95 key questions to ask when choosing your next Chicago marketing partner

According to the 2018 Content Marketing Institute Report, 56% of companies in America outsource their marketing functions to third party agencies. The one service third party vendors offer that best serves most companies is content marketing.

In Chicago alone, there are hundreds of companies that provide content marketing services. We would know, since they are our competitors.

We also know what differentiates a great marketing company from an average one because nearly all the customers in our fold have come to us after less than ideal experiences with other Chicago marketing companies.

Here’s another point every director of marketing who is seeking a partner should remember, even though it is obvious: not all marketing activities are created equal.

Unfortunately, in an effort to cut costs or maybe because the staff is not quick to incorporate the latest marketing and SEO trends, too many agencies continue to deliver work that doesn’t provide the appropriate ROI.

When that happens, you get something that looks good in theory but fails miserably in practice, just like this piece of fine workmanship:

chicago marketing companies

Getting the right Chicago marketing company as your partner is very similar to interviewing a new candidate for an internal job. You need to ask the right questions and look for the right signals. Through this process you are doing your best to make sure you’re getting the right company for the job.

In this article, we want to give you a flavor of all the questions you would be wise to ask a Chicago marketing company, or really any company, with which you plan on doing business. We will also show you our reasoning behind why these are the questions to ask and tell you very frankly how we answer each one.

We don’t claim to have the best possible answers on planet earth. We certainly don’t want to suggest there are no other questions you would want to ask a new agency. That said, reading this article will absolutely set you up for success. It will teach you what to ask, why, and what to look for when choosing your next content and digital marketing partner.

To help you save time and read more efficiently, the questions are grouped into themed sections.  This way, you can read the sections that apply to you and skip the ones that don’t.

Are you excited to see the list? We’re excited to share it!

  • Post 1: Chicago marketing company basics (11 questions) l Chicago marketing agencies: long term viability (4 questions) l Probing how a Chicago marketing company can improve your current marketing (4 questions)
  • Post 2: Working as partners with a Chicago marketing agency (11 questions) l Process and engagement questions (11 questions) l Marketing agency breadth of services offered (7 questions)
  • Post 3: Knowledge of your industry (4 questions) Prove that you eat your own dog food (2 questions) l Data driven / results driven (5 questions) Long term outlook (3 questions) Business strategy expertise (4 questions)
  • Post 4: Skills and Experience (4 questions) Search Engine Optimizations Expertise (7 questions) Content Marketing questions (7 questions) Social Media questions (6 questions) Pricing (7 questions)

Chicago marketing company basics:

1) What services do you offer?

chicago marketing companies

When looking for a new Chicago marketing company partner to work on your marketing activities, chances are you have a very specific need. For example, you are exploring how to best outsource your content production, or you need help with banner ad design.  Maybe you need ebook design/ content, etc.

Whatever that task might be, it’s unlikely you begin the process thinking: “I’m going to get an outsourcing partner to handle all my marketing work.”

Almost certainly, as the search process continues and as your company evolves, your needs will change. One month you need help with some activities and some other month you may need something totally new, unforeseen and unrelated.

For this reason, you want to make sure that as you search among marketing agencies in Chicago and consider the universe of marketing activities, the vendor you choose should be positioned in such a way that it can deliver on a wide variety of marketing tasks. Ideally, you will find one vendor who can help you with anything that comes up within a specific field.

At Digital Authority Partners, it’s very common for us to begin partnerships with different companies simply by working on their marketing efforts (especially content marketing). The number and diversity of the work performed as part of that relationship dramatically evolves over a surprising short time.

For example, plenty of contracts began with blog posts, which then expanded to website redesigns and analytics campaigns, eventually morphing into company brochures, conference materials and more.

Bottomline: look for a marketing service provider that can easily scale up or down, based on your business needs.

 

2) What are the core capabilities of your company?

chicago marketing companies

Every above average Chicago marketing company, or any well-structured organization, should provide a set of core capabilities along with “other services”. An excellent company performs a few things remarkably well and also provides additional very good services.

