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So you've decided to hire a digital agency. Congratulations. It's an important first step toward growing your business online  whether growth to you means getting more users/leads, converting more sales, or boosting engagement.

But how can you get the most out of this relationship?

Well, you can start by asking the right questions before signing any official paperwork. Tough questions. Insightful questions. Questions that any good digital creative should be happy and thrilled to answer.

1. Do you outsource any of your strategy, design or development work?

This might be the most important question to pose to any agency.  It's not too hard to slap a website together and call yourself a digital branding or creative agency -- even if you don't have a full staff. There are plenty of ways to outsource any service  -- design, development, content strategy, maintenance — to another company or freelancer. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. If your agency does outsource, ask about that relationship. How long have they been outsourcing? Who do they outsource to? The point is that as a client you have a right to know whether the entire team working on your project is employed by your agency or working on outside contracts.

Tip: Check the agency's "Team" page. If it looks sparse, or doesn't exist, you might be talking with a company that outsources

2. Can you define your terms for us?

Proposals are full of jargon — terms that make complete sense to the agency, but might make you feel like you're in a thick, digital fog. So don't be hesitant about asking for definitions. Your proposal will probably include plans for Identity, Inbound Marketing, Content Strategy, and Search Engine Optimization, among other services, and it's imperative you and your agency are on the same page about what these terms means.

Content Strategy, especially, is a nebulous offering. Lots of agencies define it differently. Some have full time content strategists on staff. Others outsource the work. The reason: content is a very broad term that encompasses EVERYTHING on your site. Nav bars, images, copy, your footer — these are all considered content, and a good content strategy organizes and oversees the development of all these elements to help you engage with your ideal customer.

But we can't tell you how many portfolios we've looked at that claim to have done content strategy for a new site, and when we visit the webpage...there's no content. Or hardly any content. Or the material isn't relevant. Don't let that happen to you.

Tip: Don't be shy here. The web moves so fast that definitions are always changing. The techniques and processes that define good Search Engine Optimization change yearly.

3. What's YOUR Social Media and Content Strategy?

Not to harp on content. But your potential agency should be able to quickly tell you how they use content and social media to grow their own brand online. Would you hire an unhealthy nutritionist? No. So why would you hire someone who doesn't blog or tweet to develop a blogging and social media plan for your business? It doesn't make sense.

Tip: Visit your new agencies social media profiles. Visit their blog. When was the last time they posted something? If Tim Tebow was still in the NFL, you might want to run.

4. How do you design for users?

User experience isn't a trend. From now until forever, good websites and digital marketing campaigns will address the needs of your users. That said, agencies use different methods. That's okay. Everyone has their own flavor of user experience research, and what you really want to ensure is that your agency actually has one. Will they be diving deep into the needs of your target audiences and building an experience  that meets them? Do they create personas? Use cases? Or are they just making stuff up and hoping that you'll enjoy showing off the really pretty, responsive site they built so much that you'll forget it hasn't converted a sale in weeks. If the question makes them uncomfortable, or their answer lacks confidence, then you might be dealing with an agency that hasn't figured out users yet.

Tip: Another way to frame this question is "What kind've research do you do prior to wireframing?" See if the agency talks about users without you bringing them up.

5. What's your process?

A good agency that consistently puts out high quality work has a process that works for them. At Monkee-Boy, we go through three steps. Every project has a discovery phase, a creation phase, and an evolution phase. In discovery, we tackle research -- establishing project goals and understanding a client's brand and their audiences. During creation, we do the heavy lifting of design and development. And since we know that digital is a shifting medium, we continue testing and refining our projects during evolution.

There's always room for improvement when it comes to engagement and conversion online. You should leave that first meeting, proposal in hand, with a strong sense for the arc of your project.

Tip: Research takes time and is perhaps the most important part of any successful project. If your agency is talking about sending your wireframes and comps shortly after your first meeting, you should be concerned they don't have a strong process in place. 

Do you have another question you like to ask agencies before signing a proposal? Share it in the comments.

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