How can you evaluate a growth marketing agency or freelance marketer?
(Click 👇on the links to see explanation)
Strategy and Expectations
- They came up with a plan and a proposal in a couple of days without any thorough prior analysis – Learn More
- Their plan consists only of services they happen to sell – Learn More
- They happen to deliver every possible service. – Learn More
- Their action plan contains marketing and growth hacking jargon, usually around branding, viral hacking or similar fuss. – Learn More
- Their contract is closed, cannot be amended or break. – Learn More
- More than one marketers or agencies have presented a different plan with a diverse mix of activities for the same challenge. – Learn More
- They are selling quick results through “growth hacks” or “tricks”. – Learn More
- When asked the question “what growth hacking is?”, they stretch the “tricks part” and give you an unclear answer. – Learn More
- They don’t ask you what’s your Net Promoter Score (NPS). – Learn More
- They promise results before they run any test. – Learn More
- They are still trying to sell you “growth hacking” despite your low NPS. – Learn More
- They are surprisingly cheap. – Learn More
- They keep telling you to be patient, but they don’t explain why and until when – Learn More
- The Quality Score of their campaigns is low, below 6, after 2-3 months. – Learn More
- They do not use landing pages. Most of the paid traffic lands on the homepage. – Learn More
- The CTR of the campaigns is below the industry average. – Learn More
- They focus entirely on their ads and do not suggest a landing page or product changes of any kind. – Learn More
- They are bidding on the most obvious and expensive keywords that all of your competitors are bidding. – Learn More
- They are bidding on keywords that are too generic such as “email marketing” or “insurance.” – Learn More
- They get paid with a commission on sales. – Learn More
- They promise results before they run any test or see any historical data. – Learn More
- They are not running experiments in audience targeting, copies, graphics or Ad destination. – Learn More
- They optimise for clicks. – Learn More
- Their creatives and copies are too dull, uninspired and boring. – Learn More
- Their plan is brand-driven and not data-driven. – Learn More
- They do not perform keyword research in advance. – Learn More
- They occasionally refer to “Google algorithms” without a clear explanation. – Learn More
- Their plan jumps directly to heavy writing without any prior testing or any plan for content reformatting, repurposing or recycling. – Learn More
- They do not seem to have at least a basic SEO knowledge. – Learn More
- They do not run an NPS or PMF analysis. – Learn More
- Their plan does not include lean testing and experimentation. – Learn More
- The way referral is asked, is lame, awkward and over-commercial. – Learn More
- They give you expectations for virality. – Learn More
Questions You Need to Ask in Advance
- What if your plan is wrong? See expected answer
- What should I expect concerning results? See expected answer
- What if I am not happy with the results and want to terminate the contract? See expected answer
- [X agency or Marketer] proposed that I do x, y, z instead. What’s your opinion on that? See expected answer
- Who will I work with more closely during this contract? See expected answer
- Do you have any success stories? See expected answer
- What was the factor that blocked you from succeeding in the past and what can we do to make sure it won’t happen this time? See expected answer
- Could you prepare a detailed weekly or bi-weekly plan of actions with clear deadlines? See expected answer
- How much budget do you need for ad spend to start with, how much after a couple of months and why? Please explain your thought process behind asking more budget for ad spend. See expected answer
- What are the key success indicators for a Paid Campaign (on Facebook or Google) and what do these metrics mean? See expected answer
- What is growth hacking and what’s the difference with digital marketing? See expected answer
- We haven’t made any serious marketing effort yet, is growth hacking for us? See expected answer
- What is viral hacking/ virality (or x buzzword they just used) and how can you predict it? Do you have a success story of viral hacking/ virality (or x buzzword they just used)? See expected answer
In Strategy and Overall Expectations
1. They came up with a plan and a proposal in a couple of days without any thorough prior analysis
Agencies are just like any other business — sometimes they might rush to “convert” you, before doing their homework.
This, of course, is not professional and is not good for your business.
