ROI. Sales. Leads. That’s what you really want.
But when you’re looking for a digital marketing agency, you want to work with a firm you can trust to turn that profit lever. Your boss is counting on you to show results, and your reputation is on the line if you sign with an agency and the results end up looking sour.
But how do you find the right internet marketing company that can get results? Every agency salesperson seems to be willing to say whatever they need to secure a sale, even if they can’t back it up. Fortunately, there are some tricks of the trade for how to choose a digital marketing agency.
In this article, you’ll learn what to watch out for – good and bad -when browsing for a great agency. With over ten years of experience servicing the MD/DC/VA region and beyond, we’ve seen what works—and have heard what doesn’t when companies look to us to right those wrongs after getting burned by other agencies.
How to select a marketing agency the smart way: 7 red flags to avoid
Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you a time machine or do-over button. When an agency has wasted your time and money, you can only live and learn. The sunny side to this news is that you don’t have to learn from just your mistakes—you can also learn from the mistakes of others. Look out for these common pitfalls when searching for an agency:
1. Agencies that lock you into long contracts
Lengthy contracts (anything over 12 or even 18 months) handcuff you to whatever results an agency produces. By the time they fail to deliver, you’ve already forked over the cash, and you can’t leave when the results falter. And no matter how they paint a picture of a rosy future, your feelings of buyer’s remorse will sting.
But you don’t have to be locked down if that’s not what you want. In particular, watch out for contracts that last two years or more because that’s longer than what other agencies, like us, offer. We recognize how horrible it can feel to be glued to an advertising agency, especially if they are underperforming. We’ve been known to set up tracking and improve marketing performance through an initial trial period to show our worth.
2. Agencies that fail to take the time to understand YOUR business deeply
Beware of marketing agencies that fail to take the time to understand the nuances of your unique business. Especially in B2B, there are lots of moving parts to the customer journey and psychology of your buyer that take research and empathy to understand. When an agency knows the ins and outs of an industry, it can find and persuade prospects to convert at a lower cost per lead.
Therefore, look out for agencies that default to a cookie-cutter approach. A one-size-fits-all marketing plan often falls flat because it doesn’t account for the differences between businesses, such as seasonality and price point.
As a handpicked Google Premier Partner, WebMechanix delivers personalized client support by understanding each client’s needs. Some clients prefer PDF marketing reports, while others like to see automated spreadsheet reports. We deliver what works best for each client. Additionally, we communicate frequently, so everyone’s aware of what we’re working on and how we’re pacing towards our goals. To illustrate the trust they end up having in our approach, here’s a testimonial from a client:
“There are countless agencies out there that will put up digital ads on your behalf, but there are few like WebMechanix that will work with you one-on-one to understand your needs, help you shape and refine your goals, keep you up to date with the latest trends and opportunities, and constantly strive to improve your existing process. -Abel Ramos, Marketing Strategist for Trinity University”
Check out our #WinStoryWednesday blog series to learn more about how we deliver consistent, personalized, and innovative performance.
3. Agencies that don’t eat their cooking
When you look for an agency, check to see if the firm is using their service offerings in their digital marketing and recruiting. For example, look to see if they use retargeting by seeing if their Facebook and Google Display ads follow you around after you visit a service page or if they have a consistent organic social media presence.
What does their website look like? If it’s partying like it’s 1999, that will likely translate to using outdated tech and aging tactics.
4. Agencies that hide poor performance with minor metrics
No matter how great an agency appears to be at delivering a positive ROI, life never guarantees marketing results. Frequently, marketing firms fail to meet their clients’ expectations and goals. When this happens, you want to find out about bad results as soon as possible, and calmly correct the direction and strategy. But that can’t happen when agencies deliberately hide bad results.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of digital marketing metrics to choose from, which makes it easy for an agency to find and emphasize a minor result that looks good.
Pro tip: A quick way to see if poor performance is hidden is to identify which metrics the report highlights first. If the metrics put up front are minor and granular, like bounce rate or time on page, that’s a red flag (or a sign of a novice marketing report).
The longer true candor is delayed, the less real work gets done. Look, we all have brilliant ideas that don’t perform as well as we’d hope. That’s the nature of marketing. At WebMechanix, we try our best to be equally as clear when results aren’t what we hope for as we are with wins because we value honesty. By always being transparent, an agency can establish a trusted relationship and work together to improve marketing results faster. We also know you don’t have time to read an essay, so we try to ensure the accountability of marketing reports short and understandable. That way, the most important metrics are front and center and one eliminates distracting metrics.
5. Agencies with low accountability, understanding, and direction
AUD (accountability, understanding, and direction) is the framework we use at WebMechanix to build trust with clients. We strive to stay as trustworthy and reliable as possible by maximizing AUD to increase transparency and confidence. If you’re considering a team for hire, ask them how they make sure:
- They are held accountable for results and progress.
- Everyone understands new initiatives, digital marketing terms, task and budget progress, and goals.
- Strategic direction is prioritized and updated, especially when new ideas pop up or results fail to meet expectations.
