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Small Businesses Guide to Choosing a Digital Marketing Agency

Group work was the bane of my middle school existence. Choosing the right partner was harder than trying to figure out how to curl my bangs without burning my forehead. Choose someone lazy, and you do it all yourself. Choose someone who is a control freak and you never get to share your ideas and opinions. But when you find someone who helps carry the load, but still values your contributions and insights? 

Win, win. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t just stay in middle school. Every small business is constantly striving to grow, and marketing is an important component of that growth. And at some point, that means you’ll need a part. Whether you're looking to completely outsource your marketing or searching for a strategic partner to complement your in-house efforts, the right digital marketing agency can propel your business forward.

Choosing a digital marketing agency can be overwhelming. In fact, you’ll find information about it everywhere from agency websites to sites like Forbes or Entrepreneur

Below, we’re sharing what we’ve learned, both as small business owners and as an agency with over a decade of experience. What we have here is long. It’s probably not something you will read in one sitting. But, going through it could help you identify the kind of agency you want to work with and keep you from choosing poorly. 

Should You Hire a Digital Marketing Agency or In-House Talent?

Once every small business reaches the place where they know they need support, the question then becomes, “Should we hire in-house, or find a digital marketing agency?”

The advantages of hiring in-house shouldn’t be overlooked. 

  • Complete focus on your work, nothing else
  • Opportunity to immerse this person completely in your business
  • Full control of everything – don’t like the way a graphic turned out? You can keep asking for edits. 
  • Ability to grow your team as your business grows. 

Having your dedicated marketing team is a huge win for any business, and if you have the budget to go that route, you should seriously consider it. But, partnering with a digital marketing agency has some real advantages as well: 

  • More Expertise: It's a common challenge for many small businesses; they simply don't have the personnel specializing in all areas of digital marketing. When you partner with a seasoned digital marketing agency, you immediately gain access to a team of experts, each specialized in their domain, whether it's SEO, content creation, social media, or paid advertising. This is expertise that might take years and significant investment to develop in-house.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: At a glance, outsourcing might seem like an added cost. However, when you break it down, it often becomes clear that the expense of hiring a full-time, experienced marketing team — not to mention the tools and training they'd need — can be considerably higher than partnering with an agency. Agencies have the added advantage of scalability; you can adjust your spending based on your needs and budget, ensuring you get the most bang for your buck.
  • Staying Updated: The digital marketing landscape is in constant flux. New tools emerge, search algorithms change, and consumer behaviors shift. For a small business owner, staying on top of these changes can be overwhelming. Digital marketing agencies, however, have their finger on the pulse. Their very existence depends on staying ahead of the curve. When you partner with such an agency, you ensure that your marketing strategies are always in line with the latest best practices.
  • Efficient Resource Management: Time is a precious commodity for small business owners. By outsourcing your digital marketing, you can focus on what you do best — running your business. You no longer need to split your attention between managing your operations and trying to keep up with the ever-evolving world of online marketing. This efficiency can lead to better decision-making and, ultimately, business growth.
  • Access to Advanced Tools: Established agencies come equipped with state-of-the-art tools and software that can be quite expensive for a business to procure independently. From analytics dashboards to automation tools, agencies use these to optimize campaigns and offer insights that might not be available to you otherwise. By partnering, you get the benefits of these tools without the direct cost.

Choosing a Digital Marketing Agency Starts With Understanding Your Needs

Before seeking an agency, have a clear vision of what you need. Are you looking to improve SEO? Create a more engaging social media presence? By identifying gaps in your current strategy and setting clear objectives, you'll be better poised to find the perfect match. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Self-Assessment: Begin with a deep dive into your current digital marketing efforts. Analyze what's working and what isn't. This not only gives you a starting point but also a direction. It's essential to be self-aware of where your business currently stands in the digital landscape.
  • Set Clear Objectives: Merely wanting to "improve digital marketing" is too vague. Are you aiming to increase website traffic by 20%? Boost e-commerce sales? Gain a specific number of followers on a social platform within a quarter? Specific goals will give both you and the agency a clearer vision and a measurable target.
  • Identify Gaps: After setting goals, identify what's stopping you from reaching them with your current efforts. Is it a lack of content, poor SEO, irregular social media activity, or lack of expertise in paid advertising? Recognizing these gaps helps you pinpoint the services you'll need from an agency.
  • Determine Your Budget: Knowing how much you're willing to invest in digital marketing will help narrow down your agency choices. While you shouldn’t base your decision on cost alone, understanding your financial constraints ensures you find an agency that can deliver results within your budget.
  • Know Your Audience: An in-depth understanding of your target audience's behavior, preferences, and pain points is crucial. This information is invaluable to any agency you partner with and ensures the strategies developed are audience-centric.
  • Long-Term Vision: While immediate needs are essential, consider where you want your business to be in the next 5 or 10 years. A digital marketing agency can help lay the foundation for long-term growth, so ensure they're in the loop about your larger business aspirations.

