Growing a digital agency can be challenging. Most of our 1500 customers are digital agencies, and we've been fortunate to learn a lot from them about the tactics used to grow.
In this article, we'll distil some of this knowledge, covering things like lead generation, leveraging your relationships and tools.
Aside: If you're just starting out, be sure to check out our guide about how to start a digital marketing agency and our Digital Agency Lean Canvas template for planning all aspects of your business from your USP (unique selling proposition) to goals, services, personnel, etc.
According to Clutch.co, there are over 55.3K digital marketing agencies worldwide! It would be an understatement to say the digital agency space is competitive. But don't be disheartened because the digital marketing and advertising industry is worth an eye-watering $322 billion according to ReportLinker.
Most of our agency customers are competing for a slice of this pie. What we've seen over time is that smaller and niche agencies are increasingly beating out the big players. Take a competitive market such as the Australian market, for example. Smaller independent agencies are growing rapidly and account for nearly three-quarters of the market. In Australia, brand-side marketers favor working with smaller, specialist 'indy' agencies rather than the larger incumbent networks:
How to grow a digital marketing agency
Anyone who runs a digital agency will tell you how hard it is. This is where qualities like passion, tenacity and resilience are vital because when the going gets tough, it gets really, really tough. Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges facing an agency founder is how to grow their agency. Entrepreneur Tim Stodz says it best:
Running an agency is like running up a down escalator. As soon as you stop moving forward, you go backward.
Growth and new business not only keep the lights on but enable you to scale the agency to increase revenues, hire more staff and service bigger clients. Cultivating a steady stream of high-quality new business leads will help fuel your agency growth to achieve your expansion goals.
We spoke with a number of agency founders and managers to learn their tried and tested tips for growing their digital agencies and collated our favorite ones below:
- Leverage your most important asset - your people
- Provide prospective clients with pseudo-strategy sessions
- Rank for your target keywords in your city
- Start a podcast
- Turn your agency website into a lead generation machine
- Capture all positive feedback on public forums
- Use a lead magnet to capture leads
- Engage your local community and be the expert
- Build relationships with authority figures in your niche
- Offer active prospects a free audit
1. Leverage your most important asset - your people
Thought leadership. Its potentially the most overused phrase in marketing!
Now that we've all collectively eye-rolled, we need to talk about the power of thought leadership when coupled with a "non-exclusive distribution strategy".
In a B2B context, the agency's LinkedIn Company Page is generally the primary content distribution channel. But by considering each employee's LinkedIn profile as an additional distribution channel, an agency can rapidly increase its reach (organically and authentically) on LinkedIn in a non-exclusive way.
As an example let's say an agency posts an update on LinkedIn covering top tips for small businesses to utilize Local SEO with a link to a blog article on their website. That's all well and good but what if that agency also internally briefed all their employees on the Local SEO article and asked them what their recommendations and thoughts were on the topic. Then all the employees individually post on LinkedIn from their own profiles with their own insights and personal perspectives linking to the article on the agency website.
This approach is great because its mutually beneficial to both the agency and the employee. The agency leverages a non-exclusive distribution strategy across its own Company Page and all employees who post about it. This increases the aggregate reach of the content since its being published from multiple personal profiles. PLUS its great for the employees because it builds credibility among their peers and establishes/reinforces them as thought leaders in their industry. Its a win-win!
Anastasia Masters from G2 recommends doubling down on this strategy by helping your employees to build better personal brands on LinkedIn:
Consider hosting professional headshots for your company twice a year. Although this has a cost associated with it, your team is more likely to share content when they feel confident in their own profile. A professionally shot photo can help boost that confidence.
2. Provide prospective clients with pseudo-strategy sessions
Kyle Smendziuk, co-founder of Canadian digital agency WebMarketers, was interviewed on the Digital Agency Series podcast where he discussed his top tips for building new business leads. WebMarketers use the Embeddable Audit Tool on their website to capture leads. For responsive leads (who click or reply to emails), they follow up with what Kyle calls "pseudo-strategy sessions" which are Loom webcam-recorded sessions with someone from their team who analyze the prospective client's site and advise them on things they can improve and optimize.
These quick video sessions are easy to produce but super-impactful to prospective clients because they get a few minutes of a human analysis of their site and they get immediate value from the WebMarketers team.
3. Rank for your target keywords in your city
Most agencies service local clients in their city. Despite increasing examples of brands working with agencies across state, country or even continent borders, the majority of agency-client relationships are local. This means agencies need to think more like bricks 'n mortar marketers and leverage local SEO to rank high for their service terms together with location terms (city, state, province, etc).
