Content Creation

Working with Content Marketing Partners: The Secrets behind Successful Collaboration

By Liz Alton on April 29, 2021

Content marketing partners help brands expand their reach, elevate their messaging, and get in front of new audiences. These partnerships are a crucial part of developing a regular cadence of new content and leading the way for companies to confidently experiment with enhanced assets—and collaboration sits at the heart of these relationships.

The best partnerships emerge from a foundation of trust, clear processes, complementary expertise, and a willingness to have hard conversations. Often, these partnerships begin with a brand's willingness to share insights, aspirations, and information to help content marketing partners succeed.

Here's a closer look at what brands should expect from a winning collaboration with content marketing partners, as well as tips for effective partnerships to help brand marketers make collaborations flourish.

Establish Trust below the Surface

Brands get the strongest results from relationships when their content marketing partners invest in understanding both the brand and the stakeholders involved. "It's important to move beyond surface-level interactions and not treat deliverables like simply checking boxes," says Heather Pidgeon, Skyword VP of professional services. Brand marketers can help drive deeper partnerships by keeping lines of communication open in both directions—that means prioritizing transparency about their goals, constraints, and vision as well as being patient with questions and requests for more information from partners.

Content marketing teams will work hard to understand what's driving your brand and set a focus on cultivating a relationship. Pidgeon explains some of what goes into understanding a client organization and an individual stakeholder:

  • What are the brand's or client's needs and goals? What are they driving within their own business and industry?
  • What impact does the brand aim to have?
  • What challenges does the brand or stakeholder face?
  • Who are the stakeholder's allies within the organization? Who are their challengers?
  • What are their aspirations within their work?

Asking the right questions gives your content marketing partners insight into the priorities that drive your business. Making it easier to get to know you as an individual helps build rapport and lays the groundwork for stronger trust. That trust also empowers content partners to ask questions that help them deliver maximum value.

"When you have that full knowledge and it's a more comfortable relationship, you often are able to unpack those things that are more surface level. It's like, 'Okay, why are you doing this?' Well, I want to create this piece of content to get rankings. 'Okay. That may be true, but why? What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want your audience to do, think, or feel?' Often, what we're trying to accomplish shifts when we understand that deeper drive or deeper need," says Pidgeon.

Trust is especially crucial for effective collaboration on enhanced content such as videos or interactive pieces. Tom Sanford, Skyword senior director of creative operations, notes that aligning to a client's goals and creative content is vital.

"What's really important is to understand whether or not that person is someone who wants to experiment with that creativity or someone who wants to tread lightly," he says. "You can't shove somebody over the creativity cliff and expect them to just start flying—it's not going to work."

Pinpointing the right questions helps your content partner calibrate to your brand's goals and execution road map at all levels.

Keep Your Friends Close

While content marketing partners will focus primarily on building trust with you, it's critical to remember that content has wider visibility. Executives, business unit leads, compliance teams, and legal advisers may all get a say in the process, and competing perspectives can muddy the waters. There are several ways that you can help simplify this process, beginning with ensuring that your content marketing partners understand the broader stakeholder ecosystem. Prepare to answer questions such as:

  • Who will be reviewing content?
  • Do they have specific needs or preferences that can be taken into account early to smooth out the process?
  • What are the power dynamics? Who has the ultimate authority to approve content?
  • What's your relationship like with these individual stakeholders or departments? Are they allies or challengers? Do you have insights on what's worked historically?

Pidgeon encountered the importance of expanding that circle of trust firsthand while working with a technology company. Her team produced division-specific content that was published to a central blog. After the blog's editor-in-chief pushed back on some of the content, a conversation about their concerns resolved the issue and led to better collaboration from both sides—as well as a new ally within the organization.

"It ended up unlocking the door for us to not just resolve the situation so we could communicate it to our direct clients but also to move forward with how to train another division that we just started working with. Our stakeholder wanted our input, so when she was training the team and working with them, she was training them on the things that we were doing together," says Pidgeon.

