part of the marketing team and in the loop as to the goings on of the business
  • They will be more collaborative with you and the rest of your team for the same reason mentioned above

Sounds great, right? Of course, this requires that you bring on someone at the time when your startup is best positioned to take advantage of them. 

Content writers don’t work in a vacuum. All other things being equal, your writer should function as an integrated component of your overall marketing team. 

Even though content writers have general marketing expertise, they’re still creative specialists. The surrounding team will need to help them deploy the content, analyze its performance, or direct the overall content creation effort against the business’ overarching strategy. 

If you don’t have this team in place already, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of the content writer’s specialized skills in the most impactful way:

  • Excellently executed content isn’t helpful if it isn’t contributing to the overall business goals
  • Carefully crafted content won’t do any good if it’s not promoted and, thus, no one sees it
  • Lead-generating content won’t contribute to the bottom line if there isn’t a sales team to follow through on those leads

Any activity you engage in as a startup should have its own return on investment, whether in the short or long term. That includes content marketing. 

Without a team to capitalize on the benefits they bring, hiring a full-time content marketer won’t generate the return you’re hoping for.

A corollary to this is that if you have a marketing team, then you also must have a well-defined marketing strategy:

  • To discover what to write about, they need to know how you want your startup to be perceived, who you your ideal customer is and, by extension, what topics they might be interested in.
  • To discover how frequently to publish content, they need to know how many internal resources you’re directing toward content to develop a reasonable plan of execution.
  • To discover what positions to take on controversial topics, they need to know how your startup is positioned among competitors and other players in the industry. 
  • To discover how well the content is performing, they need to know your objectives for success so they can pick the right metrics to measure. This involves having the right tools, including analytics software and a content management system. 

If you don’t have answers to these questions, your content writer will be working in the dark. They won’t maximize success, and could end up hurting the business by saying the wrong thing. 

Plus, they (and you) won’t know whether it’s “working” or not, simply because no one has established or communicated what success looks like. 

Finally, and I’ll be blunt about this, but you should only hire a full-time writer if you can pay them well. 

There’s the quality aspect of it. The more you pay, the more likely you’ll get someone with the skills and experience to deliver results. 

But it’s more than that. 

The breathing room that comes from having some margin in the balance sheets generates patience, which is critical for a successful content marketing operation. 

Putting too much pressure on a content writer to “talk about our products” or “generate more leads” can actually do more harm than good in the long run, as it will give people a negative taste toward your brand. 

Instead, hire a content writer when you have enough security to give them the space to work. That way, they can focus on the long-term content strategies that are going to contribute to the success of your business.

To Freelance or Not to Freelance? 

Good freelancers can be the best of both worlds. 

Their subject matter expertise and experience means they’ll give you high-quality content consistently. And their independence makes them a lower risk and more agile than a content agency or full-time hire.

So if your startup is ready to outsource your content marketing, hiring a freelance content writer may be a solid choice. 

It’s true that working with a freelancer won’t be perfect. There are some challenges that can arise, especially in the early days. They may not “get” your business as quickly as a fully immersed hire. They may be a little too informal compared to an agency. 

In fact, there may be days when you wish you just wrote the content yourself. 

But for all the potential issues that can arise, there are some of the unique benefits that only a freelancer can give to you.

We’ve all heard Facebook’s mantra, “move fast and break things.” And while, yes, you want to move fast, each thing you break has a cost. That cost could be time, reputation, or potential revenue. 

So while they should start executing as soon as possible, they should also take the time to learn about your business before going full speed ahead.

If you’re in the early stage of your startup, tactical execution is the name of the game. After you make sure your content writer knows the basics of your business and your customers, there’s not much else you need to do to start executing. 

That’s not to diminish the role of content strategy. Creating a formalized brand voice process, generating a fully fledged strategy, fighting for highly competitive keyword rankings — that’s all important. 

But the quickest way to find out how to do that is to execute and, more importantly, examine and analyze the results of each campaign. 

And as you grow and your focus shifts to scale, you can use those insights to build a more formulated strategy

Also: compared to the hefty cost of a full agency or the investment (both monetary and not) in a full-time hire, freelancers are relatively inexpensive. 

If you want to expand your content marketing activities but are on a tight budget, a freelancer may be the right choice for you.

But it’s not just the budget that makes a freelancer low-risk:

  • You’re not committing to a long-term relationship, at least not initially.
  • You can evaluate the freelancer on a piece-by-piece basis, making short-term, tactical adjustments that don’t require you to wait until you fulfill a contract. 
  • You can figure out the best ways to outsource for your business’ needs with someone who is a relatively small investment. 
  • You can build an army of freelancers that you can manage yourself, rather than relying on an agency’s full, in-house team. 

While there are a number of benefits a long-term outsourcing vendor will give you, if you want to mitigate risk, you’re probably going to get more value from a freelancer. 

But your business won’t run on freelancers forever. Eventually, you’ll grow to the point where you’ll need either an agency or in-house content marketing team. 

Freelance content writers are not only helpful for the value they offer right now, but how they set you up for the next stage.

As your startup grows, freelancers can be a great stepping stone to the scale of content production that you’ll eventually need. 

