Ever since digital marketing evolved from being a viable option to a necessary strategy, brands are searching for the best agencies that can fuel their business growth.
Unfortunately, that search is often proving to be more difficult than it should with many agencies providing subpar services. This especially hurts small and local businesses who often do not have enough resources to try out dozens of different agencies.
Aware of that problem, we decided to do a little bit of research and invite business owners and CMOs to share their fears, tips, and challenges they have encountered while outsourcing marketing services to different agencies.
In this article, we will discuss:
- what are the main drivers for outsourcing marketing services
- what kind of experience businesses had with marketing outsourcing
- what are the biggest red flags when reviewing an agency
- what to look for in a digital agency
- give you some insider tips on how to work with a digital agency
- share outsourcing tips for business owners and digital agencies alike
If you are only interested in the survey results, click here to go straight to the infographic.
Why do businesses outsource marketing in the first place?
Without beating around the bush, here are the 3 main reasons why businesses outsource marketing:
- Not enough expertise to do it in-house. You might know your target audience better than anyone. You might also be sure which marketing strategy you need to use. However, that still doesn’t mean you have the expertise to effectively execute that strategy.
- Not enough resources to scale it in-house. This is especially true for link building as it is a very time-consuming exercise when it’s done by the book.
- It’s cheaper to outsource. While this is not the case for every marketing strategy, it often holds true for link building and content marketing. More often than not, the main culprit is the price of marketing tools. Research suggests that brands spend 20 to 30% of their marketing budgets on marketing technology alone.
Which marketing services are they looking to outsource?
Digital marketing is a huge field that allows you to engage your potential customers in many different ways through many different channels.
Here are some major marketing areas that tend to get outsourced (in no particular order):
- Link building
- Content development
- Email marketing
- PPC (and paid advertising in general)
- Content marketing (which can include all of the above)
To a lesser degree, you can also find organizations outsourcing social media management, customer support, and similar activities.
In-house marketing teams vs outsourcing marketing services
One of the first questions we asked in the survey was designed to see how many businesses actually plan to engage in outsourcing marketing services. Note that we didn’t ask who plans to outsource all of their marketing work, just some of it.
To no one’s surprise, due to the nature of this survey, only 1 in 10 businesses plan to execute all of their marketing activities in-house.
How does this align with other research?
- According to research from The Manifest, at least 50% of small businesses are outsourcing digital marketing.
- Report from HubSpot suggests that two-thirds of B2B organizations outsource marketing services.
- Big corporations seem to outsource even more. This research from Marketing Charts states: “Large swatches of creative development (46%), programmatic media (46%) and other media buying services (45%) services are outsourced.” More info on the graphic below.
Again, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that businesses don’t have their in-house marketing teams, it just shows that those teams rarely do ALL of the work.
What are your experiences with outsourcing marketing?
The following question we asked in our survey was designed to see what kind of experiences did people have with outsourcing different marketing activities in the past.
As you can see from the graph above, most of our respondents had mixed or positive experiences. This is to be expected. If businesses only had negative experiences, there wouldn’t be so many of them actively outsourcing marketing.
Here are some actual insights people shared in the survey.
“There is always that risk of not getting good results from outsourcing. But, we’ve built a good hiring system that has been refined over the years to make sure things turn out well.”
“It’s harder to explain your needs to someone outside of company, with inhouse team it’s easier/faster. But than, strength of agencies are that they are not contaminated with internal ideas so they can see “different picture” and bring some great ideas with different approach.”
“We have had both positive and negative experiences, because it really depends on the person/agency we work with. The advantage of outsourcing is accelerating the pace of production – we get more work done, and done faster than if our small marketing team (just three people!) did it ourselves. A great experience was when we found a professional who produced high quality content better than we could do it ourselves. The negative experiences come with the nature of outsourcing. To train and on-board the freelancer or agency may take a significant amount of time. ”
“I had to go through 10 different agencies before I found one that could actually do it right. It was a big pain, but finally finding one has been a very big help.”
”We have lots of digital marketing objectives, but don’t have an in-house marketing team. As a company with fewer than 20 employees, we have be scrappy and resourceful about how to get certain things done. That includes content creation and distribution. When we decided to work with an outside agency for content marketing, we underestimated how much time we would have to spend working alongside the agency to ensure that they understood our voice and values. This responsibility became a real pain logistically and ultimately didn’t work out. We learned that if an outsourced partner isn’t a great cultural fit to your business, then you’ll spend a lot of time coaching them up to understand your DNA and messaging. This defeated the purpose of outsourcing to save time and money.”
“On the most part, the agencies I have worked with have helped us achieve some great results this past year. As with everything, some have not been up to scratch so it has been important not to tie us into long term agreements wherever possible.”
