Whether you’ve worked with al digital marketing agency in the past or are about to embark on choosing your first one, here’s some great advice: Make a cup of coffee or grab a snack, sit down, and take a few minutes to read our checklist. A few minutes of due diligence now can potentially save you hours of problems down the road. If there’s one takeaway from this guide it’s don’t rush. You are the one making this decision, and just like any other good decision, you’ll need a bit of time to gather the facts. You can start by writing down what you need help with. Then attach some dates to your goals and be ready to present this list when you interview agencies. Remember that you are in charge of this process. There’s no pressure to make a snap decision. And even though this guide can help you, only you will know when the fit is right. Awesome online visibility awaits!

→ Perform several informational interviews – don’t rush, take your time and find the agency you feel comfortable with.

Maybe you are in a rush, but if so, we encourage you to consider slowing down your search for a digital marketing agency. Why? This is a decision that takes some research. Regardless of the great reputation of some agencies you may have heard of, you don’t know if you will like working with them and you especially don’t know if they are qualified to serve you. Your business is different than any other business — even if the agencies you are considering have worked in your vertical, they will have to prove that they can move the needle for you, specifically. To find this out, you need to perform several informational interviews. 4-5 is the number you should shoot for; less than that won’t allow you to do enough discovery work, and more than that may become overwhelming.

Try these questions on your interviews and tweak them to make them your own:

1) I want to meet my campaign manager. I want to ask him or her personally how they will build and manage my campaign.

2) Tell me a story that proves you have experience in my vertical.

3) How long has your digital marketing agency been in business? If it is new, where did you work before and what were your experiences there? Provide me with testimonials from that agency.

4) Tell me your plans to help me dominate my local area. (Or if you want to sell nationally, ask the question from that perspective.)

5) What are your plans for integrating social media into my campaign?

6) Will your campaign benchmark activities include a complete audit of my website and online assets? If so, what does that audit look like and how long will it take you to create this?

7) Why do you want to win my account?

Get introduced to your campaign manager and the entire staff that will work on your campaign. They will be setting expectations with you, and it’s important that you do the same with them.

This is an incredibly important point: Meeting your prospective campaign manager and staff will help you decide if the agency is really committed to your account. Is the manager creative, experienced and a good listener? These are some of the top qualities he or she must have to succeed with your account. The staff must also interview well with you; do they seem well-versed in what needs to be done to make the campaign a success? Look for indications that they and the manager are completely in sync, and look for them to give you clues to their individual talents. You want to work with specialists who are answerable to the manager but who are experts in their own right.

–> Determine if they are thought leaders

When looking into the background of a digital marketing agency a good point to consider is if they are thought leaders. Here are some ways to determine that:

1) Do agency principals or staff speak at digital marketing conferences?

2) Does the agency offer webinars?

3) What white papers or fact sheets have they written?

The above checklist can help you discover if the agencies you are considering have the necessary experience to develop and manage your campaign. If you find through your research that an agency has established expertise in your vertical, then it will merit a closer look.

→ Experience: Review case studies, reviews, testimonials

Some people think that case studies, testimonials and reviews can be skewed to make an agency look good. We believe that taking them all into account can spread your risk. If you find that a digital marketing agency’s experience is strong in your vertical, and that their customer service is equally strong, then that particular agency warrants an interview. Dig even further to discover their exact credentials to create and manage the campaign you want.

Today case studies are often written in short format for easy reading online. Ask the agencies on your short list to go into more detail about the before and after in their case studies. Listen particularly to the challenges faced and how the agency built a campaign to overcome them.

–> If you are trying to dominate a local area, then look for a digital marketing agency with specific local search experience.

Whether you sell chairs in San Francisco or shoes in Des Moines, if you want to dominate your competition in a local area, it’s imperative that you find an agency that offers expertise in local search. Ask the digital marketing agencies you are interviewing how they plan to ensure that your site shows up in Google’s local search results. Ask the agencies how they plan to integrate social media into your local search campaign. You can specifically ask how they will manage your Google + account to help you gain traction there. Dig deeper and ask them how they will use Facebook and Twitter ads to zero in on your target audience.

→ Don’t fall for the cheapest quote for services. Have agencies provide an in-depth Statement of Work for your campaign.

It’s easy to feel good about a low price. What’s most important is finding out what you get for your investment. Price is relative; a good idea is not to tell an agency what your budget is. Let them build a campaign and provide you with three choices – a gold, silver and bronze option, with respect to services and pricing. When reviewing campaign options between several digital marketing agencies, be sure you are comparing apples to apples. If you see a campaign you like from one agency, but want to know if another can produce a similar one for the same price, don’t hesitate to ask them. Your goal is to find the sweet spot between a digital marketing agency and staff that you really like, and a campaign that fits your needs and the resources you can afford to commit. With this mindset, you can shop even a bit outside what you perceive your price range to be. If an agency really wants your account, you may be able to strike a deal with them. This can be especially true if your company falls within a vertical that a digital marketing agency specializes in.

–> If you’re thinking of doing your online marketing in-house — be aware of the appropriation of resources that you will have to make – in both time and money – to stay on top of the latest trends and to develop and manage your campaigns.

You also have to keep on top of competitor campaigns. You’ll need expert knowledge to be able to pivot when necessary so you can take advantage of opportunities. You may not have time to do all of this and also run your business.

If you still are on the fence about doing your marketing yourself and outsourcing (which does not mean you are giving up control) then perhaps you should wait, and think the decision through a bit more. You may wish to examine the costs of ramping up some of your internal people with training (short-term and ongoing) versus hiring a digital marketing agency. Adjust your informational interviewing to include interviews with companies who have set up internal marketing departments. And don’t forget — many companies do both. So you could try that as well. Your internal people can liaison with external vendors and many a profitable marketing relationship has been built this way.