The 4 types of B2B content marketing agency (and which is right for you)

B2B content marketing is a fast-developing discipline. While it's true to say that business marketers have pretty much always used content in some form or other (at least I struggle to remember a time of content-free marketing) the way it’s created and deployed today is tangibly different from previous eras.

It is also true that there are now tangibly different flavours of content marketing available (especially in business-to-business). Depending on your start point, objectives and general philosophy, you may take a very different approach to others in your industry. If you are running your entire content operation in house, this is unlikely to be an issue as it will be easier to take a slightly pick-and-mix approach. However, if you are partnering with a 'B2B content marketing agency', your partner's core approach will radically affect the kinds of activity you will undertake, the timescales you'll work to, and the kind of results you'll see.

To be clear, while we take a particular view on how content marketing should be done, there is no single right approach that applies to all B2B organisations. As such, the right agency for one client may be entirely the wrong one for another (even in the same industry).

In this article, we aim to offer a balanced view of the options open to today's marketers. While there are many slight variations on the types of agency you'll encounter, for ease of analysis, we've grouped them together into four main buckets. For each, we'll outline how they tend to approach content, why you might choose them, and why you might not.

Inbound content marketing agencies

1. Inbound content marketing agencies

When content marketing really began to see traction as a new(-ish) way of marketing, it was inbound that captured most of the limelight. Driven by the clever folks at the Content Marketing Institute and the marketing machine at HubSpot, inbound is seen by many as the default way to do content marketing today.

The core focus of an inbound approach is that we should not market to people before they are ready. Instead, we should create content that enables them to find us when they have a need. In this way we will be more relevant to their needs and, subsequently, more likely to close the deal (after all, they will already see us as thought leaders in our space due to our content).

An inbound content marketing agency will tend to focus on blogging and articles as the core foundation layer for their activity. They normally operate on a monthly fee and work to an agreed editorial calendar. They will often create a core content asset and then re-purpose and 'atomise' it to make it work across multiple media and formats.

An inbound agency will measure and track content effectiveness through how well it performs in terms of the number of views and shares, and some will track this through to sales (especially where there is a marketing automation platform in place that is hooked up to the client's CRM system).

Many inbound agencies will have a heavy pro-social focus and will use social media to help amplify the content they create. In B2B, this will tend to revolve around Twitter and LinkedIn (although the more enlightened will also look at specialist communities).

In addition, some traditional search marketing agencies have moved into content marketing as the SEO space has become more difficult to compete within. For these, inbound is a natural focus (if geared more towards rankings than people).

Why should you choose an inbound content marketing agency?

An inbound agency will probably suit you if you are able to take a longer term view of your content programme. The approach works but it takes time — it is more of a marathon than a sprint. You will see increasing results as you create higher volumes of relevant content. It will also suit you if you plan to take the activity in-house at some later stage as an inbound agency will give you the running start you need to get some valuable momentum. Then, later, you can hire your own inbound team and transition it across.

It will also suit you if you believe that social media will be a critical driving force for your marketing in the months and years to come.

Finally, the monthly fee-based approach to charging means that you have a predictable recurring cost for all your activity.

Why an inbound agency might not be right for you

As mentioned above, inbound is about playing the long game. It is less suited to demand generation activity that revolves around quarterly performance. 

The kind of content inbound agencies produce seems to work better for smaller businesses, or those in niche industries. The tendency to focus on quantity and consistent posting schedules has led to variable quality in some areas (though the better agencies will be able to clearly demonstrate they can work to a high quality on a consistent basis). 

And the monthly billing, while predictable, can prove costly and restrictive in the long run.

Outbound B2B content marketing agencies

2. Outbound/Integrated content marketing agencies

Before we start this section, full disclosure: Considered is an integrated outbound B2B agency.

Fundamentally, an outbound-focused agency will take an integrated campaign-based approach (even if these are always-on, perpetual programmes). Normally this will involve creating a number of content assets (often targeted at different stages of the buying cycle) and then promoting them via email, advertising and other paid activity. Many of these programmes will be structured through a marketing automation system such as Marketo, Pardot or Eloqua.

An outbound-focused agency should be able to structure the best flow for the campaign and know all the techniques for optimising effectiveness at each touch-point. They’ll also be able to plan out both calendared and triggered campaigns (or hybrids that have an element of both).

In addition to pure demand generation, an outbound agency will also run nurture and drip campaigns, using content to score and move prospects towards being a marketing qualified lead (MQL) that is ready to be passed to sales (along with all the history of the lead to that point).

