How To Choose An Online Marketing Or PR Agency

image credit: circulating via flickr

Choosing an online marketing or PR agency is a decision you should not take lightly. There are a plethora of choices in this space, and lots make big claims. You should choose an experienced agency that will position your brand in the right way for your desired audience on the web.

This is no easy task. From big brands to small businesses, everyone needs to be strategic in how to enter the social web properly. Social media marketing, SEO, blog development, organic traffic building strategy, and how to grow your brand on the web are just a few of the things to consider. You need a flexible agency that knows how to do all of this and more.

Some online agencies shy away from the social web altogether and focus purely on traditional internet marketing techniques. Unfortunately many of those old techniques are losing effectiveness daily. With more than 200+ other brands now using social media to their advantage, it is pretty hard for a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to ignore it any longer. Those that do, especially moving forward, do so at their own peril.

Before getting into how to choose an online marketing or PR agency, it’s worth looking at what other CMO’s are interested in to give you some perspective.

In a survey of more than 200 CMO’s and senior marketing professionals nationally, respondents filled in the top qualities they were looking for in their marketing and advertising firms in the coming year.

Based on the results, Sapient Interactive, has compiled a quite interesting top 10 wish list for agencies of the future (found via MarketingVox):

1. Greater knowledge of the digital space. With more than a third of marketers surveyed revealing that they are not confident that their current agency is well-positioned to take their brand through the unchartered waters of online digital marketing and interactive advertising, its clear that agencies need to have a greater knowledge of the digital space in order to thrive. In fact, nearly half (45 percent) of the respondents have switched agencies (or plan to switch in the next 12 months) for one with greater digital knowledge or have hired an additional digital specialist to handle their interactive campaigns. Further, when it comes to an agencys area of expertise, 79% of respondents rated interactive/digital functions as important/very important.

2. More use of pull interactions. When trying to engage consumers with their brand, 90 percent of respondents agree that it is becoming increasingly important that their agency uses pull interactions such as social media and online communities rather than traditional push campaigns.

3. Leverage virtual communities. An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents expressed interest in leveraging virtual communities (public and private) to understand more about their target audience.

4. Agency executives using the technology they are recommending. Ninety-two percent of respondents said it was somewhat or very important that agency employees use the technologies that they are recommending. For example, it is important that agency executives regularly use Facebook, Flickr, wikis, blogs, etc. in their personal social media mix.

5. Chief Digital Officers make agencies more appealing. Forty-three percent of marketers surveyed said that agencies with chief digital officers are more appealing than those without.

6. Web 2.0 and social media savvy. Sixty three percent of marketers surveyed said that an agencys Web 2.0 and social media capabilities are important/very important when it comes to agency selection.

7. Agencies that understand consumer behavior. Seventy-six percent of respondents deemed this as an important/very important aspect of their agencys online digital marketing and interactive advertising area of expertise.

8. Demonstrate strategic thinking. Seventy-seven percent of marketers surveyed ranked strategy/brain trust capabilities at the top of their agency wish list.

9. Branding and creative capabilities. Sixty-seven percent of respondents ranked branding at the top of their agency wish list while seventy-six percent ranked creative capabilities as important/very important.

10. Ability to measure success. Its no surprise that marketers want an agency that can report on where campaigns succeeded, fell short and where they should be fine-tuned. Sixty-five percent ranked analytics at the top of their agency wish list.

No surprises on what marketing officers would like, but how does the uninitiated choose the right online agency?

I’d like to offer some suggestions on what to ask a potential vendor in this space. The right agency will be more than happy to discuss all of this and more.

image credit: iguanajo via flickr

Here’s what to ask a potential marketing or PR agency to test their web experience:

Does the agency have people on staff who blog or are heavy social media users?
The people who are active in this space are the ones who understand it intimately and will be savvy marketing or PR professionals. They also will already have networks built they can tap for your brand.

Can the agency provide you a case study on a social media marketing/blog marketing campaign?
Especially one that has to do with your brand…make sure you look for tangible results in the study as well.

Run the agency’s website through a free SEO tool, such as WebSiteGrader
If their site doesn’t score high, hopefully they have an explanation (their site may very well be in redesign). If their own site isn’t up to par, check out what their digital officer’s site looks like.

If it’s a PR agency, ask them to show you coverage they have gotten for a client on a Technorati Top 100 blog
If they can’t show you that, it’s the internet equivalent to not being able to show you coverage in a national print newspaper…

Have them show you an SEO win
If you’re seeking an agency with SEO capabilities, it makes sense to choose one that can show you some wins in the natural listings of Google. I would also be weary of hiring anyone that will promise to get you onto page one of Google in a week or a month, in reality it is a larger commitment than that.

Bring any social media gurus on staff into the mix
They will know what to look for when choosing an agency, and will be able to tell the authentic from the fake.

Ask the agency if they’re familiar with Twitter, FriendFeed and other microblogging services. Ask them some creative ways they have used them.
If they aren’t sure what these sites are, they’re way behind the curve.

If you’re in their office – pay attention if they are using Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.
If they’re using Internet Explorer, don’t hire them, seriously. Anything else is fine. Sorry IE users, you can fight me on that one all you one, but web professionals simply don’t use it. (Fun fact: only 24.54% of visitors to The Future Buzz are IE users. For those of you still using IE, it’s time to get Firefox!)

Ask them if they can tell you who Michael Arrington, Kevin Rose, Robert Scoble or Jason Calacanis are (or some other relevant, influential web figure)
They really should know they answer if they are that plugged in to web 2.0 and the social media world. You want someone who knows who these people are, that means they’re probably following the early adopters and trends. Would you want any other type to do your online marketing?

Ask them what blogs they read daily
A good online agency will be able to list answers for several minutes….there are problems if you don’t have to stop them.

Does the agency have a blog/social media presence?
If they do, check it out. Go deeper than just looking to see merely if it exists – does anyone even go to their blog? Are there comments on the posts or is everything empty? Did any of their posts make page one of Digg? You want to hire a firm that knows how to build community for themselves. After all, how can you expect them to do it for you if they haven’t done it internally? If they don’t have an agency blog, have them at least show you samples of blogs/online communities they have successfully grown/built.

This is literally just the tip of the ice berg, there is so much more you could potentially ask an online agency. But, this is definitely enough to get them past round one of your selection process.

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