Six Reasons You Need a Digital Marketing Retainer


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In the realm of digital marketing, one constantly-challenging aspect is also unavoidable: budget. If you’re working with an agency, this problem can quickly become compounded. Not only do you have to wrestle with finding the appropriate means to greenlight projects, but often with the cost of research and discovery, too.

But digital marketing is, at its heart, a research-based and data-driven pursuit. You wouldn’t hire an internal marketer and remove their capacity to research how to improve your website and online communications. So why would you hire an agency this way?

Here are six reasons why taking a retainer-based approach to digital marketing with your agency is not only wise, but absolutely crucial to maximizing your return on investment.

SEO: Big Stakes, Long Game

Search Engine Optimization is something that every marketer, from the just-beginning assistant to the most experienced CMO, knows they have to have. But very few understand it. Whether you’re measuring your search success by keywords and rankings (an outdated view) or organic web traffic and content reach (a more modern method in our user-friendly content culture), the key to achieving SEO success is in one word: patience.

Are you arming your marketing efforts with the power to be patient? This is one incredibly powerful reason why retainer-based efforts, just like internally-focused staff, can be much more effective than project-based ones. Consider – in order to be truly successful at SEO, you must do all of the following:

  • Discover a problem or area of focus
  • Research the problem or area
  • Propose a hypothesis and solution
  • Create and implement the solution
  • Test and record the solution’s effectiveness, and
  • Report on the solution.

In most cases, this cycle repeats in order to continue improving the area of focus, or to find a new problem to address or area of focus to grow. Maintaining the ability (both in time and in spend) to allow this cycle is crucial to any long-term SEO plan. And remember: there’s no such thing as a short-term SEO plan.

ABT: Always Be Testing

The single greatest advantage of digital marketing efforts over more traditional advertising means is the ability to track results. This doesn’t mean “digital over traditional” – certainly both have their place. But digital marketing does afford marketers the ability to test results of their campaigns early – and adjust on the fly.

Having a multi-faceted campaign is best for this kind of testing – outreach via email, social, and paid channels can be measured with equal budgets at first, and as results are garnered, budgets can be shifted to the highest-performing channels.

Likewise, you can always test the content itself, too. This is common in paid media – updating ad text or media, search keyword phrases, and the like. But other things can be tested, too – email subject lines and designs, landing pages, calls to action.

Having a well of time and budget allows the savvy digital marketer the means necessary to research, test, and improve campaigns as they mature. It also allows them to make hypotheses and test new ideas, which can lead to discovering greater ROI over the current campaign, or the best promotion ideas for the next campaign. All in all, testing is the lifeblood of digital marketing. Enable it, and reap the rewards.

Software Platforms

One advantage digital marketing agencies have over in-house small-to-mid size enterprise teams is the ability to afford and test software platforms. By now we’re all familiar with the basics – Google Analytics or another web analytics platform (like Core Metrics or Site Catalyst), Google AdWords, SEM Rush, and automation tools like Hubspot. But any agency worth its salt is looking at platforms to enhance these, driving reporting, research, and conversion optimization higher.

Our team at Element Three uses a trio of tools to bring greater value to our digital campaigns: Buzzsumo, Hotjar, and Unbounce. Buzzsumo helps discover influencers and research topic areas for content creation. The team uses Hotjar to measure the activity and use of web pages, while Unbounce is a great tool for A/B testing landing pages.

Between the three of them, we know where to find relevant information and potential prospects, and how to optimize our content for them. Paired with reporting capabilities with web analytics and promotion efforts through HubSpot and Google AdWords, they present an incredible data set by which to measure and improve marketing campaign efforts.

These aren’t the only tools in our digital marketer’s toolbox, of course. The team is always testing new platforms, from The Seventh Sense to Geofeedia, and looking for every advantage in between.

