What you need to know about consultants, agencies, freelancers, and FTEs.
If you are like most entrepreneurs and small business owners, you wear multiple hats: president, accountant, marketing director, hiring manager, sales consultant, customer service representative, and more.
You have a passion for a product or service, and a vision for making it better. Yet, the reality of managing a small business has pulled you in all kinds of different directions.
Of all the hats you wear, there are two that might fit less comfortably than the others: Marketing Director and Accountant.
Accounting is one of the first roles outsourced for businesses of all sizes, leaving marketing as the remaining essential function with perhaps the largest gap in skills and performance. That’s because it’s complicated, especially in the brave new digital world in which we live.
You really have 5 options when it comes to closing that performance gap and successfully marketing your small business:
While DIY Marketing is usually unsustainable for busy owners and entrepreneurs, it’s often the reality in the short term for bootstrapping small businesses. The key is to educate yourself as much as possible. The time you spend getting up to speed won’t be wasted. As a business owner, you are the CEO and General Manager, and need to know enough about marketing to hire, partner with, and acquire the best marketing resources and tools.
Here are a few of my favorite online marketing resources:
- Social Media Examiner — Great site for all things social media; very well respected and hosts of one of the largest social media conferences in the business.
- Hubspot Blog — Hubspot is the originator of the Inbound Marketing methodology and a recognized thought-leader. Not only does Hubspot have educational and how-to articles, but it also offers a wealth of tools and templates.
- Think With Google Blog — Much of the content published here is based on insights from Google's vast universe of data and trend analysis.
- MarketingLand — Good general marketing trends and tips site; a lot of actionable, step-by-step material.
(2) Hire a consultant
The great thing about consultants is that they don’t sell stuff. A consultant should be experienced and unbiased so that they can recommend the solutions with the highest return on investment. Consultants will tend to have the highest hourly rates, so its important to keep them focused on strategy-level work. But don't get hung up on the hourly rate. Keep in mind that a bad strategy can waste future marketing investments and have devastating opportunity costs.
(3) Hire an agency
The type of agencies that serve small business are notorious for creating boilerplate solutions to reduce costs. Efficiency of execution is good, but not if the solution doesn't fit your unique objectives.
While some agencies say they offer strategy, depending on the breadth of their offerings they may not provide a comprehensive analysis of options. Ultimately, they are trying to sell what they have.
The benefit of a good, well-rounded agency is they can act as a virtual marketing department. Look for one with a broad portfolio that offers multiple billing rates so that you don’t have to pay strategist-level rates for tactical-level work.
(4) Hire a freelancer
Freelancers tend to be one-trick ponies. They are almost always less costly on an hourly basis than agencies, but they rarely offer comprehensive solutions and strategic support. A fully vetted strategy and clearly communicated direction is needed in order to get good results from freelancers.
Additionally, let's be frank for a moment. Unless you have significant experience hiring freelancers and know what to look for and how to screen them, getting a good one can be a real challenge. Websites like Upwork have made the process more manageable (for example you can filter candidates by rating, or money earned, or testing scores). But the reality is that the pool of freelancers in the marketing space—designers, developers, writers, SEOs, etc.—are largely millennials or "digital nomads", the majority of whom seem to prioritize their schedule over your deadlines (apologies to those of you hard working millennials... I know you're out there!). I've personally hired many dozens of freelancers using tools like Upwork, LinkedIn, and various job boards, and even with my ability to ask the right questions, screen for issues, and clearly communicate expectations, less than half tend to meet my professionalism standards.
(5) Build an internal team
Building internal resources is a big commitment. The cost per hour may be the lowest of the listed options, but a number of unforeseen things—downtime, extended illness, attrition, training—can sabotage the anticipated savings. Hiring internal marketing expertise is particularly tricky in the initial stages. Do you hire a director level person? Or a tactical marketer? A more experienced candidate will provide better strategic guidance, but you’ll overpay for execution tasks. More junior talent may serve you cost-effectively for routine tactics, but may expose you to more risk and opportunity costs.
Further, finding the right talent, as well as managing them in a way that maximizes their potential, is very difficult without preexisting internal subject matter expertise.
Often small businesses try to straddle the fence on this issue and end up mitigating some risk and cost, but nonetheless failing to reach their potential.
What’s the right approach?
It really depends on each situation. In most cases, however, a consultant is a good place to start. They can help translate business goals, market dynamics, and financial limitations into some concrete steps and a marketing plan that is tailored to your situation. They can also help you find and hire the best resources, whether that be external or internal, and even help train staff and establish best practices.
Need help figuring out where to start?
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