Tips for hiring a marketing agency as a small business

There are a few things to take into consideration when hiring a marketing agency to ensure you will have a smooth working relationship that will produce results for your business. We’ve asked a panel of digital marketing professionals to weigh in with their top tips for small businesses to take into consideration when hiring a marketing agency.

  1. Have clear objectives

Andrew Miller of Workshop Digital says “Be crystal clear with your marketing objectives and be ready to articulate how they translate to business success. A marketing partner should be able to incorporate your input and explain how their strategies will help you accomplish your goals. Without this guidance, there’s no guarantee that your marketing investment will pay off.”

Ivory Coats of More Marketing Firm says “Many business owners have an idea of what they would like to see but they have not delineated in clear numbers what that translates too. We work with our clients to define and benchmark progress on the front end. This helps both sides know in clear terms where things stand on marketing efforts.”

Jessica Freeman of Speak Creative states “By truly examining your marketing efforts before partnering with an agency, you position your business for more success once you do partner with that marketing agency. No one knows your brand better than you do. When you have a clear understanding of your brand, a marketing agency can come alongside you and confidently and strategically showcase what you have worked hard to build.”

Kenneth Mackay of Initiative2 says “Get the agency to explain how what they propose relates to your commercial objectives, and then monitor and measure to see whether it delivers. You can have great marketing, but if it doesn’t do what you need it to do, then it’s not great at all.”

Jordan Stevens Digital Marketing Consulting states “The one piece of advice I’d give to small businesses looking to hire an agency is to be clear about what you are hiring the agency for. Are you looking to boost traffic? Build your brand? Or are you focused on lead generation and lowering your cost per acquisition? Most agencies will have a specialty and it’s also good to align with your expectations.”

Charlotte Sheridan of The Small Biz Expert says “The best thing that you can do when looking to hire a marketing agency is to provide a really clear brief. Specify the outcomes you want, tell them about your brand, and if appropriate be exact on the deliverables. By doing this it makes it far easier to compare like for like when trying to compare proposals.”

Klara of Buzz Logic suggests “When hiring a marketing agency, be sure you start with clear objectives and goals, while also being aware of their rank of importance. When you have outlined straightforward objectives, talk in detail with the agency, and see if they are open to laying out the game plan and breaking it down into actionable steps together. Don’t simply let the agency do that part on their own. It’s important for you to get involved and know what to expect.  And don’t forget about your instinct, sometimes it tells us more than we want to admit. If you “click” with the team, chances are you’ll work easy together and reach those goals in a way that is the most fitting for both sides.”

  1. Start with an audit

Paul Hogg of Karman Digital advises “Don’t assume you will get results. Start every project with an audit and ask about the opportunities the agency has found found. Ensuring the agency has a strategy in place from day 1 with SMART targets and opportunities to achieve these will go a long way.”

  1. Trust the professionals

Lynne of Lone Armadillo Marketing & Consulting advises “When hiring a marketing agency, be sure they are not order takers. You are hiring them for their expertise. Be flexible to let them do what they do. However, be sure they start from listening, not just to the words you say, but to what you are really wanting to achieve. Our main job is to be translators. We have the subject matter expertise to understand how to get you to where you want to go, but our skill is that it might not be the way that you envisioned. Have confidence that the agency understands your business, your frustrations, your challenges and your goals.”

Nargis Jafferali of Blazon states “Using an agency that is experienced in the planning process can be invaluable. Content marketing is not just about posting stuff on socials, for example. There’s far more to it. There is a plan behind the posts, working out what topics to talk about, how often, what’s trending, what content the algorithms of those platforms favour, engagement analysis, hashtag research, language wordplay, graphic formulations…and the list goes on. Even after content is prepared, an experienced agency will be able to take a consulting approach to your plans and make recommendations for improvements and new testing areas.”