What you get with a digital retainer is access to all these tools, affordable through your retainer because the cost and use of them is spread out amongst several client groups and brands. Try getting them all at once on your own, and you’ve likely ate up a significant portion of your budget for the year. But paired with your digital agency team, you not only have the tools and the data, but the talent and experience to put both to work.

Email Automation

There is a reason why Marketo, HubSpot, MailChimp and other email and marketing automation services publish content about email frequently – it is still the primary and most effective means of content promotion for marketers today. More and more marketing platforms are diversifying and integrating new systems and technologies, but email remains the most effective means of communicating with your customers.

Part of what makes these platforms so powerful is the ability to set up email triggers. A simply outreach campaign can actually become a multi-faceted content delivery engine. Add in that you can segment user data, and change offers within emails (and likely other content) to be dynamic based on the user viewing it, and marketing automation software provides immense value…to those who use it.

By having the right budget dedicated to your digital communications, you will enable your agency to do more than craft a single email. Campaigns gain efficiency as creative is repurposed and utilized across content, workflows are created, and users are kept in the loop – and in the net of content you’re offering.

Living Content Strategy

Another clear advantage of arming your digital agency with time and budget is the ability to create living strategies. Your products change. Your target audiences change. The market changes as competitors enter and leave, economies shift, and production techniques become refined and more efficient.

How many of these factors are you monitoring? Do you know when a new competitor enters your market, what their primary unique selling propositions are, and what audience they’re targeting? Oftentimes, the savviest businesses are on top of these changes – from a business perspective. But that vigilance has to extend beyond the finances and operations planning into marketing.

Your content strategy should always be a reflection of your business goals as a company, and that means it should shift as often as anything that comes up that affects your goals, positively or negatively. What parts of that strategy are affected depends on the market changes.

A living content strategy considers those competitive factors already mentioned, as well as campaign keywords, email cadence, content topics and their delivery types, and more. New social platforms come and go. SEO rules are updating frequently as Google and it’s competitors improve how search engines work. Paid digital ads shift as ad blocking, 100% viewable ads, and other updates roll throughout the industry.

If you’re not armed to meet these strategies, you’re behind the game. And with digital marketing changing every day, that’s a place any marketer, and business, can ill-afford to be.

New Opportunities

How often do you hear a new marketing idea? Now, ask yourself this: how often is that idea backed up by data, including web analytics, audience demographics and psychographics, ad performance, email performance or other traffic and conversion metrics?

Ready for another question? How much of that data is yours? There are a billion studies that tell you which inbound marketing practices are best, which content promotion strategies work, and what the best paid media channels are. But as useful as these are – and they are useful – strategies, tactics, and campaigns based on your actual performance data are the best bets you’ll ever have.

Your digital marketing team has trained for this. This is the area where we live, breathe, sleep and eat. The devil is always in the details for us – the improving bounce rate, that strange increase in referral traffic, the drop in email open rates, the surge of conversions. In these details we find the clues as to what the audience is (and is not) responding to, and we use those clues to craft the next successful campaign.

Not every idea that’s driven by data is a home run, and there is always value in taking risk on an idea you feel in your gut is right, even if you have no data to back it up. But empowering your digital marketing partners to research, report and hypothesize is the key to turning every marketing dollar into a wise return on investment. This kind of retainer investment on your behalf gives your team permission to hunt, to find the next efficiency, to uncover the next hidden gem of campaign goodness.


Why do you need a digital retainer? Let me count the ways:

  1. SEO: Big Stakes, Long Game
  2. ABT: Always Be Testing
  3. Software Platforms
  4. Email Automation
  5. Living Content Strategy
  6. New Opportunities

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As the Senior Director of Strategy at Element Three, Dustin is dedicated to helping businesses grow, crafting demand generation strategies that stand above the rest and create true business impact. His background in journalism, digital communication, and ecommerce positions him as a unique voice in the cluttered digital marketing industry. When he's not writing about the forefront of digital marketing, you can find him jamming with a guitar or at home with his wife and two children.

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