Empowering your content partners to understand what's happening within your organization and who they're dealing with can build trust in your content creation process across the organization. When your company's diverse network of stakeholders is engaged and educated in the content context, it creates a more efficient, streamlined operational process. Better operational efficiency makes it possible to create high-quality and high-value content and gives you the breathing room to take more creative risks or incorporate a wider range of voices.

Image attribution: Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Build with Strong Bones

Building collaborative relationships with trust starts on day one. A good content marketing partner will have a robust onboarding process, which will likely take some time as well as input from you. It's critical to view these foundational steps as an investment in the future of the partnership and the content. Brand marketers who take an active role in conversations, share background materials, and facilitate access to internal experts in the earliest stages are laying the foundation for content marketing partners to get up to speed faster and hit the ground running.

Sometimes, creating that framework entails looking from the perspective of your content partner.

"Part of our job as an editorial squad is to bridge the gap between the business goals and the content goals—and then, from there, the audience goals," says Ash Holland, associate director of editorial at Skyword. "It's our job to really understand those three aspects and find the place in the middle that helps the business achieve their goals, but [it] really gives the audience—most importantly—what they need out of the content and then aligns with our content best practices."

Reaching that level of understanding is a process that involves holding multiple conversations, reviewing background documents, and, as always, asking more questions.

"We take time to really understand brand partners. We ask a lot of follow-up questions, and we dig deep to get clarity on what their vision is, and where they're trying to go, and what their challenges are—because it all matters. It's not as simple as just flipping a switch and suddenly there's content. It takes a lot of time and thought to do it right," says Christine Kayser, director of professional services at Skyword.

The onboarding process doesn't end when content production begins. Using the initial round of content to provide feedback helps you and your team learn how to engage effectively to provide constructive criticism, allowing the content team to refine how they edit and deliver content.

"The first batch of content is typically a small batch. We tell the client explicitly, 'We want all of the feedback, like down to word choice, because all of this will get integrated into our content creation guidelines. You are the expert on your brand. We're not going to be insulted if you tell us you like skincare as one word instead of two words. We need all of the feedback.' Setting that up at the start of [the] relationship is important," says Kayser.

Take the time to give content marketing partners detailed feedback and insights on your earliest collaborations to ensure those preferences are part of the bones of your operation and are carried over to later projects.

Plan, Talk, Publish, Repeat

Even in the strongest relationship, your content partner can't predict your future. Share upcoming priorities, events, dates, plans, and more—not just today or this week but heading into the next quarter or fiscal year. That level of visibility allows content partners to create effective, aligned content. For brand managers, this begins by developing plans to update your content marketing partners on forthcoming product launches, major events, internal themes, and other touchpoints that can carry through to your content.

One CPG brand that Kayser works with closely began sharing their editorial calendar a quarter in advance and providing briefs on forthcoming new products. "The more we know about your products, the more we can naturally integrate product into content," she says.

Long-term visibility often means working closely with a brand's internal experts. When Kayser and her team onboarded one new client, she met with the company's science expert to get a full demo and background on the brand's products.

"To an outsider, that might seem like overkill. But in that meeting, it was me and the editorial manager. We took so many notes and had so many ideas for content that came out of it, because everything she was saying about the way the products work—and what they're intended to do—sparked in our minds the questions that a consumer might ask in order to find this as their solution," she notes.

Open lines of communication impact content success from the beginning. In addition to sharing upcoming plans, explore how providing access to your company's experts could improve the quality of content or more effectively bring your unique voice to the market.

content planning

Image attribution: Brands&People on Unsplash

Trust the Process

Even the best content programs encounter roadblocks, and the ability to navigate hard conversations is what ensures that your partnership continues to be productive while you address those obstacles. The willingness to address issues as they arise, focus on collaborative problem-solving, and assume positive intent will go a long way toward course correcting if your content efforts fall off their designated track.