This could mean that your freelancer can turn into a full-time hire. Depending on how well you like working together and what their goals are, that could be a great and seamless transition.

But even if it isn’t and you have to part ways at some point, at least you’ll do so with the knowledge that, while they were with you, they provided immense value to your business and are part of the reason that you’re successful.

That’s a pretty great spot to be in, if you ask me. 

The Ultimate Question: Should You Hire an Agency?

This leaves you with one last option: hiring a content agency. While agencies are great and provide many benefits, you should only hire one if you’re ready to make the investment — both in terms of time and money. 

There are plenty of benefits that a content agency can provide that other vendors may not: 

  • Because of their experience and size of team, an agency will be able to help you scale your content marketing, thus growing your overall online impact. 
  • Not only will an agency be able to create more content, but also they’ll be able to increase your production quality, whether that’s through better writing, design, audio, video, or just understanding the metrics behind what you do. 
  • As tricky as agency processes can be for agile startups, there’s a major benefit they provide: consistency. You know you’ll get the same thing every time. 

But working with a content agency is going to require commitment on your part. There’s the initial planning stage. There’s the onboarding stage where you educate the agency on your business. Then there are the administrative items: creative briefs, status meetings, and the like.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to bringing on an agency is the price. No matter the value you think they’ll provide, if you can’t afford it or aren’t sure you’ll be able to make a return on investment, it’s just not going to help you.

If you aren’t confident you’ll make a return on investment, then it’s probably not a good idea to spend the money. If you are, then go for it!

Do some serious work to see what your best outsourcing option is going to be. And then go all in, confident that you’ve chosen the right option for your startup.

No matter how you slice it, hiring a content agency is a significant investment. 

There are real costs to attract, onboard, ramp up, and fully leverage a third party’s talent. And if you have to switch agencies at any point, that’s yet another cost.

In either case, the best way to reduce costs and maximize your return is simply to choose the right content agency in the first place. 

As someone who’s gone through this search process, I know it’s easier said than done. 

The trick isn’t finding a good agency. There are plenty of those out there. The trick is finding one who is the best fit for your company:

  • Works with companies the same size as yours. As a small business, you have very different needs than a large company. A track record of working with small companies shows that they also are used to the nuances of small business life: pivoting quickly, rapid response, and bootstrapping mentality. 
  • Has a working knowledge of your industry or market. While this is not crucial, it’s beneficial. If they already understand your customers and the challenges they face, that’s less time you have to spend educating them and more time executing.
  • Fills the specific gaps in your startup. Startup life is all about prioritizing and spending time and money on the things that matter most. If your content marketing partner isn’t filling a specific gap in your company, then they’re not providing you with the most value that you need in that particular moment.
  • Always helps, even before you become a customer. A content agency who’s helpful before you sign the check is likely to be even more helpful after you’ve signed the deal. Make sure you pick a content marketing partner who’s helpful for the sake of being helpful, and not because they’re looking to close a deal.
  • Matches your company culture. You can work with people you can’t work with. If your content agency doesn’t have a culture that’s compatible with yours, there will likely be relational problems along the way. 

A good-fit content agency can be the difference between a successful content marketing operation and a failure to launch. 

Here are a few questions you can ask during the discovery process. 

What does their content look like?

Choosing a content marketing partner is a lot like choosing a romantic partner. That’s because, at its core, a relationship with a content marketing partner is just that: a relationship. You’d want to know how your date treats the people around them, because that’s a sign of how they’re going to treat you.

The same holds true for a content agency. 

How they market themselves will show you how they’ll market on your behalf. And the great news is, all their marketing content is out there for you to see: 

  • Go read their blog and spend some time on their website to see the kinds of content they produce
  • Find their client list and go check out those clients’ websites and social media profiles
  • Find case studies or testimonials where available

You’re looking for two things. First is the quality of the content itself. But you’re also looking for any insights that reveal how they think and work, and whether that aligns with your business. 

Here are some specific things I would examine: 

  • Quality of the work. This should be a no-brainer. If they can’t create high quality, well-written, professional work for themselves, they aren’t going to do it for you. 
  • A unique perspective. If your agency is regurgitating the same things that everyone else is saying, that’s probably a sign that they don’t have much unique to offer. If they aren’t innovative and creative in their own thinking, they certainly won’t be that way when serving your company. 
  • Frequency and consistency.  While there are no objective standards for how much content anyone should be creating, a good sign that there’s a strategy behind the content is that they are publishing it consistently, even if it’s less frequently than you would. 
  • Learning something useful. This is one that’s a little outside the box but still important. You should learn something from your agency. Otherwise, they’re probably not going to contribute anything to the relationship that you don’t already bring. 

On the other hand, there are some things that some people often consider when choosing a partner that I don’t think are fair:

  • Specific tone or style of the content. You may find a laid back, informal tone inappropriate for your business. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only tone a content agency can use. A good content marketer will be able to adapt to the specific voice, style, and tone that fits your brand. 
  • Content length. Word count or video length is a strategic decision, which means that if they have a different strategy than you do, they’re going to create pieces of content that differ in length. So if your agency writes long articles and you want short, snappy blogs, don’t assume that they can’t produce them just because they don’t do it for themselves or their current clients.
  • Whether you agree with their conclusions. You don’t know the strategy behind the way they position themselves or their clients. Unless their conclusions in their content run directly contrary to how you’re running your business, know that any professional content marketer, while they will have their own opinions, will focus first on your needs, not their own. 

