The best time to hire a digital agency is when it’s still an option, not when it becomes a necessity to get the company out of stagnation or fight heavy competition. A good campaign can grow with your company and change course depending on how the business evolves, while keeping charge of identity aspects like brand, voice, or reputation.
But it’s never too late to start investing in your online visibility - no matter what industry you’re from, a large part of your customers are already online, researching and comparing for prime offers on products or services you sell. And unless you position yourself as best you can to get those prospective customer eyeballs on your offering, odds are those leads will choose your competitor.
A good digital agency will never guarantee results, but will do its best to deliver them and exceed expectations.
However, hiring the right digital agency is not the most straightforward task, and you need a plan that will allow you to make a good choice for your business. Whether you’ve worked with an agency before or not, the following tips can help you streamline and organize the hiring process, so you can end up collaborating with great partners who understand what your business needs.
Some of the reasons why you’ll want to approach choosing an agency strategically are:
- it is probably a long-term, costly investment for the business, so you want to make sure it pans out as expected
- not every agency is ideal for every type of client, and you need to figure out what would be a good fit for your company
- fixing a bad campaign is much more hard work than starting off on the right foot with a good strategy in place, so choosing well from the beginning will make a big difference in the long run
Unless you have good and reliable recommendations from someone you trust, or who has seen satisfying results for their own business, you might want to begin with a wide search. Gather up a long list of digital agency candidates you will screen to narrow down to a few potential hires.
The following pointers aren’t just a collection of ideas you should have in mind when looking for an agency, but rather a step by step process that can guide your search. I’ve divided these tips into four sections that will give you a nice overview of what you need to do as you conduct your research.
A. Doing Your Part [Informing Your Search]
Before you actually start making a list of agencies you’d like to know more about and get in touch with, there are some essential preparations to make. You have probably considered some of them already, but the more thought you put into this step, the smoother will things unfold.
1. Know What You’re After
Start by determining exactly what you need an agency to do for you. What are your goals, what made you decide to turn to online marketing? Here are a couple of examples with issues to consider at this point:
- set clear goals (better rankings, better content, improved online experience, visibility through paid media, brand awareness?), as they determine what services you need
- figure out if what you require is a one-time deal (fixed-term contract) or if you’ll be needing a longer-term campaign (for instance, you might opt for continuous support or check-ups on an SEO or PPC campaign)
2. Get Acquainted With Online Marketing Terminology And Practices
If you aren’t already familiar with how online marketing operates, it is in your best interest to have at least a high-level understanding of its processes. It will help you become aware of what your business needs exactly, you’ll know what to ask of an agency, and what to expect in terms of measurements, reports and results. Digital marketing covers a pretty wide spectrum of practices, and the better you know what can be accomplished, the more certain you’ll be of what your business needs.
3. Set Up An Estimated Budget
When you know what needs to be carried out, establish a rough budget, or an approximate sum of what you’d be comfortable spending. This might be difficult if you’ve never hired digital services before and don’t know much about the costs involved.
In this case, your best approach might be to discuss with peers; perhaps friends or acquaintances from your industry have done this before and can give you a few examples of what it cost for them. You can also find general information on the Internet, but keep in mind prices may vary in a real negotiation with agencies - some choose to quote based on the required work and challenges of each specific project.
B. The Research Process [Gathering Surface Information]
The following are some of the more important criteria and details you should filter agency candidates through.They will help you narrow down to a handful of agencies it’s worth contacting and discussing with.
4. Scout Their Website For Information
There are several things you can learn about a digital agency from their website. You will find or confirm information related to their location, testimonials, social media profiles, services offered, staff members (be wary of those without a team or about us page, and ask for these details if you get in touch eventually), working hours, press coverage, awards, and so on.
Look to see which services they feature most prominently on their website. Usually, this is an indicator of what they’re most confident in implementing, their strengths, or what their main focus is as an agency (i.e. what the majority of their clientele requests). If these do not relate to what you need, you might have to search for an agency that specializes in the service/s you require. However, this shouldn’t be a disqualifying element in itself; if they look like a good agency and you get a good vibe from them - your gut instinct matters too -, give it a shot and find out more about them.
5. Analyze Their Website’s Functionality And Aspect
Because a big part of the consumers’ research process about a product or service occurs online now, we tend to judge a company by their website as well. By how easy it is to navigate, whether it has clean design and pleasant colors, by page load time and accessibility to information. Most of the time we make these judgments unconsciously, and if we do think about them, the website must offer a really unpleasant experience, or an incredibly delightful one.