The key, of course, is to choose the marketing vendor who excels at a series of core services that are absolutely critical to the overall success of your marketing efforts.

For example, Digital Authority Partners started as an SEO and content strategy company. It was a two man show (a content writer/strategist and a visual designer) with a 5K per month contract. Within a year, we were earning $1M in revenue, so we added more people and disciplines to our core services.

To put it simply, our Chicago marketing company grew substantially year-over-year because we were able to define the right type of content, for the right B2B customer at the right time, putting us above other marketing agencies in Chicago.

Also, since we had an SEO background, the content we produced put our customers on the top page of Google search results every single time.

Nowadays, though, writing good content isn’t enough. You need great content accompanied by outstanding design and the right mix of SEO keywords.

Our core competency remains the perfect combination of creating informative and engaging long form content, SEO research and visual assets that go along with creating blogs and white papers that are guaranteed to rank organically.

Bottomline: Make sure the Chicago marketing company you hire can perfectly deliver the core service you want and expand from there.

 

3) What sets you apart from other Chicago marketing companies?

chicago marketing companies

Ask this question of ten companies, nine will struggle and the tenth will try to make something up on the spot.

Marketing, in general, is a commodified service. Many agencies do it, but few will let you know exactly what you’re getting.

Although DAP began with one content writer/ strategist and one designer as a contractor. But that wasn’t enough to do a great job – not because of the number of employees, but because of capabilities.

Digital Authority Partners is different from other Chicago marketing companies simply because we take a data-driven approach to content marketing.

It took a while to follow that path to success, both from a process perspective and resourcing point of view. That’s because we consider effective marketing to be driven more by process and analytics than anything else. Not everyone agrees with our method, but our results are unquestionable.

So for example, when we work with a new client, we assign an account manager who works with an SEO specialist and an analytics manager to exactly define the best mix of content, design and analysts that will result in the perfect marketing strategy for a specific set of business goals.

Data is king! We firmly believe that market data, user data and SEO data should drive the content strategy and execution.

Although, this is our approach, we recognize that it is not the only approach or even always the best one for any specific situation.

The point of asking this question is simply to ascertain what makes one company’s process, approach and philosophy towards marketing different from the rest.

If you ask five agencies the same question, you will end up with the right marketing company that is best aligned with your overall goals. That’s the dream of any director of marketing looking for the right vendor.

 

4) How many employees do you have?

chicago marketing companies

This question is important for one simple reason: the scalability of your marketing efforts. Although some people prefer to deal with boutique agencies, most clients opt for marketing company partners that can scale up and down.

So what’s the magic number? In our experience, it’s best to deal with Chicago marketing companies (or marketing agencies in any city) that have at least twenty employees. We are not saying that just because of our own employee count (We have 50 full time resources and an additional 16 freelancers).

Twenty is the minimum viable number because although you often start working with a partner on a specific task, marketing deliverables are usually very versatile and change-sometimes quite suddenly. That means you want to work with a marketing vendor that can reliably provide a wide range of deliverables to you.

The more marketing needs you have, the less likely it becomes that marketing vendors with less than twenty employees can meet your needs.  This is basically because there simply is not enough versatility built into the crew.

Digital Authority Partners knows first-hand how it is to struggle with changing marketing needs until you have the right quantity of people with the appropriate skills on your team.

 

5) How does your company marketing experience apply to my needs?

Many directors of marketing often ask pointed questions about an agency’s background in a specific industry. For example: what is your background in the financial space?

It may at first seem easier to compare apples to apples within your specific field, but asking a narrowly focused question is deceiving. Experience in a specific field just means a marketing company has had the opportunity to work with a client who happens to have a background similar to yours.

The more important question is whether this Chicago marketing company has the right mix of resources, and the flexibility, for a specific job.

Marketing is a science. Chicago marketing companies that succeed at their work, do so because they apply a clever mix of scientific methodology and art to any industry.

Google’s ranking system for content strategy is NOT industry specific. It’s data driven. If you even glance at this fabulous rundown of 200 different factors Google considers in ranking content, you will immediately see that these are not industry specific.

