By John Otterbein
By John Otterbein
If you’re reading this, you’re probably on the verge of partnering with a digital marketing agency. Maybe you’re underwater and need some help managing your workload. Or maybe you’re not completely satisfied with your current marketing firm and you’re looking for some guidance so you don’t step on the same tack twice (yelp!).
Whatever the case may be, let me start off by saying congratulations! You’re entering into an extremely exciting phase in the evolution of your business.
Well… it certainly can be exciting if you take the proper steps to ensure you’re hiring a marketing agency intent on taking your business to the next level. Not to worry – this isn’t meant to be a precautionary tale. Quite the contrary.
This exhaustive list of questions will weed out the studs from the duds once you’re ready to screen prospective agencies vying for your business. Feel free to download the list and use it to record your notes as you interview potential digital marketing agencies!
Whether you work at a nonprofit, a manufacturing company, or anything in between, you will want to answer the million dollar question: How do I choose the right marketing agency that will give me the best return on investment for my marketing dollars?
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the 51 questions that will help you bring on the ideal marketing partner for your business.
If you’re checking out some of the agency’s work and notice that all of their clients have been B2B manufacturing companies and you operate a trampoline park, take notice.
Not to say that agencies can’t be versatile, but it’s nice to see proven results from previous clients within your industry.
Conversely, watch out for agencies that work exclusively in one industry – they may have conflicts of interest with your competitors. A big no-no.
Look for case studies and blog posts featuring one of their recent clients, and ask how well the agency understands your business. If they don’t have recent work in your industry, find out how they will gain the knowledge they need about your company’s industry, revenue, and sales goals.
The best digital marketing agencies are strategic partners. Their definition of marketing is expansive and inclusive, granting them the ability to think through and tackle your business conundrums beyond generating leads and converting customers.
Every deliverable should relate back to your company’s goals. Every action item should underscore your vision.
The last thing you want is an agency that’s rowing at a different interval. Look for signs of alignment right off the bat.
This just in:
A marketing agency, no matter how accomplished they may be, isn’t a cure-all for all your business ailments.
Marketing is a long, hard road and success, however it’s defined, shows up after you’ve resisted the urge to take the easy off-ramps along the way.
It can take months, even years, to amplify what’s working and cut the dead weight. Nonetheless, your winning agency needs to be able to:
If this isn’t your first rodeo, make an honest assessment as to why you’re looking for a new agency. Record the positives and negatives about the experience, and be frank about what kind of results you want with this new agency.
It can be especially difficult to avoid writing off every agency under the sun after one subpar experience. Look at each prospect with a fresh set of eyes and use your previous engagements to dictate the questions you ask and the information you collect.
It may take a little extra time but it’s worth it to make an exhaustive list.
Warning: Skip the list at your own risk!
An agency’s versatility is one of the most crucial deciding factors. The reason being that marketing doesn’t work in a vacuum, it lives and thrives through a nexus of disciplines and capabilities.
What good is a blog post that’s poised to garner thousands of views if your website is a relic from 1999? Exactly, it’s useless.
Sure, every agency is better at some things than others, I’ll give you that. But, in order for your marketing efforts to be well-rounded and potent, your agency should have a bouquet of proficiencies at its disposal.
Avoid hiring a one-trick pony. Seek out the Swiss army knife.
Here are some important capabilities to consider when vetting agencies:
Oh, and before we move onto the next question, another benefit of partnering with a well-rounded agency, we’d be remiss to skip over, also happens to be one of the most important: cohesiveness.
You need your website, copy, collateral, marketing, sales, and events to fit together seamlessly to establish a firm brand position.
A marketing firm might offer web design, but will these designs be outsourced, or is there an art director and design team on staff?
It’s okay to outsource some things, but if you’re revamping your company’s website or doing a complete rebrand, it’s much more comforting to know that there are experienced designers or web developers on staff.
Why is this important? Imagine the day you’ve been waiting for since hiring the agency – “Go Live Day” – and you forgot to include a page on the website. With designers, developers, and copywriters on staff, that fire can be put out in an hour, if the agency outsources all design, development and copywriting, that fire will burn ablaze for days.
