(Author’s note: Since I don’t have any agency experience, this post primarily compares in-house and consultant based SEO roles.)
I started out as a copywriter for the company I currently work for, and eventually transitioned into the search marketing world back in 2009. Since then I’ve worked in-house, managing and implementing the majority of our SEO and inbound marketing efforts. Back in 2012, I attended several SEO and online marketing conferences and had the opportunity to network with SEOs from a variety of different sectors.
What I found most interesting was how much money some of these independent SEO consultants claimed to be making without ever leaving home. Now that I had some solid years of experience under my belt, I decided I should start doing some consultant work on the side. For SEO strategists and many other marketing professionals, there are three primary roles to choose from: you can work as a consultant, as an in-house team member, or work for an agency. Many SEOs, myself included, have worked in combination of these sectors and can tell you that each has its own set of pros and cons. In this post I’d like to discuss some key differences, and also offer some actionable advice on how in-house SEOs can build up a profitable consulting business on the side.
Benefits of Working In-House
Anyone who has worked on a consultant basis knows how stressful it can be struggling to acquire and maintain client contracts. When you work in-house, things are little bit different. As long as your efforts are making a positive impact on the company’s bottom line, chances are your job will always be there. Additionally, many companies offer benefits, such as health insurance, vision, dental and even matched 401k plans to full-time, in-house employees, which isn’t available if you’re an independent consultant. Some companies even offer to pay for workshops, training seminars, and SEO conferences to help hone your skills.
When you work in-house, you only have one client to focus on. This makes it easier to streamline your SEO efforts and dig a lot deeper when formulating your tactics and strategies. Sometimes consultants and agencies have limited bandwidth, and as a result they typically measure results on monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. Whereas in-house SEOs can provide real-time reporting and stay up to speed on the day-to-day trends. In-house SEOs aren’t spread thin, like many consultants and agencies are, allowing them to fully immerse themselves within a specific niche or industry. Having a deeper understanding of a company shortens the internal learning curves and ultimately boosts your productivity.
The intellectual property you will gain, pertaining to your niche and specific company is invaluable – to both you and your employer. Instead of working across a scattered variety of industries, you have the unique opportunity to really dissect your market and identify the key players within it and analyze how your company stacks up against the competition. Although most consultants and agencies run competitive analyses, as an in-house SEO you can monitor your competition more closely and stay ahead of the curve. The more you know about your industry and the longer you’re with a company, the more valuable you make yourself to your employer.
Benefits of Working as a Consultant
Sometimes in-house SEOs can start to feel like they have blinders on. Some refer to it as the “walled garden.” Since their efforts are focused on one specific niche they tend to look at things from a myopic point of view. In that I mean that they don’t have the opportunity to step outside of the rigid confines of their particular niche, making them far less versatile than their consultant counterpart. Consultants work with many different clients in a variety of different industries, so they have a broader general knowledge base than most in-house SEOs do. As SEOs, we learn by problem-solving. Having worked with a diverse group of clients, consultants deal with more issues on a daily basis, making them more agile.
Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I am not a morning person. I also like the option to work at my own pace and set my own hours. If this sounds familiar, then consulting might be a good fit for you. You have no one to report to. You have the luxury of setting your own deadlines for clients and projects. You can work whenever you want and in most cases, you don’t even have to get dressed in the morning. Being your own boss requires a lot of discipline, but the freedom can be very rewarding if you do it right.
As a consultant, you can charge your clients for services in one of three ways: hourly, retainer-based, or project-based. Although you may not have the job security that most in-house SEOs are accustomed to, consultants have a lot of earning potential if they play their cards right. Additionally, if you have your own company, many business-related expenses are actually tax-deductible including educational expenses, travel expenses, and some household expenses, such as internet, phone, etc.
Taking the plunge into SEO consulting
If you’re an in-house or agency SEO and you’re thinking about getting into consulting, my advice to you is unless you’re seriously unhappy where you’re currently working, don’t quit your day job! At least not yet. Now I’m not saying you’re sure to fail or anything, but you can alleviate a whole lot of pressure by maintaining your regular 9-5 job, while trying to build up your client base on the side. I personally have no intention of leaving my in-house job anytime soon. Not only do I get awesome benefits and the stability that comes with an in-house position, but my company also pays for a lot of training and conferences that not only benefit my role within the company, but also my consulting efforts on the side. It’s a win-win.
