Red Flags to Be Wary of When Contracting with a Digital Marketing Agency

Red Flags to Be Wary of When Contracting with a Digital Marketing Agency

Red Flags to Be Weary of When Contracting with a Digital Marketing Agency


Mike McBride

The Cowbell Agency

Digital marketing has certainly revolutionized the world of advertising. With its powerful targeting and tracking abilities, advertisers enjoy a great deal of control over media costs and caps, messaging, and audience profiling. The ROI is clearly visible using analytical metrics and SEM tools that are growing smarter every day.

What’s not clear is who you can trust to manage these highly technical campaigns that include search, display, remarking, programmatic, contextual, geofencing, video and streaming broadcast. Unfortunately the digital gold rush in advertising has ignited a whole vein of predatory digital marketing agencies who have become much better at selling the promise than delivering it. They serve up digital marketing services as if it were something of a white elephant, something that can be priced to whatever someone is willing to pay.

We see it daily. Companies approach us after being sucked into another digital agency’s sales pitch promising top search page position. It doesn’t take long for them to see the reality doesn’t match the promise. Unfortunately, they’ve already signed their digital life away and there is very little we can do for them until their lengthy contract is up.

So to help others from becoming victims to the digital dark side, we’ve written down a few red flags to look for when you are thinking about contracting with a digital marketing agency:

The agency-client contract requires a lengthy engagement period of two or three years for which you are legally bound to the agency regardless of their marketing performance or business practices. These contracts are ironclad and many clients find them to be unbreakable after spending a lot on legal fees. A legit digital agency won’t need to lock in clients with a long term contract. Some agencies are even happy to work month-to-month and let their performance validate the ongoing engagement.

The media spend is not charged directed to the client. Instead, the agency receives the media bill, marks it up and charges the client however they please…no backup, no original media invoice. Traditional media like print and broadcast have typically afforded agencies a commission on media spends. With digital media like Google Ad, there is none so agencies (respectable ones anyway) have changed their billing models to a fair and equitable fee-based model for digital management and creative services.

There is no valid backup to support digital media charges. This is similar to the red flag above but far more sinister. We have seen cases where digital media that was never purchased was fraudulently charged to the client. It may be hard for most of us to imagine that some one would start up a digital agency to defraud people. But they are out there, they are smart, and they are sociopaths.

The agency requires prepayment each month for digital advertising. Advance payment happens in many fields and industries. There are many legitimate reasons to do this. But for a digital agency to use this practice shows a lack of faith either in the client’s ability to pay or in the agency’s ability to show value for its services and media management. While there is an unfortunately high number of businesses with bad payment histories, companies with good bookkeeping practices have no business prepaying for digital services.

Monthly digital reports are nonsense or nonexistent. Digital campaigns require weekly or even daily optimizations. If an agency is putting in solid work on search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns, their efforts can be quantified in a variety of metrics. At the very least, clients should be seeing monthly reports on click-through rates of traffic to the website, cost per click and how it compares to the specific industry, and conversions which are actions on the website that validate the quality of inbound traffic and the desired behavior goals. Sometimes, agencies will provide monthly reports with raw data and no real way for the client to understand or measure performance. Besides the basic KPIs, a useful digital report will also provide keyword performance, trending and trajectories, page ranking averages and more.

The top performing keyword is the company’s name. This trick has been used for many years by digital agencies to inflate campaign performance by targeting searches for the company name. While some argue is is a legitimate tactic, branded keywords are typically applied in search engine optimization or SEO to organically (and without costs) capture online searches for the company. Also, SEO generally works in conjunction with a company’s GoogleMyBusiness page as well. After all, if someone already knows who they are searching for online, we don’t need to waste budget on a paid search ad just to serve up their contact information.

The moral of this fable is don’t sign any digital agency contract before an attorney advises you on it. You just don’t know who you can trust.