Daniel Weinbach of Weinbach Group shares “Make sure your website is perfectly structured to capture leads from your digital ads, or at minimum, to encourage conversions from page visitors. Too often our clients focus exclusively on the metrics of their ad campaigns in terms of clicks, click-through rates, engagement, etc. However, they fail to invest the time and thoughtfulness into the user experience on their own websites. Likewise, they often fail to ensure user behavior on their site can be effectively measured. This usually requires simple installation of Google site tags and pixels from Facebook. Remember, as digital marketers, we can lead the horse to water, but the client needs to have the tools in place to make the horse drink.”

Dana Hewling of Bid Creative says “As a business owner, it’s understandable that you want to maximize your investment and want to get the most returns in the shortest time possible. But the thing is that there are aspects and processes that cannot/shouldn’t be rushed if you want to get the best from your marketing. Before committing to working with an agency you need to be willing to trust the process and trust the experts that you are hiring to deliver.”

Stella Martin of Clickmatix says “A digital marketing agency knows the potential customer to reach out to. They know how to set up your social media accounts to get the people to engage. They know how to implement CRO into your SEO for better sales. They know how to use the marketing funnel and land the customer on landing pages, They know how to use CTAs and create leads. In today’s situation, hiring a digital marketing agency is full of benefits for your company.”

  1. Do your research

Geneviev McMullen of TALK Agency says “There are so many agencies out there to choose from. Some service niche industries, others feel their skills are best aligned with major corporations while some focus solely on one area of expertise. Clearly define what you want out of an agency before doing your research.”

Ravi Davda of Rockstar Marketing adds “But before you hire an agency, understand the different services you offer and what would be best for your business. Do you need sales asap? Then you probably want to look at paid advertising. If you’re already making sales and want to build a brand long-term, SEO is probably right for you. Know this before you hire.”

Paul Granger of Website Promoter says “Educate yourself on the basics of SEO before you employ someone to implement the tasks, this way you can track your progress and piece of mind you are moving closer to your goal and not throwing money down the toilet.”

Eric Ang of One Search Pro Marketing advises “Not all agencies provide holistic marketing solutions. Depending on your goals, you might want a one-stop marketing agency that provides everything from SEO and SEM to email marketing, content marketing, social media marketing and website development. That’s why it’s vital that you do research on the services they offer.”

Tim Absalikov of Lasting Trend adds“The most important indicator is the level of sales after implementation of these online promotion channels. This metric can be evaluated via end-to-end analytics. If it is not installed, it is possible to focus on targeted conversions, for example, the number of calls, product additions to the cart, or online requests.”

  1. Know your target audience

Andrea McFarland of 61 Marketing shares “Know your audience and who you’re wanting to reach. Agencies frequently ask businesses this question and the answer is inevitably, everyone. If you’re marketing to everyone your message is likely resonating with no one.”

Hagop Lmasdounian of H & Co Agency says “Owners typically rely on the marketing agencies to tell them what to do, but more often than not the agency does not understand the intricacies of their vertical. so it’s important that you as a business owner have a solid idea of exactly who your customer is, and what your competition is doing. It sounds trivial I know, but businesses often don’t have a written idea of their target market and their competitive advantages.”

Henry Bramwell of Visionary advises “Before any small business hires a digital marketing agency, they should research who their ideal customers are. These Buyer Personas help identify the types of people who can benefit from your products and the challenges you help them solve. Knowing the motivations and purchasing habits of your customers will allow you to target different groups appropriately.”

  1. Ask if you are unclear

Dan Ketterick of IronTek Solutions states “A partner interested in helping will take the time to review and cover your questions, and the questions will help your agency know how to better help you down the road. We see hesitation to ask clarifying questions at all stages of working with clients. The earlier we can get to those questions, the better we can help our customers.”

Dustin Robertson of Rank Rise Marketing says “One of the biggest mistakes I see small businesses make is not asking about optimization rates for marketing agencies fees. Generally, this optimization rate affects pay-per-click(PPC) marketing the most, and many small businesses get their marketing budget taxed to death by it.”