You probably know from different work experiences that the people you work with have a huge impact on your day-to-day happiness and success. When you hire a marketing agency, you’re essentially gaining new teammates.
For marketing to yield any concrete results, the typical minimum retainer is from 8 to 12 months, so make sure these new co-workers are good people who you look forward to collaborating and communicating with over that long stretch.
Start off by checking out the agency’s website – How approachable do they look? What is your gut instinct reporting back? When you go in for a visit, ask if you can meet some of the team members who would be working on your project.
You want to work with a company that has similar values to your own. Are they fun and friendly or cold and analytical? Maybe a bit of both is a great alignment to your own company culture.
But let’s face it: you are the only one who can make that call.
It’s all too easy to dismiss this step. It may sound like a platitude, but relationships form the foundation for ALL species of success.
Now that you know what type of work they do and who’s doing the work, it’s time to take a look at the how. Not all tools and software are created equally.
For example, at Figmints, we use Teamwork for project management, communication, and file sharing. It streamlines the communication process between the team and clients – which is important because you want your agency to be using your budget for actual marketing work and not 50% project management.
If you already use marketing automation software and aren’t interested in switching, find out if the agency has experience with that particular platform.
A platinum partner agency (that’s us!) has more experience than a partner fresh out-of-the-box.
Check what credentials the agency has, as well as their relationship with the different marketing software companies.
The tools and software used will play a big role in how they manage your account and report on progress. That being said, some clients like to meet once a week, others like a formal meeting just once a month.
Be honest with yourself – will you need someone to be on call if you have questions each day? Or do you feel comfortable handing over the implementation of the strategy to the agency’s team, and just want to check in with a bi-weekly call?
Communicate your expectations from the start so that the agency can assemble a team and schedule that meets your needs.
Now that we’ve entered a culture of only online meetings, we’re looking at this question a bit differently. For the time-being, we’re all going to be
Do you prefer holding video conference meetings or simple calls? Which video conferencing platform do you use?
If proximity is an important aspect, does the agency have an office to go back into once we can all start heading back into the office? Or do they have a plan for a potential in-person meeting?
Most people ask if their agency will be available to answer their calls and emails, but what about the time you realistically have to approve designs and content?
Hiring an agency requires a bit of account management on your part as well.
If you are too busy to be approving designs and collaborating on projects when needed, maybe there is someone else on your team who you trust to coordinate the bulk of communications.
With inbound marketing, you are not likely to see a return until after 3 to 6 months.
Can this really be true? There must be a quicker way to see an ROI, right?
Marketing is synonymous with trust, which takes time to cultivate and grow.
An agency should be able to understand your business and jumpstart your marketing campaigns, but it can take time to see substantial results – don’t ditch them after the first month if you’re not seeing a return.
If you need results on day one, consider dedicating some budget to running paid advertisements. You can also ask your agency if they have a ‘quick-win strategy,’ which won’t necessarily be sustainable, but it will drive some leads to your door.
In order to provide you with a solution that focuses on company ROI, an agency needs to get a full view of the market, and you both need to be committed to your company’s long-term goals.
Sales/marketing success is a marathon.
You can’t sprint your way to success with a three-month contract when sales cycles in most B2B industries to be protracted and complex.
Typically, you’ll need to engage with multiple decision makers (each with different challenges and incentives) and educate them about the value of your solution. You (and the agency you partner with) will need some stamina for that.
Contracts from different agencies vary, and it’s essential for you to be aware of what deliverables are expected and when to expect them.
Is your contract for a digital marketing campaign every two months that includes one offer, four blog posts, social media promotion, and an automated email workflow?
Know what to expect so that your project stays in scope, and there are no surprises down the road.
A successful marketing strategy cannot be devised overnight.
And it certainly cannot be launched and executed in a month.
Here’s the thing:
The marketing strategies that knock it out of the park burn slow, but once they start burning, they burn forever. That’s what makes the ramp-up phase especially crucial, and time-consuming, for the long-term success of the project.
