Over the past six years, I’ve been involved in several hundred SEO agency selection processes ranging from formal RFP (request for proposal) and pitch processes, down to more informal chats.
The one thing that is becoming increasingly apparent as the industry matures and adapts to the latest Google challenges, is that the agency selection process is becoming more considered with clients spending a lot more time to select the right partner.
This is a good thing for the industry but it also brings about challenges when the pitch process is not well-organised. Below are some of my tips for clients looking to choose an agency via a formal RFP process.
This is fairly straightforward, but there are a few rules that will make the whole process a lot more effective. The goal of the agency shortlisting process is to make sure that you have the best set of proposals and pitches so that it’s a tough choice to pick a winner – if you choose too many useless agencies then you might end up with a winner that isn’t actually a deserving winner and, more importantly, will not deliver the results that are required.
For most major brand clients, selecting six to eight agencies to send the RFP out to and then four agencies to take forward to the actual pitch would be a reasonable figure. It’s rare for a well-known brand to approach fewer than five agencies these days but for smaller businesses, often if can be appropriate to only approach a few select partners.
There are loads of good and bad criteria for choosing a shortlist and I’ve listed a few below with some of my comments:
- Client profile: You should try to pick an agency that works with brands of a similar size to you. If you are a big brand, then working with a business used to servicing small brands isn’t going to work and vice versa.
- Track record in your market: Some people believe that it’s good to hire an agency that has worked (and maybe still is working) with a direct competitor because they understand the market. The logic might be sound, but it’s not usually a good idea to work with an agency who is happy to provide services to two direct competitors.
- Geography: This can be a point to consider if the agency is more than a few hours drive away, unless the agency already has other clients in your area and can combine meetings. Watch out for agencies that have offices around the country as they are often sales offices with no actual client facing staff, we have a client facing team in London but some just have sales teams in their satellite offices.
- Focus: Agencies have different strengths and you should pick based on your requirements. For example, if you have lots of technical issues, then a more technical agency would be better than one focused more on digital PR. Larger agencies will likely have all of the elements in place though so this is more targeted to the smaller agencies.
- Rankings: This should go without saying but choosing an agency based on where they rank is not a good strategy. Looking at the results for a search such as “seo company” will reinforce this point.
Creating the RFP
The key to getting great proposals is to craft a good RFP document. There are various templates available including a good one from Econsultancy but the best thing is to keep it simple and articulate your goals, challenges and current performance while leaving the agency to choose the right strategy.
We’ve all seen examples of terrible RFP documents (my favourite example is a client who cut and pasted but forgot to change some details – he was apparently wanting an ecommerce site to rank for “holidays”) so you really need to think carefully about this aspect.
The key things an agency wants to see are:
- Company overview
- Online marketing team overview
- Brief history of SEO within your organisation
- Current performance (with access to analytics)
- Targets and goals
- Any challenges you face
- Why you are choosing a new agency
- Key contacts
- Rough budget
The last item is a controversial one and many clients say things like “we’re happy to invest based on the likely returns” or “there is no fixed budget” which is understandable, but as an agency we need to know what ballpark to propose. If we come back with a £30k/month proposal when you were expecting £3k/month that doesn’t help either party.
Being open about budgets saves a lot of time on both sides and gives the client a much better chance of getting as many feasible proposals back as possible rather than getting five to 10 back that are not viable and having to either invite more suppliers or choose the one that fits the budget.
The important thing about RFP documents is that you should not include too much detail on exactly what you are looking for from an agency in terms of their tactics – let them show you how they will meet the goals you have set. The broad strategy is fine but we’ve seen RFP documents asking for link from PR4+ pages and all sorts of strange requirements.
The pitch process
Some agencies pride themselves in not pitching for business but at Branded3, we really enjoy pitches. The whole experience and challenge of researching a business and being able to go and talk to them about SEO is great to be involved in.
There are a few key things that make pitches run smoothly for all involved:
- Allow plenty of time: Pitches can take two to three hours so you need to make sure that you are not keeping people waiting. We had one recently where the client had allowed 30 minutes and the agency in before us took over an hour, leaving us waiting outside. Seeing any more than three full pitches in a day isn’t the way to select an agency. We pitched recently to another client who saw 11 agencies in two days with each allowed 30 minutes to present. How can you decide on an agency after only 30 minutes with them? (Nevermind the nonsensical seeing of 11 agencies in the first place!)
- Location: Whilst we enjoy visiting clients, I do believe that a client needs to visit the agency to see how they work and meet the wider team at some point during the selection process. This might not be at the pitch but this is a really good way to get to know the agency better.
- Attendees: The most important thing with pitches is to get the right people round the table. The team in the pitch should contain the key people who will work on a day-to-day basis with the agency as well as any senior decision makers in the business. It’s always frustrating when somebody involved in making the decision isn’t present in the actual pitch.
The selection process
Actually choosing an agency these days is becoming more of a challenge because lots are now saying very much the same thing about integrated SEO, content strategy and natural links. A really useful method for selection is to create a standard scorecard to benchmark all agencies against – this often helps to take any subjectivity out of the process and makes those involved in selection process think about all the agencies in the same way and against the same criteria. Typical scorecard criteria includes understanding of the business and objectives; SEO strategy; creativity; ROI; value for money; team fit.
In most cases like this where the strategy, budgets and scores are similar, it will come down to ‘chemistry’ more than anything else. The only good way to choose an agency based on chemistry is to spend more time with them during the selection process rather than just relying on the two-hour pitch meeting.
Clients should be visiting the agencies’ offices and meeting not just the primary team who will be working on the account; but the wider team of people around the business who will be working on the campaign, building links writing content etc. Chemistry is more than just having a good relationship with the account handler, it’s about how the agency fits in as an extension of the clients team.
One other critical point – don’t just take the easiest option – unfortunately, the industry still suffers with companies who will tell clients what they want to hear rather what is actually a true, realistic picture of firstly a brands current SEO performance and then, secondly, what is achievable and by when. We always give 100% honest opinions, no matter how unpalatable – and we have lost pitches because of this, only for the client to contact us six months later when the results they were promised have not materialised.
The right choice is hardly ever the easy choice.
Finally, it’s always a very good idea to take up references when choosing an SEO agency and you should aim to speak to at least a couple of clients. This can be very revealing and will allow you to understand how the agency handles accounts and in particular, how they have handled any difficult situations that might have arisen.