7 Steps to Transforming Into an Inbound Agency

Patrick Shea
Patrick Shea


inbounddogYou can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

But you can teach a good, old-school agency how to adapt to changes in the marketplace, and transform themselves into a sleek, high-performance inbound marketing machine. We know. We’ve seen it done time and again.

And, luckily for you, we asked a half dozen of the top execs at some of these game-changing agencies to tell us how they did it. They answered -- honestly, enthusiastically, and informatively. Here’s their advice for anyone looking to transform their agency from old-school, to inbound.

How Real Agency Execs Transformed Into Inbound Agencies (And How You Can Do It, Too)

Step 1: “Commit. Make a very tangible, meaningful commitment to inbound marketing.”

- Greg Linnemanstons, President, Weidert Group

This is the first step toward your transition, and its importance must not be understated. But it also must not be misconstrued. Inbound marketing is not something you tack on to your traditional marketing offerings; it’s an all-in commitment to a different way of approaching your business, and how you execute for both your clients and your own agency. (Inbound agencies must be their own best case study -- but more on this in a later step.)

When Linnemanstons arrived at Weidert Group in 2000, it was a 20-year-old agency doing the same old things in the same old ways as every other agency in town. “Our lack of specialized positioning was killing us,” Linnemanstons said. "We neglected to follow the same advice we gave our clients: Understand what your unique promise is, and then be laser-focused on communicating that message effectively. I think the most difficult challenge we faced was realizing we were operating as a commodity service provider with no market positioning to get us out of it.”

So Weidert committed to change the way they sold their services, and was determined to take a more inbound approach to it, instead. He applied the inbound thought process to the questions he asked clients. One of the questions he started to ask that you might find helpful is "Are you getting all the new business that you want?" That led Weidert to a conversation that uncovered a client’s goals, what they have or don’t have in place to accomplish those goals, the challenges they’re facing, and what their timeline is.

The company still offers traditional marketing services at its 10-person shop, everything from wrapping a car in collateral to creating a brochure. That is to say, you don't have to abandon more traditional advertising and marketing service offerings to be an inbound agency. But by adopting inbound marketing at the core of every client they approach, you no longer have to compete for business in a limited marketing.   “The whole world is our pie,” Linnemanstons says; he now competes for business far outside of Appleton, WI and its surrounding towns.

“Commit,” explains Linnemanstons. “Embrace the approach wholeheartedly. That’s very different than adding some inbound marketing services to your offerings.”

Step 2: “Get good at creating great content. If you’re not good at creating great content, hire an agency to do it. Then, get good at promoting content.”

- Aaron Aders, Co-founder and Market Research Director, Digital Relevance

An 85-person agency, Digital Relevance (formerly Slingshot SEO) was named the fastest growing private company in central Indiana by the Indianapolis Business Journal in 2012. Why? A nearly 3,600 percent growth rate over the past three years, much of which hinges on their commitment to content.

If you're staying up to date on SEO, you know that the Caffeine, Panda, and Penguin updates radically altered how Google’s algorithms determine search results. “SEO has undergone a steady revolution since the 90s,” Aders explains. “We realized we couldn’t create relevant brands for our clients without expanding our definition of SEO to include strategic content creation and distribution through blogging, social media, email, and media relations. Inbound marketing is the new SEO.” Today, the company has a marketing team of eight dedicated to promoting the agency, and its in-house social media team has grown to 30 staffers ready to blog, tweet, post, and otherwise create content for Digital Relevance and its customers.

It's important to reiterate that if content creation -- or a certain type of content creation, like video content, for instance -- isn't your area of expertise, it doesn't mean you can't play in the inbound marketing ballgame. Get really good at outsourcing content creation, for yourself and for your clients. If you need some help transforming yourself into a content creation machine, check out this free ebook -- it'll tell you how we at HubSpot approach our own content creation strategy.

Step 3: “Start learning about inbound marketing now.”

- Bob Ruffalo, CEO and Founder, IMPACT Branding and Design

IMPACT Branding and Design began as a company that only designed websites for its clients. But after the work was done, clients soon came back to Ruffalo complaining that their websites were “broken,” which is to say they weren’t generating the amount of traffic they expected. Ruffalo realized that if you don’t offer marketing services along with website development, you and your clients were missing out on the real value inbound marketing generates.

Within seven months of adopting inbound marketing methodologies and technology, IMPACT’s revenue’s doubled, and went from 1,500 monthly site visits to 27,000 a year and a half later -- of which 600 turn into leads, and 50-100 become qualified leads to convert into customers.

But what's even more important is that now that IMPACT experienced how inbound marketing could work for themselves, they could now provide these types of service to their clients. That's why it's so critical agencies learn about inbound marketing -- and implement it in their own agencies -- as soon as possible. It allows them to then be able to provide these services to their clients, answering the demand for measurable marketing results that keep clients sticking around.

