101 Tips for Hiring a Digital Marketing Consultant / Services Company

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(Last Updated On: August 18, 2019)

Digital marketing is always changing.

What worked a year ago doesn’t anymore. ‘Best practices’ of five years ago can get you penalized today.

Staying up to date is challenging. Keeping ahead of the trends almost impossible.

That’s why at some point, you’re going to need a digital marketing consultant or agency to help take the reigns for you.

Problem is, how do you know which kind you need? How do you find the best fit?

Here are 101 tips for hiring the right digital marketing consultant or agency.

Begin at the Beginning

align your vision and growth plans with any digital marketing consultant or agency

1. Be Honest with Yourself

Some companies are ready to grow.

While others need to start at the beginning.

Never thought about SEO? No professional AdWords account setup? No goals in Google Analytics setup?

Chances are, you’re going to have to go backwards and fix, setup, and improve. This stuff isn’t difficult. But it is time consuming. So expect at least a few weeks (to month or two) on building blocks that might not generate any substantial return right out of the gate.

2. Score Your Marketing

The Marketing Score, developed by PR2020, is a simple resource that takes like 15 minutes.

At the end, you’re given a free score that will grade various aspects of your marketing.

Some areas will show up as ‘assets’ that will help you when it comes time to work with an external partner or vendor. While others will be considered ‘liabilities’ that will require some up-front work to fix, first.

This score also gives you a verifiable metric to use with executive teams and other management within your company to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

3. Good. Now Drill Deeper

Spot a few issues already?

Good. Let’s take it one step further. Digital marketing’s unique in that everything affects everything else. So a poor website doesn’t just hurt a visitor’s experience. But it also hurts your SEO rankings and conversions, too.

So do a little more digging with a few industry tools to hone in on what’s wrong:

4. Learn Enough to Be Dangerous

The point of the last few steps was self education.

No, you don’t want to be an expert. But you need to understand the basics. And you need to understand that your website has a problem with server requests (even if you have no idea what that is or how to fix it).

The goal is to be able to communicate those issues clearly to someone you’re about to hire. And in turn, kinda understand what they’re saying when they recommend a few steps to correct course.

Otherwise you won’t know if they’re legit. And you won’t understand how to price or value their services.

5. Set Business-Oriented Goals

Digital marketing consultants and service companies are good. But they need a target to shoot for. You need to help them understand exactly what you’re looking for.

“More traffic” isn’t a goal. Increase awareness and decreasing the costs you’d have to spend on AdWords to hit similar traffic levels is a little bit closer.

It’s their job to figure out how to get from A –> B. But… only if they know where B is.

6. Reverse Engineer What Success Looks Like

You want extra revenue. Good. That’s a start.

But how much? $10k?  

Fine… now how many new customers is that? If each customer’s worth $1,000, you need 10.

Great. Now look at your historical conversion rates from leads to sales. And web traffic to leads.

These little steps help you put together a model for what success should look like. It should give you a gameplan to review with consultants to bounce ideas and ask what’s realistic.

It gives these vendors a view into how your business works so they have a better understanding of how their individual services fit with your work. And it helps you understand the link between their work and leading indicators (like rankings or click through rate) and sales.

7. Decide (Specifically) What You Need

You’ve done a lot of prep work so far. You’ve ‘modeled’ success.

The whole point is to help you differentiate what you need from all the ‘extra’ stuff you don’t need.

For example, SEO refers to a BUNCH of different activities:

  • Technical SEO
  • Keyword research
  • On-page optimization
  • Link building
  • Reputation management
  • Content creation
  • And more.

So. You might need ‘SEO’ work. But which parts, specifically, do you need the greatest help or work?

8. You Should Have Realistic Expectations Now

Whenever there’s a problem between a company and digital marketing consultant or agency, it usually comes down to a miscommunication of what’s expected.

You might both agree that SEO is an issue. But if your vendors are only working on a small subset of that and your overall promotion is down, you can’t always expect them to move the needle.

There’s intangibles at play. And you both need to understand the risks posed.

Similarly, the SEO stuff you’re looking for (like new sales) is a lagging indicator. For example, it takes a lot of work to get rankings to fluctuate, then traffic starts to change, then conversions, then finally sales.

So work done between months 1-3 only start to bear fruit in months 6-12.

We’re talking SEO specifically. But the point applies no matter if we’re talking PPC, conversions, content, social, or websites.

Evaluate Your Options Online First

9. Start with An Online Search

Starting online seems obvious.

But the good news is that you can find almost everything needed to ultimately make a decision by simply browsing for a few hours.

For example, you know those steps we just ran through to grade your own website or SEO or PPC?

Now do that for the agencies or consultants you’re thinking about hiring.

If they’re a web design firm, grade their web design and site infrastructure. If they’re an SEO agency, how is their SEO presence?

Every website’s going to have issues. And every (good) agency is going to prioritize client work ahead of their own. (So there will be ample issues.)

But you should quickly be able to identify if they know what they’re doing (or not).

10. What Popular Tools Are You Using?

Are you a HubSpot customer already? Check out their Partner Directory.

Like reading Rand’s SEO content on Moz.com? Reference their Trusted Partners and Recommended Agencies.

Most of your favorite tools online that you might already be using (Unbounce, Kissmetrics, etc.) will have a list of recommended vendors to start with.

And you get the added bonus of them already being comfortable with your internal setup (to minimize delays).

11. You Can Try Ratings & Review Sites

There’s no Yelp for digital agencies. (Although that’s a great idea.)

You can try some old school sources like the BBB. But again, your results might be limited.

One awesome alternative is Credo by John Doherty. It’s a directory that lists consultants and agencies for various marketing disciplines, along with real ratings and reviews from actual customers.

