90+ Tips for Hiring a Digital Marketing Agency

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Digital marketing services and best marketing practices are always changing. For example, the aspects of an SEO content strategy that worked a year ago may not work as effectively today. Even more significantly, some approaches that were identified as “best practices” five years ago may now result in penalties. Additionally, since Google frequently adjusts what is most valuable in terms of SEO, staying on top of current trends and strategies is a challenging, yet imperative, necessity, and trying to operate ahead of future trends is virtually impossible. Ultimately, these circumstances of the digital world are exactly why you need a top digital marketing agency as your collaborator.

Understandably, in considering how to choose a digital marketing agency, individuals may approach the search from a variety of mindsets and may not be sure of exactly what to look for in a marketing agency. The three fundamental questions frequently arise.

  1. How do you know what kind of digital agency you need?
  2. What are the ideal characteristics and features of a top digital marketing agency?
  3. How do you find the digital marketing services that will best suit your industry, your company, and your goals?

As you begin to evaluate the best digital marketing agency for you, these 101 tips can assist you in the search and interview process for hiring digital marketing services and consultants.

Begin Internally When Evaluating Digital Marketing Agencies

When looking to engage a digital marketing agency, then counterintuitively, it is important to start with yourself. Marketing always presents an overlap of skills, needs and goals, so understanding your strengths and weaknesses helps evaluate potential companies to find the best digital marketing agency for you.

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  1. Be Honest with Yourself

Before starting a collaboration with any individual or agency, self-assessment and awareness are necessary. While some companies may be ready to further expand and enhance their SEO efforts, others need to start at the very foundations of this process, especially if they have not thought much about SEO (or even perhaps know that it means Search Engine Optimization), set up a professional AdWords account, or established goals in Google Analytics.

Depending on your current digital marketing efforts, additional time may be needed to complete these preliminary but necessary steps. This work is time-consuming, so the first month or two in your intended partnership with a digital marketing team will focus on assembling the building blocks for future efforts and growth. Accordingly, acknowledge that substantial return on your investment may not be generated during these early stages.

  1. Score Your Marketing

The Marketing Score, a simple resource developed by PR2020, takes approximately 15 minutes and results in a free score that grades various marketing factors. The provided score will illuminate assets that will benefit you in working with an external partner or vendor and potential liabilities that need initial up-front work to fix. Finally, this score is also a verifiable metric to use with your executive teams and other company management to ensure alignment of all efforts.

  1. Keep Digging

Believe it or not, spotting a few initial issues may ultimately benefit you in the hiring process, so let’s take another step in self-study. In digital marketing, every component is interrelated, and one facet impacts every other one because of this relationship. For example, website issues don’t just compromise a visitor’s experience, not to mention the impressions that this experience transfers to your company’s products, care, or service; they also negatively impact your SEO rankings and conversions.

Using the following industry tools, additional digging can help you hone in on current problems:

  1. Learn Enough to Be Dangerous

Participating in the above digging efforts isn’t going to make you an expert, but it will increase your understanding of your company’s digital presence. While it isn’t necessary that you know all of the ins and outs of your website or how to fix any existing issues, recognizing that your website has a problem with server requests, for example, is critical.

The ability to communicate such issues clearly to someone you’re about to hire makes it easier for you to understand their recommendations to some degree. Without even the most basic understanding of your digital space and needs, determining the legitimacy, value, and price of digital marketing services may be even harder, not to mention any recommendations that they may propose.

  1. Set Business-Oriented Goals

Top digital marketing agencies and service consultants may be able to immediately recommend improvements upon assessing your digital presence, but they will do so with even greater nuance and awareness once they conduct their own more extensive study of your current status and offerings. However, the goals that you have for your business are essential to this work. To be clear, “more traffic” isn’t a clear goal. Increasing awareness of your company and decreasing AdWord costs to hit similar traffic levels moves toward a more specific and measurable goal. The best digital marketing agencies will skillfully work with you to move your business from point A to point B, but you collectively need to know where B is.

  1. Reverse Engineer What Success Looks Like

This tip encourages you to think about what success means to you. Many business owners immediately respond with extra revenue. To reverse engineer the steps it takes to achieve this idea of success, break the revenue down into a dollar amount, such as $10,000. Now, consider how many new customers this achievement may require, which may be a single customer or clients that number in the hundreds. Step back further to assess your historical conversion rates from initial web traffic to leads to sales.

Taking similar steps in relation to your idea of success will help you plan a model for its achievement. Then, with the digital marketing consultants, this game plan can be a resource for  initial idea generation, as well as a determination of realistic and feasible objectives and timelines. As potential vendors gain insight into your business operations, they’ll have a better understanding of how their digital marketing services will mesh with your efforts. Similarly, you will increase your awareness of the link between their work and leading indicators (like rankings or click through rate) and sales.

  1. Decide (Specifically) What You Need

Your self-study and identifying markers of success are key steps in preparing you to differentiate what you need from all the “extras” that won’t necessarily achieve your intended results.

For example, SEO encompasses a wide range of activities – a few of which are noted below:

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

Even within these activities, there are many different facets to each effort. SEO work may seem like a clear choice, but which parts, specifically, need the most immediate and substantial attention.

  1. Set Realistic Expectations Now

Clear communication of expectations from the outset is crucial in preventing later problems between a company and digital marketing agency.

To illustrate, both parties agree that SEO is an issue. However, if the digital marketing specialists are only working on a small subset of that activity and your overall promotion is reduced, expecting a certain gain may not be feasible. For both business owners and their digital marketing teams, it is essential that all parties are up front and clear in communicating with each other about the potential intangibles at play and associated risks.

