Agency, in-house or hybrid? The view from 3 content marketing camps

Figuring out which content marketing model will best suit your business can be a challenge. To better understand the reasoning and context behind each approach, Mahlab spoke to the Australian HR Institute, the University of Melbourne and Bupa – three bodies that use the agency-led, in-house and hybrid content marketing model respectively.

When launching or revamping a content marketing strategy, organisations will often find themselves deliberating whether to build an in-house team, outsource to an external agency or strike a balance between the two. While the three models are often pitted against each other, business leaders shouldn’t be doing calculus at this critical decision-making time. Instead, soul-searching is required, and an answer to the question: “Which approach will best serve my business’ vision, size, resources and objectives?”

To gain real-life perspectives, Mahlab approached three organisations representing the three distinct camps. All have achieved satisfaction and sophistication in their content marketing – matching up strategy to context-specific aspirations and needs.

The agency model: Australian HR Institute (AHRI)

content marketing - hrmonline

The pace of change within the media and marketing landscape is constantly accelerating. If an organisation’s attention and purpose is not directed towards understanding new channels, emerging trends and market nuances, it can easily get left behind. This applies to both smaller brands lacking sufficient resources, and larger brands that must produce diverse, targeted, high-quality content at a fast turnaround. In both scenarios, there is only so much that an organisation’s bandwidth can be stretched.

In contrast, agencies are focused on this landscape 100% of the time. Made up of teams of expert, forward-thinking specialists, they can be both attuned to specific verticals, fields and niches, while at the same time in-touch with broader industry developments. Though their costs are typically steeper than running things in-house, agencies’ services encompass not only skilled content creation in a variety of formats, but also strategy and advice, optimisation, distribution, amplification, and commercialisation. They work within priorities of equal importance: nurturing an intimate understanding of audiences, fostering an intimate understanding of clients, and understanding an ever changing media and marketing environment.

The Australian HR Institute (AHRI) currently operates through the full agency model, launching HRM in partnership with Mahlab in 2014. The platform is multi-channel and multi-medium, and includes a content hub, daily enewsletter, monthly video, social media channels and the monthly print publication HRM.

Speaking with Mahlab, AHRI’s Marketing and Brand Manager Carmen Greenway gives reasoning for the brand’s decision, elevating objectivity, broad expertise and agility as key decision-making factors.

“The Australian HR Institute chose the ‘all-agency’ business model for our content creation as it enables us to consistently publish relevant, high quality and ‘just-in-time’ content for our members and subscribers,” she says.

“By using an independent content producer, we can offer our members and subscribers fresh perspectives, impartial editorial and newsworthy content, while tapping into the knowledge of industry experts within, as well as outside of, our organisation.” Also important, she adds, is feeding the “hungry beast” that is social media.

AHRI works with just one agency; an arrangement they frame as highly positive and founded upon trust. The relationship is also a close one. Adopting an ‘immersion’ approach, Mahlab’s specialist teams go deep into the client’s operations and culture.

The partnership could be said to resemble a single, high-functioning ‘body’ – where the brain is shared, but the agency performs the legwork to move the organisation forward.

To date, AHRI has had no qualms that an agency cannot keep up with regulatory change, either from inside the business or on a government level. “As they are subject matter experts on all things HR they are able to quickly and easily report on breaking news and complex issues,” says Greenway.

A recent HRM reader survey has proven the ROI of the brand’s chosen pathway. From a pool of 695 respondents, 62.73% agreed that the “HRM magazine, website, enewsletters and videos are a good member benefit”, with 27.34% strongly agreeing.

“The breadth of content we need to produce for our various communications channels would not be possible without outsourcing to an agency,” says Greenway. Without the suite of services an agency provides, “the impact on our organisation’s time and resources would just be too vast”.

The in-house model: The University of Melbourne’s Pursuit

content marketing - pursuit

Over the past few years, the content marketing industry has come into itself as a way for brands to tell authentic stories to develop enduring relationships with loyal audiences. For organisations armed with the right teams, resources, vision and leadership backing, the in-house content creation model can go from skunkworks to powerhouse. The University of Melbourne here makes for a fine case in point.

