Things you HAVE to know before choosing a Digital Marketing Firm.

Surely you’ve seen some of the the online chatter about “digital marketing.” There are a million platforms, channels, systems, software programs and “strategies” that are guaranteed to make you a million bucks. And every month it’s something new.

You using Facebook Messenger yet?

If you’re a business owner you have better things to do than follow the scuttlebutt about the shifting landscape within different specialties that fall under the banner of marketing.

It’s just too much information.

So let me give you a quick piece of advice… If you’re choosing a digital marketing firm, or thinking of hiring a “digital marketing specialist” in-house, just read this post.

This is the absolute bare minimum that you need to know before choosing a digital marketing firm. You can’t manage their work effectively if you don’t know the basics:

1. Know the definition of a “Digital Marketing Firm.”

Here’s a definition, used by one of the big players in that business:

“Digital marketing is data driven and targeted brand promotion through technology.”

“Data Driven” and “Targeted” are popular buzzwords these days. But guess what… Marketing consultants, direct response agencies and market research firms have always been “data driven.”

Even Advertising Agencies… They use hard market research data to devise creative campaigns, and then they use sophisticated media targeting to deliver the message to the right people.

This is NOT a new concept in the marketing world.

The digital firms are just using new technology to do the work on a more granular level. And for the most part, it’s good, valuable work that should be part of every marketing plan.

Note the use of the word “promotion”.

By definition, promotions are transactional tactical tools that can boost short term sales, which is great. But they do not build brand loyalty. Don’t confuse promotional tactics with brand strategy.

And wait a minute. That same firm also claims: “We have the means to take over your marketing from top to bottom, evaluate your brand’s needs and develop a powerful strategy that maximizes profits.”

That’s where they begin to overpromise.

I don’t know of any digital firms that have account planners, market researchers or brand managers on staff who can help you with a brand strategy. Digital marketing guys are technology-minded specialists. They’re not trained — nor wired — to see the big picture.

For that, you need a marketing consultant or a strategic branding firm. Even an ad agency would be a better choice for strategy work than a digital marketing firm.

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1. Know where digital marketing firms fit into the overall marketing landscape.

These days, digital firms are constantly preaching their “digital is the future of marketing” sermon. And a lot of business owners are buying into the idea that a digital marketing firm is all they’ll ever need.

But the world’s greatest brands, and the fastest growing small businesses, recognize one old-fashioned business school fact: The best marketing is a MIX of things.

You need a MIX of marketing tactics.

A MIX of marketing talent and perspectives — both generalists and specialists.

A MIX of different media outlets to keep your brand visible and relevant. Not just social media posts or paid Instagram ads.

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A healthy marketing mix means that some of your tactical marketing will be designed for a short-term bump in sales, while others will be designed for building long-term brand loyalty.

Some will be creative, design-oriented and “feel good” like what you get from design firms and ad agencies.

Some will be analytical and numbers-driven, like what you get from digital marketing firms.

And all those pieces should be aligned under one, coherent, overarching marketing strategy.

Strategy first. Tactics second. 

The old 4 P’s of Marketing still apply, and business owners need to pay attention to all four. Not just the one that’s covered by digital marketing firms.

There’s “Place” which has to do with distribution strategy.

There’s Pricing. 

There’s Product. (A great product makes all the other elements of marketing much easier.)

And finally, there’s “Promotions” which is a catch-all phrase that includes all advertising and  tactical marketing communications, including every specialized facet of Digital Marketing.

So you see, the tactical work that Digital Marketing firms do well — SEO, SEM, SMM, CPM and all those other confusing acronyms — is really just a small part of the overall tactical marketing picture.

Digital marketing firms like to compare themselves to “traditional advertising agencies” because the old, Mad Men model is an easy target.

But digital agencies are actually more similar to Direct Response agencies than they are to traditional ad agencies. Direct Response firms always have been driven by quantifiable data and measurable ROI.

I believe it won’t be long before the term “digital marketing” is dropped entirely from the industry jargon. Because everything’s digital these days. Even traditional old things like radio advertising and print are delivered digitally.

3.  Know the difference between marketing strategy and tactics.

Digital marketing firms will tell you how “strategic” their social media work is, and they’ll claim that everything they do is based on “strategic targeting.” That’s all good, but really, in the bigger scheme of things it’s just tactics. Do not expect marketing strategy from a digital marketing firm.

Mark Ritson, a world renown brand strategist and Professor of Brand Management puts it bluntly: “‘Digital Strategy’ is a contradiction in terms. What’s happening all the time now is tactics are getting perverted into ‘strategies’. What you really need is a marketing strategy.”

Strategy first, THEN tactics.

I know it’s confusing. And don’t feel bad if all your efforts have been tactical. Ritson says that 80% of all British companies don’t have a coherent marketing strategy. Everyone’s fixated on tactics these days.

Here’s a good post where you can read more about the differences between marketing strategy and tactics. 

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4. Know who’s really doing the work.

The business model for many Digital Marketing Firms is pretty simple: Outsourcing. They exploit and monetize multiple sources of cheap labor. They use crowdsourcing websites, they hire freelancers from Upwork or firms from Asia to do the work, and then they mark it up. Dramatically.

Some consulting firms also do that. It’s a good business model for them, but it’s not designed with the best interest of the client at heart.

There’s no synergy to those efforts because every little marketing tactic is being executed by a different person who knows nothing about your business. Plus, in most cases there’s no strategy to guide the efforts.

So before choosing a digital marketing firm, just know that they cannot help you with the big picture strategy work that’ll build your brand in the long run.

So you have two choices… Become your own, best brand manager and get really good at strategy, OR hire a brand strategy consultant to map things out before you ever jump on board with a digital marketing firm.

Without it, your digital tactics will not be as effective as everyone would like.

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