Similarly, anticipated SEO benefits, like new sales, are often lagging indicators. Ranking fluctuation takes a significant amount of work and associated time, which then builds traffic, conversions, and finally sales.

In short, the work that even the best digital marketing agency executes and implements between months 1-3 of their collaboration with your company may only start to bear fruit in months 6-12. This timeline applies to SEO specifically, but the equation applies to other efforts including PPC, conversions, content development, social media activity, or website enhancements.

Evaluate Your Digital Marketing Service Options Online First

tips to evaluate digital marketing agency options

  1. Start with An Online Search

This tip may seem obvious, but it is necessary when it comes to what to look for in a digital marketing agency. Set aside a few hours to employ the same steps as noted above that you took for your own website or SEO in order to find similar grades for potential digital providers including their websites, SEO, PPC, and more.

For a web design firm, look at the grades for their web design and site infrastructure. For an SEO agency, evaluate their SEO presence. Although every website may have a potential warning flag, remember that the top digital marketing agencies are going to prioritize client work ahead of their own needs. However, the data and their own digital presence should quickly show if the company knows their business or not.

  1. What Popular Tools Are In Use

If you are already a HubSpot customer already, check out their Partner Directory.

Do you enjoy reading Rand’s SEO content on Moz.com? Visit their Trusted Partners and Recommended Agencies.

As with the two noted above, many of your favorite online tools (Unbounce, Kissmetrics, etc.) will include a list of recommended digital marketing agencies and services. You can also enjoy the added bonus that they may already be comfortable with your internal setup, which can reduce any potential delays.

  1. You Can Try Ratings & Review Sites

Although it would be a great idea and useful resource, there is currently no Yelp or other business review website for digital agencies. The BBB results are likely to be limited. However, Credo by John Doherty is a directory that lists consultants and agencies for various marketing disciplines with real ratings and reviews from actual customers.

  1. Investigate through LinkedIn

Like BBB, LinkedIn is often hit or miss with the exception of being able to see peer recommendations, company or consultant publications, and other professional employee information. It may feel a bit like stalking, but it can also inform you about speaking engagements or upcoming events in the area. These forums provide you with the opportunity to listen to potential collaborators or have a front row seat from which to evaluate their potential.

  1. Explore their Social Media Too

Social media provides insight into a company’s organization. Sometimes, these offerings cater to clients by providing related news articles, featured work, or other timely announcements. In other instances, companies use a tool like SnapChat for recruiting instead of for client engagement, and this informal content often reveals an unfiltered look at who the company is and the types of people to whom you’ll entrust your business.

Although there are many effective digital agencies and consultants out there who are up on the latest tactics, your ability to enjoy working with these people is essential for constructive collaboration.

  1. Client Testimonials on their Website & LinkedIn

Most agency websites provide testimonials in some form, or their customer recommendations appear on LinkedIn (as distinct from digital marketing peers). The most helpful testimonials provide specific and verifiable results, percentage increases, or money saved. It is not a good sign if you can’t find any testimonials anywhere, so the absence of that information should encourage you to remove this candidate from your list.

  1. Look for Industry Participation

The best digital marketing agencies and top digital service consultants will be easy to find. They are the most likely to address audiences at industry conferences and to write for and be written about in professional blogs and publications.

As you assess their participation, ask the following questions:

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

If other professionals agree with what they’re saying or frequently reference their talks or guidance, you’re in good hands.

  1. Now, Assess their Website

Since the best digital agencies are typically immersed in client work, digital marketing agency websites commonly ‘lag’ a bit. For example, blog posts may have been temporarily paused or resources from the current year may need updating. However, an agency’s web design reveals their attention to detail, their style, and their identity or character as a company. Examining the branding and design helps you understand their aesthetic approach, while reviewing the copy may provide insight into the company’s culture. Press coverage or other publicity is important, but your gut and instinct will help you determine if you and the company are meant to be partners.

  1. Be Cautious about Rankings Value

Although the last point suggests that an SEO agency should rank #1 for key terms in their location, this ranking is not necessarily a clear indicator of success, because (again) their focus may be on client websites. As any quick searches and associated results confirm, all sorts of information may turn up and not all of it is accurate or relevant.

  1. Read through their Blog

There is so much that contributes to ranking #1 for a competitive keyphrase, so it is unreasonable to expect that a digital marketing agency will always appear at the top of relevant search results. However, significant inattention to website standards is cause for concern. For example, if the company blog hasn’t had a new post in years, note the red flag, since some digital services, like SEO, are constantly evolving. However, if yesterday’s published post offers 2500+ words of in-depth content with images and examples with another 200+ social shares, it is clear that the company has substantial presence and recognition.

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

Many digital marketing agencies and consultants offer free resources like eBooks, whitepapers, videos, infographics, and more. Accessing these resources is a good idea, even if an abundance of sales contacts result from this usage. Having an email address reserved just for this purpose helps mitigate such an influx to your own inbox.

  1. Whittle Down Your Favorites to a Shortlist

By this point in the hiring search process, you have probably compiled a shortlist of companies and consultants. Now, gather their relevant contact details so that you can reach out to each potential digital provider and begin the process of understanding how they can help you. The next section includes many tips about how to choose a digital marketing agency.

What to Look For in a Digital Agency

what to look for in a digital agency

  1. Identify at Least One Competitive Advantage

Unfair advantages in business are good, but in the digital marketing world, they are even better. As an example, let’s say you have found a digital consultant who does link building or PR with a particular type of client. Your company gains an advantage and a valuable asset here because you not only benefit from their work by hiring that individual but also their network of contacts. Ideally, choose to work with a company that has at least one ‘unique advantage that other providers will be hard-pressed to match.

