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The other day, one of my clients called me. We exchanged a quick round of greetings, and then it was straight down to business: what did I think of developing a mobile app? Was it a good idea? Could I develop it for them?
After explaining that app development wasn’t something we did at Chevron Editing, the conversation turned to sourcing a reliable developer to build them an app that actually worked.
My client wasn’t sure how to find the right agency, which made me think: how many other small business owners out there struggle with hiring externals?
If you start searching without knowing what to look for, you’ll inadvertently turn yourself into prey. It’s a sad reality that some areas of marketing – SEO and online courses are the two biggest offenders – are hunting grounds for untrustworthy contractors who offer ‘marketing services’ as a way to move money from your pocket into theirs, without giving you anything of value in return.
To get the right people on your team, you need to have a solid understanding of marketing. Failing that, an article like this is your next best bet. Being armed with a list of appropriate questions is an effective way to separate skilled marketers from the salespeople who think marketing is just an easy way to make money.
Keep reading to find out exactly what you should be asking contractors before you hire them.
1. Do they practice what they preach?
If you’re still Googling terms like ‘app developer brisbane’ and seeing what’s on offer, there’s an easy way to filter through all the different results.
See if they practice what they preach.
If someone’s offering social media management, check their socials. Do they have a relatively large, engaged audience? If they don’t, they probably can’t help you get one either.
Hiring a content writer? Read their blog. It’ll give you a good indication of their writing ability. If they don’t have one (or their last post was a year ago), cross them off the list and move on.
Copywriters should have website copy that’s syntactically and grammatically correct. If you see incorrect punctuation, awkwardly phrased sentences, and so on, it’s time to move on. That said, we are only human, and typos happen – as long as mistakes are small and very infrequent, you should be okay.
Web developers. Does their site hurt your eyes? Feel counter-intuitive? Take about five minutes to load? They’re probably not right for you.
You get the idea. People will always put the most effort and time into their own work, so, if what you’re seeing doesn’t match your quality standards, you know they won’t be able to do any better when working for you.
2. Do they have previous work/samples?
You’d check the resume of an employee before hiring them, wouldn’t you? Don’t treat marketing contractors any differently – ask to see either previous work or sample offerings.
Agencies who’ve been around for a while will have an extensive client list to draw from; younger, less experienced freelancers should still have a sample folio.
Ask them some questions:
- How long did it take to complete this?
- What were the goals and outcomes?
- How much did it cost?
- Were your clients satisfied with the results?
Please remember that asking contractors to complete unpaid custom samples is never the right thing to do. If you want someone to spend a few hours doing something for you, pay them their hourly rate. We’re experienced professionals with degrees and countless hours of additional study under our belts – asking us to do free work for you is like asking a chef to cook you a meal so you can see if you want to dine in.
3. Do they hold appropriate qualifications?
I’ll be honest – I’m not overly worried about qualifications in marketing. My experience is that undergraduate degrees outline the broad strokes of a field, and give you little practical knowledge. I’d prefer to hire someone with industry experience than someone who’s simply gone to university.
That said, qualifications can be a good indicator of peoples’ strengths and backgrounds, so I’ve put together some degrees and certifications you might want to consider when hiring contractors.
Copywriting and Content Writing
- Degree in marketing, communications, journalism or creative writing.
- I personally think journalism and creative writing are the two most relevant – both teach practical writing skills that actually translate into good copy.
- Ignore random private ‘qualifications’ like ‘Company A Copywriting Course’ and ‘ABD Copywriting Certification’. These mean nothing, and are normally just paid courses from which participants graduate when they complete a set number of modules.
- To my knowledge, there are no degrees focused on SEO.
- SEO is mostly self-taught and draws on skills like copywriting and web development.
- Degree or diploma in web programming, information technology or web design.
- You can successfully learn web development without going to university, but, if you’re looking to hire a web development specialist (particularly relevant for backend development), I’d recommend checking for a degree.
- Like SEO, I don’t believe there any university degrees dedicated to online advertising, but a degree in marketing or communications is worth considering.
- The Google Ads certification (for agencies, the Google Partner badge) is the main thing to look out for. This means they’ve passed Google’s own tests and have been successfully certified.
- Degree or diploma in design, visual communication or visual arts.
- There are also some good online courses from organisations like the Interaction Design Foundation, although, as with all online courses, be very wary about hiring on the basis of them.
- A postgraduate degree in marketing, communications or business.
- Experience is highly recommended – pick someone with a very solid track record.
- Time in a C-suite corporate position is also valuable.
4. Do they specialise in your niche?
A ‘niche’ in marketing doesn’t mean a specialisation. I’ve seen some marketers compare working outside your chosen niche to a carpenter concreting, and I can’t express how wrong that is.
All marketing uses the same skillsets. That’s why agencies can exist – they use what they know and apply it to different clients.
A contractor’s niche just means an industry that they’re intimately familiar with. This allows them to have a greater awareness of that industry’s specific problems, and, in turn, refine their marketing strategy to solve those problems.
While I don’t recommend excluding freelancers just because they don’t specialise in your niche, having someone who knows your industry really well can be helpful for more complex marketing issues.
5. Do they make wild, unverifiable claims?
Marketers are masters of exaggeration. You’ll often see many agencies making bold statements about their incredible ROI or their miraculous new tactic.
The truth? The vast majority of those claims are deliberately taken out of context, highly exaggerated, or outright lies.
The ‘look what this client got – I can do the same for you!’ trick is very popular. Basically, agencies take one or two numerically impressive results and display them as an example of their skill.
What they don’t show you are the dozens of other campaigns that didn’t break even. The hundreds of blog posts that resulted in sub-par traffic. The copy that actually hurt sales.
They’ll often showcase low-hanging fruit – if a business in a low-competition field has never hired an SEO agency before, a few simple changes can result in vastly improved organic rankings, which is then displayed as ‘1050% increase in organic traffic!! Incredible!! Hire us!!’.
If you come across an agency talking about a ‘new strategy’ or ‘secret trick’ they’ve discovered, close that tab and don’t bother with them. They don’t have a new trick. They’re using a time-trusted manipulation technique to lure people in and scam them. Avoid them.
The other big one is contractors claiming credit for results they didn’t produce. An example: I recently saw a competitor claim they generated millions of dollars in sales for a small business on the Gold Coast – even though they’d only written website copy for them.
That’s the very definition of dishonest. It’s like me claiming responsibility for all the sales that go through websites I build, or saying I generate bookings just because people click through from blog posts I’ve written. Just because my work helps facilitate something doesn’t mean I’m the reason it happened.
Unless the results come from actual campaigns with verifiable ROAS or they’re the only aspect of the business the client has changed, I wouldn’t take them seriously.
Here’s five things you should consider when hiring marketing contractors:
- Do they practice what they preach?
- Do they have previous work/samples?
- Do they hold appropriate qualifications?
- Do they specialise in your niche?
- Do they make wild, unverifiable claims?
Ultimately, hiring an agency or a freelancer isn’t that different from hiring staff. Go with someone who has a good track record, fits your company culture, and seems honest and ethical.
Got any other tips for hiring? Any discipline-specific questions? Drop a comment or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.