What (specifically) led to the success of your case study clients?
What does the starting and onboarding process look like?
How do you produce authentic content for niche industries?
There are literally thousands of agencies out there that promise to increase your traffic, leads, and sales with inbound marketing. The sheer volume of choices is terrifying.
Hiring an inbound agency is a lot like hiring a new employee. The wrong choice will cost you time, money, and frustration — and you will have put great effort into onboarding and forming a partnership without seeing any of the results.
If you’ve hired an inbound marketing agency before, you’ve probably also hired more than one.
The sad reality is that inbound agencies have high customer turnover due to a lack of results, poor communication, and lack of visibility. Ultimately, many businesses determine that inbound marketing is just not worth the money.
If you’re once again considering an inbound marketing agency — or looking to hire one for the first time — you want to be sure you’re getting it right.
The difference between two similar-looking agencies could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In one case, you invest heavily and see minimal results. After a year, you cut ties with the agency, frustrated that it cost so much and delivered so little.
In the other case, you see tremendous ROI, and every penny of your marketing budget comes back to you several times over in revenue.
But again, these options look similar from the outside. The two agencies might make similar promises in the sales process, boast similar credentials, and share similar case studies.
So, how can you choose wisely?
The inbound marketing world can be an intimidating place for the uninitiated. Use this as your guide.
Below, I’ll cover the basics you need to evaluate agencies and make an informed decision about your needs, including:
Different types of inbound agencies.
The pros and cons of each, including what inbound services cost.
Questions you should ask any agency you’re considering.
Red flags to watch out for so you pick the best agency.
Let’s dive into the details.
Free Guide: The Ultimate Inbound Marketing Strategy Playbook 2022
What is an inbound marketing agency?
An inbound marketing agency is a third-party company that will help you shift the way you market and sell your products or services. Rather than going after prospects through more traditional, “outbound” marketing, you will attract and educate prospects and customers using your website. If your inbound marketing strategy and execution are sound, your ideal customers will come to you when they’re ready to buy.
Inbound agencies typically have a wide range of specialists and strategists who can help you with inbound marketing — or teach you how to do it yourself.
An agency’s marketing experts will create content for you (think: blog articles and videos). They also may develop landing pages or thank-you pages, produce premium downloadable content, teach you how to create automatic email campaigns, or track the ROI of your website.
Agencies often have some type of partnership with a marketing automation software provider like HubSpot. Such tools help track the success of your inbound marketing efforts.
What kind of businesses choose to work with inbound marketing agencies?
The inbound marketing philosophy has proven to be effective and industry-changing for all types of businesses, from local home service businesses to SaaS firms to manufacturing companies, including both B2B and B2C.
What ultimately matters is if you believe that the way people evaluate, research, and ultimately buy your product or service has changed.
Do your prospects and buyers do their own research online before they reach out to your sales team? Would you prefer that prospects come to your door wanting to work with you rather than having to track them down? Do you want to have your website work for you and generate its own traffic, leads, and sales?
If so, your business is a good fit for inbound marketing — and potentially hiring an inbound agency.
How can an inbound marketing agency help your business?
If you’ve now decided that inbound marketing is a good fit for your business, then the next big decision is: Can I do this on my own, or do I need help from an agency?
It’s a good question and one that you should be asking yourself.
This can best be answered by first laying out a list of tasks that come with successful inbound marketing implementation.
Each of the tasks below is a critical step toward seeing results from inbound marketing.
Content creation: Creating and publishing articles and videos to drive new traffic to your website is the core component of inbound marketing. Producing even a single article or video comes with a multi-step process that requires expertise to see a quality end product. Beyond articles and videos, this could include infographics, ebooks, guides, assessments, calculators, newsletters, podcasts, or any other type of content that could help your buyers.
Lead generation: You’ll need website pages and forms so visitors can sign up for newsletters or exchange their information for pieces of content. This allows a site visitor to become a lead.
Email nurturing: Most leads will not be ready to buy from you immediately. An email nurturing campaign helps keep them engaged as they progress in their buyer’s journey. This will be automated to ensure scalability and smooth delivery.
Sales enablement: Inbound content can also be used in the sales process to answer buyer questions and improve close rates. This will also include training your sales team to effectively sell using your website, your CRM, relevant content, and inbound marketing tactics.
