It’s the end of agencies as we know it.
Clients no longer see agencies as one-stop shops. According to pundits, the “Agency of Record” has died a slow and painful death.
The claim these days is that agency services are modular.
One agency to manage search, another for reputation management, another for PR. What’s worse, the barrier for entry is so low almost anyone can start their own agency. Is there a way to get your agency’s foot in the door, then expand the relationship and offer more services to clients?
Absolutely. Reputation management is the first step.
Why are digital agencies struggling
The agency landscape is a convoluted mess.
The upper and lower echelon of agency life forces firms to complete large amounts of spec work. Clients approach agencies with a laissez-faire attitude. Do free work for the chance to win… more paid work. Spec work has trickled down via design contests.
A cattle call that forces amateurs and professionals into the same muddy pen.
As an agency, you’re forced to deal with a variety of depressing and incredibly unfair expectations (e.g., SEO agencies that guarantee rankings or traffic). What’s worse, most agencies accept these disturbing changes. They do it because they won’t be able to keep the lights on if they don’t.
Clients can’t tell you and other agencies apart.
Which is precisely why most agencies are abused and mistreated by clients. There isn’t a clear set of metrics clients can use to evaluate agencies; this is especially true for specialists like SEOs, development houses, and paid advertising shops. So clients construct their own abusive set of rules to get the results they want from their agencies.
- SEO agencies are expected to provide spec work and compete in “design contests” (on the design/content marketing side) to win clients
- Clients profit from an agency-created brand, campaign or product indefinitely. Agencies get nothing
- Agencies are automatically expected to give away the intellectual property they create
- More and more clients demand to know agency costs and other proprietary data – without assurances of how that data will be used
- This creates an environment where agencies are treated and paid for like utilities
- Clients are unwilling to pay for value, demanding to pay a rate that’s just above cost
- Agencies and clients aren’t aligned. Clients want to minimize hourly billings; agencies want to maximize billings
- Modular services and hyperspecialization erode profit margins overall
- A hyper-competitive landscape and a lack of uniqueness mean ex-employees become agency competitors. This erodes profit margins further
- Agencies, as knowledge workers, are purchased via a list of specs and treated by clients like an assembly line product
The problems above, specifically hyperspecialization, mean clients are less interested in upsells, right?
Clients care about the same things they’ve always cared about.
Uniqueness and results.
Clients in general and decision-makers in particularly don’t care all that much about specialization. Most don’t care about modular services or any of the other problems I’ve just mentioned. Does that mean these problems don’t exist?
If you're managing an agency, you understand these problems
What exactly are you supposed to do?
It’s tough to get clients to go for the big project or national campaign. It’s not as easy to get a bigger piece of the pie anymore. These problems, specifically hyperspecialization, are getting worse.
There’s a growing shortage of knowledgeable experts.
See for yourself.
What we have here is a meta-problem.
Hyperspecialization is being touted as the wave of the future, but it’s creating an even bigger problem. There will soon be a shortage of knowledgeable experts. Your clients need an advisor with an A-to-Z understanding of their situation.
They need you.
This is the situation for many agencies. Agencies are much more capable than clients realize. Agency typecasting means clients are far less likely to get the outcomes they actually want. Instead of relying on a few agencies with deep knowledge and a broad range of expertise (such as yourself), clients are cobbling large groups of “specialists” together.
There are two common routes agencies can take.
- Industry specialization: Focusing on a specific niche (e.g., outdoor, financial or ecommerce review management) gives you a deep level of knowledge and expertise.
- Service specialization: Deep specialty in specific service areas (e.g., crisis management, review outreach) means you’re able to attract clients in need of a very specific skill set. This makes it easier to establish genuine uniqueness.
How reputation management gets your foot in the door
Specialize to get in, generalize to stay in.
What does this mean?
Specialize using a low risk, easy-to-understand, easy-to-assess service — like reputation management. Then, once your agency has it’s foot in the door, you generalize with core services like organic and paid search campaigns, creative and development services.
There are quite a few services you can use to get your agency’s foot in the door. But the focus here is “quick win.” If you want to attract your client’s attention and work your way into a generalist role, you’ll need to generate results quickly.
Clients are naturally skeptical.
Online reviews are clear. It’s easy for customers to make the mental connection. The more reviews they get, the more customers they receive. It’s simple and straightforward.
Here’s why I recommend reputation management.
- Reviews immediately boost your client’s conversion rates. Research shows 50 or more positive reviews translates to a 4.6 percent increase in conversion rates. Four or more negative reviews and your clients may lose as much as 70 percent of their potential customers.
- A no/low-quality review portfolio translates to significant drop in sales. 87 percent of customers won’t even consider a business with low ratings.
- It has mainstream appeal. Online reviews are ubiquitous. Most people understand the value of an online review. The easier it is to generate quality reviews, the quicker the win.