12. Stalk on LinkedIn

LinkedIn’s another hit-or-miss spot. But you can sometimes review peer recommendations, see what consultants or agency partners are publishing, and also snoop on the company’s employees.

Is that what we’ve resorted to? Stalking?

Yes. LinkedIn can also show you someone speaking engagement or upcoming events in the area, too. That way you can listen in and get a front row seat to evaluating their potential.

13. Stalk their Social Media, Too

Social media can be an inside view into a company’s organization. Sometimes it’s of interest for clients, like related news articles, featured work, or other timely announcements.

But other times, it’s not for clients at all. Like the way some companies use a tool like SnapChat for recruiting.

Believe it or not, this informal content can also be the most helpful. It gives you an unfiltered look at who the company is and the types of people you’ll be working with.

There are many good agencies and consultants out there. Ones who’re up on the latest tactics. But you’re going to need to enjoy working with these people at the end of the day.

14. Client Testimonials on their Website & LinkedIn

The best results are specific and verifiable. They contain some kind of result, % increase, or money saved.

Most agency sites should have testimonials (in one form or another) on their website. OR they should have recommendations on LinkedIn (from customers – not fellow peers in the digital marketing sphere).

No testimonials anywhere? That’s not a good sign.

15. Look for Industry Participation

The best agencies (and top agency consultants) will be easy to find.

They’ll be speaking at big conferences, being written about on industry blogs, and contributing themselves to larger ‘news’-style publications.

You’re looking for two things primarily:

  1. Do they know what they’re talking about?
  2. Are they ‘respected’ within the industry?

If other people are agreeing with what they’re saying and referencing them often, you’re in good hands.

16. Now Let’s Vet their Site

Digital marketing agency websites commonly ‘lag’ a bit because they’re always slammed with client work (the best ones are anyway).

But. They should be eating their own dog food to a certain degree.

For example, an agency web design says a lot about who they are and the style of work they do. The branding and design speaks to their aesthetics. The copy says a lot about their culture. And the attention to detail says, well, everything.

Sure. Press coverage and all the other flashy stuff is important. But your gut and instinct will tell you if this is a company you’ll eventually want to partner up with.

17. … But Be Careful Reading Too Much into Something Like Rankings

Based on the last point, an SEO agency should rank #1 for key terms in their location. Right?

Yes and no.

Once again, they might be busy working on clients sites. Also, a quick look at the search results will confirm something you’ve known all along: there’s a ton of crap in there!

So it’s not as black and white as it seems.

Some, like KlientBoost, have been so successful through other means like content, SEO, and word of mouth that they don’t even need to perform the service they provide for clients (PPC services).

18. Read through their Blog

You can forgive a company for not ranking #1 for a competitive keyphrase. There’s a lot that goes into it, after all.

But no blog posts since 2013?

Not good. Especially as some services, like SEO for example, have evolved tremendously since then.

But if their latest post was published yesterday, is 2500+ in-depth words with images and examples, and another 200+ social shares, you at least know they’re onto something.

19. Download, Opt-In, and Buy Low-Priced Offerings

Most consultants and agencies will offer free resources. eBooks, whitepapers, videos, infographics, and more.

Obviously, you should take them up and each and every offer. Sure, they’ll probably bombard you with sales calls. Which is why you should probably use a fake phone number and dummy email address (don’t tell them I said that).

But some clever agencies will take this a step further.

They’ll provide a low touch product to try out before throwing down a bunch of money and committing the next 6-12 months.

Some, like Impact Branding, have unique segments like Website Throwdown which will give you live, interactive feedback (for free, if you’re picked).

Others, like Claire Suellentrop, have lower priced, packaged, ‘productized’ consulting services on topics like custom website audits that will give you instant feedback within just a few days (at a fraction of their custom services cost).

20. Whittle Down Your Favorite to a Shortlist

Found a few you like so far? Good. Put together a shortlist of companies and consultants to reach out to. You’ll treat this like any other hiring, where you’ll want to reach out and follow up with each to find out more about how each can help you.

So pull together a shortlist, gather contact details, and let’s move on to the next section.

Here’s what to look for when reaching out to each one.

What to Look For When Approach Each

what to look for in a digital marketing consultant or agency

21. Do they Specialize in a Particular Niche or Service?

Listen:

Digital marketing is insanely difficult. And only getting more so by the day.

So the chances of any one company doing ‘it all,’ is slim-to-none.

Now there might be areas overlap. For example, SEO firms will commonly provide PPC (and vice versa). They both fall under the ‘Search Marketing’ umbrella. So you’re mostly safe.

Typically the best agencies and consultants know what they’re good at, and what they’re not good at. They tend to stick with one or two services, with one or two particular types of clients.

Beware when you see…

22. ‘Full Service’ Requires a Full Team

Some companies can do ‘full-service’ arrangements. Take ‘inbound marketing’ for example, which typically is like outsourcing your entire digital marketing department.

But there’s a catch.

The firm then has to hire and staff all of these key skills in-house. For example, an ‘inbound marketing’ firm should have content writers, strategists, conversion experts, and designers all in-house. Otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to deliver ‘full scope’ campaigns.

When done correctly, this ‘full service’ approach can be cost effective. Meaning, you can tap all of these individual experts at barely half the cost of hiring one of them in-house for your own company.

So once again, there’s some gray area to navigate.

24. Can You Identify at Least One Competitive Advantage?

‘Unfair advantages’ in business are good. In digital marketing, even better.

An example: A consultant that does link building or PR with a particular type of client.

The reason?

You’re not just hiring them. Sure, their work is important. But even more so, you’re hiring their network of contacts. That’s where the value lies.

Ideally, you should look to work with a company that has at least one ‘unique’ advantage like that which others will be hard-pressed to match.