If your content agency takes their own content marketing seriously, then it’s a good sign that they’ll do the same for you. 

How to Judge a Potential Partner's Content - Choosing a Content Marketing Partner

Do they demonstrate flexibility and creativity?

Truly confident people will also listen. It’s because they don’t feel like they have anything to prove. 

Find someone who lets you tell them what you need, and then comes back with a way to deliver that to you. In fact, a good content agency should spend as much time listening to you as they do talking about what they can offer you. Here’s why:

  • It shows that they’re interested in solving your problems, which they’ll never know if they don’t listen. 
  • It shows their respect for your position as someone with expertise in your particular industry or niche. 
  • It shows that they are interested in learning and taking in new information, which then they’ll apply to their work. 

If your agency doesn’t listen when they’re in the active process of trying to get your business, what do you think they’re going to do once the check has cleared?

Although the incentives to keep new customers are high, short-term thinking can lead to bad decisions that focus more on bringing in new business and less on keeping the business they already have.

But if you have someone who is an active listener, it means that you probably have someone who is interested not just in a sale, but in a long-term relationship. This is the kind of company you want to keep around.

Now there’s some nuance here. Obviously anyone in client services is going to have a process. It’s the only way to scale this kind of business. 

But process is a tool, not a god. It should serve the ultimate goal of providing value to the client. If it gets in the way of what you need, then it needs to be modified.

Do they seem okay to work with?

We’ve all been on calls where someone asks a question and the response is a non-answer or deflection. 

If you experience this when talking to a prospective agency, that’s clearly a red flag. Anyone who’s not willing to be transparent with you — to the limit of not betraying a current client’s trust — isn’t going to be a good partner in the short or long term. 

Keep in mind that everyone frames answers to make themselves look good. So if they claim they were able to 10x traffic to a certain website, ask them what the actual numbers were. A website going from 10 to 100 visitors per month is 10x, but those probably aren’t the numbers you’re looking for. 

If they don’t answer your questions directly, that’s a sign that they may be hiding something. You should certainly take that into account when evaluating them.

There’s also a fine line between confidence and cockiness. That’s why any conversation around confidence must include some measure of nuance. 

Confidence can be an indicator of initiative, knowledge, and ability to deliver results. But if taken too far, it can be a liability as well. 

Overpromising. Overstating. Demeaning other companies. These are all signs of someone who hasn’t balance their confidence with humility. If they say “you won’t find a better agency anywhere,” or try to sell you the “secret sauce,” you know that something fishy is going on.

Anyone who overpromises will, naturally, underdeliver. 

Here are some signs that you’ve got an agency who’s confident in all the right ways: 

  • Detailing their track record without boasting
  • Celebrating successes without overstating or overpromising
  • Eager to start working with you without rushing a decision
  • Pushing back against false information without being defensive
  • Staying in touch and following up without being too aggressive

Find the person who can back up their claims with data, a track record, and a clear vision on how to reproduce those results for you. 

One more thing — never underestimate the power of chemistry. 

If you hire a content agency and they’re great to work with, you’ll be excited for what they can help you with every day. 

But the opposite is also true. If you don’t like working with them, it’s going to drag your efforts down, resulting in an investment that’s not maximizing its potential. 

You’re going to spend a lot of time giving and receiving critical feedback on creative work. That requires trust. And trust comes from a positive relationship, which is only helped by good chemistry. 

If they’re excited to help you out, and you enjoy the energy they bring to the table, that probably means that the future of your relationship — and, thus, your content marketing efforts — is bright.

Potential Content Marketing Partner's Confidence - Choosing a Content Marketing Partner

Does the content agency’s pricing make sense for your company?

Pricing a content agency can get complicated.

You want the most bang for your buck. But you also don’t want to go cheap because, well, you’ll get cheap results.

That’s because the work we do as creatives isn’t mere “labor” in the traditional sense. Content writing, or copywriting for that matter, isn’t about following a template or mass producing words. 

Think about your own role. Startup founders – and, sometimes, early stage marketing leaders – aren’t merely compensated just for the hours you put in every day. 

That’s because you aren’t an automaton. You work involves strategic and critical thinking that requires that you provide creative solutions to the problems you face. Your compensation reflects that. 

Creative workers are the same way. We’re problem solvers. Among the many things we do, we:

  • Figure out a problem your customers are facing and present a solution
  • Identify the questions along their buyer’s journey and guiding them toward your product
  • Present your company’s brand in a way that’s engaging and speaks to their specific needs
  • Always find ways to help customers through the content we create

Content creation & marketing aren’t mindless jobs where you can underpay and get the results you’re looking for. 

But on the other hand, just because someone is super expensive doesn’t mean they’re the right fit. This is especially relevant when you’re considering working with a content agency. 

