By Amber Wilcox
Not all inbound marketing agencies were created equal. Choosing an inbound marketing agency is not a decision that should be taken lightly, especially during these uncertain times. Many companies have been forced to work from home and shift the way they market their business.
With the countless inbound marketing agencies that exist today, it can be overwhelmingly difficult to know how to choose the right one for your business. Your choice will ultimately reflect the quality of your marketing, which, in turn, will affect your results.
In addition to our suggestions below, be sure to ask the potential agency "How has COVID-19 impacted the agency's work with clients?"
Here at SmartBug®, we are a fully remote company—we have super talented marketers all over North America, and have been remote for over 10 years. The way we work with clients has not been impacted. We have mastered streamlined communications and made partnerships stronger—precisely because of our 100 percent remote model.
Think of your selection process as you would any difficult decision in life. When making the important business decision to hire an inbound marketing agency, you’ll want to evaluate the needs of your business and have a clear understanding of the criteria an agency will need to meet.
Laying the Foundation for a Successful Partnership
Think of choosing an inbound marketing agency as if you were building a new home. Before laying the foundation, you need to carefully evaluate the elements that factor into the build.
To make sure you’re aware of those foundational elements, here are some questions to discuss internally with your team before beginning the decision-making process:
1. What are the current needs of my business?
With your team, discuss concerns or obstacles that your business is currently facing. Make a list of any critical elements that are hindering overall success. Be sure to rank this list in order of most to least critical.
2. What are the levels of expertise my team brings to my business? What skill sets am I looking for in a strategic marketing partner?
Making a list of areas of your team’s expertise, skill sets, and weaknesses will help you gain a better understanding of what you need to look for in a partner.
3. What are my goals/expectations for inbound marketing? What do I hope to achieve?
By answering this question, you’ll ensure that clear communication is set forth moving forward. How can you expect an agency to understand your goals if you don’t have them? Evaluate your current marketing strategy and assess what you can do better.
4. What elements do I need to be sure potential inbound marketing agency partners have?
Similar to building a home, evaluating your “must-haves” for potential partners is important. Not all homes come with dishwashers, and not all inbound agencies will be able to check your highest-priority boxes.
Completing the [Inbound Marketing Agency] Inspection
With a plan in place, your team can now confidently begin an evaluation of potential marketing agencies. During this process, your team will want to be sure to ask a few essential questions.
Here are the nine most important evaluating criteria you’ll want to review in potential agency partners:
1. What are some of the marketing tools the agency uses to provide services to my business? What software systems are in place to help further understand my marketing efforts?
Although the answers to this question will vary from one agency to another, any inbound marketing agency should be able to provide you with some of the tools and software systems it has in place to help clients stay successful.
A sample inbound marketing agency toolkit:
Software in a marketing agency’s toolkit:
2. What is the agency’s client retention rate?
Client-agency relationships may end for a number of reasons: financial instability, internal shifts of power, or unrealistic goals, to name just a few. Though an agency’s ability to keep partners is important, not all relationships are the right fit. As you seek to understand agencies’ client retention rates, know that not all partnerships are a great fit, but that having a stable number of relationships is an important indicator of the success of a potential agency.
3. What are a few ways that the agency uses inbound marketing to help meet my goals?
An agency’s comprehensive understanding of inbound marketing plays a vital role in the success of your business. An agency that is only providing you with top-of-the-funnel marketing will undoubtedly see no conversion success because your leads will remain stagnant and go nowhere. Inbound marketing means finding ways to strategically attract and maintain potential buyers at every stage of the Buyer’s Journey.
4. What are the agency’s areas of expertise? What does the agency do best, and what appears to be its weaknesses?
There is always room for opportunity and growth in a business. Asking about strengths and weaknesses will both reveal transparency and provide you with an understanding of how this business can help you. You’ll want to choose an inbound marketing agency that has a comprehensive toolkit with multiple areas of expertise to contribute to the complete inbound marketing “package.” In addition, you’ll want to evaluate particular industries that the agency is known for excelling in. If an agency only focuses on one particular industry or area of interest, it could be a cause for concern, especially with potential competitors. You’ll want to find an agency that has experience in a particular area, but also has a broad understanding of several areas.
