The purpose of this blog post is to help people who are wondering how to select a digital marketing agency. If you're a business owner or a marketing manager who has recognised you need some help but can't figure out how to separate the good guys from the bad, this short read will give you all the information you need to make the right choice.


Selecting An Agency, An Impartial View

Before getting into the meat and potatoes of selecting a digital partner, I want to be clear that this blog post isn't a cunningly disguised advert about why you should select us. Instead, it's an honest overview of the main considerations any business owner or marketing manager should make when looking for help improving how their organisation generates business online.

Primarily it's written for business-to-business or B2B organisations, although it will be useful for pretty much anyone. So in five minutes or so, you'll gain all the information you need to make the right choices. So let's get started.

Digital Agency People Are Nice People

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking people who run agencies and work in the digital marketing space are not to be trusted. After all, they do some things that appear to be black art, such as search engine optimisation or SEO. This is not the case.

Like you, agency owners are simply trying to create and run successful businesses and navigate their way through life. Just like your chosen expertise might be engineering, finance, or manufacturing, theirs is digital marketing.

The most important thing to remember about agencies is everyone from the newest team member right through to the people who started the businesses know their success relies on helping you create yours. Let's explore what that means.

Agencies Are Invested In Your Business

Most credible digital agencies, including us, are in the business of helping organisations like yours to grow. We care about your business and want to play a role in your success. This is an absolute truth and can be demonstrated by any reputable organisation.

Unlike some professional services businesses, the work digital marketing agencies do can be measured, and for that reason alone, they are always invested in trying to get solid results. Not getting results means the end of the engagement; we're motivated to help you.

Before digging a little deeper into this inherent desire to help you succeed, let's take a quick look at what agencies actually do.

What Digital Marketing Agencies Do

Your customers rely on a handful of options when looking to solve a business challenge or make a purchase. This is true of small organisations, SMEs and giant corporations. Commonly people either:

  1. Ask others in their immediate or extended network of contacts for advice or a referral.
  2. Search online.

When someone gets a referral to your business, the chances are the first thing they'll do is look you up online, and they'll check out your website. Your web presence should make them feel safe and comfortable when they do. A digital agency will make that happen.

However, for the most part, digital agencies like us provide services relating to the second option, where strangers find your business by using, for example, Google.

For the most part, a digital agency will ensure that people find your business when they search on Google, YouTube or a whole host of other channels, including LinkedIn and Facebook. But it doesn't stop there.

Getting found online is a big part of the problem agencies solve, but turning website visitors into an enquiry, a genuine opportunity to do business is equally important. Figuring out how to encourage visitors to your website to get in touch or make a purchase falls into a discipline known as Conversion Rate Optimisation or CRO. We explain CRO in a little more detail here.

So recognising that a digital agency provides services that go way beyond simply designing and building websites is really important. They are more akin to being a partner than a supplier, and their main focus is helping your business grow.

Focusing on finding a partner to help you grow your business is the way to select the right agency, but how do you do that?

Digital Strategy First, Tactics Second

All credible digital marketing agencies will steer initial conversations away from tactics and towards strategy. But what do we mean by that? Here's a simple illustration.

Let's say you're a marketing manager for a decent-sized SME, perhaps an engineering company. Let's assume your website traffic is poor, and when you search in Google for the things your organisation does and does really well, all you see are your competitors.

It's a common theme; we see it all the time. The main reason businesses find themselves in this position is an overreliance on referrals and repeat business; when these start to dry up, they start to pay attention to their digital presence.

Commonly when organisations approach us with this predicament, they tell us they need SEO. "Our SEO is broken; can you fix it?".

They likely need some help with SEO, amongst other things, but we're very unlikely to offer to sell them this service until we've established some basic information and developed a strategy.

Any credible agency will want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We'll ask questions such as how their website is currently performing, and by this, we don't mean the empirical evidence they've given us about how they don't appear for certain searches.

We'll take a look at all the available data, for example, the information in Google's Search Console. The point is that we will only jump straight to tactics in extreme circumstances. This might be, for example, when a business has an in-house expert who's done the hard yards, created a strategy and needs help executing it.

This approach of asking lots of questions, digging into data and developing a thorough understanding of a business is the mark of a good digital marketing agency. Also, most credible agencies will do some of this work for free, and here's why.

Should You Pay For A Digital Strategy?

You should not expect an agency to create a detailed digital strategy free of charge. But most decent agencies will do some pro-bono work. Read on to find out why good agencies will probably be happy to do free discovery work.

Earlier I mentioned that an agency only succeeds if its clients succeed. If their work results in their clients getting enquiries and securing new projects, their services will be retained, and they will benefit. Helping their clients prosper guarantees their prosperity.

This means most credible agencies will be happy to do some initial investigative work because doing this helps them understand if they are the right team for the job. Although you might think this a little strange, the best agencies will turn down work if they don't think they can get results.

Conversely, poor agencies will take any work that comes along and hope for the best!

This doesn't mean good agencies will do days of work without charging, but most will happily invest some time to establish if they're a good fit for you. It makes good business sense for both parties.