Do they put a clear plan in place? Or will they fumble when answering your questions because they aren’t familiar with priorities?
To honor AUD, WebMechanix makes sure our marketing reports are honest, understandable, and frequent. We honor relationships, understand you want the truth, and call out issues that may affect goal pacing sooner rather than later, even if it means pushing back on a new initiative.
6. Agencies that aren’t transparent
Can you confidently answer the question, “How is your current agency or marketing department performing?” Many companies can’t. Their response is, “I think it’s going well, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know what they’re doing.”
A great agency is clear about everything they’re doing for you. The team will keep you updated on how performance is pacing and how they got there. In fact, they’ll be the first to mention it if results are not pacing as expected. They’ll be upfront with it, explain why it’s happening, and suggest alternative approaches to remedy the issue. Find an agency that’s clear about the results you can expect at the start.
7. Agencies that hold your marketing data and accounts captive
Some agencies will refuse to give back your historical advertising data if you choose to part with them. Others will offer a black box solution that you have to use for your site’s content management system or advertising. You don’t need any black box solution because there are plenty of resources like WordPress and Facebook Business Manager that give you and your agency the access you want.
Losing data will hurt your performance because that data tells you what worked and didn’t so you can build off that for future advertising.
The good agencies won’t hold anything captive and continue to give you direct access to the data. They’re working together with you to build your assets. For instance, they’ll improve your Facebook and Google ads accounts so that they have better structure, organization, ad creatives, and ad copy.
What to look for in a digital marketing agency: 9 great signs
I’ve covered what to watch out for, but what are the qualities of a good digital marketing agency? Well, I’ll tell ya!
1. An agency that focuses on BUSINESS results
“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” — Peter Drucker
Just because “the numbers look good” doesn’t mean they translate into profit. Companies need a true partner agency that rolls up its sleeves and digs into how efforts are (or aren’t) moving the business forward.
Thus, find a team that speaks fluent digital “Marketese.” If more comments on your Instagram aren’t translating into more sales in the long term, a good agency should alert you and take charge of guiding strategy before you sink resources into a dead-end social media campaign.
Not all agencies focus on ROI. That said, cash flow is the lifeblood of any business, as the C-suite know. While you can still pursue brand awareness, social media reach, or engagement, the business dries up in the long run if it isn’t returning acceptable profits. Hence, find a digital agency that understands marketing for the bottom line and can turn that faucet on when your boss asks to.
2. An agency that works as an extension of your team
Find an agency that cares as much about your results as you do. In other words, you need an agency that can serve as an extension of your team—a partner, not a separate entity.
With a partner, communication is frequent and streamlined. You should be able to contact the team via email or phone when you want. You should also have planned weekly progress reports and meetings—but a savvy marketing team will already have a plan in place to make sure you always know what they’re doing.
3. An agency that is PROACTIVE rather than REACTIVE
A proactive partner will forecast possible future scenarios and prepare for them, so you’re ready if the time comes. The firm will have the tough conversations necessary to drive strategy towards major goals, even when roadblocks and distractions tempt you away.
When agencies are reactive, they’re scrambling to figure out how to respond to an event they weren’t prepared for. If Google ads and Facebook ads end up costing a lot more and converting a lot less than desired, an unprepared agency tries to piece together a last-minute plan. If local SEO brings in lots of low-quality leads, they end up scratching their heads. And if a flood of traffic—or worse, a hacker—crashes the site, they struggle to figure out how to get the site running again because they didn’t prepare a backup plan.
Unfortunately, reactive marketing agencies are abundant because a lot of shops lack experience and planning. At WebMechanix, we work together to understand your long-term goals and form a strategy right from kickoff. We serve the client’s best interests and company vision by introducing different perspectives and pushing back when ideas prevent us from staying on track.
By working together to establish our “One Big Metric” with a client at the start, we simplify the overwhelming number of metrics we can track to a single goal. In turn, this focused goal governs how we prioritize tasks and measure success. Have a look:
4. An established track record and suite of tools
When an agency has a history of delighted clients over the years, it has more credibility and will likely continue to deliver in the future. A strong average rating with lots of reviews indicates a great reputation because rave reviews are hard to obtain—the firm has to deliver stellar work consistently and ask a client to take the time out of their day to write a review.
To check on an agency’s track record, be sure to browse through their Google and Clutch.co reviews. Clutch only publishes reviews after conducting an independent, thorough interview with each client, which can take hours. As you can imagine, this is more difficult than a five-second Google review because it requires more of an investment for all parties involved. On Google, it’s much easier for a client to have a bad experience with an agency and quickly leave a negative review.
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett
Similarly, years of experience allow a team of experts to test the latest tools and techniques to a point where they’re familiar with the subtle details of what works and what doesn’t. Often, the digital marketing tools of an established firm are more impactful than what a bootstrapped budget provides. A seasoned team can accomplish a vision far beyond that of one person.
