Lee Odden

Is Your Online Marketing Agency a Dud? 23 Signals of Credibility

Lee Odden     Online Marketing

online marketingHiring 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.

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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. If I were in the client's shoes, I would put a lot of stock in those top 6. From my perspective, I think #3 is interesting. I see some agencies (like yours) allowing rock stars (like Adam Singer) to express their thoughts in a public forum. To create their own “personal brand.” Like you said, empowering them. I think traditionally, agencies have struggled with that approach for the same reason some don't list full staff on their Web sites (afraid of other agencies poaching talent). I guess, as a leader you have to be strong enough to believe your rock stars are going to stay with you–at least for as long as you can keep them. It's a different mindset, but clearly one that's working for certain shops right now.

    • Thanks for the comment Arik. I think if agency leadership doesn't make an effort to understand their budding thought leaders and how both individual goals and agency goals can be met through a common vision, then it's inevitable that the agency will lose that talent.

  2. What do you think about SEO companies, and how can you tell how good the SEO company is before you shell out big buck.


  3. Lee-

    Super post! I really thought your observations were spot on.

    Since your blog post is about evaluating whether or not your agency practices what it preaches, I thought your readers might be interested in reviewing a list of the top 100 most effective ad agency brands online (ranked by Heardable Score). It's a real-time list that changes as brands optimize.

    The list:

    A recent blog post about the list:

    Peace out,


  4. There are so many agencies nowadays that don't know what they are doing

  5. Good Stuff Lee, I think this was the first entry of 25 that I actually made it down to the 25th. All very unique and interesting things to look for as Im on my 3rd internet marketing firm. Thanks for the info!

  6. I’ve always been a little skeptical with SEO companies having almost spent a lot of time doing it in house. But there are so many companies offering SEO services it pretty confusing.

  7. Great post Lee! It is so important that when looking to hire a search marketing firm that you do your research and ensure their credibility. The things you have outlined above are really great indicators, my thought is that a company who practices what they preach and has created a trusted online presence for themselves in an honest manner is the way to go, and all the factors above play a part in that.

  8. It is very nice to read this post and i like the way you have described all the factors behind an online marketing campaigns and these should be taken into account when a plan for marketing is being done by company.

  9. Great list, I especially like #3 – too many companies see their employees as liabilities and are terrified of them hopping online and speaking their own mind – I think if you treat your staff well, and encourage your staff to bring their concerns to you, this would only work in your favor. Employees tweeting or posting about how they love working for a company is an excellent credibility booster.

    This also helps the frontline staff option – happier staff = happier customers, frontline staff can be a negative factor if people are always complaining about customer service or long hold times. People are too used to customer service centers and dealing with the frontline employees. It has to be a positive experience to leave a lasting impression, in my opinion.

    I really like the office one too, I personally tend to feel more connected to businesses who share photos of their offices on their blog or site. It seems more transparent and leads to better trust.

    • Thank you Rebekah, leadership and communication is essential these days when there are so many channels for expression. As for sharing photos, that's something we should probably do more of.

  10. I think it is important to see how you brand yourself as a business if you are going to help others do it. I wouldn't worry about how they rank because you can be a new business in the industry have quite a but of competition in front of you that has been there for a very long time.

  11. good post thanks for the info

  12. Very interesting article… I too looked for the same for long time. Thanks for the tips!

  13. Avatar Lisa | SEO Brisbane says

    I love that “A brand is a promise kept” I think that sums it up nicely.

  14. Research, case studies and original content go a long distance.

    Point #2 Social Media Footprint – It feels critical for any online marketing agency. If someone abandons a Twitter account without removing it…that's not a good sign. Content will always be king and consistency is significant as well.

    You have a great point about providing value to niche communities. That's an obvious sign of someone engaged in their industry.

    Excellent list, Lee!

  15. Just an additional thought. Your next potential rockstar employees are also looking for these signals.

  16. I enjoyed the article and I think I understand the reasoning behind your list, but many small businesses need the support of other, small seo companies, companies who don’t have office buildings for example. Can you give some advice on what sort of thing to look for in the small companies?

    • Lesley, there are many characteristics of credibility for small companies that can be demonstrated by using the list above. An office building really has nothing to do with any of them actually. Showing evidence of expertise, experience and trustworthiness are essential.

  17. This article nailed it. Most online or new media agencies brand themselves as web media experts just because they can click their way through the internet. While the world wide web is open to everybody, only a few bother to dig deep and study the dynamics of this very powerful media tool.

    PS You might also find this article helpful, http://sn.im/z1erz. It focuses on one of the
    points mentioned – editorial contributions and how they maximize your credibility online.

  18. Great article…people must do their research

  19. Avatar Bryan Bliss says

    Thanks, this crystallizes a few of the missing items for my to do list.
    but so many of these things are likely to have been done by agencies and simply for lack of time havent been publicized well enough.
    whats that about the cobblers family never having nice shoes or something.
    I can think of half a dozen of these items that are already in the done column for my “agency” but i simply need to spend the time to make their presence known and promote abit then i can go back to client work.

  20. I am happy to see, that many of your services actually do not refer to online marketing activities. I think, online marketing always requires a foundation in real live to be credible.