Taking these factors into consideration, the best question to ask about background is one that clarifies whether the agency has the right mix of people who have deep experience in their own specific specialities.

As a general rule, choose a vendor who can assign the following resources to your account:

  • Content Strategist
  • Marketing manager
  • Brand manager
  • SEO specialist
  • Analytics manager
  • Content writers
  • Editors
  • Project manager

Bottomline: Content strategy, done right, is both a collaborative process which requires people with different backgrounds to come together and work towards the same goal.

As such, it would be wise to ask the agency you’re considering hiring to share the profiles of the people who will be assigned to your specific account. This way,  you can make sure each, or at least most resources assigned to your account, have enough experience (minimum 3 years) in this field ensure the success of your marketing project.  

6) When will work begin?

chicago marketing companies

This question seems straightforward. However, we’ve noticed that few marketing stakeholders ask this directly. Why? Unless you are approaching a Chicago marketing company during the slow part of the year (January to March), most agencies have some sort of wait time before they can fully dedicate themselves to a new client.

Digital Authority Partners can usually begin work on a project within 30 days of signing a contract.

In the midst of this, it is important to remember that the true sense of the work involves a wide variety of multiple tasks. Some can be done independently, others can only be performed in a specific sequence and in conjunction with other tasks.

Hitting the ground running with a new marketing initiative is no trivial event. It requires much effort from multiple resources.

Depending on your specific business objectives, you need to make sure that both your team and the agency’s team can align themselves in such a way that a new campaign can start on time. The worst thing you can do is start off on the wrong foot because many of your steps are quite public.

Bottomline: Make sure you communicate honestly with your marketing agency partner about your specific needs and expectations as you prepare to start a new partnership.

 

7) How can I learn more about you online?

chicago marketing companies

Two simple words need to be front and center in this vetting process: “thought leadership”. Any Chicago marketing company should consistently push you towards showcasing your thought leadership online – on your own website and on other outlets as well.

More importantly, Marketing agencies in Chicago, and everywhere else, should be doing the same. Great companies don’t just help you and your marketing efforts. They’re eating their own dog food, so to speak. In the process of showing off your company, they showcase their expertise more than any sales pitch will ever do.

For example, if you perform a Google search on any of the following keywords, you should see thought leadership content Digital Authority Partners has created for itself so that we rank either at or near the top of search results for: “digital marketing blogs,” “how to market in financial services,” “marketing plan for financial services,” “social media whitepaper.” These are only a few of the keywords in a long list of targeted searches.

Online searches tied to a company’s name will showcase another factor–the wide variety of initiatives on which they are working.

If you look up Digital Authority Partners, you will discover some of our coolest identifiers. For example, you’ll find critical information about who we are and what we believe in such as:

  1. We’re the 2018 recipient of the prestigious Timmy Award for Best Workplace for Diversity
  2. DAP has been chosen as a certified Mixpanel analytics partner for enterprise analytics implementations
  3. The series of articles I wrote about how to build a multi-million dollar company in 3 years including the Good, the Bad and the Ugly aspects of building a successful business.  
  4. The digital magazine we launched dedicated to healthcare executives.

And much more!

Bottomline: before engaging any vendor, look beyond one narrow data point (usually in the form of a sales deck). You want to get as much information about who the company is, what they stand for and their own thought leadership activities. All that info should be online and easily accessible for honest Chicago marketing companies, or any other creditable company.

 

8) What are your credentials?

chicago marketing companies

This one is a simple and virtually every marketing director knows to ask for it. If you’re good at what you do, results should be there. In simple words, if you want to rank for SEO purposes, any Chicago marketing company should be eager to show you examples of their previous work.

But here’s the trick.

If you market for enough for clients, you’re bound to have some results. What truly matters is simply this: does the Chicago marketing company you’re evaluating have a clear process for helping you reach your objectives? As mentioned earlier, Google takes 200 factors into account for ranking purposes. Is the vendor you’re looking at aware of these factors?  Do they know how to apply those principles to your specific case?

