I subscribe to a tech and entrepreneur listserv to stay connected to our community. A few weeks back a fellow marketer responded to a question and the name of the agency in her email signature caught my eye, so I visited her site find out exactly what they do.

It appeared their focus is on PPC and SEO, but they list content marketing as a service offering, too. I’d never heard of this firm before, so I looked them up on LinkedIn to see if I share connections with anyone working there and what they do.

I didn’t find any mutual connections, but I did find that out of 19 employees listed on LinkedIn, there were exactly zero people whose titles or profiles indicated anything related to content marketing, content development or writing. That’s a big red flag for anyone who’s interested in hiring them for content marketing. It’s possible that not every employee is listed on LinkedIn, but it got me thinking about a common issue we run into as a content marketing and storytelling agency.

Many other agencies, whose core business is SEO or PR, will claim they can “do” content with little experience or expertise. Sometimes they can … but it isn’t always easy to tell. How is a company seeking out content marketing assistance supposed to know who does it well and who doesn’t? And why would agencies say they do content marketing without the know-how in the first place?

Why agencies are so quick to say they “do” content marketing

It’s not 2008 anymore, and we’re not keyword stuffing pages, using invisible text, buying up links on link farms or gaming the Google algorithm with other black hat SEO techniques. And while SEO is still vitally important (albeit in different ways now), it’s also imperative to have helpful, well-written content.

Google’s algorithm has moved away from ranking pages based on short keywords to ranking them based on intent—that’s why you can essentially ask Google a question and get the answer.

Many companies realized that technical SEO and content optimization needed to be balanced with good content and, thus, content marketing suddenly appeared as a service many SEO agencies provide. It’s easy enough to add a new service to your offering, pitch it to clients and then figure it out when you win the business.

PR firms have also expanded services to offer content marketing. While you’ve got a better shot at finding someone on staff who can write, it’s hit or miss there, too. Many PR pros are great at messaging but not great at writing helpful content that’s not overly promotional. Or they excel at media relations but are a little rusty when it comes to grammar and usage. However, it’s a more natural progression to begin offering content marketing services than adding content development to technical SEO.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s entirely possible that an SEO or PR agency can add services and staff appropriately … but so often they don’t. A company that engages an SEO or traditional PR agency to handle content marketing might end up with some poorly-written blog posts with no strategy behind them or content that’s over-optimized for SEO and completely unhelpful.

What to look for in a content marketing agency

So given the fact that, when some agencies “do” content marketing, not everyone means the same thing, here’s what we’d suggest you look for in an agency.

Well-written content – Seems obvious, but a good content agency should know how to tell their story themselves, and do it in an interesting way. That means clearly outlining services and their process, providing some helpful case studies and content to help you evaluate them and make a decision.

In our opinion, great writing is a non-negotiable must-have. Even if you’re creating infographics, video or less copy-oriented content for social media, the agency you hire has to be able to string together the words to tell the story.

A solid strategy and process – Content marketing is more than writing a few blog posts. It takes an understanding of the buyer’s journey and the client’s goals. Content marketing experts will help you figure out who to talk to, when to talk to them and what to talk to them about. And a content process will help you get from ideation to publishing and distribution smoothly.

An audience-first approach – Buyers are totally in control of the process these days, which means content needs to be helpful, not promotional, at least at the top of the sales funnel when you’re trying to attract attention and build trust. Audience-first means you have to figure out what your audience wants during every step of the buyer’s journey.

Subject-matter expertise – The only way to win at content marketing is to have a very firm grasp of the industry you’re writing for. Look for case studies within the industry or work that’s been done with clients in a similar space. A content marketing agency can’t produce high-quality content without understanding the obstacles your customers face and the unique aspects of your industry.

There are obviously some SEO, PR and digital agencies that can nail content marketing, too. But it’s crucial to figure out who’s doing the work and what their experience is before making working with them. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting money and spinning your wheels at best, and damaging your brand at worst.