There is often a trade-off between specialization and "full-service" one-size-fits-all agencies, i.e. the ability of an agency to deliver multiple services based on client needs at the time, or based on a larger, holistic strategy.
That does not mean that a given agency doesn't excel at a wide range of services, but there are certain areas you may want to pay special attention to:
Web Design vs User Experience Design
Some agencies specialize in artistic, creative web design, whereas others focus on user experience (UX) design, creating more functional, user-centered designs, often backed by user research, heatmap data, and artificial intelligence rather than more subjective and art-focused ideas and trends.
You can generally tell what type of design an agency specializes in by their homepage – if you see glitz and glamour, you can usually gauge their design specialty. Agencies focused on UX Design care more about results, KPIs, metrics – things that will actually move the needle for your organization and your users and customers, rather than simply impressing your internal marketing team and executives.
TIP: Ask your agency if they consider themselves a creative design firm or a UX design firm. They will probably say "both", but examine their service offerings, portfolio, and case studies to see for yourself.
Technical vs Not: Websites, Apps, Oh My!
Some agencies have strong internal tech teams, whereas others contract or even outsource their technical operations. If you have a reasonably complex website or app, the risk of handing it to a less-technical agency is much higher. Not only for the immediate delivery, budget, and quality of the end result, but also the long-term maintainability and future-proof nature of the technology, which can easily get you into technical debt, which can then suck away your marketing budget in the future.
TIP: Ask your agency if they contract or outsource any of their projects and if they have any specific technical platform specializations.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO comes down to writing high-quality content that matches the intent of people searching. The content you write should have both a keyword strategy and an "intent strategy" behind it. Having an agency do this for you is like asking the agency to become you. While this is certainly possible over time, best results happen when the agency truly understands SEO, deep inside their bones, otherwise your mileage may vary greatly. Furthermore, SEO works best when content creation is a partnership between the agency and your in-house teams.
TIP: Ask your agency about their SEO process and philosophy. If they say they will do and write everything for you, yet you have in-house expertise on certain topics that would allow you to write higher-quality content than they could, you should question their motives and trustworthiness.
Related to SEO is content marketing. Content marketing is a very specific method of getting content to rank highly through inbound marketing and to be linked from other websites, either through natural means or via intentional outreach and link building. Then, the content should ideally promote lead generation and be connected to email marketing. This is a fairly specialized skillset, especially if your agency is also doing your website and also doing your digital strategy and also...you get the picture.
TIP: Ask your agency how they do content marketing and link building. If it involves promoting content via social media groups, blogger outreach, as well as focusing on creating ultra-high-quality content that can outrank other content, then they may know what they are doing.
PPC and Paid Advertising
There are plenty of paid advertising consultants and agencies who can help you execute paid marketing campaigns. However, having the expertise in-house to align ad copy, creative, landing page messaging and layout, a value proposition to tie it all together, and the technical expertise to run and optimize the actual ad campaigns...that can be a tall order for an agency who doesn't specialize in paid advertising.
TIP: Ask your agency about the concept of "ad scent", and how they optimize landing pages and ad campaigns on an ongoing basis. Avoid agencies who don't understand the concept of "ad scent" (matching the messaging between ads and landing pages) or who don't have a clear optimization process in place.
2. Testimonials, Reviews, and Case Studies
Of course, you should always look for proof. Lack of proof can be a red flag, although there are good, talented agencies out there who suffer from the "cobbler's child has no shoes" problem, i.e. they are bad at doing their own marketing because they are busy serving their clients, or they rely heavily on word-of-mouth and referrals. Even these agencies, however, should be able to muster some kind of solid proof.
TIP: Don't just rely on Google Reviews. Ask the agency to provide proof and examples.
3. Honesty, Transparency, Good-Natured Character
This one's hard to measure, and the industry is rife with shady practices and agencies who are out for their own interests rather than yours...but it can be sussed out through conversations with the agency and others who have experience working with them.
Some things to consider:
- Do they offer "SEO" without clearly defining what exactly you are getting and how they go about it strategically? I.e. are they selling snake oil and only fixing technical SEO issues?
- Do they try to get you onto their own proprietary hosting platform or locked-in on any other such systems, rather than giving that ownership to you freely?
- Do reviews and testimonials speak to their character as human beings?
TIP: Use your intuition. Make honesty and human character an important deciding factor. Possibly the most important deciding factor.
4. A Focus on Metrics
Any good digital marketing agency should be focused on moving the needle for your organization, which means an emphasis on KPIs and metrics.