5. How creative is this inbound agency?
If the agency provides a list of clients on its website, take a look to see examples of digital marketing campaigns that it has provided to clients. You should also look through the website to evaluate resources, videos, and other media. Is the agency creative? Does its approach provide value to potential clients? If you can’t find any projects online, consider asking for examples during a discussion.
6. Is there a clear service catalog?
You’ll want to be sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re being charged for and how much different services cost. This will ensure no surprises and help you clearly understand the cost of the agency’s services for your own evaluation.
7. How well do they market their own business?
Do your homework! If the agency in question hasn’t posted on social media in two months, this is certainly a potential red flag. The way you market your business is a reflection of how you will care for customers.
8. What do goals and metrics mean to them?
One of the best things you can do during your evaluation process is to ask the agency to provide you with a sample report of how it tracks metrics and goals for clients (if the agency hasn’t already offered such a report). Knowing how the agency evaluates its efforts will be a good indicator for what you can expect after signing.
9. Do they stay up to date on trends in the marketing industry?
In the world of digital marketing, changes happen rapidly. Having an agency that is dedicated to staying updated on the world of marketing is important. Ask a potential agency what it does to stay updated in the marketing world. Good answers include reading marketing blogs, participating in regular training sessions, and attending conferences and webinars.
The Final Walk-Through: Choosing an Inbound Marketing Agency
This is your opportunity to evaluate your final choices and find the right fit for your business—just as you would before purchasing a home. During the final stages of choosing an inbound marketing agency, you’ll want to be sure that what appears to be a good option for your business is really as great as it seems!
Here are a few final questions you’ll want to ask yourself before signing any contracts:
1. Does this agency have a clear plan of action for my business?
If it hasn’t already offered, you’ll want to ask the agency to put together a proposal or plan of action for your business/marketing efforts. Agencies that have listened to your goals will be able to provide you with a toolkit/strategy to meet your needs.
2. What will the onboarding process look like?
Understanding what this process is like will help you set expectations for both parties. You’ll understand approximately how long until your teams begin to see results, and you’ll have a detailed timeline to ensure everyone is on the same page.
3. What are other people saying about this partner? Does the agency have good reviews? Do team members appear to be happy? What are customers saying? Are they seeing results?
It is critically important to ensure you’ve done your research on a potential partner. What do the company’s reviews on sources such as Facebook or Google look like? Has it won any industry awards? Do customers appear to be happy? Be sure to check job review sites like Glassdoor to see what those who work or have worked with the agency are saying. If the agency appears to have few to no reviews or you see a lot of negativity, then chances are this new partnership comes with potential risks. In addition, consider asking the agency if you can speak with current clients. An interview can reveal a lot about an agency and help provide you tips about what working with this partner will be like.
4. Who will be my point of contact for my team? What are their skill sets?
Ask about and evaluate the team members that you’ll be working with. You’ll want to be sure that you aren’t being handed off to a brand new team member with limited experience in the marketing world. Internships are a great way to learn about marketing, but interns may not help provide your business with the experience it needs.
5. How do they handle crisis or urgent situations?
We all hope that we won’t experience a “digital crisis” and won’t need to reach someone after hours, but things happen. Knowing that an agency has your back and can be reached during those times is important. Hire an agency that has your interests in mind—and doesn’t shut out the world during non-working hours.
You also want to work with an agency that can efficiently help your business shift your campaigns and messaging to help you avoid sounding tone-deaf when marketing and can coach you on weighing the risk of working with newly remote vendors.
Choosing the right inbound marketing agency is not an easy task. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, get answers, and find the right fit for your business.
This post was originally published in October 2019 and has been updated.