By the time you realise that their strategy or tactics mix is wrong, your balance will be left 2-3 months behind on your roadmap.
2. Their plan consists only of services they happen to sell
Most of the times, the necessary tactics mix is diverse.
It’s nearly impossible that a challenge can be addressed only with SEO or just with a creative approach.
A responsible growth marketing agency will submit a plan of action that will consist of some services they happen to deliver and some others that you will need to outsource to another provider.
3. They happen to deliver every possible service
This is what we call “the supermarket agency” — the agency that does everything.
Practically though, the more you do, the less good you are.
This is a type of agency you should definitely try to avoid.
4. Their action plan contains marketing and growth hacking jargon, usually around branding, viral hacking or similar fuss
An action plan needs to be clear, practical and jargon-free.
Many agencies and marketers try to impress you with buzzwords you do not understand.
This is a way for them to establish authority, hide the insecurity and make you feel dependent on them.
Don’t fall for that.
5. Their contract is closed, cannot be amended or break
Every professional relationship that starts from scratch with a provider you have not worked in the past should be eligible to break or at least be amended.
You don’t need (and want) to be held hostage in a contract.
6. More than one marketers or agencies have presented a different plan with a diverse mix of activities for the same challenge
Sometimes, different agencies or marketers have multiple approaches to the same challenge.
That’s a bit overwhelming and mainly happens because each party will try to sell what they can do and know best.
Do you really want that?
7. They are selling quick results through “growth hacks” or “tricks”
Growth hacking is not about tricks.
“Tricks” might be the outcome of rapid and consistent experimentation, but growth hacking is not about tricks.
Whoever tries to sell you easy results is unreliable.
I know it’s easier for you to choose a plan that promised you easy and quick wins but you shouldn’t be aiming to that — trust me.
8. When asked the question “what growth hacking is?”, they stretch the “tricks part”, and give you an unclear answer
These are the people we like to call Harry Potters.
They will try to establish themselves as genius hackers that have impressive skills, some kind of sacred knowledge which will make your product’s growth explode.
By the way, while they possess this magic knowledge, they are not applying it to their product ideas but prefer to sell it in a monthly retainer.
9. They don’t ask you what’s your Net Promoter Score (NPS)
You probably didn’t know that, but growth hacking can’t start if you are not near Product-market fit (PMF) and have a decent NPS.
If you haven’t found PMF yet, then what you need is validation marketing.
Growth hacking starts when you are ready to grow.
10. They promise results before they run any test
Good marketing means making more people aware of your products and services in a cost-effective way.
Therefore, results won’t come if your value proposition doesn’t resonate with your audience (or any audience).
No marketer can promise results before they build a strong understanding of what happened in the past, what worked and didn’t work and why.
11. They are still trying to sell you “growth hacking” despite your low NPS
As discussed above, growth hacking is a methodology of rapid experimentation across the whole funnel.
According to Sean Ellis, the godfather of Growth hacking, this cannot start if your NPS is low and you haven’t managed to find PMF yet.
12. They are surprisingly cheap
Unfortunately, in this industry what you pay is what you get.
Growth hacking is among the hottest methodologies right now, and the people or companies that have this knowledge will not sell it for “peanuts”.
Statistically speaking, good growth marketers have a really high demand, therefore, their prices are high.
1. They keep telling you to be patient, but they don’t explain why and until when
Patience is one of the best virtues in life — but, your patience will be, understandably, challenged if you keep paying monthly retainers plus advertising spend without any results.
In the digital marketing world, patience means statistical significance.
Your growth or performance marketer should not test the limits of your patience — they should search for statistically significant data that will help them evaluate the performance of your campaigns and act accordingly.
2. The Quality Score of their campaigns is low, below 6, after 2-3 months
One of the most revealing metrics of a Google ads campaign is Quality Score.
Quality score is the core metric Google is using to define your position in the auction and how much you will pay for this position.
If your campaigns consistently have a low Quality Score, then you should ask some sort of explanation from your performance marketer.