TIP: The agency should mention metrics and data on its website, proposal, and conversations with you.
5. Competency in Marketing Strategy
Digital marketing without a proper digital marketing strategy is wasteful and inefficient. While you may own that strategy in-house, there's nothing worse than an agency that doesn't understand or provide added value to your strategy. Marketers already have enough to do, and agencies should have strategists who are competent and helpful in following a marketing plan and meeting business needs.
TIP: The agency should list marketing strategy as a core competency.
Agencies who want to take every single task and marketing effort as their own rather than partnering with your in-house team are just in it for their own self-interests.
TIP: Seek partnership, always.
Always seek to understand the value one agency may deliver over another – value is what matters most at the end of the day. For example, if one agency prices social media management (simply posting content and keeping track of social channels) the same as social media marketing (actually doing strategic work with your social media to bring in new business and pair with your SEO efforts), you shouldn't take these two price points to be apples-to-apples.
TIP: Don't buy simply on price – always consider value. Ask agencies to clearly explain the value behind their pricing.
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Sometimes the client gets hung up on very specific details that, while they may matter a bit, they matter orders of magnitude less than the factors listed above.
1. Industry Experience
While some industries do have special needs and eccentricities, they tend to be more of a comfort for the client than an actual, tangible asset to most projects. Certain industries like healthcare and the financial industry have tight regulations on advertising and how customer data (PII) is used, such as HIPPA compliance. The same with higher education and other industries that serve the public – accessibility via ADA compliance is important.
However, a smart, technical agency with experience in other or related industries can quickly come up to speed on your particular requirements and regulations – any serious digital marketing firm should have a solid understanding of ADA compliance, regardless of which industry they serve, for example.
Design is one area where it can matter. Designing a website for a college or university obviously requires a different aesthetic than a B2C flashy website with an e-commerce component.
TIP: Have a conversation with the agency about industry experience. It probably doesn't matter as much as you think it does, unless it comes to design.
2. Experience with Specific Technical Details
If an agency is highly technical, has UX design experience, and CRO experience, and has experience with e-commerce in general but not your specific platform, which is one of a hundred similar platforms, it's probably not a big deal. The agency can handle it, and has likely learned many things from working with a variety of e-commerce platforms rather than specializing in one or a small subset.
Another example is an ultra-specific detail that seems important to the client, such as "experience migrating Drupal to WordPress with a site that is X pages in number", but is actually not a relevant detail to the success of the project. I.e. if the agency has experience migrating hundreds of sites to Drupal, and hundreds of sites to WordPress, many sites with hundreds of pages, a few sites from Drupal to WordPress but not with that exact number of pages...the importance of this detail is actually infinitesimally small, compared with factors mentioned before.
TIP: Don't sweat technical details that seem big to you – they are generally not a big deal to an experienced, technical agency.
Agencies – love them, hate them, can't do without them?
Many marketers have been burned by agencies before. When it comes to web design and development, we've seen so many "beautiful disasters" –- brochureware that looks gorgeous but is either technically unmaintainable, unreliable in terms of meeting business KPIs and desired results, or both. When it comes to digital marketing, we've seen luscious email campaigns and landing pages that just don't convert, and fabulous websites that bring in minimal traffic.
As a marketer, you may love gorgeous things (we do, too!) but at the end of the day your management team (should) care about results, data, KPIs, ROI, long-term cost of investment....hard numbers.
Is it possible to find an agency that can handle the creative and beautiful along with the data and KPIs your management cares about? Yes, albeit difficult.
The ideal agency is data-driven, strategic, and actively aware of and considering your business goals and KPIs. This helps you – and your business or organization – succeed.
For best results, bring in the agency as part of your team, whenever possible and however appropriate, so that they can act as good stewards of your business, gaining more of the business context and insight that you hold. An agency who wants to know, who strives to know, who wants to be a true partner, an extension of your team – that's a really good sign.
Some of the ways clients find an agency are by referrals, word of mouth, SEO/organic search, PR, speaking engagements, or paid advertising. Often this search is up to the in-house marketing team, but sometimes a small business owner will lead the search. If using a search engine, many people start with local geography, although this can be limiting. Others ask colleagues for recommendations. Yet others will look at online directories like Clutch.co.
The safest way is word of mouth, but of course that doesn't always lead to the best outcomes or variety of options. While an agency's sales and marketing teams may do the heavy lifting to bring in new clients, nothing speaks louder or carries more weight for a potential client than the word of someone who has satisfactorily worked with the agency, so don't be afraid to ask to speak to references.
