Today, more than ever, people are leaving in-house marketing jobs, choosing instead to begin their own consulting business. Even I did it - after 12 years in corporate America, working in-house as a senior marketing manager, I chose to break off on my own and open my own consulting company.
There are both pros and cons for small businesses looking to hire a consultant. The pro is that you can find people with years of experience and can hire them as consultants. Not bringing them in-house means you save money on their insurance, bonuses and at times, even equity.
The cons come when you realize there's a much lower barrier to entry now - anyone with a personal Facebook Page and a large number of Twitter followers can offer their services to you.
And while they might be more affordable, it can sometime be hard to discern if they have any experience building brands, or if they're simply any good at promoting themselves.
Once you make the decision to outsource, you'll want to strongly vet potential consultants and/or agencies.
Here are 10 things I recommend you ask or consider:
1. Can they demonstrate a proven track record?
Ask what brands the person or agency has worked with and is currently working with (to ensure they're not working with a competing brand).
Don't be shy about asking for references. Ask about a brand they worked with where something didn't work out - how did they handle that? Were they able to quickly adapt and change course? Do they have the necessary experience in your industry to properly advance your business?
The more they know about your industry, the less of a learning curve there'll be, and the more resources they'll bring to your brand. What are their first steps when taking on new clients?
2. Where can I find current and past examples of your work?
Anyone with experience will be readily able to show you a portfolio of work as well as links to initiatives they've either run or been involved in creating.
Look for campaigns that have been repeated. You know things are working when you keep doing it.
Have the campaigns led to brand exposure? Sales leads? Will this experience help your market?
3. Who will be handling my account and what background does this person come from?
The background of each person working on behalf of your brand is important. If you're looking for marketing, PR and/or social media help, you want people that have leveraged those skills working with prior companies.
Do these people have knowledge and experience with trends in these areas?
4. How will we track ROI?
We know that not everything has immediate return that's trackable when it comes to social media. But you can track most things.
You want to know that this consultant or agency isn't simply looking to add likes, followers or fans, but is actually able to analyze conversion rates.
Brands that hire an outside agency will want to know that the agency or consultant is consistently monitoring results, and is being held accountable. You'll want to know there's a standard monitoring and reporting process in place that works for both you and the agency or consultant.
5. What is their process for reporting?
How often will you meet with them? How often will you be provided status updates or check-ins?
If the agency doesn't have a method to suggest immediately to you on how they'll communicate, it might be a red flag that the agency isn't as connected with their clients as you'll want to be (or that they haven't even thought of this yet).
6. What will you do if something goes wrong?
How would you handle a social media crisis?
Marketing campaigns that look great on paper can go wrong in application, no matter how seasoned the consultant is.
How will they react? How do they respond to negative reviews? Tweets? Negative Facebook comments?
7. How do they come up with strategic plans?
How much does writing content figure into their experience and plan for your business? A good consultant will have a workflow that works for them and you. They'll know how to integrate social media with PR and traditional media. They'll want to talk to your sales team and find out what plans they have and will know how to integrate them into all they are doing.
8. How will content be developed?
And, will you have to approve all of the content written on behalf of your brand? Will it all have to be planned, or will you trust this person or agency to create on-the-fly content for you? Does this person have the experience necessary to understand the nuances of writing content specific for each platform?
Content developed for your brand needs to be likeable and shareable. A consultant or agency should be able to show you examples of previously created content for other clients, as well as their content calendar, or what their content creation process looks like.
9. What does success look like, and how will we measure it?
Brands that are investing in consultants and agencies must have clear goals in mind when starting this process. An agency should be able to help you achieve your KPIs. The consultant or agency you choose will help you establish these KPIs and will (with you) write strategies and tactics to hit those goals.
10. What will this cost?
Outside of the monthly retainer or fee you agree to with the consultant or agency, you want to know that your budget is being kept in mind in all they're doing.
Are there going to be additional costs in monitoring brand mentions? What's the process for getting additional budget approved, before this consultant agrees to something? Do they have a plan for ads on Facebook and Twitter? What will that cost?
By no means is this an exhaustive list. Choosing a consultant or agency is a big decision for every brand. You're entrusting your baby to someone outside the "inner circle." You want to know what influencers they're friends with and for how long, what their personal social media profiles look like, how they conduct their networking...
What other questions would you ask? Are there any questions you wish you'd asked prior to hiring a previous agency or consultant?