The HubSpot Agency’s Guide to Content-as-a-Service
No two inbound marketing agencies are created equal. However, HubSpot partner agencies share a common mission—to generate more leads, increase revenue, and maximize ROI for their clients. And the core of that mission has always been the inbound methodology.
So much has changed since HubSpot defined inbound marketing in 2006, though.
Every brand is competing for digital attention and writing keyword-optimized blog posts isn’t longer enough. Now, your inbound services might include social media marketing, influencer marketing, email marketing, PPC advertising, video, podcasting, the ever-evolving demands of search engine marketing—anything and everything to help your clients cut through the noise and retain attention.
This growing list of responsibilities forces inbound agencies to face common challenges:
- Deal Size and Type: Clients push for project-based contracts and à la carte pricing to squeeze more out of every dollar spent.
- Shrinking Margins: Scope creep and unexpected costs eat away at profits even if clients are kept happy.
- Talent Shortages: Balancing staff costs and client demand can seem impossible when you need so many niche experts on hand.
- Low Retention Rates: Impatience leads clients to demand immediate ROI on inbound efforts and leave if they don’t get it.
The way you deliver content as an inbound service is critical to overcoming these challenges.
Throughout this paper, we’ll walk through the keys to building out a content creation services division that can help you deliver on your promises to clients. As a former content marketing agency ourselves with a unique view of the freelance market, we’ll explain:
- The new role of content for inbound services
- How to structure and price your content services
- Why freelancers are the key to your content creation division
- And how to successfully deliver content as a service to maximize ROI for clients
Ready to help your agency grow and evolve? Then let’s go.
Content’s Role for Inbound Agencies
People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories, and magic.
Every client wants to believe that their products and services are going to revolutionize their industries. Businesses thrive on the idea that what they’re doing is an improvement on what came before.
But deep down, business leaders in all industries see that it’s easier than ever to replicate goods and services. Technology has lowered the barrier to entry across industries, leaving us with the Seth Godin quote. Now more than ever, your clients will build success on the back of the relationships they build, the stories they tell, and the magic they deliver to customers.
And that’s where inbound agencies provide value. The content you create for clients will serve as the foundation of inbound marketing services and unlock long-term benefits.
- Build a Trusting, Loyal Audience: Consistent, quality content helps clients build loyal audiences. You build leads while also giving clients an ever-growing base of readers/customers to market to as new products and services are released.
- Establish Brand Identity: As technology becomes commoditized, brand identity is what will separate your clients from competitors. Content gives you an opportunity to help them shape a unique voice and identity, building a brand that’s meant to last.
- Target Ideal Customers: When you conduct the right research into buyer personas and target audiences, you can create content that perfectly targets ideal customers. High-quality content gives you a chance to meet these customers at whatever stage of the buying journey they’re at and help them in their decision-making process.
- Spark Word of Mouth: In the age of social media, shares are the new word of mouth. However, you won’t maximize engagement by pushing product ads on social platforms. Create content worth sharing and your client will see the ROI as the message spreads naturally.
In the latest State of Inbound report, HubSpot research found that the top priorities for marketers are growing SEO/organic presence and blog content creation. With the right approach to content creation services, you can address these priorities.
The benefits of a well-run content creation services division aren’t just for clients, though. Whether you’re just adding content to your list of inbound services or revamping your process, agencies can see benefits like:
- Repeat Business: For agencies that operate on a project-based model, the high churn rate and need for a constant sales cycle can be a drain on your agency’s resources. Providing content allows you to form a long-term relationship with clients after your initial services have been completed. If you don’t offer ongoing services between larger projects, your clients will buy content from someone else, which raises the possibility that they’ll shift all of their business to that new agency.
- Boost Effectiveness of Existing Services: A great website won’t provide value to a company if there’s no reason to visit it. Social media isn’t effective if there’s nowhere to send your audience to. Companies that aren’t producing content make it difficult for your design, SEO, or social media services to make an impact.
- Additional Service Opportunities: While regularly publishing blog posts is great, inbound is a lot more successful when there’s a well-developed strategy behind it. Instead of just cranking out copy, you can sell premium services like developing customer personas, creating empathy and experience maps, planning an editorial calendar, publishing and distributing the content, and monitoring metrics.
“Content is an integral part of my agency’s success because ultimately, content is paramount to client success. After all, isn’t content the primary reason we’re on the web? Better content means a better web.”
—Lisa Hirst Carnes, Founding Partner at ArcStone—
Just because there’s more competition for attention doesn’t mean inbound marketing, content marketing, and written content are dead (don’t let those posts fool you). It just means we have to be better at providing value for target audiences.