TIP: Speak to agency references.
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A good agency fit comes down to three things: values, size, and budget. You probably don't want to be partnering with clients who don't share your values as an organization or as individuals. It’s important to make sure that you feel good about the work you're doing.
The next factor is size. At O8, we generally don't work with too many major enterprise organizations because they will be looking for a much bigger agency, and that likely has an international presence. Taking on the right-sized projects helps set realistic project budgets, so you don't give time away for free.
The final piece of the equation is the budget, which is very important. Having an appropriate budget for both the services, ad spend, tooling, etc., is crucial. Often, clients don't have a marketing budget in mind for their marketing needs, and that's something that comes up later. So it's essential to walk through all potential factors of a client's budget before starting a project.
At O8, we focus on partnerships and relationships. If that's not what a potential client is looking for, another company might be a better fit. One-and-done projects are not our preferred clients. However, some agencies specialize in one-off projects.
It's important to set a precedent for the types of clients you want to work with. There needs to be an open dialogue, a communicative, healthy relationship.
Again, it's crucial to have a firm grasp on the budget and size of the project. It might be too small or large for the agency's capacity. Knowing this before you get too far into the process can save a lot of time and stress
The biggest piece of advice is don't compare agencies on price alone. You can find a great deal with an agency that won't be available in an emergency after hours, or who won't get you the full range of results that you're looking for. You might get a quickly delivered, beautiful website, but it won't do anything for your company as far as conversions. It won't be easily maintainable or growth-oriented.
With agencies that build websites without purpose or technical strategy involved, you're going to accumulate technical debt, which costs more in the long run. There are hidden costs that you don't see until you actually have to make it grow and move and maintain. We recommend paying close attention to reviews and testimonials, especially when it comes to searching for the top software developers.
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What it comes down to is the partnership. Both sides in the equation need to be willing to truly partner together. Those are always the engagements that exceed both sides' expectations and turn into long-term, successful partnerships. If you respect what we do, and we respect what you do, there's a level of collaboration that comes from that which is invaluable.
One of the biggest challenges with a new client is building trust and getting to a point where you can work effectively together. Understanding who the primary contacts are between client and agency is essential as they act as the interpreter between the two parties. If clients and agencies don't have the same baseline, it makes working together particularly challenging.
At O8 we consider ourselves an "un-agency." The word "agency" has so much baggage that we intentionally do not have. If there were a word for "a business that enhances and extends your marketing team" in common vocabulary, we would use that word! But alas, we're stuck describing ourselves the best we can, and telling our stories.
Here are some of the points that make us unique as an un-agency, and why companies should think about hiring us rather than individual developers or other traditional agencies:
- Marketers should not manage developers.
- It leads to major frustration and burnout, often because they speak completely different languages.
- Your time is better spent elsewhere in your company.
- We have the technical infrastructure to:
- Make developers happy
- Hire and retain the best developers (we generally retain for at least 5 years), so your project context stays with the same team.
- These same people will be around to support the next evolution of your website and digital marketing efforts.
- You would have to hire a team of at least 11 people to have even close to the experience that an agency like ours brings:
- Chief Technical Strategist
- Technical PM (to manage the development team)
- Lead Technical Architect
- Front-end Developer
- Back-end Developer
- User Experience Designer
- Designer (who is technical enough to design for B2B websites)
- CRM Specialist/Integrator
- Lead Marketing Strategist
- CRO expert
- SEO and Analytics expert
- Business Analyst
- Even if you hired those 10 people, you might not get it right:
- In the last 10 years, we have truly hired an all-star team.
- However, it took several hard lessons and several years before we had the right hiring formula.
- With a company like ours, you get the strategy piece, as well as the marketing piece on top of strong technical foundations:
- We recommend in-person strategy meetings, generally every 2 or 3 months.
- For example, one of our clients wants to do personalization this year. Our input was critical because personalization, while a marketing concept, is also a highly technical concept that needs to integrate tightly with their website. They needed our technical minds at the table on this business-critical decision.
- This same client also routinely has SEO issues and emergencies, A/B testing questions, mini redesigns and design refreshes, menu adjustments, the acquisition of new brands and product lines, and other marketing-related issues that we can easily jump into because we are a marketing agency (that happens to have a strong technical foundation.)
- Further examples:
- The mini case-studies here explain specific situations with real stories from the trenches.
Of course, I'm biased, but I really do think we have something special here at O8. If you find an agency that's closer to you who mirrors a good amount of these traits, by all means, give them a try!