Content marketing agency: graphic of employee looking at charts

6 Red Flags to Look for When Hiring a Content Marketing Agency

When considering a digital marketing agency, there’s no shortage of options. But, like any category, not all marketing agencies are created equal. Some are rockstar companies that will work tirelessly to propel your business forward. Others are just in it to make a quick buck, and that’s reflected in the quality of work.

So, how do you sort the bad from the good and find the best content marketing partner for your business?

Be wary of agencies if they:

  1. Say they can do it all.
  2. Refer to proprietary key performance indicators.
  3. Hesitate to give you advice.
  4. Are “yes” people.
  5. Don’t ask about your audience.
  6. Aren’t willing to discuss their fees.

Keep reading to learn how to identify these six red flags while you’re vetting SEO agencies. We’ll also give you specific questions to ask each agency in order to uncover any potential problem. That way, you can feel confident about the content marketing agency partner you choose. 

6 Red Flags to Watch for in a Content Marketing Agency

These six issues should give you serious pause when hiring an outside content marketing team. If you come across any of these situations, it’s best to consider other companies.

1. Saying They Can Do It All

Every agency has a core proficiency. Ogilvy, now an advertising, marketing, and PR agency, started as just an advertising agency with a strong focus on consumer insights. Weber Shandwick, a global PR firm, was once best known for crisis management with its crisis simulator and training session called Firebell.

So when you come across a marketing agency claiming to excel in several marketing disciplines, such as email marketing, SEO services, web development, website design, inbound marketing, lead generation, copywriting, and more, challenge them. Ask them what they’re best at and note how they respond. When they get to the case study section of their pitch, pay attention to common themes to understand their core skill set. 

Growth Machine is not a do-it-all marketing agency — we do SEO, content creation, and link building, and that’s it. Our content creation involves researching, writing, and editing articles to meet your keyword strategy. Our team consists of professional editors, SEO experts, and experienced project managers who hold the Growth Machine team accountable for on-time delivery.

Cut to the chase and say this: Your team is clearly talented in X and Y. But what is it that makes your agency so special? What would your happiest clients say you helped their business achieve?

And when they answer those questions, follow it up with: Can you tell me more about how you conceptualized and executed that plan?

2. Referring to Proprietary Key Performance Indicators

You might not realize this is a red flag since it’s, unfortunately, so common. When you’re shopping around for a marketing partner, you’ll notice that many agencies use KPI reports that are chock full of their proprietary metrics and scores. One PR agency swears by impressions tracked in their “homegrown software” and insists that one media placement secured “hundreds of millions” of them. If you press them on where they got that metric, the company will admit it came from a circulation number touted by that magazine that is over five years old.

Another content strategy agency presents content audit findings in its “custom content matrix.” It tallies up the number of blog posts and sales collateral, identifies which type of content has the least deliverables, and just advises that that is where the greatest opportunity lies.

When you talk metrics with your potential content creation agency, don’t be afraid to ask where it’s getting its numbers from and how. If it touts impressions, ask if the source was a platform like Ahrefs or a publication’s self-reported circulation number. If the company brags about leads generated, ask how it defines and qualifies a lead and how these leads convert to sales. 

In the case of content marketing strategy, your agency should be comfortable giving you easily verifiable insight into more SEO-focused metrics, such as keyword ranking and backlinks.

Cut to the chase and say this: Let’s say my CMO just put a 1:1 on my calendar for this afternoon to ask about our digital content development progress. How will you support me in pulling a couple of KPIs in a pinch?

It’s better to hear your marketing partner say they’ll send you a link to a custom Google Data Studio dashboard instead of them saying they’ll need “more lead time” to tell you what your top five ranking landing pages are.

3. Hesitating To Give You Advice

When hiring digital marketing services, it means you’re looking for a team with more specific expertise than you, so it’s essential to feel confident that you can trust them and learn from them. 

But no content marketing company wants to be mined for free advice. Think about some small problems you’d want them to help you solve, and ask them how they’d tackle one of those problems. Show an interest in learning about their philosophies in digital marketing strategy.

For instance, Growth Machine strongly believes anyone can grow their organic traffic with the right knowledge and tools. So we created a free seven-part email course on building your site from scratch to increase your organic search traffic. It gives you specific advice on setting up your website correctly, explains how to create a keyword strategy and quality content plan, and offers some quick training on SEO tools.

If someone could take our course and yield the desired results, they didn’t need our services. But if they took our course and still feel our full services would be helpful, we can feel more confident that this new client trusts us. In turn, that client will feel safer for having chosen Growth Machine.

Cut to the chase and say this: I don’t know the nuances of content marketing services that well. Can you tell me how you would go about thinking through a content plan in a noisy or competitive space to take us to the next level?

If they talk about finding a good keyword strategy and owning those keywords, that’s too vague. A content marketing agency will articulate how they identify a good keyword strategy to match the target audience in a given space and how the marketing efforts across a handful of clients differed. They’ll also have examples to back up.