  1. Look Out for Outdated Processes or Tools

In the digital landscape, one year is more like a decade, because of the sheer amount of change that occurs. Although fundamental principles may stay mostly the same, strategies and tactics can change on an almost daily basis.

One easy example of this continuous change is SEO. Link building tactics of more than three years ago will not work as well today. Similarly, basic Google AdW campaign tips from the previous decade are nearly obsolete due to new competition, overcrowded marketplaces, and feature updates, such as machine learning. Additionally, using previously recommended and much used toolsets, like a proprietary CRM tool that is not cloud-based, will not be able to integrate with anything else, making it inefficient. With the use of outdated processes or tools, the digital presence and the database of contacts you’ve worked so hard to build over the years would face significant limitations on growth, use, and value.

  1. Proven Track Record

Sometimes, the copy of marketing agency websites is generic; instead, go straight to the case studies, which should be relatively easy to find. Ideally, you’ll find the problem that the client company faced prior to working with that specific digital marketing agency and the subsequent result of their collaboration, which may include helpful quotes or video directly from the client. Although the digital agency may not include every step in the process that had the identified result, the provided evidence should only further build your confidence in this company’s ability to deliver the services that you need.

  1. The REAL Campaign Team

In initial conversations with a potential digital marketing agency, you may only meet a few members of the team who are responsible for the introductory client engagements. Be sure to ask who will be working on your campaign and general company operations. Understandably, there will be varying levels of experience and expertise; after all, we all start somewhere. However, as with any product or service, you want to ensure that review and refinements are part of the development process prior to any deployment.

  1. Transparent Reporting

Digital marketing agencies won’t share all of the nuances of their operations, since their tactical execution is their “special sauce” and the foundation of their own growth and success. However, they should be open to strategy discussions and sharing the associated results. Each month, at a minimum, if not on a more weekly basis, you should be provided with substantial amounts of data, as well as a review of executed activities, the degree to which each was effective or ineffective, and next steps.

You know your business better than anyone, so your participation in these strategic decisions with your digital agency partners is crucial. In doing so, you not only understand the returns on your investment, but you also leverage your experience to help identify key areas that might impact or guide a future campaign.

  1. Specific Campaign Wins

Make sure that tangible, authentic results show the final achievements for any sample clients. In short, many digital agencies and consultants can use buzzwords to talk the talk, but the examples should take precedence in showing the actuality of their walk. For example, evidence of campaign successes often appears in a site’s blog posts, but the results may (or may not) warrant an entire case study and are understandably operating within specific privacy parameters.

However, clues about an agency’s thought process are often revealed in client results (even without the client specifics), like information about why they chose to use a sub navigation that changes as you scroll down. Seemingly smaller details like this one, which helps website users understand their progress, illustrates the level of attention and care that an agency provides to its clients.

Billing & Pricing

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  1. Pricing Transparency

Pricing intangible services is like a dark art. On one end of the spectrum, cost plus estimates internal costs with an additional profit amount. On the other end, there is value-based pricing, which determines what you stand to gain or save – a percentage of which is earmarked for the agency’s work.

Every digital marketing agency or consulting service varies in their approach to pricing. More recently, many companies are transitioning to an open model that publishes pricing ranges right on their websites. Regardless of the agency’s method, the costs should be relatively transparent. Accordingly, many companies are beginning to offer set service packages or point-based systems, because they (more accurately) value output versus effort. The importance of these changes is clarified below.

  1. Base vs. Performance Incentives

Performance-based bonuses are pretty rare in the digital marketing industry. Although they are more common in an easy-to measure discipline, like PPC, they are less likely in the more labor-intensive and time-consuming SEO work or new website design and development. Link building is another service in which performance pricing is still somewhat common. For this work, companies charge a specified amount per link and may or may not bill on those links until they’ve been delivered.

Some companies set a lower maintenance retainer fee with a higher pay structure around specific, concrete goals, but this approach is harder to sell to clients. Even with PPC, a digital marketing consultant or agency may deliver a predetermined number of leads per month, but your staff has to close on them. Understandably, asking an outside consultant to delineate a pay amount that also relies on work done in-house is problematic, so performance based relationships remain uncommon (although can be fruitful for both parties).

  1. Compare Your Options

Although digital agencies are on the cutting edge of marketing techniques, they are still mostly selling the same strategies and methods. The differences are often in their execution of those  services, as well as the value that they provide. Comparing different service selections from more sizable agencies to individual consultants will offer some perspective on how each positions themselves, what their offerings are, and ultimately their compatibility with you and your own company.

  1. Prepare An Estimated Budget

With an industry-wide move to pricing transparency, more and more marketing companies are publishing pricing tiers on their websites to facilitate consumer clarity around potential investment. However, as you begin conversations with your short-listed choices, have a proposed budget ready when opening these preliminary discussions. The techniques, technology, and end result will differ wildly, so a budget helps the consultant or agency assemble a game plan that is most likely to fit within your own price range.

Remember: agencies are assessing their ability to work with you too, and one of the biggest red flags for them is when a potential client won’t willingly share their budget. Not only does it mean that the company may be unclear about their expectations, but a lack of readiness and awareness also compromises the necessary clarity around expectations and the collaboration that is so essential for capitalizing on your digital marketing investment! So, if you are serious about working with a consultant or agency, be both willing and able to share budget information up front and actively participate in moving the conversation forward to those established goals and measures of success.

