How to Operate a Digital Agency

How to Operate a Digital Agency

Now that you’re finalizing what your agency is doing, selling people on the idea of what you can provide, and finally getting checks cut for you to do these things, you have to perform and actually give the results you’re promising.

What you’re actually going to be doing for your clients is less relevant than the results you’re promising them — keeping this in mind will be crucial to your success since you can always switch up your strategy and game-plan to provide the results.

Operating your digital agency will include things like strategizing marketing plans, executing on web development and advertising campaigns, and most importantly, understanding the needs of all types of businesses you’re working with.

Understand Your Client’s Business

Depending on what kind of client you have, you have to understand their business first and foremost. You’re not going to be required to take a whole medical exam if you’re working with a physical therapist, but you should know enough to be able to be qualified to work as a front desk operator at the office.

Researching the industry is crucial. If you’re going to be selling gym memberships through online advertising, you better know the standards that have been put into place throughout the years by other gym memberships services nearby. Doing some due diligence and learning how other businesses are doing this is a great idea and will give you an idea of how you can proceed.

You better know the services that are being offered through the gym. If there’s a yoga class every Saturday and Wednesday morning, you should know about that offer and know about the benefits of yoga. If you’re unaware of the benefits of yoga, you’ll have no idea how to market this nor who to market it to. If you’re unaware of when these classes are, you’ll have no chance of driving foot-traffic whatsoever.

You are, effectively, the business’s marketing director. They can’t afford someone in-house so you’re what they’ve decided is best for their budget and trust you to deliver on what you promised.

Know Their Audience

If you’re going to start generating business for other companies, you need to understand who they want to do business with.

Who is their ideal lead? If you’re working with a mortgage lender, their clients are real estate agents with homebuyers or the homebuyers themselves who want to find their home through the lender.

If you’re working with a local bar or pub, their ideal customer is someone who might want to come through for happy hour and dinner.

If your client is a carpet cleaning service, they’ll need homeowners who yearn for a clean house.

If your client is a political candidate, they’ll need a lot of difficult-to-quantify brand awareness and GOTV efforts — their audience is voters and there’s no way to guarantee votes.

Ultimately, the benefit of knowing the audience of the business you’re working with is more important than anything else the very business could even provide you with. Hopefully, they’ll have a clear and solid understanding of who their customers are — if they don’t, that just became your job.

Free work

Sometimes you’ll have to suck things up and do some free work when you’re very first starting out. I cap you at one free job during your startup. It’ll be very easy to get caught up in some people until they take advantage of you and before you know it, you’re spending enough time and energy that should be worth thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on these people for free.

The reason we even suggest doing one free job is that you can maximize the opportunity if you’re smart. Some of the free work Calaboration did when initially starting out were from some high-profile clients who were more than happy to refer us to their high-profile friends after they saw how well we did.

You will get no benefit out of making a personal blog for the college student who is trying to be the next online influencer — they have no connections nor an audience at all to even see your work. Anyone that is telling you to do work for free for them because of the exposure is out of touch with reality and should be avoided. Exposure does not pay bills and unless you have the same sized audience as Hollywood or The White House, your exposure is worthless.

Doing work for free can benefit you and harm you at the same time. As mentioned above, you leave yourself prone to being taken advantage of. Once you perform some free work and the consumer enjoys it, they may expect you to keep going without paying. Anyone with common decency wouldn’t do this, of course, but they’re out there.

Good connections will greatly appreciate your free efforts and do all they can to get you leads, show off your work, and talk you up to all their friends. If they’re not doing this, you failed at some point during the prospecting stage and did free work for someone who was undeserving of it.

It’s crucial that your free work is great and that you’re not skimping on your performance just because it’s pro bono. Ensure that you’re also invoicing the clients getting free work with the original cost. There is no reason they shouldn’t see on paper how their website costs $5,000 normally but they got an incredible deal — this will keep anyone from feeling you did them a favor and remind them that this is still a business transaction.

Track Work and Results

You want to ensure you’re tracking everything you’re doing and recording all the results you’re bringing in for free clients. This is so you can build a case study out of your work. You want to be able to show off this work and get as much exposure as you can for it — or else, it was all for nothing.

Building your case study will be fun and rewarding. This is when you show off every little thing you did for this client. Every lead that comes through the door, every page you built on their website, every photo you took as part of their media package — whatever it is they needed from you. You are explaining in detail how you came in and got these results so everyone reading knows what you and your agency are capable of.