25. Be on the Lookout for Outdated Processes or Tools

One year is like an entire decade online.

A lot changes. While principles should more-or-less stay the same, individual tactics can change daily.

You see this play out in a few areas.

One easy example is SEO. Link building tactics from three+ years ago will not work as well today. For various reasons.

Even basic Google AdWords campaign tips from a decade ago are nearly obsolete in the face of new competition, overcrowded marketplaces, and feature updates.

Another example includes the toolsets they use and recommend. My favorite is when a company uses a “proprietary” CRM tool that’s like ten years old and doesn’t integrate with anything else. Because it’s not even cloud based.

Obviously, this vastly limits what you can now do with the database of contacts you’ve worked so far to build over the years.

26. Proven Track Record

Let’s be honest for a second:

The copy on most marketing agency websites is… awful.

Generic, bland, fluffy nonsense.

So skip all of it and go straight to the Case Studies. Which should be relatively easy to find.

Ideally, you’re looking for (1) the problem a company faced before working with agency XYZ, and (2) what the end result was. Along with any helpful quotes or video directly from the client’s perspective.

They may or may not always share the exact steps that got them from A to B. But you should at least be confident in this company’s ability to execute (based on previous evidence of their execution for other companies).

27. Who, Exactly, is Working on Your Campaign?

There’s a dirty little secret with most marketing agencies that we’ll touch on more later.

But typically speaking, the people actually working on your account – daily – are among the least experienced.

Same applies to most professions like law or an accounting firm. The partners bring you in and oversee things, but the pimply-looking kids in the back, windowless room are the ones on your account every day.

Depending on the service you’re looking for (and how the organization is setup), that could mean a lot of ‘unchecked’ work being done on your behalf.

That might, or might not, pan out as expected.

Later, we’ll come back to this in order to find out a few ways to make it work smoothly.

28. Transparent Reporting

Marketing agencies can’t always divulge each and everything they do. After all, their tactical execution is their ‘special sauce’ and the reason they have a livelihood.

But. That shouldn’t stop them from openly discussing strategies with you or reporting on results after the fact. For example, your weekly or (at least) monthly breakdowns should be a data dump.

Instead, they should walk you through the activities performed. What worked well. What didn’t. And what they’re going to do as a result.

Involving the client in strategic decisions is critical because nobody knows your business better than you do. So you can help shed light on key areas that might impact (and help pivot) a future campaign’s direction based on your hard-fought experience.

29. Specific Campaign ‘Wins’

Examples outweigh buzzwords.

Concrete, tangible, real-life results that show the ‘end process’ for what a client achieved.

For example, you can often find evidence of campaign successes in blog posts. The results may (or may not) warrant an entire case study. (But often agencies are restricted on what they can share about a company, anyway.)

However, you can often pick up on little clues featuring a client’s results (without, technically, featuring the client).

What you’re looking for here is the thought process. Why did the consultant or agency choose to use a sub navigation that changes as you scroll down? It’s often those little details – because it helps users understand their progress – that illustrate the level of attention and care an agency shows their clients.

Billing & Pricing

every digital marketing agency should offer transparent pricing

30. No-BS Pricing

Pricing intangible services is like a dark art.

There’s cost plus on one end of the spectrum. It estimates internal costs and adds a bit on top for profit. Then on the other there’s value-based pricing. That determines what you stand to gain or save. And a percentage of that is earmarked for the agency’s work.

There’s a bunch of ways to do it. Everyone does it a bit different.

However at the end of the day, whatever method an agency chooses should be relatively transparent. Most, thankfully, are also moving towards an ‘open’ model that publishes pricing ranges right on their website.

‘Packages’ are a step in the right direction. So too are point-based systems that have begun popping up. The reason is because they (more accurately) value output vs. effort

Here’s why that’s important.

31. Hours vs. Activity vs. Points

Hourly billing was the standard industry practice for the longest time.

But here’s the thing:

It’s kind of a meaningless metric. It doesn’t really take into account the value being produced by an agency.  So the hourly metric doesn’t matter. One can charge more than another. Which sounds bad on the face of it. Yet can be totally worth it (based on value provided) at the end of the day.

Activity-based metrics are a step in the right direction. X campaigns or keyphrases or blog posts or links built per month for $Y.

Point-based systems are a new spin on this. You get X amount of points, depending on the package or pricing you choose, and those can be customized based on campaigns you might be running.

32. Base vs. Performance Incentives

Performance-based bonuses are still fairly rare in the industry.

They might be slightly more common in an easy-to-measure discipline, like PPC, but less so with the deep and murky SEO or new website design and dev (obviously).

Performance pricing is still somewhat common with link building, where companies charge X amount per link (and sometimes don’t or won’t bill until those links are delivered).

Some companies out there will set a lower maintenance retainer amount with a higher pay structure around specific, concrete goals. But it’s a tough sell.

Take PPC even. A digital marketing consultant or agency still delivers X leads per month. But your team still has to close the leads. Asking an outside vendor to benchmark pay against work done in-house is a tough sell. And most won’t go for it.

33. Compare Your Options

Digital agencies are on the cutting edge of marketing techniques.

But here’s the thing: They’re mostly selling the same thing. Sure. The differences come out in the way they might execute on those services and the value they’re able to provide.

Otherwise, comparing a few different options that run the gamut from big agencies to solo consultants will give you some perspective on how each is positioning themselves, what is offered, and ultimately who you’d like to work most with at the end of the day.

34. Set Up An Estimated Budget

There’s an industry-wide move to pricing transparency.

More and more marketing companies are publishing pricing tiers on their website in order to provide consumers with more insight.

But you, as the window shopper, still need to come armed with a concrete budget when opening discussions with them.