And as a HubSpot agency, that all comes down to building a well-structured content creation services division focused on delivering true value to each client’s audience.
How to Structure and Price Your Content Services
Packaging content creation services can be tricky. You have to toe the line between meeting the financial expectations of clients and delivering services that will actually make an impact.
This forces agencies to pick and choose the best channels to invest in and convince clients of the benefits. Then, inevitably, circumstances change, and the seemingly-perfect content services package is no longer perfect for your clients.
Flexibility—both in the types of content you provide and how you price them—is key to solving this problem.
What Content Services Should You Offer?
“How long should my content be?” “How often should I publish content?”
These are some of the most common questions marketers ask as they try to make inbound marketing work. As a HubSpot agency, you’re expected to have answers.
Here’s the problem, though. There’s no single, correct answer to these questions. What works for one client’s audience may be completely misguided for another’s. Don’t give in to the pressure and force yourself to offer a cookie-cutter content services structure.
Instead, focus first on the types of content that will form the foundation for your services:
- Blog Posts: The idea is to blog consistently enough to gain a great following, but not so much that you sacrifice quality. Blogging allows you to tackle quick topics, share ideas, and relate current trends to your client’s brand. Over time, these blog posts will serve as the basis for organic search traffic and deliver ROI for months and years to come.
- White Papers and eBooks: These larger pieces are essential for lead generation strategy, mostly downloaded behind gated pages. Create something valuable enough that potential customers will give you their contact information, so you can start qualifying leads for sales.
- Social Media: Content won’t do much good for inbound success if no one reads it. That’s why social media content has to be a fundamental part of your services, too. But remember—simply sharing a link to the latest blog posts isn’t enough. Create social content that actually engages with the users of your target platforms.
- Landing Pages: Many agencies stop short with content at the top of the funnel. Don’t forget that content plays a critical role in the conversion process as well. So much of the buying process is completed without clients ever interacting with the customer, making conversion-optimized landing pages a critical part of any content services package.
- Emails/Newsletters: Even in the age of social media and short attention spans, email remains the most valuable marketing channel (if used correctly). Don’t just spam the audience with promotional messages and the latest blog posts. Great email content should provide value all on its own and keep collected leads engaged with the brand.
Don’t take this list the wrong way. They certainly aren’t the only pieces of content you should create for clients. In addition to these core elements, you have case studies, byline articles, infographics, web copy, video scripts, and so much more.
Piecing them together properly requires a solid content strategy, unique to each client.
Content Strategy, SEO, and Topic Clusters
Successfully structuring and pricing content creation services comes down to having a strategy in place that will actually deliver results. Clients that don’t see the value in a steady stream of blog posts and other content may have worked with an agency in the past that clung to outdated strategies.
There was a time when short, keyword-stuffed blog posts were plenty effective for showing up on Page 1 of Google and driving valuable traffic to a client’s website. The downfall of that approach arrived on the back of Google’s 2013 Hummingbird update as well as massive competition for just about any keyword.
Hummingbird marked the first time that Google was able to understand phrases and capture searcher intent rather than simply identifying keywords. That change has sparked the rise of topic clusters as a content/SEO strategy.
Thinking about strategy from a topic clusters perspective will help you sell content creation services more effectively. Rather than hoping to strike gold with an individual blog post, your inbound marketing will thrive on groups (clusters) of blog posts that prop up an authoritative pillar page.
Weaving many individual posts together to boost the ranking of main topic pages gives you a clearer path to ROI than simply telling clients they need to publish blog posts and eBooks consistently. The topic clusters strategy can unify all forms of written content and provide clarity as to how every other inbound marketing tactic will contribute to the ultimate goals of driving traffic, building an audience, converting readers into customers, and fostering loyalty.
This unified structure leaves one question. How do you price your services?
Setting a Flexible Pricing Strategy
This determination will be greatly affected by how you currently price your marketing services as a whole.
Approximately 70% of agencies set their pricing structure with Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that lock their clients into a set amount of dollars/hours/content pieces. This makes it easy for a traditional agency to predict their staffing needs and expected growth.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all how your clients plan or pay for content. Some months they’ll need a lot of blog posts, some months they’ll focus more on email or case studies. If a client needs their webpages rewritten, they may need to use some of their white paper budget. Forcing your clients into a set schedule of deliverables is not the ideal method for them.
