9 red flags when working with a small business marketing agency


By: Brad Hanks

The small business marketing industry: Let the buyer beware!

As a small business marketing consultant who's consulted for almost a decade, I have observed one key reality—most marketing agencies that target small businesses aren't worth hiring. This post will give small businesses a checklist of 9 red flags to watch for when you're evaluating a marketing agency.

Related: A 5-step guide to success on Small Business Saturday

Behind the scenes of small business marketing companies

The first thing to understand about small business marketing companies is that they don't make much money on a single client. The less a company charges for their services, the more likely it is that that company isn't providing you any value at all. If you are paying less than $1000/month to someone who's not giving you a discount (like a friend or relative), chances are that their business basically consists of collecting checks. This reasoning can be explained by simple economics.

A consultant who knows a lot about marketing might expect to get $150/hr. So, if you're paying $300/month to a marketing agency for their services, you shouldn't expect to get more than a couple hours of work. Some of these companies get around this by hiring employees at the rate of $20/hr, and then charging the customer $60/hr while pocketing the difference.

9 red flags when working with a small business marketing agency

Don't let a strong handshake fool you into making bad business decisions.Photo credit: Flazingo Photos

That means the customer is paying for (but not receiving!) an expert level of service. An employee that can be paid $20/hr is probably right out of college. They're unlikely to know much about SEO, which is crucial for many small businesses. What this employee can do is write is a few articles a month and provide a little bit of link building. They can be expected to handle around 20 clients/month, after factoring in bathroom breaks, client communication, etc.

A company like this is probably mediocre at marketing, since they're managing employees at low monthly margins. Or, they're evil geniuses who jack the margins sky-high by only assigning employees to work on your account at key points in the relationship.

Neither of these options is good for you. But don't worry; these 9 tips will help you avoid an unprofitable relationship with a small business marketing agency.

1. Check out their design skills

When evaluating potential small business marketing companies, one warning sign is outdated website design. Web pages that look like they were created 5 years ago are a sign that the company hasn't kept up with the latest practices. They also signal that the company lacks an in-house designer.

What that means for you is 1) the company clearly doesn't understand the importance of visual appeal, and 2) the content you're paying for won't look good today, much less in the coming years. If you're not sure about the agency's design skills, just ask. Any competent agency will gladly display examples of their recent work to help win your business.

2. Insist on up-to-date technology

How a website is designed and implemented is more important than ever. In particular, a marketing company that builds mobile sites on a separate domain puts your mobile site in the SEO graveyard. If the company shows you a site that they built, check it out on your phone. The site shouldn't look like a smaller version of the desktop website. All websites need to be responsive, or in other words, look and function well at the same web address, on any device. Google wants your site to be responsive and is less likely to show your search results on mobile if it isn't. Considering how many local searches happen on mobile, you can't afford to make this mistake.

9 red flags when working with a small business marketing agency

Vintage technology looks nifty, but it doesn't work so well on your iPhone.

3. Stay away from restrictive contracts

You're hiring a marketing company, not signing up for cable. While contracts are important for protecting both the client and the provider, a good marketing company won't try to lock you into a contract that doesn't meet your needs. Many contracts will create a relationship that is longer or more restrictive than necessary. Plus, a company that has you locked into a contract may not be as diligent about impressing you with their results. You can expect a bad marketing company to really pick up their efforts about ten months into a one-year contract in the hopes that they can snag you for another year.

4. Always read the fine print

Avoid companies that quote a fixed monthly cost without getting specific about the marketing services they'll be providing. If you aren't quite sure what they are doing, they aren't doing much. It pays to do your homework. It also pays to know which services you need. If you're unsure, try asking these questions of the company:

  • How often will you be adding new content to my website?

  • Will you provide detailed link building reports?

  • How do you plan to increase my citation count? (see #8)

Add a few more questions to this list, and you'll be well on your way to scaring off bad marketing companies.

9 red flags when working with a small business marketing agency

Don't just fold your contract into pretty shapes—read the darn thing!

5. Search for reviews

Be sure to look up reviews on the company you're considering. Small business marketing companies usually aren't on Yelp, so try searching their business's name on Google. You can usually find someone commenting about the company in a forum, or you may be able to view the company's participation in a conference.

But do keep in mind that people who had a negative experience are more likely to complain than those who had a great experience. If you see one negative review, consider bringing it up with the company. If you see several negative reviews, just move on. One last note here: be equally skeptical of a company with overwhelmingly good reviews. They are probably offering an incentive for clients to review them, or simply paying for fake reviews.

6. Go with a local company first

It's important that the company you are working with is local. Don't hire a firm that doesn't allow you to meet someone face to face. There are certainly good companies in other locations, but the squeaky wheel (that happens to be local) really does get the grease. As a consultant, I'm more likely to do a good job for a local client who could show up on my doorstep at any moment.

7. Ask around

If a marketing agency is a bad actor, word can travel fast. If you aren't involved in the the local business community, it might be worth going to a chamber of commerce meeting. Chatting up fellow small business owners is a good way to hear about who's been burned. A lot of small business owners will be glad to warn you about companies that have ripped them off in the past.

8. Invest in citations

A good marketing company will focus on building citations for your company. A full citation is any place on the internet where your business's name, address, and phone number are listed. SEO experts agree that building citations is a reputable (and pretty easy) way to get marketing results for your small business. The best part about citation building is that once you have paid for and built the citations, they continuously benefit your business. As an added benefit, potential customers will have an easier time finding (and choosing!) your business if you're building citations while your competitors are not.

9. Consider doing it yourself (for now)

Are you beginning to realize that the marketing firm you hired isn't a good fit? Never fear. Many of these tactics, including citation building, are skills you can learn on your own. If you're discouraged because you don't think you can afford to hire a results-driven marketing firm, just do it yourself until you can hire a solid agency. Best of luck, and let me know how it goes.

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Brad Hanks

Brad Hanks is a veteran marketing consultant. He currently works with ZipBooks, free accounting software for small businesses.

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