When searching for inbound marketing services, you should have one main question on your mind:
"How do I choose the right agency for me: the one that will work well with my company, help me move toward my goals, and produce concrete ROI for the money I've invested?"
Before you even approach a company, you can do some recon-type research to learn more about them.
Content - Is their content production regular, consistent, and high quality? If you decide to use their content writing services, that's the kind of writing you will get (though the voice should be targeted to your buyer personas).
Content can also reveal a lot about the agency's personality. Some agencies are more strictly business, some have a sense of humor, some are simply not going to mesh with your company's personality. This doesn't have to make or break your decision, but it should be something you consider since you'll be working with them for a while.
Portfolio - Look through their past clients if they have a portfolio on their site (they should). What industries do they seem to target? Do they offer any case studies you can read? How do you feel about what you see? If they work with other businesses in your industry, they'll probably have some prior knowledge about the kind of content you need and how to attract your best customers.
An agency's website content and portfolio can tell you a lot about your compatibility right off the bat. If you've looked over their website and you want to get to know them a little better, here are some questions you should ask. In no particular order...
1. Who are your best clients and why? (Results or Work Relationship)
"Success" can come in a few forms: biggest results, most ROI, best working relationship, etc. - ask about what matters most to you. Would you prefer to form a symbiotic relationship that brings both ROI and a long-term partnership? Or, are you purely results-focused and don't care who they are, as long as they get the job done?
2. How and when will we communicate?
One of the worst things you can do is sign a contract and then fail to communicate for months. How do you know what your marketing agency is doing, or if they're producing results? They could be smearing your name or leaking trade secrets for all you know.
At p80, we offer automatic weekly inbound reports as well as at least bi-weekly meetings to discuss progress, analytics, and plans. Be wary of agencies that don't check in often. It's simply best practice and good manners to frequently let a client know where their money is going.
3. What will you do to understand my business and my clients?
Marketing isn't one-size-fits-all. What works for one company won't necessarily work for another, especially across industries and different sized companies. A good inbound marketing agency will detail how they plan to gather information about your industry and your best buyers, and how they will personalize their marketing strategies to fit your business's needs.
4. How will you help my business bring in more traffic, leads, and sales?
A decent agency will not make grandiose promises that they can't follow through on. They will speak realistically about marketing best practices and expectations.
They should also understand that every business is different. So, they will be able to tell you about general inbound tactics (such as blogging, SEO, website optimization, etc.) but they will need to do more research about your business before making concrete plans. Be wary of an agency that tells you exactly what they'll do for you on the first call.
And, if you ask, they should be able to offer up examples of how their current clients are benefiting from inbound. They should also be able to direct you to factual information regarding how inbound marketing affects businesses in general.
5. Do you offer free consultations?
This should be an easy question with an easy answer. Most agencies are happy to offer free consultations or evaluations.
A consultation will give you a chance to get to know the agency and learn about their strategies and values. If you like what they have to say, you may have found your agency.
6. Do you use analytics? How do you measure success, ROI, and progress?
At the very least, the agency should be using Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools. These are the basic SEO & PPC tracking platforms. If you decide to integrate your website with a nice CRM, CMS, or marketing automation software, they can also make reports based on those analytics. The answer should sound nothing like "well we just like to go with the flow and see what happens."
7. How many marketing services do you offer?
Your agency should offer as many services as you need. If you're already doing something well in-house, there's no reason to start outsourcing that to an unknown company. If you need a full marketing package, look for an agency that brings a variety of skills to the table. Many agencies will have specialties, even if they also offer full marketing services. Find an agency that's really good at the thing you need most.
For instance, we have someone on our team who is an SEO expert. He's been in the industry for years and is very experienced, so our SEO services are top notch (and we're not afraid to say so!). We also have a full-time content writer, we're very familiar with website development & optimization, lead generation, and we've assisted with trade shows and other outbound methods.
8. Do you offer platform setup, integration, and training?
If you know you need marketing software such as CRM, CMS, email marketing, or marketing automation software, your agency should be familiar with those services. If you don't know whether you need them, or if you should switch to a different platform, your agency should also be able to advise on that front.
9. How long is the contract, and what will be included?
Don't get strong-armed into signing a contract you feel weird about. Make sure you understand the terms - do you have a way out if you're uncomfortable? Although inbound marketing can take time to work, you should trust your gut if you're getting weird vibes from your agency. Always do what's best for your business.
We make sure to give our clients an easy out in case they become unhappy with our services. We don't lock them in to a year-long contract or force them to pay a penalty for breaking contract. We do business with our clients the way we would want an agency to do business with us.
10. What do you need from us to get started?
First of all, if your agency says "oh we don't need anything from you," run far away. They're either idiots or incredibly shady.
Your agency will definitely need information from you, including:
- Logins to your website, social media, AdWords, and any other platforms you're using
- Prior marketing history & analytics if you have them
- Access to any marketing materials you're currently using (pamphlets, blog, books, videos, etc.)
- What you hope to get out of your marketing
- Contact information for all relevant parties
- A list of current clients, potential targets, and past customers
- Time - you'll want to do an initial consultation, a fleshed out strategy meeting, and 2-4 hours a month for progress meetings
And there will be a few more things along the way.
11. How long will it take to see results?
Beware an agency that says "we'll make sure you see huge results in a few days!" because that's simply impossible. Some aspects of inbound marketing can take months to get off the ground, while others can show results immediately.
Overall, the speed and size of your results will depend on how much you pay your agency. The more you pay, the more hours per month they will be able to block off for your business (because they have other clients that are paying for their time). The more time they are able to put into your marketing strategies, the faster you should see results.
12. How much will it cost me?
This depends on quite a few factors: how big your agency is, how many clients they already have, whether they're a big-city company or a smaller agency, how many services they're providing, etc. Many agencies will be happy to try to work within your budget.
They will probably have to do some research and outline a strategy before giving you concrete numbers, so don't expect them to have an answer right away. Once they give you a quote, you are free to accept or reject their offer.
Remember: There are no stupid questions.
(Editor's note: This post was originally published March 2016 and was recently updated.)