Choosing a Grand Rapids Digital Marketing Firm


Choosing a marketing firm can be tough -- especially in a market like Grand Rapids, where you don't find many "big name" agencies. We're not the home to Razorfish, Ogilvy, JWT, Vaynermedia or any of the other agencies that have reached the national stage for their work. Rather, what you find are smaller, lesser-known, but potentially just as effective agencies of about 1-50 total employees.

So, without being able to default to "the big agency in town," how does a business owner or marketing leader go about selecting the right digital marketing agency (or agencies)?

Here are some tips to help you do just that:

Digital First

One of the biggest things to look at is whether the agency you are considering is "digital first." By that I mean they aren't a historically 'traditional' advertising agency who has only recently attempted to pivot into the digital marketing space. As we all know, the approach and execution of a successful digital campaign is vastly different from a traditional one (even if the underlining marketing principles are the same). We have found that traditional ad agencies can be difficult to work with on digital projects because their operations and approach are rooted in offline marketing and advertising, and that digital capabilities sometimes feel like 'bolt on' services.

Instead, look for agencies that "speak the digital marketing language", and whose portfolio is almost entirely digital. In doing so, you're going to find a partner with much more focus, and typically a higher level of expertise in the digital space.

Beware the 'Full Service' Digital Marketing Firm

Running a web development company is very different than running a Paid Search Advertising company. And both of those are completely different than a strategic consulting firm. While it seems like you've found a 'unicorn' in a Full Service agency, you may actually find that it's easy for a company to say they offer a wide variety of services, but in reality only specialize in a small portion of the work.

I have had experience on both the agency side and on the client side interacting with firms that claim to be full service -- in almost every case, it has been a money grab. They see market opportunities in certain digital marketing areas, and think "we could probably do that... right?" Just like the point about choosing a 'digital first' company, you will never be happy working with an agency in an area that is not their forte. Even though they may be great salespeople, that web development company probably won't be the best choice if you're looking for content marketing. And that PPC agency probably won't be the best strategy partner.

If you do happen to find a company that seems to do many things very well, that's great! If so, can you let us know who they are? We'd love to work with them or refer them :-). As a general rule, however, we recommend a 'best of breed' approach when it comes to choosing digital agencies. You want the best SEO firm, the best web development firm, the best content marketing firm, etc. It's very rare that those are ever the same firm.

Know what you're looking for (Or: Don't be sold to)

Digital marketing agencies employ some of the best sales people in the world.  These "biz dev" staff are brilliant in convincing clients to buy things that they may or may not actually need. The reason they are so good is that they understand that clients don't always know exactly what they're looking for -- and even if they do, they may not be knowledgeable enough to be able to sort through fact and fiction. This sets the table perfectly for them to pitch exactly what their company has to offer, and spin it in a way that makes any potential client fawn over the promises being made.

This is also made possible by the fact that our industry is still so new that agencies are literally inventing it along the way. New processes, new approaches, new service offerings, new flavors of old services -- everything is on the table for innovation and invention. Which, again, is the perfect scenario for the salesperson. If a client isn't super knowledgeable about a particular area, it can usually be chalked up to the fact that this agency is SO advanced and innovative, it's no wonder the client doesn't fully understand it!

As the client, and buyer of services, it's your responsibility to see through the sales pitch. Remember, YOU are the one with specific business problems to solve. YOU are the one with limited budget and high expectations. That means before you even talk to an agency (in Grand Rapids or wherever), you have to have a crystal-clear understanding of what you're looking for, and refuse to be distracted or mis-led. Clients who work on strategy internally first, and then intentionally pull in agency partners to help with execution are the ones who will succeed more often than not. If you haven't read our post about why you shouldn't outsource strategy, check that one out next.

I know it's the oldest cliche in the history of the world, but "If it seems to be too good to be true, it is." If the agency is promising improvement percentages in the thousands ("Our clients see 1,800% increase in sales") be wary -- that's your first red flag. Instead, you have to come to the engagement with your own realistic set of expectations for improvement. You don't need an 1,800% increase in sales, so don't be tempted by their exaggerations. You have specific goals, for which you need specific solutions. You aren't a naive buyer of pipe dreams, right?

Don't rely solely on Google Search

Google search is obviously at the center of all of our lives, and can play a huge role in how we research companies -- and for good reason. But if you are starting a search for a Grand Rapids based digital marketing agency, I would not recommend starting with Google. It's easy to assume "If they rank on the first page of Google for their own business, then surely they can help me rank as well." But from our experience that is often not the case. Some of our favorite agency partners (by which I mean those agencies that we see doing consistently awesome work for their clients) don't show up on the first, second, third or even 10th page of Google. This is not an indication of their talents as an agency, but rather a nod to prioritization. It's very possible that search isn't how they acquire their best customers, or they function largely on word of mouth, or that they are so busy doing amazing things for their clients that they've neglected their own web presence. Whatever the reasoning, I would very strongly caution you away from assuming that "page 1 = high quality agency".

Instead, ask for referrals. Seriously -- ask all of your colleagues, peers, and anyone else who may have worked with an agency in GR. You don't want to pick an agency based on what they say about themselves -- you want to pick an agency based on what people you trust have to say about them. It's amazing to me how many "big name" Grand Rapids agencies actually have terrible reputations with their clients. And on the flip-side, how many small agencies who fly under the radar are consistently outperforming their clients' expectations. These are things you will NEVER find on Google -- you can only get this information from people who have worked with them in the past.

Know what to pay in the Grand Rapids market

This part is super tricky. Mostly because Grand Rapids is a bit of a bubble when it comes to the digital marketing industry. The rates you find are vastly different from agency to agency -- and that's because nobody is talking about it! Below are some ranges that I've seen in my experience working with agencies around town. If your agencies falls outside of this schedule, it may be worth a second look.

  1. Management & Strategy Consulting: $200+/hr. These are the companies that you partner with internally for process and business improvement. They aren't the tactical agency, but rather the one that helps you make the right decisions for your business.
  2. General Digital Marketing Production: $100-165/hr. This is your typical 'digital marketing agency.' They help with content strategy, SEO, PPC, email marketing, etc. Often, you will pay a "blended rate" when you work with a mid-sized company that offers several of these services.
  3. Web Design & Development: $120-170/hr. Expect to pay more if you're working with a highly custom development project (This these projects take more than "just" development -- they often bring in architects, strategists, and other Sr. level consulting services). However for a firm that leverages an open-source CMS like Wordpress or Drupal, you'll likely pay somewhere in the middle of the range for really solid development.

To close, the most important piece of advice I can give when choosing a digital marketing firm in Grand Rapids is to have an established digital strategy first. There are a lot of talented and well-intentioned agencies in town, but very few of them should be defining digital strategies for companies. Instead, you should spend the time and resources needed to build your digital program internally, and then -- when decisions have been made and visions have been set -- start the search for honest, talented and humble digital marketing partners.

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About the Author
Justin is the owner/founder of Fox Consulting Group, and a lead consultant for strategy engagements.

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