- No extra/hidden fees. Clients don’t have to increase their ad spend. They don’t have to pay your fees on top of that. It’s easy to understand, so it’s easier to sell.
Reputation management delivers quick wins.
It’s the fast track to client trust.
Attract more positive reviews and your client’s conversion rate shoots up. Bury your client’s negative reviews and their conversion rates go up. Promote positive reviews to your client’s customers via advertising/remarketing and their conversion rate goes up.
Get their existing customers to share their story and you have the potential to dramatically boost your client’s revenue. With the right approach, you can help clients 2x, 4x or even 10x their business.
No other marketing channel offers such a dramatic lift in such a short amount of time.
Here’s how you do it.
Step #1: Define your audience
Clients aren’t created equal.
You’ll need to identify the clients you’re looking for that will best serve your agency. You’ll need to define the criteria you’re looking for ahead of time, so you’re able to qualify or disqualify candidates who aren’t a good fit.
Here’s why this is crucial.
Some of your prospects won’t be a good fit for your agency. Many of these clients are dangerous because they’ll want to work with your agency anyway. If they’re not a fit, it’s a good idea to reject them. Any failure on your part invites negative reviews from this previously eager prospect.
“If they’re not a fit, it’s best to quit.”
Here’s a sample list of criteria you can use to identify the kinds of clients you’re looking for.
Revenue minimums (500K+)
Profit margins (high vs. low)
Industry or niche (retail, outdoor)
Business model (SaaS, ecommerce)
Company culture (flexible)
Values alignment (socially conscious)
Behavioral match (service focused)
Sentiment (nonexistent, negative, neutral)
See what I mean?
The criteria are examples. You’ll need to customize the list of criteria you feel is most important to your agency. Here’s the tricky part about your list of criteria – it’s iterative. For example, large companies like Accenture have revenue minimums of $2 billion or more. You can’t be their client if you make less. As your agency grows, your list will change.
Step #2: Create a list of prospects
Your list of criteria defines your prospect list. You’re looking for clients who fit most or all of the criteria you’ve laid out. It starts with a list of searches on mainstream or industry-specific platforms. You can use research tools like Owler, Manta, Angel.co, Mattermark or Crunchbase and review platforms themselves (e.g., Google Reviews, Yelp, Facebook recommendations, etc.) to research target companies.
It’s a good idea to target a specific industry first. This enables you to get acquainted with the desires, goals, fears and frustrations of the industry first, before you make your approach.
What about effort?
Effort is an important component of the prospect selection process. Let’s say you’re looking for hotel clients on TripAdvisor. You’re looking for small hotels with a neutral to negative review profile. During your search you come across two prospects, both with disproportionate amount of negative reviews.
The first hotel has promise. It’s a newly renovated hotel, in a prime location. Management cares about the business and the property, and it’s obvious that they’re trying to turn things around. You’re far more likely to make a difference with this client.
If you take this client on, they’ll reflect well on your agency.
And the other hotel?
At this point, the sentiment is poor. There are hygiene issues, crime issues, electrical issues, safety issues – it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to make a difference for this second hotel. If you choose to take them on, you’re far more likely to harm your agency.
This is what I mean by effort.
As an agency, you need to be very circumspect with the clients you take on. What specifically does that mean? Prospects must earn your attention. They’ll need to meet the predetermined criteria you’ve set and display the right amount of effort to receive your help.
Step #3: Create your account entry campaign
This is why I recommended that you focus on a specific industry to start. You are going to need to identify the desires, goals, fears, frustrations and problems of your target segment. If you focus your attention on a single industry to start, you’ll find you’re able to attract more clients and less time and with less effort.
Here’s what you need for your account entry campaign.
- A specific, local prospect. I’d recommend adding 5 to 10 prospects to your list at a time. You’ll want to collect data on their business, review portfolios, objections present in reviews and anything else that’s useful.
- An irresistible offer. This offer is designed to do one thing: earn trust. Your irresistible offer should provide or solve your prospects’ desires, goals, fears, frustrations and problems. Your offer should be transparent, low or no cost and focused on producing results quickly.
- A set of ads and emails. You’re going to need a variety of messages that communicate the value you can provide quickly and concisely. Each message should attract attention, stoked desire, and create action using a variety of psychological triggers.
- Disqualifiers to remove poor prospects. These disqualifiers could be as simple as asking prospects to spend a small amount of money (as a way to gauge interest). You could also ask for more information than typical or private information you can verify. Whatever your decision, you’ll need a way to disqualify prospects who aren’t a fit.
Here’s a concise example of what these steps could look like.
