So what typically happens to marketing in a recession? If a company is big enough to have a marketing department, they cut their staff. If they have an outside agency producing their work, they freeze the budget. Ironically, time and time again, history shows that those companies who continue to market, and who show a presence during down times, are the ones left remaining–becoming industry leaders–when the economy strengthens. Cutbacks are inevitable, but sabotaging your brand does not have to be.

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So how can a company of any size remain on track? One solution is hiring a different kind of marketing team, or person, that provides seamless, sensible and objective solutions – a virtual marketing company.

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Aaahh, the fear of fly-by-night marketing consultants and the horror of Elance Heck may come to mind. But that doesn’t have to be the case if you know what to look for and what questions to ask. Not to mention, it does not have to involve much time. The best advice I received once, was “stop and sharpen your ax”. In this case meaning—stop hacking away with an ineffective way of approaching a recession.  Rather, think and then implement new, more decisive, and productive ways of accomplishing the task at hand. The huge benefit is you will end up with marketing that specifically meets your company’s needs without paying for what you don’t need–staff salaries, agency overhead, etc. In a time when budget constraints and efficiency are a must, stopping to research and review a virtual firm to hire is time well spent. And who knows, ultimately, you may end up with a marketing solution that works for your company permanently.

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So what is an accurate representation of a virtual marketing company. It can have a variety of criteria, but a brief summary is a person or small team of seasoned, diverse marketing and brand experts who offer the full spectrum of flexible, objective, innovative services without attachments to one particular solution. So how does one go about choosing a virtual marketing company?
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Through a little bit of research and a request of information, hiring a virtual marketing company that is most compatible with your company can be completed within a day or two. Following is a set of criteria I recommend when choosing a virtual marketing company:

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DIVERSITY
Make sure that the virtual firm has a deep and complete understanding of marketing and brand. If they are a one-person firm, that person’s past experience should show diversity in roles/experience – sales, account management, creative development, market strategy, planning, new product development. If there is a team, the sum of the team’s experience should equal such. Since you are depending on one to only a few key players, you need to make sure their experience matches your needs. Ask for their list of services and a detail of who does what.

EXPERIENCE

When working with virtual marketers, a good rule of thumb is 15 years in the industry and a minimum of 5 years as a virtual company (with more emphasis on the latter). Although the concept of virtual sounds great, it’s not as easy as Timothy Ferris in the “4-Hour Work Week” implies, otherwise we’d all be hanging at the beach, drinking margaritas right now. Systems of communication needs to be defined, processes for efficiency established and finding/maintaining a dependable pool of resources all need to be in place, while at the same time, service to multiple clients can not be affected. Multi-tasking and process management are a must for the successful virtual marketing team. As for experience in the industry, they should be able to provide proven results via case studies or a portfolio of successes. Ask for a resume/bio and case studies.

OBJECTIVE

A big difference between a “specialty marketing company” or certain agencies is that sometimes you must buy into a particular offering which could mean higher pricing and less flexibility. For instance, they may claim they are a full-service marketing web firm that uses “Big X” software as their content management system or an agency that has it’s own in-house printing division. These are definite pluses if this offering is exactly what you need. However much of the time, this is not the case. A virtual marketing firm, however, should not be associated with any one particular offering. Their job should be to find the best solution that fits into your company’s needs and not the other way around. They should, however, be able to provide 3-4 of their top choices for any one particular offering and be able to provide the pros and cons of each. This will enable you to make informed, accurate decisions. Ask if they are affiliated with any solutions/offerings.

CREDIBLE
If they are credible, they shouldn’t be shy about it and there should be some evidence of this. Look to see if they have a presence outside their own company website that backs up who they are such as a Linkedin profile or blog writings. When doing an online search, their name should come up in multiple places. Has one or more of the team players written white papers or been asked to speak? Look to see if clients and colleagues are providing testimonials and that these testimonials reflect their diversity, experience and successes. In a transparent society, a firm that claims to be experts in marketing, should not be afraid to market themselves, and it should reflect who they are as a business. Ask where you can find out more about them.

FLEXIBLE

Do they provide flexible ways of doing business? If they are virtual, they need to be able to service in a variety of ways that works for a diverse set of circumstances. Some companies may just need a temporary consultant, others long-term service, and yet others maybe just a project or a campaign to develop. Their service offerings should be well-defined, yet open enough to work for both parties. In addition, flexibility provides cost efficiency. You will only pay for what you receive and this should clearly be defined in their price. Ask to see a service price list.

RESOURCEFUL

The company should have diverse and abundant resources – preferably global. In this vast world of technology, resources are abundant, but the dependable, credible, talented resources—not so much. It’s the job of the virtual marketer to either have available or be able to easily find the best resource to fill the void or solve the problem at hand. Although they may not reveal all their talents/resources, they should be able to explain how they utilize their network and go about finding or resolving a problem. Ask them to explain their approach to servicing a client.

CREATIVE & INNOVATION
From creative to technology, the virtual marketer should be able to provide you with fantastic ideas and innovative solutions. They should have the vision and ability to understand the deep layers of your company and translate it to your target audience in a way that the audience understands and their attention is captured. In an age of technology overload, innovative approaches are a necessity. A virtual company should be on top of the current trends as traditional marketing fades and interactive and social media marketing emerge. Creative and technology should not be separated. Ask what their continuing education process is.

Once the research and request for information is satisfied, the final step goes back to the basics – compatible personality test. Since virtual marketing is much like your offsite marketing department, making sure the hired individual(s) get along with you and the rest of the team players is extremely important. Before making your final decision, I suggest bringing them in and introducing them to staff just as you would a new employee. Be present to how this person(s) interacts on initial contact with everyone. The thought is you would want to bring someone in who understands and values not only the decision maker, but also understands the entire group and who can be integrated immediately.
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In the end, a virtual marketing company will enable your company to continue marketing in the most cost effective and logical way without compromising quality, creativity and innovation to your brand. Now it’s only up to you to stop, take the time, and sharpen that ax!