Navigating Social Media Blackouts

Navigating Social Media Blackouts

Navigating Social Media Blackouts:

With attacks on Facebook, X, and TikTok, weigh your options.


Shelley Gulley

The Cowbell Agency

In the digital age, social media platforms have become indispensable tools for businesses worldwide, serving as key channels for client engagement, marketing, and brand building. However, the recent outage of Meta’s platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, served as a stark reminder of the risks associated with relying solely on these platforms for communication.

On March 5, 2024, thousands of users found themselves unable to access Meta’s platforms. Reports flooded in, indicating issues with logging into Facebook, accessing Instagram, and using Facebook Messenger. 

Downdetector, an outage tracker, recorded around 500,000 reports of Facebook issues and 50,000 Instagram-related outages. Meanwhile, Facebook Messenger also experienced around 10,000 reports of disruptions. Some users were unexpectedly logged out of their Facebook accounts, while others received error messages on Instagram, indicating technical difficulties in loading their feeds.

Threads, Meta’s competitor to Elon Musk’s X platform, wasn’t spared from the outage either. Users were greeted with a message stating, “Something went wrong, please try again later,” instead of their usual feed.

In response to the widespread outage, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone acknowledged the issue, stating, “We’re aware people are having trouble accessing our services. We are working on this now.”

Amidst the chaos of the outage, businesses with diversified communication strategies stood out, leveraging platforms like TikTok, email, and Twitter to maintain their connection with clients.

So, what can we learn from this?

Email: A Reliable Lifeline in a Time of Crisis

In contrast to the fleeting nature of social media posts, email offers a more permanent and direct line of communication with clients…and a great backup! 

Amidst the chaos of the outage, businesses with robust email lists were able to communicate important updates, promotions, and news directly to their subscribers’ inboxes. The outage underscored the importance of building and nurturing an email list as a valuable asset for businesses, providing a reliable channel for communication even when social media platforms falter.

Email remains a cornerstone of digital communication strategies for businesses, offering numerous benefits for engaging with clients effectively such as:

  • Direct and Personalized Communication: Email allows businesses to directly reach clients in their inbox, providing a personalized name, and tailored content based on their preferences and past interactions.
  • Targeted Messaging and Segmentation: Businesses can segment their email lists based on various criteria such as demographics, purchase history, or engagement which enables targeted messaging, ensuring that clients receive content that is relevant and valuable to them, thus increasing engagement.
  • Cost-Effective and High ROI: Compared to print advertising or direct mail, email marketing is incredibly cost-effective. With minimal overhead costs, businesses can reach a large audience at a fraction of the cost, resulting in a high return on investment (ROI) for their marketing efforts. 

TikTok: Bridging the Gap with Creative Content

While Facebook and Instagram were inaccessible, TikTok emerged as a beacon of opportunity for businesses seeking to stay connected with their audience. Known for its short-form video content, TikTok provides a fresh and engaging platform for businesses to showcase their products, share behind-the-scenes glimpses, and connect with customers on a more personal level. By swiftly adapting their content strategies to fit the TikTok format, businesses were able to maintain visibility and engagement despite the social media blackout. 

All this being said, even TikTok’s platform as of March 14, 2024, is now a cause for concern with the announcement of the platform being banned within the US due to cybersecurity concerns. “The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill on Wednesday that would give TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance about six months to divest the U.S. assets of the short-video app, or face a nationwide ban. “~ Reuters, March 15, 2024. 

Twitter: Real-Time Updates and Community Engagement

As news of the outage spread, Twitter emerged as a hub of real-time updates and community engagement. Businesses use the platform to reassure customers, address concerns, and stay informed about the latest developments. By actively participating in conversations and monitoring relevant hashtags, businesses were able to maintain their presence and demonstrate their commitment to transparency and customer satisfaction.

LinkedIn: The Professional Lifeline amidst Social Media Blackout

During the blackout, LinkedIn emerged as an invaluable resource for professionals navigating the disruption caused by the unavailability of other social media platforms. 

