But despite the fact that almost all businesses — big and small — accept that content creation (with a smart strategy, of course) is essential, the sad reality is that way more fail than succeed when it comes to getting results from their efforts.
Even worse, a very large percentage of failures happen even when the company is working with an agency.
Why? Why does content creation with an agency so often fail? Is it the agency's fault? Is it the client's? Or is there something else going on here?
At IMPACT, we've been asking this question for years
Time, plus a lot of data and case studies, has shown us the reality as to why so many agencies fail to produce content that gets results for their clients. (And spoiler alert! For years, we were not immune to these failures!)
How most agencies handle content creation
IMPACT has several former HubSpot partner agency sales employees on staff. In fact, I was one of them. It was our job to help HubSpot partner agencies (like IMPACT) package and price their services, including content creation.
During my time at HubSpot, it was our recommendation that an agency write the content or participate in the content creation process for their clients so they could generate more revenue and that’s what many agencies did. This included IMPACT for quite some time.
Agency content service offerings usually boil down to these three buckets:
1. They will create your content for you
When agencies tell you that they’ll write your content on your behalf, what they’re telling you is to sit back, relax, and take no part in this critical element of your marketing success.
What this looks like in practice is, they’ll find an outsourced writer that doesn’t work at their agency and hand off the writing responsibilities. The agency will manage the writer and make it seem as if they are a part of the client team.
In some cases, however, an agency will have an in-house brand journalist that truly is a member of the agency team, but this type of in-house agency talent will likely come at a higher premium than the following buckets.
2. They share the responsibility with you
What this means is that the agency will write the outline of the article and then the client will do the writing or put the meat on the bones of the article. Sometimes it happens in the reverse, but not often.
3. They will find a writer for you to manage
That writer will likely follow the agency’s content plan, which usually follows buyer persona research and buyers journey mapping. (Note IMPACT has moved away from all of these buckets, but we’ll talk more about that later in this article.
These sound great, in theory
In all of these instances, the agency will likely own the editorial calendar and all of the content ideas that will be published as a result. A lot of companies believe that any of these content creation options are good options and most will end up choosing option one because it allows them to be super hands-off.
“It’s true, Google does need some time to start ranking content. Whether content is on the first page of 10th page, it’s ranking. Clients believe they are failing when their content isn’t on the 1st page and most agencies have made them accustomed to believing that it takes time to get to the first page of Google. We’ve found that if content is high quality , thorough, and answers direct questions that people look for, it will not take six to nine months to rank. It could take a day based on the competitive marketplace.”
Justine isn't wrong. If you're chasing the Google machine solely as your content marketing strategy, it will take awhile for you to see results.
That aside, there are several other things most agencies do that unnecessarily prolong the content marketing process.
The 7 most common problems with how agencies tackle content creation for their clients
If you want your content to work more quickly, steer clear of these content creation traps that we often see companies fall into with other agencies.
1. Wasting time on buyer personas
Hear me out. Knowing one's buyer personas IS a good thing, and planning around them is also good. But the development of your buyer personas should be a fluid, evolutionary, process that happens over time.
The roadblock with personas for most agencies is that they often spend a lot of time and money to "identify" them, only to watch them evolve over time, as they look at the data and analytics.
It’s the "built it and they will come" mindset. (Unfortunately, we're not Kevin Costner.)
Why in the world would you spend possibly months on persona research when you could be benefitting from content the entire time, and getting a much clearer sense of what does and does not resonate with your audience?
If you start by creating content that answers the questions you receive every single day in the sales process right away, we’ve found you’ll better understand, over time, who your buyers are — what resonates with them, what doesn't, what sells, and what doesn't.
And, ultimately, this is the essence of identifying your personas.
2. …and the entire buyer's journey
Similar to personas, being aware of how prospects move through your buyer’s journey is a good thing.
Most agencies, however, overcomplicate it. They'll spend weeks (or even months!) building out the entire journey, suggested conversion points, types of content that need to be created along each stage, and mapping it back to each of your different personas.
This is far too time consuming when you’re first getting started.
Instead, that time could be spent creating content that your sales team could be using immediately, which means you're also generating search leads much, much sooner. Look at it this way — if you can develop your buyer's journey while still winning on both sales and marketing fronts, why wouldn't you?
3. Only focusing on keyword research
We have found that our clients have spent far too much time in tools, analyzing keywords and get to a point of analysis paralysis.
As a result, they create content that tries too hard to please Google and other search engines first, rather than the people they're trying to reach. So, instead of ranking well by creating content that clearly articulates and answers the questions their potential buyers have, they will rank much lower in search results, because their "robots-first" content isn't relevant or valuable enough.