“In my experience, there was always an issue with managing expectations.”
“While the quality and timeliness of work from outsourcing can be at both ends of the extremes, you can get both if you know where to look and offer competitive pay. It’s all about finding the resources that best fit your scenario/need. Taking time to write down exactly what you need, then asking trusted resources where they go for that will shorten the time to find a quality outsourced provider. For me, sometimes I use US based folks and for others I use people on Upwork in the Philippines.”
“It’s been helpful but still requires some oversight.”
What are the biggest red flags when outsourcing marketing?
Part of the reason why businesses have positive experiences when outsourcing marketing is because they do not hire the first agency or freelancer they come across. They take their time to evaluate all of their options, test different agencies, and stick with the one(s) that show the most promise.
Below is a list of things you should watch out for when reviewing digital agencies, starting with the most commonly mentioned red flags in our survey:
- Lack of testimonials and case studies. Pretty straightforward. If an agency has no testimonials or case studies, you will have a hard time evaluating if they are any good.
- Overpromising results. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. For instance, if an agency tells you they can build 50 links for you in 3 weeks for $200, you can be sure they are not doing it by-the-book.
- Poor communication. If they are slow to respond to your questions and/or their responses are very vague/dodgy, it usually means they are trying to avoid giving you a straight answer. This is probably not someone you want to be working with on a long-term basis as it often comes clumped up with a lack of transparency.
- Forcing long-term contracts. If an agency is confident in their service, they usually won’t be forcing a long-term contract, at least not before you get a proper test run.
- Lack of industry-specific experience. Doing marketing in a technical field like manufacturing can look much different from running a marketing campaign for eCommerce businesses. While many of them are more alike than different, all niches come with certain specifics you need to accommodate to. This is why business owners and CMOs often ask digital marketing agencies to provide them with examples of previous work from their niche.
A few other red flags that weren’t able to get on the top 5 list would be things like bad reviews, inability to stay on the same page and achieve mutual understanding, and rushing into tasks without a proper plan.
Below are some comments survey participants left in the survey that might be helpful to anyone that is going through a similar agency review process.
“If they don’t actually try to learn my customers and my industry. That is a huge red flag that they won’t be able to do well. After all marketing is all about knowing how to talk to that customer.”
“When there’s not mutual understanding. In other words, the agency proposes something completely different to what we needed or doesn’t listen to what we explained.”
“I am willing to test the agency with a small amount of work. If they do well, I outsource more. There is little downside to trying. I wouldn’t do a year contract lightly!”
“If they don’t have case study data to demonstrate their success in the task we are asking them to do. Testimonials alone are not enough.”
“Unresponsive over communications. Timezones, remote work, email, etc, these are all understandable. However, if we have made contact but responses are slow, this is a real issue.”
What are businesses concerned about the most?
Working with an outside partner always comes with a certain amount of risk. The intrinsic nature of outsourcing means that you have to relinquish some control of the project and transfer responsibilities to the partner you hired.
In the survey, we presented 8 different concerns and asked people to mark each on a scale of 1 to 5. The results showed that the 3 biggest concerns businesses have when outsourcing marketing are:
- Quality of the delivered services
- The level of mutual understanding
- Agency’s experience in their niche
The overview of all factors can be seen on the picture below.
What to look for in a digital agency?
When reviewing a digital agency, the first things you should look out for are those red flags we covered earlier in the article.
Beyond that, there are many other factors you can look at, depending on what you need. It is obviously not the same if you need someone to write you a few posts or if you’re looking for an agency to execute a complete content marketing strategy.
Based on our experience and a lot of research, we offered 8 most common factors businesses are taking into account during this process and asked the respondents to rate the importance of each one on a 1 to 5 scale.
Top three most important factors were:
- How trustworthy an agency is
- An agency’s level of communication (how responsive and transparent they are)
- How an agency sets goals and objectives
The full detailed breakdown that covers all factors can be seen in the screenshot below.
How to work with a digital agency?
This wasn’t a question in our survey, but we decided to include this section in the article because we were inspired by the following comment left by Daniil Kopilevych who works as a Growth Manager at HelpCrunch:
“We’ve learned a ton having worked with dozens of outsourcing marketing partners (PPC, SEO, Content marketing, and more) and would love to share a few tips that can hopefully make your next outsourcing partnership more efficient and successful.
TL;DR it’s all about creating and maintaining trust between your business and an outsourcing partner throughout the entire time of the cooperation:
- Make sure to pass all the relevant materials, activities, and metric reports you’ve been compiling to the new partner so they’re aware of the context.
- Align with every outsourcing partner on the Why, Goals, KPIs, and tasks to be done on a monthly basis.