  1. Check out their website and social media

Brett Prentiss of Instinct Marketing suggests “I would look at their current agency’s website. How you do one thing is how you do everything. If their website is not at a high level and better than their local competitors, why would you settle for less than the best?”

Angus Chang of Hextto states “Someone who is an SEO/Social Media/Marketing expert of any kind should have a decent level of accomplishment with their own social media and SEO accounts. And if they don’t. It’s not a good sign.”

CourtneyDonohue of NH Strategic Marketing advises “One tip that we always give to prospects when they’re looking for a marketing agency is to find one that practices what they preach. If you’re looking for a marketing agency to redo you website but their website isn’t visually appealing or ranking well for SEO, they’re not a good agency for you to choose.”

Matt Liss of Blue Water Marketing shares “An important factor to consider when hiring a digital marketing agency is how successful they have been on their own SEO and driving organic traffic. Do they only rank for brand keywords? Do they rank for purchase intent keywords? Have the rankings grown organically? My tip would be to use Ubersuggest or HypeStat Analyzer chrome extension that checks out organic traffic. If the company has not successfully reached these goals why should you expect them to do it for you?”

  1. Be wary of guaranteed results

Tyson Bell of Octiv Digital says “Time and time again I speak with small business owners who have hired past marketing companies who claim things like get on the first page of Google in 30 days or we have a special partnership with Google. While a good marketing company can get you to the first page (depending on your keywords and competition), it is never a guarantee.”

Rachel Matos of Blue Lotus Collective advises “Any agency that promises you a certain amount of followers by a certain date isn’t legit. Growing an organic following takes time, commitment, and patience. There are many different variables that lead to growing a following online. There is no direct route, unless you buy followers and you certainly do not want to go that route.”

Nathan Kelsey of Make Me Local says “Sweeping guarantees are easy to make, so ensure you find an agency that analyses data to make smart predictions and strategies that are the right fit for your business. A good agency will manage your expectations and understanding from the start.”

  1. Review their previous work

Ingrid Deon of word-craft inc. states “My number one tip would be to look at past examples of the marketing agency’s work, whether that’s getting formal case studies of just asking for a list of campaigns they worked on and what exactly their role was in the campaign. You can learn a lot about an agency by checking out their work!”

Ricky Shockley of Shockley Marketing adds “If the agency can’t show you tangible and meaningful results (marketing efforts that generated leads and sales) then you’re better off going elsewhere.”

KollinLephart of Destination MPR says “One tip I have for small businesses looking to hire a marketing agency is to ask for case studies and examples of work. You want to make sure the agency you’re hiring offers quality work, and that is one way to guarantee they do just that.”

Maggie Simmons of Max Effect Marketing advises“Examine their portfolio and read what their clients have to say about them in testimonials. How do their clients appear on social media and in web design? Do they have a diverse portfolio? Have they worked with a client in your industry? Do all of their clients have the same appearance? You want to work with a company that offers a wide range of services.”

  1. Be open to new ideas

Aacini Huerta of Ante Meridiem states “In my experience, the number one limiting factor is a reluctance to change the way that they are currently doing things, from a communications perspective. It won’t matter how much money you throw at a marketing agency, if you are unwilling to follow recommendations you might as well be burning fistfulls of cash.”

  1. Find a team who will get to know your audience deeply

Afton Brazzoni of Scribe National says “Informative, useful marketing gives your audience a positive impression of your brand as a reputable and helpful resource. But to create this kind of marketing content, you first need to know your customers and their needs well.

Your marketing partner should ask about your audience’s demographics, psychographics, challenges, goals and past experiences that may lead to obstacles to buying from you. The content writing services you choose should involve gathering feedback and sketching a road map to help reach your clients in the most effective way possible. They need to go full Indiana Jones on this dig, diving deep and researching thoroughly.”

