When I wrote “The Top 10 Business Mistakes Search Marketing Firms Make“, I included a few of the items I commonly discover, when working with marketing firms, especially search marketers. The advice, if followed, would certainly help any marketing firm (not just search marketers), hoping to grow their business by avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls so common in the industry. However, while avoiding the common mistakes will help your business to avoid making expensive missteps, if you want to truly grow your marketing firm, you need to be more aggressive and proactive in your efforts.
One of the most common questions I am asked by marketing agencies seeking my advice–especially those that are newly-started or still relatively small–is “how do I attract new clients and grow my business?” While there are many ways to accomplish this task, depending on your resources and your target market, there are some proven strategies that any marketing firm can implement.
The five secret strategies listed in this guide are tried and trusted. I have used them to help grow one firm to $25+ million in annual revenues and another to an annual run rate of $2+ million in its first year. However, the strategies suggested below are not just confined to the companies I have worked with, they are evident in many successful agencies. Take a look at any successful marketing firm–whether it focuses on search, web design, email, viral or interactive–and you’ll likely see they’ve followed at least half the strategies I’ve listed.
I don’t want to sound like one of those overly-tanned, bright-smiled, “gurus” you see on infomercials late at night but, if you follow the strategies I’ve outlined, I’m convinced you can add at least $1 million in new revenue for your agency, over the next twelve months.
Strategy 1–Stand out from the crowd
Revenue Value = $100,000 in 2008
If you’re hoping to establish your marketing firm as a leader in its field, you’ll likely find lots of companies already established and better positioned to win clients. Simply launching a firm and blending-in with the rest of your peers is not the way to enter a market that is maturing or already saturated. Even the young search engine marketing (SEM) industry is filled with hundreds–if not thousands–of search marketing firms, all promising “top rankings”, “increased conversions” and “great customer service”. Too many SEM firms launch with the very same message and then languish in obscurity. If you want to avoid falling victim to this wasteland of mediocrity, you’ll have to be different.
Being different, doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, but does mean singing a tune that a prospective client has not heard a thousand times before. If you want to serenade a new customer, you need to catch their attention and convince them you are different from the umpteen other marketing firms, they have heard from, or used, in the past. At KeywordRanking.com, we were one of the first SEM firms to offer content creation with all our search engine optimization packages. At the time, very few prospective clients were hearing the message we were telling: “we have a team of search engine optimization (SEO) copywriters who will create enticing, search engine-friendly content for your site.” Likewise, when we launched Fortune Interactive, we explained how we had a proprietary technology, no long-term contracts, and performance-based pricing models. In each instance, we sang a very different tune, than the many other firms that had called on that company in the same week.
Being different, doesn’t mean being radical. What set’s your marketing firm apart could be as simple as offering a weekly webinar for your clients, or offering live online customer support. The key is to find a niche, something that helps your firm stand-out from the crowd.
Strategy 2–Write articles to establish your agency as a thought-leader
Revenue Value = $150,000
Here’s a challenge for you. See if you can find a marketing firm – among that top 10 performing firms in its niche – that is not currently, or has not in the past, consistently authored and published articles on their area of expertise. I’m willing to bet, you won’t find too many. It should not come as too much of a surprise to learn that establishing your company as an authority and thought-leader in its field, is one of the fastest and lowest-cost ways to build your company.
When you can point to articles penned by employees of your company, you can instill confidence in any prospective client. This is especially true if your firm is new, or has not yet established a reputation. While, collaborative efforts such as blogs or a series of articles written by various employees of your company, is a solid plan, I believe that focusing on one person in your company–someone who is already somewhat of an expert and conveys authority–is the best approach to building credibility via articles.
There are numerous marketing firms that can point to a single voice within their company, who has become a star within their niche. For example, in the search marketing industry, Rand Fishkin, Jim Boykin, Barry Schwartz, Andy Hagans, Aaron Wall and Lee Odden are all examples of how building the company’s brand around a single, authoritative voice is a way to establish credibility. You may struggle to recall which companies the above own or work for, but if you’re familiar with the search marketing industry, you’ll likely recognize their names immediately.