It’s an old adage but it’s true. With a higher price tag comes more expertise and, thus, higher expectations of quality. 

You aren’t paying for the words, but the intentionality and relevance those words have to your audience. There’s a lot more that goes into content writing than what you see on the page, but is essential to well-written content. 

When it comes time to go the extra mile, consider this: which client are they going to be quicker to help? 

Probably the one who gives them the most business. So pay them accordingly. 

Remember that this is a relationship. You should be pleased with their work, yes, but they should also want to continue working with you. 

But ultimately, if you’re going to pay a content agency what they’re worth, you need to see a return on that investment. 

One way is to evaluate whether your agency is producing content that hits the leading indicators of revenue generation. The more you focus on generating revenue through your content, the quicker you’ll see the ROI, which means the sooner you can see the growth that you’re looking for.

I recently saw a comment on LinkedIn that went something like this: “All the brand equity in the world won’t help you make payroll.”

This comment hits at one of the conversations happening among marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs alike. 

Brand equity is great and valuable. But you have real business needs right now. 

You need to make payroll. You may need to hire new team members. You have an aggressive revenue goal to demonstrate the growth potential of your startup. 

Whatever the specific, top-priority goal of your startup, it’s predicated on having the revenue to make it into a reality. That means when it comes to investing in a content agency, return on investment should be one of the primary metrics of success.

The are specific steps your agency can take to maximize ROI as quickly as possible. And there are certain indicators of revenue that both you and your agency can track.  

This chapter will walk you through the steps you can take to ensure that you get a return on investment as soon as possible. 

Why Time is Your Content Agency's Friend

Many companies view content marketing primarily as a lead gen tool. And it certainly is one. In fact, content is 62 percent less expensive when compared to traditional marketing.

But every time you post a valuable, helpful, and relevant piece of content and your audience reads it, you also show them that:

  • You’re proactive in solving problems in the market, even for those people who aren’t currently doing business with you.
  • You have creative approaches to solving problems and think through the issues that matter most to them.
  • You’re a knowledgeable company who has something unique to offer the market. 

But building a brand never happens overnight. It’s a multi-year process, if not longer. And how you get there differs significantly from company to company. 

It may take time, but the benefits you’ll receive as a result – both tangible and intangible – are worth the wait.

But beyond simply building a brand, there are practical benefits from content that still take time to realize. Not the least of which is SEO. And the recent changes to how SEO is practiced definitely impacts how we think of investment. 

Modern SEO has less to do with specific keywords and more to do with user intent, which generally falls into three categories:

  • Informational intent, or users looking for an educational answer to a question
  • Navigational intent, or users looking for a specific website
  • Transactional intent, or users looking to purchase a particular product

An example of informational intent in a Google search

Image: Rank for informational intent by answering a question your customer is asking.

 

Example of navigational intent Google

Image: Rank for navigational intent by building a unique and authoritative online brand.

Image: Rank for transactional intent by providing content that drives interested buyers along the final stages of their buyer’s journey. 

Google figures this out through its ever-evolving algorithm powered by AI and machine learning. It’s not something you can outsmart or account for through technical changes to your webpages.

So think of SEO as a reputation-building exercise, not a technical one.

If you’re a new company with a new website, it’s going to take some time to build that reputation. The only way to do that is to create lots of helpful content and use social media, email, and even word of mouth to draw in interested people. 

Plus, one of the most important aspects of SEO — backlink acquisition — also takes time to build and grow. 

One of the greatest benefits of backlinks is that they are a passive form of marketing that you don’t have to pay for:

  • You’re not working to optimize and promote it like you do on your own site. 
  • You’re not posting regularly and managing an online community like you are with social media.
  • You aren’t paying for people’s attention and clicks like you are with paid digital ads.
  • When someone links to your content, it has the double effect of not only providing a pathway for new people to find and visit your website, but it’s also a tacit signal that the person who linked to your content approves of what you’ve written. 

In other words, backlinks lend you credibility from other thought leaders in your space.

Then there’s social media, whose true power comes when you don’t simply broadcast your content, but build a loyal community of followers. 

Plus, you can see who’s following you. That way, you know exactly who your audience is.

Then there’s where the rubber meets the road: revenue generation. Content that’s geared toward addressing real-life questions your customers are asking will, eventually, lead to, well, leads. 

But anyone in sales knows that the path from becoming a lead to becoming a customer can be long. Any number of obstacles could delay or derail the process.

No matter where you’re bringing people in in relation to the funnel, if you’re a new brand, there will be a time lag between when they convert and when they close, simply because there’s more to learn about. 

But as you grow over time, and people start to become more aware of you and what you have to offer, you’ll catch more people’s attention and, hopefully, entice some of them to buy. 

And that’s when the returns will start to roll in.

How to Create ROI-Positive Content

Let’s say you create a blog that generates a thousand unique pageviews, but you can’t attribute any sales to it. Is that video unsuccessful? You may be tempted to say that it is, but never underestimate the value of visibility.

That video familiarized millions of people with your brand and product offer, even if they weren’t quite ready to make a purchase right then and there.

