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Ten Questions to Ask Your Digital Agency Before you Sign a Contract


This article on ‘Questions to Ask Your Digital Agency Before you Sign a Contract’ came out quite nicely so I thought I’d pop it in here… Enjoy!

  • What qualifications and experience do the business owners have?

Web design companies often change hands and if you’re not careful, you’re likely to find that the person who runs the business knows very little about designing websites or best-practice online marketing principles. If you want to know you’re in good hands, choose a web design company with an experienced, qualified management team who have been running the business for at least a few years.

  • Do your designers work in-house, or do you contract them out?

A lot of companies contract their designers out and they rarely, if ever, set foot in the same office as the person who answers the phone. That’s not necessarily a problem, but you’ll find designers who work as part of a motivated team tend to do better work than those working from their bedroom, in Eastern Europe. Quality control is also much easier when everyone is sitting within shouting distance from each other, and if you can pop in and talk to the designer at their desk on their computer, it’s much easier to communicate what you want and get your ideas across.

  • What qualifications does your team have?

University degrees and TAFE courses are no substitute for talent, but they definitely help make it shine. You don’t need a PhD in Information Technology to build a website, but it’s good to know that at least a few people on the team have taken the time to get a tertiary education and learn best-practice principles from those in the know. Any high school student can knock together a basic web page these days, but if you want a site that helps you make money, you need someone who has studied the theory behind making that happen.

  • Who does your programming?

You’ll invariably need a feedback form, shopping cart, funky map or some other little gadget on your website at some stage. Make sure the person who does the programming knows their stuff and get a reliable, set-in-stone estimate of the timeframe for completion. Many web design firms out-source the tricky bits to interstate or overseas contractors and communication errors and long, unexpected delays are common.

  • Are you certified by Google?

Google offers certification courses to people and companies who can demonstrate that they know how best to promote a site in their search results. It’s certainly not mandatory to have a site built by a Google-certified company, but it does show a high level of commitment and professionalism, not to mention recognized expertise.

  • I want a website, but I also want help marketing it, do you do that?

Online marketing is more than just getting your site into Google, although that’s arguably the most important start. A good web design firm should be able to help you work out exactly how the Internet fits in your overall marketing plan and point out strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for you. They should be able to provide you with a detailed search engine optimisation plan that embodies Google’s guidelines, create and manage a paid search campaign, advise on banner ad placement and suggest other ideas like affiliate marketing, social media and viral. If they don’t do that, they should at least be aware of the issues and able to put you in touch with a reputable firm who can help. The last thing you want is a website designer who builds the site without even considering any marketing opportunities – or worse, one who doesn’t know enough about what they’re doing and ends up getting you in trouble. If they’re claiming to be an expert, ask for solid proof of their claims and evidence of their knowledge in peer-review journals and mainstream publications.

  • What are the payment terms?

Most companies will ask for a deposit up-front before they start working on your project. This helps with their cash-flow and it’s a sign from you that you’re serious about getting something done. A normal amount is anywhere between 10% and 50%, anything more than that and it’s starting to look risky. A website is a big investment, so ask if you can pay the remainder of the fees off over a period of a few months. Make sure you get a detailed quote that outlines every component of the project and ask if there are any fees over and above what they originally say. You don’t want to find yourself paying for endless ‘updates’ after you thought the site was finished.

  • Can I update the website myself?

Ask what sort of content management system they recommend and if they offer a variety of choices. This will save you big bucks.

  • Do you provide a money-back guarantee?

Ask what will happen if you’re just not happy with the end result, or if they fail to complete something they said they would.

  • Can I ask some of your clients about your service?

Find out what work they’ve done and call their clients to see what they thought of the service. Any half-decent agency will have a bunch of testimonials, but every agency in the world has done work for their brothers, sisters and cousins at some stage. Ask for a few examples, and call them. If they were happy with the service they shouldn’t mind a quick chat about your potential new designer.

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6 Responses to Ten Questions to Ask Your Digital Agency Before you Sign a Contract

  1. Isaac says:

    Most of your questions are good and worth asking but I did want to comment on 2-3 of them so they’re not only best asked of larger agencies when they could also apply to smaller operations or lone freelancers – and both of those can be just as useful for many clients out there.

    “What qualifications does your team have?”

    I think this one’s a little irrelevant for some workers (e.g., those that cover multiple skillsets – jack of all trades) and mostly relates to specialists (illustrators, graphic designers, programmers) that will be found in larger companies. For many, the best way to learn in this field is through direct practical experience. When I did some study in web/multimedia, the instructors were hacks that couldn’t get freelance gigs in the open market so they lectured instead. On top of that, most of what they taught was out of date by the time you took your skills out and put them to use because the landscape is changing so quickly and has been all along.