Pros and Cons of Big Agencies vs. Small Agencies or Individual Consultants

Pros and Cons of Big vs Small Digital Marketing Agencies

  1. The Upside of Big Agencies

Big agencies are staffed with professionals who have a variety of skill sets, so assembled teams of creatives and developers are already working together under the same roof to develop and deploy an integrated campaign. Additionally, they also know people, meaning that they can leverage their extensive network to help find you partners or bring awareness to your cause.

  1. The Downside of Big Agencies

With the exception of personal referrals, most companies find agencies because of their awards or conference participation. In many cases, these celebrated top digital marketing agencies often work on campaigns for household name clients. Although this prominence may sound like it would make it easier to choose a digital marketing provider, it actually doesn’t mean that the agency will be the right choice for you.

Big agencies offer a lot, but they also ask for bigger fees. Also, the firm partner who wowed you with his impassioned speech or lauded campaign is likely not the person who will actually be doing your work or leading your team. Instead, you may be paying the heightened rate for the reputation of recognized staff members, even if they aren’t actually providing your services, which are performed by entry level employees or outsourced to other firms. Sometimes that investment pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.

  1. The Upside of Small Agencies

In contrast, smaller agencies are more likely to offer you regular opportunities to collaborate with the same individuals who inspired you to choose that particular company. These people, no matter their place on the company hierarchy, are still engaged in client work on a daily basis. Continuous engagement on behalf of clients is especially true for solo consultants, who often specialize and stay small in order to spend their days actually doing what they love.

  1. The Downside of Small Agencies

Since the reach of smaller agencies may have some limitations, they may not have access to resources to perform random tasks outside of their comfort zone or experience level. For example, smaller agencies may have basic coding or graphic design skills, but if you need a custom application or brand refresh, they may not have the connections to help.

  1. …But Beware the Bad Niche Agencies

A telltale indicator of a bad niche agency is that they’ll put you on their proprietary platform under some long term contract. Any attempt to leave will mean that you lose all of your data and information. Furthermore, all of their customer content may look rather similar, since their website designs all use the same basic templates.

Especially common in competitive niches like real estate or law, these companies may also try to sell you a website package that includes SEO, social media, and everything under the sun for only $100-200 a month. Are such packages a good choice? Maybe they will work for you, but maybe you will end up spending money on services that aren’t actually benefiting you or suited to your audience. Opt for this general guideline: know what you’re getting into before signing the contract.

  1. The REAL Work Team (revisited)

In many agencies, the more junior staff members are often doing the daily work on your account. If they are hired and trained properly, many of them are very good at what they do and may often spend more time on your behalf in their own efforts to succeed and advance in the company.

However, be aware about any other concerns with agency staffing. For example, contractors are an excellent go-to scaling option for smaller agencies, but if those contractors are overscheduled, their turnaround time may slow down which impacts the speed of your website’s development or your campaign’s execution.

  1. Local vs. National

Most companies like working with local agencies, because they value the face time that enables them to be close and in the loop about what is happening. They enjoy local meetings and in-person visits for progress updates. However, national (or multinational) agencies are increasingly common, as are virtual companies or ones that operate out of a few cities around the world, because most of the work can be conducted online. Hangouts, Slack or Skype sessions are common. The digital marketing teams will simply share their screens and happily walk you through the current activities and latest data from key performance indicators. In either case, face-to-face relationship building isn’t guaranteed.

  1. Local vs. National, (Part 2)

With no face-to-face guarantee, it may be hard to decide whether or not a local or virtual company is the best fit for your own business. Some say local teams under one roof may move faster or be more receptive, yet their proximity to each other may actually be a counterargument to this claim, since it may impede focus and concentrated effort. For local businesses, working with a local partner makes sense, because they too understand the unique challenge of engaging foot traffic. Otherwise, location or an agency’s office address (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be the determining factor, as making your hiring decision should account for much more important criteria.

  1. Delegate, but Don’t Abdicate

Since they are the digital marketing experts, digital agencies or consultants should be responsible for the majority of the work that goes into creating and executing the various strategies. However, they periodically need your backing, resources, industry knowledge, and feedback, because marketing doesn’t happen at random or in isolation. Even the best digital marketing agency in existence can’t save a company with minimal to non-existent brand awareness, terrible customer service, or consistently negative reviews. Although PPC performance is somewhat isolated, it too relies heavily on traffic to the landing page or website. You are putting in the effort to hire an expert team of digital marketing specialists, but working closely with them ensures an even stronger collaboration and thus greater potential for success.

  1. The Importance of Your Support

To illustrate your importance in the partnership, here’s a scenario:

Your website redesign is off to a smooth start. The first round of designs look good, and little feedback is required, so they go straight into development and are right on schedule! The site building is in progress, but now your in-house team has some design concerns, so they want to revisit some elements and make a number of revisions. Since the agency team or consultants are already building out the website, they now have to step backward, dismantle what they’ve already constructed, and re-do all of the work…again.

You don’t want to waste money; your digital team doesn’t want to waste time and effort that could be more constructively used on your behalf. Your support and collaboration help avoid such waste.

  1. The Importance of Your Support (Part 2)

The value of your support cannot be emphasized enough, so here’s a second scenario to reinforce this point:

A huge trade show is in mere weeks. You are excited to put your best foot forward with the current website redesign. Excitingly, the design and development phases are almost complete!

Only the lorem ipsum, the dummy copy that agencies use on websites during development if they’re not responsible for the copy and images, stands between you and your enhanced website. And this content, these images – they are your responsibility, so the agency and the actualization of your website are on hold because you haven’t yet given them these resources.

If they are kept waiting long enough, the redesign project may be on hold because tasks that typically take a day or two haven’t been turned around in the established timeline. Understandably, agencies are then going to reallocate their staff members to other current client needs, so now your project may have even more delays.