But over time, as they progress along the buyer’s journey, they’ll already have a positive attitude toward your brand. When they go back to your website and social channels to convert, they’ll do so only because of the “unsuccessful” video you created in the first place. 

This is the challenge with revenue attribution: your content doesn’t start to impact your audience at the first conversion, but well before that point by creating a positive image of your brand in their minds. 

That’s why your content strategy has to focus on all the factors that go into generating revenue, not just first- or last-touch conversions. 

While you should be continually evaluating your metrics to see which pieces of content generate revenue, there are also specific leading actions your content agency take that do that. 

First, you can boost lead quality by carefully selecting topics

The way to attract high-quality leads is so simple it’s stupid, but it’s the hardest to implement: address topics your audience is interested in a helpful and substantive way. 

If you aren’t attracting high-quality leads or customers, you need to rethink what you’re writing about. 

There are a number of ways that you can select these topics:

  • Questions. Which questions are your buyers asking along their path to purchase? Your content can answer these questions at scale, saving your salespeople time in one-to-one outreach. 
  • Pain. How are your buyers hurting, and what does your product do to help? Your content can speak specifically to their pain, offering solutions to provide much-needed relief. 
  • Need. Are your buyers aware of their own specific needs right now? If they already know what they’re looking for, you can talk about how you meet those needs. 
  • Problems. What are the common roadblocks that your buyers encounter along the path to maximizing their revenue? You can present the solutions to those problems, all the way from general solutions to specific ones that drive your buyer to purchase your product.

The great thing about this model is that you can address the top-, middle-, and bottom-of-funnel questions that surround each of these topics. If you focus your topic selection, you’ll not only attract active buyers. You’ll attract highly likely buyers. 

Second, you can increase your sales by publishing bottom-of-funnel content. 

Generally speaking, marketers always start by producing top-of-funnel content. After all, if you can reach buyers at the beginning of the buyer’s journey, you can guide them all the way to their purchasing decision.

However, not all buyers start seeking out information at the same point. 

If you’re writing content that speaks to people as they’re about to make a decision, the natural byproduct will be a shorter sales cycle. That means the people your content attracts will convert and spend faster than if you’re starting at the top of the funnel and working your way down.  

Third, you can improve SEO performance by ensuring you provide specific and helpful solutions in your content. 

I talked previously about how SEO has changed in recent years. In the past, ranking for search terms meant keyword stuffing and other back-end processes. There were technical ways to get your content to rank (meta tags, alt-text, H2 keywords, etc.), and then the substance and helpfulness behind that content would drive the conversions.

That doesn’t mean the technical SEO fixes aren’t important. In fact, they’re just as important as ever. Now, however, they aren’t just a “checklist” but indicators to Google that your content is something that your customers are going to be interested in:

  • Keyword placement still helps you rank, but now Google is smart enough to sense variations on specific keywords so you don’t need alternate content for each variation. Which is great, because you don’t have time for that and also don’t want to risk cannibalizing yourself.
  • Link structure helps indicate to Google that you’re a reputable site.
  • Image alt-text helps place your images in Google Images search results, and guides the user through the content if for some reason the images don’t load on their device.
  • Bounce rate reduction is still important because if someone views your content but immediately clicks away, it means that you’re not providing a helpful answer to them.
  • Length of content helps to demonstrate that what you provide is high-quality.

So improving your SEO performance has two benefits. It improves your ranking and, thus, the number of viewers you’ll have. However, since SEO performance is now tied directly to the helpfulness of the content, these enhancements will also help you improve the experience for your audience.

Fourth and finally, you should capitalize on web traffic through conversion rate optimization.  

You may get more people to view your content, but without conversion rate optimization, those people are going to simply come and go without converting.

Each piece of content should have a call-to-action tied to the next logical step in the buyer’s journey. Don’t drive your audience to schedule a demo when, instead, a helpful guide or video would be better. Likewise, if you’ve created a bottom-of-funnel offer, the next logical step is setting up a time to talk to sales or making an online purchase.

There are plenty of ways to optimize your conversion rate, including a variety of CTA types on the page, tracking audience engagement with the page, and analyzing what’s working and what isn’t. Here are a few standard practices:

  • Use heatmaps to see who’s clicking where and how they’re interacting
  • Look at Google Analytics to see how much time they’re spending on the page, what the bounce rate is, etc.
  • Use UTM tracking links in all your promotional materials to see where your traffic is coming from and track conversions
  • Constantly be A/B testing your CTAs to see what design, messaging, color, placement, are impacting your CTR
  • As you analyze your audience behavior, you’ll have a better chance of seeing what’s working and what’s not, so you can adjust your content and CTAs accordingly.

You don’t want people to just view your content. If they’re your ideal buyer, then you want them to take some kind of action.

Whether that’s to download a piece of content, sign up for an email list, make a purchase, or reach out to you for a conversation (especially if it’s a bottom-of-funnel piece), there has to be a clear action that the content drives your reader to take. 

The Short- and Long-Term Value of Repurposing Content

While you should distribute and promote your content in the immediate aftermath of its creation, as you approach six or twelve months after that original publication date, you may need to refresh the content to keep it relevant and active. 