The process begins with the right mindset. This is often established, Pidgeon explains, by "letting go of a lot of your preconceived notions." Rather than making assumptions, she advises reflecting on where feedback is coming from, who's giving it, and what factors may be at the root, such as input from other stakeholders. From there, partners need to acknowledge what's been said, present a plan to address it, and respond quickly to the concerns. On the brand side, providing timely responses and feedback to suggestions supports a successful course correction.

"It's usually a very iterative approach that's based on solid communication, listening, and hearing what they're saying, and then bringing a solution and getting their buy-in and connection to make sure it does the job and solves the challenge for them," says Pidgeon.

Holland agrees, noting, "It matters, I think, more how you respond or how you pick yourself up from that negative feedback than the fact that you got the negative feedback in the first place."

As your content partners invite feedback and encourage your honesty and cooperation, it can alleviate some frustration to anticipate some bumps in the road. By taking an open-minded and collaborative approach from the beginning, you can empower your content partners to solve issues and continue moving forward.

Respect What Everyone Brings to the Table

The most effective collaborations leverage both a client's expertise as subject matter experts and a partner's expertise in content best practices. For brands, this often comes down to two key areas.

  • Make your company's experts available as needed to help enrich pieces and enhance a partner's understanding of your audience.
  • Remember that your content marketing partner is an expert in the content process, and some of the best practices they recommend may challenge your thinking. Often, challenging long-held ideas is the best path to growth.

Holland recalls working with a pet products brand, noting that the team works collaboratively to share insights and bring the editorial and strategy teams into the process.

"We review every topic with these veterinarians who give us this deeply insightful, rich perspective on pet behavior, diseases, and care. It really helps us see the nooks and crannies of the space rather than just the high-level details. It's that combination of things—it's the recognition of different expertise, it's the letting us in, and the openness to bring us into some other areas of their business and the folks who work for them that makes us successful," says Holland.

Just as you and your team are experts in your industry, your content partner will bring their own unique and valuable expertise to the table.

"Nobody is hired or a part of our team unless they've had some sort of really direct experience with production in the past," says Sanford. He notes that this level of expertise positions the team to really understand what brands hope to achieve. "The other side is that you've really taken a look at and understood what their brand needs are, and you can make really transparent suggestions."

In the world of creative operations, hands-on production experience and a deep understanding of the larger landscape is crucial to helping brands get started or take risks with enhanced content. Knowing that each member of the team has not just vendor experience but hands-on production insights as well should help expand your confidence and trust in your content partner.

Sweat the (Important) Details

Taking the time to understand the process your partners use—and the role your brand team plays in that—can help prevent delays and avoid unnecessary challenges. Collaboration is easier when it centers on a shared set of goals and objectives. Often, this begins with something as simple as assignment summaries.

"One of the things I've learned in my time working with clients is the importance of aligning on the pieces of the workflow and the process, and helping clients understand what those pieces are and how they work," says Holland. "For example, the assignment summary is something we pay attention to probably the most, outside of drafting on the editorial side. The assignment summary for any given topic is the one central piece that connects our editorial team, the client, and the content creators to ensure that all three of those parties are clearly aligned on the direction for an article. And the assignment summary is a really good opportunity for us to show those different parties how everything levels up to the higher-level strategy."

Misalignments in small details can snowball into larger quality issues and erode hard-won trust. A strong, established process becomes a failsafe against those situations.

"I've found that aligning with clients early on, on those smaller details, solidifies that trust-building process and ensures that we're parroting back what we've heard from the client—we're understanding them, we're listening to them, we're connecting them to the content creator through using our editorial team as sort of the mediator there," says Holland.

Sanford agrees that a strong process is critical to creative collaboration. "Aligning them with the process really helps—helping them understand this is how we stay efficient. This is how your budget stays efficient.'"