Credentials come in many forms:

  • Similar work
  • Client list
  • Recommendations
  • Results
  • Process

Digital Authority Partners strongly believes the most important two factors from the list above are process and results. If the company you’re evaluating clearly reveals those two points, you are in excellent and honest company.

9) What is the structure of your organization?

chicago marketing companies

Few people think to ask this question – but it is a revealing one. The structure of a company reflects its culture. We’ve all seen and dealt with people who have the “ivory tower complex.” They speak only with people of their rank and treat their subordinates like inferior people.

That’s wrong – but it’s also something that happens when organizations are structured around pillars of power, divisions and business units.

Always look for companies with a flat structure, a collaborative environment and team members who are more or less on the same level. Why? Because the more nimble the org chart is, the more flexible the team is.

Within Digital Authority Partners, we have a head of marketing who reports to me, the CEO of the company.  Even so, we consider everyone else to be on the same level. The second there’s a complaint from any of our clients – I hear about it and we get right to fixing it.

This ability to move quickly and to act as equals is paramount.. We value our customers and we want them to be with us in the long run. Keeping the structure simple and the feedback loop open so any compliments and concerns are immediately heard by anyone within the organization makes this possible.  As with so much of life, open and honest communication keeps many gears moving smoothly.

 

10) How many clients have you kept for more than one project?


What goes through your mind when you look at a candidate who has held 10 jobs in the last 5 years?

I don’t know about you but this is my reaction:

chicago marketing companies

If an employee changes jobs every 6 months, something is not quite right.  You probably shouldn’t risk hiring that person.

The same about Chicago marketing companies, or any partnership you might form-professional or personal..

If you do right by your customers, they’ll work with you a long time.  Usually that means until one of these two scenarios occurs:

  1. Internal resources are hired to do the work
  2. The primary stakeholder leaves and the company changes directions which affects the primary vendors.

At Digital Authority Partners, we are very proud that our customers usually stay with us, on average, for 2 years. We’re even more proud to say that 80% of our clients sign additional statements of work with us beyond the one specific job for which we are hired. That speaks volumes about the high quality of our work, our culture, and our ability to help our customers in varied ways.

Bottomline: always ask about attrition rates. Choose the vendor that you believe will prove to be a strategic partner for your company in the long run, not just for one project.

 

11) Have you conducted any international marketing campaigns or is your focus primarily domestic?

chicago marketing companies

Most of our customers are US-based and their focus is primarily American customers. That said, we’re often asked about our international reach.

Directors of marketing should ask this question of a Chicago marketing company regardless of whether they plan to market their products and services internationally.

America is a melting pot of thousands of cultures, with people of innumerable backgrounds and languages. Having a partner well versed in marketing to multiple types of audiences is critical to the overall success of your product.

Internationalization of marketing efforts is not necessarily a difficult task. However, depending on your objectives, you may want to to quickly launch certain marketing activities.  In order for those efforts to be successful, you would of course prefer to work with the right partner.

Last year, Digital Authority Partners worked with a client on a campaign that included targeted messaging in the US, Canada, parts of Europe and South America.

For us, running campaigns in French was a new experience. We learned, for example, that the message and creatives we did in English didn’t quite render the same way in French – and it wasn’t a language issue.

French words are significantly longer than their corresponding English words. Even if Canadians are culturally are very close to those in the US (in many ways, not all!), running marketing campaigns in Quebecois French wasn’t a simple “lift and shift”. Instead, designs, copy, and branding style all needed to be adjusted accordingly.

That was a very revealing experience for us. In future, we will be significantly better positioned to operate in a Quebecois French-speaking market.

Bottomline: if you foresee any need to cater your content marketing efforts to specific countries, culture and demographics, you must communicate that at the beginning of negotiations.

Many marketing agencies in Chicago will either have direct experience or can tap into their existing partner network to launch an international campaign. It’s best to know right away exactly what to expect, though.

 

Chicago Marketing Agencies: long term viability

12) What’s your growth rate year over year?

chicago marketing companies

A company’s growth rate is indicative of their ability to adapt, try out new strategies and grow strategically year-over-year.