As Facebook and Instagram faltered, professionals turned to LinkedIn to continue networking, sharing industry insights, and fostering meaningful discussions within their professional communities. In a landscape where digital connectivity is paramount, LinkedIn provided a stable and professional environment for businesses to navigate through the blackout and stay connected with their professional network.

Embracing Diversity in Communication Strategies

The social media outage, as well as the potential platform banning, has served as a wake-up call for businesses, highlighting the inherent risks of relying solely on 1 or 2 social media platforms for communication. While social media platforms play a crucial role in client engagement, relying solely on them leaves businesses vulnerable to disruptions.

Moving forward, diversifying communication strategies like Email Marketing or other multiple social media platforms is essential for mitigating risks and ensuring resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges.  As we move forward, let us remember the valuable lesson learned from this outage:  in diversity lies strength.

Choosing the right social channels for your target audience?

Choosing the right social channels for your target audience?

Choosing the right social channels for your target audience?

Shelley Gulley

The Cowbell Agency

In today’s digital age, trying to select the right social channels to reach your target audience is like trying to pick a movie on Netflix. There is so much to choose from, where do you begin? As of 2023, there are well over 20+ platforms, including the major powerhouses of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok, and Pinterest. 

In this blog, we will outline 5 major steps you can take on the road to aligning the right channel with your audience.  

Step 1 – Defining your Target Audience

The truth is, to arrive at the right social channels you’ll need to first start by having a clear understanding of who you are marketing to. Considering factors such as age, gender, location, interests, buying behaviors, and the motivators influencing their purchases is the key to identifying the best fit. Know thy audience! 

Step 2 – Researching the Major Platforms

Each platform is unique in the way they utilize different features, demographics, functionalities, and types of content they focus on. Look for channels that align with your audience’s characteristics and preferences. Here are some of the most popular ones below: 

  • Facebook: Originally popular among college students, it has now grown to include a wide range of age groups, with the largest user base consisting of adults aged 25-54.
  • Twitter: Popular among users seeking real-time news updates, trending topics, and discussions. It has a diverse user base, attracting users across different age groups, interests, and professions.
  • Instagram: Initially popular among younger demographics, particularly teens and young adults, Instagram continues to have a strong presence among those age groups. However, it has also seen significant adoption among older age groups.
  • LinkedIn: Primarily used for professional networking and job searching, LinkedIn’s user base consists largely of working professionals, businesspeople, and job seekers. It tends to attract users of various age groups, with a higher concentration of older professionals.
  • Pinterest: Known for its focus on visual inspiration, DIY projects, and lifestyle content, Pinterest has a predominantly female user base, with a higher concentration of users in the 25-54 age range.
  • Snapchat: Initially popular among younger demographics, particularly teenagers and young adults, Snapchat’s user base skews younger. It has a strong presence among Gen Z and Millennials.
  • YouTube: With a vast range of content, YouTube attracts users of all age groups. However, it has a significant presence among younger audiences, especially teenagers and young adults, who consume a wide variety of videos.
  • TikTok: Known for its short-form video content, TikTok gained popularity among younger demographics, primarily Gen Z and Millennials. It appeals to those seeking creative and entertaining content.

Let’s dig in a little deeper. Do you like pizza? Let’s consider how each platform has its own way of communicating content, as shown in the example below.

Again, it all comes down to “knowing thy audience” and matching up with the best demographic that aligns with your target audience.  

Step 3 – Consider the Type of Content & Interactions

Some platforms drive content with video, others with graphics and links. Each is unique in the way it matches your target audience’s interests and engagement patterns. 

For example, if your target audience is C-Suite level, CEOs, VPs and Presidents then utilizing a business platform like LinkedIn where professionals interact by sharing articles, or corporate news updates would be a far better match than a platform like TikTok whose demographic skews much younger and is more focused on video content. If you plan to use visual content or products to show off, platforms like Instagram or Pinterest might be more suitable where visual graphics are front-runners to grab your audience’s attention. 