Oftentimes, clients put unrealistic time-lines into place, pressuring agencies to rush the ramp-up and proclaim promises that are impossible to keep, frustrating everyone involved to no end.
The underlying lesson here?
Prod your prospective agency for their ramp-up process and keep a keen eye out for overzealous timelines and profuse promises. If you walk into the engagement with the understanding that good marketing strategies take time, patience, and perseverance, you’ll be better equipped to spot lip-service and unrealistic project parameters.
SEO (search engine optimization) is one of the most widely discussed topics in the inbound marketing arena. This is primarily because Google continues its crusade to relentlessly update and tighten its search ranking algorithms to cut down on loopholes, forcing marketers to step up their game if they want to be seen.
Don’t believe me? This list of Google updates from MOZ will get you up to speed.
With that said, this question may just shine a light on defunct SEO techniques that dried up years ago. For instance, when the Panda update launched, overloading internal links pointing to pages you were trying to boost not only became an ineffective on-page SEO strategy, it was reclassified as an over-optimization penalty.
That’s right, a penalty.
Your page can actually fall in rank for an SEO practice that was rampantly used up until 2012. Listen closely for red flags during their explanation.
Marketing is a trip around the world, not a walk down the street.
I don’t say that to dissuade you from starting your inbound or outbound journey but it’s imperative to set the right expectation in stone before you begin.
Even pieces of content that rightfully deserve the #1 spot take time to climb in the rankings. That goes for all aspects of inbound marketing, almost nothing is immediate, nor should it be.
Similar to the process of building trust towards strangers or new co-workers, inbound marketing requires an enormous amount of trust from your audience. It’s the backbone of any solid marketing strategy.
So if a potential digital marketing agency trumpets their ability to bring you results in a month’s time, you now know better than to take the bait.
Like many others on this list, this is a bit of a trick question meant to ruffle some feathers and reveal valuable insight into a marketing agency’s actual strategic philosophy.
This just in:
There isn’t any one SEO tactic that will send your site traffic soaring. SEO isn’t a one-sided attack. The key to strong SEO strategy is flanking your marketing goals from all sides.
If you need to brush up on common and up-to-date SEO techniques, have a look-see at this list from one of the industry’s most reputable sources. It covers everything from landing page optimization, ideal content length, devising backlink strategies, and performing all-encompassing SEO audits on your website.
Backlink strategies are tricky, mainly because they’re time and labor intensive.
They’re also largely out of your control.
You can’t force a prominent web authority to link to your content unless your content is both superlative and relevant to theirs.
But you can get the ball rolling and integrate a backlinking strategy. Prioritizing the process of acquiring backlinks will help your company increase its visibility and rankings for organic search, as it remains one of Google’s key ranking signals.
Think of backlinks as an upvote from other companies that your content is informative and helpful. The more the merrier. There are numerous ways to go about integrating a backlinking strategy, but we will share a few of our favorites.
Broken link building involves finding outdated 404 pages, emailing the blog or content linking to the error, and offering a piece of thought leadership written by your company that is relevant to replace it.
Creating a high level and well designed infographic is another avenue that can help increase your backlinking profile, as infographics are ranked at the top for content generating links.
Signing up for HARO can save time that would be spent on email outreach. Through HARO, you let journalists come to you!
There are a few moving parts at work here:
Quality backlinks come from pages and domains that can boast high authorities i.e. pages and domains that have already built out their own strong portfolio of backlinks.
Quality backlinks depend on where they’re positioned on a page. Links that appear in the midst of content rather than on a footer or sidebar are seen as more favorable and are thus weighted higher.
The relevancy of the link also plays a large part in the quality of the backlink. If the other links on the page don’t match in content or context, the link can potentially be penalized.
You can read about other factors influencing backlinks here, but the elements above should arm you just enough to be dangerous when conducting your search.
As I’ve previously mentioned, SEO is multifaceted. There’s always more to do on that side of an inbound marketing strategy.
Therefore, if you spot a blanket SEO item in a digital marketing proposal with no clarification, you may want to dig in a little deeper and request some elaboration.
Are they strict adherents to inbound marketing?
