My company helps business owners find the right SEO / digital marketing consultant or agency to help them grow their business. So, I am frequently on phone calls with small to medium-sized businesses discussing their goals and their needs, and there is always one large factor that is brought up – cost.
People always want to know what marketing services will cost, but determining how much you should expect to spend is nearly impossible. Even professionals disagree on how they should price their own services, so it is no surprise that business owners are always confused, and even a bit worried, about investing in marketing services.
Earlier this year I was curious about how much digital agencies charge based on the services they offer, so I ran a survey of digital marketing agencies around the world. In the end, 184 respondents total answered questions like:
How many employees are in your company?
Do you offer strategy, services, or both?
What is your hourly rate?
What is your single project minimum budget?
Which of these services do you offer (options included SEO, Facebook Ads, content marketing, and more)?
How many years have you been practicing digital marketing?
Some of the high-level findings include:
Worldwide, solo consultants cost less per hour ($153.75) than agencies ($161.58-$185.49 depending on size) with smaller agencies of 2-5 people with the highest hourly rates ($185.49 per hour on average)
U.S. solo consultants charge less per hour ($165.02) on average than agencies ($164.41-$222.86). U.S. solo consultants are slightly more expensive on average per hour than the worldwide average ($165.02 for U.S. consultants, $153.75 worldwide)
Solo consultants price themselves consistently based on their years of experience, with all of the three major areas we looked at (hourly, minimum monthly, and minimum project) going up as the years of experience went up.
Strategy consultants and agencies command higher hourly rates, minimum projects, and one-time project fees. It pays to work on strategy as well as services, or just strategy at the expense of services.
At the end of the day, there is no “set price” for how much SEO should cost simply because every single SEO project and campaign is different. Every consultant or agency has an approximate hourly rate, services/consulting they offer, and type of project and site they see the most success with. This is part of why finding the right agency or consultant to work with can be quite difficult.
Hourly rates range from $25 an hour (very low) to $500+ an hour, with the majority over $100 an hour:
And, a full 42% of consultants/agencies will not take projects less than $2,000 per month. This means that there are many who will take smaller projects, but you need to go into conversations knowing what your business can afford to spend and what you can expect for that spend.
This is all well and good to know, but how do you determine what you need, and thus what you should expect to pay?
Today I want to walk you through the questions we ask businesses looking to find marketing help, so you can make better decisions about when to hire a consultant or an agency, which services or strategies to hire them for, and how much you should expect to pay per month.
All of these questions help marketers understand your needs and therefore allows them to quote the right project to get you the results you are looking for.
Questions for Businesses to Answer Before Conversations With Vendors
Your Experience with SEO/Digital Marketing
Starting off, we always ask about internal knowledge and experience with SEO, or whichever channel a business is seeking help for. I ask:
What [marketing channel] work has previously been done on the site?
What is your current level of [insert marketing channel] knowledge?
Why are you looking for help with [marketing channel] now?
These questions will help an agency determine specifically how much you know, what industry jargon (or lack thereof) to use, and also how to go about putting together the project depending on your specific needs.
Your Current Marketing Team Setup (if any)
Some businesses have a full marketing team while others are a one person company trying to do everything. An agency or consultant should spend the time to learn about the existence and size of your marketing team so that they can determine if they are a good fit for your project.
As a business, you should also be prepared to answer these questions. Even if you are just looking for content-based link acquisition to further your SEO goals, you will still need a place to publish content, maybe even get it designed, and more. Which team will handle each aspect, yours or theirs?
Availability of Design/Development Support
Continuing on from above, SEO does not happen in a vacuum. Gone are the days of simply throwing a load of exact anchor text links at a page and expecting it to rank for the long term. You do that now, you run into trouble eventually.
Good SEO is holistic SEO. Links are absolutely important, but you must also have an indexable website with an internal linking architecture with pages that target the terms and topics for which you desire to rank. This requires an ability to make changes and edits to your website which often involves, at a minimum, a developer, a content writer, and a designer is often needed as well.
Not having this kind of support is not a deal-breaker all the time, but the agency you hire needs to know these things ahead of time so they can plan effectively and help you get things done.
Great knowledge and recommendations are worthless if they cannot be implemented.
Your Goals and Expectations for Growth
Every company wants to “grow”, but what does that mean for your company? The strategies used to grow a company 10% from $1M in revenue to $1.1M in revenue are very different from the strategy required to grow a company from $100k in revenue to $1M in revenue, and the time to get there changes as well.
Knowing your growth goals and expectations will help your potential agency/consultant put together the right project and budget for what you need.
Strategy vs. Services
Before we get into "how to have pricing discussions" with an agency or consultant, we should first differentiate between what types of work you need and should expect before trying to find someone to help you grow your business.
