When we initially started Grow and Convert, we had no intention of turning it into a content marketing agency. In fact, we specifically did not want to start an agency. We wanted to sell products and training.
So we wrote and wrote about content marketing strategy, content creation, promotion and distribution, lead attribution, and more. We grew traffic to 16,000 unique visitors in 5 months, and started to build a following.
But something happened when we tried to sell our training and courses: marketers inside businesses kept asking us if we could just do their content marketing for them. They preferred to just hire someone they trusted rather than train in house employees.
People wanted us to provide a service.
So we had to decide: were we okay with starting a content marketing agency?
We debated it heavily that spring (2017). What resulted was an understanding of what was lacking in most content marketing services, and a detailed criteria for what makes a top content marketing agency.
Below we discuss both in turn.
Our past Experience: Why Top Content Marketing Agencies Are Hard to Find
Our hesitation in starting our own agency was based on the difficulty of doing content marketing well. Specifically it stemmed from our prior experiences trying to hire content marketing agencies and being disappointed.
A good story of this is Benji’s (my Co-founder’s) experience trying to hire a content marketing agency for his prior company, ThinkApps. He tells it in detail in our agency positioning case study, but in summary he ran into 3 major “gaps” in the market (i.e. shortcomings of most content marketing agencies, and, to be honest, content marketers as well).
Gap 1: Content Agencies Were Unwilling to Be Accountable to Leads Generated
This was the biggest issue. Benji was running all of marketing for ThinkApps at the time, so the metric he was accountable for was leads generated. But when he talked to agency after agency, they refused to be held accountable for leads generated. Their deliverables, they said, were about content output:
“We’ll produce ‘N’ articles a month”
“Each article will have a minimum word count of ‘N’”
But Benji and his team, like many marketing teams, didn’t really want content, he wanted to results, which for his B2B company was leads, in fact, qualified leads that lead to new customers. People like to throw around the term “inbound marketing” but if you aren’t measuring and reporting on inbound leads, what’s the point?
What’s worse is that many weren’t even willing to hold themselves accountable to traffic, one step before leads. They would just say “Well, over time, you should start to see organic traffic increase.”
This problem applies to B2C companies as well, but is especially acute for B2B companies, because for them lead quality and traffic quality matter more than volume.
This is in contrast to, say, affiliate sites and some B2C eCommerce where you’re playing a content volume game: producing as much content as possible to try to rank for as many keywords as possible.
For these brands, the content can be simple. You’re not trying to win trust with a business customer in a complex niche that has a 6 month sales cycle. You’re just trying to show up for a consumer-based search term like “top running shoes for men” (and dozens or hundreds of similar search queries). This content can be written and understood by most lay people (thus many freelance writers can easily produce it) — it’s just a matter of producing enough to rank for enough of those keywords.
In contrast, for businesses in specialized niches, with customers that have advanced knowledge in the space, this doesn’t work. They need more advanced content, which takes us to gap #2.
Gap 2: Most Content Agencies Couldn’t Produce Advanced or Specialized Content
ThinkApps provided app development services to businesses. They had contract sizes reaching over $100,000. That kind of B2B customer is savvy. They have advanced questions about app development. Many have already tried it before and want a better solution.
In short: they are not beginners.
This is true for a ton of B2B companies and some B2C companies. For example (these are drawn from our actual clients):
- [B2B] A digital marketing agency (like ours) sells to heads of marketing (VP, Directors) that have decades of experience.
- [B2B] A sales app company sells to sales teams and managers that have been using sales software for decades.
- [B2C] A concussion treatment center has patients who have had concussion symptoms for months or years and talked to multiple doctors and Googled a ton of information about it — their queries are not simple.
Most content marketing companies hire freelance writers with minimal, if any, domain expertise, who are just given a topic (“Write about sales CRM apps”) and asked to come up with the argumentation on their own. How is that blog post supposed to impress savvy potential customers? It can’t.
This is why so many companies consistently create introductory, beginner level content. Things like:
What VP of marketing is dying to know the top 10 trends in their own industry, or worse, read yet another “Beginner’s Guide” (or even “Ultimate Guide” which typically has beginner level info) in the field they’ve been in for years?
This type of beginner level content does not address actual pain points that savvy customers (typically B2B, but sometimes B2C) have.
It’s not great content, even if it hits some arbitrary length requirement, and has a beautiful web design or user experience. We call this mirage content — it sounds as though it should work, but when inspected closely, it doesn’t.
So we knew, to be a top content marketing agency, we needed a system to be able to produce advanced level content for advanced customers.
Gap 3: Most Content Agencies Don’t Have Real Distribution or Promotion Processes
To get the results Benji wanted when he was searching for agencies, he wasn’t okay with publishing blog posts and praying for traffic to come.
It’s also not easy. You have to be creative and keep testing new things. For example, we recently wrote an article about how community content promotion — one of our tried and true processes for driving traffic — was becoming more difficult. We shared our new promotion process to supplement it.
The digital agencies Benji talked to during his search said they helped promote the content (dropping phrases like “social media marketing”), but when he dug in he realized this consisted of writing a few social media posts for you and sharing them out on your social channels.
