Editor’s note: Verblio’s CEO Steve Pockross and VP of Marketing Paul Zalewski recently sat down with Jason Swenk, the creator of The Smart Agency Master Class Podcast and a highly talented, well respected advertising, digital, media, and PR coach for agencies.
The following post was written by one of our talented 3,000 U.S.-based writers summarizing the highlights of the conversation of Steve, Paul, and Jason.
We’ve been Jason’s content partner for more than two years, and in his own words have helped him scale his content “super fast”, taking his writing from “horrendous” to “superb” in short order.
The amazing thing that Verblio has allowed us to do—and a lot of agencies that use you—is scale up fast. It’s nice to not have to worry about hiring people when we bring on a big client. All we have to do is manage things. And before we worked with Verblio, our content was horrendous!-Jason Swenk
So in this episode of his podcast, Steve and Paul were excited to dive into some data from hundreds of marketing agencies we’ve been collecting through our agency survey (and we’re still inviting agencies to fill it out, which you can do at this link!). It’s provided us with some incredible insights that we’re finally ready to share.
If you want all the deets, check out the full episode here.
If you’re interested in the TL;DR though, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick dive into what Jason, Steve, and Paul had to say—and some of the early results of Verblio’s survey!
Highlight #1: Agencies Are Interested, But Content Isn’t Their Priority
Agencies want to know what’s going on in content marketing, and much like every other industry, they look for benchmarks to help them know whether or not their tactics are working.
But when it comes to how digital agencies should do things (like content marketing), there’s a lot less data than there are tutorials on how to create content. That means there’s a lot of… questionable practices out there, and we wanted to know what was (and wasn’t) working.
In other words, there’s a lack of focus as an industry on what truly works—because everyone is still trying to figure that out!
What we wanted to do with the survey was create a resource where agencies could learn not just about content marketing best practices, but specifically how agencies should create and use content to get better results for their clients.-Steve Pockross
To steer the ship in a different direction we had to start collecting data, so that’s exactly what we’re after.
Highlight #2: There’s Less Consistency In Content Creation Than You Might Think
The most surprising thing we learned from our survey is where consistencies are (and where they aren’t). We really thought there would be more consistency, given the expansive literature on best practices in content marketing.
The biggest areas we found consistency-wise were twofold:
- Most agencies produced 5-9 pieces of content per week.
- The average length is reportedly between 1,000-1,500 words.
That seems pretty consistent, at least on the surface.
But when you drill down, the cracks really start to form. For an industry that preaches best practices, you may have noticed that those numbers don’t quite hit the mark. Especially when you consider that the perfect piece of content should:
- Be infinitely long (within reason and budget)
- Have interactive graphics
- Have 100 journalists know about it within 24 hours of launch
- And so on…
You get the picture—the best practices create a steep slope to climb.
The perfect piece of content has been scoped out perfectly.-Paul Zalewski
But agencies have limitations, budgets, and timelines. It’s not possible to make each piece perfect, and agencies were more than happy to share this fact.
The result of this is that the content they do create is far from consistent—at least in terms of what the best practice data says. When you’re trying to write content quickly, you have to trim somewhere. That means lengths vary based on priorities, images fall to the wayside, and outreach or promotion only happens on the big pieces.
So just like that, a lack of consistency in the content creation approach sends tons of content floating out without a life vest.
Highlight #3: Don’t Give the Keys To the Client
The lack of consistency noted above doesn’t give an excuse for laziness or obvious mistakes though. The biggest “no no” on our survey is “don’t expect that your clients can create their own content.”
It’s nice to think you can guide them and tell them how to create content from an SEO perspective, but what we found was less than 20% of agencies who saw their content as “successful” had their clients write their own content. That’s telling.
Clients are busy. Asking them to do anything is tough—and content writing is particularly hard.-Paul Zalewski
There are plenty of reasons why clients may not have the ability to effectively create their own content. The true subject-matter expert may not be a great writer, or have enough time. And at the bottom line, they’re busy, and this is the same issue that agencies have had for years.
So keep that in mind when you’re talking to your clients. You can and should create content for them as their agency, because you will almost always do it better!
Highlight #4: How Agencies Price Content Makes A BIG Difference
One of the other data points we were curious about was whether the pricing model an agency used for their content made a difference in the results.
And boy, does it.
First of all, you have to understand that agencies use at least three primary models when billing content:
- They build content into a retainer
- They bill content as a separate line-item that they then charge for every month
- They charge à la carte
We asked which of these three models agencies used in our survey, and when we matched the results with those who reported that their content was successful, we found that 87% built the price into their retainer.
