7 Things to Look for in a Digital Marketing Company

January 7, 2020
By Pam Berg

This article was updated on December 10th, 2021.

In an ideal world, we’d all have the time and resources to do all of our own marketing and SEO. The reality for small businesses is that any time you take away from doing your regular job, is time away from customers and sales. You can’t do it all – but should your hire a digital marketing company?

We’re obviously biased, being one ourselves. But when you want to build a home and don’t have the skills, you hire contractors, right? And when you want to learn a new sport you work with a coach.

Partnering with an agency can be a great investment back into your business, because it puts critical work for business growth into the hands of experts. And if you plan to eventually bring your marketing in-house, you can learn the ropes during that engagement.

But if you do a quick search, you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of agencies in your region. How do you even start to whittle it down to the top contenders when they all sound pretty similar?

You need to know exactly what you want the company to do, and how to tell if they’re good at it. We’ve put together this list of seven questions to help you identify the real winners. If you’re already convinced and eager to get started, use the table of contents to skip right to the list!

Benefits of hiring a digital marketing company

There are lots of reasons to hire a digital marketing company, and most of them are tied to your website. Gathering leads, selling products, and increasing awareness of your business are everybody’s digital marketing goals – and those conversions happen on your site.

But the idea of hiring an agency to work on your marketing and SEO can be terrifying. It’s like going on a first date, injuring yourself while trying to look cute ice skating, and then having to let that person respond to all of your texts from family and friends all night while you sit in the E.R.

You’d much rather be handling those conversations yourself, but instead you have to trust a total stranger with your information and your reputation.

That’s why you need the list further down this article – to make sure you pick the right partner. Then, the benefits of a digital marketing company are amazing! These are just a few:

  • Expert strategic advice
  • Objective perspective(s)
  • Support in executing and managing tasks
  • Increased website traffic
  • Better ranking and visibility in search results
  • Better brand recognition
  • More engagement on social media
  • More website conversions
  • Better use of PPC campaign budget
  • Reliable analytics reporting
  • Proper KPIs to measure progress

Before you start contacting companies

This may come as a surprise, but not all marketing agencies employ experts in every aspect of digital marketing. Some focus only on SEO, PPC, social media, PR, or brand strategy. And that’s totally fine, if you only need support in one aspect of your marketing.

It’s easier to find an agency or consultant that specializes in one channel than it is to find a company with a solid track record in multiple areas of digital marketing. Often agencies will specialize in one or two channels, and provide more basic support in others to round out their offering. It totally depends on who they employ.

What you need to do is to clearly identify which aspects of digital marketing you’re looking to outsource. These might include:

  • Social media coaching or management
  • Social media campaign management
  • SEO consulting or full support
  • Link building campaign management
  • Content marketing
  • Google Ads coaching or management
  • Email marketing
  • Brand strategy

Once you’ve found agencies that specialize in the right services, you’re ready for the hard-hitting questions!

What to look for in a digital marketing company

Here are the questions you need to ask of any agency you’re considering as a partner.

1. Are their methods current?

Digital marketing changes more often than many people change their pants (especially in this age of working from home). I’m not even kidding!

Updates to features and algorithms in the following platforms can have a huge impact on how to successfully market your particular product or service:

    • Google’s algorithms and ranking factors
    • Google Ads
    • Bing search and rankings (Yahoo is powered by Bing)
    • Microsoft Advertising (formerly Bing Ads)
    • Other search engines and their ad platforms
    • Amazon’s search and rankings
    • Amazon Ads
    • Social media networks
    • Social media ad platforms
    • Email marketing platforms

And these platforms CONSTANTLY roll out updates. When you’re considering a digital marketing company, ask questions to establish their methodologies and awareness of any recent changes.

To do that, you need some familiarity with digital marketing news. You don’t have to understand it all – that’s what you’re hiring a company to do! – but knowing what’s happening will help you ask relevant questions.

I stay up to speed by subscribing to newsletters about SEO, social media, PPC, and content marketing methodologies. My favourites are Search Engine Journal (SEO and PPC), Social Media Examiner, Later Media (specific to Instagram), and Content Marketing Institute. There are tons to pick from that share daily or weekly updates.

You might speak with a company that uses a practice that you’ve heard has changed (often relating to SEO). If they have a solid reason that they can explain, and back up with legit sources, that can be a good sign. It likely means that they wait to analyze data before making adjustments, rather than reacting to industry gossip and unstable trends.

But if they still use outdated practices and can’t give a good reason, or if they aren’t aware of a recent change that would directly impact your industry or business, move on.

2. Are they comfortable talking about digital marketing?

Speaking of asking questions – you’ll definitely want to work with a company that can talk to you about what they’re doing, and why.

It’s a red flag if you ask a marketer to explain an aspect of their niche, or data in a report, and they can’t break it down for you in plain language. Sure, it might be social awkwardness. But it could also be that they’ve memorized the textbook definition, and don’t actually understand how it works.

