Lead-gen from content marketing: Reboot your agency’s content program in 10 steps

Written by: Karl Sakas

Frustrated that content marketing isn’t generating leads for your agency?

You’re not alone—a lot of agency leaders report their content program doesn’t work.

However, when I dig deeper in our consulting, the lead-gen problems are often obvious.

Where Agencies Struggle with Content

I see things like generic or otherwise irrelevant content, channels that don’t meet the target market’s preferences, or inconsistent content. (And often, the agency is unclear on their target market in the first place.)

Your agency’s content marketing program should help rather than hurt your lead-gen. Your blog doesn’t help if you haven’t updated it in a year. Your social media accounts don’t help if they’re dormant. And the world doesn’t need another “Top 10 Pinterest Tips.”

As I shared here, your agency’s content marketing should incorporate three things to actually generate leads. Specifically:

  • Offer Solutions to your target market’s important problems.
  • Deliver your advice via Channels your audience prefers.
  • Choose tactics you can deliver with Consistency.

What’s the fix? Be strategic about your content marketing… and then follow the 10 steps in this article to operationalize your reboot!

10 Steps to Operationalize Your Content Reboot

Once you’ve committed to Solutions, Channels, and Consistency, it’s time to operationalize the strategy.

Follow these 10 steps as you implement your content marketing reboot!

1) Rally a subteam to lead your agency’s content marketing efforts.

2) Set lead-gen goals and metrics.

3) Define (or refine) your target client persona(s).

4) Compare your prospective clients’ core problems to identify which ones you can help them solve.

5) Build an internal repository of client problems and solutions.

6) Compare your target clients’ preferred channels to what your agency can deliver.

7) Divide the workload between the team, while designating someone to be the “integrator” for everything.

8) Make it “safe” for employees to spend time on agency self-marketing… even as it takes them away from the tantalizingly billable work they know you’d rather they be doing.

9) Adapt and execute as you learn more about what your audience really cares about.

10) Throughout the process, incorporate ways to convert content consumers into email subscribers, to support your marketing automation followup efforts.

Ready to dig deeper? Share this 2,500-word article with your team, to help them help you… and read on!

Dig Deeper: Content Marketing for Lead-Gen

Let’s take a closer look at each of those 10 steps, to help you make it all happen.

1) Rally a subteam to help.

Enlist your team; you’ll struggle if you try to do all of the content marketing alone.

How should you divide the workload? It depends on what you want to do vs. where you need your team’s help. (For specific examples, see #7 below.)

Your growth style preference matters, too—if you lean toward running a Lifestyle agency, you probably want to be the primary thought leader; if you lean toward building an Equity agency to sell, that’s less critical.

Importantly, recognize that the subteam’s billables will drop as they focus on your self-marketing. (Run the numbers, but someone needs to be doing your marketing.)

2) Set lead-gen goals and metrics.

Now that you have the team down, consider your goals and metrics.

For most agencies, this is about growing subscriber count, or about the number of MQLs (marketing qualified leads) generated on a weekly or monthly basis. You might also consider what percentage of MQLs turn into SQLs (sales qualified leads). After all, some subscribers are your competitors—not future prospects.

One of my new clients wants more leads, to support his agency’s sales growth goals. To start, we defined a baseline metric of 3-5 SQLs a month; the target metric is 10 SQLs a month (deadline TBD). We’ll ultimately use a range of approaches to improve that monthly figure—but importantly, we’re on the same page about the key performance indicator (KPI).

When your goal is lead-gen, avoid focusing on vanity metrics (things like follower count and pageviews), and instead, focus on the actual leads generated. (It’s useful to consider MQLs as a proportion of site traffic, but don’t forget the goal is leads rather than unique visitors.)

Likewise, try to avoid focusing on difficult-to-calculate metrics. If someone has to spend five hours a month manually calculating something, that’s probably not an ideal metric.

Metrics work when everyone’s on the same page about what “qualifies” a contact to be in each stage. You don’t want to be arguing each month about whether a set of leads “counts.”

3) Define (or refine) your target client persona(s).

A client mentioned “focusing” on seven types of clients, each of which had 1-3 personas (e.g., CEO vs. CMO of a SaaS tech startup would count as two within the one company-type). This translated to 15-20 individual target personas. That’s not ideal; you can’t successfully focus on 15-20 different targets at once.

