When NOT to hire an email marketing agency

MHDG Staff Email Marketing, Operations

At MH Digital, we regularly speak with companies looking to hire an email marketing agency. During our typical 20 min discovery call in which we’re being interviewed, we’re listening and asking questions ourselves to figure out not just if we’re the right agency for them, but simply if an email marketing agency is right for them to begin with. Hiring the wrong team can be a pain for everyone involved, not just from a financial standpoint, but from a morale and energy one as well. So, it’s important to make sure you get it right – not just for the team doing the hiring, but for an agency as well. Speaking bluntly, there’s nothing to gain from signing and churning clients on our side either.

During our conversations, here are some of the things we’re asking questions around either directly or indirectly to get to the bottom of whether or not an agency is right for them. If you identify with some of these, an agency may not be the right fit for you without considering a non-traditional partnership.

Your lead generation efforts are lagging behind your investment in email & lifecycle marketing and your email lists are small.

We hear this one a lot. You haven’t quite figured out how to reliable acquire leads and subscribers (aka email addresses), and your list is small, but you’ve heard and/or seen what an effective email program can do. In many cases, hiring an email marketing agency might be putting the cart before the horse. Without fresh leads entering your email funnels, you won’t see a timely return on that investment. For some, that’s ok. For others, it’s not.

If your current email list is small, the agency cost of sending weekly email campaigns might eat into too much of the margin of the revenue generated by said campaigns. Some quick and dirty math we recommend is take your list size, assume a 1% conversion rate from email (truthfully, this is still likely too high for an entire list over time but it works for this calculation), and multiply that by your average order value or lifetime service value. If that number isn’t 5x or more what you’d expect to budget for an agency on, then it might be too early to bring in an agency for retained work.

What we recommend:

An email marketing agency might be a good fit to set up the foundation of your email and lifecycle programs. In these cases, most of the time we recommend a project based arrangement with a potential client to help them build the core lifecycle messaging for the business. This allows them to keep their costs down while still converting and retaining the leads they do start to bring in without being bound to doing ongoing work.

If the math still doesn’t make sense for you, we typically recommend trying to do the basics yourself or with an adequate freelancer and bringing in experts later to level up your efforts.

One last thing here. Don’t hire email marketing agencies to do lead generation.

Your brand, messaging, and value propositions are still rudimentary and lack any formalization.

If you still haven’t quite figured out how to communicate your brand visually or through copywriting, it’s going to be difficult for an email marketing agency to channel any elevated copy or design without any clear direction. While we do have partners who do great graphic design and branding work, most email marketing agencies are not branding agencies. We do not recommend making your email marketing agency do branding work. Let the experts help you do that.

Formalization of branding and messaging doesn’t mean you have to have a 20 page brand book. It could be as simple as using your website’s look and feel as the inspiration. We’ve got a lot of clients who fall into that category.

What we recommend:

If you’re still figuring it all out, we typically recommend either continuing to DIY your email efforts and focus your efforts on branding formalization with dedicated experts. Invest in your brand from the top and you’ll find that bringing in agencies to help in not just email marketing, but also in your other marketing channels which will be empowered to work efficiently and pull in the same direction as the overall brand. We’ve all seen brands that look different on social than they do on email and their website. This is a sign they’ve isolated their branding to each channel and things can get clunky that way.

If you have the basics down but know you still have work to do, bring in an agency that can balance elevated design and copy at a budget that makes sense. Typically this is done with an understanding and expectation that not every email needs to be an art project.

Your campaign planning always starts the day before you want to send out the campaign.

Managing your marketing calendar can get tough when things get busy. If you’re always doing things last minute, an agency (or even a freelancer or employee) is going to struggle to create a cohesive email program that drives sustainable revenue. While some agencies can turn things around last minute, being consistently available to do that last minute work at a high level of quality will require a higher financial commitment than you may be prepared for. Your campaign calendar doesn’t need to be incredibly complex and formalized, but it can’t live solely in your head if you want to find an email marketing agency.

bad campaign management
Gromit is laying out his campaign strategy the day before he sends his emails. Notice that he never looks up to see where he’s headed!

What we recommend:

Start by getting a simple campaign calendar set up that you fill out at least 2 weeks ahead of time. You’ll find that when you plan things out ahead, you can find areas where you might be over-communicating or neglecting a certain segment of your audience. When you work with us, we provide you with a campaign calendar template (it’s literally a simple google sheet) that we can work together with you on to fill out.

If you can’t find the time to even do that, you probably need to hire a dedicated marketing strategist to set the campaign schedule across all your channels (we recommend this to everyone anyway to keep all channels working together).

If you know you can’t go from last minute to completely organized overnight, vet out your agency or freelancer on what their turnaround time flexibility is. At MH Digital, we set our pricing to allow a certain number of last minute campaigns baked into our retainers. This way, we can accommodate those things while incentivizing everyone to get organized ahead of time. Win-win.

You have little to no content created internally, and no idea of what to create or how to create it.

Our most successful clients have a breadth of content they’ve created internally, whether that’s fantastic lifestyle photography, case studies, new product styles/colors, how-to videos, reviews, or product detail deep dives. We develop an email strategy with them that balances that content marketing with conversion driving messaging.
If you have nothing to say, an email agency is going to struggle to find what to say, and they’re likely too far removed from your organization to come up with those things for you. In the worst cases, we’ve seen email marketing agencies resort to just dictating their clients run promotions. This is a case of the tail wagging the dog, and that typically results in your brand being devalued just to make you feel like your email channel is successful.

What we recommend:

Most email marketing agencies like ours are not branding or content creation agencies. Invest your resources to create content that email, social media, SEO, and other channels can all leverage. Don’t just create content in isolated channels.

Once you’ve built up a library of content (or a process dto develop that content), that’s when it’s time to bring in an agency. Email marketing agencies can advise you on what works well for some and consult you on best practices, but we don’t suggest relying on them for driving your strategy unless you’re willing to invest in them as a true business partner, not just a vendor.

In most cases, we recommend hiring an individual to lead those content generation efforts and farm out the distribution of content through the email channel to an agency.

You want to just hand over the keys and not think about it again.

Given email marketing touches product, marketing strategy, sales, and operations, it’s incredibly difficult to hand your email channel to an agency and expect them to drive sustained success without clueing them into the rest of your business. Lifecycle email marketing requires a deep understanding of the entire customer journey and its value propositions along the way. In most cases (especially in SaaS and services), this requires strong communication and coordination between client and agency.

What we recommend:

Understand that an investment in email is just that – an investment. Looking at email as a simple algorithm of emails sent = revenue earned does not end well. If you need to delegate the communication with an email team, that’s best done through hiring a head of marketing, or lifecycle marketing lead and assign them with both the strategy and execution until they can no longer do both.

A final note on hiring a full-time email marketer vs an email marketing agency

In some cases, you may be considering a full time employee vs an agency. We’ve got a few questions you should ask yourself to consider why an agency might actually make more sense for your business.

  1. Is email marketing for your company actually a full time job? In a lot of cases (and especially if you’re reading this, probably not). Many of our clients hire us to start of with big projects, and go through periods of high volume and low volume. As an agency, we can be flexible with rates. A full time employee may not like their salary yo-yoing up and down.
  2. What skills are required? An email marketer needs to know design, copywriting, HTML/CSS development, lifecycle marketing, and some software integration skills. Most email marketers are likely to be jack’s of some trade, masters of none. We’ve built our agency with expertise at each level, and an efficiency to move projects across our domain experts in a timely manner. We’ve previously written about the case for contracting out a marketing automation position, and the same can be made for an email marketing position because of just how much ground email marketing covers.

Struggling to figure out if an email marketing agency is right for you? Contact us, we’re straight shooters 🤠.