3. They do not use landing pages. Most of the paid traffic lands on the homepage
This one is common.
If your senior performance marketer sends all of the paid traffic in the homepage, that means he literally has no idea of how performance marketing works.
In case your performance marketer has the liberty to create landing pages but haven’t used them whatsoever, please, do yourself a favour and fire their ass out of your company.
4. The CTR of the campaigns is below the industry average
A paid campaign can go wrong for a million reasons — the Ad might be bad, the website experience might be weak, your product might be expensive or uninteresting, or there could be a poor message matching between your assets.
You can’t blame your marketer for all of them.
But, what you can blame them for is a below-average-CTR.
Unless you are sticking your nose to their job the whole time, watering down their ideas, then it’s a clear sign that something is wrong.
5. They focus entirely on their ads and do not suggest a landing page or product change of any kind
Sometimes, old-school performance marketers only care about their ads.
As soon as their ads have a good CTR and bring in traffic, they believe they have done their job.
But, a marketer’s job is to bring in high-quality traffic that will turn into customers and not just irrelevant traffic.
You could run Google Ads in autopilot and optimise for clicks.
Your performance marketer needs to experiment with different or existing landing pages the whole time.
If this never happens, then something is wrong.
6. They are bidding on the most obvious and expensive keywords that all of your competitors are bidding
If you are running a startup business, you need to find your way up quickly and efficiently.
Correct me if I am wrong, but, you don’t yet have scaled operations or Millions of $ in the bank.
Bidding the most obvious keywords or audiences is an easy task for a marketer — but, it might as well lead you to the wrong conclusion that a channel is not working for you.
7. They are bidding on keywords that are too generic such as “email marketing” or “insurance”
Some founders get happy when they see cheap clicks and traffic.
A good marketer will try to educate them and explain that clicks mean nothing if they do not convert.
A bad one will just bid the most generic keywords with thousands of clicks every day to bring you traffic.
The fun part here is that the traffic coming from generic keywords is also, statistically, cheap because there isn’t a serious company bidding on such low intent audiences.
But will they ever convert? I doubt that.
After 4-6 months of stress and wasted money, you might come to the conclusion that: “if traffic was coming in but didn’t convert, then it’s probably my product’s fault.”
Please, don’t fall for that.
8. They get paid with a commission on sales
While we find commission-based payment honest and straightforward, it sets the wrong dynamics in cooperation.
When your marketer gets paid only when they achieve results, they will try, from day 1, to squeeze the cow with high-intent, expensive bidding — needless to say that this means no experimentation or testing whatsoever.
It also means that you may be profitable in the short-term, but you are probably not going to be in the long-term.
Thus, if you are still in the validation process, I urge you to go for a more rounded marketing approach that will establish a conversion rate after the necessary, structured experimentation.
9. They promise results before they run any test or see any historical data
It’s impossible — unless you are a brand like Coca-Cola — that a marketer can promise results without a thorough analysis on what has worked or did not work in the past or run first-level testing.
Promising the moon and not delivering is usual among many growth marketing agencies and growth hackers — it’s definitely a signal that you have to pay attention to.
10. They are not running experiments in audience targeting, copies, graphics or Ad destination
It might be easy for a marketer to start with an eye-catching Ad, smart copy and by setting all the targeting criteria available — but, it’s challenging to begin optimising when your Ads don’t perform, instead of all the effort you put into them.
If you are taking your first steps in paid advertising, you will need at least 3-4 months of constant experimentation at all levels, before you realise what is working and what is not working.
This will help you understand what works best for your business and what messaging and creatives your audience resonates with.
11. They optimise for clicks
This one is, once again, common.
All the popular advertising platforms like Facebook or Google give the option to optimise your campaigns for more clicks.
Practically, this means they show your ads to the users that are more willing to click, not to convert.
In most cases, this might show a spike in your traffic but really poor conversion rates.