But evaluating an agency’s success based on their website is only accurate up to a point. For instance, if you need SEO services, you might be tempted to dismiss agencies whose sites rank poorly in SERPs. Yet a simple explanation for this could be that the agency focuses on ranking their clients’ websites and won’t waste time and resources to rank their own. Similarly, agencies that you find in top rankings may not be the best ones for your business in terms of SEO services.
If, however, you’re searching for web design services, an agency whose website looks dated makes a poor first impression. You should certainly put more emphasis on what the agency has done for their clients’ websites, but if they boast this as their primary strength, you should expect a sparkling web presence in terms of design, UI, UX, page load time, etc. on their official website.
6. Online Testimonials
See what others have said about working with the agency - both small and big clients. Of course every agency will only publish positive testimonials on their website, but what you’re looking to find out here are references to what those actual positive aspects and strengths are. If the testimonials seem vague, use stiff language, or don’t refer to anything in particular, it could mean the agency didn’t receive better assessments, or they just did a poor job of choosing what to feature.
Either way, testimonials shouldn’t weigh too much in the decision-making process, but they can give you a general idea of other clients’ sentiments on working with the agency in question.
7. Customer Reviews
Sometimes you can find these on the agency’s website but in most cases, you’ll find them on customer-oriented platforms, such as websites dedicated to consumer reviews, social media, forums, etc. Customer reviews can prove invaluable in judging the competence of an agency, and they’re even more trustworthy when they’re posted on a platform that has no affiliation with the agency - it means they are less likely to be biased or triaged to only the most optimistic opinions.
However, it might prove difficult or impossible to stumble upon written reviews of the agencies you’re interested in. If that happens, there’s several solutions you can try, depending on how much effort you’re willing to invest in this:
- Contact the agency’s former and/or current clients for referrals (whether you find their contact details on your own or ask the agency to provide them is up to you)
- Use online platforms to gather information (such as Quora or Yelp)
8. Social Media Profiles And Commentary
Another good source to find out what others are saying about an agency is looking at their social media profiles and activity. Any self-respecting agency (and any company for that matter) should at least have a business LinkedIn profile, but a Twitter and Facebook presence are quite important too.
A good LinkedIn profile should contain all the essential information about the agency, and it will be like a concise version of their official website. It can have photos of the company, recommendations from clients, and even special content for this professional platform, such as news about the agency, or informative and educational content as part of their internal marketing strategy. It can (should) also be connected with all its staff members - you may want to look into them and their individual skills and experience too.
Search for social media mentions, and see what others say about the agency. But consider the fact that a social media comment about a brand may be more impulsive and emotion-driven. The process and attitude are different from that of a customer who sits down at the computer with the intention of reviewing a product or service. As such, opinions expressed here may be more extreme, both in delight and disappointment.
Look at what the agency shares on their profiles, how active they keep, whether they interact with their followers or other brands, and so on. This is a good way to tell what the agency’s focus is, whether they keep an eye on industry trends, if they boast any new successful projects, etc. Their social media can also provide insight into what their customer service looks like, if they use it for support as well. See how they deal with upset customers, how timely and in what tone they reply to questions posted on their pages, what lengths they go to in order to solve issues.
9. Check If They Have A Blog
It’s definitely not a downside if a digital agency doesn’t have a blog, but it can be a plus. Use the opportunity to see what kind of content they share, and how qualitative or valuable it is. A blog can provide insight on whether the agency keeps up to date with emerging trends in the industry (or referring particularly to the service you need). It’s an even better sign if they manage to position themselves as thought leaders and influencers.
An active, updated blog indicates behind it is a dedicated team who is passionate about the industry and is continually learning. If you’re looking for content strategy services, posts on the blog are a clue on the quality of content creation they do; if you need SEO services, you can get an idea of how they handle optimization on their own pages, and so on.
But a blog also denotes the agency is interested in educating and nurturing their clients and prospective leads, which could mean they are quite savvy in strategizing for retention, upsell, conversion, and lead generation.
C. The Hiring Process [Getting It Right]
At this point, you’re getting closer to coming in contact with the agencies you might hire, and there are several steps you should try to go through. However, keep in mind that what I’ve listed below may not be applicable to everyone’s situation, so use them as guidelines that you can adjust based on your circumstances.
