Content marketing is a pretty broad term. While some firms put a lot of emphasis on the “marketing” side of the equation, others may be strictly content production houses.

So how do you make sure that your agency — or the agency that you’re thinking of hiring — is worth the money? You start by knowing exactly what to look for.

The best measures of success for content marketing aren’t always intuitive. Only 41% of respondents to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2017 benchmarking study reported that their organizations had a clear indication of what a successful content marketing program looks like. Meanwhile, only 34% were able to say that their current strategy is extremely or very effective.

Being able to judge whether your content marketing agency and the content they’re creating for your business is checking off the right boxes is critical — both in terms of meeting your goals and hitting the sweet spot with your ROI. That being said, here are the things that matter when you’re evaluating an agency’s performance and the utility they could bring to your content strategy.

1. Transparency

A good content marketing agency will have no problem illustrating their value. Any agency that you hire should be willing and able to answer questions that you have about their performance, including things like:

  • What is your approach to content marketing?
  • How is your approach different from your competitors?
  • What are some examples of your biggest successes?
  • Have there been any big failures? If so, what are you doing differently now?
  • What kind of ROI can your clients expect?
  • What do you see as [your SMB’s] biggest content challenges? What about biggest content opportunities?

Questions like these are designed to go deeper than standard interview queries, though there are some overlaps. Because here’s the thing: every content marketing agency is going to pitch themselves as your best option. It’s your job during the vetting process to really dig in to the key points and draw your own conclusions about how the agency measures up.

2. Strong references

The content marketing agency you hire shouldn’t be shy about sharing their references — nor should you be shy about calling them. It’s not uncommon for agencies and their clients to have differing accounts about how the relationship and campaign went, and you’re going to want both sides of the story to make an informed hiring decision.

Some questions to ask the references that you’re provided include:

  • What was your experience like?
  • Would you say that [agency name] provided a valuable service?
  •  Are you still working with them? If not, why?
  • Would you recommend we hire [agency name]? Why or why not?

Call more than one reference if you can, focusing on businesses that are similar to your own in size. It requires some legwork on your end, but considering that the investment you’re going to be putting into your content isn’t a small one, it’s worth taking the time.

3. Good data

Any content marketing agency that you work with needs to know their way around the data, so find out what their strategy is for tracking and analyzing the data around your campaign. Do they use an automated marketing platform? Google Analytics? Some other all-encompassing analytics dashboard? Good data is tantamount to good content marketing — without the former, it’s going to be very difficult to know how the latter is doing.

Don’t settle for an agency that doesn’t have a comprehensive approach to data. Old school tactics are no match for today’s content marketing environment, and you never want the success or failure of your campaign to be based on guesswork.

A good way to evaluate an agency’s relationship with data: ask them for some. Request clear numbers on the performance of one or more campaign’s (these can be anonymized) and see what metrics are tracked and how.

4. Positive industry presence

Marketing is a big industry with a lot of players, and the best agencies are the ones that have found a way to stand out as an authority in the field.

Look for an agency that has established itself as an industry expert among peers through things like speaking engagements and thought leadership pieces. They should also have a strong content strategy of their own, regularly contributing valuable information on the topics that drive marketing success.

This isn’t to say that you should completely discount new agencies — many young companies have a lot to offer. But if you are going to go with a newer kid on the block, they should still be making marked efforts to establish itself as a leader in the industry. Do research into how the agency presents its organization, to its clients and to the larger marketing world.

Trust your intuition. Ultimately, you need to feel good about the agency that you hire to tackle your content marketing needs, and often, that feeling isn’t so easy to quantify. Be on the lookout for any red flags, and trust your gut when it comes to your eventual hire. The rest should fall into place on its own.