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Being a full service digital marketing agency, we are used to working with elusive data and fickle metrics. While we, for instance, know that getting a link on a relevant, authoritative site will work towards improving your metrics, quantifying its exact contribution is practically impossible, even after the fact.
If you’ve ever had to explain your methods and their purpose to a client, and you are professional instead of a snake oil salesman, you’ll welcome the chance to support your work, assumptions, and suggestions with some hard, clear, unambiguous numbers. PPC allows for this kind of accountability, by allowing you to track each investment and measure its final impact. This transparency means that miscommunications between agencies and clients should be easy to avoid.
That’s why we’ll open this collection of advice on how to decide between changing your PPC agency; steering them in an alternate direction; or accepting that your approach to collaboration was the problem and making the necessary adjustments; with a general, rule of the thumb type rules, and slowly move on to the more specific ones.
But before we begin, just a little caveat – despite PPC being the least blurry part of digital marketing, that doesn’t mean it lends itself to sweeping statements and dogmatic rules much better than some of its cousins. So, even though we’ll try to emphasize this when talking about specific issues, let’s straighten it out right off the bat – even though a certain type of behavior in an agency you’ve hired to manage your PPC advertising may be a cause for alarm in 99% of the cases, don’t cut the strings before giving them a chance to explain their actions (or lack thereof).
So, if you want to take an intensely closer look at your PPC agency, you might want to focus on:
Their Reporting/Progress Transparency – The More You See, The Less You Owe
We’ve already made the common sense based assumption that, if an agency you hired is willing to provide you with detailed insight into everything they are doing for you, chances are they have nothing to hide. Well, that might be the conventional wisdom and might be true in the majority of cases, but there are chillingly creative examples of agencies using transparency to hide the truth instead of accentuating it. We’ll elaborate.
Imagine working with an agency which:
- Denies you any kind of access to the AdWords account used to manage your campaign
- Are slow to answer your questions, and the answers they provide don’t do much towards dispelling your confusion – i.e. they don’t solve your quandaries, only misdirect them until you can no longer follow the thread and give up
- Lingers in vagueries, promises and meek attempts at infecting you with their obviously false optimism and enthusiasm
Seems like a clear-cut case of shenanigans, right? Well, most of the time.
In other instances, they might have a decent to completely valid reason for the way they act – respectively:
- Ok, this one is tough. If you are, even upon inquiring about it prevented from accessing your AdWords account, there are really not many valid excuses that they can give you. If, however, they are using third party software or services; relying on proprietary, in-house tools for certain parts of the process, or anything along those lines; their decision to keep certain aspects of your campaign from you might be completely devoid of any malice or manipulation, they just might be protecting their methodology, resources, partners or whatever. After all, when you order a Coke in a restaurant, it doesn’t come with a recipe.
- While they might be purposefully misleading you, and it might seem that they are using an improvised Creole of half jargon marketing speak and half empty phrases, you need to remember that the responsibility for the effectiveness of a conversation rarely rests on just one of the involved parties. In case we’ve failed to communicate our point – sure, they might be trying to confuse you, but, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, they might actually be doing the best they can to involve and inform you, but are unable to do so because of your lack of appreciation for some of the finer points of the process. While this failure to describe and substantiate their decisions or tactics to a client can also be seen as a failure on their part, it’s not nearly as unforgivable or unmendable as trying to lie to a client.
- Pretty similar to the last item, but distinct enough. Again, it revolves around manipulation of client’s perception, but instead of relying on withholding critical information or anything so elaborately devious, agencies that are resorting to over-inflation of your expectations are, sometimes, doing nothing more subtle or sophisticated than straight out lying to you. If you’ve had any kind of contact with digital marketing, you have probably already learned to be wary of people making too specific promises. Even in data-driven PPC, those claiming to know exactly where you’ll be at the end of a campaign either don’t have the beginning of a clue how the whole thing works or are hoping that you don’t and that they can exploit your inexperience and trust. All that being said, if they seem too eager, it is still possible that they are perfectly honest, and simply take pleasure in their work.
As long as they provide you with all the info you ask for, and don’t try to over-inflate or avoid answers to your question, you should be good, right? Yeah, no. The final and the most brazen technique for stringing you along for as long they can is not based on skewing or hiding information, but instead on showering you with amounts of data that you couldn’t handle even if you were as skilled in PPC as they are.
Agencies attempting this will send mile long reports that you cannot make heads or tails of; list metric changes without giving you a clue on why you should care about them, or whether the fact that one of them is rising is good for you or a signal of imminent disaster; and as a coup de grace, if you haven’t been made dizzy enough by swarms of context devoid numbers, they’ll spice the entire thing up with a couple of graphs that are, somehow, always climbing, but never really lead anywhere.
