10 questions to ask when choosing a b2b marketing agency

Here at DragonSearch, we work with both major types of businesses; B2B and B2C. People might think of B2C as being the more exciting campaigns, or at least the campaigns that you can explain to your grandmother. The reality, on the other hand, is that B2B campaigns are many times the most challenging and rewarding that our team can be a part of.

B2B is a different beast, and here are some critical questions you’ll want to ask when the time comes to evaluate which digital agency to partner with for your B2B campaigns.

Can you describe your approach to each stage of the buying cycle?

Like many of the questions here, this one can only be answered sufficiently when more questions are asked in response. That’s good! You want your agency asking lots of questions at the beginning of the relationship. That said, it’s good to have a foundational strategy for tailoring tactics to each stage of the buying cycle.

At DragonSearch, we like to begin by understanding the customer profile at each stage of the traditional AIDA funnel. This is an exercise that will guide the process of determining how we define the audience at each stage of the buying cycle. According to a study by Pardot in 2013, 76% of B2B customers want to receive content that is unique to their stage of the buying cycle (more on content later).

By defining the audience profile for each stage of the cycle, we can begin to develop targeting tactics for each stage. We’ll then develop messaging and content for each stage of the cycle, as well as metrics for measuring success at each stage. It’s also critical to understand how the internal sales team approaches clients at each stage of the cycle as well, since the handoff to sales is the crux of the funnel in many way.

In the end, you’ll want to have confidence that the digital agency you’re working with can map out the funnel, and every aspect that relates to it, in a ‘full-funnel’ system.

How will your team learn the intricacies of our technical niche industry?

Let’s face it, not everyone is going to be an expert at remote server management hardware or technical color theory. Moreover, it could be a fool’s errand to find someone skilled in this area who was also a certified AdWords expert or technical SEO.

So what is the solution? A good agency will have a process for developing this expertise. Since your side of the relationship are already experts in the field, this process should involve your team being viewed as a resource to help develop this foundation. As a rule of thumb, the content development process should begin with research and should end with approval and vetting. This is also a great opportunity for the agency to ask about your legal and compliance guidelines, and to understand what role those teams will have in content approval.

One potential pitfall to watch out for at this stage is an unrealistic expectation for how much you or your internal team will be able to contribute to the campaigns. The reality is that if you’re evaluating digital agencies, you’re probably part of a specialized brand-side team and you have your own responsibilities to the company. You simply won’t have the bandwidth to hand-hold the agency as they learn your industry, so their process should demonstrate a sensitivity to your time and make the best use of each team’s resources.

What role should content play in a B2B marketing strategy?

This is a trick question, because if they haven’t asked about content on their own you should already have a red flag going up. Content is critical at each stage of the buying cycle, and should be tailored to each customer demographic that was discussed during the funnel conversation.

The way we approach this topic is to bucket content into each stage of the buying cycle by defining Industry, Brand, and Product-related content. This should reflect the AIDA stages of Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action. Targeting is merely the tactic that links each demographic with each piece of content.

The reality today is that most B2B buyers will research a product or company heavily before engaging with a sales rep. This means that your early stage assets, the content that precedes demo sign-ups and webinars, are the ones at which your digital team will most need to excel for your campaigns to be successful.

How will you help us have a better relationship with our other partners?

This is a great question, because more often than not there are multiple agencies involved with the full marketing picture for a brand. Teams that frequently work together include PR, Web Development, and of course Digital Marketing.

A good agency will have some insight to share about how they work best with these teams, and how they can help you manage everyone’s efforts well. Since just about every campaign touches digital in some way, your digital agency should make it a priority to understand everything that each team is working on so that there are no surprises.

Finally, how does this help you have better relationships? Digital assets are technical and specialized. FTP upload. DNS services.  All things you never needed to learn, until all of a sudden you need to ask one of your vendors about it. As digital marketers, we bridge the gap between technical and traditional, and should be able to help you navigate these waters. If I had a dollar for every time we took the role of “client advocate” when helping a brand communicate with their web developer…

How can you tell if we’re targeting the right customers?

This is a great opportunity to have the measurement conversation. As you discuss the sales funnel and the targeting tactics for each stage of the buying cycle, you’ll also be discussing the Key Performance Indicators at each stage. These are the foundation for tracking the performance of your targeting criteria.

