In 2017 my brother and his girlfriend were travelling and looking for ways to make money. I suggested he start a digital marketing agency. He launched the company around the website “Hotel Business Solutions.” It was a simple two-page website with a landing page, a rather crappy logo, and an email address.
Here it is. Or rather, this is what it looked like…
The landing page was the company calling card. To generate leads, I told him to come up with a shortlist of four and five-star hotels to target. He then sent out 50 emails a day using a simple email template.
Within three days of starting the outreach he had landed an interview with the manager of a rather nice four-star hotel in Ireland. Unfortunately, the sales didn’t go well.
He finished travelling, and fell back into his old profession. The project was put on hold.
Since suggesting this project I have worked in a senior position for two marketing agencies. The clients I’ve worked with have been a mixture of scale-ups and Fortune 500’s. This experience has given me remarkable insight into how marketing agencies operate, pitch their services, and land large clients.
Off the back of this, I started a side hustle selling SEO services and making money from affiliate marketing. I’m earning a good income through both revenue streams.
Safe to say, my experience working for an agency helped improve my pitch and has shortened the learning curve. In this guide, I’ll share a step-by-step strategy for growing a marketing agency from your bedroom. Let’s start at the very beginning.
Step 1: define your offer
There’s no point in me telling you what service to sell. If you’re looking to start an agency, you have a skill set that businesses hopefully find valuable.
It’s important that you’re clear how much value a company will get from that service. In business speak you call it the Return On Investment (ROI). The more difficult it is to justify your value, the harder it is to find and land clients.
Let me give you an example:
- CRO – I’ll improve the design of your site so you make more money
- Graphic Designer – I’ll make you attractive marketing graphics
If you had a limited marketing budget, who are you going to work with?
The clearer the case is for the ROI, the more people will be interested in your service. You need to nail this down.
The second thing you need to do is define who you are targeting.
As you can see from my failed 2017 project, I targeted hotels. This is because my wife runs a travel company. I had experience in the niche and felt like I could offer va
The reason it’s good to niche down is that you can appear to be an expert in the topic. Once you start landing clients it will also make you an expert in a topic.
This is handy for referrals, but also makes it easier for you to charge a premium for your expertise.
As part of this process you’ll probably end up doing some kind of customer persona and sales and marketing exercise. There are three stages to this process. You’ll need to:
- Research the kind of businesses you want to work with
- How much money are they making?
- How many employees do they have?
- What niche are they operating in?
- Define the pain points that your service will solve
- What are the biggest problems the business faces?
- What is your Unique Selling Point?
- Identify who in that company you should contact
- What is their job title?
- What are their marketing goals likely to be?
At the end of the customer persona exercise you should end up with something that loosely resembles this.
Having a clear idea of what service you will offer, and the types of businesses you will be targeting will get you off to a good start. So that’s the customer mapping complete. Onto the next stage.
Step 2: create your marketing material
At the beginning of this guide to launching a marketing agency, I shared a screenshot of the site my brother built. This was one of several pieces of marketing material that we used to pitch his services. I suggest you create some marketing material for your marketing agency as this is vital in the lead generation phase.
The two crucial things I believe every digital marketing agency needs to generate sales are a simple website and a branded email address. It’s not much. I’ll cover why you need this below.
Why every digital marketing agency needs a website
If you pitch a cold lead by phone or email, you can be guaranteed one of the first things that a person will do is Google your business. This is why your agency needs a website.
The website you create can be simple. A few core pages is normally enough. I recommend you create at least three pages. They are:
- The website homepage – essentially a sales page where you show off your services
- An about page – just a bit of information concerning the background of the company
- Case study page – an example of the value you can add a business
Of these three pages, only the website homepage is essential. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy to get results, as you can see from the example I gave at the beginning.
The other two pages, while valuable, aren’t essential. You can create this kind of website with a simple landing page builder.
Why you need a branded email address
The next thing you will need to launch your digital marketing agency is a branded email address. This will be something like firstname.lastname@example.org. The branded email address will make you look more professional when conducting outreach or corresponding with a lead or customer.
It’s a small investment. I do mine through a Gmail integration, which costs about $4 a month. You’ll find instructions on how to set up a branded email address with them here if you need it.
Step 3: grow your professional network
At this stage, we’ve covered how to determine what kind of clients to target, creating a customer persona, and preparing some basic marketing material for starting a digital agency. This is the easy stuff. Where it gets hard is turning that idea you have into a business that makes money.
To grow a business, you need to create a list of companies to target.