For myself, I had been practicing search engine optimization long before I actually become a public expert on the subject. It wasn’t until I started writing articles that I was able to help rapidly grow KeywordRanking.com and establish it as the largest SEO firm in the world.
The key to writing articles is to start with smaller publications and then move up. Your first goal shouldn’t be to have an article published at Search Engine Watch or MediaPost. Instead, look for smaller sites that are open to accepting fresh articles from new authors. The key is to get your foot in the door. Once you have a handful of articles published on smaller sites–for me it was Search Engine Guide–you can use these to leverage larger sites to publish your work. Showing editors of larger web sites or publications, articles published on Search Engine Guide or even your local marketing-group’s web site, will demonstrate your abilities and give them confidence that you know what you are talking about. From there, it’s an easier step up to the massive audiences of Search Engine Watch, Web Pro News, MediaPost or AdAge.
Once you have dozens of articles floating around with your name and bio attached to them, you’ll likely find more and more prospective clients contacting you. A client that reads your great “how-to” articles is more likely to be proactive in seeking a business relationship with you. In the meantime, those clients you’re actively seeking can be directed to your great literary works as a way to install confidence in your firm’s ability and credibility.
Strategy 3–Step-up to the microphone and be heard
Revenue Value = $200,000
Once you’ve had a few articles published, you can use your new-found credibility to pitch for speaking slots at conferences and seminars. Getting a regular speaking slot at any event, will likely put your company in front of potential clients, establish credibility among your peers and reward your firm with increased revenue.
As with writing articles, your goal is not to make large conferences, such as Webmaster World or Ad-Tech, your first foray into public speaking. It is unlikely that any large conference will take a chance on someone that is an unknown entity or not yet demonstrated they can put together two intelligent words in public. No, your first goal is to find local seminars or smaller national groups that need speakers, but have not budget for them.
Speaking at the local chapter of the American Marketing Association or Chamber event is a great way to find your voice, fine-tune your style and pad your speakers resume. When I first started speaking, I started off with smaller local marketing groups. Not only did this build confidence in my speaking abilities, but it helped me demonstrate to larger conferences that I had been trusted before.
As with the advice on writing articles, you use the smaller stuff to move up to the larger opportunities. Any speaking credential can be used to impress a potential client. You should include your speaking events on your web site or in your proposals. If a client has a choice between two marketing firms, fortune favors the one that can show it has so much talent and expertise that it is often invited to speak at conferences.
As a side note, I wanted to promote the rewards that come from being bold when it comes to pitching yourself for speaking opportunities. My first “big” speaking break came from Danny Sullivan (thanks Danny!). After sitting-in on a particularly bad “Site Clinic” at one of the SES shows, I happened to find Danny rushing down the hall to his next session. I asked if I could walk with him and explained where I thought the session went wrong, and how I would improve it. That act of boldness–combined with good fortune–led me to be invited to speak at the very next SES show. Even to this day, I don’t ever rely purely on speaking invites. If I see a conference that I believe will expand my speaker’s bio, or put me in front of potential clients, I’ll submit a proposal and explain why they should include me in their event.
Strategy 4–Hire a public relations firm
Revenue Value = $250,000
Here’s one of the big secrets to the success of both KeywordRanking.com and Fortune Interactive – it’s not the biggest one, that’s saved for below–but it’s a strategy that I believe in wholeheartedly: Hire a public relations firm!
There are very few marketing firms that have taken the time to implement a public relations (PR) campaign. Part of the reason is cost. It can cost $5,000-$10,000 a month for a good PR agency, but it’s worth every penny. Getting quoted in the press is a difficult task. Unless a journalist happens to see you speak, reads your blog entry or is told by someone else to contact you, you’re unlikely to find your company being mentioned in the local classifieds, let alone the Wall Street Journal.
Ever since the early days of KeywordRanking.com, I’ve allocated an enormous amount of resources towards public relations campaigns. For the most part, I coordinated KeywordRanking’s media efforts–writing press releases, contacting journalists–but as we grew, we hired a prominent public relations firm and utilized their experience to get us noticed. It’s not a coincidence that mentions in the WSJ, LA Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Washington Post and interviews on CNBC and NPR, happened when working with a PR firm. Even when launching Fortune Interactive, one of my first hires was the very same person who had conducted the PR campaign for KeywordRanking.com. (That same person is now back working for a PR firm. Email me and I will connect you up with them, it will be one of the best decisions your agency makes).