A website could cost $100 (if you use WordPress + Themeforest). Or it could be $1,000, $10,000, or $100,000. The techniques, technology, and end result will differ wildly. And a budget helps the consultant or agency know which ‘gameplan’ to put together for you.

The biggest red flag, for an agency, is when a prospect won’t willingly share their budget. It means they don’t know what they want, and aren’t ready.

If you’re serious about working with a consultant or agency, you need to be willing (and able) to share budget information up front to get the conversation moving in the right direction.

Pros and Cons of Big vs. Small

35. The Upside of Big Agencies

Big agencies are staffed with professionals from all walks of life. So you’ll easily find teams of creatives and developers working together, all under one roof, to help get an ‘integrated’ campaign to the light of day.

They also know people. With large networks that can help find you partners or bring awareness to your cause.

That’s on the plus side. However, there are a few downsides as well.

36. The Downside of Big Agencies

How do most companies find agencies to work with? (Outside of personal referrals?)

On the enterprise side, it’s through awards and conferences. These ‘top lists’ of agencies that work on campaigns for household name clients.

That may or may not be the right choice for you.

Big agencies bring a lot to the table. But with it, they bring big fees. And your work isn’t being done by the firm partner that wowed you with his impassioned speech. Instead, it’s being done by the 22-year old entry-level kids. (Who’re being billed at the same inflated hourly rate, no doubt.)

Sometimes that’s worth it. Sometimes it’s not.

37. The Upside of Small Agencies

Now contrast that with small agencies. You’re more likely to have face time with the expert that brought you in the door. These people, even the principal or President, is still most likely ‘stuck in the weeds’ with client work on a daily basis.

That’s especially true with solo consultants, who’ve decided to specialize and stay small in order to ‘stay closer’ to the work they love doing on a daily basis.

38. The Downside of Small Agencies

Their ‘reach’ is somewhat limited. You can’t throw random tasks at them that fall outside of their comfort zone or experience level (without having to rope in an extra third party).

You also can’t ‘scale up’ as easily. Let’s say you’re working with a small agency on fairly routine work, but have a massive product launch coming up.

If it requires an extra body or two, good luck. Smaller agencies are already stretched razor thin. And they’d likely need to try to hire for any significant extra work.

And we all know how long it takes to find and hire the right people.

39. Actively Looking for ‘Niche’ Experts

The way to work with smaller agencies or consultants in order to gain all the benefits, while minimizing the downsides, are to look for those who specialize not only in the service being delivered (like conversion rate optimization) but also who they do that work for (like veterinary hospitals).

Here’s why.

Most websites suffer from the same flaws.

Take B2B. Tons of dry, boring, technical, ‘branded’ content. Little-to-no interesting or engaging stuff. That means your site is getting a lot of ‘branded’ visitors that already know about you. While almost zero from new customers.

Point is, there are a few recurring issues that certain businesses all struggle with. And the faster someone can diagnose those, along with recommending a few fixes, the faster you can see results (generally speaking).

40. But Beware of Bad Niche Companies

Here’s the telltale sign of a bad niche agency.

They put you on their proprietary platform. Under some long term contract.

You can’t leave; otherwise, you lose all your data and information.

The website designs are the same basic templates. So all of their customers look (mostly) the same.

They sell you a ‘website package’ that includes SEO, social media, and everything under the sun. For ‘only’ a hundred (or two) bucks a month.

These outfits are especially common in competitive niches like real estate or law.

Are they good? Meh. They’re OK. Just understand what you’re getting into before signing up.

41. Who, Exactly, is Performing the Work?

Agency-standard practice is to have more ‘junior’ people doing the day to day work on your account. That’s not always a bad thing. Many of them are good (if hired and trained properly).

And they also have no lives, so they really are working day and night on your account. 😉

But you can also run into problems with agency staffing. For example, contractors are another excellent go-to scaling option for smaller agencies. Trouble is: capacity. If those contractors are tapped, their turnaround slows down. Which means the chances of your website getting out the door also slows down.

42. Local vs. National

Most companies like working with local agencies. It’s the face time. They like being ‘close’ and knowing what’s happening. They like the local meetings and in-person visits for reporting on progress.

But national (or multinational) agencies are becoming more common. Virtual companies, or ones that operate out of a few cities around the world, because most of the work is done online.

Hangouts, Slack or Skype sessions are common. Most will fire up a screen sharing app and happily walk you through what’s going on and how things look.

But you may not always get the same face-to-face relationship building, either.

43. Local vs. National, Part Deaux

So what’s the difference between going with a local vs. virtual company?

Some say local teams under one roof “move faster” or are “more receptive.” But you can also counter that by saying they probably get less focused, concentrated work done as a result of their proximity to each other.

If you’re a local business, it makes sense to work with a local partner. Someone who understands that unique challenge of bringing in foot traffic.

Otherwise, don’t get too hung up on location, an agency’s office address (or lack thereof). There are more important criteria to look for when making this decision.

44. Delegate; Don’t Abdicate

Agencies or consultants should be shouldering most of the work. It’s true that they’re the experts; they should be able to create the strategy and execute.

However, they can’t do it all alone. They need help. They need your backing and resources at times.

Marketing isn’t some isolated random event. The best marketing team in the world can’t save a company with little-to-no brand awareness or worse, one that has terrible customer service and 1-star Yelp ratings.

Even PPC performance, which is kind of isolated, still leans heavily on the landing page or website that traffic is visiting.

You’re hiring a specialized team, sure. But you still need to work closely with them.

45. Why You Need to Be Supportive

Classic example.

You’re getting a website redesign. Everything starts off smoothly.

The first round of designs looks pretty good. Not much feedback. So they go straight into development in order to meet that tight deadline.

But while the site is being built, your team now has some design reservations.

They want to go back and start messing with design elements and requesting changes. Even though the site is being hand-build as we speak.

