She's been brought in to speak at conferences, seminars, on panels and on podcasts hosted by AT&T, KellyOCG, United Benefit Advisors, and more. Fast Company has interviewed her, as have others.
She has helped major brands use social media to revolutionize both their sales teams and their recruiting efforts, knows exactly what's happening when the reach or engagement on your posts suddenly declines, and spends a lot of time studying the complex ecosystem of the social media sphere and how it influences a buyer's decisions.
She's also just super nice, and a joy to speak with.
But she also will be the first to tell you she doesn't always feel like an expert.
When I confessed the levels of anxiety I feel over running these interviews (to say nothing of the anxiety I feel approaching highly accomplished strangers to ask for the gift of their time) she was absolutely sympathetic and supportive.
She knows what it feels like, and she knows sharing her experiences can encourage others who feel the same. She can even pinpoint, roughly, how much those feelings can cost us in an objective dollars-and-cents sense.
This is the interview to catch if you're struggling to price your services correctly, if you're struggling to find an effective sales strategy, and if you still have a small voice in the back of your head asking, "Who the Hell wants to listen to anything I have to say?"
On her biggest successes and challenges
Carmen: So, what do you feel your biggest success has been to date?
Ashley: Great question. Last year, I made more in the month of January than I had made in the previous entire year of my business. I would say I'm on pace to grow my business even more this year. So January 2018 I made more in that month then I made in the entire year of 2017.
Ashley: I'd say that's my biggest accomplishment financially. But there's so much you learn when you're working for yourself, and I feel that learning curve has been another big success.
Carmen: Now, you've said in other interviews figuring out your pricing model was single biggest challenge. How did you initially price your services, vs. how you do it now?
Ashley: I used to charge hourly, and now I don't. Now I charge either project-based or value-based. A lot of my service offerings and my client base changed from 2016 and '17 to 2019. I used to work with entrepreneurs and small businesses and charged hourly. Now I work with large enterprises and charge project-based or value based.
And typically, the engagements used to be a couple of months. Now my contracts are around 10-12 months long.
On evaluating projects and opportunities
Carmen: How do you assess the value of the project or what you're bringing to the table before you know what it's brought in? Or are you just asking for a percentage?
Ashley: A huge part of it is how big my learning curve is going to be. If it's within an industry I know really well, there's less of a learning curve.
However, if I'm being asked to apply my solutions to an industry that I don't know very well there's a learning curve. I pride myself on being able to learn an industry in-depth very quickly, if I don't already know it. So, there will be some sort of extra fee, or I'll bake that in if I don't know the business very well.
Other than that I bring 9 years of experience in social media and content marketing to my solutions and service offerings. I also bring an extensive network for being as young as I am. I factor that in as well.
On self-education and industry research
Carmen: What's your method for learning these industries so quickly?
Ashley: I mine a crap ton of content. I live and breathe content every day. And when I say content I really mean I'm mining social media conversations.
I use software or marketing tools, or Boolean search methodologies to understand what the slang and jargon is in the industry, and who's doing what, so I'm entrenched in the Internet in order to learn the industry.
Not only that but I can easily use LinkedIn to find the top influencers in any industry pretty quickly. I zero in on the conversations they're having on social media.
On the challenges of growing her agency
Carmen: Aside from pricing, what was the hardest part of getting Untap Social off the ground?
Ashley: Not underselling myself and my services.
It does go back to pricing!
One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome is when you struggle with self-esteem, it's hard to ask a client for $15,000. It's easy to undersell yourself. So having confidence continues to be a struggle and the biggest hurdle I've had to overcome in the last few years.
And that is, as you know Carmen, directly tied to how you price your services. I would say confidence and self-esteem have always been a struggle.
Carmen: How did you overcome that?
Ashley: I got a few big wins early on that gave me the confidence I needed to realize that I can play in this league. My clientele are senior partners, VPs, and Executives who rely on me to position them appropriately in front of their core audiences. From their positive feedback, I eventually began to trust that I had expertise worth paying for.
Like I said, I got a few big wins in that particular industry with a couple of larger clients that made me feel like I was on to something in terms of what I was bringing to the table.
But I also read a lot of self-help books. And I try to take away something from each experience that I have.
So, you learn how to fail quickly and you learn how to kind of sit in your own humility. I would also say listening to podcasts and trying to read one book a month. I'm always taking away something that can contribute to me building my confidence as a business owner.
On anxiety, self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and knowing your worth as a business owner
Carmen: Now you've also helped companies hook up with major influencers in your industries, as you mentioned. Does make you anxious to reach out to these big names, or is it a little easier since it's on behalf of your clients rather than on behalf of yourself?
Ashley: That's a great question. I think it's easier for me to reach out and not be so fearful when I'm doing it on behalf of my client. I think it would be harder if I was doing it on behalf of myself.
In high school, I had to work really hard for the success I wanted. When my friends were skating through AP English courses, I had to stay up late to work harder for grades that would get me into a liberal arts college. When my teammates had natural athlete DNA, I went to off-season basketball camp and played AAU to earn a spot on the varsity basketball squad my sophomore year in high school.
