When we started Muse Marketing, we knew we wouldn’t be the only digital marketing agency competing for business. In fact, a quick look at the Google Trend for “digital marketing companies” reveals the steadily growing need for outsourced marketing services over the last decade. We knew the market would be crowded.
What has surprised us, however, is the high volume of bad actors within this industry. We knew some marketing companies could be shady — many of us had seen that first-hand from agencies we’d contracted in the past. But while conducting discovery research for our own clients and learning about their previous marketing initiatives, we’ve been shocked to learn how rampant dishonesty seems to be in this market.
Whether they’re failing to communicate properly, overstating their abilities, grossly overcharging for their services, or even running outright scams, many agencies out there capitalize on the intense need for outsourced services by juicing small businesses out of their marketing budgets.
With that in mind, we wanted to compile this list of red flags to look for when hiring a digital marketing agency. If your business is shopping around for marketing services, you need to make sure you’re going with the right people — you want a team that’s invested in your company’s growth and success. Any of the following signs should set off the alarm bells that the agency might not have your company’s best interests in mind.
We all know that time is money — unfortunately, many marketing companies seem to live and die by this rule. The problem is that in order to run effective campaigns, a marketing team needs to put the time in to understand the business they’re marketing. That’s not a corner you can cut.
If a marketing agency doesn’t conduct discovery research up front, it means they’re likely looking to maximize their client base. That’s not an inherently shady goal, but in practice, it means that they’re not going to customize campaigns to your business; rather they’re going to save themselves time by applying the same standard approach to every client. This is a recipe for failed campaigns.
If the company you hired isn’t asking you about your business, your brand, your operations, your customers, or your goals, they probably won’t be a good fit.
At Muse, we onboard every client with an intake discovery meeting during which we go over everything from client personas to competitors to past and current marketing efforts. It’s the most important step in our process; without it, we wouldn’t be able to help you achieve your goals — simply put, no marketing agency could.
In this industry, grandiose promises are a big red flag. Marketing campaigns take time to gather data and see results, and there’s never a guarantee that you’ll achieve your desired ROI. This is particularly true with organic SEO campaigns, which take, on average, 6 to 12 months to build authority and draw leads. So if an agency promises you they can “get you on the first page of Google in X weeks” or “boost website traffic by X%,” it means as much as a fad diet guaranteeing weight loss within the first week.
This isn’t to say that your marketing team shouldn’t have clearly outlined goals. They absolutely should have a concrete, transparent campaign plan. But good marketers know that a guarantee is worthless. Sometimes campaigns don’t work, and when that happens, it’s an opportunity to learn and adapt moving forward.
This is a big one. We’re shocked at how many clients have told us they’d previously hired an agency, shelled out thousands for vaguely defined SEO services, and then struggled to ever get another response from them. It’s unacceptable — but it’s happening.
As we mentioned above, most marketing campaigns take time. But that time involves a lot of monitoring, analyzing, and adapting to ensure those campaigns are optimized. Your marketing team shouldn’t just be launching campaigns and checking back in a month later — they need to be consistently reachable.
This is why Muse includes a private Slack channel with all of our marketing subscriptions. Regardless of what we’re working on, any of our clients can reach out to our team directly at any time to ask questions, provide relevant business updates, and request campaign status updates. If you can’t get a response from your marketing team in a reasonable amount of time, you can’t trust that they’re giving your campaigns the attention they need.
In addition to being communicative, marketing agencies must be transparent about what they’re working on.
Again, while marketing initiatives often take time, it shouldn’t be a sign-up-now-and-hope-for-the-best situation. At any moment, you should be able to see what your team’s overall strategy is, what particular campaigns you’re running and on what timelines, and even what your individual team members are working on on a day-to-day basis.
If your team is unwilling to provide you with this information, that’s likely a sign that they have something to hide.
There’s a reason we built our business as a subscription model as opposed to offering singular products or services. Simply put, marketing campaigns often don’t work on their own.
You can write good SEO content that helps you rank for high-intent keywords, for instance, but if your website looks like garbage, it’s not going to convert any of that new traffic into leads. Or you can run a Facebook ad campaign to all of the right audience segments, but if you don’t have effective brand creative, nobody will click on it.
This is all to say that good marketing companies understand that the most effective campaigns are those that exist as part of an overarching strategy. You want a team that understands your brand, uses data and keyword research to inform their strategy, and develops custom campaigns designed to work in sync to achieve your particular goals.
If a company is offering you a one-off service or a singular campaign, they might still be able to get you some quick wins. But they’re not going to be invested in your long-term goals.
As you begin looking for an outsourced marketing agency, be sure to keep these red flags in mind. Far too often we’ve seen the damage shady marketing companies can inflict on small businesses looking to grow, and we hope this post saves others from choosing the wrong team in the first place.
Always ask the right questions during the interview process, questions that help you ensure a digital marketing service provider understands what the job entails and is aligned with your business philosophy, practices, and principles.
And once you’ve chosen your team, be sure to set clear expectations from the start, ideally from before any contract is even signed. Delineate what you need from them, and ensure you know what they need from you.