Digital MarketingSocial Media Marketing

How to Vet a Digital Marketing Agency

how to vet a digital marketing agency

Why You Should Listen to Me

You may be asking yourself, what gives this guy the audacity to give me advice on Digital Marketing.  That's a fair question.  I may have spent the majority of my career in Financial Services, but I've spent the better part of the last few years as a freelance digital marketer.  What most people don't know about digital marketing agencies is that many of them outsource a lot of the work to freelancers like me.

In one instance I was hired by a digital marketing agency to do SEO project management.  They're biggest client was another digital marketing agency.  So I was a freelancer working for an agency who was working for an agency who was hired by the client.  Think about how many layers existed between me and the client and how many people were making money off of the relationship.

I have agencies approach me everyday regarding whitelabel relationships.  Where I essentially take their services, mark them up and charge as high of a price that I can, outsourcing all of the work to them while I simply manage the relationship.  In my humble opinion, you should avoid these agencies.  In my experience they tend to care about selling you the product or service that gives their business the most ROI, not the product or service that will give your business the most ROI.

I want to help you identify the right agency or the right freelancer.  There are so many "churn and burn" agencies out there that go out and sign as many clients as they can and in doing so they sacrifice quality of work.  As long as they are signing clients faster than they are losing them, they're happy.  It doesn't exactly bode well for client experience unfortunately.  That is probably why most of my clients have a horror story or two.

Know What You Want

The first step in any process should be knowing what you want and understanding specifically what you want to get out of it.  There are many facets to any digital marketing campaign.  As I mentioned previously, many agencies are going to sell you on the services that give them the most ROI.  So it's important to identify which components of Digital Marketing provide your business with the most ROI, not the other way around.  Don't blindly trust the person that's trying to sell you on their service.  Do the research and come to your own conclusions.

Take a hard look at your competitors and see which aspects of their digital marketing campaign appear to getting them the most traction.  Even if you have to look outside your niche or industry, find an example of a company doing it in a way you want to emulate in some way.  As Picasso said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal".  Don't just copy your competitors best ideas, do your best to improve upon them while staying true to your own voice and brand.

Learn the Basics

In order to get the most out of any service, it's important to understand the process.  Knowing the basics can really useful in identifying the best candidate for your business.  The easiest way to learn is by doing.  I highly recommend trying to do it yourself, even if just briefly.

If it's SEO (search engine optimization) get a free trial membership to SEMRush or MOZ.  Do a little keyword research and optimize a page on your website for a target keyword.  If it's social media management on Facebook, trying posting every day for a month.

In the process of learning, you may discover that you actually enjoy some components of the digital marketing process.  You can then engage with the parts of the process that you enjoy and outsource/delegate the rest.  The key is to still have an understanding of the processes you aren't directly involved with.

Do They Practice What They Preach

This is my favorite litmus test for any marketing agency.  Do they practice what they preach? Are they actively implementing all of the services they are selling you on?  My favorite postings on Upwork are the Lead Gen companies looking for help generating more leads.  If you can't generate leads for your own lead gen business, how do you expect to do it for your clients.  For me it's a relatively simple way of disqualifying a potential service.

It sounds pretty logical, but just do your due diligence to make sure they are drinking their own kool-aid so to speak.  If an agency is pushing Facebook Ads, but they aren't implementing any of their own, that should tell you something.  I once worked for digital marketing agency that got all of their clients utilizing local in person networking events.  They had a lot of clients and it blew me away that they were able to close all of those deals considering they didn't implement any of the services they were selling their clients on for themselves.

Working with a digital marketing agency that doesn't implement it's own digital marketing strategy is like hiring an obese trainor to get you back in shape.  It probably isn't going to work out.

Ask The Right Questions

Ask For Specific Examples

Identify prospects that provide specific examples that directly apply to your business.  If it's SEO, ask what keywords they would target and why. If it's Facebook Ads, ask for sample ad copy etc.

There are so many digital marketing agencies shopping around cookie cutter template proposals.  Learn to look past the fluff and identify the prospects that have taken the time to customize their proposal to your business.  If they didn't take time to customize their proposal, it should tell you that they are most likely shopping the same proposal at scale.  In my experience working at digital marketing agencies, these types of relationships are not sustainable because they rarely yield results for the clients.

Agencies shopping proposals at scale tend to have more clients that they can really manage, so they're consistently sacrificing on quality.