There are plenty of resources for creating these types of lists. Here are a couple of resources you could use depending on the size and type of company you want to target:
- Google My Business: good for coming up with lists of local businesses. For example, law firms, accountancy firms, etc. in your area
- Business Lists & Awards: for scale-ups and larger firms things like the Inc 5,000, local business roundups, and local business awards are useful
- Stock Markets: you’re unlikely to pitch huge companies straight away, but if you chose to do so then a stock market is an obvious place to look
I always list the prospects down on a Google Sheet. I then try and put a name to the relevant decision-makers at each company using LinkedIn.
First, search for the name of the company through the platform. Then, on the ‘people’ tab, enter the relevant job title. If you plan to work with large companies, connect with several decision makers in the firm.
Note the name of the people down on your Google Sheet. I usually follow this up with a connection request.
As you grow your professional network, you’ll want to do the usual social media stuff. Like people’s posts, leave comments, and the rest. This type of interaction will naturally lead to conversations with some people. This is your first touch-point.
Step 4: how to generate leads for your business
So now you have a list of leads to target. Your job is to turn some of those people on your list into clients. The most direct way to do this is to let them know you have a service to offer 😉
If you’re starting a digital marketing agency, I recommend you both pitch a paid service and offer your service for free to a few key customers. Let’s start by looking at the more controversial of these two strategies.
Why you should selectively offer your service pro bono
It can take a while to establish yourself in a niche. You need to get your name out there and make a reputation for yourself. This can take years to accomplish if you’re starting from the bottom.
You can generally establish yourself faster by networking and forming friendships with niche influencers and business leaders. Three advantages of working with niche influencers or business leaders are:
- Respected in their field – you can name drop when pitching clients/ some of their fame will rub off on you
- A source of leads and referrals – they have a large professional network you can tap into
- Platform for promotion – getting social shares, or a guest post on their site can help you establish your name
Of course, getting the attention of an industry leader is difficult.
This is where pro bono work can pay for itself.
You don’t need much of a strategy to pitch your work for free to someone. First, define who the market leaders are in your field that you want to connect. You probably already have a mental list in your head of the most influential people in your niche.
Once you’ve created this list, pitch your services for free. A simple email template similar to this would probably work fine.
My name’s [NAME]. I [SERVICE OFFERING]. I’d like to help you [WHATEVER YOU’LL DO] for free.
Typically, I charge [AMOUNT] to [SERVICE OFFERING], but I’d like to offer you my skills and problem-solving abilities for free. Would you be interested? Happy to jump on a Skype call to chat about this.
Here’s an example of an email I sent to Michelle Schroeder from Making Sense of Cents. She’s an influencer in the marketing niche who mentioned in her newsletter that she wanted to learn about SEO in 2020.
Nothing resulted from the offer, but that’s fine.
Pitching any service is just a numbers game. If you say you’ll work for a couple of people without charging them, someone will say yes. It’s just the way of things.
Offering your services for free is a long term strategy for growing the sales funnel of your digital marketing agency. However, you can’t pay your rent with promises of future payment. So let’s look at how to run a cold outreach strategy that will generate some leads.
How to pitch your services by email
Several great articles talk about how to run a cold outreach campaign. Most articles emphasize the same points:
- Keep your email pitch short and sweet
- Send a couple of emails in a series
- Offer some hook to get them on the call
- Have a short and sweet subject line
“I do a lot of outreach for my agency. I’ve found that a punchy subject line such as ‘A quick question…’ or ‘Just a minute…’ converts much higher than a lengthy, salesy one.” says Matt Diggity of Diggity Marketing.
Concerning the length of an email, I try to keep my email templates under three paragraphs. The email copy should be polite and professional. You can find tips on how to write a professional outreach email here.
You should send a series of emails as part of your outreach because not everyone will respond to the first message. This stat from an article on Mailshake shows you what I mean.
When sending a series of emails, each message must focus on a different touchpoint. You can’t just send the same email three or four times and expect to get a response.
When doing cold outreach, I make sure each email in the series has a different hook. For example, when pitching an SEO service, the emails might have the following focus:
- Send the lead to a Youtube video where you pitch the service
- Offer a free website audit to the recipient
- Send an email with a PDF with a case study attached
This might all seem a bit theoretical. Below is a good example from Daniel Di Piazza, who used a video link in a cold outreach pitch on Elance, as it was known then, for his web development business.laun
You can see how the call to action in this email is focused around getting the lead to watch a video. Video is effective because you can provide a lot of value in a short space of time. Additionally, 93% of the way we communicate is nonverbal. Through video, you can convey emotions through the tone of your voice and expressions. This helps generate trust.