Website design and performance: To succeed with inbound marketing, you’ll need a website that’s well-designed, easy to update, and loads quickly — all while being easy to navigate for visitors.
Search engine optimization: Your content needs to get found by your customers. Search engine optimization (or SEO) makes sure Google and other search tools understand your content so it can rank well in search results. You’ll also need to utilize keyword research and understand how people search online to get your ideal buyers on your website.
Conversion rate optimization: Your visitors must be able to easily move between pages of your website. You’ll use calls-to-action (or CTAs) to help prompt certain actions you want them to take.
Revenue attribution: In the end, you’ll need insight into all of your inbound marketing efforts. This way, you can tweak content, design, CTAs, and more to attract the right traffic, convert more leads, and close more sales.
Looking at the list of tasks above, the first thing to consider is your in-house expertise. Do you have members of your team who have expert-level knowledge and experience in any of these areas?
Lastly, consider who is going to be responsible for defining your inbound marketing goals, ensuring that the entire team is working together towards the goals, and creating the strategic plan to increase traffic, leads, and sales. Ideally this person would have experience and expertise in inbound marketing, project management, and rallying people to do things in a way they’ve never done before.
If you have the necessary expertise and resources in-house, you can develop and implement an inbound strategy on your own.
If not, you should consider an agency to do one of two things: to plan and implement inbound marketing for you or to train your internal team to handle your inbound efforts in-house.
What to do before you contact an inbound marketing agency
If you know you want to invest in inbound marketing, there are still a few steps to take before you reach out to an agency.
Do your research
It is beholden on you to become an educated consumer before you talk to an agency. Learn the process from the outside. Learn the terminology. Learn about inbound marketing strategy. Complete courses on HubSpot Academy, CXL, or IMPACT+. Read blogs. Watch YouTube videos.
Determine your goals
While much of your goal setting will be done with your agency partner, it’s good to get started before you reach out. What are you hoping to accomplish? Traffic growth? More qualified leads? Brand awareness? A 10% growth in revenue?
Think of where you hope to be in 12 months — and in three years. Then you’ll have goals to bring to your conversation with an inbound marketing agency.
The 2 types of inbound marketing agencies
There are two main types of inbound agencies that you can choose between. The first decision that you need to make to hire the right agency is to choose the type of agency that lines up with not only the results you’re looking for, but also with the path that you’ll take to achieve them.
We’ll dive in deep to help you understand the two different types of agencies: implementation and mastery, and go into the unique pros and cons of each.
Inbound implementation agencies
Your first option is an inbound implementation agency. This is by far the most common type of agency you’ll find.
Who they are
An implementation agency exists to provide marketing services for their clients. You can think of these companies as a fully outsourced marketing department that can offer specialized knowledge that your team doesn’t have.
You pay them, and they do it all: content, video, website, email, landing pages, SEO, and evaluation.
How it works
It’s likely that you’ll have one primary contact point, an account manager, and several specialists working on your account.
Implementation agencies will run your analytics platforms, create results reports, generate content to reach your ideal buyers, and present you with strategic insights that can help you make important decisions. They do the work themselves (or subcontract freelancers to do it) and then present it to you with as little or as much input as you want.
Typically you’ll sign a month-to-month or multi-month contract in which you’ll pay a fixed amount in exchange for hours or points. Inbound implementation agencies track the work they do for you in one of these two ways.
If you’re paying for hours, it’s not uncommon to get a report at the end of every month that shows exactly where time was spent. If you’re paying for points, this isn’t too dissimilar to paying for hours. A point equals a certain number of hours, and every deliverable or task costs a certain number of points.
What it costs
You’ll pay, on average, between $4,000 and $15,000 per month, with the cost escalating based on the number of hours you want to purchase.
You will also pay for marketing automation software, which could cost up to several hundred dollars a month, depending on your size and needs.
When working with an inbound implementation agency there’s a lot to get excited about. Here are some of the unique benefits that you can look forward to with an implementation agency.
You know exactly how much time and effort is spent working on your account. Because you’re paying for a set amount of hours or points every month, you can track on a granular level what’s being done for you. You’ll also be able to see tangible work like reports, articles, videos, and emails every month.
You don’t need to spend a lot of your team’s time on inbound marketing work. You’re outsourcing, or at least greatly supplementing, a lot of time and effort to a team of specialists. This frees up time for your team to focus on their primary responsibilities. You won’t have to have your team split their time among different focuses or retrain your team to do more than they’re currently doing well.