Within each target persona, consider what defines them as a segment (e.g., job title, company size, industry vertical) and consider what their biggest problems are.

Many agencies use target personas that read like a “bio” of a hypothetical person; that’s fine, but be sure you talk about the problems that hypothetical person faces—and the channels they use to keep up with advice to make their job easier. (More on that in #4 and #6.)

4) Review each persona’s core problems.

What are your target personas’ core problems? (Hint: Your content should be helping them solve those problems.)

When agencies struggle here, I find it’s often because their content is targeted to themselves rather than their clients. For example:

  • Dev shops care deeply about APIs and UX trends… but your clients don’t. Stop writing about JavaScript libraries; instead, talk about things like the business benefits of rapid prototyping.
  • Content agencies care deeply about copywriting shortcuts, workflow tweaks, and metadata… but your clients don’t. Instead, talk about things like how client-side workflow tweaks can help them launch things faster.
  • PR agencies care deeply about media relations and influencer marketing… but your clients don’t. Instead of sharing tips on using media monitoring software, talk about what to do when one of their competitors has a crisis, or how they can help you in building relationships with journalists.

When in doubt, trace your solutions back to the underlying business problems(s) your clients are trying to solve. What gets them a bonus or a promotion? (Help them do more of that.) What would get them fired? (Help them avoid that.) Consider the “Jobs to be Done” framework.

Not sure about what their problems are in the first place? You need to do some Customer Development research to figure that out; otherwise, you’re creating content and sending it out into the void.

5) Build a repository of client problems and solutions.

You and your team are solving client problems all day long. Like my “article starter” concept above, your email replies, phone conversations, and discovery sessions are all fodder for future content.

Yet most agencies don’t have a good place to track all of those problems and solutions, which makes creating content harder. You’ll want to genericize the solutions, since you’re creating content for the persona rather than the specific original client.

What’s the right central repository? Find something that fits your agency’s existing workflow. Maybe it’s a dedicated internal “project” within your project management system. Maybe it’s a Google Doc or (even better) a sortable Google Sheet.

Having the repository isn’t enough—you want people to update it as they encounter suitable problems and solutions. This may require finding an approach that’s easy for most of your team, but difficult for the one person who’s consolidating things—for instance, forward an email to your marketing coordinator, and then the coordinator adds things to the repository.

6) Compare clients’ preferred channels to what you can deliver.

As I noted in #3, you ideally know how your clients keep up with industry trends, shortcuts, and other news and ideas to make life easier. Here, I’m using “channel” in a broad sense—referring to both platforms as well as delivery formats.

Favorite “channel” preferences will vary by persona. For example:

  • Marketers are active on Twitter… but non-marketers are less likely to be there.
  • Clients in field services—where they’re at job sites all day, like owners of pest control or landscaping firms—aren’t likely to read a long blog post, but they might watch a short, informative video on their iPad while waiting for a customer that’s running late.
  • Clients who are super-technical are likely to want to read that long-form blog post, because they’ll be thinking about the lack of citations in your 3-minute video.

But it’s not enough to know the channels—you need to identify the channels your agency can execute consistently. For instance:

  • Hate writing? Blogging probably isn’t your best choice, even if your target persona likes reading articles. (Although you can enlist your team’s help—for instance, you “ideate” a post, the team writes it, and you confirm the final version.)
  • Hate being on-camera? A video blog probably isn’t the right choice, even if your target market loves video. (Although whiteboard videos, explainers, and other formats may be a match.)
  • Never can meet an internal deadline? Don’t launch a weekly newsletter; once you start, it hurts you to be inconsistent. (I’ve missed sending my newsletter only twice since 2013—once due to a technical glitch and once due to a hospitalization.)

You may need to do some Customer Development research to understand this better. (Start by asking your favorite current clients!)

7) Divide the workload between the team.

As they say in EOS, you might be the Visionary here—but someone needs to be the Integrator for everything.

Someone needs to lead the overall strategy—including initially refining the target persona(s). After that, someone needs to manage the editorial calendar. Someone needs to create the content, too—and likely multiple people, given the different skillsets (and topics) involved.

In my case, I defined the target persona several years ago (with my team’s help). I set the editorial calendar and write all of the from-scratch blog posts.