4. Being “Yes” People

Being pleasant and friendly is great, but it’s a huge red flag when I hear an agency tell me that everything my team is doing is excellent and we just need to keep it up. After all, if everything is so wonderful, why would I need to hire a content marketing agency in the first place?

This red flag becomes particularly frustrating when you’re looking for your SEO agency to be the experts you hired them to be. When you ask questions, you want them to stand behind their strategy. They need to show you that they have a solid, experience-backed rationale for their plan, and that it’s customized to your site’s authority and your business goals. 

You don’t want this experience: 

You: “Are you sure these are the right keywords for our business?”

Them: “We can change them if you want.”

You: “You are the experts and I trust you. But I worry that these terms are too vague, similar to one another, and will be hard to rank for.”

Them: “You make an excellent point! If you’re not comfortable with this list, we can start over. But we’ll need another two to three weeks to organize that for you.”

When you ask your agency to explain the reasoning behind their strategy, you don’t want to hear that you’re brilliant or that they’re wrong. You want expertise.

And you don’t want an agency partner that will spend weeks putting together this keyword strategy, only to be willing to abandon the plan after you ask one question.

“Yes” agencies like this lack insight. Being too flexible shows that the agency isn’t willing to stand by their work, and probably didn’t put much effort into it, though they won’t mind billing you for numerous hours spent.

Cut to the chase and say this: I have X and Y instincts about my content program, but I don’t know if I’m right or wrong. What do you think?

Framing the question that way opens the conversation for them to choose a point of view without having to be confrontational. It also shows you’re willing and eager to learn from them.

5. Not Asking About Your Audience

This is crucial for any marketing agency to ask, especially one tasked with creating high-quality content for you. By the very nature of its work, a content agency needs to understand your brand deeply to translate your brand voice and values into every word it writes on your behalf.

If an agency doesn’t ask you questions about your audience, it means they think they already have the answers (they don’t), or they simply don’t care (that’s bad). 

You may not yet have a real audience if your site is a brand-new startup. However, you have a sense of the audience you aspire to have. Make sure your agency is in tune with the audience you’re trying to reach, and they know what sales or conversion goals you ultimately have.

Cut to the chase and say this: How do you envision writing for my audience who knows much about X but not much about Y? How do you think about conversion goals as you write the content?

You’ll understand if they see the nuances between writing for the goal of brand awareness vs. educating readers vs. nudging the reader to buy something. And you’ll also get a sense of the writing philosophy used in their marketing campaigns

6. Being Vague About Their Fees

When I’ve narrowed my search to one to two content marketing agencies, I dig deeper into pricing: How it’s structured, what’s included, and whether there are any hidden fees.

The tricky thing is there isn’t one set structure for pricing. Marketing disciplines, agency sizes, and project or program types can all vary. 

So what should you keep an eye on? Retainers and slush funds.

A retainer itself is not a red flag. It’s common to pay a monthly retainer for marketing agencies that do ongoing work that isn’t always tied to a specific deliverable, like a set number of blog posts, social media posts, or videos each month.

For instance, you’ll probably pay a PR agency a set fee to cover the cost of pitching to reporters, supply you with briefing docs for each interview they secure, and help you with general talking points. But if that PR agency asks you to commit to a retainer but also charges you a separate fee for them to write messaging and pitch to reporters, that’s a red flag. Ask what work is included in the retainer and see if that works for you.

Another fee to look out for is a slush fund. A slush fund is reserved money you can use for last-minute marketing opportunities. Need a video or interactive content for an advertising slot? Need your agency to print booklets or press releases? Agencies can tap into their slush fund to cover the upfront costs.

This can be a good thing for both of you: They’re not breaking their bank, and you’re not worried about having to pay a colossal invoice quickly.

But here’s the red flag: Sometimes, agencies will ask you to commit tens of thousands of dollars to a slush fund, but you’ll lose that money if you don’t spend it within a specific time frame. 

So how can you avoid or better understand these fees?

Cut to the chase and say this: What ongoing work is included with this monthly retainer? How do you decide what requires a separate fee? If I opt out of doing a slush fund, how can we work together nimbly on potential last-minute opportunities?

We’re transparent about our breakdown when people ask us what we charge. We’ll tell you how much we budget for our writers, our upfront strategy and planning costs, and the overall content production process.

Find Your (Content Marketing Agency) Match

Whittling down the list of potential content marketing agencies is hard enough, let alone getting to the final stage and choosing one marketing agency to work with. But you know your team and your business best. Plus, armed with this set of questions, you’ll now be better prepared to make that decision.

Are you interested in seeing what Growth Machine can offer your company? Contact us, and we’ll get back to you by tomorrow to go over our SEO, content, and link-building services and how they can help your business grow.

Before you hire a marketing agency, watch this YouTube video and arm yourself with the right questions and a thorough understanding of what to watchout for.

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