    Maybe a better question would be “Can you tell us about the team that will be involved with my account, their areas of specialisation and any relevant qualifications?”

    “Are you certified by Google?”

    Don’t love this one either for the small or medium operators. Anyone doing this likely has time on their hands meaning that they have enough staff available to arrange this (in which case, you’re paying for related overheads) or they’re those sole operators that don’t have any work on and have nothing better to do than go for certification.

    Reminds me a bit of studios that enter design awards – doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best, just that they’re better than others that bother paying to enter as well.

    I’d guess that the majority of the best SEO operators in the world don’t have certification.

    “Can I update the website myself? Ask what sort of content management system they recommend and if they offer a variety of choices. This will save you big bucks.”

    CMSs have been all the rage for years and years but aren’t necessarily the answer in every case – too often clients throw money at CMSs or features they simply don’t need (I’m yet to find a client in 10 years who legitimately needs versioning/reverts, for example). Often, rather than spending up on a CMS and then struggling through with inferior in-house skills to keep a site updated, clients could get better value for money delegating anything more complicated than basic text changes to pros that keep things looking good (assuming they don’t screw you for small time increments or basic changes – actually, that might be worth a question in its own right).

    What about “Given the ongoing changes we might need to make to our site and the skills we have available in-house, what do you think is the best solution for maintenance and why?” If they re-sell or tweak another CMS, find out why (saves reinventing the wheel and having to charge accordingly is a good answer). If they roll their own, ask why (better familiarity with the product makes for faster changes and smaller charges).

  2. Hi Isaac, thanks for chiming in, the feedback is great but where are you from? I reckon your questions are good, if not a tiny bit long winded.

    The list is actually aimed at people trying to choose a smaller agency because there are lots out there who claim to be SEO/SEM experts and don’t know their stuff. Google certification is one thing that seperates the professionals from the cowboys.

    There are also quite a few good CMS’s out there which are open source, free, and easy to install in less than an hour. We rarely build a site that doesn’t use a CMS these days because it’s quicker for everyone.

  3. Isaac says:

    Cheers Matt.

    I have run Triplezero in Adelaide since 1998.

    I actually think SEO (as usually marketed online and pitched to clients) is staged as more convoluted than it needs to be. At its core, the vast majority of it is about content (keywords), the technical side of things (making use of title tags and the like) and then backlinks. In my experience, clients rarely want to pay for the right content and sit on their hands when needing to do it themselves. And so many struggle when it comes to the relationships/time that build backlinks – same problem as before, don’t want to pay for it, don’t want to arrange it themselves.

    I find most of the free CMSs too restrictive and tend to avoid them. Over the last decade, I’ve always rolled my own or worked from an existing codebase and customised it as required – that’s avoided reinventing too much of the wheel and also given something that is very familiar to us which makes for quicker updates and better bang for buck for the client.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, but it’s the backlinks bit that few agencies do well. Content and on-page optimisation is a hurdle that a good agency should be able to convince a client to jump over if they want the prize at the end. Now that more and more businesses are running the SEO race, it’s getting easier to sell.

    Have you tried the MODx CMS? It’s brilliant – we swear by it.

  5. Isaac says:

    I took a look at AdWords certification and it appears that corporate certification with AdWords is based on some sort of exam, employment of two certified individuals (passing similar rules) and minimum expenditure of US$100k in a 90-day period. I have one employee and can’t imagine there’d be many people in Adelaide looking after US$100k of AdWords spend.

    May have to settle for the individual level. The question could be slightly rephrased to note that certification as either company or for the individual handling the account may be equally beneficial.

    Just a shame that there’s no room in their requirements for 13 or so years of full-time experience in working the net, understanding AdWords, and dealing with AdSense (the flipside) enough that it passively covers my mortgage, bills, entertainment, etc.

    I’ll take a look into MODx, thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Matt, I don’t agree that web team members necessarily need tertiary qualifications. Especially designers.

    Sure, it’s nice to know that they took the time to jump through university hoops for two or three years, but don’t you think that a passionate designer’s time could be better put to use by studying the array of online guides and documentation, and honing their skills that way?

    I’ll frame it another way. You’re a client. Mid-way through a project you discovered that the agency’s web designer – whose work thus far has wholly impressed you – doesn’t have a piece of paper to certify their talents. Do you terminate the project, or do you admire the designer’s ability to dedicate time to learning their skills outside of an educational institution?

    The example works best with a designer, but it could also be extrapolated to web developer, copywriter, project manager..

    Do formal qualifications within the web industry carry the same weight, the same value as they did ten years ago?

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