Last month, I attended my business mastermind group here in the Bay Area. Every month, we get together and discuss our top business and marketing challenges, and then we all help each other find solutions.

(If you’re not in a group like this, I strongly recommend you join one. And if you don’t know what I mean by “mastermind” – I recommend you pick up a copy of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, it’s a classic).

The big topic of the day was outsourcing your marketing. And in particular, we talked about mistakes to avoid — and everybody had a disaster story to share.

One member of the group talked about a direct mail company he had recently hired. The company had botched two different mailings in a row, costing him thousands of dollars and months of wasted time.

Another member talked about his friend who had spent about $5,000 on search engine optimization (SEO) but hadn’t received the results he was looking for. Evidently, the provider had over-promised and under-delivered (very common with SEO providers).

Finally, I recounted a “horror story” I had recently heard at a wedding in San Francisco. At the wedding, I met a business owner who had invested $250,000 into a website development project gone wrong. After a year, he had little to show for his quarter million dollars, and was having to start over from scratch.

I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories, too. They’re all-too-common, unfortunately.

Here are the top 5 mistakes to avoid when outsourcing your marketing.

Mistake #1. Handing Over the Keys

Most business owners want marketing help for 1 reason: they are short on time.

Many want to find a “marketing guy” — that 1 person who will solve all of their marketing problems. And they want to hand over all the responsibility to that 1 person. This is a totally reasonable desire, but you need to be careful about handing over too much responsibility too fast.

Marketing is one of the most critical functions in your business, and you shouldn’t ever totally hand over the keys. You should really think of yourself as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of your business. You need to retain ultimate responsibility over the success of your marketing. You can’t just totally “hand over the keys” and trust somebody else to oversee everything for you, or you’re asking for trouble.

Mistake #2. Unrealistic Expectations

You also need to watch out for unrealistic expectations.

For example, you shouldn’t necessarily expect that a brand new website will automatically cause new customers to flock to your business overnight. And you also shouldn’t expect that your new website is going to get ranked #1 in Google overnight. And, for that matter, you shouldn’t expect that getting ranked #1 in Google will solve all of your business and marketing problems — SEO can be great, but it’s just 1 piece of the marketing puzzle.

And, of course, it’s a two way street… Marketing providers often create (or at least reinforce) unrealistic expectations when they want to sell projects. However, at the same time, smart marketing providers want educated clients. I can tell you from experience that there’s nothing more frustrating than serving a client with unrealistic expectations.

Mistake #3. Lack of Knowledge

OK, let’s say you hire somebody to manage your SEO. How will you make sure they’re doing a good job?  If you don’t know anything about how SEO works, you’ll have a tough time evaluating their work.

Whether you’re outsourcing SEO, AdWords, or web design, it’s important to gain at least a basic understanding of how the service works, so you can evaluate whether your provider is doing a good job for you (or whether you’re getting taken advantage of).

And again, smart marketing providers want educated clients, because they have more respect for the work being done and they’re easier to work with.

Mistake #4. Not Tracking

Another cause of disasters is not tracking your profit and loss (P&L) from your marketing investments.

It’s a good idea to go in with a goal for what you’ll spend and what you’ll get – both in terms of output and financial results (return on investment). And then keep tabs. If you’re investing in traffic (SEO, PPC), make sure there’s some kind of tracking and reporting in place, so you can evaluate your progress.

If you’re tracking the financial results of your marketing projects, then it’ll be easier to spot the early warning signs of a “money pit” and cut it off before it gets too bad.

And again, it’s a two-way street. Good marketing providers want to make sure their clients are not only profiting from their services, but make them aware that they’re profiting — because then they’ll get more referrals.

Mistake #5. Low-Quality Providers

Finally, if you want to avoid costly marketing disasters, you need to hire the right people. This is actually the most important of all. Even if you are guilty of the 4 other mistakes, you can still get good results if you choose the right person or company.

So, make sure that you’re working with people who can actually deliver, and won’t abuse your trust. By far, the best way to hire a trustworthy marketing provider is to go by referrals. And then check references before you move forward.