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A Buyers' Guide to Marketing Agencies

How do you grow a business? How do you expand your customer base? How do you position yourself in the marketplace? How do you identify and target new kinds of customers? How do you tailor your message to them? How do you keep your own customers coming back rather than going to your competitors?

Marketing agencies exist not only to find answers to the above questions but also to implement the solutions. But the answers are different for everyone: no two businesses are alike and so no two marketing campaigns are identical. A marketing agency will work with you to identify what makes your company unique and use those insights to help you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

All of which means that finding the right marketing agency for your company is essential. This Buyers’ Guide will provide an introduction to the services on offer from marketing agencies and advice on finding the right company to grow your market share and boost your bottom line.

What Does a Marketing Agency Do?

Every business needs to communicate with existing and potential customers in order to pique interest in their products or services and, ultimately, sell them. The range of methods a business employs for this kind of communication is, in essence, marketing. This includes identifying an audience to communicate with, which channels to use to reach them, how to shape the communication for maximum effect and how to deal with your potential customers when they respond positively. A large part of marketing is also concerned with tracking the success of these communications to assess which methods are working and providing a return on investment and which aren’t and should be abandoned.

Of course marketing employs so many different tactics and strategies that there are too many to list here. Some of the most common methods include:

Direct Marketing

Contacting potential customers directly by telephone, email or post allows you to personalise your message to individuals and accurately measure response rates. Choosing who to contact is the most important part of direct marketing as a scattergun approach not only wastes resources but leaves you open to accusations of spamming or harassment. Many companies therefore carefully collect, maintain and protect their customer mailing lists for this reason.

Advertising

Placing adverts in newspapers or magazines, putting posters or billboards in public locations or even running a commercial on radio or television allows you to put your products and services before very large numbers of potential customers. Advertising can be very expensive though and it’s hard to track how people are responding. Modern technology makes this slightly easier e.g. you can ask people to quote a certain offer code or visit a certain website which lets you roughly track the number of responses. There is one method that doesn’t suffer this problem: online advertising lets you track exactly how many visitors your website gets as a result of ads on other sites.

Branding

A long term strategy which is very difficult to quantify but a key ingredient of all successful companies. Devising a brand identity and designing a brand image not only distinguishes your company from competitors but also provides logos, slogans and colour schemes that can be used throughout your marketing material and which becomes a useful shorthand that makes it easier for your message to spread. Companies like Coca-Cola or Nike have such strong branding that they’re recognised and trusted on a global scale.

Market Research

Before coming up with a marketing plan it’s essential to work out who your target audience are, how to identify them and how to reach them, who your competitors are and what marketing they’re doing, what marketing methods have worked for you in the past and a host of other factors that require in-depth research and analysis. This research can be outsourced or conducted in-house.

PR

Managing your public relations effectively can have many benefits for your marketing efforts. Gaining coverage in the media can put your brand before new target audiences and transfers some of the trust and authority that the particular media outlet has onto your brand (provided the coverage is positive!)

Social Media Marketing

This is a recent development but one that has been embraced wholeheartedly by forward thinking brands. Engaging with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare can help you build a community that trusts your brand and passes your message to others spontaneously. This form of marketing can be inexpensive but requires creative thinking and knowledge of the social media space and it’s difficult to work out how your enhanced social media presence translates into extra sales.

Search Engine Marketing

The internet is the first port of call for most people’s information and shopping enquiries. It’s no surprise then that a large contingent of the marketing industry is concerned with making websites appear higher in search engine results pages. This can be done ‘organically’ by investing in the content and quality of your website or through ‘paid search’ where you pay for clicks to your site via sponsored listings. This form of marketing allows extremely precise tracking but also needs the largest investment of time from skilled experts.

There are many other ways to get your message out to new customers or improve the relationships you have with existing customers that aren’t covered above: using affiliate or referral businesses like Groupon, for example, which get new customers through the door; leaflet drops which target only a local area; or loyalty schemes which help retain existing customers.

Deciding which marketing methods to use and in what proportion is all part of devising a marketing strategy – the single most important reason for employing a marketing agency. The right strategy will ensure that you’re only spending marketing budget in the most appropriate and effective ways to maximise your return on investment. It will also be a good fit for your company, matching your ethos, playing well with your existing customer base and laying a solid foundation for future marketing efforts.

Choosing a Marketing Agency

Selecting a company to manage your marketing efforts is no trivial task and should be handled with care. Quite apart from finding a company that has exciting and creative ideas, you also need a company that can work well with yourself and your team. You should therefore take the time to get in-depth proposals from several companies before making a decision. You can find suitable companies from whom to gather quotes by asking for recommendations from business acquaintances, looking for ads in industry press, by finding out who was responsible for marketing campaigns you particularly admired or simply searching online.

Some important factors that should influence your decision include:

  • Experience: Has the marketing company worked in your industry before? Have they run campaigns targeted at a similar audience to yours? How successful have they been?
  • Expertise: If you’re looking for a company to work on a particular aspect of marketing e.g. online or branding design, how skilled are they in this area? What evidence can they point to to back it up?
  • Reputation: Can the marketing agency provide testimonials and/or references from previous clients? Check for yourself how these clients found working with the marketing agency – how well tailored were the campaigns to their needs? Was the marketing agency pro-active?
  • Account Manager: Who will be your day-to-day contact at the marketing agency? How often will they report to you? Make sure that this person is in all preliminary meetings and interviews as it’s essential that you get on with them and trust them to understand and fulfil your needs.
  • Tracking: How does the marketing agency plan to track the success of its activities and how will they report this to you?

We would recommend meeting with potential candidates at least twice – you’ll be spending a lot of money via your marketing agency so you need to know that you can trust them. Make sure one of these meetings is at their offices as it will give you a good sense of what the agency is about and whether they’re a good match for your brand.

Ultimately the final decision will be made, to a large degree, on gut feeling and your reaction to the marketing agencies’ proposals for your company. As far as possible you shouldn’t let cost implications override this feeling – the amount you’ll be paying the agency is only a fraction of your overall marketing budget. Making sure that budget is spent effectively is the single most important consideration.

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