Choosing A Marketing Partner

Digital Marketing Services Might Look The Same: Here's How To Avoid Falling For Slick Sales & Pick A Winner

Michael Costin
"There are so many digital marketing agencies all saying the same thing, how am I supposed to tell the good from the bad"Australian Business Owners

I think I'd hear that line from business owners a couple of times a month.Or worse (but just as common):

"We used an agency, everything seemed good at the start, then as soon as I was on board I saw no results, no reports, had to chase them for feedback on my campaign and ended up blowing thousands for essentially nothing"Australian Business Owners

It's an all too common story.Unfortunately, there's no barrier to entry in this industry...Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can frame themselves as a "guru" and collect thousands from business owners for a service they're thoroughly unqualified to provide.Check this YouTube screenshot out:

Wannabe digital marketers are being sold a fantasy story about how easy, simple and lucrative it apparently is to just start a digital marketing service with no experience or skills.So called "experts" are flogging courses on the topic, then unleashing swathes of ill prepared "digital marketing gurus" onto the world.I've seen plenty of them "in the wild".For example, this person is based in Australia and was running Google ads for the keyword digital marketing agency to try and get clients to pay them for running Google Ads.So... they're charging businesses money to manage Google Ads, yet they had to go on Reddit and ask why their Google Ads weren't working.... the mind boggles:

Would you want this guy running your ads?I sure wouldn't.Here's another example.This person supposedly runs a digital marketing firm, the entire purpose of which is to generate customers for their clients, yet he is on Reddit asking... how to generate customers:

That first response is perfect!Sure, most of them fail just as quickly as they started when they realise that growing any business is a lot of tough work, not the easy dream they've been sold.But there's enough of them out there that Australian businesses are being burnt by bad services pretty regularly.I know because I hear it from business owners almost weekly.Because the problem is, these guys can build a decent looking site, talk the talk and sell the dream, to the point it makes it difficult to tell the pretenders from the true specialists.The same guys asking "how do I generate customers" on Reddit about their own business are the ones promising business owners that they will supposedly "double, triple or quadruple your growth" or "open the floodgates to more leads for your business".So, how do you avoid it happening to you.First, by maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism when speaking to any digital marketing agency.And second, by reading the rest of this post.I'm going to reveal some of the common tricks, angles and sales tactics these guys are using and some simple ways to gauge whether what they're saying is fact or fantasy.Let's go:

A Face To A Name?

The first thing to check out when assessing a digital marketing service is whether you can find the people behind the service.Who are the owners, who are the team members you'd be dealing with?A lot of dodgy services will have a flash brand, a nice website and lots of bold promises, but if you go to the About page or sniff around the site or social media profiles a little it's impossible to find the names of any one associated with the business, let alone any photos or information on the team.That's a red flag right off the bat.

Good Services

  1. Will list who owns the business
  2. Will list their team members
  3. Show their office and office life off

Bad Services

  1. Have a generic About page
  2. Hide who owns the business
  3. Don't have a team, or photos of their team / office life anywhere on their site or social profiles

Experience Counts

Assuming you know who the people behind the service are and who you'll be dealing with, it's well worth looking at their history a little.Do they have many years working in the industry that they can point to, or do they have a very short history, or no real experience other than working at their own company.This is super easy. Anyone that's a serious digital marketer will have a LinkedIn profile. You should look into the history of the person or people that own the agency as well as the team members.Yes, digital marketing is a relatively new industry and is fast moving and growing, so not everyone at every agency will have multi-year careers to point to, and that's totally reasonable.However, if you're investing a substantial amount each month you want that spent with people that know what they're doing, and picking an agency that has a fair amount of experience counts.

Good Services

  1. The owners have at least a decade of demonstrable experience working at agencies or in the digital marketing realm, ideally across multiple companies and ideally both agency and client side.
  2. The team members are also experienced, ideally having worked on big clients and brands.
  3. Juniors or inexperienced team members are fine, but they don't make up the bulk of the team.