Again, you don’t want to waste money, which in this scenario might both apply to your trade show success as well as additional website work weeks. As such, prioritize your support and collaboration to maximize the return on your investment.

  1. Determining Realistic ROI Expectations

Only paid search work can produce ROI within a month or two. Otherwise, don’t expect or buy into any other fairy tales about tactics or content that supposedly increase ROI seemingly overnight.

Facebook ads require a longer timeline, specifically because you first have to build a funnel. Conversion rate optimization can also take months to pay off. From the necessary timeline of up-front efforts, then watching for ranking movement and waiting for traffic, and then seeing if conversions move with the potential for even more time needed for selling and closing those new leads, Search Engine Optimization can be the slowest ROI of them all.

If a digital marketing consultant or agency is promising overnight returns, be skeptical at a minimum, but probably, you should just cross them off of your list. Conversely, take a similar approach if a consultant or agency hasn’t even a general idea of when potential returns may appear, or they lack the case studies that suggest their ability to achieve proposed ROI results.

  1. Finding Past Clients

Happy, satisfied customers are the best salespeople, not the voices from inside an organization. Naturally, digital marketing agencies don’t offer their client contact roster, as they don’t want others pestering their clients. However, if you look for case studies or testimonials on the consultant’s site, you may find former customers to contact. If they are not currently working with the digital marketing agency, most companies will be happy to share successes or areas for growth, as well as their general likes and dislikes. Indirectly asking about projects the agency worked on may also shed light on the kind of results that they can provide.

  1. Cultural Fit

In reviewing every digital agency’s website, you’ll get a sense of their identity. The photos of ping pong tournaments and keggers on Fridays may make it look like a fun place to work. Their design options suggest a focused, whimsical, or stodgy character. However, the sense of company culture revealed by a website is not necessarily the authentic reality of the company, and if it is, you need to consider if that culture is going to gel with your own or that of your own clients.

The importance of working closely with your digital service providers has been addressed repeatedly. If there is a cultural mismatch or misalignment in terms of your organizational temperaments, there may be issues with communication and collaboration, even if the products and services are well done.

  1. Product Modeling

If you are going to hire an ad agency who is renowned for their creative prowess, their own website should model the kind of creativity that they say they can deliver for you. Does their website show such innovation or artistry? Are there breathtaking videos or images using state-of-the-art production and technology? Conversely, a website shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for a PPC agency, since they’re analytical and more concerned with function. While keeping in mind that the top digital marketing agencies will typically prioritize client work over their own, the content that is present on a content company’s website should reveal the skills that you are hoping to see…or serve as a warning.

Questions to Ask Potential Digital Marketing Agencies

  1. Be like a Detective

Good detectives ask good questions. Even if they aren’t entirely sure what answers they need, they ask informed questions to maximize what they can learn from the responses. In terms of what to look for in a digital marketing agency, your thoughtful questions will usually provide more helpful responses, because the agency can offer more specific, concrete answers.

  1. Tailor Your Interview Questions

To ask meaningful questions, it’s important to understand the background and the expertise of the individuals with whom you are meeting. For example, trained salespeople at a larger agency will have a specific set of motivations and experience with the work that you are discussing. Conversely, at a smaller agency, the principal or lead consultant may be your point of contact, and these individuals have greater knowledge and expertise about the nuances of their digital marketing work. Thus, the latter experience is more likely to provide additional depth to potential marketing efforts and collaboration. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but understanding the individual’s role in the company will help you prepare accordingly for the kind of information that they may be able to give you.

  1. “Who Owns My Account?”

Some agencies have their own established software, accounts, or websites under their own name. Initially, this choice makes it easier to begin the necessary work and reduce any lag time, since your permission isn’t needed whenever work is being accessed. However, since your collaboration with this agency may not last forever, account ownership can be problematic when you decide to part ways.

Make sure you understand how transitions happen, if and when they may be needed, and what happens to your data and information, which you clearly do not want to lose. For example, some companies help set up accounts under your name and then simply provide themselves with the necessary access for the duration of your contract. In this scenario, your “uncoupling” should be less of an issue than if the company has ownership of all accounts, websites, etc.

  1. “Do You Work with the Competition?”

Contrary to popular belief, working with an agency that works with potential competitors or companies similar to your own is actually beneficial to you. Their experience means that they are more familiar with common scenarios that your business and your clients may experience, which can help them more expediently address your needs.

  1. “Do You Work with a Specific Competitor XYZ?”

While digital marketing consultants or agencies who have industry experience are helpful, you may not want to choose one who is working with a direct and local competitor or your greatest rival in the field. There are three primary reasons to remove that person or agency from the shortlist:

  1.  If they are paying more than you are, you don’t want the work quality to be adjusted because of this difference.
  2. Additionally, websites or campaigns that mirror those offered for the competitor will not be as valuable for you, if simply repeated for you.
  3. Finally, you are paying for innovation and growth as tailored to the clients, goals, and aspirations of your business, not for a copy of someone else’s.
  1. “What is your Usual Client Size?”

Small agencies typically know their limitations. Many feel confident and comfortable with clients of a certain size or in a certain price range. However, being a smaller marketing agency doesn’t mean they only work with small businesses.

Some small boutique, specialty agencies (usually staffed with only a few people) can still charge millions and work with giant enterprises. Similarly, some companies who have an extensive staff roster work better in serving many smaller organizations. Since the tactics and scale differ wildly for each, there is not really a set guideline to follow as to how to choose a digital marketing agency, so you might simply consider trying for the midpoint of their client range.