Step 4: "The first think agencies need to think about is how to position themselves. If tomorrow you want to be an inbound marketing agency, you have to market differently, sell differently, and execute differently. A mandatory step in the process is doing inbound marketing for your own agency."

- Mike Lieberman, Co-founder and President, Square 2 Marketing

Once you've immersed yourself in the inbound marketing methodology, it's crucial to not only implement it for your own business, but to demonstrate how inbound has impacted your business. In other words, be your own best case study. It's not enough to show how you've helped other clients with your services -- it's incumbent on inbound agencies to practice what they preach, and communicate those results to potential clients.

Acting as your own best case study will make the impact you're promising seem attainable, and grounded in reality. Heck, you believe in it so much you rely on it for your own business growth -- that's a pretty serious testimonial. So put some numbers behind your own agency growth due to inbound marketing, and share those numbers and stories with your clients -- current and potential. Square 2 Marketing, for example, is able to point to some serious traffic growth from inbound; it's increased 359% through exclusively non-paid, web-based inbound tactics. This has also resulted in a 10X increase of inbound leads delivered to their agency. Being able to point to the lessons you've learned, the success you've had, and even the help you wish you had, will move the business growth conversation from the clouds to the ground.

Step 5: "Create a pricing and service package model that allows you to provide retainer-based services."

- Paul Roetzer, CEO and Founder, PR 20/20

Roetzer could see that transparency and trust are key to relationship-building in a world where customers own the relationship with their brands, and social media can set things on fire in an instant. With that transparency in mind, he started PR 20/20 with 105 fixed-price, a la carte services. Eventually, he began to bundle those services. That enabled him to build the business based on monthly retainers.

“You could just bundle what you’re selling now, but chances are that won’t work,” Roetzer says. “Start small. Start with one proposal or one client who’s willing to experiment.”

Roetzer tests every new service they intend to offer internally for months before offering it to clients. That enables them to their determine costs so can they properly price when the service is ready to be launched.

If you're looking to transform into an inbound agency, you'll inevitably have some new service offerings that you'll have to price and package. Take a chapter from Roetzer's book, keeping an eye on crafting retainer-based services, and thoroughly experimenting with offerings before taking them live to clients.

Step 6: “My advice is best framed by a quote from Ken Blanchard: ‘There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in something, you do it only when it's convenient. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.’”

- Tiffany Sauder, President, Element Three

Focused primarily on B2B clients whose revenues ranged from $2MM-$400MM annually, Sauder found herself and her team constantly chasing data via spreadsheets provided by their clients. Data which, by the time they received it, was several months old ... if they received it all. Worse, every client had their own marketing tools Element Three was expected to become versant in in less than 30 days -- an impossible task.

This was hard, but you know what? So is change. Sauder was successful transforming her business into an inbound agency, however, because she was committed to learning about and implementing closed-loop technology that brought everyone on the same page -- client and agency alike.

The commitment and up-front investment paid off. By 2012, 80% of Element Three’s business was on retainer. Client renewal rates soared from 37% in 2011 to 83% in 2012, client spend increased 91%, and revenues doubled, a feat they are on track to accomplish again in 2013.

Step 7: “Be willing to make tough decisions and let money go. If you’re going to pivot your business model like we did, you’re going to have all of these legacy clients that don’t want to adapt. Let them go.”

- John McTigue, Executive Vice President and Co-Owner, Kuno Creative

As your positioning and service offerings are solidified, it's important to remember what kind of agency you've transformed into. That might mean leaving money on the table, sometimes.

In the mid-2000s, Kuno Creative was a traditional agency designing brochures, building websites, and executing direct mail campaigns. They also were not profitable, so McTigue and the agency’s owner, Chris Knipper, sat down to figure out how they could fix things. Today, Kuno is a full-service, enterprise inbound marketing agency that provides content, demand generation, lead nurturing, marketing automation, and analytics for mid- to large-size companies, primarily in technology, healthcare, and manufacturing.

After spending 2008 learning how to do inbound marketing, in 2009, McTigue began using blogging and social media to get Kuno found online. They soon realized this strategy was a real differentiator for them and they honed in on a handful of clients for whom they could apply their content creation strategies and skills. They became experts at creating effective digital content.

“Then,” says McTigue, “we focused on learning how to sell inbound marketing services and to whom.” For Kuno, that meant letting go of smaller clients, or companies not willing to adapt. Instead of going for large volumes of customers, they would hone in on fewer, larger clients with the financial means and the will to make a commitment to inbound marketing.

It worked. Kuno has gone from 300 smaller clients to fewer than 20, but those 20 pay the bills and then some, month in and month out.

Are you looking to redefine the future of your agency and adopt more inbound marketing practices? Are you starting to provide more inbound service offerings? Share your transformation stories in the comments.

Image credit: Jelly Dude

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