I'm sorry, but it's about time I call a spade a spade. Though there are plenty of legitimate firms out there that offer web (or mobile or video) development and design services along with digital marketing services, too many have also deceitfully or incompetently hung out a shingle proclaiming to provide online marketing strategy and tactic expertise. When this happens, the business owner will be the one left disappointed, cheated and/or faced with cleaning up some pretty disastrous messes they never imagined they'd have to deal with.

To help avoid falling prey to these imposters, I've assembled this list of warning signs:

1.  They never once ask you to define your key performance indicators (KPIs), objectives or metrics for measuring your online success other than "hits" or "website traffic."

2.  If you provide KPIs, objectives and metrics, they never question them or ask how you derived them.

3.  If you cannot provide KPIs or metrics because you don't know how to appropriately define them, they offer no suggestions on how to help or level-set realistic expectations.  For example, they don't know how or don't discuss how you can calculate your cost per lead (CPL) or cost per acquisition (CPA). (And you can forget about discussions having to do with "effective CPA.")

4.  If you do have fixed CPLs or CPAs, they don't know how to back-calculate maximum costs per tactic to achieve your target ROI.

5.  They don't take the time to understand your business, your target audience or your competition in order to consider creative ways to uniquely reach your target audience online.

6.  They do not request to review your current branding and / or ad campaigns in order to create synergy between them and your digital tactics.

7.  They never asked about your past digital marketing efforts successes or failures and what your key take-aways from the experience was/were.

8.  They didn't discuss mobile as a component of your current and future strategies.

9. They don't know what a "call to action" ("Act Now and Save $XX.00″ or "Sign Up for Our Email Newsletter") is.

10. They say they do Search Engine Optimization (SEO) but expect you to provide the keywords (or provide you with an obscure list of keywords and no rationale for doing so), do not mention that they'll submit your site to the search engines or directories, or offer any assistance with local search.

11. They guarantee you first page "SEO rankings" on Google.

12. They build new web pages "for SEO" that don't live on your domain so if you sever your agreement with them and those pages go away, you lose all your rankings, too.

13. They sell you a content management system but can't prove to you that it's SEO-friendly, don't provide you with the CMS log-in, or show you how to use it properly/provide any training or technical support.

14. They insist on building a micro-site for each and every new online or off-line marketing initiative or...

15. They merely direct all of your marketing efforts to your site's homepage.

16. They say they "do social media" but their own accounts are fairly inactive, pitiful or un-social.

17. When you say you want to do social media, they don't ask you why, deem if it's appropriate for your business or what platforms you should be focused on first, or explain the risks and resources required.

18. Their idea of online advertising is buying banners through an ad network or ad exchange...even when you push for other advertising ideas.

19. They provide no real trending web analytics or performance analysis over time or they only provide basic data reporting without any interpretation, go-forward recommendations or change-course strategies.


20. They keep trying to sell you on new website features that your instincts tell you you don't need...and nor can they really cost-justify them.

21. They're reluctant to show you or discuss their portfolio of previous online marketing success stories (all they can show you are site design or ad creative)...or the stories they do tell all revolve around the same one-dimensional type of digital tactic.

22. They talk fast and in technical terms in an attempt to confuse you.

23. They're really cheap and it seems too good to be true.

Turn this list of warning signs into a list of questions to ask the next time you go looking for a digital marketing company. Maybe you won't be taken for another regrettable ride.