Step 4 – Prioritize Platform Popularity

Just because YOU love a platform, doesn’t mean it’s the best one for your target audience. Consider the popularity and user base size of each platform. A larger user base usually means more potential reach, but it also means more… dum, dum, dum…. Competition! Balance the size of your audience with your ability to stand out and engage effectively with the right social channel.

Last but not least…

Step 5 – Test and Measure

Once you have identified the most suitable platforms, (that’s right, there could be more than one!) start by creating a presence on those channels. Nowadays, most channels have amazing digital insights that allow you to drill down the metrics. Monitor your performance, engagement levels, and conversions. Adjust your strategy based on the platforms that yield the best results. 

At the end of the day, choosing the right social media platform(s) for your target audience requires careful consideration of their demographics, preferences, and marketing goals. By following these 5 simple steps, you can make informed decisions and optimize your social media presence to effectively reach and engage with your desired audience. Remember, social media trends are consistently evolving, so be sure to periodically review and adapt your strategy to stay relevant, and maintain a strong connection with your audience. 


Personalized holiday greetings provide better impact

Personalized holiday greetings provide better impact

Personalized holiday greetings provide better impact

Adam Latham
The Cowbell Agency

The Christmas season is almost here! Wait a minute…can that really be true? It’s still pretty hot and humid out there. But yes, the time to start planning your holiday season marketing push is NOW. After all, you’ve got to have everything in place well before the season begins to take full advantage. And, having a well-thought out seasonal marketing strategy can deliver tremendous ROI for your business or brand.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a Top 10 list of things to remember or consider when putting together your Christmas or Holiday Season marketing strategies.

Drumroll please….

10. Don’t just slap on some lights and tinsel and call it Christmas.

In other words, don’t just apply some lame holiday clip art to something and think you’re achieving anything. Great Christmas branding incorporates the season in a meaningful way. It should evoke an emotion that has your customers looking forward to celebrating. We’re talking about real emotion and connectivity. If not, most of your efforts will look shallow and meaningless, and worst of all, forgettable.

9. Have a defined reason or purpose for incorporating the Holiday Season

This may seem overly simplistic, but remember the key emotional motivators for your customers. It doesn’t have to be sappy. For example, if you want to focus on convenience, as in a restaurant that features curbside full-meal delivery, remember how busy families are during the season and how your services remove key stress points. It isn’t that hard, but your success will depend on your creativity and planning.

8. Deck out packaging

Oh yeah, disregard Point 10 here. Do slap some tinsel and lights on some things. If you are a retailer, either online or storefront, there’s nothing wrong with providing an upscale Christmas theme packaging. This applies to even bakeries who might look at special seasonal boxes. The goal is to add some distinctive look that applies to only you. The benefits are long-term. You may not believe this, but if someone gets used to seeing a certain color or box design sitting on their sideboard during Christmas or Thanksgiving, they want to see it every year. You want to make your brand part of their celebrations.

For websites and social media, a simple banner change to Christmas greetings that aligns with your brand colors and themes can bring cheer to your customers and seasonal spirit to your brand.

7. Use the holiday to redefine your discounts

Everybody loves a bargain. In fact, you may be offering some great discounts year round. But, that doesn’t mean that same discount you ran in June shouldn’t now be called a Christmas discount. And if you’re using online discount codes, change them.

But an even more creative approach, which allows a benefit to consumers without devaluing your brand is to offer an added value. Consider pairing your product with a free gift, which customers can either keep for themselves or give to someone else.

Kick it up an even higher notch by branding those paired items, like tote bags and mugs with your logo. So the discount was providing my customers with a way to walk around promoting my products. That’s a win win if I ever heard one.

