Internal Agencies Kill Your Content Marketing

Internal Agencies are one of the most common operating models for content teams these days. They are also the biggest indication of a strategy in trouble.

Would you like to know the most common mistake that I see derailing great content marketing programs again and again in my consulting practice?

Businesses set up their content teams as internal agencies to serve internal ‘customers’ in other departments.

Why is that a problem?

Well, sometimes this approach incorporates what is loosely called “planning”, but is usually just getting internal “stakeholders” to request their wish list of content, and decide on any significant themes. But just as often, there is no planning or prioritization. The content calendar (to the extent that it should even be called that) is a to-do list with dates based on ad hoc requests from various other teams. The content team becomes Kinkos, racing to churn out assets as orders pour in.

Eventually, the content teams (the internal agencies) fail to live up to expectations, the content is imbalanced, and the creators and producers burn out.

So, when the content marketing strategy needs a reboot – and it will – how do you align the new content approach with internal customers’ expectations?

One of the most valuable things you can do is to stop acting like internal agencies and thinking of stakeholders (or letting anyone else think of them) as your customers.

Internal Agencies: stakeholders are investors, not customers

In marketing, we throw around the term stakeholders to refer to people affected directly by our efforts. That list is long – content and marketing touch almost every other function (business leaders, IT, sales, communications, public relations, product, and external groups like partners and investors).

But a funny thing happens when I ask a content teams that have been structured as internal agencies if they consider themselves to be stakeholders in sales or comms. The content team leaders laugh softly and say, “Oh no, they’re our customers.”

That’s not ideal. I recently worked with a B2B tech company where the content marketing team existed to respond to the product marketing team’s requests for “thought leadership” to accompany new product launches. But the product marketing team viewed thought leadership as lightly veiled customer success stories or fact-filled technical schematics of how their product worked.

How did this approach work? Not well. The product marketing team loved the content. But the potential real customers didn’t.

Content teams achieve consistent success only when they’re elevated to stakeholder status. In other words, content strategy and content marketing teams only succeed when they lead strategic content efforts alongside their peers instead of serving as on-demand content production resources.

Marketing and content teams are skilled practitioners of a professional discipline. They’re not there to “service” the stakeholder groups but to learn, align, and work with them to achieve a common goal. Those stakeholder groups are invested in content’s success because it means that, as a result, they succeed.

Internal stakeholders (also like investors) can serve as independent sources of information. They can offer details to inform priorities and insight to improve processes, and cooperation to attract new investment. Or they can also sabotage every effort you make and profit from your misery.

It’s funny. When a company hires an external creative or strategic agency, the internal teams see that team as a strategic investment. They are there to lead our strategy, and we are there to get return on our investment by benefitting from their guidance.

So – why is it that we so rarely treat the internal agencies to that same kind of relationship? Why are the internal agencies just an on-demand machine of every whim that executives, sales, product, and other teams can come up with?

If your internal agencies aren’t leading those groups with a strategy – treating the other teams as investors and not customers – then your content is only going to go as far as those external groups are good at marketing.

Now, of course, treating those stakeholders – literally – has holders of stakes (e.g. investors) in our success, means that their needs, opinions, and alignment is absolutely a critical factor when managing your approach to content strategy or content marketing.

Let’s say you want to implement a NEW content marketing approach. Here are a few steps you might take to treat those stakeholders as investors in your process and get alignment on your proposed approaches.

1. Segment your internal agencies’ stakeholders

One of the keys to getting alignment is to identify the different types of stakeholders that will be critical to ensuring traction for your content marketing approach. So, just like you would with your customers, you can segment them into different categories of stakeholders.

Influencers. Get input from and align with stakeholders who hold an influential position or control your internal agency’s budget. Influencer stakeholders may not have much to do with the content or even care much about it. But unless you win them over, your cause is sunk.

Champions. These cheerleaders will stand behind you, support your efforts, and be early adopters of new ways of doing things. Identify these quickly (some might also be part of the influencer group).

Detractors. You’ll potentially encounter two categories of these naysayers. One set includes people who oppose change because they see nothing in it for them. The other set consists of those who are apathetic about your content plans. When you ask about their participation or agreement, they say something like this: “Well, it’s not no.” They sit back and see how the politics play out before helping or actively detracting from your content ideas.

Decision makers. Decision makers are just what they sound like – they’re the people who make decisions that help or prevent your efforts from turning into success. These are a priority group.

Participants. These individuals have an active stake in your approach and will be responsible for making it work. They have functional expertise in one of the adjacent areas your content strategy will affect.

As you might expect, people may share multiple attributes. You may have champion influencers or detractor participants. The key is to not view them in terms of how to get their nod of approval or “buy-in” to the content team process. Instead, when your operational model are like internal agencies, see them as investors you want to prioritize in an additive piece of your shared process.

2. Design discussions, not interviews

Once you’ve identified who’s who, it’s time to meet with them to gather information and gain alignment.

Remember, every objection to change is an explicitly stated fear of uncertainty.

A common mistake in stakeholder alignment is to hear objections from detractors as “customer” requirements that you must meet to pass their approval. But the objections may be simple concerns about their own challenges that, once addressed, disappear. You don’t have to address every objection in full, and for some stakeholders you may not need to meet them at all. Capture it, acknowledge it – and then manage it accordingly.

Now, another mistake is the opposite of an objection. So you also shouldn’t consider approvals from champions as full-throated agreements. The approvals might be lukewarm – like the “not no” detractor response.

Stakeholder interviews aren’t focus groups that show you what your customers need. If you treat them that way, don’t be surprised when those same stakeholders don’t care about all the features you added to your service – even if they were the ones to suggest them.

So don’t design your discussions solely around a comprehensive list of what information or requirements you need to gather to complete your business case  or plan. Instead, use the chance to uncover what each stakeholder needs to become an investor in your mutually beneficial approach. And consider what their investment means in the context of the entire strategy.

With that understanding, you’ll gain the ability to lead them, leverage them, or learn from their needs.

3. It’s a process, not a project

The investor relations part of your job begins once you get your initial buy-in and continues throughout your tenure in whatever role you have.

You’ll have multiple discussions with stakeholders before you’ve built your case, once your case is approved, after implementation has begun, and again as you manage your overall process.

I remember one successful, award-winning content marketer hearing her project invoked as a best-in-class case study for the zillionth time at Content Marketing World and saying to me: “I wish somebody would tell my executive stakeholders that. I’m still fighting for budget, relevance, and buy-in every single day.”

All customers are stakeholders, but not all stakeholders are customers

Now, of course, customers (the real customers) are the one missing group in my list of stakeholders of internal agencies. And they’re the critical stakeholder in any marketing content strategy.

But they’re a different class of stakeholder. Don’t conflate them with internal stakeholders.

The strategist and author Eli Goldratt once wrote, “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave. If yo u measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior.”

Seeing content teams as internal agencies built only to delight internal customers sets the wrong objective. It encourages the idea that all internal stakeholders are the same as customers – and that success means meeting all their needs.

But while all customers are stakeholders, not all stakeholders are customers. Most are better treated as investors – a key constituency that benefits from a co-created approach to content as a strategy.

Don’t serve them. Instead, lead them. That’s how you’ll make their investment of time, money, effort, and information more and more valuable.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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