10. Narrow Down To A Manageable List
Start with a very wide search, so you can examine as many different agencies as possible. The more information you gather, the more experience you’ll get in assessing agencies. Eventually, you should be able to narrow it down to a handful of digital agencies that you’ll want to contact and discuss with.
Negotiating with a few agencies in parallel will give you an idea on quotes, techniques used, their strong points and weaknesses, on how they treat clients, and so on. But you don’t want a list that’s too long either, you want a few really good candidates that you like and have a good shot at being the agency you’re looking for.
11. Prepare Your Questions
Being thorough with the questions you ask will allow you to have more control over the hiring process. Large companies especially have trained salespersons whose job it is to convince you to sign with them. To make sure you don’t get sidetracked and perhaps even misdirected, having a few clear points/ questions you want to go through will maintain discussions on the path you prefer. You come off as the professional that you are, while managing to keep tabs on all the details you need for an informed decision.
12. Treat It Like Any Other Staff Hire
In order to manage the situation better, treat your negotiations with agencies same as you would the hiring process of a new staff member. After all, you’ll have to work closely with the people assigned to your project, so you want to make sure they’re a good fit not only based on quality of services, but on your company culture, and even personal expectations. This approach will also allow you to align your hiring process to one that you might already have in place, for better management of the information you’ll gather - especially when comparing several agencies.
13. Find Out What Type/ Size Clients They Usually Work With
An important part of deciding whether an agency is a good fit for you is looking at the types of clients they take on. For instance, big agencies may deal primarily with large clients who can afford hefty budgets and campaigns. This could mean there is bias in their favor. The agency would do their best not to disappoint a large customer, so willingly or not, they would spend more time on this type of project. Of course this is not a rule, but rather a possibility, in which case you want to look towards agencies that usually work with clients your size and budget.
14. Ask To See A Full Client List
This will not only give you an idea of the company’s experience - though this might not weigh as much if individual staff members have more previous experience -, but you’ll also be able to see whether they’ve dealt with clients in your niche before. If an agency has worked with clients in your industry, it means they have valuable expertise in that area and might be able to represent you very well.
Also, you might be impressed to see big name brands on the list. But if you ask for case studies, perhaps looking at smaller clients - where the agency would probably have more freedom -, will give you a better idea of what they can accomplish. This type of information might also show you if they treat big and smaller clients differently in any way.
15. Find Out If They Outsource, And What
Outsourcing isn’t a bad thing, so you shouldn’t see it as something negative right off the bat; however, it does mean less control from you or the agency over the creation of content, design, or whatever services they outsource. Questions could also arise for a longer term project where you want to ensure the same team/people continue working on it.
If the agency you’re interested in outsources, ask for as many details as possible about the people they outsource to, what country they’re from, what they’re being paid, what their expertise is, and anything else that you might consider important.
16. Tell The Agency Exactly What Your Expectations Are
It’s important to make things clear from the beginning; this depends as much on you presenting what you need accomplished, as on the agency to decide whether they can provide results to match or even exceed your expectations. At the same time, you can look for hints that they’re a bit too eager to please you and seem to make guarantees lightly. No trustworthy agency ever guarantees results because too many factors and variables are involved - in the world of SEO, for instance.
Make it clear to the agency representative you negotiate with that you would appreciate and respect their honesty if they can’t take on your project, or perhaps a particular side of it. This will help both parties avoid a bad deal and disappointment.
17. Discuss Some Of Their Techniques
No agency will reveal their techniques in full, otherwise they’d be out of a job soon. But an agency that knows what it’s about will be open about how they would approach your project in its particularities and what course of action they think suitable for your goals. This can tell you whether the agency really considered your particular project and is offering custom services, or they’re just coming to you with a standard strategy proposal.
Again, this will also depend on your budget and needs. Perhaps you’re fine with a few standard strategies but even so, you should like to hear them talk a bit about handling your project and how they would go about bringing progress to your situation. This point of discussion can provide you with great insights on how well they understand your niche, and if there is a good alignment between what you want and what they can do.
18. Ask For A High-level Audit And Expect It To Be Free
You might ask for an audit when you want SEO services, content creation services, a website redesign, when you’ve already had a strategy in place, etc. In most, if not all cases, a surface audit report should be offered free to each potential client, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it allows the agency to see what kind of work they would be dealing with and loosely figure out the strategies they would need to implement - much like giving a diagnosis and proposing treatment. On the other hand, they should now be able to give you a more precise quote for the services they would render, which is especially important if you ask for a custom plan.
