Every agency's a digital marketing firm these days.
Agencies that were SEO or PPC specialists have become digital marketing firms. Agencies that were web design shops—or even print design shops—have become digital marketing firms. Advertising firms that used to make their money from billboards and TV ads have become digital marketing firms. And PR firms have become digital marketing agencies, too.
What's a company in need of agency services to do? Are all these agencies the same now, because they claim to offer the same services?
The answer is, of course not.
When we assess people as individuals—whether it's a job candidate for your company or a romantic interest in your personal life—we tend to do some specific kinds of research. We don't rely on what they tell us during a first interview or a first date. We fire up the Google machine. We study their personal histories and backgrounds.
What does your agency's history and background say about them?
SEO Firms Turned Inbound Marketers
SEO used to be a thriving, if idiosyncratic, industry. It lived in a completely separate world from other forms of marketing. The reason is that the driving rationale for SEO from 1995 to 2010 was to "game" Google—to use tricks of the trade like link farms, offshore website networks, and other methods to exploit gaps in Google's algorithms. "Good SEO" is what an SEO firm would call it when you searched Google for a Boston Kreme and got a corner donut shop in Roxbury instead of Dunkin' Donuts.
Since 2010, Google has been on a systematic, Sherman-like March to the Sea against this kind of SEO—now known as "unnatural" link-building—wiping it out with ruthless efficiency through steady improvements to its algorithm. Many traditional SEO firms have repositioned themselves as inbound marketing firms after being made digital refugees by this March to the Sea.
The challenges for these professionals is that what Google wants today is what website visitors want today: websites that earn their ranking and visibility by generating high-quality content that attracts real audience, as well as earning links from high-authority sites like news media outlets. And many SEO professionals simply do not have the backgrounds in content or PR to pull off this transition.
Web Design Firms Turned Inbound Marketers
Web design firms, meanwhile, have been squeezed by easy-to-download WordPress templates and plugins that make building a quality website simpler than ever. Making it even tougher for design firms, more clients are asking hard questions about the design process. Before, designers could mesmerize clients with talk of their "intuitive" designs that "tap into the energy of your business" or "symbolize movement toward the future." They would talk about color palettes and design aesthetics, but rarely about the purpose of your site: to get customers.
Now, clients expect the proof to be in the pudding. If they they are going to spend $25K or more on a website, they want to make sure it's going to deliver results. "I don't care whether the site is pretty or not," they increasingly are telling their vendors. "I want it to convert visitors into leads. Can you do that?"
These are the changes that have turned web design firms into digital marketing firms. But for many designers—trained in visual creativity rather than web analytics—it has not been an easy transition.
Madmen Turned Inbound Marketers
Advertising firms are also positioning themselves as inbound marketing agencies today. Of course, the irony of this is that inbound marketing is very much a reaction—a negative reaction—to the one-way messaging that advertising agencies have bought and paid for on TV, radio, print, online, billboards and you-name-it since the days of Don Draper and earlier.
Ad firms entered the more authentic world of content marketing with some serious pratfalls. In 2007, for example, the respected ad firm McKinney created a fictional blogger named "Dr. Myra" to promote one its clients, even going so far as to create a Wikipedia page portraying this McKinney-created character as a real person. It did not go well.
Today, advertising is a critical component of most digital marketing programs. For inbound campaigns, paid media is necessary to amplify content marketing programs on social media, in search and elsewhere. But paid media is a way to gain visibility for good storytelling today; it's no longer an end in itself.
It's Time to Start Digital Marketing with Story
The problem for firms that start with SEO, advertising or web design as their core discipline is that while these are all important tools for inbound marketers, they are not the foundation of inbound marketing.
The foundation of inbound marketing is good storytelling, which starts with good writers (whether they are writing blog posts, video scripts or social media updates).
And that's why public relations firms are far better positioned to be the digital marketing firms of the future. PR has always been about storytelling; when journalists change careers, it is typically to go into PR because it's such a natural transition.
Journalists are far less likely to join SEO or web design firms, and when they do, they often feel like fish out of water -- a "content provider" bolted on to an agency that doesn't really understand journalism or storytelling.
Hiring an SEO, advertising or web design firm to manage your digital marketing program is often the tail wagging the dog. Pick an agency that knows how to tell a story.