Luckily, with the use of freelancers it’s no longer a necessary pricing structure for you. Because you are able to scale up or down your freelance use depending on client needs, you’re able to offer a much more flexible pricing structure.
nDash.co was founded and designed based on the success our former content marketing agency had working with freelancers. When the agency, nDash Marketing, switched from an SLA structure to one where clients purchased credits and could “spend” them however they wanted, clients were thrilled. They saw how much value there was in not being locked into buying a set amount of content each month.
You can take advantage of this method without too much change to your existing pricing model. The most common methods for pricing agency services are:
- Retainer (59%)
- Fixed Fee (53%)
- Hourly Rate (39%)
If you use a retainer model, simply make your SLA more flexible so that the amount in their retainer can be applied to any content service and does not expire. If you use a fixed fee or hourly rate, price each content piece according to your overhead for writing and management.
With the right structure and pricing model in place for your content creation services, you can move on to what really matters most. Execution.
Successfully Delivering Your Content Creation Services
You know the role that content plays for inbound marketing. You know how to structure your services to meet client needs. And you know how to price these services to fit client budgets. Combined, these concepts give you what you need to sell content services as part of your HubSpot agency.
Once you sell clients on the benefits of these services, it’s time to deliver. And with so many pieces of content to deliver and a never-ending demand for new ideas, executing can often feel easier said than done.
Build the right team and you’ll be able to deliver great content at whatever scale is necessary to serve your clients. Here’s how.
Why Build Your Team with Freelancers?
Staffing a HubSpot agency to meet content creation demands creates a tricky situation. Hiring in-house talent that has the knowledge and experience to properly serve all your existing and future clients is a challenge. Even if you find a few perfect writers for your clients, you face another problem—how do you actually scale the operation?
There’s no getting around the time-consuming nature of content creation. At some point, an internal writing team will run out of bandwidth. And if that doesn’t happen, you’ll inevitably try to sell a client only to find that your writers don’t have the right subject matter knowledge.
If only you had a team of writers ready to respond to whatever content needs come up…
You already know the answer is freelance writers for two reasons: (1) It’s in the title of this section and (2) You probably already use freelancers in your business.
According to The State of Creative Agency Land, 80% of agencies are partially staffed by freelancers, and 15% of those agency workforces are made up by more than half freelancers.
While the idea of using freelancers may have been taboo 5-10 years ago, their use has blown up in recent years:
- 90% say they think that supplementing their workforce with freelancers gives them a competitive advantage.
- 87% say the talent level among freelancers is comparable to that of permanent employees.
- 45% of business owners say they’ve used freelancers to expand into new markets.
- 50% say they’ve used freelancers to work on specific projects.
Building your content services around a group of freelance writers has a number of benefits:
- Availability of experts: No agency can be an expert in every industry, but when you are going after a new client this is exactly what they expect. You can’t hire a full-time employee for a single client but need someone who can write intelligently about their business. By tapping your community of freelancers you can find a number of writers perfectly suited for your client without over-committing.
- Easier to scale: Staffing a traditional agency is always an impossible task. You’re either understaffed and incredibly busy or overstaffed and paying for workers that have nothing to do. Without knowing for sure how much your agency will grow in any given year it’s difficult to always have the right number of people on hand. With a freelance community you can quickly scale up to meet your client’s needs at a moment’s notice and never find yourself over-staffed.
- Easier to find the right fit: Sometimes a client and a writer just aren’t a good fit. Maybe the client doesn’t like their style or approach or maybe their experience levels just don’t match up. With a pool of freelancers to choose from you can easily give your clients a number of options until they find a writer they really like.
It’s predicted that, by 2020, 40% of the workforce—that’s approximately 60 million people—will be working as freelancers. Setting your agencies up to leverage this workforce and manage them effectively will not only improve your content delivery, it will allow you to adapt to future changes.
We call groups of freelance writers content communities—your key to keeping pace with content demands for clients of your inbound services.
5 Keys to Building Your Content Community
Meeting deadlines, managing client work, and staying on top of communication is difficult. As you build your content community of freelance writers it’s important to put systems in place that will allow you to manage that community and keep them engaged.
There’s no right or wrong size for a content community. The goal should be to build a team of freelancers large enough to handle all of your potential client needs but small enough that you can manage effectively.
The last thing you want is to become over-reliant on one or two writers only to find that they’re moving on to new opportunities. But you also need to avoid having so many writers in your content community that half of them never hear from you.
It’s as much an exercise in relationship building as it is in creating great content. Here are 5 keys to building a great content community to get you moving in the right direction.