12. Their creatives and copies are too dull, uninspired and boring
If you are running Google Ads, you must have heard the term PPC, which stands for Pay-per-click.
In Google products, we pay every time a user clicks. Which means, we don’t want all the clicks but the right clicks.
In Facebook though, we pay with a CPM, Cost-per-mile aka Cost per Thousand Impressions.
This means that as soon as our ads are seen a thousand times (not from a thousand different people, but a thousand times), we will pay a certain amount, no matter the clicks.
This might sound like a small difference, but it defines the culture of each channel.
Facebook will not work for you, especially nowadays, if your Ads lack some kind of creativity or even provocation.
You want to draw the users’ attention, but you don’t want your Ads to be clickbait.
Content Strategy and Implementation
1. Their plan is brand driven and not data-driven
Most content experts are former writers that jumped on the content marketing wave.
They don’t have a data-driven approach, and therefore they refer to less tangible ideas, such as branding.
A content strategy needs to be built based on data and be evaluated, again, based on data.
2. They do not perform keyword research in advance
Most of the times, I like asking my prospective clients:
“How did you decide what to write about or what content to publish?”
The answer I get nine out of ten times is either:
“We had a brainstorming session.”
“We write what we believe our customers will like to read”.
Keyword research is a really straightforward exercise that will reveal what users are actually searching online, what questions they make and what information they are seeking for.
If your content expert did not bother doing keyword research, you need to start wondering about their “expertise”.
3. They occasionally refer to “Google algorithms” a lot without a clear explanation
Five years ago, there might have been complex Google algorithms that nobody could understand.
Nowadays, Google operates with algorithms that are based on the user experience which in simple words mean: “if it looks nice, provides good, original information and looks readable I will promote it.”
Of course, it’s not that simple, but at the end of the day, it’s not like 2006, when the algorithms where, sometimes, more important than the readers.
4. Their plan jumps directly to heavy writing without any prior testing or any plan for content reformatting, repurposing or recycling
A content strategy for a young company needs to be lean.
By lean, we mean simple, fast and cost-effective so that you don’t drop it after a month.
Of course, content agencies or content experts don’t like that.
As soon as you find out what your readers like, then yes, you can double down your efforts into a fancier, more expensive content strategy.
5. They do not seem to have at least a basic SEO knowledge
One of the most important ways to build SEO juice is content.
A content marketer that seems to be uneducated towards this direction lacks an essential skill.
Always work with people who have at least a basic SEO knowledge.
1. They do not run an NPS or PMF analysis
Usually, referrals are treated, by startup founders, like fancy toys they want to play with.
But, referrals and referral marketing is not something everyone can do .
Users are people — just like you –, and to refer your business, they need to like and trust you.
Especially nowadays that referral marketing is mainstream, and everybody is asking for it, they need to like you A LOT.
A marketer that will jump into the task of building a referral marketing campaign without making sure your product or service is ready for that, is obviously missing something out.
2. Their plan does not include lean testing and experimentation
Marketing is a social science that continually evolves.
The fact that Monzo nailed referrals 4 years ago doesn’t mean you can replicate that success.
Unfortunately, a referral is just another stage of the funnel.
It needs ideation and rapid experimentation in every stage.
We cannot just replicate a referral program that worked once.
3. The way referral is asked, is lame, awkward and over-commercial
Nowadays, referral marketing is mainstream.
The user has developed a filter, some kind of resistance to any kind of over-commercial lame referral Call-to-action.
Thus, unless your referral is subtle, makes the user’s life more comfortable and enhances their experience, I would recommend that you hold it for now.
4. They give you expectations for virality
Virality is 10% principles and 90% luck and timing.
No marketer or small/ medium sized agency can promise virality. Sorry.
Questions to Make in Advance of Any Agreement
Question 1: What if your plan is wrong?
What to expect: This is a really generic question that you need to make just to see their reaction.
An effective marketing plan is one that uses failure as feedback or at least seeks fast fails to minimise the damage.