This also means creating separate service pages for each city or region, claiming your Google My Business (GMB) profile and regularly posting local updates on your GMB profile.
For example, ranking for terms like the ones below are perfect if your agency offers these services on the US East Coast:
- digital marketing agency new york
- seo agency philadelphia
- web design baltimore
Max DesMarais, Marketing Strategist at digital marketing agency Vital Design says to achieve strong local search rankings agencies need to practice what they preach.
All too often, we see agencies that don’t have a content marketing strategy, aren’t targeting proper keywords, aren’t running digital ads, and aren’t practicing conversion rate optimization.
All these strategies not only yield strong results for Vital Design (over 1,000 organic leads per month) but also teach them valuable insights that further help optimize and refine client work. This is a great by-product of practicing what you preach as an agency!
Dan Rawley from Hive SEO Service maintains a separate content marketing channel for their agency on Medium for posting authoritative, expert content.
4. Start a podcast
Lee Wallis, Head of Digital Marketing at Australian digital agency Excite Media launched The Morning Kick, a business inspiration podcast in early 2020. Like most digital agencies, they've been chasing top-of-funnel metrics like impressions and reach but says in 2021 they're switching the focus away from these and instead focusing more on "time spent".
Lee poses the following question to agency owners: "consider what would be more valuable to you as an agency owner?":
- 100,000 people seeing your branded Facebook ad in their feed for a fleeting moment, or...
- 100 people who spend time listening to you deliver value to them every week via your podcast
He believes the answer is obvious and cites video hosting platform Wistia, as an example. They came to the same conclusion after they launched their original video series. They found that the "time spent" by their audience watching just 4 of their videos exceeded the time it would take to read the entirety of the 1,170 blog articles they published in the same year.
They concluded that a 30-minute interaction with 3,000 people did more for brand performance than a 3-second interaction with 43 million people. That's huge! So, why doesn't every digital marketing agency have a podcast already?
The truth is... it takes A LOT of work and commitment to run a podcast. There's also no easy way of directly attributing leads and sales back to your podcast. It takes some level of faith in the beginning while you build awareness and acquire listeners, which is a bitter pill for us marketers. We just want to measure how many sales we get from each episode we release. But it, unfortunately, doesn't work like that.
"I believe over the next couple of years, we'll shift from chasing eyes to chasing ears."
- Lee Wallis, Excite Media
Lee very generously shared their podcast metrics with us. As of November 2020, they've completed 61 episodes of the 15-20 minute show. They tend to average around 100-150 views on each episode while some are much higher. While that may seem like a low number when you compare to the traditional model of reaching high volumes of people with ads - podcast listeners are much more valuable. They're engaged, interested in learning, much more easily influenced and you build a trusting relationship with them much faster than any number of ad impressions can!
After the live show is recorded, they also chop the episode up into short 1-2 minute bitesize pieces of content, suited for social media content promotion. These small pieces of video content are a huge opportunity to build new audiences by sharing and promoting them on the top social media platforms. Excite Media have realized an increase in referral work via new alliances with guests. The generosity of offering time on the show is opening doors that may otherwise have never been opened. A tangible benefit was when they interviewed the coordinator of the Small Business Expo and were offered an exposition space for no charge. They can see that for an agency wanting to build a referral network the show is a valuable asset that can bring those people to you.
5. Turn your agency website into a lead generation machine
It all starts with your website. When prospective clients are searching for potential agencies or collating a shortlist, your agency's website is one of the first places they'll go. While there are plenty of great agency sites out there (we compiled a list of our favorites!) the majority of agency sites fail to drive prospects to action.
There's nothing more demoralizing than knowing potential clients visit your website, only to leave and never come back again. Our Embeddable Audit Tool is designed to capture lead details when prospective clients are active on your site.
It works by offering your website visitors a free website audit. The user enters their website and an email address. Within seconds, an audit report is generated for them and their details are captured as a lead for you to follow up with. The Embeddable Audit Tool has generated over 250,000 new business leads for our agency customers and continues to be the most effective, low-cost way for agencies to put their lead gen on autopilot.
6. Capture all positive feedback on public forums
Deepak Shukla, founder of SEO agency Pearl Lemon was interviewed on the Digital Agency Series podcast about agency growth and lead gen. Perhaps one of the most innovative tactics Deepak uses for building his agency's online reputation is to capture as much feedback on public forums as possible.
