Thanks to rapidly evolving technologies and new content marketing outlets, anyone can produce their own content without relying on traditional media to get the word out. Of course, therein lies the opportunity and the problem. Barraged with data, consumers are showing signs of “content fatigue.”

Still, great content is essential for any business trying to build awareness and motivate behavior. The problem is that it takes time and talent to develop quality material that educates, entertains and engages across a variety of platforms. (Content is anything from social media posts to blog articles, webinars, videos, infographics, white papers, newsletters and more.)

Some businesses avoid content marketing altogether because they see it as an all-or-nothing proposition. Unlike Red Bull, American Express or Coca-Cola, they can’t hire a dedicated team of writers, editors and designers. Yet most businesses don’t need their own content marketing department. Most just need a good content marketing partner. The challenge is finding the right partner.

Finding the Right Content Marketing Partner

Based on our 13 years of experience in public relations and content marketing, here are 10 questions that any business should ask before hiring an outside firm to help with content marketing.

1. Do they start with the end in mind?

Good content marketers make you think. They ask questions about your business and your brand. They ask about audience demographics, customer behavior, the seasonality of your business, and what makes your company unique. Most important, they ask “How do you define success?” Every company must balance its own business objectives with the needs of its audience. This takes careful planning and starts with a clearly articulated content strategy.

2. Do they have solid business experience?

GIFs. Vines. Infographics. Content is increasingly visual, vibrant and fun. But content is nothing more than clutter if it isn’t grounded in critical thinking. The right content marketing firm may not have experience in your specific industry niche, but it should have the business acumen to get up to speed quickly. Bottom line: Don’t work with a firm that assigns your account to an intern without any real-world business experience. He or she may have amazing technical and design skills, but today’s viral video may be tomorrow’s business nightmare if it alienates your customers and investors.

3. Do they understand the basics of branding?

A brand is an underlying promise to consumers. Great content is content that gets to the emotional core of a brand-consumer relationship, whether it’s through visual imagery or expressed via the written word.  Good content marketers have a firm grasp on basic brand strategy. They understand how consumers connect with brands, how brands differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and how brands build long-term loyalty and drive bottom-line results.

4. Are they good storytellers?

How do you get people to share your content? Tell a good story. Stories draw people in and stories keep people interested. The ideal content marketing partner is a creative thinker with a flair for telling stories from the consumer’s point of view. He or she sees your product and/or company within the context of something larger, i.e., a story that addresses the wants and needs of your audience and fulfills a larger mission in the world. That’s what makes a good story.

5. Do they have a concrete plan for delivering results?

Don’t let the casual nature of social media fool you. It takes work to feed the content machine which may involve coordinating blog posts, social media updates, online videos, customer testimonials, trade show podcasts and more. Without a methodical plan, things can get out of hand. An experienced content marketing firm will put together a detailed editorial calendar that can be tracked and measured. It should tie back to long-term brand and business goals and help ensure that content stays smart, strategic and consistent. (For more details, read “Create a Content Plan & Calendar for Your Company.”)

6. Do we trust them as a member of our team?

This is as much about your company’s mindset as it is about your partner’s skill and ability. The collaboration and support of your entire internal team, from the CEO to subject-matter experts, is required to produce fresh content consistently and to bring new ideas to the table. Do you trust your content marketing partner to talk to your customers? Hopefully the answer is ‘yes.’ Your customers are one of your best sources for story ideas. An experienced content marketing professional will be able to engage them in a manner that invites collaboration and community.

7. Do they explore opportunities? Recognize limits?

Content lives online, but ideas are everywhere. Choose a marketing partner whose feet are firmly rooted in the “real world,” i.e., someone open to the creativity and wonder that exists beyond the screen. Too many agencies focus on producing generic SEO copy, even as search engines get smarter about filtering out junk. A good content marketer also recognizes the limits of online. Don’t get sold on a Twitter strategy if your audience isn’t on Twitter.

8. Are they professional?

It doesn’t matter who hits “enter.” When you publish content under your name it reflects your company and your brand. Contract with a firm that understands the rules of grammar (and knows when it’s okay to break them). Choose someone who checks facts ruthlessly and provides proper attributions. Have confidence that they reflect your brand voice and can deflect online criticism politely and professionally.  Importantly, work with someone who follows through.

9. Do they have time for us?

In content marketing, things change quickly. A customer posts a complaint on Twitter. An event organizer needs a last-minute slide show. A video goes viral. Can you rely on someone to adapt and react? The key is choosing a content marketing partner who sees you as an important part of their client roster. Ask about their workload and clarify your expectations beforehand. Many content marketing firms will work on a flexible retainer basis.

10. Will they set us up for success?

Does content marketing take planning and hard work? Yes, but the good news is this: It’s not rocket science. An ideal partner is transparent in everything they do. They give you the tools and the confidence to take over your own content marketing someday, if that’s what you choose to do. Until that point, they create great content that cuts through the clutter and gives you a powerful vehicle for positive word of mouth.

Want to learn more? Read all of The Galvanizing Group’s blog posts on content marketing.