But I've always been a little bit ballsy in that way. I had to work for what I wanted, and I wasn't afraid to. I saw the opportunity beyond the hurdles.
Sometimes it only requires 15 seconds of courage to make a decision that can change the course of your life (thanks Instagram quote). The rest falls into place. I've made some big asks and have left it all on the table. The majority of them have been successful, which helps me exercise that confidence muscle.
Carmen: What advice would you give to other founders or consultants who are also struggling with low self-esteem or imposter syndrome?
Ashley: I would say don't attach a number, like a dollar, to your self worth. I don't believe in, "You're only as good as your last deal." I don't believe in that. I think not believing in that helps folks who are trying to overcome imposter syndrome.
I also believe there has to be an equal exchange of value. When you're delivering a contract or setting up an engagement, especially of a higher caliber. I think it's important as a founder to understand all of what you bring to the table and do your research in figuring out what your competitors are pricing, just to get a better sense of what you can ask for. And then double your prices.
Like I said, I think this contributed to me expanding my business financially like I did. My husband has a background in financial operations. He used to make me play this game with myself when sending out proposals.
He'd say, "If you haven't heard 'no,' then you're underselling yourself." Then you're not charging enough. I still play that game.
He still thinks I don't get, "No" often enough.
I think that's a good game founders can play with themselves to understand if you get a couple of big wins you can let that fuel your confidence to go after some bigger accounts and bigger companies.
But I still struggle with imposter syndrome. I'd be hard-pressed to find someone, especially a female founder, who didn't struggle with that.
I would say it's still very top-of-mind for me. Sometimes you do have to fake it until you make it, until you believe in yourself. And how you communicate with yourself is a huge factor in being able to ask for more money.
Carmen: So once you took your husband's advice, and you started doubling or even tripling these prices, and hearing no, was there a period when you started struggling for new business? How did you get through that?
Ashley: Well, in the beginning, when I started doubling my prices, I still wasn't getting any "nos!" I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, have I been working for free this whole time?"
Which is hard to hear! If you don't charge enough, people associate a cheap price with a cheap product. That was advice I got from my husband that really stuck with me. So, in the beginning I still wasn't getting any "nos." That made me look long and hard about, "Okay. I clearly have a solution. I clearly have expertise the market needs."
Which means, I am of value.
And if I am of value, then my time is valuable. And that means that I'm going to easily be stretched too thin unless I figure out a structure where I'm getting, "Nos."
Yes, there was a time where I was hearing, "No," and that can be a struggle for a lot of folks, especially being a business owner.
"Where's this money going to come from if I'm not bringing business in by charging too high a price?"
There's always going to be people who will pay that amount. There's always going to people that will pay.
It requires kind of looking at that threshold. You just have to go out and find those people who actually will pay and have the budgets for it. They will be there. Typically those are the folks who will actually get it.
They know your worth. And they're willing to pay for the equal exchange of value.
Most of the time, the folks who are willing to pay the higher price, when that happens, Carmen, I'm the one that's delivering the solution. I can be as equally invested in this client partnership as they're invested in me.
Learning that really flipped the switch on how I looked at pricing out my services.
95% of my business is generated from referrals. So, typically, it's folks that have budgets and they're referring me to other folks who also have budgets.
On creating and executing a viable sales strategy
Carmen: On your LinkedIn profile, you have this quote I thought was very interesting.
It says: "Your job in sales isn't to ask me what's keeping me up at night. It's to tell me what should be."
So, can you tell me a little bit more about that approach, and how you translated that approach into a viable sales strategy? What does that look like?
I love that quote. I found it on Twitter. It was a CFO who said it.
Believe it or not, even though my background is in marketing, I am a sales trainer and a sales coach. I help sales organizations get more meetings with prospects faster with the help of content marketing, and social selling best practices.
So I play very much in the sales space in training sales teams.
When I read that quote, and when other people read that quote, it's a different way to look at business development processes. Most of the sales reps I know, their approach is to go into a prospect meeting and try to weed out and understand their prospects and their challenges.
What's keeping them up at night? What are the hurdles? What are the challenges?
So that a sales rep can help understand where they fit into providing the solution. I like this quote, because it takes the approach from a sales perspective one-to-three steps further.
It's one of the core criteria, one of the founding pillars, to social selling techniques.
How can a sales rep leverage industry insights to go into a prospect meeting and say, "This is what you need to be worried about. This is what you need to have an opinion on."
Your business can be far more successful if you understand what's happening in the industry.
For a sales rep to position themselves as an industry thought leader makes all the difference in that prospect's willingness to partner with them.
That's the approach I take. Instead of asking a prospect, "What's your biggest challenge," I'm able to come in and say, "This is what your peers are saying. This is what your competitors are doing to solve this issue."
And I'm coming at it with industry insights to say, "This is what should be keeping you up at night." And it's only proven to be successful.
Carmen: I could see how it would. Instead of going in almost as a supplicant trying to convince them, you're going in as an expert and you're teaching them. And then letting them decide what they're going to do about it. And because you're the teacher, who are they going to reach for?
Ashley: Yeah! Right, because we know from social selling best practices, just like you said, Carmen, 90% of B2B decision-makers do not answer a cold call. Instead, they're going online to find their research when looking at vendors or potential professional services partners.