There is, of course, variation across agencies based on their mission, scope, and salesforce, among other factors.

Steady overall growth means the company is doing something well and is more likely to help you grow, too.

At Digital Authority Partners, we have grown 200% year-over-year since we started three years ago. The common denominator has not been too shabby, either. We’ve gone from $1 million in revenue in 2016 to over 3.5 million in revenue this year.

We’ve done this progressively by adding new resources and, new services thereby strategically and successfully growing the company.

Bottomline: although you shouldn’t expect huge growth rates from your vendors, you should reasonably expect them to trend in the right direction. If they’re growing, they can help you grow too!

13) How long has your company been in business?

chicago marketing companies

This is typically the question enterprises care about the most .

In part, this question is an indirect way of asking about long payment terms (for example, some government organizations have payment terms of 120 business days) and the risk-averse nature of corporations.

Some clients want to make sure their vendors have been in business long enough that they won’t go out of business while working on a contract.

How long a business has been in operation also shows how much time they have had to build their process, brand and methods of working with clients on a variety of projects.

The length of time a company has been in business does not necessarily correlate with the quality of the service, however. Think of it as an employer interviewing an applicant. Someone with ten years of experience MAY be better than someone with five years of experience, but there is no guarantee on that point. For a more in-depth analysis of this topic, read this great article: “Years of experience won’t make you qualified for a job. And here’s why.

Digital Authority Partners, by the way, has only been in business since 2015, but you would never guess that when looking at our client base or the types of projects we have completed.

Bottomline: Ask the question about years in business but don’t let that be the deciding factor of whether to hire a specific Chicago marketing agency, or any other type of vendor. As long as the  company did not open the day before yesterday, this should not be the determinant factor.

 

14) What is your employee turnover?

chicago marketing companies

This question is actually very relevant. When you choose your next Chicago marketing company as a partner, you want to make sure you will work with a team that has a low turnover. After all, outsourcing your marketing activities simply means you now have an extended team that’s not within your immediate org chart.

I once worked on a project during which 4 different people served as the main point of contact within twelve months. Every three months or so, I had to reintroduce a new leader to the work we were doing and help them get up to speed.  In short, with each new hire the project was again basically starting from scratch. It wasted the time of everyone involved-and in the case of the client, money was also wasted

That is untenable.

An agency might not give a straightforward answer to this question; you should push the issue anyway.

If you find a Chicago marketing agency with a low turnover rate, that’s a great indication the company is stable, employees are happy and that your extended team will perform well. The average turnover rate in the US right now is 15%, with some industries performing better than others.

At Digital Authority Partners we had a 4% turnover rate in 2017 and 0% so far in 2018. That means our turnover rate over the last two years is 2%. As a result, our long term contracts have seen virtually no change in the people with whom they work over the last two  years..

For clients, that consistency matters truly matters!

Bottomline: when you choose your next Chicago marketing company, make sure you look closely at the turnover rate. The lower the turnover, the better your chances of having a long-lasting relationship with that marketing firm.

 

15) How do you attract new employees?

chicago marketing companies

When you get an honest answer to this question, you get a glimpse into your marketing partner’s corporate culture, its philosophy and its ways of interacting with both customers and employees. How people recruit and retain their talent is the most important factor you should consider when choosing a Chicago marketing company for your next project.

Why? More often than not, you choose a marketing partner because that team has the skills you don’t have on your team. Of course, there are other considerations, too – for instance, it is often more affordable to use an agency than hire in-house because you have a budget for contractors but not for adding to your headcount, etc.

At base, hiring a new marketing partner is predicated on gaining access to a pool of talented people that you don’t have in-house.

So it makes sense to consider asking how the company attracts the talent that could become part of your extended team.

Digital Authority Partners recently won an award in recognition for its unique hiring practices as a leader in the tech world—the 2018 Timmy Award for Best Workplace for Diversity due to our unique approach to hiring.  If you want to learn more about how we recruit, you can read this article (look for the “Hiring: New and Improved” section).

In addition to devising a unique way of finding the most qualified people for the job regardless of personal background, we also aggressively try to provide our employees with flexibility and benefits to keep them on board.

