It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost six years since I practically stumbled on to inbound marketing. I’d bought Seth Godin’s book “Tribes” and it was setting unread on my desk when the president of our agency came in my office to talk about something else. He spotted the book and asked me about it. When I said I hadn’t started it yet he asked to borrow it so I said “sure”. Little did I know it would be the beginning of a years-long quest to learn, keep pace and apply the best practices and tools of inbound marketing. Today inbound marketing, content marketing and social media along with marketing technology have whipped our little corner of the business world into a virtual froth. Even the company CEO likely has heard about it.
It stands to reason then that unless your company already has the staff resources to pull this off properly, it makes good sense (and cents) to find an inbound agency to lend a hand. One of these, Kuno Creative has an excellent, free online guide that gives some excellent advice on how to even get budget for your inbound program. It’s called Inbound Buy-In, Budgets and Best Practices . Another terrific, free guide is The Complete Guide To Hiring An Inbound Agency from MLT Creative, an award-winning B2B inbound agency in Atlanta. I highly recommend both of these guides. In addition I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts on getting started on the right foot:
#1 Try some serious soul searching first
What really needs to happen in your company? Branding? Or alignment of marketing and sales to deliver greater ROI? Improved conversion ratios to drive down cost per lead? Or we don’t really know? The adage that you don’t need a map if anyplace will do comes to mind. If yours is not a marketing driven company then all the more important that you get consensus from stakeholders as to the agreed expectations of this exercise especially those that will be deemed successful outcomes both quantitative and qualitative. I will guarantee that once this is done your research on agencies will be more productive, and the dialogue more meaningful.
#2 It’s Not Sold by the Pound or Found in Any Catalog
Sadly a lot of traditional processes like RFPs are borrowed from the corporate procurement department with few changes except to replace “staplers” with “inbound marketing”. To get ahead in inbound marketing means finding the best possible strategic partners and frankly in my book that takes a different approach based upon a deeper understanding.
#3 Are They Eating Their Own Cooking?
When you do a search with “inbound marketing agency”, “best” or “leading” and key words specific to your company category, note the page rank results because it tells you something about an agency’s SEO capabilities. Run a marketing grader on their website. Hubspot has a good, free one http://marketing.grader.com/ Note how their website is laid out; is it attractive, and does it draw your eye easily around the page. What do they blog about? Is it well written or produced and entertaining? Are people reposting to Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like? Do they have social media icons on their pages? Are they using conversion forms? Are they applying best practices to their own website or as I like to say, ‘are they eating their own cooking?’ Any agency worth its salt at inbound will be ranking high doing all of these things so keep this in mind and use it to help shorten your list.
#4 Skip the RFP, try the phone
Honestly I think the traditional default to an RFP has been around so long because its often easier to get answers and ideas out of the agencies than it is out of your company execs, marketing group, and sales group. That said even the busiest agency will often welcome the chance to talk with a prospective client. In the process you can save a lot of time and energy, quickly learn how to improve your qualification process that you can apply on your next call and begin to get a read on the all important question of ‘chemistry’. In this era of transparency and web-centricity, it’s easy to learn a lot before the first call. Invest that time and then pick up the phone. Think about it; the smartest agencies generally don’t participate in RFPs. Why? They don’t have to.
#5 Should the agency be asked to “present”?
Time is money and if an agency has clearly invested well in a show-case website, fully-optimized and employing best of breed tools and practices, that grades out at 99+, chock full of great content, portfolio samples, client testimonials and basically everything that supports the fact they’re highly competent, it’s a fairly safe bet that the time and conversation can focus more on your issues than the topic of qualification. In researching for inbound agencies like so many things, time invested is time well spent. So consider keeping the dog & pony show brief and see which agency has the chops to ask smart questions and think well on their feet, not reading from a Powerpoint.
#6 Plan the Work and Work the Plan
If you must have multiple agencies compete for your company’s business, establish some ground rules and stick with them, respect deadlines for decisions, and don’t’ allow scope-of-work bait-and-switch or creep. And make certain you are dedicating sufficient resources to making the RFP process thorough and stick to the letter of it. It is after all your reputation and the beginning of a working relationship with one of them. Always best to get started on the right foot.
#7 You Get Out What You Put In
Almost all RFPs ask the agency to recommend a budget but that should come with some strings attached. Free advice is worth what it cost; nothing. Without giving an agency access to in-depth information like your company’s current marketing plan, research, strategy, audience, tools, analytics, etc., an agency’s estimated cost for developing your comprehensive marketing program is largely unqualified and like a loaded weapon; if it goes off in the wrong direction a lot of folks can get hurt. Be prepared to share A LOT if you expect accurate, actionable advice in return. While you’re at it don’t forget to do some estimating on the value of your company’s current and potential market share as the basis for ranging in a realistic, effective marketing budget to maintain or grow the business. Putting dollars to it helps improve the relevance of any figures discussed so when the impulse is to say an agency’s idea “is too expensive”, you’re also ready to answer the “relative to what?” question.
#8 Doc I’ve Got This Problem, Here’s What You Should Prescribe
I don’t know about you but I pay way too much for good medical care so better to let the physicians do their job. Likewise alot of company execs and owners are anxious to get their inbound program up and running so in their haste may be ready to give orders about what they “really need”. That’s not unusual but a good agency will ask smart qualifying questions to determine your company’s overall marketing readiness. Do your prospects and customers like what they see/read the first time they come to the website? What do they say about your product/service/buying experience? Maybe there are some branding and web page layout issues to address too. Are your marketing and sales teams aligned? You get the point. You are the expert on your company’s products so just be ready to answer a lot of questions, just as many or more as you may have of the agency. In the process you’ll likely figure out which agency is legit and which one is mailing it in.
There’s a joke about an old miser who prayed every night to win the lottery. Finally one night God answered back , “meet me half way and buy a ticket.” Well, finding a winning inbound agency is kind of like that. So when the temptation is to crank out an RFP and distribute it to an agency list, you might want to consider instead investing your time using these tips and resources.
Tell us what has worked well for you? Or just as importantly what hasn’t?