No matter how you slice it, hiring a content marketing partner is a significant investment.
Whether you’re using an agency, freelancer, or other vendor, 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 marketing partner 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 partner. 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 partner 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 marketing partner doesn’t have a culture that’s compatible with yours, there will likely be relational problems along the way.
A good-fit content marketing partner can be the difference between a successful content marketing operation and a failure to launch.
Here are six questions to ask as you go through the discovery and evaluation process.
1. 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 marketing partner.
How they market themselves and their customers 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 content marketer 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. A trick when considering a content marketing partners is to see how frequently they post content for themselves. While there are no true 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 marketing partners. 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 partner 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 vendor 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 marketer seems to take their own content marketing seriously, then it’s a good sign that they’ll do the same for you.
2. Are they open and transparent?
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 potential content partner, 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.
A great way to combat this is to ask direct questions. For example, you can ask them what kind of web traffic growth you can expect to see from their content marketing efforts.
While they won’t be able to make predictions, they can provide an example of a previous success. It’s even better if they can provide an example from within your industry.
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.
Honesty and integrity are critical to any professional relationship. If they provide answers to your questions, even if they have to jump off the call and follow up later, then it’s a good sign.
If they constantly dance around the issue, just walk away.
3. Are they humbly confident?
There’s 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 a partner 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 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.
4. Do they listen?
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 come back with a way to deliver that to you. In fact, a good content marketing partner should spend as much time listening to you as they do talking about what they can offer you.
Here are a few reasons:
- 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 content marketing partner 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.
5. Are they creative? Do they innovate?
Good content marketers are creatives at heart. They want to try new things and new approaches. They’re innovators.
So a good content marketing partner shouldn’t just try to onboard you to their process and way of doing things without regard for your needs. They should listen to you and spend some time figuring out the best solution to your problems.
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.
A very real example is in the approach to SEO. This is a marketing world that has radically transformed over the last half decade – namely because of the shift from keywords to user intent (more on that here).
But a potential partner who’s still stuck in the “keyword” mentality is probably going to offer you something that may be a moneymaker for them, but doesn’t provide the maximum value to your business.
If you want to stay relevant, you need a partner who does as well.
6. Do you get along with them?
Never underestimate the power of chemistry.
If you hire a content marketing partner 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 may think that you can’t gauge this during the sales process, because you aren’t dealing with the creative team directly. But consider this: every company has a culture. The sales team is a representative of the creative team, and it’s likely they share many similarities.
If you like the sales team, odds are you’ll get along with the creatives, and vice versa.
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.