Some of our key employee benefits include:

  • Fully paid medical insurance with 90% copayments and only a $500 deductible (a $10,000 benefit/ year for each of our employees).
  • Unlimited time off
  • 4% 401k match
  • Free drinks & snacks
  • Financial incentives for out-of-the-box strategies to get new business
  • Commission paid for any referral of any kind that increases as employees get us more business (3-10%)

Bottomline: look for vendors who go out of their way to recruit and keep the best people for the job. Ultimately, you want access to an excellent team that serves as a reliable, highly motivated  extension of your department that will help you to achieve your business goals.

 

Probing how a Chicago marketing company can improve your current marketing process

 

16) What are 5 ways to improve our marketing?

chicago marketing companies

This is a question any hiring agent should ask a potential vendor after having explained current needs, challenges and business objectives. Sometimes answering this question is a struggle if the potential client is not honest or doesn’t provide enough information about their current state.

Even so, if you, as a client, perform your due diligence to explain your stance in detail, any potential vendor should provide you with an informed opinion on how you can improve.

A vendor should talk to you about areas of improvement within any of the following topics:

  • Branding and messaging
  • Website design and conversion opportunities
  • Your current marketing collaterals
  • Previously published content on your site (blogs/ ebooks etc)
  • Technical SEO

There might be other specific areas for improvement, but these are more or less the same across all industries.

Bottomline: before choosing a vendor, ask for a quick assessment of your current situation and some high-level recommendations.

That is one of the ways you separate the fluffy Chicago marketing companies from those that actually know exactly what to do and how to do it. Be conscious of the fact that a potential vendor can only give you recommendations if you provide honest information, such as your current strategies, challenges and the overall objectives for your marketing efforts.

 

17) What do you think of our current marketing strategies / execution?

chicago marketing companies

In roughly 90% of cases, it is easy to pinpoint areas where our prospective customers aren’t handling their digital marketing efforts well. Some of the most common issues prospective customers include in their analysis of Chicago marketing companies fall into a few typical categories:

  • Content-related issues: not engaging or long enough, (Average Google top search result for a topic is over 2,000 words, if the content is of insufficient quality, it will not provide value.)
  • Artifacts are not structured well (no imagines, infographics or gifs to make users read more.).
  • Company failures:  wrong blog keywords, writing without a specific SEO strategy; failure to track performance using analytics; failure to use pop-ups and visually creative elements to encourage users to visit other parts of the site.

 

We still sometimes come across websites that look great with some good content, but the client’s website still performs poorly. The reason isn’t always readily apparent.

This is not a reason to despair.

Even if these are the findings, a vendor should still be able to give you great recommendations if you give them read-only access to your Google Analytics account (or any other analytics platform you’re using). While some issues with content strategy are not readily apparent, accessing user data and looking at what people do on a site will absolutely lead to some quick insights.

Bottomline: good marketing agencies in Chicago can quickly look at your current efforts and tell you how you’re doing. If not, give them read-only access to your GA and then they should absolutely be able to provide you with actionable recommendations.

 

Interested in reading the other questions you should ask when choosing your next marketing and creative partner in Chicago? Click on the links below to advance to the next chapter.

  • [Current post]: Chicago marketing company basics (11 questions) l Chicago marketing agencies: long term viability (4 questions) l Probing how a Chicago marketing company can improve your current marketing (4 questions)
  • Post 2: Working together with a Chicago creative agency (11 questions) l Process and engagement questions (11 questions) l Marketing agency breadth of services offered (7 questions)
  • Post 3: Knowledge of your industry (4 questions) Prove that you eat your own dog food (2 questions) l Data driven / results driven (5 questions) Long term outlook (3 questions) Business strategy expertise (4 questions)
  • Post 4: Skills and Experience (4 questions) Search Engine Optimizations Expertise (7 questions) Content Marketing questions (7 questions) Social Media questions (6 questions) Pricing (7 questions)

 

Ready to take your digital strategy to the next level?

Contact us for a free 30 minute consultation.

CONTACT US TODAY