Not too long ago, the UniMelb media team were holding office celebrations when they got a mention on page five of the Herald Sun. Following the 2015 launch of their flagship digital media platform Pursuit (recently championed in our The Schmickest series), their benchmark of success lifted. Astronomically.

They’ve had stories taken up by the New York Times and the BBC. Two-thirds of readership comes from overseas (can you hear that lucrative international student dollar sing?), with their thousandth story published last month. After an article on the troubles with teaching music in schools did the rounds, the state government leaned in, and is now including the author in ongoing discussions for future change. At first hesitant, academics across disciplines are now lining up and phoning in to get their voices heard – reaping such benefits as having shiny-eyed PhD students knocking at their door, or offers to collaborate with local and international colleagues. Pursuit’s current milestone is to make it as a top 50 news and current affairs site in Australia – and with growth rates as they are, they reckon 2018 could be the year.

Editor Imogen Crump puts much of the success of the hub down to the individuals who designed, built and operate it – all of whom are in-house, and most of whom hail from a media background. Replacing the old-school PR department, the team includes former News Corp Editor-in-Chief Phil Gardner as Associate Director (the hub’s pioneering ‘visionary’, claims Crump) and former Higher Education Editor from The Australian Andrew Trounsen as Senior Writer. Crump herself is a veteran BBC journalist who was often based in the Middle East, with a long history at the ABC too.

“Any university story we approach with the same journalistic rigour that we do with traditional mainstream media,” she explains, describing the hub as a balance between a newsroom and a magazine. “We apply those same editorial standards and practices.”

At a time when expertise is increasingly undermined and delegitimised and fake news is setting the agenda of the day, the Pursuit team see credible, well-researched, integrity-driven storytelling as a guiding mission behind what they do. Eschewing the advertorial “happy snap with a professor” temptation and without a brand advertisement in sight (existing or planned), the content hub is positioned as both a ‘lighthouse’ of quality content, and an illuminating window into what the university is all about.

Pursuit’s journalistic sensibility is also doing much to help the university grow its reach and reputation, thanks to content that eschews the self-congratulatory or overtly promotional tone that can sometimes dog university content, and instead focuses on telling ripping yarns that serve the audience first. Few academics are trained journalists, Crump says, but the team is committed to working closely with them – “we can go through five, six, seven iterations of an article before we get it right”.

Director of External Relations Andrew Hockley pulls out one of his favourite examples of Pursuit’s engagement-driven content, which comes in the form of a video published in July of this year. Titled ‘Are these Australia’s happiest dairy cows?’, the story gave its focus to an unforgettable detail: well-fed, content, healthy cows don’t moo. Only cattle feeling low are the ones that, well, low.

“We could have produced a very academic, a very learned piece called something like, ‘The University’s robotic dairy is helping agricultural researchers improve milk production and benefit the economy’,” said Hockley. Instead, they milked that livestock story – and all the others on the hub – for the creamiest, purest content their consumers could get.

It’s paying off. With each individual story promoted across channels by the university’s social media squad to drive traffic to the masthead, site analysis tells them two-thirds of their audience scroll to the end of the page. Storytelling that dovetails both accuracy and engagement also means the university can speak to its panoply of audience verticals – from prospective students, potential benefactors and politicians, to incoming staff members, the media and international professors interesting in conjoint research – and of course, the existing campus body itself.

Along with plans to expand its video production rate, Pursuit publishes three podcast series produced by a full-time audio team, with episodes dropped weekly. They are also romancing the increasingly popular infographic – a content type they’ve found effective at distilling complex ideas into engaging, simple, shareable content. Going from publishing three or four stories per week (at best) to now an average of ten and occasionally fifteen plus, their editorial calendar is an “embarrassment of riches”, confesses Hockley. “We have an enormous forward pipeline of stories that run well ahead of our ability to generate copy.” Although they occasionally round up a trusted freelancer to manage overflow, their priorities for the moment are to keep things in-house, aiming at level-headed expansion to secure long-term sustainability.

“One important thing to note is that all this content is a very real depiction of what we do,” finishes Hockley. “It’s not as if the content marketing is off to one side, or a specialised branch attached to something else. Pursuit is at the heart of who we are – it’s our front door.”