Do they solely specialize in paid advertising?
Are they exclusively a content shop?
If you have any chance of matching your marketing needs to their capabilities, this question should give you the answers you need to delve deeper. If they do all three, even better – they offer expertise in each category, enabling you to be able to pivot or add tactics when the strategy needs it.
If you’re producing content for the sake of it or because you read somewhere that content is how you can jump on the fast-track to attracting visitors like moths to a light, you’re not exactly wrong but you’re not entirely correct either.
Superior content must inform, inspire, and build relationships.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Writing content that achieves this lofty trifecta requires you to understand your industry and the people who reside there, in very real ways.
Otherwise, you run the risk of providing shallow, lackluster, and obvious content that’s going to do a better job at exposing your gaps in knowledge and understanding than it will in building your brand’s tribe.
That’s why it’s imperative to understand the specific industries your prospective marketing agency has worked for and produced real results for, and then be curious on how they onboard and distribute information to their content creators as to not sound shallow, lackluster, or unknowledgeable.
This is not an uncommon move so don’t be surprised if and when this topic arises. Some industries are just too convoluted, or too specialized, for outsiders to write about.
As you know from the last question we covered, excellent content should inform, entertain, and entice simultaneously. That being said, if an audience catches the scent of a neophyte when engaging with content of any kind, they’ll immediately search elsewhere. There’s too much good content out there, and too little time in the day, to expect visitors to settle for anything less than the absolute best.
You’re not going to take advice on how to invest your 401k from somebody who doesn’t know what Nasdaq is. The same logic applies here.
So, if a prospective marketing agency taps you to help shoulder the weight of content creation, refrain from raising the red flag just yet. As the experts in your field and industry, it may just make perfect sense for you to write the bulk of the content, or at least an outline with reputable articles to resource, and hand it over to a marketing agency who can work their magic to get it in front of the right eyes.
It’s not enough to create helpful, engaging, actionable content (as much as I wish it was).
Oftentimes, there’s a missing layer beyond the aforementioned attributes of stellar content and that layer is the degree to which your brand is shining through. Your content has to be 112% unique to your brand, it must be laden with your voice and your voice alone.
Your diction, cadence, choice of imagery, and tone must give your readers the sense that they can’t find your content anywhere else.
Think of your favorite coffee shop that you trudge to every morning. Think about its ambiance, staff, layout, location, and the special way they prepare your order. Do they know your order before you reach the counter? Do they play a certain radio station on Wednesday mornings? Do the other customers who congregate there feel like your tribe? Why do you go to that specific coffee shop instead of the one two blocks away?
There’s a reason why you keep going back to that coffee shop. It’s important to create that same cohesive brand loyalty with your content.
Riddle me this:
How could a marketing agency hope to infuse your marketing with your one-of-a-kind brand voice if they don’t have experience with branding in the first place?
You’ve got it, they’d have a more difficult time than their brand-savvy counterparts.
Marketing agencies with in-house branding expertise are better equipped to connect with your company’s tribe. Period.
While we’re on the topic, I’d first like to make an important distinction. The words content and copy are widely used interchangeably, but in fact, they are different. To be short, copy is used to evoke an action from the reader and content is used to be informative. E.g. Copy = advertisements, website language, emails, landing pages, video scripts, white papers, etc. Content = blog posts, articles, ebooks, reports, newsletters, etc.
Both have a strong place in a marketing strategy and you’re better off using both. It’s important to ask your prospective agency what their content strategy is.
To make them successful? (one that ranks well, is shared widely, and/or converts over and over?) is the sum of its well-considered parts.
The content must be original, thought-provoking and helpful, oh and with strong headlines as the cherries on top. The list goes on and on, but for the purposes of screening marketing partners, understanding their favorite factors for supercharging copy and content will speak volumes about their strengths and weaknesses without directly asking about them.
One of the great inbound marketing debates stretching back to time immemorial (all the way back to 2007 to be exact) is whether to produce short-form (300 – 1,000 words) or long-form (1,000 – 3,000) content.