  1. “How Many Clients Are Currently on Your Client List?”

Importantly, most agencies have a client capacity limit. For example, a single developer might cap work at a maximum of two ongoing projects, while a marketer might be able to work on three or four. In short, do some quick math to ensure that the number of people that they have on their in-house team can effectively and efficiently serve the client roster that you may join.

  1. “Do You Outsource?”

Digital agencies often gain flexibility through outsourcing, since it allows them to add or subtract resources as needed based on the number of clients and their needs. Outsourcing or finding an additional partner is often a fantastic option if a particular skill set falls outside of the current staff’s expertise. However, be informed about what exactly is being outsourced.

  1. “What is Outsourced?”

Generally speaking, the core capabilities for which you chose the digital marketing agency should not be outsourced. If you’re hiring a content team, then this is the team who should be doing the actual content creation or writing work. Similarly, if you’ve hired a website development team, they should be doing the developing, not outsourcing it. In the same way, SEO agencies should be completing their own link building, instead of outsourcing it (as further addressed in a later tip).

  1. “Can I Request a Client List?”

For both privacy reasons and so that clients are not bombarded with potential inquiries from which they don’t stand to gain, agencies and consultants will probably not let you see their client lists if you ask for them. However, they may be able to provide a partial client list or other information that will help you determine how your business would fit into the range, type, and size of clients with which the agency most effectively and most frequently works.

  1. “What is Your Approach to [Keyword Research/Link Building/etc.]?”

When you ask them how they approach a particular product or service, their answers will reveal their thought process and will give you insight into how they approach their work, even if you don’t fully understand that work. To a web development consultant, you might inquire “Why do you like working with WordPress instead of Shopify?” When they provide their answer to your question, consider how it meshes with your own limited experience, as well as whether it makes sense to you or is so technical that you aren’t sure what the answer actually is. The findings here will illuminate whether the marketing professionals can clearly communicate information about complex topics to you in an understandable way. The best digital marketing services will be able to do so.

  1. “How Will You Start the Project Work for My Company?”

As you are finalizing how to choose a digital marketing provider from those remaining on the shortlist, how agencies plan to start your project is a great source of information. Top digital consulting work will begin with an audit. There may be an initial exploration before a more exhaustive audit, but they need to understand where you are at currently before starting to execute strategies. Be warned: if you are asked to sign on for any sort of standardized package, when they haven’t first assessed your needs or what efforts should take priority, this should be a  vibrant red flag and enough to remove them from your list.

  1. “How Do You Scale Services?”

Similarly, your specific scenario should dictate the degree to which services scale up or down. For example, you might inquire if you could begin with a one-time, paid audit for a deep dive into what you need. You might ask about lowering the resources behind new content creation if the initial audit shows the continued value of a significant amount of existing high-quality pages.

  1. “Who are My Direct Contacts?”

Account executives often facilitate the interactions between the clients and the people doing the work; however, they’re not always experts in digital marketing and its various nuances. Sometimes, you might need more face-time with the lead consultants or project staff, so ask about when, how, and how frequently this option is available to you.

  1. “How Often Will We Meet?”

This question is tricky because meeting more frequently may sound beneficial, but more meetings means that less time is being spent on the actual work that you need. You may not be billed an hourly rate, but this is probably how the agency prices their own internal costs.  Consequently, when more hours are allocated to phone calls, virtual collaborations, or live meetings, fewer hours are devoted to work, and thus, you may end up investing additional funds to complete the project.

  1. “How Will We Measure Progress?”

Access to a project management tool is a helpful resource, but it may not clearly show you the big picture of current projects and campaigns. A better option is when agencies and consultants balance the tactical, technical reporting with clear explanation as to how this work contributes to the set plan for achieving the established objectives.

  1. “How Does Pricing Work?”

Prices should tie to activities or deliverables. Hours are not a good deliverable, since activities often take longer than anticipated and unexpected hours (such as extra meeting requests) may occur. Additionally, hours spent and effort given don’t equate to goal achievement, but their associated number of blog posts, landing pages, and campaigns do!

  1. “How Does Your Contract Work?”

In reading your contract, the obligatory legalese is a given, but your clarity in terms of the language and the terms of the cost, the deliverables, and the completion timing of those deliverables is non-negotiable. To avoid any misunderstandings and related conflicts around expectations, require that the digital service providers clarify any technical jargon, so that there are no questions for either party about what you get, when you get it, and what you’ll pay for it.

  1. “Are there any Minimum Terms?”

Even bigger website projects may be fully completed within a few months. However, marketing services often require a specific time commitment, which are typically in six or twelve month increments. Most importantly, know the terms that you’ve agreed upon and how to end a contract if necessary, especially if you signed on for a longer time commitment.

  1. “How Can I Cancel a Contract?”

With all of the work that goes into understanding what to look for in a digital marketing agency and how to choose the best agency for your company, this necessarily time-consuming process is certainly not one that you want to repeat frequently. In the event that you need to end a contract, make sure you understand how to do so, which is particularly important with longer term contracts. Typically, a simple written notice should effectively terminate the contract within the notification period established in the contract

  1. “Is There Room for Negotiation?”

The answer here really depends on the provider. Typically, if they’ve priced services based on activities or points, lowering the scope should lower the fees accordingly. Without 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 anticipated work needed; or (3) the cost they think you can afford. Generally speaking, if an agency is unwilling to negotiate on the specified dollar amount, there’s usually a good reason. Flexibility in negotiations often indicates that they have priced their services at a premium and expect a few minor adjustments in order to receive your business.

  1. “What is Your Availability?”