Tracking results and quantifying everything in your business is a good idea whether this is a free or paid client. Case studies should be built for most of your clients so long as they agree to it and the work is exceptional enough to display.

Contracting

To truly capitalize on your business, you’ll have to spend more time making sales and building connections than doing the actual work required to keep your clients happy. The good news is that just about anyone can handle SEO and email marketing but only you can go out there and win clients with your broad knowledge and industry expertise.

Fortunately, since you’ve established a process and created productized versions of your services, it will be very easy to scale and take on new employees that can go through these motions. At the end of the day, things like web development and SEO can be done by most anyone. Your clients are paying a premium for your understanding of their business mixed with your expertise in the services you’re providing. Once you syndicate that out to your team who can handle the management, maintenance, and daily workloads, you are truly running a business that is sustainable, solvent, and scalable.

The challenges you’ll run into when deciding on who to hire will be to vet their skills and ability to communicate. Those that are experts at SEO might be terrible at answering your calls and emails — this is a red flag when deciding to bring them on the team. Similarly, those that interview well and are incredibly good at getting their point across might fool you into thinking they’re more skilled than they actually are — this is a great skill for a salesperson to have and good news for the person interviewing, but sometimes difficult for the person on the other end of the table to decipher. Self-awareness and the ability to pinpoint someone’s true value will come in handy in times like these.

Contracting work out at first is the wise thing to do. Once you grow you’ll be in a better position to hire anyone full or part-time. In fact, you may not even have the volume of clients to bring anyone on 1099 in the beginning and you may have to resort to using freelancing service providers so you can rid yourself of any messy tax issues. These services are great when it comes to smaller objectives like weekly blog posts, Facebook ad management, and even spinning up websites when you’re in a crunch.

The true value of your agency is not the commoditized services it provides, it’s the volume and prestige of clients you are able to sign.

To really scale and to enable you to spend your time running the business instead of working in the business you must outsource work and understand that others can do it better than you. Your job is to manage, run a company, and sell — do not get romantic over the idea of staying in the weeds of these accounts’ marketing tactics because it will only slow you down when the priority of really growing the company should be your main focus.

Execution

If you’re just starting out and want to make some quick cash before building out a team of outsourced developers, you’ll have to plan, strategize, and execute on your digital services yourself. This can mean anything from running Facebook ads for a local pub, building a website for your municipality’s town hall, or creating mailers for a real estate agent’s open house. These are some of the most common services with the highest demand that you should be selling as part of your digital agency.

Web Design

You are not selling websites. You are selling a marketing tool that lives and thrives on a domain in a server. No one will care that you created custom technology that makes your websites lightening fast with moving pieces and flashy banners. They certainly will not care what platform you use and only really want the final result which is a working website that has their contact information and operating hours on it.

Many times, you’ll find your clients don’t even know what they want on their website. They know they need a website and they know you could build it for them — that’s as far as they’ll go regarding the design and content of the website and the rest is up to you.

Thankfully, you know their business. You know that the perfect website for a healthcare representative will have a lead generating form, content regarding different plans they have, and contact information in case any visitors have questions before moving forward with their services.

Your agency is getting paid to fix a problem that the client does not even want to think about. It would be foolish for a high-performing real estate agent to learn how to build a website when they could have spent that same afternoon selling a home. Their time and money are much better spent outsourcing that facet of their business to you. Keep this in mind when you’re pitching your services because unlike large tech companies, most of your clients will never care about the technical achievements of the website.

The very first website you’ll have to build if you haven’t already is your agency’s site. This is where you can keep a blog, display previous work you’ve done, and generate leads for future projects. Here’s the entire checklist we use at Calaboration that highlights each step and tool to use for all of our websites (this assumes you have a server spun up and ready to be build on):

  • Install WordPress
  • Login using your credentials
  • Visit Themes and delete each one except whichever one is active
  • Visit Widgets and delete each one
  • Visit Pages and click "add new" just to get a feel for the program
  • Visit Posts. Posts and pages are very similar but pages are used to be static such as your contact page or about us page. Posts are dated and are fed into the blog portion of the site in reverse-chronological order.
  • Visit Admin > Settings > General and ensure your email is entered.
  • Visit Themes again and install a new one — we at Calaboration stick to Astra Themes and are very happy.
  • Visit Plugins and click "add new":
    • Astra Sites
    • SMTP by WP Forms
    • iThemes
    • Yoast
    • Elementor
  • Choose a site from Astra Starter Sites and any other necessary plugins will be automatically installed
  • Appearance > Customize will allow you to choose colors and determine branding for your site. Your fonts and logos should complement these well.
  • Visit a page and click Edit with Elementor to enter the page builder where you can easily drag and drop elements and build your site in a WYSIWYG environment.
  • Configure your emails settings using SMTP
  • Create contact forms
  • Generate a sitemap using Yoast
  • Share your site