- Make sure to set the tasks as detailed as possible when starting out. This will guarantee that your outsourcing partner fully understands your goals with a particular task and also give hints on how you tend to think. Always mention the expected deliverables, examples, resources, and deadlines in the task description.
- Always agree on and set deadlines for every task. If the deadlines are not being met for 2+ times over a 3-month period, this should be a wake-up call to you.
- Always pay your partners on time.
- Motivate your partners with performance bonuses when they: overdeliver, overachieve the set goals, or just keep delivering great work for 6+ months. If they’re a trusted partner you want to make sure they stay with you for as long as needed.
- Engage with them regularly so that they feel like a true part of your team: sending them some corporate swag or inviting them to team gatherings might be a good start.”
As a digital agency, we want to stress the importance of sharing as many relevant details with us before the start of any bigger marketing campaign. While we (and I hope other agencies too) do take some time to research your business, there is only so much you can learn about a business by just looking at their website.
Some of the details that are always useful to share are:
- relevant information about your business (mission, list of strongest competitors, your unique value proposition, your position in the market, what marketing actions have you tried in the past and how successful they were)
- everything you can share about your target audience
- what are you looking to achieve/expect to get
- any specific requirements you might have
This is one of the reasons why every new client that comes to Point Visible gets a short survey to fill out as a part of our onboarding process.
The more information we have, the better job we can do. That’s why it’s always nice to have a responsive client, at least in the first few months of the campaign where it is easy to do simple tweaks and ensure we are on the same page.
When we take an overview of all of the work we have done in the past, there is one trend that is easy to spot. All of our most successful projects have one thing in common – client that is responsive, sets clear expectations, and is open to suggestions and recommendations.
Advice for other business owners
Make sure you give very detailed instructions (in writing) about what you need from an agency. This way you don’t pay for something you don’t need.Christopher Prasad, Marketing Manager at JOOKSMS
A successful outsourcing partnership is like a smart contract on blockchain: money is released only when work is done, no questions asked. To have something like this, tie payment to milestones where you let the other party know exactly what you need, in as many details as possible. Also, agree on no more than 20 percent of upfront payment and then have a few well-defined milestones to ensure that the outcome meets your standards.Pawel Lawrowski, Head of Growth at Tidio Live Chat
Having your outsourced partner be a great cultural fit is critical. Your partner needs to be your proxy, and that takes an understanding of your voice and values as a company. To that end, I feel it’s important during the vetting stage to articulate to your partner what your expectations are, as well as what your DNA is as a company. To do things well on your behalf, the partner needs to fully understand what you’re about.Alain Miguel, Co-founder of Modalyst
My advice to business owners is that shortcuts in SEO usually take longer. Work with agencies who have ranked clients consistently at the top of the search results for 5+ years.Darko Dodig, Co-Founder at Wisevu Web Design & SEO
In my experience, I have had the best results outsourcing digital marketing services to the agencies with the best communication. My relationship with Point Visible has been so successful as we will communicate several times a day. This has led to them understanding our business far better than other vendors I have tried.Rob Press, Global SEO Manager at Deputy
Always make sure to read some case studies of their previous clients. Companies that can showcase the exact results they got for their previous clients are much more trustworthy than someone just claiming to be good at what they do. Also, don’t be stingy. Good marketing requires a good investment.Shaurya Jain, Founder of Attention Always
Understand where your time is going to be spent most effectively. Don’t try and become an expert in all areas of digital marketing. Accept that some activities are best outsourced to trusted professionals.Henry Cazalet, Director and Founder of The SMS Works
Choose the right partner, keep an eye out for good communication and transparency, and try to forge a mutually beneficial partnership where you’re both working towards better results for your business.Greg Moskovitch, Head of SEO at Full Measure Digital
It’s imperative that agencies and businesses align goals in terms of the overall strategies and tactics implemented, especially related to the quality of the content produced and the cohesion of any content partnerships secured. Contrary to popular belief, the business owner has a huge stake in the success of the partnership and still has to invest a good amount of time despite outsourcing to ensure goals are met.Will Schneider, President of Fulfillment Companies
Be specific about what you want to achieve, how it’ll be measured, and how you want it to be reported to you. Then ask the agency to sign it. This way you won’t miss your KPIs and you’ll know right away if the project’s a success.Michal Leszczynski, Content Marketing Manager at Get Response
Clear communication and understanding of expectations are key when outsourcing any aspect of a business; a partnership is a marriage that must be built on trust.Brad Edward, Owner of Spekless Cleaning