The sheer value that can be obtained from a public relations initiative is immense. Being quoted in a newspaper, or having your company featured in a magazine, is a low cost way to reach an audience of thousands–if not millions–yet not without having to find the budget for a half-page ad. A well written article in the Wall Street Journal can lead dozens of potential clients to your web site, ringing your phone off the hook, begging to be a client. But, even if that sounds a little too far-fetched, simply being able to point potential clients to a page that shows all of the well known media outlets your company has been quoted or featured, is priceless! I’ve lost track of the number of times I have pointed prospective clients to our media page–whether at KeywordRanking.com or Fortune Interactive–I would estimate that I’ve spent around $200,000 in PR over the past seven years and brought in at least $3 million in revenue because of it.
Strategy 5–Know the value of a big-brand client
Revenue Value = $300,000
Ok, so I’ve saved the best strategy until last. This is by far the best kept secret to growing the revenue of any marketing firm. I know many larger firms have used this tactic, but very few small and mid-size agencies have realized the awesome potential of it. The strategy? Letting big-brand clients raise your credibility for you.
Too many small firms are focused on cash-flow (which is understandable). Every penny is vitally important to the growth of their business, so each campaign is priced to bring in maximum revenue. When most marketing firms get in front of a Fortune 1000 company, they get dollar-signs in their eyes, but for the wrong reasons. When pitching a campaign to a big-brand, agencies often think about the deep pockets the client must have, and how landing that client could be their chance to increase their monthly cash-flow. Unfortunately, if you try to compete with established agencies, charging your normal fee will more often than not, send the big-brand company running into the safe and secure arms of the agency that has been around for ten years and has one hundred clients. So what’s the better strategy?
Discount your service, heck, give it away for free! Don’t look at the amount of money you can bring in by landing a big name client, look at the amount of additional clients you’ll attract by landing a big-brand client. Being able to tell the world that Wal-Mart or Apple is one of your clients adds instant credibility!
You may be thinking, “How can I make this work for my firm.” Let’s take a look at how I’ve used this strategy before, in particular at KeywordRanking.com.
When building KeywordRanking, we realized that while we had good growth, we were hardly setting the industry on fire, and few people had heard of our company. That changed when we landed Alaska Airlines as a client. One of the important steps in the negotiation with Alaska Airlines was to get their permission to use their name publicly, we wanted to be able to tell everyone that Alaska Airlines was a client. I won’t go into the details of the negotiations, but we managed to put together a campaign that was cheaper than anyone else, and we were given permission to use their name in our marketing efforts.
What happened next? We promoted our new client to everyone we spoke we with. “If we were trusted by Alaska Airlines, you can trust us too,” we told prospective clients. We then landed NBC, Lowes Home Improvement, Motorola, CitiFinancial, DeWalt and dozens of other big-brand companies. Each time, we stepped up to a bigger name and often negotiated very competitive deals in order to use their name in our marketing efforts.
The key to this strategy is biting the bullet on what you could charge in fees, and instead realizing the greater revenue that will come from having a client roster of Fortune 1000 companies. You don’t have to give away your service for free, but you should price in a discount that equates to the value of landing a big brand. Think about it for your company, how much in marketing and advertising would you have to spend, in order create the same perception landing a client like Apple or Toyota would create? $20,000? $50,000? $100,000, maybe? When you look at this as not discounting your service, but applying a marketing cost to the final fee, you’ll quickly realize the potential a big name client brings to a small company.
You’re now ready to add $1 million to your firm
So there you have it. The above is just a small sample of strategies a marketing firm can implement to escalate the growth of its business. There are many other strategies and tactics–some of which I’ll share in future articles, some of which will remain reserved for my clients–but, successfully implementing the above strategies will add at least $1 million in new business to your firm over the next twelve months, and when it does, I hope you’ll put me on next year’s Christmas card list!
Now it’s your turn, what ideas have worked for you?