He also explains that an established process is critical if a brand partner ever needs to accelerate or adjust to get something done. "We want this to happen for our clients as quickly and as efficiently as possible based on whatever their content considerations are," he says. "And we can do that, as long as they are completely clear and understanding of what that process looks like and completely clear and understanding of when they're looking for some flexibility, how to go about asking for that, and understanding of the implications that has on the process."

"With an efficient process, and with what seems like a little bit lower of a budget, if you can have confidence in the way the process works, you can be experimental and different. To position yourself as a leader, you can work really nimbly within the budgets and the process that we work with."

Image attribution: Headway on Unsplash

Get Past Personas into Deeper Audience Needs

Brands and content marketing partners can work together to capture what an audience needs.

When Holland was working with a healthcare brand on content targeting laboratory professionals, bringing the content team up to speed involved understanding the nuances of that audience.

"They're so critical to the medical institution, but they're often the most overlooked. That sort of changed through the pandemic, as their research and their work are coming to the forefront a little bit more. They're often last to get funding, but they're often at the forefront of a lot of medical change. So, helping us tap into what these laboratorians are feeling allowed us to go that step deeper—from just talking about what they do to really tapping into what they want out of content, how they want to be seen within the medical institutions," says Holland.

That emotional resonance and realistic alignment drives content that stands out and speaks genuinely to target audiences.

Break Down Partner Silos

Brands often work with multiple partners, and your content marketing partners' willingness to coordinate can be the difference between an integrated effort that elevates the brand and a confused tangle that frustrates everyone involved.

Pidgeon recalls one phone call on which multiple agencies were working on aspects of the client's SEO: "The solve really was to get an understanding in our own words of what each of the agencies is bringing in. While we are similar if you look at it one-dimensionally, we're actually very different and bring a different element to their overarching SEO, and their program, and ultimately the brand," she explains.

By defining who was focused on the blog, reporting, keyword research, and other aspects, it was easier to articulate how each contribution impacted the client and how each part of the ecosystem could best collaborate.

Focusing on the direct relationship with other marketing partners is also key, according to Pidgeon, such as with CPG clients who may have a dozen different partners involved in marketing efforts. "You also have to build a bit of a bridge with that other partner. Who are the main points of contact there? Talk to them," she says.

Kayser has found that in her work with CPG brands, it's also critical to bring your best ideas to the table openly as part of a multi-partner team.

"It really does take everyone bringing their best work forward and bringing ideas forward and communicating. If everyone's just squirreling away their ideas and being super protective, it actually backfires. And we've seen that when the vendors are working together—it really helps the client execute on an integrated plan," she notes.

One Skyword client's solution comes in the form of a monthly cross-partner meeting. "We have a meeting once a month, and we all look a quarter in advance at the brand's priorities and product focus and anything timely coming up—Earth Day, for example—that we might want to talk about. And then we discuss specifically how each vendor will contribute, and how we can feed into each other," notes Kayser. The social media vendor can plan to amplify content, while the PR vendor might supply an influencer quote that can be used. Through active engagement, content marketing partners can develop relationships that actively make each other better.

Developing an understanding of each content partner's differentiated value propositions and keeping an open line of communication helps smooth the way to delivering on a client's vision.

Final Thoughts

Collaboration and trust are essential themes across all aspects of the brand and content marketing partner relationship. Investing in communication, aligning around processes, and helping partners understand your most important goals hands you vital tools for longer-term success.

The payoff—high-performing content campaigns that map to your most important business goals and speak effectively to your audience—is worth the effort. Ultimately, fostering these relationships takes significant work, but it lays the foundation for long-term innovation and success.

Skyword was recently named a Leader in the Gartner 2021 Magic Quadrant for Content Marketing Platforms. Learn more about this important recognition and access your complimentary copy of the full report.

Feature image attribution: Robin GAILLOT-DREVON on Unsplash


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.