You should make these changes based primarily on the metrics available to you:

  • Views. If you have low viewership, change the headline and/or featured image.
  • Conversions. Continue optimizing your CTAs, perhaps changing the offer or placement.
  • Customer conversion. If your piece has high conversions but isn’t attracting people who convert to customers, consider whether your content is actually addressing a question active buyers are asking.
  • Bounce rate. If people are clicking to your article and then immediately clicking away, there could be a couple of reasons. It could be that your content answers the question and that’s that. It could be that your reference links aren’t opening in a new tab, causing people to click away from your site. It could be that the conversion offer doesn’t align with the content.

There’s also the timeliness factor. Your content may make references to events or other actions that are no longer relevant. Maybe the market has shifted. Either way, dated information needs to be updated.

As you go in and update your content, you can ensure that it remains authoritative. That way, it’ll continue generating revenue even years after you originally posted it.

But in addition to refreshing the content, you can increase your exposure through content repurposing. Since you’ve invested the time and attention in creating it, you should make it work for you as much as possible.

Besides, no group of human beings all consume content in the exact same way. 

They’re not just reading blogs. They’re not just searching on Google. They’re not just on social media. They’re not just on YouTube.

Your audience is everywhere. 

So you have to make sure your content meets them wherever they are. That means that simply creating a blog — while a wonderful first step — isn’t enough. 

You have to create content in a variety of different ways for a number of different channels. 

If that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. It’s actually a lot easier than you’d think, especially if you repurpose and reuse the content you already have. 

There are a number of ways that you can repurpose your content. I like to use the term “smashing and crashing” to describe the two major ways this happens:

  • Smashing larger pieces of content into smaller pieces — like taking a blog and turning it into a series of social media posts
  • Crashing smaller pieces of content together to make a larger piece — like taking a series of blogs and turning them into a pillar page

Of course, the third option is to change channels, like turning a blog into a video or podcast script.

Your content has endless potential. The more you can spread it across channels, the quicker you’ll start to see a return on investment.

You did it. You hired a content agency. You’re confident in their expertise and ability to deliver. You certainly expect to get a return on that investment.

Now is where the real work begins.

The ultimate test of whether you made the right decision is whether you’re able to maintain a relationship with your agency.

Host of The Inbound Success Podcast Kathleen Booth said it well when discussing her tips for choosing an agency partner:

“In my experience, even when you feel you’ve picked the perfect agency, problems still inevitably occur. I liken it to marriage. Just because you’ve found the ‘perfect’ guy and you’ve gotten married doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. And just like a healthy marriage, it takes two committed partners to work through those problems and build a strong and positive agency-client relationship.”

The same is true for your content agency. You’re two different groups of people with good days, bad days, reasonable expectations, unreasonable expectations, and everything in between. 

This chapter will walk through some tips on how to build and grow your relationship with your content agency, so that you can achieve a collaborative and productive working relationship. 

How to Avoid Common Pitfalls

No relationship is perfect. The relationship between a company and their content marketing agency is no exception. As such, you should always be vigilant to identify and respond to content outsourcing mistakes. 

When these mistakes pop up, it’s rarely caused by just one side. And if you take the time to address them, you can avoid a fallout and, worse, permanently damaged relationship. 

A key pitfall that companies make is removing themselves entirely from the process. 

I get it. You’re desperate to get things off your plate. So the approach of “set it and forget it” is probably tempting. However, if you become completely uninvolved, it’s going to come back to bite you.

There’s no replacement for your unique insights and expertise. A good content marketing agency will want to leverage that, rather than replace it. And if you’re smart, you’ll work with them to bring the best of both worlds together. 

You also need to set clear expectations for how things are going to work.  Whether you’re entering a personal or professional relationship, everyone has both spoken and unspoken expectations. 

If you don’t take the time to define them, you’ll automatically default to the unspoken ones. The trick there, of course, is that it’s really tricky to meet an expectation that you don’t know exists. 

I don’t want to make it sound like setting clear expectations is easy, because it certainly isn’t. Sometimes, establishing expectations puts people off. But if you don’t do this, it’s only going to create problems down the line. 

Here are just a few of the things to discuss with your agency before you get too far down the road:

  • Determine what your creative and collaborative process is going to be, including deliverables
  • Make sure everyone knows how quickly they should respond to communications
  • Make sure everyone knows their point of contact
  • Clearly set expectations around results, both for your company and for the agency
  • Discuss longevity. For instance, is this a year-long commitment or a 3-month sprint? 

Then, once those expectations have been set, do the work to hold your agency accountable. 

Finally, if you know that your agency is a bad fit, don’t draw it out just for the sake of drawing it out. Short of breaking a contract, you may have to make the decision to walk away.

If you don’t make the shift, problems will arise. Also, for you, why would you spend money investing in something that’s not working for you when you can take your business elsewhere? 

Work to keep the relationship going. But if that doesn’t work out, bow out gracefully.

Build Your Content Agency’s Knowledge of Your Business & Brand

You know your business better than anyone. But your agency doesn’t. Educating third-party vendors on your business is a crucial step in building an effective and lasting relationship. 

