Hiring outside expertise to grow thought leadership, sales and market share is essential for companies that do not have the internal resources to do so. At TopRank Online Marketing, we have conversations with companies every day that have deep expertise in their fields, but when it comes to online marketing, they’ve realized the need for outside advice to take the business to the next level.
If a pre-existing relationship doesn’t already exist with a digital marketing agency it can be a challenge for companies to tell the difference between all the different consultants and agencies offering their services. Businesses use a variety of resources to find marketing consultants and when they do, there are several “signals” of credibility than can make the agency stand out over others.
As a “walk the talk” agency, here’s a list of such signals that TopRank is either implementing itself or for clients. It’s also an invitation to share which you feel are the most reliable or unreliable in the comments.
- CEO, Executive and/or Company Blog – Blogs can be exceptionally effective at communicating an agency’s point of view and corporate personality. Company web sites tend to be dry and careful or conversely, full of hype. A well written and promoted blog can do absolutely amazing things for an agency’s reputation in an industry. I think it’s safe to say that TopRank’s Online Marketing Blog is a good example of that.
- Social Media Footprint – The boon in social network usage by members of the search marketing community gives abundant opportunity to see another side of an online marketing agency. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn get most of the attention but there are niche networks and groups that may be smaller in numbers of members, but very rich in influence with buyers. Promoting unique knowledge through social media formats and networks can give important indications of an agency’s expertise in formats that can match the information consumption preferences of a variety of potential clients.
- Rock Star Employees & Thought Leaders – The ability for motivated staff to share their perspectives easily through numerous publishing channels online creates attention to talent that in the past, would have been squandered. Rather than seeing these brandividuals as potential liabilities, agencies that embrace and encourage smart expression of expertise can gain a significant advantage. Empowered employees that work with strong leadership within the agency are a powerful force.
- Conference Speaking – Baring it all in front of an audience so to speak, can go both ways. If the speaker knows their subject matter and can entertain as well, speaking at conferences, regional events, on webinars and at Universities can be very productive. However, if the speaker does not present well or “know their stuff” things can go badly. Presenting “too much” secret sauce to impress potential customers can also fuel the competition, so there is a fine line between being a standout and being an competitive liability.
- Client Testimonials – Client success stories are often one of the first things that catches the eye when looking at different marketing consultants. Common mistakes include testimonials that are too enthusiastic or those that are benign but packed as if they’re something special. Most importantly, testimonials should reflect issues of interest to the target audience.
- Case Studies – With more complex situations, companies want to drill down into specifics of how a company does what it does. The changing nature of the search marketing industry means a continuous set of problem/solution exercises. Case studies present a picture of a company’s breadth and depth of ability to solve a variety of issues.
- Industry Awards – Getting recognized by a respected third party can mean a quick trip to the credibility club. However, such awards are only as meaningful as the credibility of the entities giving them out. There are an increasing number of awards in the digital marketing space and if an agency’s accolades are made up entirely of awards and nothing else, you’ll probably find them looking in a mirror before you see them in front of a computer.
- Being Quoted by the Media – Being cited as an authority on a particular topic in a high profile publication can transform an agency’s reputation and credibility overnight. Getting profiled with a photo on the cover of a regional print publication had amazing effects for TopRank but not nearly as much as getting mentioned in a very favorable light in The Economist or mentions online by sites like Mashable, ClickZ, Yahoo SEM Blog, Microsoft Advertising Blog, Seth Godin’s Blog, eMarketer, Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land.
- Web Site’s Design & Functionality – A web site still says a lot about a company. A properly designed and informative web site can foster a sense of authority and credibility. Increasingly, agencies are adding social features to their websites such as blogs or syndicating external feeds from social channels and curating that content for readers.
- Editorial Contributions to Industry Publications – Contributing articles to prominent online or print publications gives companies an opportunity to show their unique problem solving abilities and expertise. By association with the publication, the agency also gets a boost in the credibility department. We’ve done this more in the past with publications like MediaPost, iMedia Connection and American Express OPEN Forum.
- Advertising – One way of “buying your reputation” is to advertise in all the places your target audience looks for credible information. Creative advertising on and offline over a period of time can do wonders when implemented with a strong editorial and social media marketing program. This takes a crack creative team and a very healthy budget.