As part of this conversation, you should start to get an understanding of how the agency structures campaigns to segment data for each group. You’ll need to have confidence that the agency can strike the right balance of narrow segmentation for each distinct audience and tactic, while still keeping the data manageable and actionable. In the B2B market, this is especially critical because you might have a very wide range of customer profiles that differ greatly.

What data do you need from us to be successful?

Great question! I wish more clients asked this question. (That’s the first thing your prospective B2B partner should say)

The short answer here is: anything that you have access to, your agency should be aware of. Whether you can share it with them is another story. In an ideal environment, your agency will have access to your CRM data and will be able to correlate lead reports for each funnel stage of their campaigns. Understanding how much revenue was influenced by digital will certainly guide your budget planning process, so why wouldn’t it guide your agency to improve their campaigns?

If you track specific metrics like Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL), Marketing Engaged Leads (MEL) and the proportion that converts from one group into the other, this is the time to share that information. If this is how your department will be measured internally, it’s data that your agency can use to optimize each campaign.

How will you balance branding goals with our hard revenue targets?

This is a great example of a question with no “right” answer, but rather one that can be used to facilitate a meaningful conversation and demonstrate critical thinking on the agency’s side. The short answer is, it all depends on how hard your revenue targets are and how far away from top-funnel awareness that will drive your tactics.

If this is balanced well, hitting your revenue targets will require a view to the full funnel. If a solid system of measurement is in place, there should be lead indicators which are being tracked that will sound the alarm as the canary in the coal mine if brand-awareness isn’t moving in a good direction.

How will your strategies integrate with our existing sales process?

Another question answered with a question. This is an opportunity for the agency to ask about your sales process and provide their reaction to it.

A “home-run” answer from your agency during this conversation will be when they ask about what data your sales process tracks. Do they track P1 vs P2 leads? What does that even mean in practice? This is also an opportunity for your agency to understand what incentives are influencing the sales team. If there are bonuses and incentives at different stages of the year, tell your agency about this as it will undoubtedly influence the bottom of the funnel. This could result in a flurry of late-stage activity at the end of each quarter or in some cases might reward sand-bagging at other stages of the year which will affect your results. Don’t repeat that last point to anyone in sales. Let’s keep that one between us. Thank you.

How do you measure attribution across a three-to-12 month sales cycle?

Long sales cycles are a defining feature of nearly every B2B sales funnel. This can impact everything from broad stroke concepts like tailoring content, to detailed tactics like how long until a retargeting pixel expires.

One aspect to be sensitive to with long sales cycles is the timing of when to push middle-stage actions like webinar sign-ups or demo requests. You’ll want to work with an agency that finds the right blend of tactics to speed up funnel velocity, while still being acutely sensitive to the pace at which your prospects develop opinions about your industry, brand, and product.

What role does mobile play in your strategy?

We’ve all heard plenty about Mobilegeddon this year, and most brands have reacted by now. The days of getting away with a non-mobile friendly site are officially behind us. In my view, this merely forced brands to tick a box that should have been voluntarily addressed long ago. The new mobile landscape is conquered by strategies that address second screen experiences, mobile conversion optimization, and dwindling attention spans.

At the heart of this issue is the hardware that your audiences uses every day. Some might assume that in the B2B market, every potential customer is comparison shopping on their Dell computer with two 21” monitors. The reality, however, is that people are at home with their kids watching TV and trying to catch up on their research time on their iPad. We’ve found from many tests that B2B campaigns do really well in the evenings after dinner. This is prime-time for mobile targeting strategies to cut through the noise.

How does Facebook fit into your B2B advertising strategy?

“But Abe,” you might be saying, “this is the 11th question! We were promised 10 questions.” That’s right! It’s a freebie bonus, and a very sneaky question.

It seems that many B2B marketers have declared that Facebook is dead to them. The problem here is that fundamentally it’s an assumption that must be tested! This is your opportunity to discover if the agency you’re talking to is simply going to apply best practices or if they are going to push the envelope and let the data do the talking.

For years our B2B clients told us that they didn’t want to be on Facebook, but now that it’s become a stellar ad platform, the rules have changed. In fact, there are no rules! These experiments quickly showed great success as a retargeting platform for B2B campaigns. But we haven’t stopped there; we’re seeing great results at the top of the funnel from Facebook using demographic targeting, and revenue is hitting the B2B books for many clients that originated on Facebook before working its way through the familiarly long B2B sales cycle.

This conversation is a great way to learn if your B2B agency is thinking outside of the box. Then the question becomes, are you ready to take the leap and push that envelope yourself?

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