There are several reasons why a company would need to hire an inbound marketing agency. Perhaps you aren't getting as many qualified leads as you would like, maybe your team doesn't have the resources or skills to do the job in-house, or it's possible your current agency just isn't the right fit.
Choosing the right inbound marketing agency is vital for success. But once you delve into all of the potential options, you may find selecting the perfect match more than a little intimidating. Perhaps you don't have any experience with inbound marketing, and even if you do, the sheer volume of possibilities can be overwhelming.
So, where do you start? We've worked with a lot of clients over our eight years in business at SPROUT Content, so we turned to our staff of expert marketers for their tips on what to look for in an inbound agency partner. Here's our advice for you, and feel free to pass it on to others.
Consider How the Inbound Marketing Agency Started
Dechay Watts, Chief Strategy Officer
HubSpot launched the inbound marketing concept in 2004, and the term started to gain popularity around 2010.
Around this time, many Web development agencies began noticing that inbound marketing, content marketing and social media were changing the digital landscape. However, their agencies were based in designing, developing, and launching websites. To compete, they had to add specialists in content, social and search to their design and development team, which seems like a simple fix. The issue with this approach is that inbound agencies that were once web design companies are often accustomed to project work and hearing from a client when they needed a site update. They don’t always have a proven process for planning, executing, analyzing and optimizing the performance of inbound marketing campaigns.
They also have a tendency to approach inbound marketing by spending a large part of the budget on website design rather than the content needed to connect with people throughout the customer lifecycle. While web design is definitely important, it is no longer a set it and forget it project. If you do decide to use an inbound marketing agency that morphed into an inbound agency from something else, make sure they are dedicated to the methodology, have teams in place to deliver high-end content along with design, and have examples of how they generate traffic, leads and ROI for clients.
Do you want a strategic partner or a vendor?
Debbie Williams, Chief Content Officer
Do you need a creative, strategic marketing partner or a vendor just to execute tactics?
Every inbound marketing agency has different specialties and strengths. Some agencies are happy to execute a specific list of deliverables as assigned by their clients, while others are more wholly engaged as strategic marketing partners. Clearly understanding the approach and strengths of every agency that you’re evaluating before you hire them is essential. If you want strategic marketing advice and a supportive team who understands your business, asks questions and presents ideas regularly, but hire a more task oriented agency, you will not get the results you’re looking for.
The same is true on the flipside. If you want an agency to help execute tactics that your internal team plans out, and nothing more, a more content strategy-focused agency will not be the right fit.
Understand Your Business to Vet an Agency
Chris Hawkins, Business Development Manager
One of the first things I’m asked when talking with a prospect is “How can your team possibly understand my industry? We implement AI and VR in BI apps for VCs.”
It’s a great question and one that should be asked of any potential inbound marketing agency, especially if your company is in what we call an "unglamorous industry.” These are typically companies in technology, manufacturing or professional services. They often have longer sales cycles (3-12 months) that require a consultative sales process where buying decisions are made by the owner and/or C-Suite.
If I were looking to hire an agency and my company was in an unglamorous industry, here are some questions I would ask:
- Tell me about your experience in our industry? Have you worked with a client in the same/similar industry?
- What is your process for understanding our industry? (look for mentions of SME interviews, client interviews, competitive analysis, et al)
- Who are your writers? Can I see their bios/work examples? (see the benefits of in-house vs. freelancers in this article)
- Tell me about a time when your team just didn’t get a client’s industry or a client wasn’t happy with your work. What happened? How did you resolve it? (this will happen to EVERY agency at some point--I would be dubious of “that’s never happened with us”)
- What’s your best success story for a customer in a similar industry with similar challenges and goals (assuming these have been discussed)?
Before you even hop on the phone with an agency, spend time perusing their site. How do they position themselves? Are they a jack of all trades or industry specialists? Read case studies and testimonials; read team bios (does anyone have past experience in your industry?); read their blogs and see if any topics are specific to your industry.
Proper “industry” vetting of an inbound agency will allow you to zero in on several that are worth having continued conversations with and will potentially save you from making the wrong hire.
Molly Bruno, Inbound Marketing Manager
Beyond researching and reviewing case studies and testimonials, it’s important to discover what makes a particular inbound marketing agency stand out from others. One exceptional quality that shouldn’t be overlooked is an agency that practices Agile Inbound Marketing. An agency that has adopted the Agile methodology will prioritize what is working, will address what needs attention, and will take action for your business in real time.
Rather than sticking to a pre-set, annual marketing strategy, the Agile process offers flexibility and adaptation within your marketing plan to help your agency be most effective. After all, you’re looking for a partner to help you meet your goals. If your agency is sticking to a strategy regardless of the outcome, the whole purpose for your investment becomes compromised. Seek out a partner that’s as passionate about meeting your goals as you are, and is prepared to provide dynamic ideas and adjustments to work toward real results.