(a.) 15 to 30% increase in monthly orders, no charge. (b.) 3x your five star reviews in 45 days
Set of ads + emails:
(a.) Use this free checklist to 3x your orders in 43 days! (b.) [customer] said X about you.
e.g., Provide your name, email, duns number, direct number, EIN, a waiting list, or small fee
Here’s how you could use these negative reviews to pitch a client who’s willing to put in the effort.
See what I mean?
This is why I say it’s compelling for your agency to lead with reputation management and marketing services. It’s an excellent way for you to establish your agency as a trusted advisor, a strategy you can use to expand your role with each of your clients.
Reputation keeps your foot-in-the-door
Clients are hounded by pitchmen.
These are salespeople and marketing generalists who don’t know their client’s business. These pitchmen are focused on their quotas rather than the needs of their clients. Clients have a dirty word for these pitchmen.
Solicitors muddy the waters. They make it harder for you to get through to potential clients. They create fear, skepticism and distrust. How do you get an audience with potential clients?
Give them what they want.
Step #1: Connect your client’s online reviews to what they want.
- Create a list of their negative reviews, along with a list of customers who are willing to update or modify their review.
- Survey a statistically significant sample of your client’s customers. Use tools like Qualaroo and Dialpad Meetings to conduct semi-automated phone interviews. UserTesting.com or CrazyEgg to survey potential ecommerce clients.
Step #2: Give clients an irresistible offer that’s risk-free.
- Create a free tool that provides data on your client’s online reviews. Outperform existing tools by creating a tool that’s (a.) more in-depth (b.) better designed (c.) offers more data or (d.) creates more drama.
- Offer helpful online review lead magnets in the form of checklists, worksheets and guides. Minimize the workload. Make your lead magnets practical and useful.
- Create a custom reviewer profile, a helpful (quiz, tool, guide) that shows your clients which customers are most likely to write a negative review and which customers are willing to write a positive review.
- Create an Online Review Profit Calculator. A free resource that shows clients how to calculate the potential lift to their conversion rate. It can be focused on every 10, 50 or 200 reviews.
- Create an invite only or VIP offer. Make your client offer exclusive to those who opt-in to receive your incentives.
- Share a competitor performance survey outlining how client’s competitors feel about their review portfolio, customer response rates and more.
Step #3: Use the topic, online reviews, to build a relationship. Then ask for the sale.
- Use education to attract clients. Educate customers with 10x content and you’ll build a relationship. Maintain that relationship with more educational content and you’ll build a database.
- Convert clients with information. Create an FAQ to answer logistical questions and objections. Create bullet points, guarantees, bonuses, urgency factors and risk reversals.
- Create an irresistible offer. Use your upfront research and your findings to create an offer prospective clients can’t refuse (i.e., online review guarantee: 30 percent lift or we pay you X).
- Use your pricing strategy as a tool to reel clients in. Use our pricing guide to identify your pricing model, the price range your clients can support, and how clients will pay. Pricing models that work best with reputation management include — fixed rate, retainer, project based, value based, and package deals.
- If clients request a proposal or quote, require that they agree on a specific time to go over your proposal, quote, or offer together. This can be an in-person or Zoom meeting, or as simple as a phone call. If prospects refuse to schedule a time to discuss your proposal, they’re not serious about working with you.
Step #4: Use problems to create upsell opportunities. Use solutions to widen the gap.
- Identify hidden or ignored problems. Continue to find the hidden problems clients are ignoring, avoiding or denying. A common client problem would be generating leads; your clients may struggle to generate leads for themselves. This is an obvious problem they’re aware of. However, a hidden problem could be that they’re spending 2 to 3x more than their competitors for lower quality leads.
- Offer clients a solution to new problems. Present clients with a solution to their problems, make it easy to accept your help and desirable to do so. An easy way to upsell clients is offering pay-per-lead services generating high quality leads at a lower cost-per-lead than they’re used to paying. Clients pay a pre-determined amount for each lead you deliver. The leads should properly defined ahead of time. Clients pre-pay for a set number of leads.
- Present the problem to clients before your introductory offer is complete. Present clear next steps clients can take to accept your offer. You’ve already gotten your foot in the door with reputation management. If you’ve done a great job, your clients should have the trust needed to take another risk with you.
Getting your foot in the door is simple if you know what you’re doing.
Your agency can be a specialist and generalist all at once
Hyperspecialization isn’t the end of agencies as we know it.
It’s simply changing.
Clients aren’t fixated on specialization. Their focus isn’t set exclusively on modular services. They’re focused on the same things they’ve always focused on.
Specialize to get your foot in the door. You can specialize by industry, product or service. Use industry specialization to become the niche expert in your space. Use online review management and marketing to deliver huge wins for your clients. Generalize, once you’ve achieved the results your clients want. Agencies are no longer seen by clients as one-stop shops. According to pundits, the “Agency of Record” has died a slow and painful death.
You can be the exception to the rule. Specialize, then generalize and you’ll find the end is just a new beginning.