At the last International Search Summit in San Jose, one of the most common questions I received was how to hire an international search agency. My standard answer was… “it depends on your needs, your organizational structure, budget and ability to deploy them effectively from either a corporate, regional or local office.”
Once you are at this point, you need to ask yourself how you plan to manage the program. Key questions to ask are:
- Will you manage it or will you expect your current agency to act as a general contractor and manage it?
- What are your expectations from the person managing the program?
The answers are key, since they will help you decide the type of agency that you are looking for and the level of management skills your current or new agency should have to make this a success.
If you are only targeting one additional market, then your current agency might have the local market experience or they can simply work with a local specialist agency. If you are targeting multiple markets, it is critical to identify who will have the responsibility to coordinate all those activities and ensure there is collaboration between marketing, IT, and localization at a global level.
Organizational Questions To Consider
You can save yourself a lot of time and headaches if you are a larger multinational organization by ensuring that you do your internal due diligence and check some of the following:
1. Existing Capabilities
You should see if the capabilities exist in your current interactive and web development teams or agencies. It is hard to believe in this day and age that sites are developed that are not search friendly, but I guess that is the synergy that keeps us in the SEO world employed. These skills are often “available” but not budgeted and could easily be made part of a scope of work for a new development project.
2. Agency of Record Restrictions
I ran into this many times over the years. In this situation, the digital or media agency of record in the local market has not recommended or had budget for search initiatives. This is most common with paid search and especially if the new program is funded by global with “new money.” The local agency sharks will circle and once you reach a “noticeable” level of spend, they will swoop in and demand to take over the account often to the detriment of the whole program.
3. Global Or Local Style Guides
I have referred to this as corporate Judo by leveraging style guides and web standards to ensure compliance to SEO standards by local market agencies. Often, these guides don’t exist or are not translated. Simply enforcing them at a local or regional level will save you a lot of money by not having to fix local sites that should have been built to be search friendly.
4. Prospective Agency Questions
We could use multiple articles to cover all of the questions you should ask a prospective vendor but the following are the key ones that I find either don’t get asked or don’t get verified with the proper research and verification.
5. Owned Or Outsourced Resources
Everyone asks this question but I don’t see enough people really checking on it. For example, I was part of a review of global agencies a few years ago and the company looked at ten “global agencies” and had identified China, Japan and Russia as key markets for them.
Since these were critical, the prospective vendors were to have representation for these teams on the initial calls and in person for the final presentation. As we did the calls it became obvious the “local representatives” were the same companies in more than 50% of the meetings. Some said they were their resources, others were strategic or “exclusive partners” and in the case of Japan the same agency was included in 8/10 of the presentations.
If it is a small engagement that can be fine, but if it is a large or strategic market, your local team or partners should go and meet with them. I have had many cases when I have done a site visit and there are just two people in a small office presented as the largest agency in a country.
There is nothing wrong with strategic partners but if they just met at the last search conference, have never worked together or have not sorted out mutual pricing them that project is destined for failure.
6. Native Or Expat Resources
You should be aware of “who” will be working on your project and not just “we have a team.” Will these be native speakers who have lived in the local market or are they “Expat’s” or “Western Born Locals” that will work on the project.
There is nothing wrong with a non-native person working on the project, but I have encountered some, especially in Asia, where they do not always know the nuances of the language or culture even though they may speak the language. I have encountered cases where projects were engaged in the local market and outsourced to language hubs in Dalian China or India when we expected to have people working locally.
This is one of the biggest challenges of your program. These questions are as fundamental as:
- How will you communicate with my team?
- Does the team speak “my” language?
- What time zone will you use for update calls?
- Will you use any web-based applications like Basecamp, will all countries/languages use the same one?
- Is there a global call in number or will everyone use Skype or local toll numbers?
One of the coolest and cruelest tests I ever encountered was in the early days of search: I pitched a multinational with my “global team” of twenty local market partners and me. This prospect picked the most inconvenient time for nearly every market. His assumption was that if I could get them all on the phone, in the middle of the night, then I would have enough leverage over them to ensure they completed the project on time, budget and correctly. As he predicted, most found the time inconvenient and refused to cooperate, thereby demonstrating my lack of control over the partners.
8. Reporting & Integration
This is a big one and while everyone has reports and similar metrics – rarely are they ever integrated. Again, if it is a small project or a single market the report formats is not a big deal. However, if you are a multinational trying to integrate twenty reports in as many different formats you can imagine, the productivity suck of multiple formats, fonts and language handling issues with merged presentations and Excel worksheets.
Ask your prospective agencies of they can adapt to your existing reports and/or collaborate on a single format that is easy to merge and present a uniform set of global data. In some cases, with the growth of enterprise search tools, many of these will offer to roll up global and local reports.
9. Pricing & Costs
On the agency side, this can be crippling if you get multi-market pricing wrong yet few people pay much attention to it. If you as the customer have the same price for the same service globally, one or both of you is losing money.
It is great to pay the same for your UK project as you do for your US project, but that may mean that you get the “b” or “c” team to make up for the increased costs of the British Pound. The same is true if you pay UK rates for a project in China or many Latin America countries, they are most likely making huge margins off that transaction, but not necessarily passing on the “value” to you.
This is a very real and complex problem and you as a client need to be mindful of currency fluxuations and the impact on your vendors and the quality of service you are receiving.
Complexities Of International Search Marketing
While it seems daunting, it is getting easier and better to find the right agency and ask the right questions. Sessions at the larger search events and specialized events like Andy Atkins- Kruger’s International Search Summit at SMX go a long way to educate both clients and vendors on how to overcome these complexities.
In this article, I tried to go beyond the obvious questions and offer some additional questions to ask and things to think about as you undertake your international initiatives.
If you want your program to be a success you need to make the effort to find the right partner for you. There are many options to choose from and more emerging every month as the awareness of the opportunities around the world becomes more apparent. With the right due diligence, you can find a perfect partner who will guide you in the local market to great success.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.