As we approach the end of another year, businesses are formulating their goals for the year to come, which may also mean a re-evaluation of the partners they’ve enlisted to reach those goals.
Likewise, agencies, freelancers and consultants are also looking to fill their rosters for the year ahead. As the search marketing industry has matured, competition has grown more intense, increasing the stakes of your marketing efforts.
To that end, numerous search practitioners have shared the strategies that have won them clients as well as the methods they don’t recommend for attracting new business.
Figure out your identity and lean in
As a marketer, you may already know how compelling a unique selling point can be. “It’s tempting to become all things to all people, but the right clients know what they want (or can be talked into it) and when you know who you are, that is a powerful sales trigger,” Kirk Williams, owner of ZATO Marketing, said. Leaning into his agency’s “identity” has been so successful for Williams that he’s actually been solicited by clients on his own sales calls. “That’s because we know exactly who we are and they recognized that and wanted it because it was clear to them who we are and how we could help them,” he said.
This advice is just as important for freelancers and consultants as it is for agencies. “People don’t buy code, content or strategies, they buy you first and foremost,” Myriam Jessier, digital marketing consultant at PRAGM, said, noting that she has been awarded contracts from clients after having off-topic conversations with them on Twitter.
Clearly defining what you are about (as an agency or a professional) enables you to be transparent about your limitations. This can also be a sales strength “because when you are able to be completely honest about what it is you do NOT do, then it (a) keeps expectations firmly where they should be from both parties and (b) attracts the clients looking for that,” Williams said, adding, “I recently had someone exclaim on a sales call, ‘It is so refreshing to hear someone just be honest with us! I’m so sick of being sold to!’”
Share your expertise
Demonstrating your knowledge by helping others can help establish you as a trusted source of knowledge, which can help promote your business. “We work to put out a helpful marketing blog post once a month and put together a weekly digital marketing news show/podcast,” said Greg Finn, partner at Cypress North and host of the Marketing O’Clock podcast, noting that he’s received new clients from both tactics.
“The posts and shows aren’t overly promotional, but at the end of the day when looking for an agency, most companies are looking for people that will be good stewards of their account and will truly care about it,” he said, adding that showing prospective clients what you can do without monetary compensation can act as a preview of what you’re able to do for paying clients.
In addition to sharing best practices, content can also be used to collaborate with others in your space, to the advantage of both parties. Garrett Sussman, demand generation manager at iPullRank, also hosts a podcast for his agency: “The podcast allows us to engage with tremendous thought-leaders that bring a range of unique perspectives to the table,” he said, “They help drive awareness of iPullRank, visitors to our website and potential clients along the way.” Clips from episodes can also be used for promotion across social media platforms as well, he added.
By no means are podcasts and blog posts the only way to get in front of prospective clients. “Become a trainer!” Jessier recommended, “I’ve learned that some people want to learn how to do things well enough to make sure they hire the right person for the job, not actually do the job themselves. I have generated a lot of leads without meaning to by simply taking the time to share what I learned in the field.”
Partner with non-search marketing agencies
Clients are often in need of marketing-adjacent services, which can be an opportunity for a referral. “We work with partners to sell other related services,” said digital marketing consultant Joe Youngblood, “For example, we might work with a design agency to sell website designs for a new, up and coming CMS. That design agency, in turn, promotes our SEO services,” he said, adding that, in some cases, a custom solution involving his services along with those of another, non-search marketing agency can be created for clients. “This leads to a percentage of the clients converting to long-term SEO clients,” he said.
Providing free work remains divisive
Giving potential clients a sample of your work can go a long way in proving its quality. However, this tactic is somewhat controversial due to the ethical implications of performing free work, and because there’s no guarantee that the initial investment on your end will yield returns.
Despite the potential downside, Youngblood offers a free SEO review for potential clients. “[It’s] sort of a quick spot check,” he said, noting that his free reviews seek to find at least one thing the requester can work on to improve their visibility. Highlighting an issue can present you with an opportunity to further solicit a potential client, since you’ll presumably know how to approach the issue.
“I learned that free workshops won’t usually get you the clients you think would appreciate you giving away your time to convince them they should work with you,” Jessier said of her own experiences, “Don’t be bitter about that, it’s a waste of time and emotions.”
Strategies to avoid
Answering a request for proposal (RFP) may seem like an easy way to get your services in front of a high-intent client, but the search marketers that spoke to Search Engine Land for this article do not advocate doing so. “Without the ability to have a full conversation, RFPs can really put a damper on fruitful conversations, especially when they are open to public bidding,” Finn said.
“When companies evaluate RFP responses, in my opinion, they many times have the wrong folks making the decision on vendors,” he added, “The ultimate decision often comes down to the lowest cost or someone with a flashy-looking pitch deck (but may not be the most capable).”
Cold calls are a longshot because the businesses you’re approaching are not expecting it (which means they may not even be aware of their need for search marketing services) or are not in a position to take on a partner agency or freelance search marketer. “This tactic is nascent but we’re about 350 calls in and it has been a dud so far,” Youngblood said of his foray into cold calls.
“When the pandemic hit, we looked for SMBs ranking low on major keywords in Google Maps and Google Search, then we called and asked if we could offer them any free SEO advice to ensure their business survives until the pandemic ends,” he said. “The calls themselves have been met warmly with most receptionists/owners/managers/marketing directors thanking us for calling and even being willing to talk to me or one of the team members, but most aren’t interested in SEO help even if it is free, which is probably why they rank so low in the first place.”
The two strategies mentioned above have one thing in common — they both limit your ability to screen potential clients. This means that, even if you sign the client, there might be incompatibilities that prevent you from doing your best work or make the client more trouble than they’re worth.
“All agencies have those moments when a prospective client comes along that isn’t the right fit, and you spend time and resources going after it anyway,” Finn said, noting that this may be because it’s a high-profile brand or because the client contact is someone you already know, among other reasons. “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole and knowing when to turn an opportunity down is just as important as knowing when to chase it,” he said, adding, “We created an opportunity scoring system this year to stop us from spending resources going after deals that don’t make sense.”
Signing a client is just the first step
Once the client is onboarded, the real work begins. The quality of your work can greatly influence client renewals as well as new client opportunities.
“One of our biggest sources of new business isn’t with an unknown contact, but is from people that switch jobs!” Finn said, adding, “When you do good work and find success for a client, that contact will want to bring you along on their next journey . . . Building these lasting relationships makes new business easy because they already know they can trust you and they understand your process. Our contacts often do a lot of the selling for us to their new organization.”
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