Okay, I have some good news and some bad news. And since I am a firm believer in “ripping off the band-aid” in life, we’re going to start with the bad news.

Bad News: The content you need to drive your marketing strategy is never going to appear out of thin air. There is no magical inbound wizard who can “make it rain” blog posts and eBooks from the heavens down onto the weeping masses of wayward marketers and lazy business owners below. Nor is there some artificial intelligence “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave,” robot out there who can take care of it all for you. Content needs to be created. By humans. Specifically you.

Good News: If you’re shopping around for an inbound agency, you’re in luck. Yes, times have changed, and content that’s “good enough” doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s because the consumers you’re trying to reach – whether they’re businesses or private individuals – are more savvy, more obsessed with transparency and more intolerant of bad content than ever before. But the right agency knows this and can help you create the remarkable content you need to attract the right leads and nurture them to close.

The key, of course, is finding that right agency who understands not only what great content looks like, but also what it takes to make it happen. Unfortunately, there are still some agencies who treat content as some sort of homogenized commodity, and they aren’t always easy to spot. So to help you out, I’m pulling back the curtain today on what you need to look out for (and avoid) in your next agency, when it comes to content creation.

They Don’t Even Have a Process

This may seem a bit rudimentary, but if you’re being courted by an inbound agency, and they can’t clearly articulate a content creation process they’ve tested and documented, run – do not walk – to your nearest exit. You’re never going to create content that resonates with your audience personas if you have to start each blog writing exercise or content project by asking, “Okay, so how are we going to do it this time?” In addition, they should be able to tell you why they have that process, as well as what works and what doesn’t.

“Don’t assume every agency knows how to create great content.”

Here at Quintain, I’m a bit obsessive about processes. I create them. I test them. I retest them. I tweak them. I revise them. (Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) I don’t do this because I have a weird process fetish – a fact that may surprise some of my fellow Quintainians. In reality, content creation processes that provide a sustainable, scalable framework that is agile enough to adapt to the unique needs of each of our insanely busy clients isn’t easy. And like the content itself, those processes don’t just appear overnight.

So be extremely wary of those who don’t have a process in place – or worse, don’t think you need one.

They Only Have One Process

Here’s the thing about the word “content” – when we throw that word around, it sounds like we’re discussing a single type of output. Instead, content takes many forms. Blogs, eBooks, whitepapers, checklists, case studies, webinars, SlideShares… I could go on. And each of those modes requires a different approach.

Yes, there may be some overlap, where you use similar methods to create different pieces. But unfortunately there is no single, “one-size-fits-all” process out there for creating content. So don’t green-light an agency if they say they have a process that works for everything. Instead, the right agency will have the frontline experience to say, “This is our process for blogs, this is our process for case studies,” and so on.

For example, I often interview clients for both blogs and website content, and my editing regimen is fairly consistent across the board. But interviewing and editing aren’t standalone processes; they’re my “tools” that I use to execute different processes, as needed. When we need to create a client case study, I pull up our case study process, which includes a custom questionnaire. When we need to create a blog, I reach down into my Mary Poppins content bag and pull out my menu of blog creation process options.

Which brings me to my next point…

They Have Multiple Processes, but They’re inflexible

Yes, I have more than one process for creating blogs. In fact, I have three. Three very different processes that are designed to address the common content creation challenges I have encountered on a daily basis since I walked in the door at Quintain for the first time almost two years ago. A client is has a lot to say, but no time to write. A client has a lot to say, but they hate writing. A client has a lot to say and the time to write, but they’re bad at it. A client wants to write, but they don’t have a lot to say. A client who secretly wishes I could read their mind and write everything for them. You get the picture.

This is why we don’t tell our clients and prospects that we only have one way of doing things. We provide them with choices. And even within those processes in place, there is room to adapt them to the needs of the clients we’re working with.

So if you encounter an agency who has clearly defined processes that cover a wide range of circumstances, press them to see how inflexible they are. Good processes should provide a clear roadmap of how to create content, along with a defined set of best practices, but they shouldn’t be so rigid that if you color outside of the lines, everything will come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Finally, Look in the Mirror

Let’s say you find an agency with multiple, agile processes that not only take into account the different modes of content creation, but also the unique needs and idiosyncrasies of your organization. Guess what? That’s still not going to be enough to guarantee your success. There is one other major player you need to account for.

You.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, you can’t have great content without hard work – you get out what you put in. Period. That means you can’t pass the buck to your agency and make them do all of the heavy lifting for you. If you do, you’ll end up with content could be serviceable, but probably still lacks the necessary depth or breadth of knowledge – especially if you’re in a specialized industry. (And in my experience, the clients who have refused to roll up their sleeves and get involved are also the ones who end up the most frustrated with the results.)

So while the best agencies have their content processes in line, they also understand that the most fruitful client-agency relationships are ones that exist as a true partnership. That only works, however, if you’re willing to be an equitable partner in your own success. Because even the best processes will only get you so far.