While short-form content enables you to increase your posting frequency and keeps you top of mind, long-form content has been proven to increase your chances of showing up on the coveted first-page of Google.
Remember, one post that ranks well for a high-trafficked keyword has more stopping power than five posts that have never seen the light of day.
Beware of short posts with little substance, they’re a sure sign your agency is more concerned with checking boxes than creating content that will blow your audience away.
This question may feel obvious or self-explanatory at first blush, but the idea-well does eventually run dry, especially for longer-term engagements.
Any marketing agency worth their weight in salt should have a go-to process or exercise they can include you in when it comes time to fill up the idea silo.
At Figmints, we pull up a shared Google Sheet, hand out the link, and ideate with our digital marketing clients either in the room (when we can) or over the phone/video conference. Once everyone has finished putting their ideas together individually, we go around the horn, present our ideas one at a time, and plot them on the sheet based on two key factors:
Using these two criteria as guardrails, we can brainstorm freely and capture ideas constructively.
Marketing of any kind has solid design to back it up.
Whether you need an infographic created or a landing page tweaked, it’s imperative your marketing agency have designers ready and waiting for whatever bubbles up.
Marketing without strong design behind it is like having all of the separate components of a Lamborghini in your garage unassembled.
This question is tied to the length of content your agency supports.
Short-form content is conducive to posting at a higher frequency. For example, Seth Godin has mastered the art of short-form blogging, allowing him to post every single day.
Long-form content may only have you posting 1-2 per month, but those posts have better chances at becoming robust resources that’ll have people coming back to reference or review parts of it. If you want to delve deeper into the merits of long-form content, you can read more about it here.
Marketing strategies are only as good as their ability to connect to your audience in meaningful and inspiring ways.
This is where audience personas come in handy.
While there are a plethora of ways to create personas, Hubspot being the most widely adopted school of thought, there isn’t necessarily any one perfect way. Persona strategies are scattered all over the digital marketing map.
Bear in mind:
You know your audience better than anyone else, and you may not even know it.
That means the development of your audience personas should be a joint effort between you and your marketing partner, so be wary of agencies who are gung-ho about putting together your personas without your input.
The reason for teasing this information out of your potential digital marketing agency is simple:
Writing with a persona in mind is the only true way to produce content that will solve their problems, feed their curiosity, and have them coming back for more.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. There are no two ways about it. Pushing this point a little further, not everything you can measure is equal in its weight and importance.
A prime example of this is the open-rate of your email. Although was initially thought to be indispensable in the early days of digital marketing, it’s since been ousted as a vanity metric with no real implications towards the health of your strategy.
Keep your eyes peeled for other sneaky vanity metrics infiltrating your reporting.
The buyer’s journey is the cornerstone of any inbound marketing strategy. It’s a blueprint that allows you to synchronize your strategy to your audience’s shifting needs and sure-fire way to cultivate trust.
Instead of force-feeding your brand into the mouths of your buying tribe, the buyer’s journey ensures that you can target needs as they arise in the minds of your audience with pinpoint accuracy.
With all that laid down, it’s worth mentioning that no two buyer journeys are alike even though they follow the same basic protocol.
This question presents a prime opportunity to draw past successes and failures out of your prospective marketing agency with all of the gritty detail still intact.
The difference between voice and tone may seem like what you’d learn on the first day of a 101 level course, but don’t lose site of the goal here:
These questions should drive your prospective digital marketing agency to elaborate.
You may not need a lesson on voice and tone (or many other topics posed throughout the questions on this list) but what you do need is for your potential agencies to expound on their thoughts and feelings, their theories and philosophies on everything they claim to offer.
There’s one clear red flag to look out for in any answer to this question:
All of the above.
The all-encompassing social strategy is a rare fit. Chances are your business doesn’t have to be deployed across every social media channel, just the one or two that really matter.
If you’re an industrial manufacturer, you’re probably not going to stir much engagement on Twitter, whereas if you happen to be an ecommerce brand selling kooky socks, Twitter may be what pushes you the last couple of inches into the end zone.
Should you measure social media success on the sheer number of likes or follows alone? Or do you value authentic discourse with your audience whether they smash the like button or not?
