Will marketing consultants and agencies switch places with in-house staff in a digital world?

As a marketing consultant, I attend a lot of marketing seminars and marketing conferences to stay current with my craft.  Today, the buzz there is all about online marketing.

digital marketingTypical topics include content strategy, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, inbound marketing, marketing automation, and of course email marketing.  Spending in all of these areas is up–often at the expense of conventional advertising and PR.

There are several trends driving this transition.  One is that prospects are moving online so the marketers that wish to reach them must also move online.  Another is that advances in marketing technology have made it relatively easy for non-professionals to produce content that attracts and engages their audiences.

A third is that many online marketing programs are direct marketing initiatives and therefore highly measurable–even more so now that respondents leave digital footprints in their wake.  A fourth is that in a down economy, companies are more concerned about short term revenue.  This causes them to focus more on demand generation and less on longer term strategies such as branding.

If content is king, will marketing organizations change to serve the new master?

In attending these conferences, one of the things that has struck me is that most of the marketing strategies under discussion require generating a lot of content–a task which many companies have historically outsourced to advertising and PR agencies or independent copywriters.  So, this has made me wonder whether organizations, particularly small organizations, are restructuring to make the most of their marketing resources.

That is, now that most of the marketing resources are going to content production and analytics–are companies retaining these functions in house?  And, if so, are these businesses outsourcing marketing strategy work–since it tends to be front-loaded and then intermittent–and requires far fewer resources on an ongoing basis in today’s digital world?

What are you seeing at your company and those companies that you serve?

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6 Responses to “Will marketing consultants and agencies switch places with in-house staff in a digital world?”

  1. Bob Mannal says:

    Barbara,

    “content–a task which many companies have historically outsourced to advertising and PR agencies or independent copywriters.”

    I am not sure that this is true, at least in the hi-tech world. Often the “content” is so specialized and complex that it can only be created in-house, either by Product Management or by writers who work daily with the SMEs.

    As to outsourcing Marketing strategy, I am sure that it is being done somewhere, but successful companies know that this a core feature of their success and that it transcends the entire organization. I can’t see such an important function being outsourced.

  2. Hi Bob,

    I guess it depends on the size of the technology company. Many small-to-medium sized businesses (and even some large technology organizations) outsource content production to copywriters and agencies–and more recently social media marketing communications.

    Examples of content that they outsource can include website copy, white papers, article writing, and case studies–and more recently even some of their social media communications (although this is less common). Generally, the content producer interviews an internal subject matter expert and prepares content for his/her review/approval.

    As for strategy, I agree that’s less common. That said, many small companies only have one or two marketing professionals on staff. Because of the large demand for lead generation, and more recently lead nurturing, these individuals are often swamped with either preparing content–or more often managing the outside firms that do this for them.

  3. “As to outsourcing Marketing strategy, I am sure that it is being done somewhere, but successful companies know that this a core feature of their success and that it transcends the entire organization. I can’t see such an important function being outsourced.”

    I have worked at two high-tech companies that outsourced marketing strategy. That doesn’t mean you hire someone and let them feed you information and direct your company. It means working with someone who can be impartial at looking at the organization, the industry, and your strategy and then pointing out any imperfections or opportunities. When everyone is fighting fires and immersed in everyday activities, it’s hard to step away from the trees and see the whole forest. It’s hard to even dedicate the time needed to do a thorough analysis while you’re still trying to make sales and run a department or business. An outsider can help everyone step back and see the whole picture with a new eye. In addition when there are differing opinions (which there usually are when you have strong executive personalities), it helps to have a neutral person — whose job or bonus is not on the line — to bring clear unbiased truth to the table. Sometimes the solution may be a hard pill to swallow and some people in the organization may rather ignore what ails the company.

  4. Barbara Bix brings up an important issue in this post on one of the “side effects” of the ubiquitous shift to a world of digital communications:

    As companies increasingly want/need and can themselves be involved in the design, creation, curation, distribution and management of content: organizations will find out:

    1) Content is hard and requires skills
    While the economics of old-line, ad-sponsored journalism has shaken up the world of the Media: the public and businesses continue to have an insatiable appetite for quality content. Becoming world-class storytellers (comparable to professional reporters, editors) is not something many marketers have the skill or the time for.

    2) Self-publishing is attractive, yet requires a major investment of money & resources
    As companies see inherent value in publishing their own content– they’ll need to invest and build internal and external infrastructures to author, refine and deliver that content. I think a majority of companies underestimate the enormity of that reality.

    3) Social Media changes everything
    As Web-based interactivity becomes mainstream– companies who may have previously interacted with “audiences” and “target” will now find those marketing concepts are disconsonant with the new world in which conversations replace campaigns, broadcasting is replaced by valuecasting (a dialogue between multiple participants on topics of mutual and highly personal relevance). To be empathic and responsive in real-time, while also proactively endeavoring to
    simultaneously do what is perceived to be in the best interests of the company—is a tall order. Whoever does social media engagement for a company (internal staff or external consultants) functions as an “Ambassador” for the company. Accordingly those people need to have Ambassadorial qualities: first-rate written and interpersonal communications skills, combined with judgment, diplomacy, tact, patience, and more. Would you trust the public persona of your company to a marketing intern?

    4) Will you take a leap of faith and trust?
    In the producer/consumer, reader = editor, critic today: booster tomorrow environment that the Web has created— companies will need to recognize that proactively cultivating a better relationship with “all those who matter” (formerly known as prospects/customers/partners/influencers) is an imperative for success. In a world where messaging is more honest, dialogue–more earnest, expressions of service and value–more genuine both buyer and seller win.
    In a self-regulating information stream, the Web can be an ideal aggregator of
    content created by and for those who will value it most.

    The Bottom Line:
    To meet the needs of the new digital world, companies will need to hire a new breed of PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATORS, and staff their evolving
    requirements will a mix of internal employees and experienced external consultants and agencies.

    Organizations who forestall investing in communications talent and the need to communicate better (in order on short-term gains) are penny wise and pound foolish.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    You’ve sold me on your own ability to deliver quality communications. What an articulate and helpful response!

    Thanks for raising a number of points that may continue to favor outsourcing.

    For one, I had not considered the cost and difficulty of assembling the infrastructure required to provide the more relevant tailored content that today’s audiences require–on a large scale.

    I also didn’t consider the possibility that companies may not be able to identify sufficient world class storytellers willing to “go inside”– but that’s another good point. Really great writers are certainly invaluable and definitely not easy to find.

    Like you, I suspect that former journalists and other professional communicators will find themselves in greater demand than ever. And as you point out, may very well be able to write their own tickets.

  6. Olga Taylor says:

    Hello all. I am an in-house marketing VP and a freelance writer.

    I think what Barbara is saying is that, faced with budgetary constraints, smart companies tend to “own” the source of their competitive advantage & outsource all else. Think of the venture-backed start-ups who will for a long time operate with just the VP of R&D or COO, and no CEO.

    With this in mind, finding the money to form a long-term relationship with a skilled and specialized writer (inside or outside the company as the case may be) by getting rid of some high-level “strategy” overhead is a brilliant and time-proven idea.

    Now, spotting an early trend is a very unusual skill. I certainly don’t have it. But from what I’ve seen of Barbara, she just might be one of the blessed few. Therefore, I am willing to bet money that things will happen (at least in some pockets of the industry) exactly as she predicts — especially if she has seen examples of it already in place.

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