Digital audits are one of the most misunderstood agency service offerings, as well as one of the most abused. Some agencies offer a “free website audit” as a sales gimmick to hook organizations that haven’t already spent thousands of dollars performing their own audits in-house.

So what gives? In this article, we set out to answer some of the questions our clients ask about digital audits. Questions like:

  • Are digital audits worth it?
  • What all goes into a digital audit?
  • How do I choose the right partner to conduct an audit?
  • What will I have to do during the auditing process?

If you’re a business deciding whether to move forward with a digital audit (spoiler: it’s worth it), then this article is for you.

Digital Audits Part One: Determining the Scope

What does a digital audit include?

First: What is a digital audit? It’s important to define what a digital audit is before determining whether you need one or not. While companies use the term in different ways, the general idea remains the same:

A digital audit is a comprehensive, customized report designed to help your organization leverage digital to effectively meet strategic goals.

A digital audit report should be detailed and extremely personalized to your organization’s specific industry, history, and goals. That’s why a digital audit is not the automated email you get 30 minutes after entering your website’s URL on some agency’s slick landing page.

The analyses, recommendations, and strategies that constitute a digital audit can vary. There are certainly some must-haves, but there are plenty of should-haves and could-haves, too.

Potential Digital Audit Elements Priority
Quantitative Analysis Must-have
Qualitative Analysis Must-have
Website Crawl Must-have
Competitive Analysis Must-have
Channel Breakdown Must-have
Prioritized Recommendations Must-have
Long-term Strategy Should-have
Multichannel Tactics Should-have
Two-year Timeline Should-have
KPIs to Watch Should-have
Governance Could-have
Accessibility Could-have
Internal Use Could-have

Every agency performs digital audits a little differently (and that’s okay!). Still, you should expect to see a number of similar elements in any digital audit, no matter which agency you choose. It doesn’t hurt to ask which of the above elements your audit will include, just to be sure.

In sum, your basic digital audit is just that–a review of your digital portfolio, with deeper insights that identify what has and has not worked effectively in the previous few years. Let’s dig a little deeper into those digital audit elements here:

Quantitative Analysis of Your Digital Portfolio

This is the traditional core of a digital audit. Your agency should take a holistic look at your digital strategy through the lens of metrics and evaluate what’s been working and what has not. Expect your audit to evaluate some or all of the following:

  1. Google Analytics data
  2. PPC ads reports
  3. Social media metrics
  4. Historic SEO rank tracking data
  5. CRM data and reports
  6. E-commerce purchase funnel data

Qualitative Analysis of Your Digital Portfolio

This part of the audit involves experts taking a critical look at your digital landscape. Although a lot of the information here is qualitative, it should be grounded in best practices. At a minimum, the qualitative analysis within a digital audit usually examines the following:

  1. Website design and user experience (UX)
  2. Calls to action on your website
  3. Brand congruence across channels
  4. Brand messaging across channels
  5. Social media content
  6. Email design and messaging effectiveness
  7. Lead generation form usability and accessibility
  8. E-commerce information and experience

Example of Quantitative Audit Chart Showing Channel Acquisition Breakdown

Well-designed charts and dashboards make understanding digital analytics easier.

Website Crawl

There’s a ton of services online that will crawl any domain you choose and provide feedback on technical problems with that website. Agencies that offer quick turnarounds on digital audits are usually only providing this automated information.

This information is important; you should know when your website has broken links, duplicate content, missing title tags, and poor site performance. But without context, explanation, and prioritization, a website crawl report is useless.

Look for your auditing agency to prioritize issues discovered in a website crawl, as well as set a brief timeline for fixing them.

Brief Competitive Audit

It’s pretty standard for an agency to compare your external digital efforts to those of identified competitors. Without access to competitors’ metrics, agencies aren’t equipped to compare performance.

Still, there are many observations that a competitor analysis reveals, including areas that might be digital competitive advantages for you in the future.