Research and Recommendations – Navigating the Agency Landscape

Finding the right partner to market your small business is complex. It’s not like buying a pair of pants, where you can just return something that isn’t the right fit. You need to narrow down your search 

  • Word of Mouth: Begin with personal recommendations. Fellow business owners, colleagues, and peers can be invaluable sources. 
  • Online Reviews & Testimonials: Check out reviews from actual clients on places like Google or LinkedIn. Dive deep into these testimonials to gauge the satisfaction level of previous and current clients.
  • Industry Publications and Awards: Keep an eye on industry-specific publications or websites that rank or award digital marketing agencies. 
  • Agency's Digital Footprint: Investigate an agency’s online presence. Explore their website, blog, social media channels, and any other digital assets. 
  • Case Studies & Portfolio: Most reputable agencies showcase their success stories or client partnerships. Examine these case studies critically.

Key Things When Choosing a Digital Marketing Agency

A quick search for “digital marketing agency” can send you down a rabbit hole of hundreds of pages and websites. So how do you go about choosing an agency that is the right fit for your small business? Here are some things to look for. 

Industry Expertise: 

Every industry has its nuances. Check if the agency has experience in your specific niche or sector. Have they tackled challenges similar to yours? Can they help you avoid falling into some of the most prominent marketing myths? An agency with a deep understanding of your market landscape can craft campaigns that resonate more effectively with your audience.

Proven Results: 

Past performance often predicts future outcomes. Delve into their case studies to see the kind of results they've delivered. Are there tangible metrics like increased website traffic, lead conversion rates, or improved sales? These indicators can offer insights into both their strategic approach and the tangible results they're capable of achieving.


Trust is the bedrock of any successful partnership. Does the agency maintain open lines of communication? Will they provide you with regular updates, insights, and reports? An agency that's forthcoming about strategies, successes, and even setbacks indicates a commitment to a genuine, transparent partnership.

Value Alignment: 

Beyond strategies and results, your values must align. This ensures smoother communication and collaboration. Does the agency's work ethos, communication style, and values resonate with yours? An agency that feels like an extension of your team rather than an external entity can make the partnership more cohesive and effective.


Your insights into your business are invaluable. The ideal agency acknowledges this and actively seeks your input. Do they invite feedback, encourage brainstorming sessions, and value your suggestions? An agency that champions collaboration recognizes that the most effective campaigns are born from joint efforts.

Questions to Ask Potential Agencies

Selecting the right digital marketing agency involves asking the right questions. This ensures clarity in their approach, transparency in pricing, and a strong alignment with your objectives. Here are essential questions to guide your discussions:

  • How do you stay updated with the latest digital trends?
  • What tools are central to your marketing strategy?
  • How often do you report on performance metrics and results?
  • What is your plan for making changes based on data and metrics?
  • Are there any additional or hidden costs beyond the quoted price?
  • How do you handle changes in project scope or direction?
  • What's your approach to client collaboration and feedback?
  • Can you provide examples or case studies relevant to my industry?
  • How flexible are your packages in terms of scaling services up or down?

Make sure you receive satisfactory answers to these questions to ensure you're investing in a partnership that aligns with your business needs.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Choosing a Digital Marketing Agency

Choosing the right partner is hard…in middle school and in business. Awareness of these common mistakes can save you time, money, and potential heartache:

  • Choosing Based Solely on Cost: While it's essential to work within a budget, selecting an agency purely based on price can be counterproductive. The cheapest option might not deliver the quality or results you're expecting. Instead, look for value — the balance between cost and the potential return on your investment.
  • Skipping the Homework: Always take the time to verify an agency's credentials. Ask for and check references, read client reviews, and explore their portfolio. A credible agency will have a track record of success and happy clients willing to vouch for them.
  • Ignoring Cultural and Ethical Fit: Beyond skills and results, it's crucial for your chosen agency to align with your company's ethos, values, and culture. A mismatch here can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and a partnership that's more stressful than beneficial.
  • Not Setting Clear Expectations: Before entering into an agreement, ensure both you and the agency are on the same page regarding goals, deliverables, and timelines. A lack of clarity can lead to unmet expectations and disappointment.
  • Overlooking Long-Term Scalability: Your business will grow and evolve, and so will your marketing needs. Opt for an agency that can scale its services in line with your business's growth, rather than one that fits just your current requirements.

Remember, the goal is to establish a fruitful, long-term partnership with an agency that understands and champions your business vision.