Failing fast, cheaply and smoothly helps a marketer improve, and it should be part of the plan.
Question 2: What should I expect concerning results?
What to expect: A very few marketers can give you specific estimations before they run any test or spend some time working with your product.
If they set big financial expectations, most likely, they don’t know what they are doing.
Question 3: What if I am not happy with the results and want to terminate the contract?
What to expect: A reasonable contract can be amended easily and stop with a reasonable termination notice.
Avoid contracts that lack such flexibility.
Question 4: [X agency or Marketer] proposed that I do x, y, z instead. What’s your opinion on that?
What to expect: An honest marketer will use other marketers’ proposals or ideas to improve their own or to explain with simple words and a data-driven approach why their plan is better.
An insecure marketer will become defensive and try to bad-talk the others.
Question 5: Who will I work with more closely during this contract?
What to expect: If you are about to work with a 20-year-old account manager, you should know that in advance.
Question 6: Do you have any success stories?
What to expect: The whole “hire me, I am genius” pitch can stop at the time where you ask some past success stories.
But, it’s essential to be able to interpret these success stories.
The fact that a marketer was in the right place, at the right time once is not an indicator of success.
A series of well thought, well-structured campaigns that consistently brought decent results is what you need to ask for.
I personally know lots of marketers that have built careers into a huge success that was meant to happen, because the product was stellar.
Don’t fall for that.
Question 7: What was the factor that blocked you from succeeding in the past and what can we do to make sure this won’t happen this time?
What to expect: That’s a crucial question.
Growth marketing can’t exist without the right culture, clear understanding and support from the leadership.
At the end of the day, it might be clearly your fault that cooperation didn’t work.
You want to provide an environment that is ready to accept growth marketing and will not offer any excuse for your marketer.
Question 8: Could you prepare a detailed weekly or bi-weekly plan of actions with clear deadlines?
What to expect: Your marketer should be able to break down their plan into tasks, at least for the first 3 months.
Vague plans look nice, but after the first quarter of cooperation, they might be the source of stress and dissatisfaction.
Question 9: How much budget do you need for ad spend to start with, how much after a couple of months and why? Please explain your thought process behind asking more budget for ad spend.
What to expect: The budget discussion is the most interesting.
There is this unwritten rule that agencies push for more budget and clients push back.
That used to be the case back in the 80s’ when marketers looked like Don Draper and marketing was 100% creative.
The budget discussion in data-driven marketing cooperation, nowadays, should look like:
“I am going to start with the minimum x amount, and when we see evidence that something works, we will add x amount.”
Question 10: What are the key success indicators for a Paid Campaign (on Facebook or Google) and what do these metrics mean?
What to expect: Your marketer needs to be able to explain you the metrics that you will use to measure the success of your campaigns.
Businesses can’t always wait for the end goal to evaluate a campaign.
Fortunately, there are enough metrics that will give you a clear idea early enough such as CTR, Quality Score, Relevance Score.
Question 11: What is growth hacking and what’s the difference with digital marketing?
What to expect: Nine out of ten “growth hackers” don’t really know what growth hacking is.
A vast majority of them is just using this as a way to be hired.
Your “growth hacker” should know the difference between digital marketing and growth hacking. If the answer is around “tricks”, “hacks” or “explosive growth and viral hacking”, do yourself a favour and find someone else to partner up with.
Question 12: We haven’t made any serious marketing effort yet, is growth hacking for us?
What to expect: An honest growth marketer needs to let you know that growth hacking can’t start before finding PMF.
Any kind of digital marketing efforts before PMF should aim for validation and practically, is not growth hacking.
Question 13: What is viral hacking/ virality and how can you predict it (or x buzzword they just used)? Do you have a success story of viral hacking/ virality (or x buzzword they just used)?
What to expect: If the discussion is surrounded by lots and lots of bs jargon, try to make follow-up questions.
In the past, it might have felt awkward to do so, but from now on, I officially release you from this burden.
Ask everything, it’s their job to explain.