If this chapter seems like a needlessly elaborate way to say that sometimes people lie, and sometimes they don’t, here’s a brief summary of what you should be able to expect from your PPC agency.
- Being able to access your AdWords account is a must
- They provide you with clearly presented info that describes actual campaign progress and do their part to ensure that you understand what they are saying
- Aside from regular progress reports, they need to provide any other information you request. If they refuse and fail to provide a valid reason for that refusal, they are either hiding something or simply can’t be bothered to assuage your doubts – neither is good
- They should keep the conversation focused on results they’ve achieved, not sidetrack it to tasks completed. If they seem eager to accentuate the latter, they might be more interested in what they can charge you for than what they’ve actually done for you.
If you want to avoid misunderstandings, have your expectations as defined as possible before commencing a relationship with an agency – starting from the results you’re after, and ending with the type, extensiveness, and frequency of the reports you expect them to send.
If you are thinking about reassessing your current PPC agency or hiring a new one, and have no other criteria to go by, checking their references, reviews, and, if you are prepared for a somewhat more demanding research, their past clients’ performance; should give you some insight into what you can expect.
You’ve probably conducted a similar research when hiring them, but now, after working with them for a while, you might be able to extend it or find new meaning in the info you have. For instance, you might have learned about their other clients, and perhaps even when exactly was it that they worked together. You can either choose to contact those former clients directly and ask about their experience with the agency or, if you prefer a sneakier approach, you can use tools like SEMrush or SpyFu to observe the performance of your agency’s past clients at the time of their collaboration. Naturally, data provided by these tools will sometimes be sparse or outdated, and interpreting it correctly will demand quite a bit of expertise.
While we’re on the subject of these or similar tools, if you get comfortable with them, you can also use them to get info on your current performance, as well as on the performance of your competitors. Aside from maybe giving you a chance to come across interesting strategies that you might want to later try yourself, comparing your campaigns with those done for your competitors might help you identify major faults, minor errors, or strong points of the agency you are working with.
Once you’ve learned what you could this way, you may as well give online reviews a go. Sure, they are often unreliable; people writing them might be intentionally spreading misinformation about the agency (positive or negative), they might be driven by strong emotions when leaving a review (we say emotions, plural, but if we’re being realistic it is usually just one – frustration); or they may have the purest of intentions and the ‘levelest’ of heads when leaving a review, but they simply may not have too firm a grasp on the subject they are talking about.
Even so, if you find enough reviews of the agency you are working with, you might:
- Begin noticing patterns, which can, depending on how organic they look either indicate foul play, for instance, noticing the same, specific phrases used across different reviews, apparently left by different people, but clearly suggesting an organized promotional effort; or, on the other hand, the tendencies you start noticing may turn out to be a product of genuine shared enthusiasm, like different people praising the same aspects of the agency’s service, without it looking like a part of a coordinated effort.
- Actually come across verifiable info on the agency, that you can use to expand your research.
Again, whatever it is that you conclude in the course of this research, we would suggest giving the agency you are working with the benefit of the doubt, and approaching them openly about what you’ve learned.
Just one final quick tip. If your agency (or the one you are thinking about hiring) claims to be a Google Partner, there is a slight possibility that they are one of a decreasing number of agencies who still think they can get away with lying about something like that. Naturally, someone who believes that it’s a good idea to use a rough approximation of Google Partners logo to con people, probably couldn’t fly under your radar for too long before exposing themselves through sheer incompetence, but if you want to know instantly whether you are dealing with one of these insultingly lazy grifters, you can search their agency by name in the official Google Partners Hub, and in just a couple of minutes either expose them as frauds, or verify their credibility.
Most of the items listed so far come down to nothing better than circumstantial evidence, hearsay, and hunches that you may or may not want to listen to. While all of this can give you an idea of who you are working with, ultimately, the most straightforward and sensible method is to take a close look at what they are doing for you. Here are some of the things that you should consider.
Basic Campaign Setup
Chances are, you’ve already been keeping an eye on the way your campaign is being led, and if you haven’t, the agency in charge of your PPC may not be to blame if you are not receiving the expected returns from this channel. You can perform as extensive a research as you feel you have the time for, but if you just want a quick run through, the checklist of essentials would include:
- Targeted keywords – are the keywords you are pursuing relevant, realistic, and potentially feasible
- Targeted audience – has the agency supplied a list of negative keywords to eliminate pointless impressions/clicks; is their geo-targeting adequate; and basically, have they done their best to save you money will still reaching everyone you want to reach
- Goal setting and tracking – are you meeting your goals? If you are, is that because the agency was less than ambitious when setting them? The same goes for metrics, are they only observing those they can count on improving, or are they focused on true KPIs?
- How is your budget allocated? – PPC is transparent when it comes to expenditures, however, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to decide how much to invest in which segment of your campaign. One strategy might be a complete flop with a daily budget of $50 and an amazing success with just another $50 invested. The truth is, even though you should give this a look, chances are you can’t really ever be sure that there’s not a better approach than the one you are trying at the moment.
Having worked with a number of clients who were trying to stay interested in their campaign, but didn’t really have too clear an idea of how to do so, take it from us – while you should be as involved as possible, this doesn’t mean that your agency is supposed to update you on every single thing they do for you. In other words, while your campaign is being set and after it starts unrolling is the ideal time to learn all you want about it, and specify all the details with the agency you’ve hired to carry it out for you.
At this point, no question is too inane, and no suggestion obsolete.
However, if you keep pestering your agency every couple of days, expecting them to account for every minuscule detail of how they are managing your campaign, they might drop you as a client long before you decide on whether or not to give them the boot.
This is something that applies to just about every suggestion given in this post – while you shouldn’t allow anyone to manipulate or deceive you, you also can’t act paranoid with people who are just trying to do the job you’ve hired them for. Once you’ve decided that you are working with a credible agency, they will need a fair amount of your trust if they are to actually formulate and execute a successful campaign.
Account Change History
While there are campaigns which, once you set them, don’t require too much attention, they are very rare, and usually, just something that you have on a backburner, i.e. they are as optimized as they are ever likely to get, and are probably not costing you too much. However, for a huge majority of campaigns, constant monitoring and tweaking is absolutely essential. When you consider the daily changes in the market you are after; shifts in keyword popularity; degree and type of competitor activity; and a host of other unstable factors that have relevance on how your campaign is led, it becomes clear that a “set and forget it” approach is by no means adequate.
Luckily, your AdWords account gives you easy access to Change History log, where you can review campaign modifications made in the recent past, and check first-hand how vigilant the agency you are working with really is.
Are they trying to respond to the trends cropping up in the market you are after? Are they considering better keyword combinations? Are they performing an adequate number of tests with ad copy, landing pages or targeted audiences (if they aren’t, is it because you’ve been too stingy or controlling, preventing them from exploring anything but the safest options)?
Naturally, you can see as much activity and as many changes as you like, this still doesn’t necessarily mean that your agency is doing a good job, but a serious lack of activity, especially with newer, larger, or stubbornly underperforming campaigns is usually a bad sign. The same goes for A/B testing – just because they are doing it, doesn’t mean they are doing it right; but if they aren’t it might be because they are:
- Not interested in providing you with better worth for your money
- Not capable of doing so
- Too constrained by the terms you’ve given them, or by the type of relationship you have formed to even consider doing something without direct payoff – in which case, you should really reconsider your approach, as most serious agencies wouldn’t be willing to work with a client of that type
What all of it boils down to. Is your ROI close to what they’ve promised or perhaps even better? Is this marketing channel performing better than the other ones you are investing in? Have you had an open and honest collaboration? Even if all the answers are positive, could you have done even better, and if you do want to do better in the future, do you stick with the same agency, but refine your communication, or do you try to sign another one?
Take it from us, once you build a relationship with an agency, and once you determine them to be credible, dedicated and capable of reliable, if not always too precise forecasting, you should stick with them as long as you are not planning to drastically change the scope of your campaign.
The Final Verdict
Even after taking a long, hard look at your agency’s reporting, reputation and performance, you might still be at a loss regarding your next step. If in doubt, we suggest you start from first taking the least severe approach – changing your attitude and approach to your collaboration first, then, if that fails to appease your doubts; trying to force a change in their strategy; and eventually, if neither of the less drastic tactics works, consider finding a new PPC agency to take care of your AdWords campaigns.
As disappointed with the results as you may be, you may stand to lose more by hiring, briefing and getting accustomed to another company; but at the same time, as well as an agency may be performing for you, there’s no point in sticking with them if you find out they have been lying to you.
If you are still having a hard time making up your mind, hiring another agency for a detailed PPC audit may be the perfect way to go. Even if you are not planning on changing the agency handling your PPC, affording them and yourself with a fresh perspective provided by an outside consultant can only help you refine your marketing efforts and reassess the way you work with agencies of this kind.