Thursday, March 17, 2016

How Marketing Executives Search & Select Digital Marketing Agencies

Last Fall, I conducted research in partnership with a digital agency.  The goal was to understand the search and selection process of marketing executives for hiring a digital agency, particularly for website design services.  The executives we spoke with had titles of Director of Marketing, VP Marketing and CMO.

How do they start a search?
Initial steps were consistent across the board.  Relationships, Referrals and Recommendations are leveraged from the very beginning of the discovery process.  Marketing executives consider past experience working with agencies as a typical place to start, followed by referrals and recommendations from trusted connections.  This approach often provides quality assurance for the executives, as they will be working with “known” and “trusted” agencies. Personal connections are #1.  

How would an agency get on the executive’s radar if a connection does not exist?
Conferences:  One executive preferred to meet new agencies at pay-to-play events (e.g., SiriusDecisions Summit).  There is an assumption that trusted vendors are in attendance, and it is easy to screen and meet with agency principals one-on-one and witness demos firsthand. Certain types of conferences can help reduce the noise and clutter of the  saturated digital agency landscape.

Press releases: Announcements of ‘agency wins’ distributed by companies they admire or watch.

Content Marketing:  Articles, blog posts, social media, agency websites, etc., which draws attention to an agency’s work (particularly if posted on LinkedIn and Twitter).

LinkedIn: when exploring team profiles on an agency website, executives will plug in the name of an employee or principal to see if/how they are connected. In addition, executives take notice when someone in their network endorses an agency. Introductions via LinkedIn are acceptable to executives if someone they trust in their network referred the person.  As long as vendors do not reach out to “sell” specifically – but instead reach out to make a connection and build a relationship – it is considered acceptable.

Search Results:  executives  may look to see if an agency is discoverable in search engines, particularly if they appear in the 1st results page.  This is helpful if they are looking for a specialty or niche area (such as augmented reality project) or looking for specific geographic location for agencies (i.e., web design firm in Denver, CO).  Local agencies matter for some clients as they prefer face-to-face communications whenever possible.  Also, if the executive is searching for an agency to help their company get listed higher in search results, they want to ensure the agency can accomplish results for themselves.

What makes the biggest impression when evaluating agency websites?

  •             Services offered:  Crisp messaging around the agency service offering is essential.  If the primary service offering is web site design, be explicit and say it; it should not be buried in sub-navigation menus.  

o   Don’t try to be everything A to Z such as email campaigns to website design.  The belief is the agency isn’t good at everything. List services that are true core competencies for the agency.
o   Showcase “how” the agency works with clients. If there is a methodology used by the agency, discuss what it is and why prospects can get excited about it.  Executives want to see this; it is one of the filters they use during the selection process.
  •        Evidence of Problems Solved for Clients

o   Logo billboards are nice, but not when they are greyed out, are not clickable and state case studies are “coming soon”; it’s a red flag. Break out evidence by type of service; show the actual results of the “website design” projects. Make it as straightforward as possible.  If client information can not be shared, find a way to do so without revealing client names. The proof points must be there.
  •       Showcase the team personality; executives want to see if they can imagine working with the agency

o   Once the executive discovers the agency does provide the services they are looking for and the proof points are included for respectable and known clients,  then they look to see how an agency showcases their team/ team’s background (where did they work previously) and personality (would the executive be able to work with the team on a day-to-day basis?)  It’s key to find a “fit” culturally with the agency.  
o   Present the team in such a way to make it easy for the executive to check the box on those important elements.  Be cautious about creating too much emphasis on the agency however. Flip it.  Emphasize client triumphs and showcase the team personality as a secondary factor.
  •        Website elements
    •    The site must have simple navigation – and include Services, Clients and About in the main navigation. Ideally, include ‘Blog’ in the main navigation as well to allow executives to see what the agency writes about, what’s important to the agency, and how the agency positions itself.
    •   The design has to be aesthetically pleasing; immersive design is commonplace today but not universally embraced by marketing executives. For example, if the homepage scrolls on and on because it is conducive to an immersive design, it has a negative impact on the perception of the agency.  It’s simply too long.   
    •   Tell the agency story in a nutshell.  Consider a 2-minute video to showcase the agency’s service offerings and team personality; make it  accessible from the homepage. 
    •   Evidence of results achieved for clients should be within 1 or 2 clicks. Don’t make anyone hunt and peck to find the evidence on the website.
    •  Frequently write blog posts to showcase how the agency thinks and be active on social media networks; this is considered a plus. Be polished and professional (this goes without saying, typos and  grammar issues will reflect poorly on the agency). Demonstrate Thought Leadership around pertinent topics in the industry, particularly around trending topics. 
    •  Marketing executives are not the target audience for an agency e-newsletter. They simply don’t care.  They believe it’s self promotion and generally not of interest. Their inbox is crammed so they are careful about the e-news they do sign up for.  That said, if they read an article or blog post that was of interest, they may sign up to learn more about that particular area of interest.  
Three digital agency websites were visited during the executive interview.  Only one agency was picked most often for the short list. The agency most selected was able to convey what they do, who they are and what they’ve done for their clients in the best manner. The other two agency websites were missing many of the required elements listed above.   

At the end of the day, does the digital agency website influence an executive’s decision?  Absolutely! The agency website can make or break a decision to make it to the short list. No matter how large the initial agency list is to evaluate, all executives mentioned ‘three’ is the optimum number of agencies to have on the short list in order to request proposals and make a final selection.
Agencies should continue to build and nurture relationships since it provides the highest currency and ROI for your time, energy and efforts.


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