A sales rep's first impression is digital. If a sales rep can come from a place of education, and inform that prospect on how to make the best buying decision for them and for their organization, then the sales rep is a partner and an educator, not a sales rep.
When you come from a place of, "Look, I'm trying to help you grow your business," the sales rep can build that trust with a prospect a whole lot faster.
I'm a huge proponent of that. Of not selling at all. Not being salesy at all, but leveraging industry insights to solve problems.
On working with brands on social media, what and where to post, and brand authenticity
Carmen: Love it! So, what are some of the biggest content and social media mistakes you see brands and also other consultants leading brands to make when they're trying to talk to their customers?
Ashley: With smaller businesses and freelancers, the biggest mistake I see is they try to be on all social media platforms. They spread themselves way too thin. They're just slapping stuff up there to see what sticks. Whether they have an editorial calendar in place or not.
I always say go where your people are. Go where your audience is. If you do some research and find out your audience is on LinkedIn, don't spin your wheels on Twitter.
So, while each social media platform is similar, it's not the same. The format of the content you're posting is not the same and your audiences are not the same. It behooves anyone, whether personal or professional, to really research where their audience hangs out before they establish a presence on any social platform.
On the sales side, I see a lot of sales organizations and people in business development roles leveraging infographics, webinars, and ebooks that are too salesy, too focused on the brand, and are not enough about educating the customer.
There's a really fine line.
I don't care if I've got a really visually appealing infographic that catches my eye. If I start to read it as a potential customer and it's too brand-heavy, touting brand solutions instead of helping me solve a problem in my business, I'm going to scrap it real quick.
So a lot of brands invest thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars into content marketing strategies that are still too salesy. That's the biggest thing I see, and a huge missed opportunity.
Carmen: Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, what do you say to people who just have no idea what to say on social media? Or who might believe they don't have anything worthwhile to say?
How do you counsel them?
Ashley: Marie Forleo is a social influencer who has tackled this question time and time again. And I'm relying on her for this answer.
I don't care who you are. You have something to say on social media.
While hopefully it's more than what you had for breakfast in the morning, or your favorite paleo recipe, I don't care who you are, you bring something to the table. The best advice I have for anyone looking to either start a presence on a social channel or improve their presence on a social channel is to post what you talk about on a daily basis.
The more authentic you can be, the more you can exercise humility and vulnerability, the more you will reach your audience.
The best posts I've seen, across the board, whether it's a speaker, an author, a VP of HR, whoever it is, the best posts that garner the most reach and engagement, are the ones that start with "I," and that tell a story. And that are vulnerable.
A lot of people think it's better to post industry articles or even educational pieces. In fact, even on LinkedIn, for the most part, the more personal you can be and the more you can open up the better your posts will actually perform.
On handling public recognition as part of growing your career (in the of how women internalize gendered advertising messages)
Carmen: So here you are. You've mentioned you still have some of these self-worth issues. You're working with some major clients. And you're starting to get lots more recognition. How are you coping with that besides the books and the podcasts? Emotionally, how do you deal with that on a daily basis?
Ashley: It's tough, Carmen. It's really, really tough. I'd be surprised if you didn't get the same response from other folks, especially women, who are renowned speakers and business owners. It's hard. And it's even harder for someone like me who owns a business but is a major introvert!
I still really struggle with it. I journal a lot. I'm continuing to try to attract and have very intimate conversations with folks in a similar boat as me who own businesses. Similar in size, or mentors who maybe have businesses slightly larger than mine.
I lean on them as much as I can. I lean on a local group called The Boston Business Women, which I think is, oh my gosh, thousands of members, that we rely on each other to not be jealous or compete with each other but really lift each other up. That's been incredibly helpful. There's a ton of female founders that have businesses and solutions that have allowed me to be a spiritual entrepreneur, that have really helped with my emotional well-being.
While I don't do this nearly enough I do try to meditate and exercise self-care when I remember. I find that helps. But really relying on a community of women in particular that are not afraid to share they're struggling with this too has been very therapeutic.
Carmen: Your answer leads right into my last question. You conducted a 3-year study on how women internalize advertising messages.
Have you observed other internalized messages as you've worked with these women, and as you've networked with other professional women, especially other marketers, who are letting these messages impact the work they do or how they approach their companies?
Ashley: I think it boils down to this raw, negative thought pattern that I guess women in particular really struggle with. It's something I really struggle with.
Wherever it came from, this pattern of self-doubt and negative thinking that just goes on and on and on in our brains! For me it never shuts off. I've only become aware of it more recently. I do believe that women of all walks of life struggle with this. I think yoga and meditation can certainly be an answer to that.
Just being aware of the thoughts going on in your brain and knowing you can live outside of them.
They don't have to ruin your day!
It's been my saving grace in a lot of ways. I still really struggle with it. I haven't overcome it, but I'm really more aware of the negative thought patterns that really dampen my day.
Carmen: And yet here you are, you're out there, being vulnerable, and you're obviously generating a big response. It's amazing what you've accomplished.
Ashley: Thank you!