When there is no concerted effort on both sides to deepen the relationship, it stays at the surface level, so your agency is less effective in creating content on your behalf. 

The problem here is that a good content agency will start executing against your marketing strategy fairly quickly. It’s during the execution phase where mistakes happen and the waters get muddied if you don’t do some significant groundwork  in advance. 

Not every mistake is going to be instantly harmful to your brand. But each mistake is a missed opportunity to get it right, which if it happens too often, will end up hurting you as they pile up.

Instead of waiting until the pile-up happens, be proactive about engaging your agency up front:

  • Stay in touch with your point of contact, reaching out via email multiple times a week or over the phone. Engage them in conversations to address things that you think they should know to aid them in their role.
  • Proactively explain pitfalls you’ve had in the past (whether with this startup or in a previous role) and common confusions you hear before they arise. You have the best handle on your business as anyone; use that to help them avoid mistakes so history doesn’t repeat itself.
  • When a problem arises, don’t use it as a judgment on them. It’s likely a misunderstanding that is best handled as a teaching moment. If the same problem persists over time, then you should do something more serious about it. 

They won’t know all the right discovery questions to ask, especially the ones that are highly specific to your niche. When you guide the process and proactively educate them on your business, you help them learn the “unknown unknowns.”

Simply put, your agency won’t get that deep understanding of your business overnight. 

And why would you expect them to? You certainly didn’t. 

How long did it take to research your market? Even if you were able to come up with some assumptions that you could act upon quickly, how often have those assumptions been challenged? How much have you had to change to things you didn’t know that you didn’t know?

The same is true for your content agency. 

So be patient with them. Proactively work to close the knowledge gap. Start executing now, but understand that a truly “in sync” relationship won’t happen right away. 

But little by little, they should grow into a trusted asset of your company that you won’t ever want to let go.

Tips for Evaluating Your Agency’s Performance

You’ve hired an agency. They’ve started creating content on your behalf. Perhaps your audience is starting to engage with that content. 

Things are off to a good start. 

Or are they? 

Answering that question isn’t always simple. And it’s certainly one that you can’t leave unanswered for three, six, or even twelve months. 

According to Michael Brenner, co-author of The Content Formula, having clear expectations on both sides is vital to the success of a relationship. 

If you don’t help make these expectations clear, both by evaluating your agency’s performance and offering them the feedback they need to make changes, a few problems will likely come up:

  • They won’t learn about your business or what your audience is interested in if you don’t address misconceptions, take steps to educate them on your business, and offer feedback when they make mistakes. 
  • Small problems (like one bad piece of content) turn into big problems (like 20 bad pieces of content) when you don’t solve them early enough.
  • Ultimately, not addressing issues ASAP will result in lost opportunity and revenue. 

As someone who works on the agency side, I can promise you that your vendor is constantly evaluating whether they should continue the relationship with you. 

You’ve agreed to pay them for their services. You should expect that they deliver the deliverables on time. That’s the easy part. 

The hard part is ensuring that the deliverables match the level of quality that you expect and need to generate a return on investment. 

If you have to spend so much time editing that you might as well rewrite it, then the deliverable isn’t worth the investment and, thus, you should reconsider the relationship. 

On the other hand, you may have a vendor who goes above and beyond: 

  • They leverage your subject matter expertise in the content through interviews and early-stage feedback
  • They heavily research your industry
  • They constantly look at what’s performing well and base their decisions on what your audience is actually interested in

When you invest in audience-focused content, the natural result should be a boost in your KPIs, particularly the ones surrounding audience growth. 

Thanks to Google Analytics and similar tools, plus all your social media data, tracking your audience growth should be a fairly easy exercise.

Here are some of the top KPIs to consider and the key questions they answer about your content vendor’s performance:

  • Pageviews. Are they increasing the engagement of your current audience
  • First-time vs. returning users. Are they growing your audience by bringing in new users?
  • Bounce rate. Are they enticing people to view more content on your website?
  • Exit rate. Are they sending people away from your site?
  • Time on page. Are they engaging an audience who spends time reading or watching your content?
  • Social media followers. How many people have decided they like your content enough to put it in their news feeds?
  • Social media reach/impressions. How many people are your posts actually reaching? 
  • Social media engagement. What level of response is the content getting from your audience?
  • Attributed revenue. If ROI is the goalpost, then you should know how much revenue a particular piece of content is bringing in. Even if you don’t get the full picture from your revenue attribution model, you can see its performance relative to other pieces of content and to itself over time. 
  • Conversions & conversion value. In addition to the attributed revenue, it’s important to note how many leads a piece of content is bringing in. While not all these conversions are going to turn into revenue, if a particular piece of content is converting at a lower rate than others, you know it’s not attracting the right audience and you should probably not use it as a blueprint for future content. 
  • Search engine rankings. How you rank on search engines not only drives the three aforementioned metrics, but it shows how much authority your website holds and how helpful search engines think you are to the questions your audience is asking. It’s one objective way of answering a subjective question: how are people perceiving us in the market?

Many companies look up industry benchmarks to figure out how they should be performing. There are several weaknesses to this approach. 