Breakdown by Channel

You can almost always expect a digital audit to break down your digital marketing efforts by channel. This helps present a useful, big-picture view of your digital marketing efforts. The digital channels an auditing agency would analyze include:

  1. Website(s)
  2. Organic social media engagement
  3. Paid social media campaigns
  4. Email
  5. Organic Search
  6. Paid Search
  7. Traditional digital ads (e.g. banners, videos, etc.)
  8. Content Marketing
  9. Local Marketing (e.g. local business listings)
  10. Reputation Management (e.g. reviews)
  11. PR / Media coverage

Overarching Strategy

Your audit should make recommendations based off of the audit findings. This is a big one, and any agency paid to perform an audit should include it–but be warned, this isn’t a guarantee every time.

In short, your agency should give you some understanding of next steps you can take to (a) build on the positive elements of your digital portfolio, and (b) work to improve what is not serving your business well enough. The level of detail in these recommendations should be the inflection point for the quality and cost of your digital audit. The highest-quality digital audits give you a real framework for using digital to grow your business, ideas that go beyond channels and tactics.

For example, an audit that merely advises you to “target your Facebook ads to an audience of 25-35 year olds” is providing you tactics, which is short of actual strategy because it has no context. A strategy might be to “Match your product offerings to narrower demographics.”

Strategic recommendations (as opposed to tactical ones) take a more holistic approach to your digital strategy, so make sure they are included in your digital audit.

Channel-specific Tactics

With all that said, we aren’t dismissing tactical recommendations outright. Your overarching digital strategy should be supported by these specific tactical recommendations for your primary digital marketing channels. These might include recommendations such as:

  1. Keywords or searcher intents to target with an organic search strategy
  2. Content medium recommendations (focusing on video, imagery, tools/applications, etc.)
  3. Content type recommendations (educational, promotional, etc.)
  4. Targeting recommendations for paid ads (demographics, geography, interests, etc.)
  5. Website improvement plan
  6. Calls to action to add to your website
  7. Email communication plan
  8. Channels where you need to increase focus
  9. Channels where you need to decrease focus
  10. Messaging recommendations (brand voice)
  11. Additional software needed to accomplish your digital plan

Timeline for The Next (approximately) Two Years

A thorough audit will offer a high-level strategic timeline for the next couple of years. This timeline gives recommendations on when you should make investments (for example, a website redesign or a product campaign) in different areas of your digital marketing mix. This is a great value-add, as you can use the data alongside your business goals and budgets to strategically map out the next few years of your digital campaigns and initiatives.

Example of Digital Audit 2 Year Timeline

A strategic timeline built as a Gantt chart can help you prioritize next steps.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Along with a forward-looking strategy, your audit can include a number of key performance indicators you should be monitoring closely to measure the ongoing success of your digital strategy. It might even include realistic target goals for these key performance indicators, based on the gaps and opportunities identified by your digital audit. KPIs will vary from business to business, because a digital metric that’s valuable to one organization might be less valuable to another.

For example, a news publisher probably cares more about the volume of web traffic viewing their articles online because that metric affects their ad revenue, whereas a B2B organization probably cares more about how many website visitors submit contact forms because they depend on their website to generate leads.

Governance

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Agencies can (usually through interviewing and observing) look at your internal processes for digital marketing and make observations for how to improve those processes. Those recommendations might include:

  • your organizational structure
  • skills that existing team members need to learn through training
  • additional job roles to hire to grow your team
  • project management processes that can make your marketing team more flexible
  • quality assurance processes to ensure your brand doesn’t make missteps online
  • and more

Digital Accessibility

Any digital audit should cover how you can help to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face when browsing websites online. For companies in many industries, digital accessibility compliance is federally mandated.

However, all companies should be thinking about digital accessibility on the web. For one, being digitally accessible ensures your website reaches the broadest possible audience. As a consequence, accessibility compliance can help you grow organic web traffic to your site. Accessibility markup makes your site more search-engine friendly and voice-search friendly, which boosts SEO so that your website appears organically in more search engine results pages (SERPs).