Kimmy Bell of Creative Drinking Agency explains “A real estate broker is less in need of a TikTok presence and more in need of a strong website with testimonials and SEO. A clothing brand could use an influencer and social strategy vs a local commercial presence. Honing in on how your clientele will learn about you, and engage in needed content is incredibly important for meaningful results.”

George Belletty of Mango & Coffee says “Local digital marketing agencies are better aware of the consumer patterns of the local market. Also, it would give businesses a chance to get in touch with them in person. You also have better opportunities to be a part of the strategizing process.”

Jason Pratt of Prattify states “Hire a marketing agency based on the one that can truly get behind what drives you and most importantly, your company. For them to be effective, they need to get excited about what you are selling. Once you find the right fit, follow their lead and stay connected, and don’t be afraid to push them.”

Tracey Munn of Kariza Marketing adds “Ensure that the Digital Marketing Agency has experience in researching local competitors and understands omni-channel strategies for becoming the dominating business in a specific industry.”

Jay Vics of JVI Mobile Marketing says “If a business hires an agency and they don’t know who they are targeting, the proper messaging for their audience, and the strategy, tools/tactics, and metrics ahead of time, the relationship is doomed from the start, and shame on the marketing agency for not making this the first thing they do to help the small business.”

  1. Get to know the agency and their team

Dan Salganik of VisualFizz advises “Though it can sometimes be more time-consuming, our recommendation is to build a relationship with the agency and understand how their do business. Many agencies have high quality and competent employees, but some of the most costly aspects of partnering with an agency is ensuring that you can work with them and trust them with your brand.”

Carla Williams Johnson of Carli Communications states “Working with the wrong people can make the process painful so ask yourself: Is their corporate culture in sync with yours. How do they do things or interact with others? This may be the very thing that sets one agency apart from the other.”

Amy Zwagerman of The Launch Box says “Hiring a marketing agency is akin to taking a leap of faith, so the best thing you can do for your business is meet with the person or persons you will be working with a few times to make sure 1) you like them, 2) they understand your business, and 3) are willing to engage in a two way dialogue. Put another way, if an agency contact can’t convince you they know your business or, worse yet, argue with you about it, they most definitely won’t be able to communicate anything about it correctly to your customers.”

Tracey Hennah of My Engine Lab advises “Looking for a partner aligned with your unique culture and values is essential when hiring an agency partner. After all, you’re about to enter into one of your most important professional relationships; you’re about to expand your work family.”

  1. Ensure expectations are met

Todd Friedman of Altura Digital Solutions says “You need to make sure that both parties are clear and in agreement on expectations from the very beginning. The client should know what to expect from the agency in terms of production, KPIs, and timelines. In turn, the agency should be able to rely on the client if/ when needed. For example, when starting out, the client should be available to assist the agency in acquiring needed assets and login credentials to ensure an on-time launch.”

Alex Carter of MaxExposure Business Solutions states “There are multiple components that go into a marketing process, it’s not just one thing. Sometimes, small business owners think they just have to post to their social media channels or invest in SEO and that’s it. A marketing process is much more complex.”

Krizia Duenas of RAD Web Solutions says “We recommend getting a good content plan to start with and getting a contract put in place specifying deliverables.”

Stuart McClarty of Ambio Media adds “Next, look for a breakdown of the costs and ensure a timeline is in place to complete the work, this way you have an agreed-upon schedule for the work to be completed and know every task the agency is completing for you. If you’ve got this far you’re on to a winner, ensure close communication throughout and until completion of the work.”

Richard Burner of Goals Marketing shares “Understand which metrics the agency plans to track, and how they report the numbers to you. Based on the goals of your business certain metrics will be more important in showing growth in the direction of that goal. It’s very important that the agency tracks the right metrics, and it’s important that they communicate openly. There are many ways they can report, but it’s crucial they do so with integrity.”