Bad Services

  1. The owners have only a year or two experience, if that.
  2. The owners have no history of working anywhere other than their own agency - what were they up to before hand?
  3. Team members can't be found on LinkedIn. Sure, not everyone is on there, but most should be.
  4. Large number of juniors and inexperienced account managers

Don't just look at the owner or the sales person you're speaking to.Instead, dig into the profiles of some of the team members at the agency, as you'll be dealing with them ultimately. Five minutes invested in this could save you precious time and thousands of dollars.Here's a screenshot of what to look for (it's Local Digital's SEO specialist Arthur's LinkedIn profile).You can see he has worked at 4 different digital marketing agencies, has a history of promotion and has been doing this for over 7 years:

You could probably trust that he is good at what he does, as he has the experience.A quick sense check like that is well worth the time.

Prescription Without Assessment

Imagine you were in the market for some cosmetic surgery.You call two options.One of them says "Oh, a new nose you say? That will be $3,000 + GST but only if you book this month, do you want to give me your credit card details now?".The other says "A new nose is a very personal thing. It's best you come on in so I can assess you in person, make sure there are no problems with your airways and the like and tailor a plan specifically to you and your body to give you what you're looking for."Now I'm not saying you need a new nose, yours looks just fine!But the equivalent of the above is exactly what happens with dodgy agencies.When an agency cares more about sales than the customer's results, they're going to play the volume/numbers game. Sell, sell, sell whatever they can to whoever they can.They'll do most of their selling over the phone and try to "close on the call" where they can. They'll send you a cookie cutter proposal with your name swapped in for whoever the last company was they sent it to. They'll often have whiteboards up on display in the office with their sales numbers, ringing bells and gongs whenever they bring on another new client that they have not taken the time to assess and prescribe a solution for.The decent operators? Every single one of them will likely need to have a couple of calls with you to learn more about you/your goals/your company/your competitors, then go away and research your business and your market, then come back for another call or meeting. That's where they present a detailed and customised plan prescribed just for your business and your goals.So, generally speaking, the low quality and cheaper/nastier services will take the first approach, and generally the better options will take the second approach.

Promises They Can't Possibly Keep

This is one that personally riles me up a little, as there's a lot of businesses claiming they can offer all sorts of guarantees.And that's because when trying to gain a competitive advantage in crowded space like digital marketing, many brands offer money-back guarantees. The idea is that they build trust with customers and remove any unnecessary friction from theconversion funnel.When you see the word guarantee tread very carefully, especially if the service is SEO.You've probably seen the claims, they're usually along these lines:

  • first page in 90 days guaranteed
  • we'll rank you at the top in 60 days guaranteed or we work for free
  • 4x, 6x or 10x growth guaranteed

These "guarantees" work very well for the agencies as it reduces the perceived risk of their offering and will rarely be invoked by the customer, or if they are, only once many thousands of dollars have been blown.When they don't have proof of results, positive customer reviews, testimonials, case studies etc to back up their claims, offering bogus guarantees is a good substitute.The main problem I have with these types of guarantees is that most of the time what they are "guaranteeing" is not under their control, so if they're operating in good faith the guarantee should never have be made.For example, if they are guaranteeing your business will double or quadruple or 10x (or whatever other outlandish claim they're making) how does that work exactly? Where do the responsibilities start and end? Have they even assessed your business to see if this is realistic or is this just a blanket guarantee offered to anyone that comes along.Sure, they might be able to generate some leads. But it's your sales process that converts those leads into customers. If you're absolutely terrible at sales, those extra leads won't convert as well as if you had your sales cycle really dialed in.How does a marketing company then make a difference there, to the point you are quadrupuling your business? Are they getting involved in the day-to-day of your business and being given carte blanche to overhaul your sales operations? Do they even have the skills and resource for that, and what's more, is that something you would hand over?It's all very unlikely, so empty promises like that should be seen for what they are - a sales tactic to make their offer seam more appealing.In the SEO space, these "guarantees" are even more rampant.A common structure is:"[guaranteed result here] in [time frame here] or [sweetener here]"For example:first page in 60 days or we work for free.double your traffic in 90 days or it's half priceSo on and so forth.To be very clear, no SEO agency controls Google so they can't make any guarantees about specific SEO results on Google.Yes, there is a general process that works in SEO, and specific tactics that can be used that have achieved the desired results previously.Using these tactics should work.However, you can't in good faith guarantee them as all SEO agencies are relying on/hoping that Google responds well to the work done, but they certainly don't control that outcome.Anyone guaranteeing results is up to no good - it's that simple.At its best, they are using it to get you across the line because they believe they will achieve results and hope the guarantee never comes back to bite them.At it's worst, they will actively put hidden disclaimers and gotchas on the "guarantee" to ensure they always win.So, when it comes to performance guarantees, buyer beware! You won't find radio advertising companies or other forms of traditional media offering guaranteed results, because they know too much of that is outside of their control.However, with the barrier to entry to starting a "digital marketing agency" being so low, there is no shortage of people out there willing to make these claims.