While there will often be quarterly themes in place, outbound agencies tend not to focus on developing editorial calendars. Instead, the approach will work back from the specific campaign results we want to see within the specified timeframe. However, all content and assets will then be available for inbound-focused activity.

Traditional integrated marketing agencies and account based marketing (ABM) firms tend to fall into the outbound category (though not always).

Why should you choose an outbound content marketing agency?

An outbound-focused agency will suit you if your key objectives revolve around demand generation and lead nurturing — particularly if you are quarterly-driven in terms of delivering results (the ability to clearly demonstrate effectiveness is a bonus for sales- and results-focused cultures). 

Outbound also works well for companies that have invested in marketing automation and need to plan and feed programmes. It should enable you to move your automation on from a simple email service provider replacement to a more intelligent system that can add increasing value over time.

If your agency works on project-based remuneration (vs open-ended hours-based billing) you should also be able to more accurately track expenditure against return.

Why an outbound agency might not be right for you

The key factor here is data. If your data is poor and you do not want to take steps to use third-party data or partner with a media owner (pay-to-play and paid syndication), an outbound content agency is unlikely to be able to deliver the results you need. (Although in our post-GDPR world, these approaches can—and should—fall under the banner of 'legitimate interest'.)

Likewise, if you do not have the ability to execute – either via a marketing automation system or using a combination of email provider (eg MailChimp) and landing page system (eg Unbounce) – then, again, outbound won’t be the way to go.

And if you’re fundamentally opposed to interruption marketing, you’ll be better off taking an inbound approach.

Media-led content marketing agencies

3. Media-led content marketing agencies

Media-led content marketing agencies have evolved out of more traditional media buying firms. These agencies primarily work with media owners on a paid basis to create and promote content assets to the publisher’s readership.

The assets themselves may be developed by the publication/site’s creative and writing teams or developed as a piece of native advertising by the agency — one that looks and feels a lot like the site it appears on (very much like a modern advertorial).

Services will also include paid search and paid social placement (and all the planning and strategy that sits beneath this). There will often be an element of email distribution sent direct from the publisher who may also manage the initial leads this generates.

This may go further to include cost-per-lead activity where the publisher commits to a certain level of performance for a price agreed with the client.

Why should you choose a media-led content marketing agency?

If you do not have good data or are entering a new market segment, a media-led approach can quickly give you access to the people you need to get in front of. The brand reputation of the media you partner with can also deliver a halo effect around your own content.

If you are committed to a heavy social media element, a media agency will help you amplify your message with smart pay-to-play approaches.

Good media agencies will also be skilled in reporting and analytics, showing you the results you’re getting for your money.

Why a media-led agency might not be right for you

If you are partnering with a media publisher to host and promote your content, you will need to be comfortable with the fact that the destination for leads (and the value your content delivers) will be the media owner’s property in the first instance. 

As with traditional media, you are also dependent on the media owner’s audiences being as engaged and committed as they would have you believe.

Finally, media-led approaches can be an expensive option, depending on the publisher and the competitiveness of your marketplace. (This is less so for simple PPC-style and limited retargeting campaigns.)

PR-led content marketing agencies

4. PR-led content marketing agencies

Public relations firms were one of the first to fully realise the value of getting content into the right hands — it’s pretty much been their focus all along. In moving more explicitly into the content marketing arena, they’ve taken their eye for a newsworthy story and applied it to content creation. 

PR-led agencies will look to blend their client’s objectives with what journalists and analysts will see as valuable for their audiences. Of course, the definition of a media channel is changing rapidly, so PR-led agencies will normally also include outreach to key influencers on social media as part of their approach. 

Good PR professionals are skilled at making connections. They will focus on getting into a meaningful dialogue with journalists and influencers (not just spamming them with pitches for their latest release). In doing so, they can create a valuable two-way conversation that will amplify results over time.

Why should you choose a PR-led content marketing agency?

PR-led approaches are particularly valuable to businesses that need to build credibility fast. The ability to have key influencers talk about your products and viewpoints in a positive way offers significant value. Likewise, becoming a go-to source for quotes from a key publication can turn your people into respected thought leaders.

This also offers a way to drive greater awareness of your brand and products within a tighter timescale than some other approaches (particularly inbound).

And the monthly fee-based remuneration offers a predictable cost model.  

Why a PR-led agency might not be right for you

Ultimately, PR approaches are highly dependent on the views and attitudes of journalists, bloggers, analysts and other influencers. Your message/content will always be filtered through the lens of what makes sense for them and their audience. Results are therefore more variable than for either media-led or outbound approaches. 