It’s all about setting and managing expectations. It’s up to the agency to fully explain the scope of the project, while the client needs to objectively predict the potential impact it’s going to make. Carefully setting expectations will make it easier to assess the accountability of both parties if the desired results are not achieved.Mladen Lukić, Product Marketing Manager at ActiveCollab
When hiring an agency, you must decide if an agency is worthy of your trust. This is why I recommend starting with a humble campaign – if the agency proves its quality and trustworthiness by doing a great job on the campaign, you can trust them with more. The agency that is faithful to a small campaign can be trusted with a larger campaign!Andrew Lowen, CEO at Next Level Web
For both parties – be clear from the outset on the objectives of the campaign and that there are realistic expectations. Agencies: don’t over promise, business owners: don’t expect miracles!Amit Raj, Chief Link Builder at Amit Digital Marketing
Hold yourself to the same standard as you will your outsourced partner. Make yourself document clearly and in great detail precisely what you are asking them to do. While this may seem like a tedious unnecessary step, it will save you time and frustration later in the process when you are under a deadline to deliver to your client. Slow down now in order to speed up later.Miles Anthony Smith, Digital Marketing Director at Imaginasium
Both parties need to communicate with each other. From the project’s start all through its completion. Then even if there’s a problem, and there usually is, it can be solved quickly. It’s because, usually, both the customer and the marketing agency want to see the project through successfully. So my advice is to communicate everything and don’t assume anything. Then there won’t be room left for nasty surprises.Nikola Roza, CEO at SEO for the Poor and Determined
Advice for digital agencies
Communication is key. I could not stress this enough. Even to the point of over communication, things have to be transparent and updates have to be frequent.Carlo Borja, Head of Online Marketing at Time Doctor
Don’t pitch. Rely on transparent and honest communication with managed expectations on both sides. Be truthful about what you want and what you can offer. Both agencies and companies need a clear understanding of each other’s needs and desired results and work together to get the best results. They need to be on the same page, otherwise, it will be a waste of time and resources. And get rid of the client versus agency mentality. It helps no one.Teodora Lozan, SaaS Marketer at Socialinsider
Meetup first, talk, have lower payment plans, stick to the process, do not use arbitrary numbers, and do not try hard to overtake the social media with messages of “how you are great” if the reality says something completely different.Thomas, Web Strategist at ProtonMail
Dive quickly into learning the customers and their industry and make sure to set clear goals.Bryan Christiansen, CEO & Founder of Limble CMMS
Focus on communicating your achievements. At the end of the day, businesses want to see results from their investments. Also, make sure your values are aligned with your clients, otherwise, you’ll have a clash of interests.Josep Garcia, Content Marketer at WebsiteToolTester
Overcommunicate! Everyone has different communication styles and different expectations. Over-communicating is erring on the side of caution: I would rather you give me too many details too often than to not communicate at all. If I can trust you to communicate, I can tell you to dial it down; if you only email me once a month with an invoice, I don’t know you at all.Darren Foong, Marketing at CandyBar.co
Don’t offer packages! Get to know your potential client’s needs and customize your service accordingly.Aakruti Motwani, SEO Specialist at EU Business School
My advice for marketing agencies to make their partnerships successful is for them to state clearly what they can achieve and also help the clients understand exactly how the service will be delivered. In short, they should under-promise and over-deliver but not the other way round.AbdulGaniy Shehu, Lead Content Strategist at Winsome Writer Services
Make sure that you can demonstrate tangible results with similar companies. Allow prospects to call your (best) customers. There are very few agencies that do this, so you will stand out for sure.Stefan Debois, Founder and CEO at Survey Anyplace
Make it easy to show how your services are bringing value.Dee Gardner, Director of Continuous Improvement at REDLIST
One of the most harmful reasons why companies don’t succeed in their marketing efforts is their lack of know-how around the underlying reasons why their customers buy. That leads to bad positioning, no unique value proposition, poor targeting, and so on.
So, if you’re a marketing agency willing to help other companies, no matter what kind of service you provide, make sure that before jumping into delivering to your client whatever he needs from you, he has solid answers and data to support these 3 things:
1. They know who’s their ideal customer profile and the reasons that make them buy.
2. Has a clear positioning, with an articulated unique value proposition with key differentiating factors against their competitors.
3. Has defined clear goals and you know why they need you, aligning your marketing performance goals to the overall business goals.Valentin Radu, CEO at Omniconvert
Outsourcing marketing services infographic
This is it folks! An article that had a little bit for everyone.
We hope you picked up some useful info. The people that participated in the survey left a lot of great insights into all parts of the outsourcing process and we tried to include as much of it as possible.
It would be a missed opportunity if this piece finished without a short plug, so here it goes: if you are looking to outsource link building or content marketing services, feel free to get in touch via email or schedule a call.
We’re always up for a chat to see how we can help you and if we are a good match.
Stay safe out there!