Piloting an e-commerce operation — as a stand-alone revenue stream or as a channel within a bigger company — requires functional expertise in several distinct areas, including P&L management, technology stacks, user experience, sales, promotions, and the data collection/analysis around all of it.

And then there is “eCommerce Marketing,” which in and of itself requires a diverse set of skills. Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Engine Marketing (SEM), retargeting, affiliate, email, social media, programmatic and display ads, content, creative, CRO  — whew. To tell a compelling story about your product or service that drives qualified traffic and generates real (read: profitable) revenue is a big job that can easily overwhelm you, your staff and the company cash box.

For smaller shops, the DIY approach — learning to do a little of everything and limiting spend to what’s most effective and affordable — is essential. And frankly these are good skills for ‘solo-preneurs’ and boutiques to develop in-house. When it’s time to scale, you will understand what it takes to make e-commerce marketing work.

For companies ready to expand their reach, but without the means or will to add head count, out-sourcing to a marketing services provider can make sense. These are not the legacy advertising agencies with a reputation (deserved or not) for high price tags and bloated infrastructures. The new breed of digital ‘shops’ are agile organizations stacked with functional expertise that are servicing today’s “right offer, right person, right time” e-commerce marketing requirements. They develop distinct internal cultures and can often super-serve a particular market niche. The key is to find one that, like a nice suit or even a spouse, matches your company’s own personality — one with which you can work across geography and time, day in and day out.

These shops come in several shapes and sizes, and there are pros and cons to each model. Let’s have a look…

The Consultant

Generally, these are executive-level e-commerce professionals that know the ins-and-outs of everything from strategy to execution. They’re great for scoping requirements, defining goals and the best means to achieve them, and implementing campaigns. The talent and experience at ecommerceconsulting.com, for instance, is impressive.

PROS: Lots of personal attention and dedication, low overhead, flexibility, great for setting strategy and building out programs.
CONS: Limitations of deep functional expertise (one person can’t be GREAT at everything), and you may have to compete for attention with other clients.

The “Co-Op”

Consultants that band together in loose affiliations and employ each other’s expertise to provide a wide array of services for their clients. JM Digital does this very well. Founder Joanne Marzan is an executive-level leader who deploys a tight team of independent experts that are engaged on a client by client basis.

PROS: Personal attention to your business, manageable overhead, flexible, provide access to tools and an expert pool of knowledge.
CONS: Affiliated contractors may suddenly move on or drop out, functional expertise can vary wildly depending on availability.

The “Consultagency”

I just made up that word to describe lean, agile staffs with expertise across many functions. LA-based Screenpush is an example of a “consultagency” that’s been building a reputation with cool new brands like fashion label Jacob Davis and music/lifestyle company Sol Republic.

PROS: Dedicated stakeholders and broad expertise across functions (search, email, creative), ability to expand or retract services, agile, expertise within your company’s niche.
CONS: Mostly issues of scale: occasionally challenged to service all that’s been promised to you and a fast-growing client list. Quality of work or attention to detail may suffer without thorough (read: documented) communication.

The Agency

I classify this category as shops with over 30 people and a client list that includes mid-large sized companies. Wpromote has grown substantially and works with iconic brands like Toms, Dickies, and Wine.com to name a few. NY-based Ecommerce Partners maintains a large, talented staff to service clients like DKNY, Loreal and JC Penny.

PROS: A broadly talented team of e-commerce marketing professionals, easy to scale up and expand services, dedicated account managers, access to technology and tools that ordinarily might be priced out of reach for individuals and smaller companies.
CONS: Companies with smaller budgets or less ambitious plans can get lost in the in-boxes of overworked account execs and media managers. With everyone’s plate so full it’s easier to underestimate tasks, miss deadlines, drift into “feature-creep” or rack up overtime.

The “Meta-Agency”

I just made up this word, too. It refers to the digital wing of large, full service ad or PR agencies. These guys have juice and know how to use it, and can tap a vast network of resources across multiple timezones. Porter Novelli is at the forefront of understanding how digital can integrate and transform traditional and mass marketing campaigns at scale, and they employ top-tier e-commerce marketing executives with real-world experience.

PROS: Anything you want, you got it. Scaling is no problem, in fact it’s the point. And with the resources of a global agency at their fingertips, these divisions can integrate services, tools, talent and reach you haven’t even contemplated yet.
CONS: You will pay for the privilege (caveat: not really a ‘con’ for companies that require this level of attention and service). Talent rotates in and out of the big agencies, so the person who started your campaign may not finish it. But it will quickly get bigger and more expensive than anticipated without a strong in-house manager to keep a check on the “enthusiasm.”

So which level of service is right for you?

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