Five questions to ask when seeking an effective marketing consultant

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Everybody knows there is a lot of marketing consultant guano out there. The entry barriers to becoming a social media guru or marketing consultant are extremely low. If you can create a website, you can call yourself an expert!

Normally I ignore this fluff. The fakers will eventually pass. I mind my own business, stay centered, and focus on doing good work.

But this week I had a wake-up call that was too awful to ignore. A self-proclaimed social media marketing guru sent me a “pitch” with advice that was SO BAD and SO WRONG that it was laughable. It made me wonder if there are people out there actually buying into this dangerous schlock!

I thought about the advice I give my friends when they are looking for a marketing consultant and decided to share it here. It seems like an obvious subject, but one that I’ve never covered before.

Here are five important things to look for if you’re hiring a marketing consultant.

1) Do they have a plan? (They shouldn’t!)

If a marketing consultant comes to you with a pre-determined plan to run your social media operations, run away.

This is by far the biggest problem in our field. Marketers / content specialists / SEO gurus / Facebook ad folks come to a potential client offering cookie-cutter solutions for every business.

This pre-fab operating plan usually has no impact other than to check a box.

Every business is nuanced. There is no way anybody can come to you with a pre-determined marketing plan before digging into your competitive market situation. Delivering a strategy simply can’t happen on Day One.

Even a small business needs to hire somebody who will take a little time to look at the competition, the customers, and the true market opportunities that will give you the most bang for your buck. Your business is unique, not a social media commodity.

A marketing consultant should be able to thoroughly explain the “why” behind a plan, with ties to your specific business situation.

2) Can they crunch the numbers?

Another huge problem in our business is a lack of statistical rigor. Most consultants make decisions without knowing how to collect and interpret data.

Here’s an example. I was working with a big SEO firm on behalf of one of my clients. After one month, they declared victory by showing a modest rise in traffic to my customer’s website. I asked them, “How do you know this bump was due to your efforts and not an external factor like seasonality or advertising?” They couldn’t answer the question! You can’t make a decision to invest in SEO (or anything) based on one data point.

A consultant doesn’t have to be a statistical expert, but they have to know enough about data to ask the right questions and apply critical thinking to assure authentic business results.

3) Do they practice what they preach?

Look at the marketing consultant’s website.

Is there a clean, relevant design?

Are they producing content (blog, audio, or video) on a consistent (weekly) basis? If the blog hasn’t been updated in a few months, this is a red flag.

Ask them how they are using digital marketing to grow their own business. They may not be able to show you inside information and trends from their customers, but they should be able to show you success stories and case studies from their own site.

This is a fair and reasonable question: “If you’re so good, show us how you follow your own advice. How is digital marketing working for your own business?”

A blank stare or hazy answer is a warning sign!

4) Is their view too one-sided?

Many consultants specialize in some tactic or platform. Maybe it’s SEO, Facebook ads, or content marketing. This is dangerous because this person is a hammer looking for a nail.

Not every business needs to invest in social media, content marketing, Facebook ads, or SEO. A great marketing consultant should be able to assess the opportunities based on a holistic approach and many different options and perspectives. If they have a staff doing SEO, then you’re going to get a proposal to do SEO — whether you need it or not.

So at least early on, look for a well-rounded generalist, not a specialist.

5) Do they tell you the truth?

There have been a spate of high-profile marketing embarrassments that have gone viral over the last years. I’ve often wondered — shouldn’t the agency behind this work knows that what they’re doing is wrong?

The answer is, agencies are so afraid of losing the business, they don’t tell their clients the truth.

If a consultant doesn’t tell you the truth, they’re cheating you. You’re hiring them for their expertise and insight. If they don’t give you the truth with courage, it’s a bad investment.

A consultant who agrees with everything you’re doing is a red flag, and a possible recipe for disaster.

I hope these perspectives help. I’ve been an internal or external consultant for more than 30 years and have seen my share of bad actors out there. Asking a few tough questions upfront can help you get the most from your precious marketing investment.

I appreciate you and the time you took out of your day to read this! You can find more articles like this from me on the top-rated {grow} blog and while you’re there, take a look at my Marketing Companion podcast and my keynote speaking page. For news and insights find me on Twitter at @markwschaeferand to see what I do when I’m not working, follow me on Instagram.

Originally published at on October 7, 2019.

Written by

Chieftain of the blog {grow}, strategy consultant, educator, podcaster, author of Return On Influence, The Content Code, and The Tao of Twitter.

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