Now the agency or consultants have to go backward, rip up what they were working on, and re-do all of the work a second time.

Guess who’s footing the bill for that extra work?

46. Why You Need to Be Supportive, Part Deux

Second common scenario.

Website redesign is humming smoothly. Which is good, because you’ve got that big trade show coming up and want to look your best.

The design and development phases are almost complete.

Only one thing stopping the site from going live now: lorem ipsum. The dummy copy that agencies use on websites during development if they’re not responsible for the copy and images.

Instead, they’re waiting. On you now.  You were supposed to get them that content last week. And the project images yesterday.

And so they wait. The project is now on hold because simple things that should take a day or two at the most haven’t been turnaround in enough time.

Agencies, meanwhile, can’t have staff waiting around idly. So they start work on the next project and yours falls to the back of the line.

47. Are there Realistic ROI Expectations?

Paid search can produce an ROI within a month or two.

But that’s about it.

Even Facebook ads require a longer timeline. Specifically, because you have to build a funnel, first.

The mythical A/B test that delivers a huge ROI lift overnight are things of fantasy. Conversion rate optimization, too, can take months to pay off.

Search Engine Optimization can be the worst. Especially, in terms of timeline.  

It takes a ton of up-front effort and activity. Then waiting to see rankings move. Next, waiting to see traffic come in. And then more waiting to see conversions move. And even longer if you need to now sell and close those new leads.

If a digital marketing consultant or agency is promising overnight returns, you should be skeptical.

But if a consultant or agency can’t give you any idea of when returns might happen – and they lack the case studies that also show results – you should also be skeptical.

48. Can You Find Any Past Clients?

The best salespeople aren’t inside an organization. They’re happy, satisfied customers.

Most agencies can’t or won’t give you their client contact roster. They don’t want some random prospect bugging their clients. That’s only natural.

But can you still find any past customers?

Look for case studies or testimonials on the consultant’s site and reach out. If they’re not currently working with them, most will be happy to share the Pros and Cons. Things they liked and didn’t.

You can also indirectly ask them about projects they helped with in order to shed light on the results they were able to provide.

49. Cultural Fit

Every digital agency’s website makes them look fun and goofy and whimsical.

However, that’s not always the case.

Sure. Those hipster ping pong tournaments and keggers on Fridays make it look like a fun place to work.

But is that culture going to gel with your own?

At the end of the day, you’re going to need to work closely with these people. And if there’s a cultural mismatch, where your organizational temperaments don’t align, there’s gonna be problems. No matter how good the work.

50. Do they ‘Eat their Own Dog Food’?

You’re going to hire an ad agency. They’re renowned for their creative prowess.

Ok. So let’s see it in action.

Does their website fit the same mold? Do they have breathtaking videos with state-of-the-art production?

A less-than-amazing website shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for a PPC agency. They’re analytical. They’re more concerned with function.

But if a content company’s content looks and sounds and feels like stuff you’d see from high school kids… well….

Questions to Ask

ask any potential digital marketing consultant plenty of questions

51. Why You Should Be like a Detective

Good detectives ask good questions.

They might not know the right answer. But they work hard to ask informed questions in order to elicit better responses.

The better the question, typically, the more helpful the response. (Because the agency is able to provide a more specific, concrete answer.)

52. Tailor Questions to Who You’re Speaking With

Everyone has their own implicit bias. Their own worldview.

Understanding these are critical to asking good questions.

For example, you’ll most likely deal with a trained salesperson in a large agency. Nothing wrong with that inherently. But they have different motivations. And generally a different level of experience with the work you’re discussing.

At a smaller agency you might deal with the principal or lead consultant. These people are more knowledgeable and skillful with discussing the ins and outs of their work. So the conversation tends to be more consultative.

Both approaches are fine. Just be aware of what you’re heading into.

52. “Who Owns our Accounts?”

Some agencies will setup software or accounts or websites under their own name.

It makes things easier initially and cuts down on lag time so they don’t have to bug you every time they need access to everything.

The problem comes when it’s time to ‘consciously uncouple.’  You two aren’t going to work together forever. That’s the nature of the business.

So what does the transition look like?  If you’re going to lose data and information when that happens, you’re in trouble.

The transition will be rocky at best.

If, on the other hand, they help set up accounts under your name and then just give themselves access for the time being, you should be good to go.

53. “Do You Work with Competitors?”

Trick question.

Contrary to popular belief, you actually do want to work with an agency that commonly works with competitors. (Or at least, a company very similar to your own.)

It means they know what they’re doing. They’ve seen all the common scenarios. And they know how to handle them (quickly).

54. “Do You Work with Competitor XYZ?”

This is the sticky one.

While you want a consultant or agency who has industry experience, you probably don’t want one that works with a direct competitor in your local area or biggest industry rival.

First, you don’t want the level of work to change (if they’re paying more than you). Second, you don’t want to your website or campaigns to look and sound the exact same. Third… do you really want to rely on copying? Or forging your own path?

55. “What Size Clients do You Typically Take?”

Most small agencies should know their limitations.

For example, many feel confident and comfortable with clients of a certain size (or ones that spend a certain amount).

Now. Just because an agency is small doesn’t mean they always work with small clients.

Some small boutique, specialty agencies (with five or less) can still with work giant, enterprise clients and charge millions. While some large, massive companies work better at scale with many smaller organizations.

The tactics and scale differs wildly for each. So there’s no one sized fits all. Ideally you should be somewhere in the middle of their range.

56. “How Many Clients Are You Currently Working With?”

Most agencies also have a capacity limit.

For example, a single developer might be able to work on one or two (max) projects at any given time. A marketer might be able to juggle three to four (max) clients at a time.

So if they have five people in-house, and twenty clients, the math doesn’t add up.