First, industry benchmarks are constantly changing. 

Second, your audiences should be segmented enough that each one is fairly niche, making general industry benchmarks unhelpful. 

Third, when you’re in the startup phase, you aren’t going to compare to a large company, so you need to develop a clear idea of what’s working and what’s not for your own audience and business. 

This is where content quantity can help. The more content you publish, the more data points you’ll have around your audience’s engagement, which only helps you establish your baseline faster.

Once you’ve established that baseline, it’s easy to figure out what kinds of content soar while others fall down on the job. 

But ultimately, you want to look at return on investment. It’s the North Star for startups and small businesses, especially in the early stages. 

With limited funds and pressure to grow fast, every dollar you spend should generate some kind of return. 

In general, you should be able to measure some kind of broad correlation between the amount that you spend on your content marketing efforts and a correlative increase in revenue from your marketing channels. 

And when you start to see an issue, is your content agency willing to adapt and adjust their performance? 

The marketing world is constantly evolving. Tactics are shifting. Best practices are changing. As buyers change their behaviors, marketers have to adapt to them. 

Take a look at Toys R Us. Everyone knows them and the idea of them going out of business seemed laughable at a time. But when the digital economy took off, they didn’t adapt to changing buyer behaviors. And they tanked.

So if that can happen to a large company, imagine what could happen to your small startup that is just now starting to make a name for itself. 

Your goal is to grow. A content vendor who shares the same goal – to help you grow your reach among your target audience and better connect them with the information they need – is going to be one you’ll want to stick with. 

This requires innovation, creativity, and constant learning. 

And finally, ask yourself: do you like working with them? 

Your content vendor will take a significant amount of your time and energy. For both your sanity and effectiveness in reaching your goals, you shouldn’t dread every conversation with them. 

On the contrary, you should be excited to work and collaborate with them. 

Not dealing with personal issues can lead to resentment and, ultimately, seep into how you approach their work. True objectivity is a myth. If you don’t get along with your vendor, it will impact how you approach and evaluate their work. 

So make sure you address these issues and, if necessary, make a change.

How to Confront a Performance Issue

After you’ve figured out how you’re going evaluate your agency, the next step is to actually do the evaluation. 

And no matter how much time you spent picking your content agency or how much you like working with them, there are going to be times when you’re disappointed in them.

Hopefully, those times will be infrequent. But when they do come up, you should be prepared to tackle these challenges head-on. 

So before you confront them, take some time and gather all the facts. 

It may seem like an obvious step, but intentionally assessing the situation will ensure that you’re coming from a “facts first” standpoint and not relying on your personal opinion. 

This not only puts you in a position of strength, it puts both you and your vendor in the best position to find a solution to the problem. 

Focusing on facts, while it doesn’t de-personalize the conversation entirely, shifts you away from talking about the people and instead focuses on the work. 

Once you’d gathered these facts, remember that assigning blame does no one any good. Focus instead on what your content vendor needs to do to both solve the problem and keep it from happening again in the future.

There’s a fine line between blame and accountability. According to organizational change expert Dr. Marilyn Paul, “Where there is blame, there is no learning. Where there is blame, open minds close, inquiry tends to cease, and the desire to understand the whole system diminishes.

So how do we understand the difference between blame and accountability? Leadership development expert Michael Timms has some ideas for how to distinguish between the two.

“To be accountable is to be held responsible for results for results, good or bad,” Timms says. “It means finding solutions to problems and applying lessons learned in order to improve future results.

He continues: “Blame is often assigned before all the facts are known and assumes that people, not the systems they operate in, are the problem.”

To use an analogy, try to find out where the train got off the tracks, rather than what the conductor was doing at the time of the trainwreck. 

Then you need to be clear and specific as to what actions they should take to address the problem. 

I’ll give an example from my own experience. As an inbound marketer at a small startup, my sales team regularly came to me saying “we need more leads,” even as we were generating a steady stream of leads month after month. 

Vague statements like “we need more leads” don’t actually establish any expectations or a clear path forward. That’s why many organizations have a service-level agreement between marketing and sales. 

These agreements establish clear and specific expectations on both sides. Marketing commits to delivering a certain number of leads, and salespeople commit to following up on those leads in a specific way. 

The same applies to your vendor relationship. In fact, you may already have an SLA with them. At the very least, you should have a clear list of deliverables so everyone knows what’s expected.

After you’ve had the conversation around what needs to be fixed, don’t leave a single meeting open-ended. Make sure that there’s a plan to address the problem.

That plan may be “we need to figure out what to do about this.” Especially if this is the first time you’ve brought up a particular issue, that’s a perfectly acceptable response.

Focusing on next steps brings clarity to what can often be a messy conversation. And they, once again, shift the focus to the future rather than the past. 

And once the issue has been resolved, make sure you clearly communicate that to them. 

There’s nothing worse than thinking that there’s a continuing problem and trying to solve it and then finding out that three months ago they were satisfied with how you fixed it.

While nothing’s truly “solved” — as there’s always room to grow and improve — there is a difference between “continual improvement” and “crisis mode.” 

It doesn’t take long. So just tell them and you can both move on. 

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