What to Ask Before Hiring an Agency

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I've come to a conclusion about agencies and the Web: When selecting partners for Web site development and Web-based programs, start with your marketing needs, not your interactivity requirements. And let this be the primary factor in hiring an agency.


The source of my conclusion is the realization that the best marketing skills still live in the ad agencies, the direct marketing agencies and the consulting groups. And the talent in the interactive agencies, while terrific at HTML and graphics, is less skilled at understanding customers, marketing objectives and messaging.


Here's where this conclusion came from. My company, Cybuy, is seeking to revise and relaunch its Web site.


We're an e-commerce business, so you might think that nothing could be more important than our site. But as a matter of fact, our business model is not about conducting commerce at our site, it's about creating a new sales channel on the Web, bringing buyers and sellers together wherever on the Web the buyers happen to be.


Our Web site primarily is about marketing communications to three audiences: merchant and Web site partners, our end users and the rest of the world - the press, investors, suppliers, etc. In all our external contact for our PR, sales calls and staff recruiting, we know that people will first go to our Web site to check us out. The site has to be clear, relevant, easy to navigate and easy to understand - the usual objectives of good marketing communications.


At this point in the evolution of our business, we have a clear notion of the messaging we want to communicate to each of our three audiences. Each segment is different, so we decided to use a portal page as a general introduction, and then quickly invite visitors to follow one of three paths to more detail, depending on their needs.


So that was how we briefed the interactive agency we selected. We said our site is business-to-business and business-to-consumer, and we want visitors to quickly find information about what we do.


The agency came back to us with cool stuf:. Fun graphics, home-page concepts with little boxes that bounce back and forth, or stark screen-show portal treatments that involved something akin to silent movies. But nothing that suggested they understood the communications objective.


This was the start of an ongoing tension between the agency's desire to focus on the interactivity and features vs. our desire to focus on audience and message. Our priorities were simplicity, speed and clear communication to three distinct audiences, and that required less rather than more in terms of clever creative treatments.


Once they did get it, the designers who had been working on our stuff were crestfallen. Another boring, uncool client - I could just see it in their faces.


So that's when I concluded that when I want a development partner, I need to start with the synergies on the marketing side before looking at interactive capabilities. Here are some guidelines for how to think this through when planning interactive programs:


• Remind yourself of your marketing objectives. Who is your customer? What's on his mind? How do your products or serv-


ices meet his needs?


• Analyze the purpose of the channel. Is the Internet going to help you reach new audiences or your current customers? What do you want them to do as a result of interacting with you through this new medium?


• Talk to your current agencies first. Whether they specialize in advertising, direct marketing, sales promotion or PR, they are rapidly becoming Web-savvy. And they are most likely to understand your target audiences, their needs and your marketing objectives.


• Ask them to recommend the best ways to communicate to your audiences via the Web. What are the right words, graphics, click-paths and features? How should the Web be best integrated into your entire marketing mix?


• Don't allow any programming to be done until all the work we've discussed is completed.


• Involve your account people in reviewing the results, from the point of view of the customer. Are the messages clear? Is everything fast to load? Can I get my questions answered easily?


What we are missing so often in i-marketing is a focus on the customer. I am reminded a lot of the dot-com advertising at the Super Bowl this year. Creatives that shouted, "We are cool, check us out. Us, us, us!" But they gave no sense of understanding that eternal marketing fundamental: What's in it for me, the customer.


So let this be a wakeup call to interactive agencies: I urge you to be sure your marketing teams are robust. Take extra care to hire skilled marketers, to complement your brilliant, creative programmers and truly satisfy the needs of your clients.
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