Look for a Well-Rounded Skill Set
Sara Quigley, Inbound Marketing Manager
When choosing an inbound marketing agency, consider an agency’s skill set, and their communication style. These aspects can be critical in a successful team integration and anticipated return on investment.
First, determine your goals as well as your current team’s manpower and skill set. Identify the gaps that need to be filled and the marketing goals you aim to accomplish in order to determine whether you need a highly niched agency — for example an agency that offers website development only — or a team with a diversified skill set — for example, one that would additionally provide content, lead nurturing, and an SEO strategy to that website development. If you’re lacking those capabilities on your in-house team, the latter agency sounds like a better fit.
Similarly, if you’re considering a long-term relationship, what might you hope to rely on your agency for? If it’s one specific area only — say blog content creation — a niche content creation agency is a safe bet. But be aware that if other needs arise, you’ll need to look outside of that agency, potentially creating more work and project management for you. If there’s a chance you’ll need other areas of expertise — or even strategic consulting — a more diversely skilled inbound marketing agency is optimal.
Once you’ve determined which type of agency is the best fit, do some work to determine what type of communication style will complement your current team’s style. Do you currently use any specific project management software that you’ll want the agency to work in as well? Are you open to learning new project management or communication software? Will an agile approach help your team stay on task and allow you to receive deliverables at a pace you’re comfortable with? Just like with every employee you hire, every agency out there has its strengths and distinct personality. It’s all about finding a team that will vibe well with yours, and deliver high-quality results efficiently.
Seek Strategy and Goal-Oriented Agencies
Katie Frontino, Inbound Marketing Manager
Find an inbound agency that asks up front about your goals and provides you with steps on how they can help you achieve them. Whether your goals are small or large, it is important that the agency is on the same page as you are to strategically meet those goals. It is critical that they understand your timeline and where you want your company to be in the next 6 months, year, 3 years, etc.
In addition to grasping your goals, it is important that the agency comes to your initial meetings with answers and examples that are unique to your business. Case studies are a great indication that, even if they haven’t worked within your specific industry, they have come across a similar challenge and can tailor their approach to meet your company’s needs. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper into their capabilities and ask specific questions:
- What is the timeline for achieving these goals?
- How will these goals be measured?
- What results to companies you work with typically achieve by setting similar goals?
Overall, be patient in your search and put in the time and effort to find an inbound agency that is as passionate about exceeding your goals are you are.
Require an Offsite Content Distribution Strategy
Waverly Loza, Inbound Marketing Manager
When choosing an inbound marketing agency, it is vital that you work with an agency that has a strong offsite content distribution strategy to accompany your onsite strategy. No matter how interesting your content is, it quickly loses value if it just sits on your website. An off-site distribution strategy will ensure you are leveraging the great content you are creating getting it in front of the people it was intended to help, garnering more conversions. Follow the 80/20 rule - 20% of your focus should be on new content development and 80% on distributing it through the right channels that will deliver results.
Look for Adaptability
Casey Hudson, Inbound Marketing Strategist
Adaptability is a key quality to look for when selecting an inbound marketing agency. Can the agency adapt to meet changing business needs, or do they pause marketing efforts while they regroup?
Even if your company doesn't need to change, your marketing program may need minor improvements from time to time.
When comparing agencies, establish how a potential agency may respond to a sudden shift in company or product-promotion priorities by asking a few simple questions:
- If we needed to launch a new product, how much notice would you need before incorporating the launch into our marketing program?
- How do you know if a marketing program is doing well?
- How often do you check on our marketing program’s progress, and what do you do when you notice lackluster results?
Whether the answer is acceptable will depend on your needs. The bottom line is that “fit” is important. If you feel uncomfortable with any of the answers to these questions, you should think long and hard about whether the agency you’re considering is right for your organization.
Offer a Truly Customized Solution
Justin Lambert, Content Specialist
It's easier and more convenient for agencies to create packages of services at a set price that can be easily duplicated for one client after another. It means they can be more efficient, faster, and therefore, more profitable. Plus, it's easier for the clients if they don't need to wade through a ton of options and can just say, "I'll take six months of the Gold Package please," instead. The problem is, that's not how effective inbound marketing works. Not at all. As a company with unique needs, desires, and goals, you need professionals who are going to take the time to ask the right questions, do their research, and develop a customized strategy that's going to effectively satisfy your unique situation. The very best combination of inbound marketing services and advice is never going to be a cookie-cutter checklist of options "the experts" put together last year. No matter how great they make it sound, if the agency you're considering insists their content services menu is your best or only option, run far, far away.
Seek In-House Content Development
Tara McMeekin, Content Specialist
Look for an agency that develops content in-house. Inbound marketing is all about the quality of your content, and the results you achieve will be directly tied to how well that content is planned and executed. That’s why it’s important to partner with an agency that has a great in-house content team.
Many agencies use a mix of freelance and contract writers. That means you may never have the same writer developing your content twice. This approach typically results in disjointed — and consequently less effective — content, and a less effective message overall.
When you choose an agency that develops content in-house, on the other hand, you will essentially gain writers that are part of your team. Content developers will become familiar with your buyer personas, SEO goals and best practices, products, and company overall. This will yield a more perfectly crafted and congruent message across media, whether it be a blog, an email campaign, a whitepaper, or a website landing page.
By working with an inbound agency that has a dedicated, in-house content team, you’ll achieve better results and more success faster.
Dig Deep into an Agency's Processes
Katie Hall, Social Media and Influencer Marketing Specialist
When looking for an inbound marketing agency, many agencies will try to ‘wow’ you with examples of flashy content and impressive case studies. It makes sense, right? The finished marketing product is ultimately what will drive engagement and hopefully increase your leads. But there’s danger in focusing only on the finish line. When reviewing stats and content pieces, ask an agency member to explain to you how they got there – and listen carefully to determine whether or not this agency is legitimate.
The mistake many companies make, especially in the B2B space, is zeroing in on their need for content and social media engagement. All too often, we have panicked prospects tell us their timeline for content creation is between two to four weeks after signing a contract. In reality, there’s no way an agency could learn enough about a company’s tone, goals, target audience and industry focus in that amount of time. It should take about three months for the team members in an inbound agency to be able to create valuable content that drives engagement. Why? Because like most things, great inbound marketing relies on following processes.
Your inbound marketing agency should have thorough, detailed processes in place for each deliverable they offer. When agencies jump right into content creation without doing proper keyword research, creating an effective SEO strategy or auditing a company’s social media profiles, it often leads to failed marketing tactics and poorly performing content. Carefully examine an inbound marketing agency’s processes for creating each deliverable they offer to determine whether your content will be successful.
Insist on Technical Know-How
Jordan Goodman, Associate Marketing Technologist
When choosing your inbound marketing agency partner, ensure they have a technical support team that is well-versed in technical implementation, solution building and problem solving for your current business activities. Rather than just having theoretical knowledge, the agency should be familiar with the applications your business uses and how to deploy new technologies. Technical teams must be able to quickly analyze a problem, troubleshoot and then provide the best possible solution for easy resolution.
At the very least, if all of your business systems are set up correctly (which is almost never the case), an agency partner should be able to advise you on best practices to enhance efficiency. This approach should be based on historical data. We sometimes hear clients mention, “We were surfing the Web and really liked how company X created a blog RSS feed on their homepage, can we do something like that?” Generally the answer is “Yes,” but there are a couple questions that need to be answered first:
- What are we trying to solve for?
- What is the ROI?
Most clients have difficulty answering these questions. If a client responds with, “We want our visitors to easily spot blog content and share information we produce on a weekly basis, becoming an information leader for all things X,” then this is an actionable strategy to begin with.
Understand How They Deliver and Prove Results
Meredith Guarco, Inbound Marketing Coordinator
With hundreds of inbound marketing agencies to choose from, it’s almost impossible to determine what agency is the best fit for your company. But consider this: What is the most important thing you need to see from an inbound marketing agency? Hopefully, it’s results. Ask what tools the agency uses to deliver, track, and prove the results you’re looking for. An inbound marketing agency that values results will work with you to define your goals and measure for success. To make sure they can measure what matters, here are some examples of questions to ask:
- Revenue Measurement: How do you track sales conversions? How do you measure how much we’re spending vs. how much revenue we’re earning?
- Conversion Management: How do we determine who is viewing our content? What is the click-through rate? Who is downloading our material? How do you measure the impact of our campaigns?
- Lead Generation: How do we define our leads? What are the total number of leads we’re generating? How do you measure the cost-per-lead?
- Competition: Who are our competitors? How do you measure our success vs. the success of our competitors?
Remember to look at the big picture. Ultimately, you want an inbound marketing agency to provide you with measureable data and results that meet your defined goals.
We hope this sage advice from our inbound marketers helps direct you in your search for an agency partner.
If you are still on the fence about whether or not to hire an inbound marketing agency, be sure to check out our Inbound Agency Comparison Guide.
And if one or more of the points above resonated with you, we're happy to talk with you to see if SPROUT Content is a good match for your inbound marketing needs.