With smaller organizations, the chances are that they’re picking up tips from free online articles and reacting to trends and recent tactics. Our seasoned PPC management specialists know what to look for and what to tweak because they’re in the field all day, every day. They’ve been exposed to various accounts of different sizes in different industries. They’re on top of new updates and tools, which allows them to innovate and test rapidly after release.
5. An agency that helps you prioritize
When an agency cares about your growth and success, it’ll go beyond simply doing what’s asked if there are other obstacles it can help with. By way of illustration, WebMechanix doesn’t close shop for the day once it’s delivered the agreed-upon number of leads. If we see an opportunity to help the sales team, and we know we can potentially help the bottom line, we do so.
Sales and marketing alignment is important for any business’s success, so find a partner that isn’t afraid to speak up and help when there is a misalignment. Priorities accidentally get put on the back burner all the time with agencies because there are always new ideas.
Some online marketing agencies say “Yes” and do everything asked, even if they know new initiatives may affect big goals from being hit. For example, a manager introduces a new idea to send party invitations to increase attendance at an event that won’t increase sales. We notice this initiative will diminish the time allotted to PPC management that does increase sales. Because of this, we speak up about whether or not this new idea is the best use of time.
Rather than waiting until the client gets surprised when a team doesn’t hit goals because we’ve said Yes to tasks they’ve requested that delay our goals, WebMechanix isn’t afraid to pre-emptively remind them of potential dips in performance if an idea goes through. Find an agency that points out how new projects may affect existing priorities, and you’ll be in good hands.
6. An agency with constant innovation
Agencies that deliver only the basics will stagnate. As hinted earlier, cookie-cutter agencies are likeliest to do the bare minimum. Best practices are sometimes wrong because your unique industry, size, or location can require different approaches; these practices can easily become outdated as algorithms and platforms change. Results in the real world are the only true indicators of good strategy.
Digital agencies must keep up with an industry that’s constantly changing by staying ahead. Advances in artificial intelligence, voice-activated tech, big data, and other developments are unpredictable. Those who stand still with the latest technology and methods will soon find that they’ve become obsolete.
Look for agencies who constantly come up with and use fresh ideas. Experimenting rather than theorizing separates true innovators from wannabes. Your company must be willing to try out newly proposed ideas to work effectively with an innovative agency.
“Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. It takes a team to win.” — John Doerr
Innovation comes in many forms. For example, an agency can build its marketing tools, like we do, or develop new approaches to getting traffic or sales. We’re always testing new concepts and keeping up with trends. Recently, we’ve experimented with:
- Building a HubSpot multi-step form generator.
- Organic content and paid ads on new platforms.
- Identifying a new way of SEO-optimizing web pages.
- New initiatives to obtain backlinks and referral traffic.
- New types of SEO tools (see our post on migrating to SEMRush from Moz Pro).
- New software-as-a-service platforms to obtain more leads through email marketing in e-commerce.
Additionally, we are sharing ideas, tactics, and news daily on Slack channels and via weekly employee knowledge-sharing training. One of our Slack channels, #marketing-chat, is shared to the public on our Slack web page to help others and promote transparency.
7. An agency with extraordinary service and an “at-home” feel
It may seem ideal to hire an agency that’s local to you. Sure, plenty of our clients are local. It makes for easier in-person meetings and all that jazz. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
An agency doesn’t have to be local as long as it provides great service. Video chat enables clean communication that’s almost as good as in-person without the commute time. Even people who don’t live in the area can learn your local demographics if they put in the work. And unique local tactics and tools don’t always exist—but if they do, they can usually be applied universally to other regions.
What’s most important is that they feel like they’re right there. Great customer support and customer experience make you feel comfortable with an agency. Even if they’re not physically next door, you should feel like you can contact them whenever you want help. Look for people you can count on and be happy working with for the rest of your life.
8. An agency with a variety of skills
To perform spectacular digital marketing, you need a variety of skills to optimize your advertising and website. These skills may include web design, web development, SEO, and social advertising. An agency with a couple of service lines may lack knowledge that could affect other components of marketing. For example, neglecting user experience could affect your SEO and conversion rate optimization.
Hiring many full-time roles in-house can get expensive. An agency gives access to the best talent in each of these roles or a part-time price.
9. An agency with a suite of tools
Similar to the last point, it’s not economical to buy the best marketing tools yourself when you only need them part-time. Some tools, like SEMrush or Moz, can cost hundreds of dollars per month. Agencies leverage economies of scale and have the best tools to bring clients decision-making data, automation, and marketing execution.
By accounting for these factors for choosing the right marketing company, you can save yourself a lot of heartaches and wasted resources down the line.
If you don’t want to get burned, watch out for:
- Long contracts.
- Lack of transparency.
- Bad websites and marketing.
- Low accountability, understanding, and direction.
- Failure to take the time to understand your business.
Gravitate towards agencies that:
- Focus on ROI.
- Constantly innovate.
- Have an at-home feel.
- Have a successful track record.
- Act as an extension of your team.
- Are proactive when guiding strategy.
Let me know in the comments: When it comes to criteria for selecting an advertising agency, what do you care about most?