At the end of the day, obsessing over the questions, fears, worries, and concerns of your buyers — with a willingness to address each of those within your content exactly as they would speak it, say it, and search it — will be the most powerful keyword research strategy you can adopt.
When you first start working with an agency, many will tell you that you should conduct a content gap analysis, so as to determine what content you need to produce and how it compares to your competitors, as you get started with them.
If the answer is no, there is your gap. Start there.
5. Producing fluff
Don’t live in the land of the fluff.
IMPACT Content Consultant Kevin Phillips shared a great "land of fluff" content horror story about Alaska Sleep Clinic, where he began his content career.
Before he started working there, the clinic had hired a local agency to handle their content. The agency was charging around $4,500 per month, more than the average content manager starting salary, and writing three and five articles a week.
The problem was that the articles rarely aimed at potential clients. They were fluff pieces on topics like "what do your dreams mean about you" and "which celebrities have sleep problems."
They were short, had zero substance, and, to this day, the only views they've ever received are when I go into them to point out to clients how NOT to write blog articles.
Too many agencies do this.
Alaska Sleep Clinic had been in touch with Marcus Sheridan — then-owner of The Sales Lion and now IMPACT partner — and Marcus convinced Alaska Sleep Clinic to hire an in-house content manager, Kevin Phillips.
Kevin started in June 17, 2014 and Marcus got him started with The Big 5 and asking all the customer facing employees to give me the top 20 questions they hear the most often while engaging with prospects and patients.
Kevin started writing three articles per week, and focused on answering these questions.
Growth started slowly the first few months and then started snowballing.
June traffic was right around 2,500. July was around 2,700. August was around 3,200, September was around 4,000. Then October jumped to 7,000.
That's when he really knew what he was doing was working.
After that, it just kept growing every month. Within a year, Alaska Sleep Clinic was up to 100,000 visits per month. One article alone had generated around $100,000 in revenue in a year and it was a review of a new CPAP machine you could take camping.
Kevin then left Alaska Sleep Clinic (after it was purchased by another company) and joined forces with Marcus, — today, he's a member of the IMPACT family.
6. Writing your content for you
Recently, as I was reviewing other HubSpot partner agency websites, I came across this promise:
“By interviewing subject matter experts from within your organization, we are able to create, fresh, never-before-seen content that injects thought leadership into your website that builds trust with your prospects and customers.”
However, no one knows your business better than your own employees. This work should be done within your company.
Still, can agencies do this and do it well?
Of course, and the one I found who made the above assertion might be one of them. But when it is done well, it is an exception to the rule. An anomaly.
Typically, when an agency does the interviewing and writing for you, there will be a lot of back and forth to get the messaging correct (tone and style of the content) and to ensure it’s factually correct.
The back and forth all equates to wasted time.
The content you actually need on your website won’t come from an agency uncovering things your organization had no idea they should be saying.
The content should be that which has been seen and heard by your prospects over and over again.
This content should be answers to the burning questions that your prospects have when they’re at the bottom of the funnel and they’re talking to your sales team. Which leads to the next roadblock.
7. Not involving your sales team
Content is produced for two main reasons:
Attract qualified traffic to your website; and
Assist in the sales process, so sales reps can close more deals faster with more qualified prospects.
When content is aligned with questions that get asked in the sales process, it will shorten sales cycles, leading to more qualified conversations more quickly. As a result, nothing will hold you back more than your sales team’s lack of involvement in your content creation.
They are the folks on the front line, talking with prospects and answering their questions day in and day out.
Long story short, it's (over-) complicated
Too often, agencies are telling companies:
“You need horsepower more than brainpower.”
“You’re looking to dive into the engagement with quick ramp up period.”
But, what’s actually happening here is that agencies are overcomplicating content creation.
They believe they’re speeding you up by doing buyer persona research, content gap analysis, buyer’s journey research, keyword research, and interviewing and writing for you.
However, if you have to do all of that before they even publish a single piece of content... well, no wonder it takes so long to see sales results.
These agencies aren’t giving you horsepower, they’re slowing you down and using far too much of your marketing budget in the process.
To be fair, we used to do this ourselves. Now, we see we were wrong.
What's the solution?
So the bottom line is if you're looking to create successful, effective content, you must ask yourself the following serious questions:
Can anyone truly tell our own story, and answer our customer's questions, better than us?
Do we want to own content creation or do we want to be dependent on someone else (an agency) to do this for us?
Is the need to figure this out and do it well going away any time soon?
Because we asked these very same questions, we realized the best way we could serve our clients at IMPACT. We had the data. We had the case studies. We just had to accept the way we'd always done it wasn't the way it was going to work in the years that lie ahead.
The cherry on top? When you take this approach to creating content, you’ll get world-class results, just like these companies did.