Many Digital Marketers Seem Just As Confused, Overwhelmed As SMBs


From behind a two-way mirror this evening I observed a 90 minute focus group. It consisted of representatives of digital agencies — mostly larger agencies. It was interesting to hear them discuss their digital marketing challenges and pain points.

They spoke about the challenges of dealing with clients that were not sufficiently educated or were conflicted about their priorities and objectives. They discussed organizational challenges with different internal groups not coordinating their efforts or working together smoothly. Despite their size they also spoke about not having sufficient resources to do what they needed to do.

Yet I was most struck by their complaints about their inability to clearly distinguish the different vendors and solutions in the market. Their statements reflected pervasive confusion and noise that we all now confront.

They also said they didn’t feel they had sufficient visibility into what was working or most effective. They had challenges demonstrating ROI to clients and connecting the dots between ads and sales.

Amid all the similar-sounding yet competing companies and claims, they convey the impression that they don’t know whom to believe or trust. It was difficult for them to get objective information, notwithstanding the market being awash in data. They also didn’t appear to know as much as they claimed they knew and were relying on vendors for education, which was a source of some frustration.

For the most part this is exactly the position that most small businesses are in:

  • They want and need education
  • They don’t know exactly what’s working and it’s difficult for them to gauge ROI
  • They are bombarded by pitches that all sound similar
  • They don’t know whom to trust and so don’t trust most digital marketing providers they encounter (or even work with)

Clearly there are digital agencies that are doing great work and that are highly sophisticated. But to what extent do you think these things I’ve said above are representative of digital agencies generally?

I was quite surprised to hear some of the things I heard and I’m wondering how much I can extrapolate to the larger agency universe.

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7 Responses to “Many Digital Marketers Seem Just As Confused, Overwhelmed As SMBs”

  1. Marketing Day: New Mobile Reports, 2015’s Most Shared Video Ads & Google’s Live Blog Carousel | says at

    […] Many Digital Marketers Seem Just As Confused, Overwhelmed As SMBs, […]

  2. Andrew Shotland says at

    This is a clear case of agencies not being able to say “no” to new business. Vendors can be helpful, but if you are relying on them for education, you are looking in the wrong place.

  3. Greg Sterling says at

    Agree. But the larger point is the the vast majority of “digital marketers” may be largely clueless. Lots of jargon, limited understanding.

  4. Bob Misita says at


    I love the phrase ‘vast majority ……. largely clueless’.  Anecdotally, this has been our experience for several years – and appears to be getting worse. Even worse, not only are they inexperienced, my experience is some are damaging.  Incorrectly implemented link building is rapidly becoming an area we’re having to correct in a growing number of new clients. And adding insult to injury, the clients most affected are usually the smallest of the SMB’s – those who have less budget and ability to take corrective action. We’ve heard stories where some have been so negatively impacted they were forced to close.

    Having been a digital marketer for approaching 20 yrs, the landscape seems to be getting muddier and muddier.  There is almost zero barrier to entry for any internet ‘superuser’ to read some articles online and bingo – they are now an online marketing expert.  

    Those of us who’ve dedicated our careers to learning and providing value to clients have a difficult time differentiating our basic marketing pitch.  SMB’s are only able to grasp (and rightfully so) the overview concepts — and everyone calling themselves a digital marketer apparently says almost the same thing. All that leaves is proof of performance – and SMB aren’t clear how to evaluate.

    I’ve been very pleased with all the algorithmic updates (Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird) – and the new manual reviewer guidelines this week.  Those of us with the necessary knowledge, experience and results will emerge just fine. But in the short term, the problem is not going away.  Can’t say I feel sorry for the agencies that are confused – we’ve spent considerable resources in the last several years to empirically prove what works versus what doesn’t – this is no different than most tech industries.  I don’t think most agencies believe R&D or quantitative analysis is necessary to succeed.  Maybe it wasn’t — but it will be moving forward. 

    Just my 2 cents. 

    Bob Misita

  5. Greg Sterling says at

    Thanks for the perspective Bob. Digital has made the world more complex not necessarily more transparent in terms of marketing outcomes.

  6. Dave says at

    One reason agencies and SMB’s have difficulty tracking data is because it IS.  It has become increasingly more difficult over time.

    Take this example:  A customer does a “discovery search” in his/her own town on Google, say Dallas Dentist.  It could be desktop or mobile.  Ads pop up.  Thanks to google and your payments you get good data as to ROI for that phrase and that type of effort to find the business.  

    But suppose the user clicks on a phone icon from the knowledge box or calls from a landline off the knowledge box.   It is incredibly difficult to know about that lead.   
    You know its a call.  IF…and I say IF you have different “tracking #’s” you can know the source of business lead….but there is always the possibility that different tracking #’s completely mess up your organic rankings in search!!!!!!!!!!

    IF  your staff asks a question on how the lead found you, they MAY tell you.  How often are they going to tell you the PRECISE keyword phrase they used????   Almost NEVER.  (I’ve been on the receiving end of those calls, and I ask “how they found us”….and I’ve done that over years.).   Since I’ve done the seo, I know where and how phrases show…I WAS good at assessing keywords to leads…but I really can’t get my staff to do that.  That takes way too much time and too many tiny details.  Not worth it.

    On the alternative….  think about what Google knows:

    The search phrase
    the callers location
    where the website ranked among knowledge box serps
    and the call to website action  (if the visitor uses mobile and clicks the phone icon).

    Neither an agency or an smb is likely to have any of the details behind that call and the action or marketing efforts that helped generate it.

    They know there is a lead, its a phone call, and they may get info on the “source” of the call…but they won’t know that detail like google knows it.

    Google aggregates all that info, keeps it inhouse and has a monopoly on all marketing search info…to a degree that nobody else approaches.

    I am juxtaposing the difficulty that an SMB or a marketing agency has with data versus what google has….but two things do stand out.

    1.  It is difficult for both agencies and for smb’s to get hard info on sources of data.  It is more difficult than it used to be.

    2.  Google has a singular monopoly of data that no other entity in the world has.  That is amazing.  

  7. Greg Sterling says at

    What do you think of offline tracking. Assuming that platforms can start to show SMBs store or location visits (Facebook Local insights, Google Estimated Total Conversions) . . . do you think that will be welcomed?

  8. Dave says at

    Off-line?   LOL.   This shows my age:  Remember newspaper coupons?  Bring them in!!!  That is one way to track, isn’t it?

    A few months ago I reviewed a phone based offline tracking system.  It really relies on usage of many tracking #’s each tied to a different ad source.  We didn’t go with it.  It had the capacity to track a wide variety of ad campaigns each w/ a different tracking #.  Frankly, I’m in the same situation as you Greg:  Asking the questions.  I’d like to hear from implementers and if and how it helped them.  

    Our smb’s do rely on the abilities of the staffs answering calls, asking the right questions, and taking good info.   Frankly if they are good, we get good data, if not, we get lousy data.  Our staffs are tasked with other jobs, so asking good questions is NOT a priority.  So our experiences are not great.  I’d love to hear from others.  

    Tracking has ALWAYS been difficult.  A breakthrough of sorts occurred when smb’s were getting keyword data.  Ha.  Google and then other SE’s killed it.  

    We  are infinitely more interested in getting sales or strong prospects.  I work as both SEM/agency and business.  Most reporting in my experience isn’t $$ oriented enough.  I know smb’s would prefer that.

    But its difficult…………….. 

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