Here is a cautionary tale based on experience:

One day, I was in an all-day meeting, when a prospective client sent me an email. Since I was already engaged and unable to conduct a phone call, I asked another team member to respond and assist that individual. That prospective client refused the help of other company staff and adamantly insisted that I take their phone call immediately, despite my previously scheduled meetings. At this point, no contract had been signed, and no money had been exchanged, so that individual was not technically a client. I politely told them to find another agency.

Timely responses are important, and it is reasonable to expect that emails and phone calls will be returned within a working day (or so). However, as in any successful collaboration, respect and understanding are also important.

  1. “What Are Your Communication Protocols?”

Most successful and effective agencies have clear procedures regarding client communication. For example, some hold weekly status calls, and others host longer and more comprehensive monthly meetings. Whatever the practice may be, you should clearly understand what it is, including the frequency, the method, and the parties involved.

  1. “Are there any Extra Costs?”

Typically, clients will pay a standard management fee, but advertising costs are extra. Also, the use of specific tools may require additional fees. Some may be initially covered by the agency, but your access to them may be limited. At your request, the agency may be able to help you set up your own account for unfiltered access to the data at whatever frequency you choose, but then you’ll need to pay for that service. Like the use of specific tools, web hosting is another service that is often covered by the agency as long as you’re a client, but a cost that you’ll take on should you discontinue your contract with a particular digital marketing provider.

  1. “What Tools Do You Use?”

Agencies often have favorite tools to use in their work, but they should be willing to adapt to working with other industry-standard tools, even if they aren’t their usual choices. Exceptions to this adaptation expectation are if an agency specializes in Salesforce or another specific platform or if your proposed tools aren’t actually legitimate industry-standard ones (more on this in a later tip).

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

The point of asking this question is to ensure that your potential hire understands and intends to focus on a significant need. To illustrate, if you’re hiring a conversion rate optimization agency, you want them to balance the strategic with the tactical side. For most companies who’ve never had major CRO work done (or SEO, or PPC, etc.), the biggest problem is that everything needs to improve. So, if the answer to this question deals with a tiny, less significant detail like font choice or the color selection for landing page buttons, their ability to handle your work and even their actual expertise may be in question.

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

The fluidity of the digital marketing world means that your needs and priorities will evolve accordingly over time. That said, there will typically be concrete and established set-up work at the beginning of a new arrangement, since the way that a PPC account is set up for the first time will be largely fixed, regardless of the client.

After that, flexibility in the scope of work is important, because the success of your investment depends on the collaborative willingness to try strategies and learn from their associated data. For example, if a particular link building campaign found success, you may want to shift your intended strategy to capitalize on that success instead of holding tightly to the initial plan from a few months ago.

  1. “Can I Meet with Team Members?”

Often, your assigned account executive will be your primary point of contact. Although technical experts may participate in regularly scheduled update sessions, they won’t be available for consultation on a daily basis. At least once a month if not once a week, you’ll want to hear directly from the people conducting the daily project work, because they best understand the particulars of those efforts and often better explain them.

  1. “Do You Have a Specific Approach?”

An approach that is set in stone is bad; an iterative approach in which products or strategies are created, tested and revised until they achieve the desired results is good! Again, since digital marketing is constantly changing, SEO tactics from a few years ago or even a successful campaign from only a few months prior may not have the same result now. Consequently, understanding a digital agency’s specific approach or main process can help show how they respond to challenges and the steps they take not only to surmount them but also to find greater success.

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

As we live and work in a world of uncertainty, it is important to clarify how your internal marketing teams works with a prospective agency. Related to the communication tip, understanding how the agency learns about the brand strategy from the internal team, then makes recommendations and executes on that strategy is imperative for long term success. Additionally, as internal team members may move on or move to other roles in the company, it is important to keep the agency informed about strategy so there is a historical reference when discussing new initiatives.

  1. “Who Owns the Code?”

In general, the agency owns the website code during website development. After the site is live and payment is complete, the rights to that work transfer to you. However, each situation can vary, so ask about the agency’s ability or intention to retain even a slight ownership of the work. These seemingly tricky details may not come to mind when you first think about how to choose a digital marketing agency, but knowing these particulars can make it easier to negotiate a problem, if it should arise only part of the way into a design process.

  1. “What Will Deliverables Look Like?”

As you are in initial conversations with the potential professionals, they aren’t going to give you a list of deliverables. As a business owner, you understand not giving away free work or strategies without anticipated return nor do you actually want any proposed deliverables, because the research from preliminary auditing of your company has not yet been conducted. However, you are paying for anticipated deliverables, so at least some samples of them are reasonable to expect. Furthermore, some deliverables, like samples of code, are hard to show and even more so if you don’t understand the more technical side. After a few weeks of development, however, those deliverables should be clearly unfolding in a tangible way.

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

When it comes to digital marketing, all of the components must work together. If not, PPC results can be handicapped by landing page design, or SEO can be hampered by underlying website code. While an agency that specializes in a particular area or niche is helpful, their team needs to have cross-functional skills. To return to the SEO example, an SEO team with zero developers interferes with their ability to provide complete and comprehensive service.

Marketing Consultant Warning Signs

potential digital marketing agency warning signs

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

Some services, like web design, are fairly concrete, while others like SEO, may continually change and evolve. Thus, if you are offered a rankings guarantee, cross that potential digital marketing service off your list!

  1. “How Do You Optimize Content?”

Employ similar self-preservation tactics if you hear the phrases “keyword density” and/or “PageRank.” These old school SEO tactics may have been relevant 5-10 years ago, but they aren’t anymore. Run from them and anyone who suggests them to you.