Success on social for, say, an airline has more to do with responding to urgent queries in a timely manner. Conversely, social success for a biomedical company would have more to do with how many campaign-site visits were driven by social posts.
Branding and marketing aren’t all that different.
If we look at marketing as the bright side of the moon, branding is the other side that’s shrouded in darkness but rounds out the sphere nonetheless.
They’re inextricably linked. Branding establishes your position and marketing defends it at all costs. Therefore, your social strategy should always reflect the ethos of your brand lest you fall into the sea of white noise where social posts come from different brands but look, sound, and feel the exact same.
If your social posts don’t reflect your brand and come across as insipid, bland, or flat out uninspired, you’re probably better off not posting at all.
Paid advertising has exploded in the last few years and continues to climb in importance.
It’s also a highly nuanced game that requires a certain kind of finesse that only comes with copious experience in the trenches of writing and placing ads.
Offering a vague paid social services line-item in a digital marketing strategy is worlds apart from actually managing a paid social campaign. You’ve been warned.
Templated websites may slowly be eclipsing the need for custom websites as template sites continue to expand in capabilities while shrinking in cost.
While we’re waiting for the verdict to come back on that debate, it’s still important to know which kind of web design (if any) your digital marketing agency specializes in.
One thing’s for sure:
All websites aren’t created equally.
According to research from Smart Insights, 48% of smartphone users begin their search for a product or service from their phone.
This begs the question:
Does your digital marketing agency practice mobile-responsive design?
A fresh and compelling web presence equates with fresh and compelling marketing. The two go hand-in-hand.
However, most websites fall into the same trap:
After an all-inclusive website redesign, a few years pass and, to your dismay, your website has once again fallen behind the times.
I’m here to let you know that you should look out for an agency with a background in growth driven design because they can put an end to that vicious cycle once and for all.
In a nutshell, growth driven design alters your website a little bit at a time, optimizing it as the process matures, which helps your website scale proportionately alongside your business.
You can read more about the many boons of growth driven design here.
Website copy is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the web design process.
While the vast majority of website designers view copy as an afterthought, there’s a growing understanding around web copy that places it on the priority frontline.
Marketing agencies that put copy before all else tend to be ahead of the game and give you a good omen that you won’t want to miss.
The mark of any great collaboration is the manner in which feedback is solicited and collected.
Sure, you’re bringing a marketing agency on-board because ultimately, they’re the experts, but beware of the agency that runs over your input like a big-rig barreling down the highway on the basis that you don’t know what’s good for you.
That’s bogus. You may not be able to translate your needs into marketing-speak, but you most certainly do know what’s good for you.
Don’t move forward if you’re uncomfortable with the rules of engagement, especially when it comes to how your voice will be heard. And honestly, this applies to every one of these 51 questions.
Do they have Google Analytics expertise?
If not, what do they use in place of it?
Do they have experience with lesser known web or marketing analytics services?
Again, this another great question to gauge the depth of a marketing strategy. A wishy-washy answer most likely means a wishy-washy strategy.
Remember when I cautioned against putting stock on vanity metrics earlier? Well, conversion rates are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Whether you’re trying to get visitors to contact you or buy directly from your site, the conversion rate is one metric that simply can’t be skipped over.
This goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway because we’re already 50 questions in:
Avoid conflicts with competitors at all costs. Does a prospective marketing agency work with a competitor? Great, find other prospects. End of story.
Here’s the deal:
If an agency can’t demonstrate past success, they can’t guarantee yours.
Run a fine-toothed comb through their case studies until you’re satisfied with the results of their work. This is one step you cannot skip if you want to find your winning marketing partner.
Will they give you access to an analytics dashboard so you can follow along with their progress?
Will they provide you with a spreadsheet demonstrating positive results (or lack thereof)?
However they prefer to report back from the battlefield, make sure there are clear expectations set from the beginning.
I hope you find these questions helpful in guiding you towards a successful, collaborative relationship with your next marketing agency.
Feel free to reach out if you want to give any of these questions a test drive!
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