You don’t need to hire an inbound marketing specialist for your staff. By working with an inbound implementation agency, you won’t need to add anyone onto your team. Hiring an in-house specialist to handle inbound marketing tasks comes with expenses: payroll, insurance, and benefits.
You pay a premium. Generally speaking, the inbound implementation agency is going to be the most expensive option. Each task or deliverable that is performed by the agency is scoped out by the agency and given a time or point estimate. These estimates are always scoped to make sure the agency isn’t going to lose money. You can count on inbound implementation agencies to always add about 20% to their estimate to ensure that each task and their time is profitable.
There’s no end in sight. Because inbound implementation agencies act as an outsourced inbound marketing department, you’re reliant on their expertise, their marketing strategy, and their work. This means that in order for you to continue getting these insights and deliverables, you need to continue paying your monthly retainer. If you stop working with an inbound implementation agency, you’ll be left with two options to continue the momentum you’ve created.
Option 1: Hire another agency to pick up where your previous agency left off.
Option 2: Figure out how to do what the agency was doing with your own in-house team.
Lack of insight into your business, your market, and your customers. While the inbound marketing philosophy works with businesses of all types and sizes, there’s no universal playbook that guarantees success. There are hundreds of factors that would slightly change the playbook for your target audience. Inbound implementation agencies know inbound marketing like the back of their hand. But they don’t have firsthand knowledge of your business, your market, or your customers. The result is often a templated approach that might not work for you. A great example of this is if you think about a third-party writing articles for your website. Do they sound like you and the way your customers would hear you talk? Do they have the industry-specific knowledge that makes the article both helpful and informative for an audience that is looking to buy your product or service? In almost all situations, the answer to these questions is no. And that lack of insight can directly contribute to inbound marketing not working for your business.
Inbound mastery agencies
Your second option is inbound mastery agencies. These businesses seek to train your company to bring your inbound marketing in house.
Who they are
Inbound mastery agencies represent a complete paradigm shift. As a client, working with an inbound mastery agency looks completely different than working with an inbound implementation agency or a specialized agency.
With other inbound agency types, you pay in exchange for the agency to do the work and report back to you what they’ve done. With an inbound mastery agency, you’re hiring them and you’re doing the work with their guidance and direction. It’s like the relationship you’d have with a personal trainer or coach.
An inbound mastery agency has the goal of stopping working with you. They don’t want you to have to continually pay a third party (even them) to see success in your inbound marketing efforts.
What it costs
You’ll still pay a monthly retainer, but instead of paying for reports and deliverables, you pay for coaching and training. What you tangibly receive looks much different than what you’d get from an implementation agency or a specialized agency.
Expect to pay a mastery agency between $5,000 and $15,000 per month, but only for a set period of time.
You will also pay for marketing automation software, which could cost up to several hundred dollars a month, depending on your size and needs.
Investing in your team. The old proverb states “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” With an inbound mastery agency, you’re being taught the tactics, strategies, and skills that you need to be able to completely own your marketing efforts in-house. As a result, your staff is more developed and more skilled after working with an inbound mastery agency.
You won’t be paying an agency forever. Because inbound mastery agencies train and coach you to develop the skills and to do the necessary tasks, there will be a point where you’ve learned everything you need to sustainably continue the momentum on your own. At this point, you won’t need to continue paying any marketing agency.
You’re in control of your success. Because you’re doing the work — creating the content, running the reports, making your own strategic decisions — you have control over your results. The agency will provide strategy and direction, and you’ll be doing the implementation. This gives you more control and, ultimately, autonomy.
You’ll end up with way more content. Producing valuable content in-house is much cheaper and more efficient. Rather than sharing a content writer with a dozen other clients, you have one all to yourself, which means faster turnaround and much higher output. Rather than 2-4 new pieces of content per month, you’re more likely to get 10-12. Over the course of a year, that difference becomes huge: 30 pieces of content produced by an agency or 150 pieces produced by your own team.
Hiring a team takes time and costs money. An implementation agency will have a full team assembled to start helping your business immediately. A mastery agency will have the coaches and trainers assembled to help your in-house team, but you’ll need to recruit and hire that team. This means you will be paying salaries for new team members over the long term, even after you cease paying for the agency’s guidance.
