<p>I'm writing this post because I run into so many businesses and organizations who feel they were "burned" by a past Web vendor. They have negative feelings about the experience and often have been left with the impression that "the wool was pulled over their...</p>

I'm writing this post because I run into so many businesses and organizations who feel they were "burned" by a past Web vendor.

They have negative feelings about the experience and often have been left with the impression that "the wool was pulled over their eyes." I can relate to the frustration. In a technical field like Web development (which is growing increasingly more complex every year), how do you know if the groups who are after your business are legit? In the era of the Internet, it's easy to pose as something you are not, so here are some tips to hopefully help the non-techy crowd, or simply the groups who feel inexperienced in choosing an agency. When you are oftentimes talking about a six-figure budget, you want to be sure you aren't left holding the bag. These tips range from the obvious (but often forgotten) to the simple and easy-to-spot. I'm sure there are more, and I encourage any of you reading this post to tell me how you've found ways to spot the stinkers and find the flowers.

1. "Name of Company - Homepage."

The browser title for their website's landing page says "Name of Company - Homepage." Nothing screams fraud to me more than a company selling interactive services that seems to have no clue how important the words placed in this spot in a browser are to search engines, indexing spiders, and people making bookmarks and saving or sharing links. Bad, bad, bad. They might as well leave a credit on the bottom of their site saying, "Website by AAA Website Co."

2. A Peolpe-less Agency

There is nowhere to read bios about the team or find out about the company's physical locations. This often is a telltale sign that you're dealing with a one-man or one-woman shop where you pay them to consult and then they outsource the "design and coding" to freelancers or contract work. This is not an agency. The power of an agency is that the people are working as a team. You are getting good results because you have signed on with a group of people who know how to work well with each other and deliver for the client.

3. What You See is What You Get

The portfolio examples are too few or feel weak, and the rest of the portfolio is propped up with print or other traditional design work. Here's the truth of the matter: Most firms recognize that they are leaving money on the table if they don't go after interactive work, even if they are not qualified to do it. Most clients who have come to them for print work or identity work or even PR or consulting work will inevitably ask about interactive work at some point in the relationship, and some businesses can't resist saying they can do the work and then trying to figure out how to do it once the client is on the hook. So let the portfolio speak for itself. If you don't see lots of great work, then they probably aren't a valid (or good) interactive agency.

4. The Experimental Discount

The portfolio is full of "banners," "micro-sites," or "games," and you can't see any full-fledged websites. The red flag here is that they are saying they can do full websites, but in actuality all they've done up to this point have been smaller projects with much less demanding requirements. Unless you want to try to get a bargain because you know you are the guinea pig, beware of being the first big project.

5. You Are What You Eat

The agency's website sucks. I know this seems obvious, but amazingly, people are forgiving of this sin. We've all heard the old, "We've been so busy doing work for our clients that we haven't had time to think about our own interactive presence." Hogwash. Any agency worth its weight knows how critical these first impressions are, and keeping the agency alive and thriving means bringing in good clients and profitable projects. A poorly conceived and crafted website is not working toward this goal. Therefore, you can conclude that the agency is understaffed, incapable, too new, or just not good.

6. References

You are met with resistance when asking for references. And take note, you should be getting references for Directors of Marketing or VP of Communications, not Web developers or lower-level people who may simply be friends with the group that's after your business. At the very least, you should be given contact info for a reference that made the hiring decision on a project similar in scope or budget to yours.

7. Strategy Precedes Technology

Technology is leading the conversation. Beware of this, as it may be the sign of a bunch of highly competent programmers but not the best group to make strategic marketing decisions for your organization. Technology should be part of the solution, after you've identified the problems and chosen your path. If a group comes out of the gate pushing tech, you can probably assume you won't be getting much creative guidance or leadership.

8. Practicing What They Preach

The mobile and tablet versions of the agency's site aren't taken into consideration. Consider this the "canary in the coal mine."

If an interactive agency isn't paying close attention to the mobile and tablet user experiences, then they are living in the past and will fall behind the ever-advancing curve of what is considered contemporary in this industry. We are seeing a growing number of users accessing Internet content via their smart phones or tablets, and this number will only go up as devices become more affordable, more powerful, and more convenient for the user. These devices must be part of your strategy and approach, and if they aren't being positioned as important aspects to consider by your interactive agency, then you might want to consider looking elsewhere. There is no easier way for an agency to show how they would address the mobile and tablet experience than with their own website, so pull up their URLs on your iPhone, Android, or iPad—and see what you get.

There are many more ways to spot red flags when considering an agency—these are just the ones that I look for. What tells you that you might be getting the bait and switch? Do share!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published September 20th 2011