Here’s an email template you might choose to use to pitch SEO services:
Subject Line: More leads?
I can see WEBSITE has done a great job with content marketing, but you’re just outside of the first page for a lot of valuable phrases. My team and I can help improve your rankings. I created a short two-minute video, with a couple of case studies, showing you how we’d get your site to the top of the first page. Here it is: youtube.com/yourvideo
Watch the video, then let me know if you’d be available for a business call on DAY. I’d love to walk you through what I do and how I can help you grow your business.
This could be the first email template for your outreach series. The follow-up templates would each have a different focus. By following the steps outlined in this guide to growing a digital agency, you will generate interest in your services.
Now comes the hard job, converting leads into clients.
Step 5: how to land your first client
Turning prospects into clients is hard. It’s easy to understand why.
I’ve yet to come across a strategy that is guaranteed to convert every lead into a client. However, there are things you can do to improve your chances of making a sale. I’ll run through three of my top sales tips below.
Get your leads to complete a questionnaire
Questionnaires are an excellent method for understanding intentions. I haven’t seen them used much as part of the sales process, but they should be.
I recommend you get every lead to complete a short questionnaire of between 10-15 questions before your sales call. In your survey, you should try and get answers to the following questions:
- What do they want to achieve from working with an agency?
- How do they define success/ what KPI do they use?
- Have they worked with an agency similar to yours?
- What is their marketing budget?
- What is the value of a lead to their business?
These are all the kinds of questions you want to get answers to in a sales meeting. If you have the answers to these questions before the meeting, you will be better prepared. Importantly, understanding what they are looking for and how they measure success enables you to pitch your service in a way that aligns with their business goals.
Research the person and the business
You might be aware of the quote, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” The saying applies to most things in life, including sales meetings.
Spend half an hour to an hour researching the company and the person you are meeting. A quick trawl of LinkedIn will usually give you insights on the professional history of the person you are meeting. Social media should provide you with insights into their past times.
The purpose of researching a person is to identify shared points of interest and an understanding of their work history. For example:
- Where have they worked, and how long have they been in their position?
- Do they publish content online for various publications?
- Did you go to the same University, or have friends who went to the same University?
- What hobbies do they have? Are you interested in the same things?
Background research about a person will help you come up with things to talk about. This is useful at the start of a meeting, and at the end, where you tend to chit chat. Meanwhile, knowing things about the company you are pitching shows you spent some time preparing for the meeting and leaves a good impression.
Prepare some sales props and talking points
If you watch Shark Tank, you’ll notice that the majority of people will use some prop during their presentation. They use props to help engage their audience and get their point across. Props are just as useful in a sales meeting.
I recommend you bring a prop along to your sales meeting. You don’t need to use it, but it’s good to have something to refer to if you want to move the sales meeting along.
One of the most common props a salesperson relies on is a Slideshare presentation. A Slideshare presentation will usually tell a story. The presentation will cover why you are the right person for the job, and reference case studies that show your expertise.
I prefer to use more interactive props. Before a meeting, I usually ask for access to Google Search Console. I can then review their search results directly. I like to use this approach as it engages the other person, and enables me to show my expertise.
How to scale your marketing agency
The strategies I shared in this article should provide you with a framework for growing a digital marketing agency. Many successful companies rely on this sales strategy for customer acquisition.
Of course, direct marketing should be just one of a mixture of channels that you utilize to grow your agency. Other effective channels you may choose to focus on include:
- Content marketing – blogging, podcasting, vlogging
- Offline events – hosting your own or being a speaker
- Referrals – customer referrals and agency referrals
Fundamentally though, the success of your agency should be underpinned by your ability to deliver results for your customers. This will ultimately keep you in business.
Wrapping things up
I spent a couple of years on the fence about offering digital marketing services. Despite having the experience and knowledge necessary to sell a service, I always focused on long term projects that took a lot of time to generate a decent income.
The truth is, selling digital marketing services is one of the fastest ways to start making money online. For SEO, one reasonable client will pay you $2k a month. A good client can make you $5k plus.
It will take you a lot of direct or affiliate sales to make that kind of cash.
With a clear strategy in place, one which can be just as simple as the one I shared, and a bit of determination, I pretty much guarantee you’ll land a client using this strategy within two months. That’s not a long time on the whole scale of things.
Once you have a client, you need to decide if servicing clients is just a means to achieving a different goal, or if you want to double down and grow a digital marketing agency. It’s over to you.