Lee Odden

25 Ways Marketing Agencies Market Themselves

With so much uncertainty due to inflated promises, bad press and a fast changing industry, what “signals” of credibility do companies look for in trusted internet marketing partners and resources? Our gift to you today is an annotated list of 25. In one way or another, TopRank is involved with all of the following marketing and PR tactics either for ourselves or for our marketing and public relations clients.

But I’m also curious what Online Marketing Blog Readers have to say on this topic. Let’s have a little vote shall we? After the list there is a poll so you can vote for your favorite.

  • Client Testimonials – Tried and true, the client story of success is often one of the first things that catches the eye when looking at potential vendors. 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. Outside of OMMA, ad:tech and MIXX, search marketing has not had much in the way of industry awards compared to other industries like public relations. However, the Direct Marketing Association is launching a search marketing category in this year’s DMA07 ECHO Awards.
  • Being Quoted by the Press, Blogs – 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 on blogs such as Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land and the Yahoo Search and Search Marketing blogs.
  • Rock Star Employees & Thought Leaders – Because of conferences, blogs, forums and the love/hate relationship mainstream media has with the search marketing industry, certain people have become well known as subject matter experts and pundits. Having one or more of these “rock stars” on staff can give the indication that the agency has a competitive advantage. How many agencies would jump at the chance to have someone like Danny Sullivan as an employee?
  • Speaking Gigs – 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 and at Universities can be very productive. However, if the speaker does not prepare, present well or “know their stuff” things can go badly.
  • Web Site’s Design & Functionality – A web site still says a lot about a company and we’re as guilty as many, perhaps more so, for not updating our company web site in a very long time. TopRank is in a unique situation in that despite the sorry state of our web site, we receive 3-5 inquiries per day anyway. If that was not the case, our web site would have been updated several year ago. In a way, our blog has become our company web site but we do realize the power that a properly designed and informative web site can have at fostering a sense of authority and credibility. Finishing touches are in progress and a new site will be launched soon.
  • 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.
  • Advertising – One way of “buying your reputation” is to advertise in all the places your target audience looks for credible information. 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.
  • 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 cameras that is. 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.”
  • Competitors List – Same as item above. When lists of the “top agencies” are published, lesser known search marketing agencies listed along with other top firms successfully deploying the tactics on the list gain credibility by association.
  • 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.
  • Social Media FootprintForums, Social Networks, Images, Videos, Podcasts – The boon in social networks usage by members of the search marketing community gives abundant opportunity to see another side of an online marketing agency. Forums can be very useful to find helpful and knowledgeable staff that work for good agencies. 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.
  • 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.
  • CEO, Executive and/or Company Blog – Blogs can be exceptionally effective at imparting a company’s “genuine” philosophy 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. Online Marketing Blog is a good example of that.
  • 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.
  • Quality of Their Tchotchkes – Conference Schwag – I suppose indirectly, the quality of the schwag given out at conferences can influence in a very small way, what a company things of the brand of a vendor. But if a company makes decisions on vendors based on tchotchkes, then there are bigger problems to deal with first.

Quite a list to be sure and certainly applicable to any industry, not just online marketing. If you have other signals of credibility for agencies in the internet marketing business, let’s hear them in the comments. You can also vote!

What is the Strongest Signal of Credibility for a Marketing Agency?

  • Client Testimonials (25%, 14 Votes)
  • Word on the Street - Buzz - Word of Mouth (15%, 8 Votes)
  • Case Studies (13%, 7 Votes)
  • Being Quoted by the Press, Blogs (11%, 6 Votes)
  • Client List (7%, 4 Votes)
  • Rock Star Employees - Thought Leaders (5%, 3 Votes)
  • Web Site's Design - Functionality (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Editorial Contributions to Industry Publications (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Research Published (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Search Engine Rankings on Competitive Industry Terms (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Brand - Message, Identity, Logo (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Being Included on Industry "Lists" of Top Agencies (2%, 1 Votes)
  • The Agency's Offices (2%, 1 Votes)
  • CEO, Executive and/or Company Blog (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Press Releases (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Speaking Gigs (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Competitors List (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Social Media Footprint - Forums, Social Networks, Images, Videos, Podcasts (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Existance or Lack Thereof, of Embarrasing Employee or Executive Photos/Videos Online (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Industry Association Involvement (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Frontline Staff (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Conference Sponsorships (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Industry Awards (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Advertising (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Quality of Their Tchotchkes - Conference Schwag (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 55

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PoorSo SoOKGoodAwesome (5 votes, average: 4.20 out of 5)

Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. I get the idea that “Web Site’s Design & Functionality” is over rated. It would be low on my list as a credibility factor.

