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With some services you can easily see they’ve done a poor job for you, if your car starts making a clunking sound after visiting the mechanic, you’ve probably got a bad mechanic. If your haircut looks horrible, you probably have a bad hairdresser. If you get the wrong leg amputated, you probably have a bad doctor.

Digital marketing can be a little more difficult to come to that conclusion.

How can business owners avoid being preyed upon by unethical digital marketing agencies?

The following are sure-fire things to watch out for when working with your digital agency, or to keep an eye out for when trying to procure services from one.

They offer one size fits all copy-and–paste services.

There is a common belief among many digital marketing agencies that “this is how marketing is done…” Meaning, it worked for one company so it works for all.

The reason they do this is it’s far easier to train staff, and to scale up their business when it’s the same work deployed over and over.

It’s very cooker-cutter and it’s probably bad for your business.

One of the key things to spot during your conversations with your agency is if they don’t ask many questions about your business. I mean real questions about your products, who your customers are and how your internal operations happen.

They lack transparency or manipulate reports

This is an interesting one but it can be very hard to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Marketing that successfully boosts your bottom line can be difficult, and certainly an agency holding themselves accountable for supporting that puts a lot on the line. If it’s not successful they could be fired!

Agencies end up putting a “spin” on numbers. “You can’t directly report on social media impact on sales, but you got 73 likes on this post so it’s encouraging engagement.” or “You have 11 keywords ranked #1 on Google.”

Or sometimes they manipulate information especially by leaving it out completely. It’s easier for them to say to you “we can’t connect this campaign to sales” then it is to be tightly connected with you on your successes.

Another thing many agencies do is they fail to open up any transparency around what they do and how they accomplish that. They use terms like “proprietary algorithms” to explain how they accomplish what they do.
If your agency promises results using their proprietary algorithm you should consider looking elsewhere.

They rely on confusing jargon

Many digital agencies like to confuse you and appear “smart” by over-using marketing jargon. They bank on the fact you won’t ask what all that really means in english.

“We’re going to build domain authority using backlinks with targeted anchor text to get you ranked #1 on Google.”

That’s nice, and confusing for anybody who just wants to run their business.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your agencies over-use of jargon with little real life explanation you should consider asking a lot of questions to understand specifically what they are saying.

They have traditional marketing services like radio advertising or tv advertising in their portfolio and believe that digital marketing is a natural extension of those services.

The original agencies were ad agencies. They did advertising in the form of radio or tv spots, magazine ads, brand development etc. They were super good at making things pretty.

Digital marketing, and the skills and know-how required to be good at it are not the same ones required to be a good advertiser.

A business that was built out to provide advertising services cannot naturally extend to digital marketing.
In my experience the type of people committed to brand development (right brain) are generally not as successful when left brain thinking is required. Creative marketers believe that marketing is an art, not a science and believe success is measured by brand loyalty and perception.

In fact, a traditional ad agency was built from the ground up with this type of thinking, and so has a natural disconnect from applying a healthy dose of science to their efforts.

They make fantastic guarantees like “first page on google”

I don’t want to paint all agencies with the same brush. Many are amazing at what they do.

However if they promise things that seem fantastic and unrealistic you should probably avoid doing any business with them.

This might be the type of conversations they would have with you:

  • We will guarantee you first page on Google
  • Guaranteed 200% ROI
  • Will double your database

At the very least, get to tactics. How are they going to do these things exactly? If they say they can do anything meaningful in less than 90 days, be very wary.

They use questionable tactics

Working with many of our customers we find they’ve been working with a service provider who, for whatever reason, has employed questionable tactics to get results.

One of our customers had an agency willingly upload code that spoofed the bounce rate across the entire site in order to ‘increase google ranks”. This is a well known black-hat tactic that they might already be paying the price for.

I’ve seen many SEO companies submit their clients site to content farms for short term boosts and long term problems.

What’s more interesting is that most agencies employing these tactics are also guilty of most of the other warnings I’ve included here so they are easy to spot.

You Need to Trust your Partners

Ultimately you need to trust the partners you work with. While procuring a partnership with a marketing organization you need to think about the long term impact of what they bring, and whether you feel comfortable with them.

Always consider the points above when considering any new partnership. And always review these points along the way to navigate your business into a relationship that will be mutually beneficial.

Most importantly, remember that any marketing effort is not like flipping a switch, it is more like pushing a flywheel. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, it can build upon its own momentum. If someone is telling you that they can give you marketing results instantly, the odds are you’re being swindled.

Craig Oliphant is a marketing expert with over a decade of experience in digital marketing. He has built online campaigns for multi-million dollar companies, and seen massive returns from very small investments. He has figured out ways to achieve repeatable results.