1. Have a Purpose First and Foremost
Before you begin hunting for a freelance writer, figure out why you’re doing so. What are your content marketing goals? Are you missing a specific expertise, or do you not have the bandwidth to create enough content in-house? Evaluating your agency and client needs before seeking out a freelancer will help you know exactly who you’re looking for.
2. Always Start with a Writing Test
It’s easy to get caught up with a freelance writer that looks good on paper. Past experience and credentials mean nothing if they can’t actually write—and write for your clients, specifically.
Start by clearly defining the type of content you’d like to receive. Depending on your needs, you may want to send them a few different pieces of content. Include a topic and a brief abstract describing the purpose of the content. You should expect to pay for these writing tests, but you may be able to agree on a trial price and pick up with the freelancer’s standard pricing once the relationship moves forward.
3. Set Freelancers Up for Success
One of the biggest mistakes a HubSpot agency can make is to give a freelance writer a two-sentence summary of an assignment and expect a masterpiece right off the bat. Even the best writer with the most intimate knowledge of your subject matter isn’t going to start off with a complete understanding of you, your clients, and the strategy you’re executing.
That is, unless you give them ever opportunity to succeed. Don’t assume freelancers can read your mind. Offer some guidance on:
- Goals for the individual piece of content
- Primary audience (with real detail)
- Rough estimations of content length
- Proper tone for the client
- Expectations for source usage and research
- Which pillar pages a blog post will support
- How you’d like the content delivered
These are just a few things you can include in guidelines for new freelance writers in your content community. The more relevant information you can provide, the easier it will be to get the finished piece you’re looking for.
4. Be Open to Pitched Content Ideas
Whether your clients are publishing content once a day, once a week, or once a month, or anything in between, it can be difficult for agencies to generate consistent streams of ideas for each client. Especially if you’re using the same stable of in-house writers for various clients for months on end. The problem only grows worse if the in-house talent doesn’t have true expertise in a client’s niche.
Instead of using your freelancers simply as words for hire, let them pitch you their own content ideas. Your content community should be entrenched in the strategy, which means you can trust the writers to deliver a higher volume of idea fodder to build out an editorial calendar. You’ll fill the calendar, gain new perspectives on the content strategy, and ensure the writers are covering topics they feel confident about.
5. Assign an Editor-in-Chief
There’s a growing idea that all brands should act as media companies. And as a HubSpot agency, you provide the services that can help clients make this a reality. As you build content communities, you should take this idea a step further an assign an editor-in-chief to manage deliverables and the writers. (Or, at the very least, have an account manager ready to stay in touch with the content community.)
When freelancers are answering to multiple people, or when they are unsure of the best way to reach your company for feedback, they generally choose to just not communicate. Miscommunication leads to assignments that miss the mark, lengthy editing cycles, and fragmented relationships with the content community. Having some sort of editor-in-chief provides a clear communication channel and gives writers a central source of feedback.
Each of these 5 keys will push you beyond simply hiring freelancers and help you build a true content community designed for client success.
There’s just one last thing we have to talk about. Where do you actually find writers you can test and add to your content community? That’s where nDash comes in.
Meet nDash—The Content Community Platform Built for HubSpot Agencies
We’ve used many tools over the years to manage our freelance writers. But no matter what we tried, we couldn’t find anything that really brought all of our needs together and was specifically designed for freelancers. So, we created one!
We built nDash as a one-stop-shop for recruiting, onboarding, managing, and paying your content community. And best of all, it integrates directly into your HubSpot account, so you can push content directly from your writers into draft mode.
The nDash platform was built around three key ideals:
- Former Agency Knowledge: nDash was built off the success of nDash Marketing, our former content marketing agency. As a former agency ourselves, we understand the challenges you face and have designed our solution to help you solve them. All of our resources and education stem from years of growing not just individual clients, but the HubSpot partners we also provided content for. These agency partners have helped prove the success agencies can see with outsourcing content.
- Content Pitches: The best way to get your agency clients to write more content is to give them content ideas. But if your content team doesn’t have the time or expertise to create great content pitches, it can be difficult to keep your clients engaged. With an nDash profile, your client’s company group will receive content pitches from experienced freelancers and you only pay for the ones your client likes.
- Higher Quality Writers: Unlike traditional crowdsourcing platforms whose writers benefit from being generalists, nDash’s content community is filled with specialists who focus on specific topics and industries. When your agency needs an expert writer in a specific industry it is easy to find them. Now you can tell any prospective client, “we have a guy for that.”
We want to help you build content communities that drive success for your clients and fuel your agency’s growth.
Interested in learning more about the nDash platform and our HubSpot integration? Get in touch with us today, we’d love to chat.