Jacob Fitzpatrick of Fitz Designz says “One bit of advice I have for small businesses looking to hire a digital marketing agency is to understand expectations and goals. How will the digital marketing agency track the success of their efforts, and how will they share that information. Your goals as the business owner, whether it be to increase sales, brand awareness or lead generations, needs to be a part of the strategic plan and campign optimazations.”

  1. Don’t shop around for the lowest price

Bailey Floyd of Bais Creative & Public Relations advises “While a lower monthly retainer fee can seem appealing for small business owners, especially in the beginning stages, having a seasoned freelancer or agency whose creative methods are known to drive big results can be the difference in seeing the ROI your brand is looking to accomplish.”

Simon Brisk of Click Intelligence says “Expensive does not necessarily imply better. And I do not suggest anyone blindly sign a contract with the most expensive firm on the list. Businesses should, alternatively, not keep cost at the forefront of their marketing decision and look into which agency will best fulfill their needs. They should look into the agency’s reviews, success rates, response time, project duration, etc. The cost, high or low, will likely recover with revenue streams once the campaign results flow in.”

Maria Arinkina of Living Proof Creative advises “The major tip would be searching for industry experts who offer a reasonable price per quality ratio. Although you may have a limited budget, opting for “no-name” companies with fairly cheap pricing might not bring you the needed results. So if you’re running a small business, aim at receiving an individual approach from an agency that already has experience in promoting a business with similar specifics.”

Alex Membrillo of Cardinal Digital Marketing says “When considering hiring a digital marketing agency it is key to have a budget in mind. This budget can be based on a variety of factors, such as available funds, a percentage of profits reinvested into marketing, and a cost per acquisition / conversion budget.”

  1. Verify the strategic approach

Rob Knapp of Rob Knapp Design states “Don’t pay a premium for strategy only to receive lukewarm tactical approaches to branding, marketing, and advertising. Many agencies claim to be strategic but work within predefined frameworks. They leverage ready-made solutions that operate more like turnkey systems than laser-focused individual strategies.”

Lisa Apolinski of 3 Dog Write says “A cookie cutter approach to digital marketing is a recipe for mediocre results. Look for a marketing agency that customizes strategies to your business versus selling you someone else’s strategy.”

Samuel Adams of SeedSpark states “When a small business is searching for a digital marketing agency, they should be sure that the marketing team that they are working with understands their company’s history, goals, and the unique value proposition that they provide. Digital marketing agencies often resort to generalized content that doesn’t capture the essence of a company or the value that it brings, creating a lackluster online presence that doesn’t bring any kind of personality into the marketing efforts.”

Justina Lucas of 218 Creative says “Small businesses should always choose an agency that starts their work by developing a marketing strategy for the business. While it may be appealing and feel productive to work with an agency that is willing to jump right into tactics like social media content development or ads, it’s critical that the time is taken to develop a clear strategy first.”

Maria Ranallo of El LinKe states “I think it’s important for small businesses to find an agency that is going to help them implement, not just drop off a strategy and walk away. Ideally, the right partner for you will want to follow through on a strategy and transfer some knowledge to the client.”

  1. Find an agency that serves a niche

Oliver Feakins of Trusted Marketing Agency advises “Small businesses often get shoved to the side when looking to hire a marketing agency because most agencies want to work with name-brand companies. The bigger the company, the better they say. Small businesses are just as important, and they need to be the ones in charge when hiring an agency. So our tip at Trusted Search Marketing would be to find a marketing agency that has experience with small businesses and are determined to take the time to learn about your brand. If you don’t feel they are doing that, keep looking for an agency. When you find an agency that believes in and loves small businesses, you will reap the benefits.”

Casey Preston of Stratosphere states “Small businesses should look for industry expertise as the deciding factor when hiring a marketing agency. Having someone on your side who knows your industry’s unique requirements very well is something you can always rely on. You can easily learn about their expertise by looking for something like a portfolio page or case studies on their website.”

