Pointers on Hiring a Marketing Firm for Your Small Business

I’m not here to tell you which marketing firm to use. Rather, I’d like to offer you some pointers on what to look for when hiring a marketing firm. I believe the search starts with you. Ask yourself some foundational questions to get a handle on what you are looking for.


Those questions include:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • Where are they geographically?
  • Where and how do they access information?
  • What do you hope to achieve?

Now give some thought to what kind of marketing help you need. This can change as your business changes. You may start in one place and then realize you need other things.

For example, starting with branding makes sense. Once you have your brand identity you may be ready for help with advertising or PR. So, what do you need right now? This is a critical question because not all marketing firms are created equal. Some specialize and some are generalists. Some excel in certain areas and others offer a combination of services:

  • Branding:  logo design, business cards, literature, and web design.
  • Social Marketing:  Facebook Fan Pages, LinkedIn business pages, Twitter accounts, Pinterest, and overall social marketing plans and execution.
  • Advertising: print, radio, TV, billboards, or internet ads.
  • Public relations: press releases, event coverage, securing interviews on TV, radio, or internet radio, and gaining exposure for product launches, grand openings, anniversaries.

Determine what you need right now. You may also want to think about your marketing needs along a continuum – what you need now, a few months from now, next year. This can help you when you are interviewing potential firms.

One of the most critical parts of finding marketing help is doing your research. There are so many companies in this space. Finding the right one(s) takes a commitment of time and energy on your part.

A good deal of marketing is subjective. They may be considered one of the greatest firms in town, but if you don’t like their design or end product, they aren’t right for you.

Explore the following:

1. Type of firm: do you want a firm that specializes in the type of marketing help you need right now or would you prefer a firm that covers a variety of marketing methods?

2. Do you want a firm that has expertise in your industry or is that not an issue for you?

3. Does their location matter to you? Would you prefer a firm that is local?

4. What is your budget? Is it realistic for what you need? How does that limit the prospective marketing firm pool?

5. Method value: what is their viewpoint on the various marketing methods ? For example, if you want to gain national exposure and believe that gaining interviews on internet radio is a good marketing venue for you, does the firm you are looking at share your belief? AND, do they have that expertise?

Now that you know what you are looking for it’s time to interview potential candidates. Find 3-5 companies that look like they fit your needs. Develop a list of questions you can ask to divine whether they really are the right match for you. Those questions include asking for samples of their work, asking for links to sites they’ve created if you are looking for web design, and how they manage their clients.

If you are looking for help with search engine optimization or search engine marketing, ask them how they handle this for their clients. You’ll find some companies that haven’t really gained a grip on how to help companies with today’s page rankings. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.

Interview some of their clients. Ask about timeliness and follow through. How long have they been in business? How long have they been doing the kind of marketing you need? Remember that a lot of firms have had to adapt to the new landscape. Some have done this well and others, not so much. By asking specific, pointed questions you can find out how skilled they are, and therefore, how well they’ll be able to deliver what you need.

Example: I have an associate who needed an e-commerce website. She had very specific needs and was quite clear about what they were. She met a web designer at a networking event who told her they could do the job. She didn’t take the time to ask her questions, or research the sites they’d done for other clients. She just hired them. Not only did they have trouble delivering the end product, but their communication was lacking. They didn’t understand some of the basic things she asked for. By the time she realized they were the wrong firm, she’d invested months with them. Those were months she was without her e-commerce website.

And by all means, trust your gut! If you don’t feel like they are strong with their answers, or there’s something about their work that just doesn’t sit right with you, walk away. You don’t have to be able to quantify the feeling. Just the fact that you have it is reason enough to look elsewhere.

Finding the right marketing help is something that takes time, energy, and research. You have to learn some things about the industry so you can identify the good firms. Anyone can tell a good story and do a good sales job. What you want to know is how well can they deliver on what you need. Marketing is a field that is changing quickly.

Marketing firms need to stay ahead of the curve, adapt to the new environment, and share their level of expertise honestly with their prospects. You, as the prospect, need to be able to discern who is doing that, and who isn’t.

Searching Photo via Shutterstock


Diane Helbig Diane Helbig is a Professional Coach and the president of Seize This Day. Diane is a Contributing Editor on COSE Mindspring, a resource website for small business owners, as well as a member of the Top Sales World Experts Panel at Top Sales World.

12 Reactions
  1. Great article Diane. The more that a small business knows about their customers and their particular marketing needs the better they are able to find the right small business marketing partner. It really is a fit between the clients need and the marketers skillset. You mention one other important point and that is trusting your gut. It is an important relationship to get right and if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.

  2. Great article. Both client and agency must clearly state expectations at each stage of the project and create a project schedule for deliverables by each party.

  3. Charleen Larson

    It’s tough hiring a company to help out with marketing when sometimes you don’t even know the right questions to ask. For example, if you’re looking to engage an SEO firm, it’s imperative you question them closely about how they do their work. If the links they create are spammy, they’ll be shooting your business in the kneecap.

    It’s the same with social media experts. I’m told that some companies assure clients they can provide x amount of targeted Facebook followers, then they go to a microjobs place like Fiverr and buy them rather than doing the actual work to locate potential customers for you.

    Talk to your fellow entrepreneurs and do a lot of research before hiring. Great topic, and I’m glad you brought it up.

  4. Great comments! I think we are in a really tricky time with all of the changes to marketing. Spencer, I agree that marketing firms need to adapt. The issue is that many of them haven’t yet and don’t really know how to use the social networks to their client’s advantage. Charleen, I think this whole SEO issue is huge! It isn’t done the way it used to be done and many small firms are hiring firms that really don’t know how to create a good SEO strategy. That’s why I think we owe it to our businesses to read, Google, and learn whatever we can. I love the idea of talking to fellow entrepreneurs. Find out what their experience has been.

  5. another quick gut check….if you are looking for a firm and they want to have a 1/2 day with your team to work on strategy as a first step…don’t walk…RUN away.
    What you want and need is a firm that will engage with your market and ask the tough questions.
    Good article

  6. Great post with very useful recommendations.

    When looking for marketing help also examine if the firm does B2C or B2B primarily; and what size and complexity of business they serve primarily.

    For a small business, less than $25 million in revenue, if they suggest a branding campaign, I would run the other way.

  7. Brian Birchmeier

    I’ve just started interviewing firms and the troubling part is with looking for help in social media that most of these companies are finding their way just as we are on our own. I don’t think there is such a thing as a social media expert – its too fluid.

  8. Brian, the best social media ‘experts’ will tell you that we are all just users. However, a good social media marketing firm will understand that the first part is identifying the goal, then the target, the message the target will hear, and then, where that target receives information. THAT’s how you figure out where to be and how to be there.

  9. David Mobskills

    Marketing costs can be very tricky for Small Businesses, especially at start up phase. Microjob websites which offer a variety of online and offline marketing services at very low rates, can be of great use to them.

  10. Thank you for the great article. When looking for an advertising and marketing firm you want someone who will ask the hard questions and not just follow what your ideas are. I am not saying that your ideas are wrong but most times a marketing firm knows more of what your target wants and what is possible.

  11. Great point Christina. I think that is one of the key issues here. The marketing firm is the expert and should help guide you toward a solution based on your needs, target market, and message.