6. Stress mobile

Let’s be serious. You can throw all the statistics about how often people are connecting via their phone and throw them out the window during the holiday season. Why? Because it’s even higher during the holidays. We’re out and about. We’re stuck in lines at checkout, at restaurants, or wherever. We’re busy. And because of that, you should be connecting with your customers while they’re out.

For example, what if for every customer you had a cell number and permission to communicate with, you counted down the days of Christmas with a special offer or just a sentimental thought?

5. Consider Christmas gift cards to extend brand loyalty

It can be difficult to choose the perfect gift – that’s why more shoppers are turning to gift cards. Despite what some try to tell you, the recipients actually like choosing their own gifts. The trick is to design cards that both extend your brand with a memorable attachment to the season. That’s where really good marketing and creative types like us come in hand. (nudge nudge, wink wink)

4. Communicate with your current customers

The Christmas season is an opportunity to increase brand loyalty by reaching out authentically to your current customer base. You’d be surprised at the impact an unexpected and pleasantly surprising gift can be.

3. Let your customers be your marketers

Imagine if you will, a Holiday program that offered a prize to the winning entry in a contest. The contest is to say why your company’s product or service is part of their holiday season. All entries are posted on your Facebook page or YouTube channel. And of course, they post on theirs and share with their friends and family. Before you know it, you got an incredible marketing bang for a very small buck.

2. Get personal and festive on social media

In order to engage with your brand authentically, your customers need to know that there are real people behind the brand. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to show your Christmas spirit on social media channels like Facebook. This can easily be achieved by posting videos and photos of your staff incorporating Christmas into their lives. Don’t forget to use this opportunity to highlight all of your corporate giving and charitable causes.

1. Stay local on social media

Let’s face it, Christmas and seasonal holiday celebrations are pretty universal. But every community has a lot of traditions or shops that are uniquely local. Whether it be a local bakery or pumpkin patch, find those things and highlight them through your social media. Again, it is all about making connections with your customers.

So what does all of this add up to: Christmas branding doesn’t have to be complex or expensive. But what is necessary is a plan and a commitment. And even though it doesn’t feel like it, the time to start making those marketing plans is now.

Take more advantage of Google My Business

Take more advantage of Google My Business

Take more advantage of Google My Business

Owen Yorio

The Cowbell Agency

Google My Business (GMB) is a crucial element to your online presence. With a proper account, you are eligible for all of the advantages the platform offers. So as a start, make sure you claim your business. If you’ve been operating your business without creating a GMB profile, there’s a good chance Google has automatically created a shell of one for you already. This does make it easier for potential customers to find your business, but it doesn’t come with all of the bells and whistles that can optimize traffic to your business or website. Simply search for your business on Google, if a widget displays on the side with your information, you can claim the business (there should be a button). If you do not, you’ll have to navigate to the Google My Business homepage and set up your profile there.

Once you’ve claimed/set up your business (it should guide you through some relatively easy steps to do so), you can begin adding additional information. You’ll want to take the time to do this if you want to get the most out of GMB. You should see a tab on the left displaying different sections of your GMB profile:

All of these are important to most businesses, except for Products and Website, and we’ll get to those in a bit. Let’s go over these in order:


This is your dashboard, it displays broad information at a glance, and allows you to monitor aspects of your business while giving you various alerts.


This section allows you to create content for your GMB page, like COVID info, offers, updates, events, and products. It is useful to keep updating in this section as our business changes. Google likes to reward sites that keep their GMB page up to date with posts that reflect what your business is actually up to.


In this section you can change information about your business, things like hours and social links. You probably won’t be in this section too often after you create your GMB profile, but it is important to make sure you fill out as much information as possible here, so potential customers know enough about your business to make a decision on it.


This is a great place to get information on the visitors of your GMB page and people who call directly from GMB.