The audit would also permit them to come up with at least a few on-point observations about what would boost your current campaign, or indicate some courses of action for the future.
19. Request A Meeting With The Team
Even if you’re already convinced you want to work with a certain agency, you should never skip this step. Being able to relate to the people you’ll be working with is essential, especially if you’ll have to communicate via email or phone regularly. So although you might be dealing with a salesperson in the negotiation phase, ask to see the people you’ll be working with.
Whether you represent a big shot company that will have its own account manager, or a small business owner who wants to rank in local search, you have to be able to establish a real rapport with someone within the digital agency you’re hiring.
20. Talk About Price Ranges And Contract Terms
You will want to discuss price sooner or later. Keeping control of this discussion depends a lot on you knowing exactly what you contacted the agency for. And depending on how much control you want over the project, or how clearly you know what needs accomplished, you may have to choose between a standard plan and a custom deal.
For someone who’s never worked with a digital agency, or has little know-how on the subject of online marketing, it might be good to opt for a standard plan and learn the ropes as you go, as long as the agency is transparent about their practices and keeps you in the loop. Otherwise, a custom plan may allow you more leeway and control of how things progress.
Most agencies work on a pay-per-result basis and prefer not to tie their clients down with contracts because a project might last less, or longer than anticipated. This also allows customers to stop collaboration if they are not pleased, or continue to work with the agency even after the initial success has come and they want the agency to continue nurturing that success.
21. Negotiate, Even If You Hate It
Negotiation is a natural part of cutting deals with an agency. It is by no means the same thing as haggling, but it can involve situations like refusing other services the agency is trying to claim you need, or deciding how much control you’ll have over the project, how much transparency you want them to have on their processes, how often to be contacted, and in which situations.
Finally, of course, you can negotiate on a money level as well. In a poll conducted during a webinar on how to grow your digital marketing agency hosted by Luke Brynley-Jones from Our Social Times, when asked what factors they consider when quoting clients for a project, the majority of people said one of the biggest factors in this decision is how much they feel the client can afford to pay. Reasons like the costs of delivering a project or profit margins only came in second. This might come as a shocker, but it seems to be common practice, which means you need to be prepared for the negotiation phase and be clear - to yourself and the agency - on what your budget is.
That’s one of the reasons you’re asking quotes for, and interviewing several agencies before deciding. You get a feel for how much the services you want cost and are worth, and if skilled enough, you can even leverage one against the other.
22. See How Open They Are About Their Processes
When you’ve passed the negotiation phase, ask them to give you a template of what working with their agency would look like. This could mean you’d like a clear schedule for reporting, a timeline for results to show (an approximation, of course), how reporting would be done, who your contact person would be, etc. This can also include discussions about their working hours and availability for emergency situations.
At this point you might also establish when face-to-face meetings should occur, and when other communications should take place over the phone or by email. It’s a good opportunity to see what their availability is to your business. How often you require contact depends on you or the type of project you’re dealing with, but avoid hiring an agency that seems hesitant to communicate as often as you want, or in the manner that you want.
23. Talk About NDA's
Non-disclosure agreements exist for a reason. If you work with an agency for a long time and they gather valuable data for your company, you may want to ensure privacy is maintained even after you stop collaboration. For obvious reasons, you wouldn’t want competitors to have access to your data.
24. Ask To See Their Toolset
Although you’re not expected to fully understand how specific tools work - whether you need content marketing services, SEO, email marketing, or others -, you’ll want to at least have a high-level understanding of what they do. It might be even better to have a general idea of the best tools on the market and their prices, so you can compare with what agencies are offering.
This will allow you to determine whether they keep up to date with technology and are interested in streamlining their work and extracting data from the most reliable sources. Knowing what tools the digital agency you employ will use is also important to establishing what kind of metrics will be used to assess the evolution of your campaign. At this point you can also ask to see samples of reports they generate and determine if it’s what you would need. However, don’t let yourself impressed with fancy graphs and pie charts - first and foremost, a report needs to be useful and easy to understand.
Some agencies may allow you to choose what tools you want them to work with. If you’re paying for a custom plan, you might have (or request) decision-making power over specific tools you like. Just make sure you know what you’re asking for and that it’s within your budget. And if you’re opting for a standard package, ask to see what tools are used with it - you may not agree to using all of them, or require further explanations on how and why they’re used.