Internal Use of Digital

Some companies not only want recommendations for improving their external use of digital (public-facing websites, inbound marketing, etc.), but they also want recommendations for how employees and internal staff use digital. Agencies can look at intranets, communication tools, and team software, and provide feedback on areas to improve efficiency or communication.

Digital Audits Part Two: Choosing a Partner

What to look for in a Digital Audit Partner

A lot of agencies offer digital audits, but far fewer have the experience or team needed to really deliver an audit that has ongoing value. Vetting a partner for a digital audit is similar to vetting a creative agency for digital work – web design, SEO, advertising, etc. Look for a digital agency that offers the right value for the right price.

If you’re vetting a potential partner to perform a digital audit for you, there’s no one-size-fits-all checklist to follow, but you should expect the following from the agency:

Business Experience, Not Just “Digital” Experience

Many agencies are great at executing creative digital work. However, teams that perform digital audits need to identify deeper connections between digital strategy and your business goals. You should look for:

  • Agency team members with client-side (in-house) experience
  • Agency team members with finance, marketing, or management backgrounds (not just advertising, PR, and design backgrounds)
  • Experience working with a broad base of clients in a variety of industries

Understanding Business Metrics and Digital Metrics

A thorough audit will look at existing digital metrics and internal business metrics together, then lay out a clear path to how those metrics can work together more effectively moving forward. You should look for:

  • Case studies on the agency’s website that describe clear goals and metrics delivered
  • Up-front discussions about key performance indicators during meetings. They shouldn’t just say “we love metrics” and move on.

Experience working with a variety of industries

A lot of marketing agencies serve specialty or niche markets – manufacturing, real estate, non-profit, professional services, etc. While focusing on these markets may give them a depth of experience, it can also limit creativity when they form a customized, strategic digital plan for your future. (Note: for healthcare companies and other highly regulated industries, finding an agency that has experience dealing with regulatory constraints like HIPAA is particularly useful).

Part Three: Preparing for Launch

How to prepare for your digital audit

If you’ve decided to perform a digital audit of your organization, there’s a number of ways you can prepare ahead of time to ensure the process goes seamlessly:

  • Internally, make sure you know the desired outcomes of your digital audit. Do you need a simple analysis of your current digital marketing landscape, or are you looking for a strategic path to move forward?
  • Gather as many old marketing reports as possible. Your auditing agency is going to want to look at these reports to evaluate and determine what has worked, and what hasn’t. Additionally, any internal marketing plans you have will be useful documents to share with the agency.
  • Work with IT so that granting access to digital accounts doesn’t hold up the process. Agencies usually want to look “under the hood” of your website, so they can examine things like analytics software to get a deeper look at your digital metrics.
  • Organizational Chart and Job Roles – Work with your H.R. Department to collect a graphic representation of your organizational structure that includes descriptive job roles of any relevant positions within your marketing, communications, and digital teams.
  • Be excited, eager, and ready to collaborate – As with almost any agency-client relationship, maintaining quick and constant communication is key to a successful audit. If you’re ready and willing to respond to questions and requests quickly, not only will the audit process go more smoothly, but your final result will likely be even better!
  • Prepare your team to minimize the chances anyone’s feelings get hurt. Especially for companies with small, tight marketing departments, audits can sometimes be a scary thought, because they point out areas where your marketing team can improve. Remind your team that while the audit will be honest, it’s ultimately for the betterment of the team and the company, not an indictment of their performance.

Just an audit, or the start of an ongoing relationship?

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For some companies, an audit is a single transaction that seeks an outside perspective. More strategic companies will use audits as the starting point for an ongoing relationship with a digital agency that can add value to their marketing, design, or development projects.

If you’re interested in working with an agency that not only audits your digital portfolio, but also has the talent and experience to assist you in implementing effective digital strategy, be sure to vet the agency ahead of time. Once you’ve found the right agency, these digital audits can be the perfect place to begin a long-term, strategic partnership that helps both organizations grow.