The hybrid model: Bupa’s The Blue Room

content marketing - the blue room

Content creation can be a voracious and labour-intensive process. For some organisations – particularly those handling large volumes – agencies and other externals are the solution to scale, overflow and stagnation. Diffusing time-sensitive pressures and preventing team exhaustion, the hybrid model can ensure that content stays diverse, fresh and of cutting-edge quality.

Bupa’s The Blue Room launched just over two years ago, and has become one of the most ambitious major brand content hubs in Australia. Publishing a significant number of articles on healthier living, families, managing chronic conditions and caring for the elderly, it was set up as part of a wider business strategy to help reposition the brand, engage customers beyond mere transactional relationships, and nurture value in the long-term.

By all accounts, the initiative has been an overwhelming success. In mid last year, the Blue Room housed more than 3500 assets, and had clocked 3.5 million unique visitors and 5 million page views – putting it in reach of 10-15% of the Australian population.

It is also one of Bupa’s most cost-effective channels to drive purchase consideration, brand love, NPS and understanding of the breadth of Bupa’s services. This is typified by that fact people who have visited the Blue Room are five times more likely to love Bupa.

Though he has since shifted roles to head Bupa’s global marketing strategy, Matt Allison was there at the project’s start. The view from the beginning, he says, was never to solely build an in-house team. The volume output they wanted to attain was simply too high for what Bupa could accommodate. Instead, they set about perfecting a customised hybrid model – one that would match their business goals and power their bold new agenda.

Right now, they’ve hit the sweet spot. With strategy and editorial decisions kept in-house, the bulk of the work comes from external providers: the two content agencies that help push them forward in premier content, 60-odd bloggers, and around 70 freelance journalists; the latter two groups pitching ideas as they would any publisher.

It took some time before they settled into a system and rhythm, but within six months the team felt comfortable with whom they had chosen to partner with, and how those relationships were managed. Achieving alignment was critical, Allison says – particularly between agency and brand. This not only meant a “really clear understanding of requirements and goals, but also that feedback loop between the agency and the editor”.

Fortunately for them, establishing a blogger base was incredibly easy for the Blue Room. Thanks to the Bupa Blog Awards, they had a ready-at-hand pipeline of community talent to tap into, with acclaimed writers more than willing to lend their voices to the brand and act as advocates.

Fielding this vast army is a lean but strong control room. The Blue Room in-house is made up of an editor, an in-house journalist, a designer (with additional skills in social media), an SEO expert who handles site loading, and a strategy head. Four individuals handle the social media side as part of the company’s overall marketing.

The company also has on staff a mix of doctors and medical experts, whose highly qualified knowledge is crucial for maintaining the Blue Room’s high credibility, Allison says. Partner organisations like the Stroke Foundation are also frequent co-creators, with articles given clear attribution and outbound links.

Beyond matters of scale, Allison emphasises diversity as the key benefit of working with externals.

“It’s very easy to fall into the ‘this is how we do things’ mindset, and to form preconceived ideas about how something should be run,” he says. By exposing the in-house team to different life stories, industries and thought patterns, the health and care company aims to keep its hub representative of its nation-wide readership.

At just over two years old, the Blue Room is how Bupa envisaged it becoming, right from day one. Does this mean it won’t change? Absolutely not, says Allison. In this fluid industry, you adapt and you optimise or you fall behind – whether that means getting ahead of trends like video, or making sure that you’re capitalising on every algorithm change rolled out.

“It’s about deciding which is the best resource mix and what you get the best ROI from,” he says. “In some cases you get a much better ROI because you don’t have that skillset internally. That’s what you’re always focused on: what will deliver results at that nexus of business and customer outcomes, and at what price.”

Articles you may also be interested in:
The schmickest: top 5 B2C content hubs
Localising content: how, when and why
Bupa’s Matt Allison talks content

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About Kate Prendergast: Kate Prendergast is a Content Producer at Mahlab. She strategically smashes out insights and case studies for the company website, and does her insuperable best to make the most of free pens, coffee and calamari at marketing conferences. In her down time, she reads Nabakov, blogs about bees, fan girls over Mark Ritson and Werner Herzog, and creates mildly disturbing art under the alias name Tenderhooks. She has renounced all social media except – to her overwhelming horror – LinkedIn. Redemptively, her network remains small.

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