57. “Do you Outsource?”

Outsourcing is one of the best ways to scale an agency. It provides digital companies with flexibility. An easy way to add (or subtract) resources depending on their client roster.

So outsourcing isn’t inherently bad. Many times, it’s great. For example, if you need something that falls outside of their area of expertise, you probably want them to outsource it or find another partner to bring in.

The trick is figuring out what’s being outsourced.

58. “What Do you Outsource?”

Generally speaking, agencies or consultants shouldn’t be outsourcing their core capabilities. If you’re hiring a content team, the actual content creation or writing shouldn’t be outsourced.

Same goes for websites. Development of said websites shouldn’t be outsourced. And link building shouldn’t be outsourced if you’re looking for an SEO agency (we’ll discuss why a little later).

59. “Can I See a Client List?”

“No,” might be the likely reply. But that’s OK. You don’t want to or need to see everything. Again: it’s natural that they don’t want you to bug their clients.

But viewing even a partial client list can clue you into the range, type, and size of clients they work best with.

So you can ‘read between the lines’ to determine how you’ll fit in with that group.

60. “How Do You Like to Do [Keyword Research/Link Building/etc.]”

Thought process is key. You want to see how they approach their work. (Even if you don’t always understand it.)

For example, you could ask a web dev agency, “Why do you like working with WordPress instead of Drupal?”

And see the response. Does it jive with your own limited experience? And does it make sense? Or is it a complex technical discussion that’s over your head?

Good consultants and agencies can relate complex topics in simple language that should make sense to anyone.

61. “How Do You Start with a Project Like Ours?”

All good consultants will start with some kind of audit. It may not be exhaustive. But they’ll at least need to dig in and understand where you’re at currently.

Diving head-first into their ‘standard package’ – without first taking the time to figure out which of those elements you actually need or which to prioritize – should be a warning sign.

62. “Do Your Services Scale Up or Down?”

Similarly, their services should scale up or down depending on the situation. For example, can you start with a one-time, paid audit for a deep dive into what you need?

OR, can you lower the resources behind new content creation if their initial audit shows that you already have hundreds of high-quality pages?

63. “Who Will Be My Direct Contacts?”

Account executives are helpful. To a point.

They’re the typical agency middle man; running interference between clients and people doing the work.

But they’re not always topic experts. And sometimes you might need more face-time with the lead consultants or people doing the work on a daily basis.

64. “How Often Will We Meet?”

This is another tricky question.

On the face of it, more sounds better. But too much and you’re taking time away from actually doing the work.

Look:

Even if an agency doesn’t charge hourly, they’re still pricing their own internal costs hourly.

The more hours devoted to phone calls or in-person meetings, the less hours devoted to doing work.

65. “How Will We Measure Progress?”

Getting access to a project management tool is fine. But it doesn’t always give you the big picture view.

Instead, good consultants will balance the tactical reporting with information on how it fits into the plan they’ve set out to help you hit your objectives.

66. “How Does Pricing Work?”

Pricing should relate back to activities or deliverables.

Hours are not a good deliverable. Most things take longer than we expect. More hours are chewed up. But those, alone, don’t get you any closer to your goals.

More blog posts do. More landing pages or ad campaigns do.

Effort, alone, isn’t enough.

67. “How Does Your Contract Work?”

Contracts will have the obligatory legalese. However, you should easily be able to see what you’re paying for what you’re getting and when it should be delivered.

These things should be spelled out, in clear English. And they should be easy to understand.

Push them to clarify any technical jargon so that there’s no misunderstanding with what you’re getting.

68. “Are there any Minimum Terms?”

A website project might only take a few months to fully complete. Even the big ones.

However, marketing services tend to require some time commitment (due to the time it takes for them to pay off).

Three-month contracts are standard. Even six or twelve months, too.

The important part is to know what you’re signed up for. And with the longer ones, how you get out if needed.

69. “How Can I Cancel a Contract?”

Worst case scenario: How easy is it to cancel a contract?

The longer the term, obviously the more important this question is. But even then, it should still be relatively easy to cancel.

A simple written notice should do the trick.

Some might make you wait for 30 days or after the first 90 days (in order for them to recoup their initial investment). But otherwise, you shouldn’t be locked into an ironclad, long-term deal.

70. “Is there Room for Negotiation?”

Yes and no. Sometimes there is. But often, if they’ve priced things out based on activities or points, there should be a crystal clear way to lower the fee: lower the scope accordingly.

If there is no clear-cut pricing on their website, the consultant or agency is most likely pricing based on (1) a percentage of the value they can deliver, (2) a standard ‘cost-plus’ estimate they use for expected work level, or (3) how much they think you can afford.

Generally speaking, if an agency won’t budge on pricing at all, there’s usually a good reason. If they do, they’ve priced it at a premium and are OK giving up a few points to close the deal.

71. “What is Your Availability?”

One time a prospect sent me an email. I was in an all-day meeting, so I asked someone else to respond and help them out, explaining why I was unable to get on the phone.

They were adamant. My other team members couldn’t help them. I had to jump on the phone. That day. Despite being in other meetings.

Keep in mind, they weren’t technically my client yet. They hadn’t paid me a dime.

So I politely told them to find another agency.

Getting timely responses is important. You need emails and phone calls returned within a working day (or so).

But you can’t expect the world, either.

72. “What is Your Communication Cadence?”

Most (good) agencies will have processes for how they communicate with clients. For example, some might like a weekly status call. While others will want prefer a longer, in-depth sit down monthly.

Whatever the case, there should be some ironed out communication process. You should have a reasonable idea of who you’ll be speaking with, how often, and how each correspondence will take place.

73. “Are there any ‘Extra’ Costs?”