On the whole, PR approaches are better at delivering awareness than marketing qualified leads (though many PR agencies would probably disagree). So if you are lead generation focused, a PR-led approach may not be the most effective option open to you.

What every good content marketing agency should be able to do

While we’ve looked to highlight the relative strengths of different approaches to B2B content marketing used by agencies today, whichever approach you take, there are certain abilities that should be mandatory:

  • The agency should be able to understand your business, your markets and your buyers
  • They should have outstanding copywriting abilities — bad writing is where B2B content goes to die
  • They should be able to help you get to the core of your message and positioning (and give you a hard time if you aren’t sure yourself)
  • They should be clear about what success looks like with their approach (and be just as clear on potential stumbling blocks)

Ultimately, B2B content marketing offers a highly effective way of moving prospects and customers from ignorance to interest to sale. The challenge is find the right partner for your objectives, timescales and corporate culture.

If you think that the right approach is outbound/integrated, we’d love to talk. You can reach us at hello@consideredcontent.com. Alternatively, if one of the other approaches looks better suited to your needs, get in touch and we’ll introduce you to an agency we recommend.

Running the numbers on B2B social media

Today, so most articles will tell you, if you're not all in on social media, you're doing marketing wrong. Worse than this, you're a luddite. You just don't get that the world has changed. B2B buyers have moved on. They're much more likely to check out Twitter and LinkedIn than read your lame white paper or latest ebook. And email? Pah! 

As a result, you need to get over yourself, stop selling and start engaging them on their terms, where they hang out online. You need to create great, click-worthy content that can be shared on social media. You need to make it bite-sized, snackable. And you need to take advantage of all the news-jacking, listicle, 'What David Bowie taught me about the enterprise technology stack' techniques that amp up your likes and shares. In fact, you really should be thinking about moving on from traditional social media, the real action is now on SnapChat. 

As a result, the number of B2B social media marketers has exploded. They're blogging, tweeting, sharing and engaging their communities. The costs are pretty low in hard cash terms (until they take the pay-to-play options) but they're investing masses of time and effort into making this work. As most will cheerfully admit, no one has all the answers yet. This is an emerging discipline. In fact, key to success is that you keep experimenting – because, what works today won't necessarily work tomorrow.  

Taking stock

While it's true that social media is a rapidly evolving space, we’re now a number of years into the social revolution. And while many (especially in B2B) were a little late to the party, we should now be seeing some pretty reliable evidence of just how well social media is delivering. 

The next question is, of course, how to measure results. In the early days, measurement tended to be focused on social media metrics themselves – shares, likes etc. This may have been developed further into reach and engagement. But, fundamentally, it was about how well any individual brand's content and communications was performing in social media itself.  

More recently, attitudes have hardened somewhat. Boards are looking at social activity and asking precisely what it's doing for the business. That is, is it converting into leads and ultimately sales? This is a tougher exercise. Outbound campaign activities can track leads pretty effectively – we monitor everything and traffic is generally driven to specific landing pages. But while B2C marketers have some great attribution tools, in complex sales with multiple decision makers it can be difficult to trace back effectiveness to a social Typhoid Mary.  

But what if we simply look at a metric such as website traffic? This gets us away from the social being about social issue and demonstrates some tangible movement towards greater engagement with the brand and its products and services. It is, of course, nowhere near perfect but, if nothing else, it's an interesting exercise. 

With B2B Marketing's upcoming InTech and InProf events, we thought we'd look at just how much web traffic social drives to leading technology and professional services firms. Now, getting access to this data can be a little tricky. However, by all accounts, Similarweb is reasonably accurate in estimating figures on relative sources of traffic (at least accurate enough for our rough and ready exercise here). So we looked at the stats for the top 10 companies on Nasdaq and the top 10 professional services firms as rated by Accountancy Age

Let's start with the tech firms... 

No tech firm in the top 10 exceeds 5% of website traffic from social media 

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This was a surprise. I don't know about you, but as a guess, I'd have expected most of the leading tech companies to be nudging up around 10% of their traffic coming from social media. To me, that feels about right given all the noise and the fact that, in B2B, technology companies tend to be early adopters. 

Ironically, the top performer is Apple, a brand famous for doing not very much in the social space. They hit the heady heights of 4.89% of traffic coming from social. This goes to show the power of a strong brand – if brand is less about what you say about yourself and more about what others say about you, Apple is reaping the rewards.  

In second place comes Amazon with 3.91% from social. Here we may be getting some bleed-over from the B2C/e-commerce side of the business (I'd be very surprised if the Amazon Web Services part of the organisation sees that much traffic from social).  

Third is Alphabet (the holding company for Google) with 2.12%. The irony here is that most of their traffic (42%) comes direct and not via search. 