- Conference Sponsorships – Primary sponsorships of the Platinum, Gold and Silver sort at prominent industry conferences can put companies front and center of the most desirable audience: Companies looking for more information on the industry and vendor sourcing. This also takes a healthy budget and as such, gives the impression that the sponsoring agencies are also very healthy. Media sponsorships are another avenue for promotion with most going to prominent print publications and some online pubs. Rarely if ever, is an agency allowed to be a media sponsor unless their blog or newsletter is highly visible and relevant.
- Frontline Staff - Answering the phone, speaking to prospects in meetings, networking online and offline, front line staff behavior can have leave a big impression (good or bad) on potential clients. Account Management and Client Services staff that work with existing customers also have a big impact on word of mouth between clients and the other companies they might refer the agency’s services to.
- Existance or Lack Thereof, of Embarrasing Employee or Executive Photos/Videos Online – If you’ve been to industry conferences, especially search marketing or blogging related events, then you know that attendees are “packing”. Packing smart phones that is, equipped with cameras, livestreaming video, Twitter and Facebook. Why some companies actually promote irreverent behavior of employees, I don’t really know. In fact, some agencies might even take seemingly blase photos and make them seem somewhat irreverent in the name of “humor”. Without context, such images can be as damaging to a brand as if they were true.
- Client List – You are who you associate with. Big brand clients brings a whole other set of challenges and opportunities. But seeing those big names often gives lesser known brand prospects a certain kind of warm fuzzy feeling, “If this agency made it through the vendor sourcing process with a Fortune 50 company, then they’re probably of the right caliber for my $500m company.”
- Search Engine Visibility on Competitive Industry Terms – I can’t tell you how many times companies have said, “We found you on Google by searching for (insert industry term here) and we figured if you can do it for yourself, you can probably do it for us.” I know, I know. There’s so much wrong with that kind of ranking logic these days, but it’s a fact of life in the search biz. Search engine visibility is a form of public relations and showing up for relevant, broad terms (as well as your niche specialties) makes your brand name (if your Title tags are written properly) associated with those terms.
- Brand – Message, Identity, Logo – There’s a lot that goes into creating a brand. I like the definition: “A brand is a promise kept”. Each interaction between a prospective company and something that communicates information about the agency is an opportunity to make a brand promise. Repeat interactions provide the opportunity to keep that promise. Thoughtful messaging and a well designed logo also convey important messages that evoke feelings which can either build or detract from credibility.
- Press Releases – Sending out non-news press releases, “We just moved to a new building” or “We launched a new web site design”, is worse than not sending any press releases at all. But sending out press releases to wire services and directly to cultivated lists of relevant industry publications sends signals of your credibility. And with clever pitching, they might even get you some press coverage.
- Research Published – In the same way that faculty at Universities gain prominence and reputation by publishing research in professional journals, companies that have the insight and resources to conduct real research and publish their findings create very strong signals of credibility. It is not only the execution of such research that makes it an effective “signal” though. The intelligent promotion of these learnings is as much or more important.
- Industry Association Involvement – Investing in the future of the overall industry through association involvement can give the impression that a company has a higher level commitment than those that are not involved. Being involved with setting industry standards, guidelines and even training programs can set an agency apart and give an indication of their expertise.
- The Agency’s Offices – While many internet marketing agencies operate virtually, most maintain physical offices. Depending on the manner in which the agency pitches potential clients, those offices can give an impression of the agency’s style, personality and health.
- Word on the Street, Buzz, Word of Mouth – First and foremost, doing good work is the cornerstone of building positive word of mouth. At the same time, successfully engaging the tactics on this list will build positive buzz, but the longevity of that buzz is only sustainable if the agency has something significant in it’s ability to deliver results, to back it up. There is such a thing as over-marketing and people are smart enough to realize that one company can’t do everything. Making it easy for clients to pass on the good news or making sure testimonials are properly promoted can extend a company’s reach with nominal marketing investment.
- Being Included on Industry “Lists” of Top Agencies – No matter how you slice and dice it, getting included on a list sends a signal. Lists are inherently controversial because getting included means others are excluded. If you know how to create and promote the right signals, like doing great work for clients and letting the world know about it, getting on the kinds of lists that build credibility is pretty straightforward. Leaving it to chance and expecting inclusion based purely on merit is flat out naive.
If you have experience hiring outside marketing expertise, especially online marketing services, what signals of credibility carry the most weight? What signals have you found to be unreliable? Please share in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook.