Ecommerce Businesses: Hire Marketing Staff Or Hire An Agency?

Many small and mid-sized ecommerce companies struggle with the following question: Should we hire an agency or add marketing staff?

While the two options aren’t mutually exclusive, this article will offer our perspective as an agency, as well as our observations about in-house staff from our side of things. Both options have pros and cons, and we hope this article will help ecommerce business managers come to a decision about hiring staff vs. hiring an agency.

The Marketing Staff Most Ecommerce Businesses Need

Single marketer working at computer

One great marketer might be able to do everything your company needs. However, it’s more likely that a single staffer will really only be good at a couple of things.

When it comes to marketing an ecommerce business, there’s a lot of work to be done. In a perfect world where money is no object, most ecommerce companies would benefit from having staff members in the following areas:

  1. Someone to handle technical SEO, link acquisition, and help with content promotion
  2. Someone to manage content marketing, including creating content
  3. Someone to manage advertising, including paid search
  4. Someone to manage social media and email marketing
  5. Someone to take product photos and make videos, and maybe help with design
  6. Someone to manage the website (e.g., making changes, security updates, etc.)
  7. Someone to manage all of the above staff

Obviously, this is a pretty big marketing team. Most ecommerce businesses can’t hire a team this big without several million in annual revenue. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for 5-7 different sets of skills in ecommerce marketing.

While it’s certainly possible to find one person who can do all of the above, it’s not probable. Even the best, most multi-talented marketers have their limits. If you find someone that’s good at website management, HTML and CSS and Javascript, and perhaps technical SEO, they probably aren’t going to be a great writer or content promoter. If you find a great designer who can help with social media, photos, videos, and email, they’re probably not going to be comfortable managing PPC advertising (which is fairly technical).

The point: If your ecommerce business can’t justify an entire team of people, you’re going to need a mix of in-house staff and contract or agency help.

Three Key Benefits Of In-House Marketing Staff

Hiring in-house marketing staff has a lot of benefits, but from our standpoint, these are the biggest.

In-house marketing staff are always available. When you work with an agency, you can’t always get immediate help. Agencies are balancing the needs of multiple clients, and most requests take time.

With an in-house staff, help is essentially on-demand. Need someone to drop everything and put together a newsletter? An in-house person is a perfect option. Same goes if your marketing plan is subject to sudden changes. An in-house person can be re-tasked easily and can focus on just your company’s plan for the entire workday. This is hard to do with agencies and/or contractors.

NOTE: This strength is also a weakness. Businesses need to take a long-term view of marketing. When they hire in-house staff and then constantly shift that staff around from one task to the next, the long-term strategy suffers.

In-house marketing staff can help steer the ship. Smaller businesses often struggle with a lack of leadership. This isn’t to say that small business owners aren’t great leaders – in fact, very often the opposite is true – it’s just that small business owners tend to be mired in minutiae. When you run a small company, you deal with every little thing that comes along, and that can leave a bit of a void at the top.

Good marketers tend to be good at creating processes, teaching, listening, and asking questions. This very often makes them adept managers. A recent Notre Dame business college study found that 25% of corporate CEOs have a sales or marketing background, which just goes to show how helpful marketers can be when it comes to managing day-to-day operations. Today’s in-house marketing hire could be a future vice president or director of operations.

Marketers can help with sales and customer service in a pinch. If you add a marketer to your staff, and a customer support person is out with a cold, your marketer is fully capable of pitching in. Same goes with fielding sales calls or answering customer questions via email. Just be sure to note that many marketers don’t enjoy doing sales and support work on a regular basis.

Three Ways In-House Staff Are Put To Bad Use

By virtue of our position as an agency, we’re able to peer into the business practices of our clients. Here are some of the ways we see ecommerce companies misusing their marketing teams.

Mission Creep. When you hire a staffer to do one set of tasks, and then start giving them other sets of tasks, you have “mission creep.” Creep is a serious problem in marketing, as there are a lot of tasks that marketers are expected to undertake that crossover into other areas. If a marketer is good at producing content for the blog or newsletter, or responding to posts on your Facebook page, they might be asked to answer customer support emails. If they’re good at writing blog content, they might be asked to create installation instructions or an employee handbook. This takes them away from marketing, which is what they need to do. (That’s why you hired them, after all.)

No authority. Many smaller ecommerce companies will hire marketing staff, give them big goals and challenges, and then no budget or authority to execute. It’s neither fair nor particularly smart to tell an in-house marketing person, “We want to be just like our competition,” and then refuse to give them the budget they need for advertising, video production, content creation, and so on.


A long marketing meeting

Meetings are expensive. Add up the hourly rate of everyone in the room, and then multiply by the number of hours spent meeting in a typical week. In no time at all you’ll see that daily or weekly meetings cost thousands of dollars a year. Do they generate an equivalent amount of benefit?

Meetings, meetings, meetings. This is one of the biggest mistakes we see, and it occurs at companies big and small: Too many marketing meetings. Because in-house staff is always right around the corner, sales people, management, and customer support staff all want to talk about what marketing can do for them.

If your ecommerce business has a marketing staff of just one or two people, odds are good they’re busy managing contractors and/or an agency, completing various daily tasks, and managing the execution of a grand strategy. Meetings don’t typically move the ball forward in any of these areas.

Benefits And Problems With Hiring An Agency

Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of hiring an in-house marketing staff, let’s talk about the pros and cons of hiring an agency.

Marketing team in strategy meeting

Fundamentally, agencies exist because they are the best way for a business to add a range of marketing skills at an affordable price.

Pro: Most agencies offer a wide range of expertise, which is great for smaller companies. If your ecommerce business can’t afford to hire a team of 5-7 marketers, then an agency is the next best thing. Full service agencies have designers, copywriters, ad managers, web developers, social media experts, email marketing experts, and public relations people all on staff. Instead of hiring a team of people, you can just contract one agency to provide all the services you need.

Con: Agencies juggle clients, and that means you may have to wait. A lot of agencies are at maximum capacity in one area or another. If a client needs web development help, and the agency’s developer(s) are busy, then the client has to wait. Waiting isn’t necessarily a problem if your ecommerce business is carefully managed and everyone has time to plan, but sometimes it’s an issue.

Pro: Agencies usually don’t cost more than one or two hires. Many agencies can be engaged for roughly the same cost as hiring one or two full-time marketing people. That makes hiring an agency easy to budget.

Con: Agencies don’t always understand your business. Not all agencies are created the same – some of them specialize in an industry or niche, and some of them work with any and all types of businesses. Generally speaking, agencies that don’t specialize don’t usually understand the nuts and bolts of your business for at least three to six months, which hurts your ROI. Imagine how much quicker the onboarding process is when the agency understands auto parts ecommerce backwards and forwards.

Pro: Agencies are easier to fire than in-house staff. Terminating an agency relationship isn’t always fun, but it’s vastly preferable to firing a staffer. There’s no unemployment to pay, no paperwork to spin, and no risk of a lawsuit for wrongful termination. You just have to study your contract with the agency and know how to get out.

Con: Agencies often assign accounts to entry-level staff. The larger the agency, the more likely an account will end up assigned to an account manager who’s fresh out of college. While there are some benefits to this – younger workers have a lot of energy and are eager to please – it can also be frustrating.

While we’ve listed an equal number of pros and cons for hiring an agency, the truth is that hiring the right agency has more pros than cons. If you hire an agency that understands your industry and has an experienced point of contact acting as your account manager, your company will almost certainly benefit.

Tips For Hiring The Right Marketing Agency

If your company wants to hire an agency, there are a few simple things you can do to maximize your odds of a good outcome.

  1. Make sure the agency specializes in your industry and/or niche. If you hire an agency that doesn’t specialize in the auto parts industry, you may find that they don’t generate good results for the first few months while they learn about what you do, what works in the industry, etc.
  2. Make sure the contractual commitment is short. A 6-month commitment is the absolute most that any company should agree to when hiring a marketing agency, at least initially. The last thing your company needs is to be stuck with a bad partner.
  3. Find out who your account manager is before you sign. The larger the agency, the more likely that your account manager will be inexperienced. If you want to make sure you get an experienced and competent account manager, ask who you’re going to get before you commit.
  4. Get a plan of attack, not a proposal. Proposals are usually a waste of time for all parties involved. Agencies put a lot of resources into making beautiful proposals, and companies looking to hire an agency spend a lot of time reviewing proposals that are very often general and vague. So, save everyone the hassle and ask whatever agencies you’re considering to give you a six month plan of attack. They should be able to tell you what they’ll work on, when it will be done, and what to expect as a result.
  5. Ask for metrics that indicate success. Last but not least, make sure your marketing agency provides data about their success and failures. Additionally, there should be metrics that clearly indicate progress.

With the right approach, hiring an agency is very beneficial. Ecommerce companies with less than $1-2 million in annual revenue will benefit greatly from hiring an agency, while larger companies may want to look at the pros and cons of building a marketing team.

But, even at larger companies, agencies can help fill in gaps in areas where skills are very specialized.

Summing Up

If you run an ecommerce business, you probably want a mix of both in-house and agency help. The key is to use your internal staff effectively, and to be selective when engaging an agency.

Additionally, the smaller your company is, the more valuable an agency can be. If you’ve got an ecommerce business of one, hiring an agency is one of the best paths to growth. If you’ve got an ecommerce business that’s a little bigger, agencies can still be beneficial until your revenue reaches a point where you can hire your own team.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that marketing is a marathon and not a sprint. An agency will generate positive results in three months, good results in six months, and fantastic results in 24 months. The trick is to give them time and space to execute a strategy.

Good luck!

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