Importantly Deepak doesn't just ask a client for feedback at the end of the relationship but right up front after they've delivered their first tranche of work. Not only that, they even ask people to leave reviews about the sales process even if the prospective client doesn't end up working with the agency.
My sales guy generates more reviews than he does sales per week. For every 1 deal that he closes, he generates 4 reviews.
While collecting positive reviews aren't technically a lead gen activity, they help the lead gen process in a big way. People trust the opinion of their peers when making decisions so the more positive reviews and ratings your agency has the higher your perceived credibility.
7. Use a lead magnet to capture leads
In the B2B marketing world, a lead magnet is one of the most popular approaches for generating leads. The reason for this is that its so effective. The idea works by creating an enticing asset, it could be a guide, a whitepaper, a report - something of substance that people want to download and read. This asset behaves as the "magnet" and you place this asset on a separate landing page with an email gate which captures the lead information. By offering the "free download" in return for an email address / contact info, a value exchange has taken place and you now have a lead to follow up with.
Look no further than LinkedIn themselves who use many lead magnets which sit behind email gates such as their Employer Branding Strategies & Tips Guide:
Kyle Racki, founder of Proposify says digital agencies always recommend lead magnets for their clients but seldom think of using lead magnets themselves to create new agency leads.
For an agency business, a lead magnet should answer a question for your target customer in a way that naturally leads them to hiring your agency.
Another great example is from Intuitive Digital, a digital marketing agency in Portland. Intuitive's Digital Strategist, Max Allegro says the agency creates resources for small business owners and marketing managers to attract them as leads. Their Digital Marketing Checklist helps marketers find what they may be lacking, identify opportunities and poses thoughtful questions about how their digital marketing can be improved. The agency uses this checklist as the primary CTA on their blog posts and have focused additional content around supplemental topics to build the authority of the checklist.
8. Engage your local community and be the expert
Brogan Renshaw, SEO Director at Firewire Digital believes the best way to grow your digital agency is networking.
People trust faces, people trust others recommendations. Networking doesn't have to be big events with 100's of people, it can be one on one (especially during the pandemic!). Have a local business you admire, invite the owner for a coffee, hear their story.
Brogan reminds us, networking isn't about pitching. It's purely about building a connection that you run a digital agency. Putting a face to the name. Find their digital pain points and offer advice to solve it. You can become the go-to digital expert by building relationships over time with business owners in your local area. Expect this strategy to provide long-term value, instead of a short-term hit.
Networking can be hard, especially when you are behind a computer all day. To grow your agency, you MUST put yourself out into the community, connect with people, connect with business owners.
9. Build relationships with authority figures in your niche
Bryan Philips, Head of Marketing at digital agency In Motion Marketing, interviews forum moderators in niche industries. The thinking behind this, is forum moderators have access to lots of people interested in that niche. Interviewing them and inviting them to share the article afterwards enables Bryan to reach many people just by accessing one person.
Bryan likens this to what Blitzmetrics founder Dennis Yu calls inception. By simply putting yourself in the path of authority figures and influencers in your niche (interacting with them on social media, taking pictures with them at events, etc and sharing this with others) eventually, people begin to see you as a key player in the niche as well.
When others perceive that you are an authority, and a go-to resource in your niche, then lead generation comes easy and growth becomes inevitable.
10. Offer active prospects a free audit
Paul Bonea, founder of Bucharest-based agency Perfect Data recommends approaching active companies and offering a free audit of their marketing efforts. We couldn't agree more with this advice! Thousands of agencies use our white label SEO audit reports to do exactly this.
Paul says the key is to carefully analyze the target company's marketing efforts before reaching out. First, find 1-2 quick fixes and low hanging fruit, then promise the prospect to fix these if they agree to move forward as a paying client.
Some examples of low hanging fruit can include: setting up a basic retargeting tag and remarketing campaign for abandoned cart users, removing useless keywords from the prospect's PPC campaigns, or adding a few interesting ones they haven't thought about.
If your efforts bring in more revenue or cost savings, then chances are pretty good the client will continue working with you and even move up to a pricier tier of services.
Ready to grow your agency?
We hope you enjoyed these agency growth tips as much as we enjoyed learning from top agencies around the world about what works best for them. While this may seem overwhelming to implement all of these, we suggest focusing on one growth tactic at a time. This means you'll be able to devote the time and resources required to each one. As always, please let us know how you go if you implement any of these as we love to feature agency growth stories or case studies here on our blog or on our Digital Agency Series Podcast.
Click the below image to download our infographic on how to grow your digital agency.