Track Record of Results

Any service that has been working with clients for longer than 6 months should be able to point to case studies, testimonials, reviews etc that show they know what they're doing.Their websites should show off these results.Their presentations and proposals should be outlining specific results achieved for other clients, and how the same tactics could be used for you.If they're falling short in any of the following areas it's another red flag.


Reviews are the first area to look at.The thing is, they're very easily faked. So we need to figure out whether their reviews look real or not.Below is a screenshot of our Google reviews as of August 2020:

That's 44 reviews given for us over a timeframe of 5 years!We have worked with hundreds of clients around the country, but the fact of the matter is getting real, authentic reviews is hard.People don't tend to leave reviews unprompted, unless they have a bee in their bonnet and want to leave a negative one. Unprompted positive reviews are unfortunately rare.So, check out the agency's profiles and see how frequent the reviews are. If they are getting a lot of positive reviews, often, it can be a red flag. It could also mean they're good, so it's not always a deal breaker.But also check the reviews out.Are the people leaving them doing so from profiles with only 1 review ever left, just for that business? That's another red flag.Are the reviews all using similar language e.g naming team members or getting very specific about results achieved? That's another red flag, and could suggest the reviews are bought or controlled by the agency somehow.We've found in real, genuine reviews that clients are rarely leaving very specific numbers or feedback about their campaigns, rather, the comments tend to be more general. There's also usually a lot of variance in the writing style.The other thing to look for is patterns of lots of 1-star or bad reviews followed by a torrent of positive reviews immediately after. This suggests that the bad reviews are genuine and the agency has combated them with fake positive reviews to ensure their scores don't drop low.Don't just look at Google and Facebook, as there are numerous services out there for buying fake reviews, so agencies can control their rating and ensure everything looks positive for them. Look for where reviews might have been left on other platforms like Product Reviews, Womo, Clutch, Glassdoor, Sitejabber.Finally, check out forums like Whirlpool and search for the company name. You can often unearth some very real feedback there.

Case Studies & Testimonials

This one is pretty straight forward.At Local Digital, we use the line anyone can make you promises, we give you proof.So make sure the services you're looking at can give you proof.Dodgy services will talk a big talk but not have concrete evidence or relevant case studies to show for the campaigns they have run previously.Good agencies should be able to point to a large library of case studies and results they have achieved for other clients, and ideally, have testimonials or be able to refer you to speak to clients who have achieved good results.

Lock in Contracts

I debated whether to include this one, as there are plenty of legitimate reasons for having lock in contracts. An agency using lock in contracts doesn't immediately mean they are no good.However, at the end of the day, this post is about the common tactics and tricks low quality services tend to use, and lock in contracts are often one of them.A dodgy service will lock a client in to 6 months or 12 months and then deliver sub par work, but hold the contract over the client's head to ensure they keep paying each month.Or, they will give "guarantees" to try and win the deal that they don't hit but then keep the client locked in with these contracts.Decent operators should back the quality of the service and their results to keep their clients, rather than the threat of legal action and contracts.So when it comes to contracts, the old adage buy beware remains true. In and of itself, a lock in contract may not be dodgy, but combine it with some of the other points raised here and the red flags should well and truly be waving.

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Michael Costin
Michael is the co-founder at Local Digital. He has a decade of experience in the digital marketing space, and is a big enough nerd that he's well practised in all the common digital marketing channels, from SEO to copywriting, paid social to analytics and tracking.

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