  1. “How Do You Build Links?”

Link building is critical and so is the way in which it is done. If some consultant or agency builds spammy, manipulative, low-quality links on your behalf, your business ultimately suffers. Even if SEO or the intricacies of how link building is performed is of little interest to you, know enough to pick out the difference between legitimate work and the spam-laden. This type of question is a conduit into how the agency performs, so learn the basics of one task and ask for a clear explanation. After all, if you employ an agency that executes without best practices, you may risk a penalty or update that wipes out your results.

  1. Beware of Cheap Labor

Cheap digital marketing labor can be more trouble than it’s worth, and pricing may reflect the kind of quality this choice can provide. Just as you wouldn’t really want to go for a “great deal” on a babysitter for your kids (outside of loving family and friends who are often the perfect deal), don’t try to score a “great deal” on your website developer either. While the marketing world doesn’t have many guarantees aside from perpetual change, poorly functioning websites and lengthy loading times are pretty much guaranteed to turn away your potential audience or clients.

  1. Beware “Proprietary Solutions”

As mentioned before, some companies specialize in providing websites to real estate agents for a hundred dollars a month, which may or may not actually be a positive or productive deal. Since all of your data and information is locked up tight in their “proprietary solution,” leaving would be difficult if not impossible, especially if you wanted to take that content with you. Also, many “proprietary solutions” often lag behind the options like WordPress or even SquareSpace, which are available in the free, open market.

  1. Beware “Closed” Platforms

Previously one of the most popular CRM platforms for small businesses, ACT! has become obsolete over the past decade. Since it was a “closed” platform for many years, CRM contacts wouldn’t integrate with your Gmail, and CRM data couldn’t be leveraged to better inform your email marketing campaigns. Especially if proposed tools are ones you’ve never heard of, let the buyer beware.

  1. Beware Unpopular Tool Recommendations

Even if you don’t know the first thing about email marketing, a quick online search will give you the biggest names in the industry:

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

Probably, you’ll immediately recognize at least a few of these names, and their online presence will be very clear. If a random tool, provider, hosting company, etc. is recommended, but you’ve never heard of it and it doesn’t show up in the top ten Google results, tighten those laces and run.

  1. Beware a “Jack of All Trades”

Expertise in all trades is unlikely. If you are looking for a digital marketing contractor, then some executional overlap is expected. As such, a PPC specialist should know about conversion optimization, and a website developer should know the basics of SEO. However, creative designers will probably not also be skilled in true web development or a data-driven field like SEO.

  1. Start Establishing Expectations During the Sales Process

The initial sales process will help you establish expectations for the company, especially in terms of communication. From the earliest contact, you can discern how well this company communicates, how they explain next steps, and how they will provide for you. A thoughtful follow-up email after every meeting with a summary and recap of who needs to do what shows that you’re in good hands. If you get an incomplete overview or, even worse, no follow-up at all, reconsider this choice.

  1. Quick, Definitive Answers

The term “expert” is somewhat misleading, as any true expert knows that there is always more to learn in their particular field of interest. The same applies to your digital marketing agency. Often, they know many of the answers and exactly what they are talking about, but some factors especially in the digital marketing world are out of their control. As with guaranteeing rankings, be on guard against any company that just offers seemingly rehearsed platitudes or stock responses. As you want them to try, revise, and improve until results are happening, you also want an agency that is willing to admit that they don’t know but are willing to find out, learn more, or try again.

  1. Poor Quality Work Samples

The work done in the digital marketing business is out in the open. A designer with mediocre design samples is a mediocre designer. The top digital marketing agencies and consultants clearly distinguish themselves via their work product (like client rankings on Google if they are an SEO agency).

  1. Poor Writing & Website Content

The same quality indicator is true of both writing and website content. Today, marketing is writing. Although small grammar mistakes or misspellings can be overlooked, writing that looks like those high school papers someone wrote at 2 a.m. on the morning they were due is not the kind of work that you would pay for or that will foster your success. In particular, as generative AI seemingly makes content writing easier, agencies that rely solely on technology to write will fail Google’s authenticity tests and as a result, your company will suffer.

  1. Little or No Work to Show

At some point, a trend began wherein companies relied on flashy designs, goofy team pictures, and a two-line statement about the kind of work they offered instead of client logos, sample content, resources, or places they’d been featured. Take heed: case studies and results should be the focal point of your research, because they will help you ensure that you are selecting a digital marketing service that prioritizes quality work over selling an image.

  1. Prioritizes Industry Awards Over Results

Industry awards are typically given out by other industry professionals, so they can sometimes be both biased and not quite as valuable as the term award suggests. Plus, some awards require a pay-to-play system where agencies have to submit a case along with a fee. Although ADDY’s sound nice, actual results, like dollars generated, percentage increases, or dollars saved, are better.

  1. Prioritizes “Pixel-Perfect” Over Marketing Qualified Leads

Although everyone hopes for the most “pixel perfect” design on their website, the number of leads generated is the greatest compliment a digital presence can have. If your early interactions with a digital consultant focus primarily on specific design techniques instead of your business objectives and how to meet them, your intentions may not align. While that marketing team may be hoping to win the next industry award, you need to partner with experts who will improve your bottom line.

Half of the digital marketing job is simply keeping up with how quickly the field evolves. In working with an outside digital marketing consultant or agency, you can rely on a topic expert to stay current on what’s happening in the field, how the industry is changing, and how to adapt accordingly. With these tips to help you better understand how to choose a digital marketing agency or partner, you know what to look for throughout the hiring process in order to select the best digital marketing collaborator to support the continued growth and success of your business.