We recommend using WordPress for your websites. Hosting providers are a dime a dozen; so do some searching and find one you’re happy with — these should literally cost you $50 per year to keep the site up and running. Keep in mind, you are likely charging your clients at least $99/mo to host their site. This is pure profit for your agency since the cost of hosting a site is extremely low and your personal maintenance is only a couple hours per year to ensure the site isn’t crashing down.

Calaboration currently has over 20 websites on our hosting packages. This means the business is making $4,000 per month on nearly completely passive income alone. Just like real estate, hosting and management fees are some of the best subscriptions going. They know the second they stop paying they lose their website — just like the second you stop paying your rent you lose your roof.

Between selling the website at a premium and charging for hosting, this can be an entire business on its own. A premium price for a website could be anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 and much higher. I’ve sold websites for as little as $1,000 when I was building Calaboration but very quickly realized what people were actually willing to pay. Thankfully, we have more skills that we can up and cross-sell to these prospects as well.

Digital Marketing

You are not selling digital marketing. You are selling brand awareness, lead generation, tickets to an event, or whatever the objective might be. Similarly to your website, no one will care what kind of Facebook and Google ads you’re running. They won’t have any desire to see the copy or creative content you decided to go with. They only want to see the results of your efforts that increase their bottom line.

Digital marketing is a very broad and difficult-to-define term since it’s more of a genre. Technically, managing someone’s blog could be considered digital marketing since SEO falls under that. I’ve never packaged SEO or web design in with digital marketing and it takes some educating of the client for them to realize what is what. By the end of the chapter, we go over the package and pricing plan Calaboration offers for reference.

If digital marketing could be anything from designing a website to strategizing a marketing campaign, for the purposes of this we’ll define digital marketing as running paid advertising.

Strategizing a Paid Traffic Campaign

Crafting ads, designing creative and compelling content, and targeting audiences that will click and buy from these advertisements are some of the most important facets to any business. This is in your hands when you pick up a new client and pleasing them with results and quality work should be a big priority in your agency.

Facebook advertising gives us a great template to work off of regarding the areas of focus for your marketing. It includes everything from the overall campaign down to the granular targeting.

  1. The campaign is the big picture. There can be one or hundreds of separate ads running under one campaign. You probably notice campaigns when you see a new wave of ads coming from a big company that all follow a similar theme.

    "Look at all these elderly couples enjoying our diner food — you can be one too!"

    This diner might have a dozen ads featuring a new couple in each one. This is different from their campaign last year that focused on high school sports teams celebrating victories at the diner. These are all campaigns that focus on the main idea and execute different types of storytelling.

  2. Many people argue targeting is the most difficult part of online advertising because it can most easily make or break your entire campaign. If you’re showing ads for running sneakers to people over 50, you might have a harder time converting sales than if you were targeting them to 20-year-olds.

    If your product or service is so specialized that you need to hit a specific demographic, it’s your job to determine who should be seeing these ads and where they are. It’s very easy to unwillingly show thousands of dollars worth of ads to people who have absolutely no business buying this or even looking at it.

    Conversely, if you’re running a billboard in Times Square, you don’t care about any type of targeting — your targeting is simply: anyone and everyone who is walking the streets who happen to look up. This is the opposite of targeting because they’re going for volume. Big brands want every person to see their logo and their latest endorsements because they are for everyone. Everyone might need sportswear, but not everyone needs specialized yoga equipment.

    Targeting should be very strategic as well. When marketing and building brand awareness for a public figure or politician, targeting will be extremely useful because you can modify the narrative based on who you’re talking to. If you have a Republican state senator running against an incumbent, it’s a great idea to find the Republicans and hit them with ads that outline their conservative beliefs. Further, it’s extremely useful to hit the Democrats with ads that outline how you’ve endorsed Democratic candidates in the past.

