How to vet a digital marketing agency

How to vet a digital marketing agency

There are six primary questions you should ask when looking for an agency for your next marketing endeavor. These questions will help you vet agencies and reduce your chance of making a partnership mistake.

Suppose you're a small business owner doing a million things at once to keep your figurative ship afloat. At the same time, you're trying to attract new customers to grow your business.

If we put two and two together, then it's probably safe to say you don't have the capacity, or the expertise, to conceive and execute a digital marketing campaign, website improvements, or do something called "SEO." This leaves you with two options: hire your cousin who dabbled in marketing once or hire a digital marketing agency. Let's say you don't have a cousin and need to hire a marketing agency. How do you vet one?

If you Google digital marketing agency, your search results will be filled with agencies in your locality and from around the world offering all kinds of services. As you examine them one by one, it can get tedious and exhausting. 

Why it isn't easy to choose a digital marketing agency 

For most small and independent businesses, it would be challenging to find an agency for the following reasons:

No entry barriers: Anyone with a website can claim to be a digital marketing agency. There's no standard educational qualification or experience needed to start offering services. A freelancer with an internet connection from anywhere in the world can offer their digital marketing services to you and call themselves an agency. 

Absence of industry verification: No industry body accredits or verifies digital marketing agencies. When you go through someone's website, this makes it exceedingly difficult to measure their credibility. Unlike the traditional advertising agencies with international and national associations, the digital marketing industry doesn't have any organization of such authority. 

You don't know what you don't know: If you're a small business with no experience in digital marketing, it would be challenging to analyze someone's expertise. Since you may not have team members with expertise in, for example, social media management, it would be challenging to examine someone else's ability. 

Ambiguity about objectives: Small businesses that want to engage in digital marketing may not know what tactic to choose or channel to use. It isn't easy to select an agency without clear goals because they typically focus on what they're good at and not what your business might need.

How small businesses should vet a digital marketing agency

Getting the right digital marketing agency will amplify your marketing efforts, be less stressful and rewarding. You'll be able to create high-value digital assets (websites, ads, etc.) that are both cost-effective and optimal for your particular needs. But before you start choosing agencies, there's something you should do.

First, know your goals, budget, and how you like to work

Goal setting is the first item on the agenda. Before you start scouring agencies' websites, you should know what you expect from your digital marketing efforts.

  • Do you want to increase brand awareness?
  • Do you want to rank higher on search?
  • Do you want to drive more users to your website?
  • Do you want more followers for your social media pages?
  • Do you want better content for your website?
  • Do you want to establish your thought leadership?

These are just some examples. You can have more than one, but you should be able to prioritize your goals. Once you're clear about what you want your marketing agency to achieve, it's time to identify how you like to work.

This part is simple and requires you to set realistic expectations. How busy are you? How involved do you want or need to be? Are you willing to give up total creative control? You should ask yourself these questions so that you can gauge an agency's process and see if it's aligned to your availability and work style when you vet agencies. Doing this will reduce stress and miscommunication down the road.

Finally, know your budget. Being upfront about your budget will save you an immense amount of time when talking to agencies. Bring it up within the first two sentences of a conversation with an agency. They will thank you for it, and you will thank yourself for it.

Here are some tips on how to vet your digital marketing agency to ensure that the one you hire will be credible, proficient, and fit your needs.

1. How good is their portfolio?

Digital marketing agencies that have successfully executed campaigns will have a lot to show for those. They would have an impressive and credible portfolio that they would be happy to share with you. You can easily find them on their website. 

Do remember that not all services of an agency can be displayed on their website. They will be able to share images of landing pages, logos, or graphic designs they would have created. But you may have to request additional information on work related to search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, social media management, etc. 

Beyond the mere presentation and glitz of the portfolio, see if those websites are still active and using the same design. That would give real-life proof of the agency's capabilities. 

2. Do they have relevant industry experience?

Their portfolio will also tell you about their clients. You can verify this by reaching out to the clients or requesting a more detailed case study from the agency. It's important to know what kind of clients they have been partnering with because that will reveal the credibility and expertise of the outfit. 

Ensure that you look for clients who may either be in the same sector or might have had the same business objectives. Suppose your goal is to rank higher in organic search. In that case, there's no point looking at a service provider who specializes in social media management no matter how well they do it. 

It would be best if you also looked at the size and marketing spend of their clients. Ideally, as a small business, you want agencies that can deliver campaigns within limited budgets. With more significant marketing spending, they may be able to use the services of a social media influencer which your business may not be able to afford.

The other aspect of category experience is the longevity of their associations. Do they partner with clients for years or only do short-term projects? If they only associate with businesses for a few months, that could be a red flag if you're looking for a long-term partner. 

3. Do they have the right reputation?

It's one thing for a digital marketing agency to say that their clients love them. But what about the clients? Do they like partnering with the service provider? The easiest way to find that out is through the testimonials the agency would have on their website. 

In testimonials, what you need to look for is specifics. Do the clients talk about the agency's turnaround time in particular or their creativity? Are the clients impressed with the team's ongoing support? Have they mentioned any team member by name? These details make the praise credible. 

But do keep in mind that certain unscrupulous agencies will fake testimonials from actual or nonexistent companies. You can go online and look for the company and see if they've used the agency. An online search will also reveal the reviews left by others. You might hear from previous clients and even employees. That will give you the true picture. 

4. Do they share your values?

You want to work with someone who has similar values. What you want is a group of people who understand your needs, challenges, and importantly, see things from your point of view. 

They should understand your company values and how you treat your employees and partners. If they're the type that would constantly impose their ideas on you, there will be problems. If their team members are too casual for your liking, there will be problems. 

What will help you analyze an agency's culture is how they describe themselves and how others describe them. If you meet the agency, watch out for their demeanor, choice of words, and soft skills. 

5. Do they have a great digital presence?

This is one of the easiest ways to understand a service provider's competence. You hire a marketing agency to strengthen your digital presence. So, the agency needs to have a commendable and inspiring set of digital assets.

Check their website and see how fast it loads. Does the homepage look exciting and compelling? Does it all have all the necessary information easily categorized? Does the page look cluttered? Is it optimized for search engines?

The quality of a website isn't an exact reflection of an agency's expertise. But it will reveal whether they take their jobs seriously. 

Along with their website, you should also look at their social media handles. Do they have a presence on all the necessary platforms? How many followers do they have? Are their other companies following them? Does the agency post original content frequently? What's their level of engagement with their followers?

These will reveal more about the agency than their presentations. An agency that tells you that they can manage your social media or create digital videos should be doing that for their business. 

6. Do they make unbelievable promises?

Digital marketing takes time to bear fruit. You need a partner who will take the time to understand your goals, pain points and then come with a viable plan that suits your budget. No matter how committed and experienced they are, the campaigns will take some time to deliver results.

All good agencies know this. But some will make incredible promises when they send you a proposal or meet you. While it might be tempting to believe those, you should know that this isn't a game of short-term results. 

What they promise should be comparable to industry standards. They should also be able to transparently measure and share the results of their work with you. They should share a medium and long-term view of the partnership and reveal what they can realistically achieve for you with an appropriate timeline. 

In short

Small businesses should be careful when selecting their marketing partner as it's a decision that can impact growth, stress levels, and personal happy meters. It should be easier to vet a digital marketing agency with these six tips, even if you have no experience dealing with them.

Additional resources

Website Development RFP: How To Find the Best Team To Build Your Website