    It’s nice seeing Thought Leaders inside your organization. That would be a plus.

  2. Lee, I think all of your indicators of quality are important in their own right. One I would add is the in-depth conversation all buyers should have with any vendor on methodology and definitions of success. We’re long past the point where success in either PPC or SEO is based on some “secret sauce” that can’t be divluged. These days it’s about staying current on what the SE’s are doing but mostly about doing the hard work to make a campaign succeed. Good agencies should be able to spell out in detail what there methodologies are in managing campaigns and exactly what they will deliver to the client.

  3. I forgot to add one other criterion to consider — longevity in the industry. Someone who is calling themselves a consultant or agency should at least a few years’ worth of hands-on experience managing campaigns.

  4. Jon, I can see longevity having a great deal of influence. Another I didn’t mention specifically was exhibiting at industry tradeshows.

    Hopefully we can get some more votes on the poll.

  5. Thanks, Lee. I agree on the industry tradeshows, too. We started exhibiting this year and have had a tremenous response at the booth.

  6. Lee, you put together a great list. I’d have to rank Case Studies at the top of the list. But taking it even further, providing detailed, demonstrable results for specific clients. Sometimes case studies are a bit bland and generic… I think the “show me” factor is ultra-important in online marketing.

  7. This list is a fantastic resource. We are shopping for a new agency and although we know so much about marketing after all these years on the net, we are not techies, easy to get taken. Thank you.

  8. Great list, Lee. Very comprehensive. I put my vote in for case studies since that’s the “proof in the pudding.” Similarly, client testimonials essentially go hand in hand with the case studies as being important to credibility. Any agency worth hiring will have a strong history of providing top notch services for its clients, and the clients, in turn, will be happy to talk about it to the agency’s prospective clients.

    Thanks again,

  9. I agree with Glenn. Case studies with a plug in to the real world is critical. A hybrid of case studies with testimonials sprinkled in is the ultimate. Speaking + case studies + real world all in the same presentation is pretty much as good as it gets.

    I love being able to say I’ve been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, but having a short powerpoint deck with a relevant case study is always first out of the backpack.

  10. Hey Glenn, Tammy Mike and Scott. Thank you for your comments.

    I agree, case studies are important – that’s why we’re making it a big part of our new site.

    Scott, the combination you mention is a powerful one!

  11. This a really comprehensive list and it truly is a goldmine for companies looking for a helpful resource in seeking out a high quality online marketing agency. Although I agree that such aspects as case studies and client testimonials are extremely important in assessing the credibility of a marketing agency, it is so important not to overlook the less obvious signs of a good company. For example, it is important not to ignore even the quality and organization of the company’s website itself, which provides a clear indication as to what you would expect from the services they offer. In addition, a company’s or CEO’s blog can be highly informative as well, and I would certainly recommend potential clients seek this out as an additional means of assessing the desirability of a company.

  12. Thanks Mike. I think we’re scoring a D minus on the company web site but more like an A plus on the blog. 🙂

  13. Nice article Lee. I was surprised to see Being Quoted by the Press, Blogs so high on the list. Also, I’m curious who all these “Word on the Street” people are? I have yet to eavesdrop on a “who’s your favorite marketing agency” conversation. 🙂 I wonder if those that responded were considering the web as a metaphor for street?

    I also agree that longevity is important. Also, I think it’s important to include your gut feeling about the agency just as you would with any human interaction. Can you see yourself getting along with these people in a working relationship? Do you feel that their trustworthy?


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