Nobody knows it all, and oddities will come up that require further investigation. The trait to look out for is comfort (or better yet, joy!) in talking to you about strategy and performance. Hire a marketing company that sounds passionate about their work, and leaves you feeling smarter and satisfied.

3. Are they well-rounded?

Even if you’re hiring a specialist to focus on one area, you’ll want whoever you work with to be versed in how all aspects of digital marketing work together.

    • Technical and on-page SEO are different, and both are necessities
    • SEO, social, ads, and email drive content marketing results
    • Social media contributes indirectly to SEO
    • Link building is a key part of SEO, and often tied to content marketing
    • Most channels drive customers to a specific or custom landing page on your website

It’s okay if they don’t offer certain services. But be wary of an agency that has no understanding of other digital marketing components, or tells you not to bother (and can’t provide data to support their recommendation).

For example, if a company tells you it’s okay to focus on social or PPC because you’ve “already done SEO”, run away!

4. Do they have the receipts?

Case studies! We can’t say enough good things about the value of case studies as website content (seriously, read our article on why case studies are strong marketing assets). And if you’re looking to hire a marketing company, you want to see proof of their work.

the Forge and Smith web design case studies landing page

This can be tricky, as major brands will often require partner agencies to sign NDA agreements. That means they can’t reveal the names of the campaigns they ran and their results. In that case, the most an agency can provide on their website is the names of the companies they’ve worked with.

Agencies like ours that work with SMBs and non-profits can usually show broad results, such as improvement in traffic or engagement by percentage or total, but not reveal exact figures or show proof in actual Google Analytics reports.

In either case, ask questions about the work they did. Even if they can’t tell you the name of the campaign or show you data, they should be able to chat about what the work entailed, their approach, and learnings from the outcome.

Don’t forget to check their reviews and testimonials. As with any product or service, pay special attention to reviews clearly identified as coming from current or former clients. And hey, why not contact a couple of those companies to see what they say?

Planning for a website redesign? Check out this companion article, 9 Things to Consider Before Hiring a Web Design Agency.

5. Do they eat their own kibble?

We have several popular digital strategy expressions around here, frequently spoken by Forge and Smith founder Shawn Johnston.

“Eating your own kibble” is the same as practicing what you preach. If a company is going to handle your digital marketing:

    • Their site should be optimized and rank for relevant terms
    • They should have at least one active, engaging social media channel (and definitely not have half-assed accounts on every platform)
    • Their Google Business Profile should be claimed, branded, and populated
    • Any ads, social posts, or emails should feel cohesive and on-brand

Time for some fun sleuthing!

Search their company online, and view all of the results to see how well they optimized their metadata. If they have an email newsletter, sign up for it. Check out their social media content, posting frequency, and hashtag usage.

screenshot showing Forge and Smith site in search results

You can also run their site through an SEO tool like Moz or SEMRush to see how they rank for organic search terms, their backlink structure, and even samples of their Google ads.

6. Are their leaders proactive or reactive?

A company’s leadership style informs day-to-day practices and processes related to digital marketing. If you’re hiring a digital marketing company, you’re buying into their leadership’s ways of thinking and doing.

Similar to knowing if they use current methods, suss out how well the agency as a whole understands where digital marketing is headed. You want their work to be future-friendly, not just sticking rigidly to a static plan, and fixing issues as they come up.

If a prospective company’s CEO or CMO is active on social media, or regularly publishes articles on their site or LinkedIn, dive into that content! Look for clear signs of thought leadership and innovation.

7. What kinds of promises do they make?

There are some promises a company can keep. Honouring a contract, meeting deadlines, and completing a project to specifications are things that can (and should) be promised.

Unfortunately, there are scams aplenty in our industry. Beware any digital marketing company that makes claims like these:

    • Getting your site into position 1 or position 0 in search results
    • Getting quick or immediate results
    • Achieving perfect technical SEO health for your site
    • Earning a specific email open rate or advertising click-through rate
    • Reaching specific numbers in social metrics (likes, follows, comments)
    • Achieving a specific domain authority

These are all attainable, and a company might have even been able to help another client achieve these goals. But that’s what they are – goals. Any company that promises they can deliver an exact number or give you fast results is a red flag.

Digital marketing is a game of ever-changing strategies and numbers. Content marketing can take six months to years to show its first results. SEO takes ongoing effort, and every time a search engine changes its algorithm, it can impact your performance. Open rates and click-through rates depend on many factors and require constant testing and adjusting.

I hope this gave you ideas about what to look for in a digital marketing company. As with any job interviews, it’s helpful to give everyone sample questions and see how their responses differ. Someone with less certifications or experience might surprise you with brilliantly creative thinking that’s better suited to your business.

Forge and Smith is now listed as one of the Top Web Development Companies on DesignRush! Thanks for the honour.

Pam Berg

Pam has backgrounds in journalism, computer forensics, and public libraries, which add up to the perfect mindset for digital strategy. She's been a professional content writer for over 20 years, and working with clients in SEO and analytics for 8 years. Her Instagram feed is equal parts horses, waffles, and drag performers.

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