Many entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle to manage marketing and advertising duties while running their business’s day-to-day operations, even if they have some knowledge of small business marketing. Additionally, digital marketing requires a nuanced understanding of various channels and platforms that many business owners don’t have the time or experience to manage optimally.
In these cases, a marketing company could help improve your company’s marketing return on investment (ROI) and free up internal resources. But how can you be sure you’re hiring the right firm?
Choosing a marketing company should come down to more than dollars and cents. Handing off your marketing efforts to a third party requires trust; after all, they’ll manage your brand and how you communicate with your audience. A marketing company could make or break your brand-building strategy.
Consider the following eight best practices when selecting a marketing company to provide high-quality services and reliable communication and reporting.
Identifying your goals is the first step in hiring a marketing company. Be specific. Instead of saying, “I want to increase sales,” identify actionable items like, “I want to increase visits to my e-commerce store,” or “I want to reduce cart abandonment rates.”
Understanding your goals and setting key performance indicators (KPIs) will help you choose the right marketing company and measure its success throughout your relationship.
“It really depends on what a business owner’s end goals are,” said Travis McKnight, content strategy architect at Portent. “If they’re just trying to get a website that is functional … they don’t need the fanciest team. If they’re trying to get more conversions … they need a team with more expertise and agility.”
If your marketing goals are straightforward, save money by hiring a team to carry out basic tasks. But if you want a more in-depth or dynamic marketing strategy, consider allocating more resources to your small business marketing budget.
Check out any potential marketing partner’s references, and see what similar businesses say about them. Pay close attention to marketing companies whose services seem relevant to your needs.
David Wyatt, head of communications and business strategy at Mighty Coconut, said you should always talk to recent references. “Marketing can be a very volatile industry, and clients need to know how agency teams are [performing] in recent months,” Wyatt said.
Additionally, if a marketing company caters specifically to your industry (or, better yet, small businesses in your industry), it might be worth a closer look.
“Industry-specific marketing is best for small businesses,” said Kathryn Carter Heck, search engine marketing analyst for Coalmarch. “For example, Coalmarch is a marketing company specific to the pest control industry. Because we serve a specific client, we provide an incomparable understanding of seasonality and how people shop for what our clients sell.”
Once you’ve identified several marketing companies that fit your goals and have experience serving similar businesses in your industry, make a shortlist of candidates to review. From here, establish direct contact with the agencies, and tell them you’re considering hiring them.
Ask each candidate on your shortlist for samples of work relevant to your needs. For example, if you want to build an effective business website, ask to see previous clients’ websites. If you want them to manage social media for your business, ask to view other clients’ accounts.
“Not all marketing companies are created equally. If you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, so clients should know what sort of capabilities and capacity they need before they begin their search,” Wyatt said.
Samples of previous campaigns and other work help demonstrate the range of skills a marketing company brings to the table.
Another excellent way to glean how well a marketing company could work for your small business is to examine its marketing efforts.
Review their website and social media channels to get a sense of their content, graphics and branding. If their digital properties look professional and effective, chances are they can do the same for your business. If not, question whether they really have the expertise or skills you need.
“Generally, you should avoid hiring a marketing company that doesn’t have strong marketing for their own agency,” Heck said. “If they don’t put time into their own marketing, how can you expect them to grow your company through their marketing efforts?”
If you’re considering a marketing company, check whether they have online customer reviews or testimonials that back up their expertise. A reputable marketing company has many reviews and won’t try to obscure them. Moving forward with that marketing agency may be risky if you can’t find any reviews.
“One major red flag to avoid when it comes to hiring a marketing company or agency is no reviews or portfolio available,” said David McHugh, former CMO of Crediful. “You should stay away from agencies that have no testimonials or reviews from former clients. This is either a sign that the marketing agency is brand new or their former clients have had bad experiences, both of which are signs that the agency won’t be right for you.”
Marketing can be a sprawling aspect of running a business; ensure you understand everything you’re paying for. To avoid misunderstandings, request a detailed service agreement or business proposal from a prospective marketing company. Ask them to break down all the services they’ll provide with line-item costs. Most marketing companies worth hiring will do this for you. If they’re not, ask for a clear explanation about why they can’t.
Some marketing strategies result in a fast ROI, while other tactics take longer to be effective. To manage these variables, sign a short contract of about 90 days and reassess your progress toward your identified goals quarterly. If you believe the marketing company is making reasonable progress, consider renewing the contract. If not, you’re free to move on.
Many marketing agencies are willing to work with small businesses to meet their needs. If a marketing company is aggressive in trying to get you to sign a long-term contract (i.e., a year or longer), ask for their rationale. Depending on your requested services, there may be a strategic reason for a lengthy contract term.
However, if a company can’t or won’t explain the practical need behind a long-term contract, that could be a red flag that it’s trying to lock you into a service agreement for its own benefit.
Many types of marketing companies exist. While some perform in multiple disciplines, others are hyperspecialized. Here are six of the most common specializations within the marketing industry.
A small business might hire a marketing company to manage marketing channels and help craft strategies, improving marketing effectiveness while removing the burden of daily management and freeing internal resources.
“When you hire a marketing agency, you are effectively hiring a team of marketing experts, as well as all of their resources, to assist you in implementing your marketing strategy,” said McHugh. “In a way, you are handing over the marketing responsibilities for your company to the agency.”
While outsourcing to a marketing company helps free up internal resources, the real benefit comes from having experts carry out a crucial, nuanced, wide-ranging business aspect. Marketing, especially in the digital space, spans various channels requiring unique strategies and tactics. An experienced marketing company can provide a consultative approach to your business’s marketing efforts.
“A marketing agency not only gives you the marketing expertise and the capabilities to successfully carry out your marketing campaign, it also gives you access to all sorts of marketing services and strategies, such as SEO, email marketing, content marketing, web design, pay-per-click advertising and much more,” McHugh said. “You can use these resources allotted to you by an agency to create a very effective marketing strategy that gets your business real results.”
Every marketing agency is different and may offer unique or niche services. However, most marketing companies will handle the following tasks:
Some marketing companies offer all these services and more, while others might specialize in a particular area or two. Understanding which services you need most will help you prioritize your budget and select the right marketing agency for your small business.
Marketing company prices are highly individualized. Pricing typically depends on your business size, the scope of your marketing needs, and the marketing company’s fees. For example, a boutique marketing agency only managing your social media will likely charge less than a corporate marketing firm that takes over brand management on multiple channels.
“Affordability is important right now especially, but value is even more important,” Wyatt said. “If you’re spending $1,000 a month doing Facebook ads yourself or $2,500 a month on a solo contractor, or $7,500 a month on an agency, your returns will likely be vastly different.”
While pricing varies, it’s helpful to establish a baseline understanding of what you might encounter while performing market research. The average cost of marketing services is as follows:
Whether you need a boost to your social media marketing or your SEO best practices, marketing companies or services can help your business expand its marketing strategy. As you search for marketing partners to assist your company, prioritize your business’s marketing goals. This way, the marketing company you hire can meet your needs and take your business to the next level.
Shayna Waltower contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.