Are you having a tough time finding The One? When you scroll through online profiles, do you have trouble discerning the sincere candidates from the unscrupulous ones? Are you wary of someone taking advantage of you or wasting your time? 

You’re not alone. Plenty of ecommerce business owners and stakeholders, ready to take their online marketing to the next level, struggle when it’s time to choose their agency partner. 

If this all sounds eerily similar to romantic relationships, steel yourself for plenty more overlap. In fact, there’s so much overlap that we’re going to hammer the dating metaphor straight through to the end of this blog post! Sit tight and we’ll teach you everything you need to know about spotting a keeper, asking the right questions, avoiding red flags, and more. 

Setting the Scene: Your Candidates  

If you’re a business owner or stakeholder looking for an agency, it’s usually the marketing agency’s responsibility to impress you — not the other way around. Lucky you! You’ll now be known as The Bachelor(ette). Your job is to pick your perfect agency out of a pool of attractive and fairly identical-looking candidates who are all vying for your heart. 

While this may seem like a desirable position to find yourself in, your job isn’t easy. It’s hard to know what the long-term reality of your relationship will look like when your candidates are all putting their best face forward. Further, you face the omnipresent threat of the agency that isn’t Here for the Right Reasons — which can be hard to distinguish from a genuine keeper. 

Stay the course and trust the process, friend. You can lean on a number of tried-and-true strategies to maximize your chances of finding the perfect match. 

Understand What You Want  

Hand-wringing deliberation will come later; these early stages favor ruthless efficiency. Take your cues from the early episodes of reality dating shows, when the lead whittles 25 contenders down to a much more manageable ten or so. To make the right choice while moving at speed, the lead must come prepared with a set of criteria narrow enough to exclude around 60% of the candidates without too much trouble. 

Follow a similar rule of thumb as you embark on your own journey, creating a list of basic criteria that will let you rule out a portion of your candidate pool automatically: 

  • Are you looking for a small, medium-sized or large agency? 
  • Should your agency have focused expertise in startups, small businesses, medium-sized businesses, large businesses or enterprise brands? 
  • What services do you need? Is it important for you to find an agency that does all of them, or are you willing to work with multiple agencies? 
  • Is there a particular market or location your agency should know well? An industry? A business type (B2B, B2C, ecommerce, brick-and-mortar, etc)? 
  • What is your budget? 
  • What are your goals? 

If some of these questions aren’t relevant or you don’t have a clear preference, that’s okay. We’re just using this list to narrow down our early set of contenders, so use what works and modify what doesn’t. And if you spot a great-looking agency that doesn’t tick off every box on your list, ask them about it! 

Industry-specific expertise, for example, poses a quandary. First, agency websites are unlikely to list every industry or business type they’ve ever worked with, for the simple reason that they’d have to list hundreds of them. Second, lacking experience in a particular industry doesn’t always preclude an agency from being the right fit for your business. At the end of the day, their experience in their own industry makes the difference — that’s what allows them to tailor strategies to you. 

So the best thing to do is ask, then decide whether the answer satisfies you. And like any good suitor, know when to compromise. Skills are non-negotiable; other wants or needs might have more give. 

Don’t Ignore Agency Website Red Flags 

While you’re still in the mass culling phase, scour each digital marketing agency’s website for red flags.

It’s fairly common for marketing agencies to devote more time to managing client campaigns than their own marketing. But a decent agency will channel resources to internal marketing too — because in the words of the great Ru Paul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” 

You’re right to expect your prospective agency’s website to hit a a certain bar. At a minimum, a digital agency’s website should: 

  • Be well-designed and up to date 
  • Use clear, compelling language 
  • Articulate the agency’s services specifically, not vaguely 
  • Avoid splashy, unsupported promises 
  • Provide easy access to work examples and data-backed case studies 
  • Have an “About Us/Who We Are” page that doesn’t keep the company’s staff, location or history shrouded in mystery 

Website red flags include: 

  • Consistently poor spelling or grammar 
  • Case studies or work examples you can’t actually click on 
  • Evidence that the website has been neglected for some time: content is outdated, links are broken, key pages return 404s 
  • Negative reviews or consumer complaints when you Google the agency 
  • The website uses the “We” pronoun (ex – “We’re a digital agency that drives results”), but you can’t find any evidence of an in-house team 

Ultimately, the website’s transparency or lack thereof is the biggest indicator of whether your prospective agency is everything it claims to be. Legitimate agencies will be proud to walk you through their process, show you their results, introduce you to the team, and share what makes them tick. 