It’s harder to fire an internal team. A marketing agency is a supplementary team that gives you added expertise and performance. If things are not working out, you can easily go in a different direction by hiring a new agency. When you build an internal team, you’re less likely to clean house and let everyone go so that you can start fresh.
You have to go all-in to make it work. In our work with clients, we’ve found that the ones who just dabble in inbound marketing see minimal results. By contrast, the ones who go all in and follow our framework to a tee see amazing results. But such efforts require a leap of faith, and some businesses are not in a position to do so. For companies building an in-house team of marketers, expect marketing to be a major focus of your business. Mastery agencies truly lead culture shifts that impact all aspects of your organization. Rather than a single point of contact between client and agency, mastery agencies:
Coach leadership teams to improve strategy and communication.
Train sales teams to refine the sales process.
Guide all marketing efforts.
Apply the inbound philosophy across the company.
A mastery agency will change the way you do business, and this culture shift can be more than some businesses are prepared for.
Hiring an inbound marketing agency: What to ask, what to watch out for
When you know what type of agency you want to work with, you can begin to evaluate your options. Plan on reaching out to a small handful of potential agency partners. How do you know who to pick? Look at expertise, price, and niche. Make sure they can do what you want them to do. Be prepared to ask questions.
Review case studies that are listed on the agency website. As you enter the sales process and get closer to making a purchase, you might want to reach out to these case study companies yourself to get their candid take on their agency experience.
4 questions to ask every agency
Why would I choose you over another agency? Think of this as the “Why should I hire you?” question in a job interview. The agency should have a compelling answer that makes it clear why they’re a better choice than other agencies.
What (specifically) led to a case study’s success? We all know that case studies represent the best of the best of that agency’s work. Still, they represent a high achievement every client should strive for. So, what helped that company see such great success? What was the specific strategy they put in place? What other factors influenced their success?
Where would we start? Even though your company has unique needs, an agency should have a clear onboarding and planning process mapped out that creates alignment and builds momentum for scalable growth.
How do you produce authentic content for niche industries? This is an important sticking point. Can that inbound agency sound like you? Can they produce content that feels genuine to buyers in your industry? An implementation agency will need to give you a convincing answer to this question. A mastery agency will not. Mastery agencies believe that only the business itself can produce authentic, valuable content.
2 red flags to watch out for
Be on the lookout for red flags that forecast a bumpy relationship and a disappointing outcome.
The promise of results without a specific plan to get you there. When an agency is looking for new customers, they sometimes promise the moon, knowing once they sign a business, they’ve got a few months to make good on their promises. The sales team’s job is to present a compelling picture of success stories. If there isn’t a clear framework and plan for making it happen, you should be skeptical.
You’re not speaking to the team you’re going to be working with. Once you sign with an agency, you’ll work with account managers, specialists, coaches, trainers, and designers. If you’re not meeting these service team members during the sales process, you should be wary. Building a relationship with a sales rep is important, but not nearly as important as getting to know the team that will put it all into action.
Choosing the path to inbound success
With inbound marketing — as with any business venture — start out by imagining where you want to be in the future. The research shows that leads acquired through inbound marketing are much cheaper than leads acquired through outbound marketing, but those results are not immediate. Inbound marketing is an investment in your future, and it can yield an incredible return when it’s done the right way.
Be sure to do your homework before you reach out to agencies. Learn as much as you can about agency types, inbound marketing services, the content creation process, and SEO. What you learn could be a deciding factor as you speak to agencies that sound similar.
After doing your research and identifying your goals, the big decision you’ll have to make is determining which type of agency you believe will ultimately help you achieve your goals. While the philosophy guiding each agency’s work will be similar, the way they go about it — and your experience as a client — will be different.
An implementation agency offers you a quicker start and immediate expertise, but it’s more expensive. You’re stuck paying an agency in perpetuity for your results, but it’s pretty easy to switch to a different agency or stop the engagement completely.
A mastery agency requires a bigger investment up front, but you’re investing in a culture change at your organization. The mastery agency is more efficient in the long run — and you’ll only have to pay the agency until your team is fully onboarded and trained.
Regardless of which type of agency you choose, make sure every team member understands that the goal of inbound marketing is customer education. Commit your company to helping your customers make the right purchase decision for them.
Do this, and you’ll build trust and win more business in the long run.