This section compiles all of your reviews, and allows you to respond to them. One of the most important tips we can give is to reply to all reviews, good and bad. Potential customers can see all of these reviews as well as your responses to them. If you don’t respond to reviews, it gives the impression that you don’t care about your customers. A simple “We appreciate your kind review! Thanks for doing business with us!” or a “We’re sorry we didn’t serve you to the best of our ability, we hope to make this up to you the next time you visit!” can go a long way. Obviously, you’d want to make it more personalized than that, but generally a response is better than no response. 


This is a new offering of GMB, so it isn’t as fleshed out as other functions. But if you set it up, it’s helpful to have call history information to track.


Once this option is activated, customers can message your business directly through GMB, a helpful offering.


The photos of your business is one of the first things people will see when they come across your GMB page, so give them something nice to look at! Interior and exterior shots to give them a good sense of the space. It’s also helpful to keep this relatively up to date.


This area allows you to upload product information, allowing people to see what you offer right on Google. If you offer any type of product, this is a great option for you, but as we said earlier, this doesn’t apply to all businesses.


If you offer services, this area is extremely important. You want to display what you can do to potential customers as soon as possible, so make sure this section is as up to date and accurate as possible. This also helps Google index your website and GMB profile, and offer it to people who are searching for your services.


If you’d like a barebones website, this section allows you to make one through GMB. We don’t recommend this, as the sites that come out of this have no personality or much in terms of functionality or style.


The last option here is to add other Google users to have permissions on this GMB page. Helpful if you’d like other team members to help you out in creating or monitoring your business information. 

It is important to keep all of your pertinent business information up to date and accurate on Google My Business, as it helps you and potential customers. Don’t put it off as a waste of time, because you could lose out on business, it’s worth the time to set it up and update it. If you need any help setting up an optimized GMB profile, let us know by giving us a call or commenting!

Famous Last Words – I Can Do It Myself

Famous Last Words – I Can Do It Myself

Famous Last Words – I Can Do It Myself

Olivia McDonald

The Cowbell Agency

There are no shortcuts when it comes to managing high performing Google Ads campaigns. 

Have you ever had a home improvement project that needed to be tackled and said to yourself “This should be easy. I can do it myself.” only to encounter unforeseeable roadblocks that left you feeling in over your head? And when it was all said and done, those roadblocks lead to far more of your time, energy and money than you expected, and it probably would have been less expensive to hire a professional to do the work?

This “I can do it myself” attitude is the same one many business owners take when they decide to get into the digital marketing space with Google Ads. At a glance, creating and managing your own account doesn’t seem all that overwhelming. However, like that home improvement project, you will soon realize that it is going to take far more time, energy and money than you originally anticipated, and the day-to-day operation of your business may be neglected as a result. At Cowbell, we have a team of certified Google Ads experts who have been trained in the best practices of Google Ads and know the best way to optimize campaigns based on your market, competition and budget. 

There are clear advantages to having an agency get behind the wheel of a Google Ads account and take the results to new heights. For starters, there will be no wasted budget. Your Google Ads Specialist has the skillset to take any budget and maximize results, from making adjustments to ads to improve quality score to reducing the average cost per click to increase the daily number of clicks. Next, Google is doing their best to persuade small businesses to adopt an automated bid structure. They make it seem as though they are helping you by taking the pressure off you to monitor and optimize as often as you usually would. In reality, this takes away the advertiser’s control and gives the advantage to bigger businesses with bigger budgets. More times than not, small businesses with smaller budgets end up paying more per click, quickly eating up the daily budget far quicker which leads to serving ads to less people. Lastly, without an automated bid structure, monitoring and optimizing campaigns takes a significant amount of your precious time. You can’t just set it and forget it. Passing the torch to your certified Google Ads expert frees up your time to focus on what is most important – running your business. 

Running a Google Ads campaign yourself only makes sense if you have extensive experience in Google Ads and its constantly changing landscape. If you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for a costly learning experience. If you want to see results without it costing an arm and a leg, it’s crucial to go to the experts. There are no shortcuts when it comes to managing high performing Google Ads campaigns.

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