Research Your Marketing Agency Prospects

In studying the client/agency relationship, researchers found that four primary factors influence success: work products (the quality of work produced); work patterns (whether project management and communication styles align); organizational factors (satisfaction with the agency as a company); and relationship factors (the chemistry between the client and the team they’re working with). 

Keeping this in mind, spend a little more time with each prospective agency’s website. Look for clues about how the agency measures up agaubst those four key factors. 

  • Work Products: Browse the resources the agency provides for free. Read blog posts and download ebooks. Are you satisfied with the quality? 
  • Work Patterns: You might be able to find some clues about the agency’s workflow and communication style. Pay attention to process descriptions, mentions of tools used, and whether there are project managers on the team. 
  • Organizational Factors: Do you like the values espoused by the brand? Good agency websites won’t just talk up how great they are; they’ll talk about what actually drives them. 
  • Relationship Factors: This one’s tougher to determine from the website alone. You might be able to pick up some clues from the voice and tone of blog posts; but for the most part, reserve your judgement until you start speaking with a representative. 

Ask the Tough Questions 

Finally, we arrive at the 1×1 date: the moment when you’ll engage in conversation with your prospective agency. The questions you ask during this stage can play a critical role in whether you ultimately achieve the outcomes you’re looking for. Use the same four factors as before to guide your questions.  

Questions you may want to ask your prospective agency include: 

  • My goals are X or I’m facing Y problem. What is your agency’s approach to meeting this goal or addressing the issue? 
  • Have you encountered this goal or concern in the past? What were your results? 
  • Is my budget reasonable for a project of this scope? 
  • What industries and business types do you typically work with? 
  • How do you track and report on ROI?  
  • Can I see work samples? 
  • Who will be working on my account? 
  • What does the onboarding process look like?   
  • How much flexibility is there to customize the services you offer? 
  • Is your whole team in-house or do you contract work out? 
  • How will the team communicate with me? How often? When I have a question, how soon can I expect a response? 
  • Will I be in direct contact with the person/people performing the work, or will communication be routed through an account manager? 
  • What tools and services does the team have access to? 
  • Does your team engage in ongoing education? What kind? 

Most of these questions don’t have right or wrong answers. There are only answers that are compatible or incompatible with your preferences. 

…And Listen Carefully to the Answers 

Of course, you’re not just looking for the answers themselves. Throughout the conversation, pay attention to how well the agency manages expectations. The ones with your best interests at heart won’t shy away from the answers you don’t want to hear, even if promising the moon would close the sale faster. 

For example, talk to any SEO specialist and they’ll tell you how much they hate the question “When can I expect to see results?” because the answer depends on so many things that are out of the specialist’s control. But during your early conversations with the agency, it’s still worth asking this question just to watch how the answer is handled.

The reality is, it’s going to take awhile. Viral or timely pieces of content might see near-immediate results, but for on-site optimization to hit a revenue-shifting groundswell, expect to wait at least 3-6 months. And if you’re not actively working on other marketing efforts, stretch that timeline out indefinitely. 

That’s not easy information to hear. And it’s not easy news to deliver. But good sales representatives and digital strategists care deeply about setting realistic expectations, because they care deeply about people. They care about the business owner, who should have full information before commiting to a project. They care about their fellow team members, who will have to struggle with unattainable goals or answer to disappointed clients if expectations aren’t aligned.  

SEO ROI is just one example of a sticky subject. Tough truths can be found in every marketing channel, and they’re notorious for lurking in high-level conversations about budget and timing. Suss them out. They’re a sign that you’re working with a keeper. 

Be Ready for an Agency Partnership

You’re finally ready to close the deal! But before you slip that shiny contract onto your agency’s finger, remember that great results require a commitment from both of you, not just the agency.

Each digital channel (SEO, paid search, social media, email, PR, design, content, etc) is part of an ecosystem. The ROI for each channel is influenced not just by the work put into that channel, but by the ecosystem as a whole. If that ecosystem isn’t healthy, the individual channel will be saddled with a significant handicap — and its ROI will reflect that. 

When you purchase a marketing service, your odds of success increase exponentially when you understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. The more effort you put into your marketing strategy as a whole, the more those individual channels can flourish.  

Best of luck in your search for The One! And if you think you just might have found that in Grow With Studio, introduce yourself — we’d be thrilled to join you on your journey.