Choosing an online marketing firm to work with is a scary task.

Who can you trust? How can you pick the right one? How can you guarantee that they’ll do great work? What if you hire the wrong one?

Never fear, because since late 2015 we’ve seen north of $30M in digital marketing work and helped thousands of companies connect with the digital marketing providers who we have vetted and know will do fantastic work for them.

Along the way we’ve helped a lot of people, and companies, like you figure out who to work with. It’s never easy, but it is possible.

So in the interest of spreading the knowledge and helping you make better decisions about who to hire, whether you do it through Credo or not, these are the lessons we’ve learned over the last few years about how to make the right decision about which marketing firm to hire.

Culture matters (a lot)

One of the most underrated parts of choosing the right marketing (or really, any outside) firm is culture fit. This is especially true when you’re thinking about a long term engagement to drive real growth in your business.

When I say “culture”, I don’t mean that they look like you or also enjoy ping pong in the office.

Culture is a way of working, an alignment in how you do things and how you prioritize work. If your agency is very bullish on Facebook advertising, yet your C-suite doesn’t believe that Facebook is a viable marketing channel, then the engagement is going to fail.

Similarly, if you are a decent-sized marketing team with many moving parts that plans its work a month in advance yet your consultant likes to work in an “agile” manner (meaning, no strategy) this will grate on your team and the project will not be a success long term unless they change their work style.

Culture matters more than we all think, so screen for it by asking questions around their work style as well as gauging from your interactions (are they well spoken? are they strategic? do they show up on time to meetings?) with them if they are a fit.

Domain expertise matters

Deep expertise with the marketing channel you need is incredibly important when signing with a marketing firm. This should go without saying, but we have too often see companies not go with a firm that Credo refers them to because they either are pitched by their current agency (that is doing another channel) on doing the new channel as well. The worst mistake I have seen in this area is actually going with someone’s nephew/etc because “they are good with computers”.

You might laugh, but you’d be surprised how often this happens especially with small businesses.

When you’re deciding who to hire, play close attention to their expertise, both stated and implied through clients and how they talk, and pay close attention to who asks you the deeper questions around your business and your site.

Those are the people you want to strongly consider.

Business model expertise matters

If you’re hiring, you’re running or working for a business. At the end of the day, a business survives if it can make money and make its customers happy.

If you’re hiring a marketing provider, especially an SEO provider, you need to determine how deep their experience and knowledge of your business model are. It can be very easy to get caught up in “we need more links” or “we need blog posts”, but at the end of the day you are building a business and any activities done should map towards your business goals.

With paid acquisition, knowledge of how you make money and reasonable conversion rates and spend levels to expect will help you expedite the curve to growing your revenue through those channels.

An agency or consultant with experience with your business model can not only help you fix what is not working, but can also help you prioritize (or work on themselves) the highest leverage activities first before moving on to other areas.

They pitch you the right project

You deserve to be heard and your desires for the kind of project you want deserve to be heard. At the same time, you might not necessarily be right about the kind of provider you need or the activities that will move the needle for you.

You’d be amazed at the number of businesses I have spoken with who want a solo consultant because they think it will be cheaper (hint: it’s usually not) but they also want that person to operate multiple channels, write content (or hire writers), and more.

Really, they want an in-house person. Shy of that, what they need is an agency to do all of those things, or multiple consultants across different channels.

I say all this because the providers you are speaking with should be asking you deeper questions like:

  • OK you want an SEO audit, but do you have developers to implement changes?
  • “How are you planning to measure your paid spend ROI?”
  • “Do you have writers to write the content around the keywords I identify, or do you need us to write it for you?”

Based off this you should have multiple potential providers decline to pitch the project because it’s not the right fit for them. But if they do pitch it, hopefully it is the right project that will move the needle for you and that is directly in their wheelhouse (see domain and business model expertise above).

They’re open to growing with you

Let’s be honest, we all wish our budgets were bigger. At the same time, when you’re starting off with a new marketing firm it is prudent to start off with a limited engagement to make sure that you work together well (see culture above).

This is not saying that you should start with a low budget (we advise against that), but rather that you should start with a shorter time-frame project than a 12-month retainer first, and then build up from there.

This goes hand-in-hand with them listening to you. The reality is that a shorter engagement does encourage shorter-term thinking or more restricted campaigns, but it is also true that if you’ve never invested in a certain marketing channel before then you should probably start with an audit and strategy before jumping into any work, especially ongoing work.

Get to know the different firms and figure out if they think a shorter engagement makes sense to start (eg start with a 3 month engagement even if you plan on working with them for years) so that they can build trust, and then make your decision from there.

End of the day, there is no tried-and-true locktight checklist you can go through that will ultimately determine the no-risk choice that can turn you into a market leader or help you maintain that position.

But by following the above five areas and digging deeper into them with each provider, our bet is that you’ll find one or two who stand out above the pack.

Want us to help you with connecting with the right ones, faster than doing the research yourself? Start here.