Generally speaking, clients will be on the hook directly for advertising costs. Those go above and beyond the standard management fee.

But sometimes there are other costs associated that might pop up later.

The first is tools. Sometimes an agency will cover the cost. But in return, you might have limited access. So sometimes they can set you up directly with your own account if you’d like unfiltered access to the data. But then you’ll be on the hook.

Web hosting is another common one, too. Some will host the site as long as you’re a client. Which is fine… until you’re not a client anymore. Then what?

74.  “What Tools Do You Use?”

Most agencies will have their ‘go-to’ tools to use.

But they should also be willing or able to adapt, too.

If you’re using another industry-standard tool, they should be able to cope. Even if it falls a little bit outside their wheelhouse.

The exceptions, of course, are if (1) they specialized in Salesforce or some other specific platform, and (2) the tools you’re already using aren’t, in fact, legit industry-standard ones.

We’ll come back to this issue in the next section.

75. “Will You Sign an NDA?”

Ok. Time for some real talk.

Most contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Paying an attorney to enforce a contract usually costs more than the entire value of the contract. Even if it’s worth hundreds of thousands.

An NDA is seemingly meaningless. In most cases. (Unless we’re talking about some new Coca-Cola product launch.)

You’re hiring an agency or a consultant for one reason alone at the end of the day: you trust them.

If you think there’s any remote possibility you can’t trust them, an NDA isn’t going to help.

76. “What Do You Think is My Biggest Problem?”

Let’s say you’re hiring a conversion rate optimization agency.

You want them to balance the strategic with the tactical side. The biggest issue with most companies who’ve never had major CRO work done (or SEO, or PPC, etc.), is that everything needs to improve. Everything needs to be better. Across the board.

If they dive into the colors of your landing page buttons, or some other insignificant tiny detail, it’s a problem.

77. “Are Your Services Fixed Over the Life of the Contract?”

Digital marketing is fluid. It’s changing all the time.

Similarly, your needs and priorities will evolve over time.

Typically there will be set-up work at the beginning of an arrangement. This might be set in stone. The way you setup a PPC account for the first time will be largely fixed from client to client.

But then after that, different stuff will pop up. There needs to be some flexibility in the scope.

You might try one link building campaign and find success. So you’ll want to shift gears and double down on that success instead of maybe sticking with the initial plan set-out a few months ago.

78. “Can I Meet with Team Members?”

Your Account Executive will the be the main point of contact most of the time.

However, it’s reassuring to know that some of the technical experts will jump on from time to time.

You most likely won’t have direct access to them on a daily basis. But every week (or so) or month (at least), you’ll want to hear directly from the people working daily on your project because they’re the ones that know the ins and outs of what’s really happening.

(And they’re usually able to better articulate things.)

79. “Do You have a Specific Approach?”

Set in stone is bad. Iterative is good.

Digital marketing is constantly changing. SEO tactics that worked three years ago won’t today. Even a campaign that worked a few months back might not yield the same results.

So tactics are important. But finding out more information on their specific approach or main process can give you a much better idea of how they respond to challenges. And what they do when things aren’t going as well as expected.

80. “How Will You Work with My Team Members?“

Most consultants and agencies should be able to work closely with your in-house team members. Many times that includes training. They need to know what’s going on and how it all works.

And they need to know what to do (more or less) if the agency’s not around to do it for them.

81. “What Happens if I Decide to Take this Work In-House One Day?”

Good outcomes (like conversions gained or traffic generated) is the result of good processes.

Good agencies should be able to help you setup these processes so that internal team members will be able to at least maintain progress after they’ve done the heavy lifting.

What you don’t want, is to be completely dependent on a few key individuals. You can’t be completely reliant on a few experts to know and do everything.

Having a plan in place in the event that you want to take some of this work in-house can help you both prepare for that possibility. And organize campaigns accordingly.

82. “Who Owns the Code?”

Intellectual property rights are murky.

Generally speaking, the agency will own all of the website code while the site is in development. After the site is live and you’ve paid in full, the rights to that work transfer over to you.

Although there still might be some ability or leverage for the agency to retain some slight ownership of the work. Each situation’s a little different. So you gotta ask.

These are the little sticky details you don’t really think about initially. But if a problem were to pop up mid-design, it can come back to haunt you.

83. “What Will Deliverables Look Like?”

We’ve been beating this to death. But you’re paying for outputs; work delivered. Not effort.

So you should reasonably expect to see deliverables. (Or at least, samples of deliverables.)

For example, it might be tough to show you samples of code. Especially if you’re not technical. But after a few weeks of development, you should start to see a staging site where things are beginning to work properly.

84. “Does Your Team Have Cross-Functional Skills?”

Digital marketing is unique in that the sum really is greater than the parts.

For example, PPC results can be handicapped by landing page design. Sames goes for SEO, which can be reliant on the underlying website code.

So while you want an agency to specialize in a particular area or niche, there needs to be some cross-functional skills.

For example, an SEO team with zero developers leaves a big gaping hole in their ability to do good work.

Warning Signs to Watch Out For

watch out for some warning signs when hiring a digital marketing consultant or agency

85. “What Kind of Rankings Can We Expect?”

Some services, like web design, are fairly concrete and easy to understand what you’re getting.

The complete opposite of that is SEO. Where the waters are murky and difficult to comprehend.

So let’s kick things off with a trick question.

If you hear any kind of rankings guarantee, run for the hills.

86. “How Do You Optimize Content?”

Similarly, if you hear any mention of “keyword density” and/or “PageRank”, run.

These are old school SEO tactics that may have been relevant 5-10 years ago, but aren’t anymore.

87. “How Do You Build Links?”

Link building is critical. But the way you do it matters tremendously.

If some consultant or agency builds spammy, manipulative, low-quality links on your behalf… guess who suffers the blow back? You do.

Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in SEO, or understand the intricacies of how link building is performed, you need to pick out the difference between legitimate work and the spammy stuff.

Because you, not them, are at risk of a penalty or update wiping out your results.

88. Beware of Cheap Labor

This is a big generalization. It might not be politically correct.

But more often than not, it’s also true.

Cheap digital marketing labor is more trouble than it’s worth. Pricing is usually tied back to the quality of what you’re getting, too.

For example, you probably wouldn’t want to find a ‘great deal’ on a babysitter to watch your kids. Right? There’s a lot on the line.

So you probably also shouldn’t look to score a ‘great deal’ on your website developer either. That is, unless you like your website to not work properly and take forever to load.

89. Beware ‘Proprietary Solutions’

Some companies mentioned earlier, that ‘specialize’ in providing websites to real estate agents for a hundred bucks a month, may or may not pan out to be a great deal after all.

The reason? All of your data and information is locked up tight in their ‘proprietary solution.’

So if you ever wanted to leave, you’re screwed.

In addition, many ‘proprietary solutions’ often lag what’s available on the free, open market. So their chintzy website builder will pale in comparison to what you’d get with WordPress or even SquareSpace.

90. Beware ‘Closed’ Platforms

ACT! used to be one of the most popular CRM platforms for small businesses.

But they’ve become obsolete over the past decade.

Why? Because it was a ‘closed’ platform for the longest time.

That means you couldn’t get CRM contacts to integrate with your Gmail. Or you couldn’t use CRM data to better inform your email marketing campaigns.

So be careful with tool recommendations. Especially when you’ve never heard of them.

91. Beware Non-Popular Tool Recommendations

You might not know the first thing about email marketing.

But a quick Google will give you the biggest names in the industry:

  • MailChimp
  • Constant Contact
  • Aweber
  • VerticalResponse
  • InfusionSoft
  • HubSpot

Point is, you should recognize these names pretty quickly. And they should be easy to find online.

If someone recommends a random tool, provider, hosting company, etc. that you’ve never heard of (and don’t show up in the top ten of Google), run.

92. Beware a ‘Jack of All Trades’

Someone in PPC should know about conversion optimization. Some in websites should know at least the basics of SEO.

But a designer that specializes in, well, creative design, is not typically an expert in a data-driven field like SEO, too.

93. Beware Full-Service Agencies

That same logic applies to the entire company.

A web design firm will be staffed with complementary skill sets. But there’s usually some limit.

If they’re known for design, they probably won’t also try to sell you CRO, SEO, PPC, and more.

A ‘full-service’ agency is a misnomer. Unless this agency is big – like BIG-BIG – they probably aren’t equipped to be delivering all of those services, together, at a high level.

94. Expectations Start During the Sales Process

The initial sales process should set expectations.

You should be able to accurately determine how well this company communicates. How they explain what’s coming up next. And what you should be able to expect from them.

If you get a follow-up email after every meeting, with a summary and recap of who needs to do what, you’re in good hands.

Otherwise, watch out.

95. Quick, Definitive Answers

This one’s tricky.

You’d think that someone who ‘has all the answers’ knows exactly what they’re talking about. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

It’s like guaranteeing rankings. Digital marketing is so big and dynamic. Some things are out of our hands.

Watch out for platitudes or seemingly ‘stock’ responses that seem rehearsed.

If someone “doesn’t know”, but will find out, you’re again in good hands.

96. Poor Quality Work Samples

A designer with mediocre design samples, is a mediocre designer.

That’s the great thing about this business: it’s all out there in the open.

There’s no room to hide. The cream really does rise to the top (of Google, Dribbble, industry awards, speaking at conventions, etc.).

Design samples that look like they were done with MS Paint should be a big giant warning sign.

97. Poor Writing & Website Content

Same applies to the writing.

Marketing is writing today. Small grammar mistakes or misspellings can be overlooked. But writing that reads like it was done in someone’s second language isn’t good enough.

It means they were taking a shortcut. And shortcuts don’t cut it.

98. Little-to-No Work to Show

Somewhere, a trend started.

Agency websites would have these flashy designs. They would show a bunch of goofy team pictures. Have one or two lines about what they did. And that was it.

No client logos? Places they’ve been featured? It should be a no-go.

Case studies and results should be front-and-center. Otherwise, they’re selling you an image instead of a quality work product.

99. A Social Media Agency that Doesn’t Do Social

This goes back to ‘eating your own dog food.’

A web design company should have an amazing website.

A content company should have amazing content.

And a social company should be the most freaking social company you’ve ever seen.

100. Prioritizes Industry Awards Over Results

Industry awards are typically given out by other industry professionals.

In other words, they’re biased. And borderline meaningless.

What about results? What about percentage increases or dollars saved?

ADDY’s sound nice. But pale in comparison to actual dollars generated.

101. Prioritizes ‘Pixel-Perfect’ Over Marketing Qualified Leads

‘Pixel perfect’ is one of those geeky design things that only designers care about.

It matters. Kinda. Sorta.

But not more so than the number of leads generated. This manifests a few ways.

For example, if your early interactions with them focus mostly on specific design techniques, instead of what your business objectives are and the best ways to reach them, it might not be a great fit.

They’re lining up for the next industry award. While you’re trying to improve the bottom line.

Conclusion

Digital marketing evolves so quickly that half the job is simply keeping up with the times.

It’s not easy. Barely sustainable.

Which is why working with an outside consultant or vendor is almost a necessity.

You need a topic expert who can afford to stay on top of what’s happening, changing, and how to adapt.

But it’s not easy. There are so many different shapes and flavors of a ‘digital marketing consultant’ that it’s tough to know what you need.

Start with these 101 tips, though, and you won’t be disappointed.