Being aware of the tools your chosen agency uses is essential to determining that the campaigns they run are data-driven, and in assessing how they use that data to achieve the goals you set together. Finally, you need to understand the tools that are used:
- make sure interfaces are easy to comprehend
- ask whether you or someone in your company get access to accounts
- request someone to train your staff in navigating them if necessary
D. Agency Resources [Where To Look]
How you find a good pool of agencies to compare and choose from is equally important to your search. It might seem daunting at first, but there are a good number of ways you can start.
25. Ask Your Peers For Guidance Or Information
People you know in your industry might have useful information to share about working with a digital agency. If it’s your first time requiring digital services, peers from your niche could point you towards agencies they’ve had good results with. They can also give you valuable pointers on what to look out for - experience is so much more telling than theory and gratis advice.
In situations like these, personal recommendations from people you know, or who have worked with the agency, are much more valuable than indirect sources. And while it’s true that what has worked for others may not work for you, you will still gain good insight on what it means to collaborate with them.
26. Stay Away From Agency “Top” Lists
It is advisable to avoid choosing from top agency lists because it’s very difficult to avoid bias in creating these hierarchies, even with the best of intentions. If you do look for top agencies of the year, or country, make sure the source is a reliable one, and check to see if the criteria for the top is disclosed. What were the terms an agency had to meet in order to make the list? If it’s generated income, for instance, it might only mean that the agency has very high prices or works only with big brands.
Either way, a hierarchy in this situation is highly disputable and subject to critique - every agency has their strengths and weaknesses, and what works for you might not work for another client. So if you do want to choose from a “top list”, don’t automatically jump at the first three positions.
27. Try Agency Resources
While there may still be some bias in agency resources - in that no resource can ever be complete, nor should it claim to be so -, it is a much better opportunity to find a wide range of agencies all in one place and be able to compare them easily. First of all, a good agency resource won’t try to claim some agencies are better than others, and will maintain bias at a minimum by providing the same amount of information on all agencies listed, allowing the user to make their own judgements and choices.
There are several good resources like that you can find online. We created one such resource at Advanced Web Ranking to help our less targeted audience who might be looking for digital services instead of online marketing advice. We tried to cover several countries where the need for digital services is continually increasing. Moz have had a list of recommended agencies for quite a while now, and they list some of the more popular agencies you may have heard about. Then there are resources like 10BestSEO, that feature each current month’s best agencies, (which, according to them, is based both on their rankings, as well as other qualitative factors like success in the industry) or Agency Spotter, who list thousands of digital agencies and even has a rating system in place.
28. Do An Online Search
This is probably the default method to finding digital agencies. But like I mentioned previously, avoid concluding that top ranking agencies are also the best ones. All the factors mentioned above are important to finding a good fit, and your online searches are only the basis of the entire project.
29. Local Isn’t Always The Best Option
Generally Speaking, It Is Much More Comfortable and helpful to work with an agency that is located near you - in the same city, or a neighboring one. But unless you’ll require face to face meetings quite often, it’s best not to limit your search geographically. A lot of things can be worked out through phone and email, and for any quarterly meetings, either you or the agency can send a representative for discussions.
One situation where location is quite important is if you need to rank locally, either in your own city, or in neighboring ones. A company like this would already have a thorough understanding of that particular market and have strategies in place to help you rank better and faster, or raise brand awareness and word of mouth for you in that area.
30. Going For Niche Agencies
If you activate in a particular industry that has a lot of competition, you can search for agencies or freelancers that specialize in that niche. They will know exactly where to begin and what needs to be done so you’re represented at your best. As with other agencies, check to see who their competitors are (so you avoid conflicts of interest), ask for case studies or success stories, testimonials, etc.
In a situation like this, going with a local agency might be better than a national one, because the former will have a better understanding of your market and there’s a smaller chance they will use a standardized plan for your strategy.
Concluding The Search
These are the main ideas you need to have in mind when you want to employ digital services and make sure you strike the right deal, with the right agency. They are of course rather general and should be taken as loose guidelines, because ultimately, the difference is in the details. How you go through this process depends on the size and type of your company, the niche you activate in, the level of competition, what you’re willing to spend on marketing, and what your ultimate goal with it is.
Moreover, they prevent you and an agency from cutting a deal that’s not beneficial for both parties, or that will be problematic in the long run. You want to avoid bad campaigns, they want to avoid dissatisfied or upset clients.
What other details would you consider when searching for and hiring a digital agency? What would convince you to choose an agency over others? Did you find this guide helpful, or have I missed something important?
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* Lead image adapted from Giacomo Carena. Other images via Pexels