Evaluating Proposals and Choosing a Digital Marketing Agency

Choosing a digital marketing agency is a pivotal decision for your business. You want to get it right. As proposals start rolling in, it's essential to have a systematic approach to evaluation:

  • Balancing Cost Against Services: While it's natural to gravitate towards proposals that are budget-friendly, it's equally important to weigh the depth and breadth of services offered. A lower cost might mean fewer services or less comprehensive strategies. Always ask: "Am I getting value for my money?"
  • Assessing the Agency's Flexibility: The digital landscape is dynamic, and your business's needs may shift over time. It's crucial to partner with an agency that demonstrates adaptability — one that can pivot strategies when required, rather than sticking rigidly to a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Potential for Scalability: As your business grows, your marketing needs will intensify and diversify. Opt for an agency that showcases scalability in its offerings, indicating they can handle your evolving requirements. This ensures that as you expand, your marketing strategies can evolve in tandem without the need to switch agencies.
  • Alignment with Your Business Goals: Ensure that the agency's proposal resonates with your business objectives. It should reflect an understanding of your industry, target audience, and growth ambitions. An agency that takes the time to tailor their proposal to your specific needs is likely more invested in your success.
  • Transparency and Clarity: A good proposal should be straightforward, devoid of jargon, and transparent about deliverables, timelines, and costs. Any ambiguities can be red flags, hinting at potential misunderstandings or hidden costs down the line.

In essence, while proposals offer a glimpse into an agency's approach and offerings, they also serve as a testament to their professionalism, attention to detail, and commitment to potential clients.

Digital Marketing for Small Businesses: Onboarding with an Agency

A successful partnership between a business and its digital marketing agency often hinges on the initial stages of engagement. A well-structured onboarding process is not just about ticking boxes; it's about fostering trust, setting clear expectations, and laying a robust foundation for future collaboration.

  • Setting the Stage with a Kickoff Meeting: This initial meeting is an opportunity for both parties to get acquainted. It's a time to discuss and align on project scope, objectives, key stakeholders, and communication protocols. This meeting sets the tone, ensuring both the agency and the business are on the same page from day one.
  • Understanding Timelines and Deliverables: Clarity on what to expect and when is pivotal. An agency should provide a clear roadmap detailing key milestones, project phases, and expected deliverables. This not only helps in setting expectations but also in gauging progress as the partnership advances.
  • Establishing Communication Channels: Decide on the primary modes of communication. Will there be weekly check-ins? Which platform will be used for communication – email, Slack, Trello? Knowing these details in advance prevents communication gaps and ensures that any concerns are addressed promptly.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Constructive feedback is the linchpin of a successful marketing strategy. Both parties should agree on feedback frequency (e.g., bi-weekly, monthly) and the format it should take, be it through formal meetings or written reports.
  • Transparency in Reporting: A reliable agency will provide regular updates on the performance metrics that matter to your business. This might include website traffic data, conversion rates, social media engagement, and more. Ensure that there's a clear understanding of which metrics will be tracked and how they will be reported.
  • Training & Tools: If the agency utilizes specific platforms or tools that your team isn't familiar with, consider asking for a training session. This empowers your team to engage meaningfully in discussions and decisions related to those platforms.

In essence, the onboarding process is a litmus test for the agency's professionalism, organizational skills, and commitment to your business. A smooth onboarding reflects an agency's dedication to creating lasting, effective partnerships.

How to Measure Success When Outsourcing Digital Marketing for Small Businesses

To truly understand the impact of your partnership with a digital marketing agency, it's crucial to define and measure success. This doesn't just revolve around numbers, but also the value and progress those numbers represent.

  • Setting Clear KPIs: Before any campaign or strategy kicks off, define Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These could range from website traffic and lead generation to conversion rates and customer retention. Clear KPIs provide a tangible way to assess the agency's performance against set benchmarks.
  • Reporting Frequency and Format: Determine how often you'd like to receive updates. Monthly reports might be suitable for long-term strategies, while more aggressive campaigns might necessitate weekly check-ins. Also, decide on the report format—some may prefer detailed presentations, while others might appreciate concise dashboards.
  • Analyzing Qualitative Feedback: While quantitative metrics provide a solid foundation, qualitative insights, such as customer feedback or user experience improvements, are equally pivotal. They offer a deeper dive into customer sentiment and can guide strategy adjustments.
  • Feedback Loops: Ensure there are structured channels for both the agency and your business to provide feedback. This fosters a culture of continuous improvement and collaborative evolution.
  • Pivoting Based on Data: Digital marketing isn't static. Consumer behaviors, industry trends, and technological advancements shift. It's essential to have an agency that doesn't just report numbers but also provides insights. They should suggest tweaks or overhauls based on analytics, ensuring your strategies remain optimized.
  • Long-Term vs. Short-Term Metrics: Understand that some metrics provide immediate insights, like click-through rates, while others, like brand awareness or loyalty, take time to cultivate. It's crucial to balance the urgency of short-term wins with the patience required for long-term gains.

Measuring success is not just about hitting targets but also understanding the journey to those achievements. It's about iterative learning, growing, and ensuring that every step taken aligns with the overarching business objectives.

Choosing a digital marketing agency is a pivotal decision for small businesses. The right partnership can amplify your reach, drive growth, and bolster your brand's online presence. View your agency not just as a service provider, but as a long-term ally in your business journey.

Call to Action: Ready to elevate your digital marketing game? At Flatland, we pride ourselves on bespoke strategies tailored to your unique business needs. Partner with us, and let's carve a path to digital success together!