None of the other seven breaks through the 2% barrier – so from top to bottom, it reads: Intel (1.93%), Microsoft (1.65%), Comcast/Xfinity (1.59%), Facebook (1.41%), Cisco (1.09%), Amgen (1.07) and Gilead Sciences brings up the rear with 0.65%. 

So what about professional services? 

Only one professional services firm in the top 10 exceeds 2% website traffic from social media 

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Now, despite the great strides being made by a number of professional services firms in content marketing and thought leadership (not to mention their industrial scale recruitment efforts), I'd expect them to perform a bit worse than the tech companies in driving traffic from social. What can I say, it's a prejudice.  

Looking at the average traffic from social media across the top 10, for professional services firms this stands at 1.48% (compared to 2.03% for the tech firms). So not a massive difference. 

The leader in professional services is Deloitte with 3.25% (the only firm to exceed 2%) which may be a reflection of the brand's increasing focus on the digital world and extensive content creation. 

Second comes EY (Ernst & Young) with 1.75% and, tying for third on 1.68%, are BDO and Mazars.  

The rest? PwC (1.62%), KPMG (1.44%), Smith & Williamson (1.4%), Baker Tilly (1.04%), Moore Stephens (0.46%) and finally Grant Thornton on 0.44%. 

Overall, the vast majority of professional services traffic comes via search (in tech it's more evenly split between search and direct). Again, this may be a reflection of their focus on creating thought leadership-style content. 

Just three MarTech companies in the top 10 get over 5% of their traffic from social

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Ok, what about those businesses that have really committed to the whole notion of social – the MarTech companies? If anyone is really showing the strength of social media marketing, it's these guys. They're the ones really spending the time and money to grow significant followers and engage with them on a day-to-day (minute-to-minute) basis.  

To get a selection to analyse, we turned to inbound.org's list of the top MarTech companies. This is determined based on scores across Twitter followers, Facebook fans, Buzz and search authority. So what did we find? 

The clear winner is Visual.ly, blowing the other nine away with 18.76% of its traffic coming from social media. The brand has built up 138k Twitter followers and 177k Facebook fans – though this is far less than some far worse performing brands in the top 10. In fact, it stands at number 10 on inbound.org's list. Unless these figures are skewed by something like their content for clients being hosted by them and linked to direct, whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it right. 

In second place comes Hootsuite on 7.5% (with 7m Twitter followers and 562k Facebook fans) – still creditable by the standards we've seen in the Nasdaq and Accountancy Age lists. Considering how core social media is to Hootsuite's business, a poor showing here would be pretty damning. 

Third comes StumbleUpon on 5.42% (with 91.4k Twitter followers and 653k Facebook fans). Again, their business is centred around people using their service to find and share content so you'd certainly hope they'd do well.  

No-one outside the top three manages to exceed the 5% mark however, the rest of the top 10 reads: Hubspot (4.78%), Adobe (4.31%), Moz.com (3.44%), Oracle (2.82%), Salesforce (1.6%), Dell (1.5%) and MailChimp (1.35%). 

So what’s going on?

There could, of course, be a multitude of conclusions to be drawn from this analysis. 

Maybe the data is wrong. It is, after all, an estimation (even though Similarweb is generally seen to be pretty accurate). If this is the case, these brands could be doing way, way better than the data suggests. 

Maybe our expectations are too high. Maybe the above results are good and reflect a positive result for the amount of cost and effort that’s going into them. 

Maybe we’re measuring the wrong thing. It could easily be argued that we should be looking at what’s happening on the social networks themselves. It could be claimed that this is where the real action is precisely because today’s B2B customers are spending more time on these networks precisely to avoid brands’ own highly controlled sites. (For example US firm PerkinElmer is cited by Trackmaven has having exceptional engagement on Facebook with 89.45 interactions per post per thousand followers, yet Similarweb rates its social traffic at just 0.58%.) 

Maybe we’re not factoring in ‘dark social’ – traffic that simply cannot be currently tracked. Possible, but if feels a little too much like a get out of jail free card for my liking. 

Recent research by Vanson Bourne found that while 94% of tech marketers are using social, only 2 to 3% thought they were doing it extremely well. And it is taking a lot of their time. As one respondent noted: "Social media [is] a big time suck for a marketing department. The tactics have changed [but] the buyer and the way they buy hasn't changed." 

So what do you think? I’d love to know. (In fact, if you’re going to be at InTech/InProf, feel free to search me out – you can also find me on LinkedIn – I’m fascinated by other B2B marketers’ experiences.)