So, you need a new website, a content strategy, a lead generation campaign, or perhaps social media consulting. Your boss has conveyed how critically important this initiative is. You know you need help. What to do next? The wrong decision could cost the company a lot of money … or worse yet, even cost you your job. So now you have to choose an agency. There are many, and it’s never an apples-to-apples comparison. You can’t afford to make a mistake. What should you look for? What questions should you ask? How do you make a wise decision that you not only won’t regret, but will make you look like a rock star in the process? These 10 tips should help.

1. The Eye Test

You are basically asking this agency to take a leading role in helping you tell your brand’s story. So, how well are they telling their own story? Does their website look professional?  Is it easy for you to understand what they do and how they do it? Is their website user experience (UX) intuitive?

What about their social media presence? Do they have a blog? Is their brand image consistent across all of these channels? Are they posting valuable content on a regular frequency?

Many agencies talk a big game, but they don’t drink their own Kool-Aid. Take a look to see if their web copy is well written, if their storylines are compelling, if they are results-oriented, or if their site is just a lot of sales fluff. If their website is visually and graphically engaging, they have good case studies and testimonials, their social media channels are well designed, engaging and well maintained … chances are they’ll be able to deliver the same for you.

2. Thought-Leadership

Take a look at their blog. Are they providing Youtility? Are they teaching? Is their free content marketing so good that people would pay for it? Are they helping you to understand, or are they just talking about themselves?

You not only want to, but you deserve to do business with agencies that are thought-leaders. Find an agency that is giving valuable information away for free … and this will tell you a little about their integrity, while also telling you a lot about their depth and expertise.

3. Seek First to Understand

You can tell a lot about anybody by the questions they ask. This agency you’re talking to … are they asking good questions? Do you find yourself saying, “Wow, no agency has ever asked me that question before?” Are they listening to you? Are they taking notes? Are they looking for a mutual business fit? Or are they just talking a lot, and selling themselves?

If their main motivation is to help you, then first they have to understand you. That can only be accomplished if they are asking good questions … and then listening patiently, and attentively, to your answers. Do you feel like they “get” you?

4. Goals

You know what your goals are. Is this agency focused on your goals? Are they asking questions specifically geared at getting to the heart of your challenges and objectives? Better yet, are they helping you to further define your goals?

Be careful of an agency that is making performance guarantees. That is a red flag. You want an agency that is focused on results. You want an agency that it is interested in defining clear goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) that are relevant to the overarching long-term objectives  of your business. If this agency is focused on your goals, and has relevant experience to the task at hand, then you can work together to set in place solutions that will marry up to your goals.

5. Do You Like Them?

Simple question, yet profoundly important. Hiring an agency is very much hiring an extension of your company. It’s like hiring 6-8 new employees. Would you hire 6-8 people you didn’t like, were going to feel uncomfortable around, or who were going to bring discord to the culture of your organization?

You are going to spend a lot of time with the agency you choose. You are going to be sharing sensitive data with them about your customers, your infrastructure, your hopes, dreams and aspirations. It sounds like common sense … but hire people you like and want to hangout with.

6. Content, Content, Content

“Content Marketing” … you hear it referenced all the time. The reason is, as consumers our behaviors have shifted drastically over the last few decades. Consumers are savvier than ever; we’re empowered, we do research, we search, read reviews, and educate ourselves on the products and services we purchase. Thus, it isn’t enough that an agency has awesome graphic design skills. It’s not enough that their programmers are the most mind-bending geeks in the region. Your agency has to be able to tell your brand story. They need to understand content creation, SEO, content strategy, and the principles of Inbound marketing. So, push them on these topics, and again, take a look at how they are leveraging content across their own brand.

7. Grounded in Digital

Many agencies say they are digital. Truth be told, many agencies are rooted in traditional media and have simply “plugged in” digital over the years. Get to the heart of this question with the agencies you are considering. An agency can’t just hire a Director of Interactive or a Digital Marketing Manager and be an interactive agency. Digital is either in your DNA or it isn’t. Don’t trust your interactive project to an agency whose roots aren’t grounded in digital—it is a recipe for failure.

8. Talent

In sports, I don’t care how great the coach is, I don’t care how great the system is … you have to have talent to win. Likewise, when vetting an agency you want to know as much as possible about their talent. Is their production staff in-house, or are they outsourcing their production to 3rd parties, other agencies and contractors? Do they have a good balance of experienced leadership, combined with some younger, perhaps even millennial production staff? Ask for bios on the team members that will be working on your project. LinkedIn is also a good resource for this research.

9. Process

Discovery, market research, target audiences, user personas, brand elements, content, web, social, mobile, account service, development, project management … these days interactive campaigns require planning, they are integrated, rich in detail and moving parts, and success can be thwarted by just one or two seemingly minor components that might be lacking. How can you better ensure success? Process. Ask the agencies you are vetting about their methodologies and processes. How do they approach the areas listed above (discovery, market research, development, account service, etc.)? What kind of project management and issue-tracking software do they use? Will you have your own log-in credentials to monitor and track the progress of your project? How do they track, log, manage, and report time? What about communication? Will they have regularly scheduled status meetings throughout your project timeline? Such process may cost a little more, but it will save you a LOT more in the long run.

10. Case Studies & References

Ask to see case studies and take the time to read them. Are the work examples leading edge and results-focused? And, though it seems like common sense to get references, it is extremely important. Sure, the agency will only put you in touch with companies who will say good things about them. However, you can control the process and get truly valuable information from these contacts. Ask “Why?” and “How?” And say, “Tell me more.” Push for details. Ask questions like how long they’ve been working with this agency, and on how many projects? What kind of results have they seen from the campaigns (ask for specifics)? What is the agency’s communication style? On those occasions where there was a difference of opinion on scope, or something negative and unexpected happened, how did they resolve the issue? How often do you meet with them, via phone verses in-person? Does the agency help them develop business strategy? And, of course, do you like them personally? Why?

Remember, you are choosing an extension of your company. This is a partnership you will likely have for many years, and the value of the partnership will actually grow exponentially over the life of the relationship. Thus, take your time making this important decision. Ask the right questions and choose wisely.  The above tips should have you well on your way to partnering with the right interactive agency.

By the way, please drop us a note and help us add to this list of tips—this is a partnership after all.

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Tim Reeder

About Tim Reeder

Tim brings over 15 years of interactive marketing experience, focused primarily on defining digital media strategies for many well-known B2C and B2B brands. Tim understands what’s important to business owners: finding and attracting new audiences, converting prospects to customers, and growing the value of the business. He has spent most of his career mentoring sales and marketing teams and driving revenue for industry-leading organizations. His other passions include music, drumming, food & wine, golf, philosophy, motorcycles, and fitness. 

Published Apr 07, 2015