Claire Judge of Join the Dots Agency advises “It may sound obvious but hire one that’s lead by marketing experts who have worked in the industry. By this I mean an expert who has worked client side for years and looks at the strategic goals of the client’s business, and the various ways marketing strategy can help, and then provides the digital marketing solution.”

Karli Jaenike of Wild Idea shares “Hire an agency that specializes in 1-2 things, not a ‘ones size fits all’ agency. Hiring an agency of specialists will ensure you get the best results because their focus and expertise is concentrated in one area.”

Lyn Rundell of HERO Marketing states “The tip I give anyone looking to hire an agency is make sure you are the right sized fish for the agency’s pond. Hiring an agency that is too large for your needs is expensive and usually means you get the B Team. And if they’re too small, you will likely be frustrated by an inability to work to the level of your needs.”

  1. Watch for red flags

Annette Choti of Law Quill says “Make sure that the marketing agency does not require full up-front payment for a locked-in contract lasting several months.”

Tera Broaddrick of All My Web Needs advises “As you review your options, make sure you get information on the expected return on investment. Many agencies will try to keep the focus on how many clicks you get, but what really matters is the money earned from a campaign. I often say that I’d much rather get you 10 clicks and 9 sales than 1,000 clicks and 8 sales.”

Jay Berkowitz of Ten Golden Rules says “Make sure the agency shows you data. Ask them to see the reporting they do for clients. Digital marketing is a precise, measurable business. It is not about Social Media posts and single SEO results, they should be oriented to the number of leads and new clients they generated for their clients.”

Sarah Jayne Gipson of Gumas shares “Be cautious of agencies that have a one-size-fits all SEO strategy. Small businesses require individualized strategies that help them take on their industry gorillas and win. Competing with bigger brands for the same keywords and search traffic is often a fool’s errand. Make sure that any SEO agency you hire presents you with strategies on how to rank for terms the big guys are ignoring.”

Sydney Addis of The Inspiration Agency says “One tip for small businesses looking to hire a marketing agency is to not be fooled by “pretty analytics. What I have seen time after time is these large agencies creating beautiful analytics aimed at luring new clients in but then neglecting to show anything relating to real goals. Data can be used in anyone’s favor if you don’t know what you’re actually looking for. Once I had a client who wanted to outsource their AdWords to another company while we still did the rest of their digital marketing. What I saw was a beautiful dashboard my clients were overly impressed with but I couldn’t find anything related to how people used the site once on it. It was missing average site time, bounce rate, pages per session, conversions…. really anything you would want to be monitoring when creating ads. What was shown was big numbers like impressions and clicks that look impressive but this simply meant was that it was attracting the wrong type of person as over 90% of users who clicked the ad bounced immediately.”

  1. Look for transparency

Will Rico of CommonMind states “Pick an agency that both gives you ownership of the assets you’re developing together and shares knowledge so that you and your team can learn from the experience. Ultimately, you want a win-win experience for both yourself as the small business and the agency. Achieving that goal depends on having a transparent collaborative relationship on both sides.”

Pamela Wagner of Ajala Digital says “Transparency is key. Will you have admin access to all ad and analytics accounts or does the agency only provide partial access? Owning your data is crucial in times of GDPR and data privacy. As such, you should be the main admin in all marketing-related accounts that you used.”

  1. Make sure the agency gives you ownership over assets

Barbara Dittert of Volume Nine states “Make sure your agency sets you up as the owner of all of your accounts. If you are switching agencies, make sure your first agency sets you up as an owner before you tell them you are moving in another direction.”

In conclusion, there are a ton of details to take into account when hiring a marketing agency for your small business. From managing expectations in a transparent manner to effectively knowing your business and target audience to clear reporting. It comes down to doing your research, seeing what other’s have to say about the agency you plan on working with and at the end of the day, going with your gut.