That’s not enough to get real results. We knew we wanted our content agency to be full service, and that requires reporting on business results: traffic and leads.
Our Strategy for Building One of the Best Content Marketing Agencies
So with the gaps identified, we had the basis of a content strategy to offer a service we were proud of. It was just a matter of creating systems to solve the problems above.
We felt that if we could do that, we would genuinely have one of the best content marketing agencies around because a single service that could offer all of the solutions below was exceedingly rare (we have yet to find anyone else that can do all of this).
To explain these solutions, I’m actually going to go in a different order than the above.
I’ll start with how we produce advanced content, then how we promote that content to get traffic and links, then I’ll end with how we measure and hold ourselves accountable to traffic and leads.
Solution 1: How We Produce Advanced, Industry Specific Content
Here are some actual blog posts we’ve produced for clients recently:
- A post on neuroplasticity treatment for concussions for a concussion treatment center.
- A post on how Cars.com transitioned their backend framework to node.js for a backend development firm.
- A post on how to use a content delivery network to execute on the burgeoning “Edge SEO” concept for an eCommerce SEO agency.
These are advanced topics that require:
- Knowledge that the target audience actually has these pain points. For example: Do they care about neuroplasticity treatment, backend frameworks, or advanced search engine optimization?
- A process for answering these advanced questions at a level that an industry veteran or knowledgeable consumer would feel matches their own.
For the first requirement, we do extensive customer research, which we’ve written about at length. This ensures our topics are on the pain points that their target customers actually have, which results in higher conversion rates.
For the second requirement, we employ journalism skills to produce this content. In short: when writing on an advanced topic, our writers first interview people who have the know how to speak on that topic and act like journalists to convey their ideas into the article.
Thus the writer is not asked to pretend to be an expert themselves. This is a massive shift from traditional content services and is essential to producing genuinely high quality content.
We’re not talking about grabbing a few quotes from experts to throw into an article. We’re talking about hour long recorded interviews where we shape an entire article around the viewpoint and knowledge of an expert.
This changes everything. It creates true thought leadership content.
Just look at the titles of the 3 posts linked to above. By topic alone, you can tell it’s not Mirage Content. Then when you read the article you can tell an expert has informed it or it’s actually a story of someone who lived through an instructive experience (e.g. the Cars.com article).
For B2B companies or B2C companies with advanced customers, producing content at this level is essential.
Solution 2: We Have a Three Pronged, Active Content Promotion Process
We knew that to really feel like we had one of the best content marketing agencies in the market, we had to be able to drive serious traffic to articles ourselves, not just post on the client’s social media accounts a few times.
To do that, we have a 3-pronged process:
- Community content promotion (Short Term Traffic). As we said, this is getting more difficult in recent years as social platforms are trying to keep traffic on their site and demote outbound links, but it’s still possible. This includes finding groups where the target customer already hangs out online (LinkedIn, Facebook, Sites, newsletters they read, etc.) and building relationships in these groups and promoting content there. This is a manual, time consuming process, but can be well worth the effort.
- Paid Ads / PPC (Short Term Traffic). We use Facebook ads to promote content using two targeting methods: cold audiences using interest and demographic based targeting and lookalike audiences based on the client’s existing customer list or website visitors.
- Manual Link Building (Long Term Traffic). When certain pieces start ranking for keywords, we strategically deploy link building to boost them to page 1 or the top of page 1 in Google. This is white hat, manual link building.
The combination of these 3 steps gives our pieces a short term boost in traffic (1 and 2), followed by long term sustainable organic traffic (3) that adds up from different articles and grows over time.
We do all of the above from our own budget, no extra spend for our clients. This is markedly different from other marketing agencies and something we’re very proud of offering our clients.
Solution 3: We Hold Ourselves Accountable to Traffic and Lead Growth
The above solutions already set us apart from other options companies have for getting content marketing done: agencies or even full time hires.
- Instead of producing beginner level fluff content that savvy customers don’t care about, we produce advanced content at the level of knowledge of the target customer on pain points they actually care about.
- Instead of just publishing, tweeting it out a few times, and hoping for traffic and links, we actively promote in online communities, with paid ads, and build links manually and strategically, driving both short term and long term (SEO) traffic.
But what they enable is for us to provide our ultimate goal: be responsible for and report on traffic and lead growth from our content. This is what we define as a truly “full-service” content marketing agency.
For example, here are some traffic growth graphs for a few different clients.
A B2B SaaS company for sales and marketing departments:
A high end marketing agency for million dollar eCommerce brands:
A widely known platform for online creators to grow their business:
You can see the graphs are very different for these clients, both in shape and size. That’s normal.
We’re happy to share those differences and don’t shy away from showing that not all businesses are supposed to have the same traffic. For some, like the marketing agency, they care way more about traffic quality (landing the perfect client) than they do about quantity.
We also track and report on leads generated from our content. For example here is a nice lead growth graph from one of our clients:
It’s not as straightforward to measure leads from content as, say, paid ads. So we measure it in 2 ways: people who converted after seeing our blog posts at any point in their journey, people who converted after seeing our blog posts as the first step in their journey.
If You Are Interested in Working With Us, Here Are Details
Finally, if you feel the above resonates with you. You can read more details about our service and the price point on our work with us page.