As with any partnership, finding the right SEM agency for your brand takes patience and preparation.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Key questions to ask potential agencies
  • How to determine which one is right for your business
  • Ways to align expectations and communication
  • Red flags to look out for during the process

Whether you’re just starting out with search engine marketing (SEM) or have a successful program that’s just too much to manage on your own, partnering with an agency can be a great solution. But that doesn’t mean the process is simple.

As a marketer, you know how important search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, and similar marketing tactics are, and doing these things properly can mean huge growth for your business. But SEM is a specific niche within digital marketing, and bringing in experts who know their stuff is key to achieving the growth you desire. 

So, how do you know what to look for in an SEM agency? Let’s break it down.

HawkSEM: Find the right SEM agency

Create a shortlist of agencies that seem to align with your goals and have experience in your particular industry. (Image via Unsplash)

1. Clearly define your goals

The first thing you need to do is create some clear, actionable goals you’d like to reach. When you begin working with an agency, they’ll want to get a clear picture of what you’d like to achieve through SEM. Having this information ready to go from the start will ensure you’re prepared, on the same page, and can hit the ground running.

After all, if you don’t thoroughly understand your own business’s goals, then you might not be able to get the most out of the relationship you want to form with the agency. 

Think about your current SEM strategies, and ask yourself or your team questions such as:

  • What parts have been successful, and what parts haven’t been working so well?
  • Do you want to improve your ability to drive organic traffic from qualified keywords on search engines like Google? 
  • Do you want to increase your return on investment from online marketing as a whole or just PPC ads? 
  • Would you like to improve your ROI while increasing certain metrics or KPIs by a certain percentage?

These goals can be improved by making them even more specific. 

2. Do your research

It’s not enough to just pick the first SEM agency that comes up in a Google search. Instead, create a shortlist of agencies that seem to align with your goals and have experience in your particular industry. 

From there, you can dive deeply into any information you can find out about the company. Check out their website, read reviews and customer testimonials, look at examples from their portfolio, and see if they offer any references you can contact. Being able to chat with past clients can offer insight into the way the agency functions and what you can expect when working with them. 

Other things to look for include how many years of experience they have, case studies, and sample reports. If any bad reviews exist online, did the review receive a response? No agency is perfect, but they should be able to use less-than-perfect customer experiences as a learning tool. 

In this research, you should also be able to find out if they’ve worked with companies in your industry before. This is key, because if they have, then they’ll already have a bit of background and knowledge of what worked best for other businesses in your field. 

Successful SEM and PPC advertising strategies can differ widely between industries, so it’s a bonus if an agency has a lot of experience with companies similar to yours. The learning curve will be shorter and you’ll be able to see results quickly when you work with people who already know a lot about your industry. 

3. See how well you “click”

You want to form a long-lasting, productive relationship with the SEM agency you choose. That’s why it’s important that you feel a connection right from the start. Take time to interview each of the agencies on your shortlist. Ask questions about their process, learn about the team you’d be working with, and see if their values and mentality match with yours.  

This is also a great time to look for transparency. If you feel like they’re withholding any information or shying away from certain questions or topics, this might be a red flag that they may not be completely upfront or honest. 

Regardless of how they answer your questions, if something doesn’t feel right, go with your gut. The agency should be happy to tell you about their process, totally clear about pricing, and eager to point you to references who can give you even more insight. 

Remember: Search engine marketing is an ongoing process. You’re looking for an agency that you trust from the first time you interact with them. You’ll likely be working together for a long time, and you want to feel comfortable handing over your account or platform information. 

Does it seem like they’re communicative, friendly, and willing to listen to your input? You can also ask how often they plan to conduct meetings, phone calls or check-ins, and how open they are to revising strategies that don’t seem to be working well. 

HawkSEM: Find the right SEM agency

The more information you can get from the agency, the more sure you can be of your final decision. (Image via Rawpixel)

4. Discuss deliverables

Another important question: How will the agency show you that their efforts are paying off? Lots of the metrics they’ll be dealing with are easy to track and measure, so find out how often they’ll be providing you with reports and what these reports will include. 

You can ask for the prospective agency to provide a sample report. You can also ask questions like:

  • How does your agency measure things like brand awareness? 
  • How does your agency weigh traffic coming from different sources? 
  • What attribution models does your agency use?
  • Does your agency use different attribution models in different circumstances? 
  • How do you measure ROI?

Communication and regular reporting are important for establishing a strong two-way relationship, so don’t be afraid to ask direct questions and expect direct answers.

5. Break down the specifics

By now, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of which agency you’d like to work with, but there are few things to hash out before you make a final decision. For one, be sure that the agency’s services are within your budget. 

Successful SEM isn’t a one-off “set it and forget it” project. Ask how they handle ongoing maintenance of your strategies. Will you be working with an account manager or communicating with an entire team? Ask how many employees they have and where they’re based. How much experience do the team members who will be handling your project have? The more information you can get from the agency, the more sure you can be of your final decision.

The takeaway

Hiring an SEM agency can help you take your digital marketing strategy to the next level, and choosing the right agency can make all the difference. 

By following these steps, you can feel confident that you’ve got the tools you need to make the right choice.

Looking for an SEM agency that checks all these boxes and more? You’ve come to the right place.

This article has been updated and was originally published in May 2020.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation