Should You Hire a Digital Marketing Agency? A Guide for eCommerce Businesses

Digital marketing services from an agency can generate massive growth increases for your business. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, you can just as easily sink thousands of dollars into an agency with little to no quantifiable return.

So, how do you decide between in-house vs. agency marketing — and know when it’s the right time for your eCommerce business to make a change?

Lots of marketing agencies will upsell you for the sake of making a profit, but we’re here to tell you the truth: Not all eCommerce businesses need an agency’s services to thrive. In fact, in-house marketing can be just as successful as agency marketing, as long as your goals and expectations are aligned with your strategies.

In this article, we’ll help you make the right choice for your bottom line by explaining:

  • The reasons why you should hire a digital marketing agency over an individual marketer (and vice versa)
  • How your business’s age and growth plays a role in that choice
  • Which six questions you should ask before choosing the agency path

Should I Hire or Use an Agency for My Digital Marketing Strategy?

There are two viable paths for eCommerce digital marketing services: working with a marketing agency vs. an in-house marketing team/specialist. Which option you choose will likely depend on three factors:

  1. Your demonstrated business growth
  2. Your budget
  3. Your marketing goals

Reasons Why You Should Hire a Digital Marketing Agency

Typically, agencies are the best fit for eCommerce businesses that are showing growth, have set clear business goals, and (most importantly) can invest in long-term marketing strategies. 

While the specific reasons why you should hire a digital marketing agency are ultimately up to you, a few benefits make agency services a no-brainer for certain online businesses:

  • eCommerce agencies are highly specialized. If you choose right, your agency will have one team that focuses solely on search engine optimization (SEO), another only on PPC, another on social media, etc. In comparison, a single in-house marketer wears all hats at once. While they can often succeed at the basics, they simply can’t be an expert in everything.
  • Organic and paid search algorithms can change hundreds of times a year (hence, why it’s so hard for one person to stay on top of it all). A digital marketing agency will not only keep up with those changes but proactively build custom strategies around the anticipated updates.
  • Instead of funneling a large marketing budget into a single salary for a jack-of-all-trades, you can pay a similar price to work with separate experts in every field.

Reasons Why You Should Hire an In-House Marketer

But an agency isn’t the only way to find marketing success. Plenty of skilled digital marketers out there can create a multifaceted strategy that works for your business on the budget you have. 

  • While those marketing efforts may not be backed by the experience and skill of an agency, an in-house marketer can spend 100% of their time understanding your brand. 
  • For many eCommerce businesses (especially smaller or newer ones), hiring an in-house marketer can be a smarter financial investment until the overall marketing budget expands.
  • An in-house or freelance marketing specialist can be a great starting point for your eCommerce business to “test” the digital marketing waters.

In short: Hiring an online marketing specialist is a great way to establish your business and bridge the gap before graduating to an agency’s services when you’re ready.

What if My Business is a Startup?

If you own an eCommerce startup, you may want to invest in quality strategies from the very beginning. The better marketing foundation you build, the faster and more efficient your business grows, right?

Not necessarily. 

Most agency strategies cost and operate at a more complex level than a startup needs. While it’s true that an agency can usually create more successful campaigns, those strategies aren’t always necessary to test whether an approach will be successful in the long term. 

Starting with a freelancer or full-time marketing manager can be a cost-effective way to build your foundation and test the viability of your strategies. Then, later down the road, your business can hire an agency to perfect that strategy and take your company to the next level.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. If you believe your startup could benefit from an agency’s work, request proposals from a few professionals. Evaluate their service offerings against your forecasted growth (and budget) before moving forward.

6 Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding Between an Agency or In-House Marketer

To avoid being misled or upsold, we recommend asking yourself the following questions before pursuing a relationship with a digital marketing agency.

1. Do your marketing strategies and accounts have enough history to evaluate?

Marketing agencies often deliver the best performance for an eCommerce business that has an established brand awareness and customer base. If you’re starting from scratch, your digital agency will need to spend valuable resources setting up your accounts (and often charge more for doing so).

Your online business should have a history of strategies and metrics that can be audited by prospective agencies. Whether your marketing campaigns are currently managed in-house or through freelancer outsourcing, the track record should be old enough that a thorough audit can be run. That way, your agency can provide an outside perspective on what has or hasn’t worked in the past — and jump right into the strategies that are more likely to drive revenue growth.

And, when you have substantial data to be audited, you can more quickly weed out poor agencies who aren’t up to the task and require prospective providers to “prove” themselves before you sign on.

2. Is your business showing growth potential?

If you want to scale your eCommerce business, you first need to demonstrate a potential for growth. This history proves that your business can scale, and it gives your agency a better foundation and more opportunity to scale your accounts.

Growth potential can mean different things to different businesses. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is your business getting conversions and revenue? 
  2. Is your site getting substantial traffic? 
  3. Is your brand receiving positive feedback on your social posts? 
  4. Are you seeing competitors of a similar size succeeding in the space?

Even though you may not be profitable now, these indicators demonstrate that there is an opportunity for your business to grow from its current stage. Maybe you’re getting a lot of conversions but spending way too much per conversion. Maybe your site generates good organic traffic but not a high conversion rate. 

These are all areas where an agency can step in and take your company to profitable levels.

3. Do you have a clear set of business goals?

While an agency can help you achieve your growth goals, you have to identify them first.

You know your products and business best, which means you know exactly what you need to be profitable. How much do you need to make to see growth? What does the future look like for your vertical? Be willing and able to articulate your ideas on when and how your business should (and shouldn’t) scale, as well as how your digital marketing services will play a role in your overall growth strategy.

If you can give an agency a clear set of business needs and goals, they can tailor their marketing plan around those for the highest probability of satisfaction on your end.

4. Do you want a quick fix, or are you looking for a long-term strategy?

Here’s the hard truth: No marketing strategy (no matter how in-depth) can save an online business in serious financial trouble. If your business is hemorrhaging money or needs results tomorrow, investing in a digital marketing agency probably won’t be the smartest move.

On the other hand, if you understand the importance of slower growth and long-term gains, you probably should hire a digital marketing agency as a long-term investment. Marketing strategies are always changing; having a long-term partner means that your business can adjust more efficiently and generate steady growth over time.

You may not see results with an agency until month one or two — but the results you see from month six and onward will outpace any quick fix “solutions.”

5. Does it make financial sense?

For many eCommerce business owners, the decision of whether they should hire an agency is made based on budget. Proven marketing strategies don’t come cheap. You’ll need to evaluate the potential return on investment (ROI) for an agency to determine if it’s the right move for you.

For example, if your advertising spend (or budget) is under a few thousand dollars a month, paying for an agency fee may not be the smartest move, especially if that fee is too high for your company’s budget. A lower agency fee may always be the solution, either; it could indicate that the agency will not spend adequate time on your account to generate the growth you want.

In this case, marketing freelancers or full-time employees might be the best choice until you have a larger marketing budget. 

When considering your digital marketing budget, you should also consider your marketing budget as a whole. Does your business invest in paper ads, radio, TV, email marketing, organic social media marketing, content marketing, or other mediums? Consider how your digital marketing strategies will interact with these existing campaigns. The healthiest companies generate revenue from multiple marketing streams, because building or enhancing one stream often improves performance on the others.

The bottom line: Don’t expect 100 percent of your revenue to come from digital marketing. Weigh that knowledge against your marketing budget and expected return to see if it’s the right financial choice for your business.

6. Have you requested an audit from a digital marketing agency?

While the guidelines above are helpful, they don’t apply to every eCommerce business. For example, some recent startups experience rapid enough growth that agency strategies are warranted, while other long-established businesses don’t yet have the bottom line to make an investment worth their time.

That’s why the best way to decide if you should hire a digital marketing agency is by speaking with one in person — and, ideally, getting a personalized marketing audit, too.

Every agency is different, which means the budget and strategies you’ll be presented with will vary. Interviewing and receiving audits from several digital marketing experts gives you a better idea of what growth is possible for your business and how an agency’s services will play a role in that.

A good agency will conduct a free audit and proposal to help you find the right solution for your goals and needs. The best understand that they may not always be the perfect fit — but will still recommend the best path forward for your business, whether that’s with their agency, another professional, or with an in-house or freelance marketing professional.

Find Out What’s Best for Your eCommerce Business

With so many agencies pushing services and unnecessarily upselling to clients, it’s hard to know when your business is truly ready (and will actually benefit) from digital marketing services. 

We know there are a lot of variables to consider in your agency search, and we’re here to help you out. Schedule a call with our strategists anytime; we’ll learn more about your business, and you’ll learn more about whether an agency is the right fit for you. And, if we’re not the right agency for you, we’ll refer you to other professionals who will better match your business’s needs and goals.