    Your product (the politician) isn’t changing, but the perception is radically different because separate demographics are viewing it around modified narratives — keep in mind, no one is lying, it’s literally just marketing.

    You’ll find many more opportunities to cleverly target your marketing strategies as you learn more about other businesses you’re working with and your own. Although people might say there are too many ads we’re hitting a breaking point, the proper targeting is the perfect combat to that.

  3. Creative content is whatever it is the user is looking at. This could be a post on social media, a video, a shirt on a specific sportsperson, or a billboard on the side of a building. Whatever you are creating for your ad, the visuals and feelings it exudes are what will drive conversions.

    Since there are so many types of content you can use in your marketing, you’ll have to research and determine what is best for your industry and what has proven to be most successful. Coming in with this mindset will likely help you since you’ll then have the understanding of what is normally done and then allowing you to put your agency’s twist on it so the campaign is successful.

    Real estate agents and politicians love mailers — if you’re working with someone running for office or someone with an open house coming up, it’d probably be a great idea to design some postcards to mail out. Physical designs like this are very costly because of shipping and could be a great way to bring in more revenue for the agency since all costs are going through your services.

    Video is extremely popular and works very well. Ads with video are going to get many more clicks and give off a more professional feel when users come across your brand. Video production is expensive and, if done wrong, could come out looking extremely amateurish. Taking video anywhere should be considered an investment where you put the time into editing and money into the equipment.

    Finally, we have the basic designs that we see on banners, sidebar ads, pre-roll ads, and everything else on the web. These could be photos or illustrated stories. Quality is always extremely noticeable so whatever is executed here must be done properly.

    Aside from actual creative is the copywriting content. Quality copywriting is one of the greatest skills on the planet and immensely out of the scope of this book. We do recommend everyone becoming somewhat skilled in copywriting and your ads will thank you. A solid headline could make many more people click your ads and read your website compared to things that are slapped together.

The list can go on a bit longer regarding what can be done inside a digital marketing campaign. We’ve done things that mix out-of-home (OOH) advertising and digital marketing so that we hit people on all levels. We’ve even targeted certain people with certain ads consistently through mailers and digital so we can seem like a larger operation than we were.

Gathering all the data and deciding in what order ads should go out and through which mediums is important during your planning phase. Once you decide where things are going to go and where they’re going, writing the content and creating the artwork is next. After that, you have a full marketing strategy ready to be executed.

Pricing & Packages

Deciding on pricing is always an exciting area of the business because this is where the revenue comes in. Depending on how large you are, how well connected you are, what bills need to be paid, and many more parameters, your pricing might start at something that you’re not happy with — this is fine.

Calaboration’s first pricing structure looked something like this:

Web design — $3,000 + $99/mo for hosting

Digital marketing — $950/mo

Social Media Management — $950/mo

SEO — $650/mo

Videography — $750+

These prices gave some people sticker shock and others thought it was too cheap they barely trusted the service. The problem with pricing is that it’s completely up to the buyer to decide how they feel about it. On top of that, it’s arbitrary enough that you can decide whatever you want to charge. These prices above have changed many times and have gotten much higher because the people we’re doing business with are expecting to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a website over only a few thousand.

This goes back to perceived value. The website we create for $3,000 is not much different than the one we created for $10,000 — the only difference was the industry in which these websites were used in and the clients’ ability and willingness to pay more money.

If you’re a single person who is trying to get money for next month’s rent, you may have to make some serious modifications to whatever pricing plan you hope to use. There is nothing wrong with selling a website for $1,000 to someone who is not willing to pay any more than that. That one deal will fund you the rest of the way until you make more impressive deals in the near future.

Only turn down work when it’s not worth your time and there’s no ROI. The only website Calaboration would build for $1,000 right now is if it’s a donation or helping a family member. It’s merely not worth our time to work on anything with that kind of budget.

The next thing to consider when building out your pricing plan is the clientele you’re expecting to attract with it. People who have smaller budgets are more difficult to work with — this has been proven time and time again and anyone you speak to who is working in the services industry will likely agree immediately.

Designers have this problem a lot because they are constantly micromanaged from their clients. It’s not worth your time to sit and be directed by the client unless they’re paying even more than if you just did the entire project by yourself. Those clients that are only spending a couple thousand dollars on your website will be the ones that are typically micromanaging and expect every single bang for their buck possible. The ones that are dropping tens of thousands expect your agency to do everything — this is the way it should be.

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