Vital questions to ask when choosing a PPC agency

Choosing a pay-per click (PPC) agency is easy, right? You simply look at the size of the firm, the tools it utilizes, and its history of success, and if you seem to have a bit of chemistry with the agency, you're almost there.

If only it were that easy.

Those questions are definitely pertinent, but maybe not the most important when you're actually finding the right agency for your firm. Below, I explore a few additional questions to ask and discuss why they're important.

What does my account team look like?
Whether the PPC agency has 20 employees or 3,000, it's important to know who will actually be on the account. Are senior SEM professionals pitching to you, only to pass you down to junior level staffers? Do you have a dedicated project manager? Is that different from the account manager role? Some agencies don't delineate between the two roles and your project manager may simply be a salesperson dressed in project management clothes.

How many people will be on the team? This is not the key question, but it should be reflective of the size of your campaigns. Getting an understanding of the exact team that will be managing your account is a key to helping you make an informed decision when choosing an agency. If you choose a firm based on its size and the success stories of its major accounts, but you get junior level SEM professionals running your campaigns, you're not really getting what you paid for.

What kind of contracts does it offer? 
Many firms require long-term contracts (sometimes with good reason, often without). Regardless of necessity, a piece of paper really doesn't make a client stick. Moreover, it may encourage apathy if a firm knows that a client can't leave, regardless of actual performance. Several studies have given credence to this by showing that clients without long-term contracts typically stay longer than those who have one.

In the SEM world, good contracts are needed, and good contracts typically have a clause for a proper cancellation notice. The length of this notice period should be relative to the size of the campaign (in my opinion, that range is 30-90 days written notice). That doesn't mean 12-month contracts should be the norm.  I'm constantly shocked to see this trend persisting. Why does an agency require a 12-month contract if they have a three month written cancellation notice clause?

Maybe it's just me, but I've always assumed that if you do a good job, your clients will keep you. If you don't, you should be fired. It seems simple.

Does it understand creative?
The conversion formula isn't a single variable equation. You can have the best products in the world and your PPC agency can drive targeted traffic, but if your landing pages don't connect emotionally (even in B2B), your campaign will suffer.

I'm not suggesting the PPC firm need be an expert at creative, but they at least need to know how to work with your internal creative team or agency to be effective. Having the right design, copy, and calls to actions all figure in to making your SEM campaigns successful. 

I can't tell you how many times potential clients tell me they want a new PPC firm because they're not happy with their conversion rate. Then, after researching the campaigns, it quickly becomes apparent that their agency did an excellent job with PPC, but either unknowingly -- or worse yet, knowingly -- drove traffic to pages that weren't likely to convert. The agency's approach to landing page strategy and creative is just as important as its understanding of driving traffic and should be discussed before you make your selection.

What is its process for campaign improvement?
Testing, testing, and more testing is vital for long term success in PPC advertising. What worked in September 2008 may not work in September 2009, even if you have the same keywords and landing pages (and sometimes especially if you have the same keywords and landing pages). The competitive landscape changes, client expectations evolve, more firms launch SEM campaigns, etc. 

PPC is an art and a science, with the luxury of having measurability. Whether an agency is doing A/B testing, working with campaign optimization tools, bid management tools, or all of the above, the important thing for you to know as a potential PPC client is what its process is. What tools, techniques, and methodologies does it use to support this process? Any agency can buy traffic, but few actually have the strategic capability to maximize it.

What is the history of success?
This is a key question when asked with appropriate depth. The best predictor of future triumph is past success. What is the agency's history of success?

What awards or accolades has it won?  Were these for marquee clients, or does its success cut across various industries and sizes? Does the agency offer case studies on its website or upon request? Successful firms are typically more than happy to give success stories to potential clients.

Successful firms are typically thought leaders as well. Does it publish articles in industry publications? Are key team members invited to speak at industry events? Does it have a presence in industry user groups? And most importantly, what do references say? Of all of the indicators of a history of success, nothing can be more telling than talking to three or more actual clients. 

Conclusion
Choosing a PPC agency is never easy, but asking the right questions is crucial to a wise selection. The good news is that there are a lot of good SEM firms to choose from, but that also makes it difficult and confusing to make the best choice for your company. By digging a little deeper and asking questions that truly help you find the key differentiators, you can find a firm that can not only help you drive targeted traffic, but one that also can become a trusted partner.

Brian Easter is the CEO of NeboWeb.

On Twitter? Follow NeboWeb at @NeboWeb. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

 

Comments

Andrew Ettinger
Andrew Ettinger October 5, 2009 at 10:10 AM

well said