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How to choose an online marketer

Although many business owners understand the need for things like search engine optimisation (SEO), it can be difficult to tell which experts are genuine.

As with any industry, you can’t trust every consultant that claims to know online marketing inside and out. The key to finding the right one lies in communication – making sure they understand what you want to achieve, and establishing exactly what they can and can’t do for you.

Referrals and testimonials

One of the best ways of finding a reputable marketer is to ask around. Find the businesses in your immediate network with the most impressive online marketing campaigns – high search rankings, consistently strong social media presence etc. – and ask them for recommendations.

“Ask current connections if they know a business who already has a reputation for achieving their goals,” suggests Robert Steers, managing director of Creative Development. “This includes not just friends, but also suppliers and buyers. If you use a printing company, then ask them if they know of anyone.”

The other side of the referral coin is testimonials. Although a consultancy will always proffer their most ardent customers as proof of the quality of their work, it’s always worthwhile hearing what current customers have to say about their services.

“Ask for current clients and campaigns as proof,” says Steers. “Any agency that is worth doing business with will have a portfolio of information that clearly shows how a campaign was executed, who the client was, and what was achieved.”

Do they walk the talk?

It’s wise to pay close attention to the website, blog and social media accounts of any online marketing company you consider doing business with. If their own online presence isn’t impressive, it’s unlikely they will be able to work wonders for you.

“Do they have a blog? Does it look like original, practical thought or is it full of mumbo jumbo and jargon?” asks Steven Lewis, owner of author coaching site Taleist. “If you’re not sure what they’re on about, it’s possible they’re not sure either.”

Although many small business owners are quick to dispute the effectiveness of social media, its growing importance as an online marketing medium is difficult to ignore. Given this, you should be wary of any agency that isn’t using social media to market itself.

“If they’re not using social media, that’s a warning sign,” continues Lewis. “Social media is a large – and growing – part of online marketing. If you’re a professional in that area, why aren’t you using it? Also, look at how they’re using it. Are they just regurgitating links, or is there original thought and personality behind it?”

Finally, take a close look at the copy on their website and the tone of their blog posts. A knowledgeable marketer is unlikely to bury their message in hype or jargon.

“In terms of assessing the capability of consultants, I think it’s important to read blogs or articles produced by the company,” says Jill Brennan, principle of Harbren Advertising. “Look at the language used – is it full of confusing jargon or does it contain straight up, practical advice? And what is said – does the author sound like someone you’d like to have working for you or are they just trying to impress?”

Be specific

Having settled on a particular agency, you should draft a plan outlining exactly what you want to achieve.

“When they approach any marketing agency, they should clearly describe those goals and ask if the agency has any experience in their market, achieving those aims,” says Creative Development’s Steers.

It’s also ideal that they’ve done their homework and have a reasonably strong understanding of the tools that are required to achieve their desired outcomes. A basic level of marketing knowledge can help to tell if the marketer is over-selling you on services you don’t need.

“The most important thing is for the small business owner to know what they want to achieve and have clear, measurable objectives,” says Harbren’s Brennan. “Online marketing is as diverse as offline marketing and not all online marketers are familiar with every aspect – email marketing, social media, SEO, online advertsing – even though many will say that they can do them all because many small business owners want a one-stop shop for all things online.

“Make sure that you fully understand whatever it is the consultant is suggesting your business do online,” she continues. “If you’re set on a Google AdWords campaign, and they try and sell you on social media advertising and email marketing, for instance, don’t simply take their word.”

Although dodgy marketers do exist, friction between businesses and marketing agencies often comes down to a lack of communication or poorly managed expectations.

“Often, business owners have a vision of what they want to achieve, whether it is with a website, or with a Pay Per Click campaign, and if this vision is not clearly articulated to the agency, there can be disappointment,” continues Steers. “Any good agency will have a clear briefing process that will reduce the chances of this happening. Even just by asking the question, ‘what do you want to achieve with this program/website’, agencies can find out what the client is expecting.”

What can’t they do?

Having heard your objectives, any competent agency should then be able to clearly outline how reasonable your expectations are, and explain the processes it’s going to use to meet them.

“If you’ve found someone you like then get a specific proposal from them that outlines what they can do to help you,” says Harbren’s Brenann. “Does it sound realistic? Is it what you want? Can you get them on the phone to discuss what you want or is it all done by email?”

The stronger and more involved your relationship with a marketing consultant is, the more likely they are to give you the help they need. Avoid communicating solely by email or phone, and try to include them in your business as you might do with a trusted supplier.

An excellent way of bypassing all of the sales talk and jargon that marketers can throw at you is to ask them what they won’t promise you.

“A good marketing professional knows what they can do for you – and what they can’t do or at least can’t promise to do,” says Taleist’s Steven Lewis. “He or she doesn’t need to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of meaningless words. This isn’t quantum physics, so while you might not be able to do what the marketer can do, they should at least be able to explain it to you.”

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Image credit: Thinkstock

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