Another team member—the marketing project coordinator—proofreads my work, drafts email newsletters, and schedules things after my “sounds like Karl” QA review. One person is responsible for all of those steps; the specific person has varied over time, but cross-training means that someone could help temporarily in an emergency.

To help me write faster, I’ve started doing what I call “article starters”—where I answer a specific client’s question, and then forward the email to my [under NDA] marketing project coordinator, typically with a note on my recommended angle. She drafts a blog post based on my advice, removes client-identifiable details, and slots the post into the editorial calendar. I still need to make a number of updates, but it’s a lot easier than starting entirely from scratch.

If you don’t like writing (or designing infographics, or shooting video), you’ll need to enlist team members to handle the parts you don’t like.

8) Make it “safe” for employees to spend time on self-marketing

Everyone at your agency should have a billable hours target, and they should know their target. When people are involved in your self-marketing, be sure to reduce their target accordingly.

Can’t spare the billable hours? OK, hire a contractor; their fees are likely less than the Opportunity Cost of your employees’ potential billables.

Can’t afford to pay a contractor to do marketing? You’re in trouble; you might be approaching—or already stuck in—the Agency Doldrums. Someone needs to be doing marketing, or else your sales pipeline will go dry.

For the most part, my marketing team members aren’t also doing billable work. This makes it easier for them to focus on lead-gen support and other self-marketing efforts.

When I do marketing—instead of billable work—it’s because I recognize that it’s part of my job as a business owner. I recognize and accept that I’ll be doing self-marketing until I retire.

A couple weeks ago, I was sorting through a sizable sales backlog… but I still executed on new marketing activities, because I don’t want my pipeline to be weak in six months.

Don’t like “Always be marketing” or “Always be selling“? Consider whether you really want to be running a business; those should get easier, but they won’t disappear.

9) Execute, iterate, and adapt.

We don’t have all the answers… but we can get better with practice. Execute, iterate, and adapt.

  • I do A/B tests on every newsletter send (technically, multi-variate since it’s five subject options), since I don’t magically “know” the most resonant subject line. By tracking the performance of each subject line—and comparing results over time—I can see what resonates and what doesn’t.
  • Which pieces of content are most popular (by lead conversions, by overall readership, by social shares)? Google Analytics and other tools can help… if you review and act on what you see.
  • Trying to find the right language? You can do the “run PPC campaigns” test. But don’t discount in-person discussions at a conference; nothing exposes a shaky “what do you do?” response like seeing five people in a row looking confused at what you said.

You’ll find your solutions become more on-point, too.

How do you know it’s working? Well, lead-gen will be up, of course. But you’ll also hear things from people, along the lines of: “It was as if you wrote that just for me!” or “Were you listening to our last internal meeting?”

10) Get content-consumers onto your email list.

As I note in my Inbound Branding strategy, content isn’t just about sharing and promotion—it’s also about marketing automation, to help you stay in front of people.

That is to say—get people on your list (and otherwise subscribed). You may not get a second chance! As one of my speaking coaches noted, “The audience will never love you more than the moment you walk off the stage.”

For instance:

  • Each of my blog posts includes a newsletter signup call-to-action (CTA). The CTA is often specific to the topic.
  • When I do guest posts or appear on a podcast episode, I have some sort of audience CTA to encourage people to sign up for more.
  • When I do public speaking, I have a call-to-action (often with a special, topic-specific signup premium) that typically gets a 15-30% opt-in rate.

Throughout the process, find and act on ways to convert content consumers into email subscribers, to support your followup efforts.

Moving Forward at Your Agency

Remember, you don’t have to do all the work—but you have to lead the charge. Set the agenda… and then recruit your team to help.

And if you don’t have an active marketing automation program—an email newsletter, at minimum—fix that; you’re missing a key opportunity to stay in front of prospects.

Need additional help making it all happen? Depending on your situation, I may be able to help your agency; please reach out and we can confirm.

Question: How will your agency use these 10 steps to get more leads via content marketing?

Diversify Your Lead-Gen Strategy

Diversify Your Lead-Gen Strategy Workshop

Want to grow your agency? You’ll need to attract new business and grow current accounts. In today’s business environment, that requires new ideas and pivots on classic techniques.

This July 2024 workshop—by seasoned agency advisor Karl Sakas and leading agency owner Gabriel Marguglio—will give you tools to grow your agency today. You’ll still need to do the work, but everything’s easier when you know where to focus.