While we're on the subject of business sense, perhaps now would be a good time to look at the thorny issue of budgets.

Typical Agency Budgets

When you're setting out to select a digital agency, it's worth considering budgets. Most agencies will want to discuss the available budget as early as possible, again to establish if they are the right team for your needs.

In life, most people are comfortable with the concept of budgets. When buying a new house, you often start by considering your budget. It's the same when buying a new car. But when buying digital marketing, it's less clear-cut.

Conversations on marketing budgets are usually tricky, but they don't need to be. If you've decided to get external help with your digital marketing, you've probably discussed budgets internally, but perhaps you genuinely have no idea what things cost; why would you? So here's some guidance.

The first approach is to determine what you can afford and tell the agency. Something like, we have £2k per month available for the next twelve months. Can you work with this budget?

This helps the agency understand how much of their expertise you can afford.

Another approach is to ask the agency how much money they need to improve your digital presence so it generates business for you. This isn't a bad approach if you'd prefer not to divulge the available budget.

Typically, a good agency will know how much work is required when they've done the initial free consultancy. Once they have a feel for the work required, they might say that at £x per month, it will take twelve months to start to see results, or if you can invest more per month, we will start to see results much sooner.

Accelerated Or Gradual Change?

Where digital marketing is concerned, budgets often dictate the pace of change. For example, some businesses invest in what's often called an Accelerated Engagement. This type of project involves doing a significant amount of work in a short space of time. For example, a business that's neglected its online presence and needs to make big changes quickly might want to transform in a couple of months using an accelerated engagement. They may, for example, spend £50k over these two months to achieve their goal.

Another business that is doing OK but wants to effect change gradually might also spend £50k, but in their case, over 12 months. The first business is spending £25k/m for two months, and the second is around £4k/m for 12 months.

Ultimately, once there's an outline scope of work and an understanding of what's required to achieve the required outcomes, the budget dictates the pace. But there's a little more to it.

Minimum Budget Requirements

Although I've established that budget dictates the pace of work, most agencies will have a minimum budget requirement. That is to say, they will have a minimum investment they expect you to make to work with them. Although it may seem a little unreasonable and elitist, it's far from it. Here's a quick example that should explain their rationale.

Let's say it's been established that you need to invest £50k to create the digital presence your business needs. This might, for example, involve creating a new website, a blog complete with the first 50 posts and some promotional videos.

If your budget is £1500 per month, this work will take almost three years to complete, which makes no sense for either party. In a situation like this, the agency might suggest a budget of £5k per month, meaning the work will be completed in 10 months. But how do agencies figure out what things cost? Do they sell time? Well, some do, and some don't, so read on to find out more.

Do Agencies Just Sell Time?

To round off the subject of budgets, I'll talk a little about how agencies price their work.

Some agencies sell time. It's a well-understood, somewhat antiquated way of working and still quite common. Here's an example of how that might work on a web development project.

Let's assume an agency charges £100/hour and the design budget for the project is £2000. This means once the agency has spent 20 hours on the design, they will have to stop because the budget has been spent. If the design isn't quite hitting the spot, tough, there's no budget to do any more.

The flip side might be that the agency charges £100/hour until the design is perfect and signed off. But what if that took 100 hours? That's £10k on the design alone, and you, the client, will have to keep paying until the project is finished, no matter the final price.

Clearly, this makes no sense, either.

By far, the best approach is for an agreement to be reached on the budget for each component of the work.

This is why many agencies now provide fixed costs for specific aspects of their work, which are not directly related to the time spent. You, the client, understand your investment and the agency know what they have to deliver.

Some people find it hard to adopt this model as they want to know how long something is going to take when in fact, that's way less important than knowing what you're going to take delivery of is what your business needs.

Where budgets are concerned, you, the client, want, not unreasonably, value for money and the agency owner wants to be paid a fair price for the work her team are doing. It really shouldn't be controversial or challenging.

Ready To Select A Digital Agency?

Hopefully, this has helped you understand how to select a digital marketing agency. But for clarity, let's recap.

  • Like most people, people who work in agencies are decent, honest people who want to do great work.
  • Agencies become invested in your business and work hard to secure the results you need because that's how they become successful.
  • Good agencies will ask many questions about your business and what you want to achieve before employing tactics because good agencies work on a strategy-first basis.
  • Good agencies will do some work upfront, free of charge, to establish what you need and if they are the right people to do it.
  • Good agencies will not engage with you if they don't think they can help.
  • Good agencies charge a fair price for their work and deliver great value for money.

All of this means that to select the right agency for you, follow these steps.

  • Meet with two or three agencies to see if the chemistry is right. Dismiss those you don't think you could work closely with.
  • If the chemistry is right, decide if they seem genuinely interested in your business by noting the questions they ask. If they only talk about themselves, dismiss them.
  • Ask them to give you a high-level overview of what they think you need, free of charge. They are probably not the right agency if they won't do this.
  • Discuss budgets and be realistic about affordability. Nobody wins if engagements have to be cut short because of a lack of budget.

If you have further questions about choosing a digital agency, feel free to get in touch. We're always happy to help and share our experience and expertise.

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