There are two main types of work provided by marketing pros for hire (and often there is a combination):
Services - the person/entity you hire actually executes the strategies required to grow your business. This can be as simple as an audit or could be as involved as conducting the audit, implementing the changes on your website, making changes to your analytics to ensure proper tracking, and writing content to then outreach and acquire links. This is often what is meant by a “full-service agency”.
Note: Sometimes solo consultants will also provide services such as link acquisition or content creation, but many of them also work with freelancers to do a lot of this. The other way they often accomplish offering services is to specialize in one specific task such as link acquisition which they can then scale.
Strategy - conducting the discovery and audits on a website or business, then putting together the strategy for how the business accomplishes their goals. If a business or company has the development, design, content production and other teams in place then bringing in a very experienced strategist before hiring a full-time employee to fill that role can work very well.
So before engaging with an agency or consultant, you should determine which kinds of services you will need and then figure out which vendor can meet your needs.
Services and strategy also have different average hourly rates and the monthly minimums that agencies or consultants require change as well.
From the above image:
The average hourly rate charged for just strategy is $194.55 while services come in around $120. When both are needed, it averages to $166.93 per hour.
Monthly project minimums for strategy only come in at $1,681 while just services are around $1,500. A combination ends up being higher at $1,823, as services are more time intensive than strategy alone.
Single project minimums focused just around strategy average out to $2,181 while services-only one time projects come in around $1,250. A combination averages right around $2,000 for a strategy + limited services engagement.
Direct Actions to Get the Right Price for Needed Work
We started off talking about pricing so let’s talk about a few strategies that business owners can use to understand what they are paying for, what they will receive, and what to expect.
Let’s use a scenario to illustrate this. Let’s assume that an agency has gone through the questions outlined above with you and quoted you $2,000 per month for SEO strategy and content production + link acquisition services for your red widgets B2B business. Let’s also assume that you do not have a content strategy at all, but you do have a blog on your website and the ability to publish long-form articles and put articles behind an email capture form before the article is sent to the potential customer.
Ask for Project Plans
You have been quoted $2,000 per month for SEO strategy and content production + link acquisition. You need to know:
When you can expect the strategy to be put together, what they need from you to do it, and how it will be delivered (in a document, a Powerpoint presentation, an in-person meeting at their office).
How much they charge per piece of content that they create for you.
How many hours they will put into outreach for each piece of content.
In this case, where you are paying them both for strategy and execution on said content and link strategy, I would recommend that you split out the project into two separate projects:
An initial strategy section where they dive deep into your business and vertical and come back with a proposal for the content and link acquisition project that they can work on, or one you can take and execute yourself;
A proposal for the content creation and link acquisition project, including what content they would create, when it would be done, and how much outreach they will do.
Ask for Their Pricing Rubric
This one can be a bit controversial, but knowing the breakdown of pricing can help you understand exactly where your money is going. If you take my advice above and split out the example project by strategy and then services/execution, it might look something like:
The agency’s blended hourly rate (across the many different people who will work on the project) is $150 an hour. They say that putting together the SEO and content/links strategy will take 20 hours. This comes to a total of $3,000, and it will be delivered in 6 weeks at which time they will move forward with the contract to execute on the content and links part of the project.
The content and links part of the project in this scenario involves one whitepaper per month and three supporting blog posts around each one (one for your site, two as guest posts to promote it). Each whitepaper is $1,000 at 4,000 words, and each blog post is $150 at 750-1,000 words, and there are 5 hours of outreach time. All told, it comes in at $2,000 per month.
Many agencies will not break it down this far for you, but it is worth pushing them so you can understand what you are paying. However, this should not be ammunition for a cheaper rate per piece.
Don’t Try to Negotiate Cheaper On An Item-by-Item Basis
Marketing agencies are businesses. They have to make a certain margin on their product (their time and knowledge) to be profitable, stay in business, and grow. If they ran a grocery store, would you try to negotiate down the price of apples? Probably not. You would buy fewer apples to stay within your budget.
If you only have $1,000 a month to spend, it will take two months to do the one whitepaper and outreach/marketing around it. If you have $2,000 per month, you can move twice as fast.
Marketing services are like any other product. If you do not see the value in what is being proposed to you, or think that it is priced too high, then you should either find a cheaper solution (while remembering that you get what you pay for). When prices seem high, I suggest you ask deeper questions and see examples of work, so you fully understand what you will get and what "success" means. Otherwise, work out how to make the proposed work reach your goals within your budget.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you have a much better idea around how much agencies and consultants charge for their work, whether you need strategy or services (or both), as well as some strategies for finding the right provider and having a successful project on both sides.