Ask About the Structure of Their Firm

Ask yourself if they have full time employees or if they are outsourcing the work to other agencies.  Keep in mind that it's really easy to generate a company email for someone.  It's relatively easy to create the illusion of a team.  I'm not saying all white label agencies do bad work, but I do think they do a poor job of being transparent.

Not in all cases, but sometimes these agencies will put up a website that creates the illusion of this big company with a huge staff so they can justify charging big prices to big clients.  The reality is that in many instances these agencies are nothing more than a very small nucleus of full time employees paired with a small team of virtual assistants and part time freelancers.  I should know because I've worked as a freelancer for multiple agencies with this structure.

Ask if They Implement Their Own Strategies

Any SEO professional can drive traffic to low difficulty keywords.  But it takes a skilled professional to dive deep and find keywords that will actually lead to conversions and not just drive traffic.  Any influencer can buy followers and buy likes, but only a legit influencer can help sell out your next launch.

Another reason why it's so important to understand the basics of the underlying service before hiring any agency or freelancer.  Try to have an understanding that most metrics are vanity metrics that can be manipulated.  Once you have a basic understanding, do some background research into each agency.

If they are pitching Facebook Ads, check out the success of their own facebook ad campaign.  If they do Social Media Management, check out the last months worth of posts on all of their agency social media pages.  When it comes to social media, I like to look at the comments because they are harder to fake.  You can buy followers, you can buy likes and you can even buy comments.  But it's relatively easy to identify comments that are real and genuine vs something a bot left behind.

Proposals and Case Studies Are Over Rated

I'm going out on limb with this one.  I'm not making the claim that case studies and proposals are not compelling.  I'm also not making the claim that all of them are worthless.  However, they are overrated as whole in my humble opinion.  Here is why I say that.

Templates are Free and Easy to Find

Google "free SEO proposal template" or "free social media management proposal.  In many instances it's as easy as entering a few simple fields.  Client Name, Business Name, Client Email and then a picture of their logo and your logo.  Most of the proposal is generated for you.  You will begin to notice that it's extremely rare to find proposals and case studies that contain content that is curated specifically for your business.  Unfortunately most contain fluff material that be broadly applied to any business.

Numbers and Metrics are Easily Manipulated

Most SEO professionals can drive traffic to low competition keywords.  Not all can develop a SEO strategy that will drive traffic that actually leads to conversions.  Most Social Media Influencers can get you likes and followers.  There are few influencers that can really drive real sales.  It's so easy to get caught up in the metrics that are cherry picked and taken out of context, especially if you don't understand the underlying topic.  I can't stress enough how important it is to do your homework!

Understand if Your Goals Align With Your Budget

The easiest way to get burned when hiring a digital marketing agency is having unreasonable expectations that do not realistically align with your budget.  Here's why.  If you're expectations far outweigh your budget, you're opening yourself up to being pitched fraudulent services.

For instance, an SEO agency or freelancer may be promising first position rankings for next to nothing. What they aren't telling you is that they're most likely utilizing "black hat" techniques that yield short term results, but leave you vulnerable to potential penalties over the long term.  It could also take shape in the form of an influencer who is offering to promote your business for what seems like a low price given the size of their following.  What they aren't telling you is that their followers and likes are not organic because they have been purchased.

So take the time to understand the price range for the given service you are looking for.  If you do have a limited budget, rather than hire an agency, consider finding a freelancer with limited experience.  In my experience these people are usually highly motivated to build out their body of work and therefore willing to work for less so they can gain experience to justify charging more in the future.

Conclusion

Selecting and vetting a marketing agency is no easy task.  It's imperative to the process to take the time to understand the basics of each of the individual aspects of digital marketing that you are interested in.  If not, it's easy to get overwhelmed by what you don't understand and that can easily influence you into making the wrong decision.

The best and last piece of advice I will give you is to not to ignore the human element.  The person you are potentially working with is just as important to the process as the service itself.  So many people get caught up in the numbers and they forget about the human element.  Don't forget to ask yourself if you can work well with this person or team of people.  Communication can be one of the most important elements to any working relationship, especially if you're dealing with remote workers who are not on site.  You have to be able to trust them to get work done effectively when you aren't actively engaged in the process.  I would argue that the person behind the service is more important that the service itself, but that's a conversation for another day.

 

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