Paul also shared another interesting insight tied to pricing and how agencies view their content:
Agencies who thought their content was effective for both themselves and their clients thought that content was a profit center for their agency. I think it’s tempting as an agency to get your costs as low as possible, but if you do that, then content isn’t going to be a priority for your agency.-Paul Zalewski
And this makes sense. If you decide to keep costs and profits rock-bottom-low, then content (on its face) doesn’t seem like it’d be a money maker—so then why focus on it? See the next highlight to bust this myth…
The big takeaways: build your content into your retainer, and use it as a profit center!
Highlight #5: Agencies That Make Money On Content Sell The Solution
The average agency that feels they’re making money on content is marking it up about 200%.
And interestingly enough, our survey found that agencies fell into three equal groups in terms of what they charged their clients for a typical 1,000-word content piece:
- 33% charge less than $100,
- 33% charge between $100 and $300, and
- 33% charge more than $300.
So where do some of these agencies find the ability to charge that much—sometimes up to 200% of their costs?
Based on what we found, it’s because there’s a unique mentality with effective content marketers: they focus on selling the solution.
Sell the solution to their [the client’s] problem, and you can group things together into the solution—people who only charge for execution are giving away the strategy for free! No! Charge for the strategy and the solution!-Jason Swenk
If you simply sell the execution of your content, you’re only getting paid for half the work. That is, you’re only paid for the words you write and not the strategy behind it.
And we’ve noticed something tied to this in our own clients. We’ve put in a lot of effort making Verblio a white label product for agencies, but a good portion of our clients freely tell their clients that they use Verblio.
Why do they feel comfortable doing that?
It’s because their clients know that if they came to Verblio on their own, they likely wouldn’t get the same results—because they’re missing the winning strategy that their agency creates for them to create the winning combination of factors.
If those agencies simply charged cost (or barely above cost), they’d be putting almost no effort into strategy just to make a profit. Not a great look.
The end result of all this is that a lot of the agencies that use Verblio are able to scale very fast, because they know they can trust the product we deliver. A service like Verblio allows you to focus on management and do what your agency is designed to do.
Highlight #6: More Agencies Need To Double-Down On A Niche
A couple of other big things we asked in our survey included:
- What is your focus?
- Are you a full-service agency?
We asked these because we wanted to see how many of our agency partners had a niche, which is a commonly recommended best practice these days.
Turns out, only 30% of the agencies we surveyed considered themselves a “niche” agency. With thought leadership pointing toward agencies having a niche, we thought that would be much higher—and we certainly feel that it should be a focus for many agencies moving forward.
I talk about this all the time and it drives me crazy. Full-service agencies are struggling, and I hear that a lot through my podcast. Against the ones who go very deep, it’s clear who is growing — and there’s tons of opportunity to dive into a niche.-Jason Swenk
With 70% of agencies still claiming full-service, there’s tons of room for growth and refinement.
Highlight #7: Blogging Is Still the Biggest Winner
A lot of the talk in digital marketing is about what’s sexy today, and we wanted to see if all that talk really added up.
So we asked: “What type of content is the most successful in driving results?”
The overwhelming response was blogging.
It’s easy to look at blogging as a dated tool, but it’s still consistently creating results—and it’s still cost-effective.
For instance, one underutilized tactic that’s easy for agencies to do is to SEO research, pivot, and rewrite a client’s top performing content. Only 50% of agencies were doing that, and it’s an easy way to get quick SEO results out of the gate for clients.
Another issue is that agencies aren’t quite approaching the content they do produce in a way that truly sets them apart.
Agencies that are using a service like ours—using content as a competitive advantage—are rare. There are very few agencies that are thinking big about content. Most look at how to relieve a pain point versus attempting to create an advantage.-Steve Pockross
Taking the right approach in the content you create (and how you create it) is more important than ever for agencies, and that’s not likely to revert any time soon.
Highlight #8: Video Is The Wild West—Gold Rush Included
One final interesting topic that came up was video. 71% of agencies have experimented with video and believe it will improve their content, but that’s about where the similarities ended.
Beyond that, no more than two out of the surveyors agreed on which platform was the best for video. It’s the wild west!
It blows my mind that not everyone is doing video! We can create four or five videos from a single podcast episode using 20-second clips. Taking ‘macro’ content and making ‘micro’ content is essential, and these extra credit wins are the difference between winning and losing.-Jason Swenk
We’re excited to see how things settle in over the coming years. This trend is part of the underlying reason why Verblio acquired an AI video company in 2019. We’re part of the experimentation and want to help push video forward for agencies.
Keep Talking To Us, And We’ll Keep Diving Into Data
These eight insights are just the tip of the iceberg, and we’re still collecting all the data we can from our agency clients.
The more information we get, the better off we all are! That’s why we think this survey data is important, and it’s also why we want to keep adding to it.
With that said, if you’re an agency, we’d love to hear from you. You can find our survey here!
And since we really, really like agencies (if you haven’t noticed!), we’re currently offering 50% off your first month of content as a listener of Jason Swenk’s podcast.