One thing I will say is that it’s all about balance and finding that perfect balance can be difficult for some people. It’s important to remember that as long as you’re still working full-time, chances are that you need the job to some extent. That’s your bread and butter and it should be treated that way. Don’t ever let client work soak up your productivity at your day job. Remember: you need it! If you work a 9-5, then maybe only devote nights and weekends to your consulting projects, so that they two don’t interfere with one another. Setting your priorities is the key to making it work.
Starting any business can be scary. There are many risk factors to consider. How will I get clients? How will I keep my clients? How will I make sure that my workflow is steady and consistent? Now imagine that this is your only source of income. For most people, this wouldn’t be very comforting. That’s why I think if you’re planning on making the switch to SEO consultant, I would highly recommend taking it slow and maintaining your in-house or agency role until you’re truly ready to cut the cord.
Providing you already have a year or two worth of experience either as an in-house SEO or at an agency level, the first step is identifying your strengths and weaknesses. Accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives. If you’re not very comfortable with link-building, then maybe don’t offer that as a service to your clients. Only offer services that you feel confident you can execute well. Also, never make any promises you can’t keep. You always want to go above and beyond to exceed your clients’ expectations. It goes without saying that your reputation is everything. But this is especially true if you’re a new business just starting out. The better the work you provide for clients, the more likely the will renew contracts and refer you to a friend or colleague. Your goal should be to parlay each new client into two more client referrals. It’s not just about maintaining momentum, it’s also about growth.
Here are 5 Actionable Tips to Get your Consulting Business Started
Educate your Clients
Many business owners don’t fully understand exactly how SEO works. Some clients know the basics, but very few understand the intricate details of how rankings work or how to improve conversion rates. By taking the time to educate your clients on how you will help grow their business, you’re increasing the perceived value of your services. Instead of simply telling a client that you can increase traffic or help them outrank their competitors, give them concrete examples of how your services will ultimately help drive more revenue, and set reasonable expectations. Just remember to be realistic and manage the client’s expectations wisely.
Results Driven Reporting
Quality SEO services aren’t cheap. Since most small businesses only have a fraction of the marketing budget of larger corporations, they tend to be more mindful of where each dollar is going. That’s why it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re providing your clients with results driven reporting, so they can rest assured that their investment in SEO was money well-spent. The goal should be to show them how the cost of your services is well worth the extra revenue you’ll be generating for them.
Learn to Say No
Don’t be afraid to turn down clients. This is especially tough when you’re just starting out because you’re trying to gain some traction by building up your client base. But, not every client is created equal. In fact, some just aren’t worth your time. Some clients simply don’t have the budget to achieve their goals. There’s nothing wrong with negotiating with a client to provide a level of service that falls more in line with their budget. But don’t forget that your reputation is at stake and you should only take on clients that you feel confident you can help.
30% you, 70% them
Anyone who works in more than one sector of SEO can tell you that juggling an in-house or agency role while running a consultant business on the side, can be an arduous task. The same goes for balancing client work and the demands of growing your own business. I think a 30/70 split is a healthy balance. In a lot of ways, the client comes first. But you also don’t want to get so wrapped up in client work that you end up neglecting your own website. Since clients are coming to you to help them improve their online presence, your website, blog, and social channels are sometimes looked at as a reflection what you can do for them. If your website has an outdated design and your last blog post was over a year ago, they may move on to the next guy.
The Value of Referrals
Word of mouth is powerful. In the restaurant business, they say if a customer has a bad experience, they’ll tell 5 people and if they have a good experience they might tell one. The same is true for most businesses. So not only is it important to keep a clean reputation, both online and offline, but it’s also a good idea to encourage reviews, testimonials, and referrals. Direct referrals, where a client refers a friend, are great, but indirect referrals can be just as rewarding. Indirect referrals occur when clients discover you from review sites like Yelp or from a blog post or article you published. The more active you are and the higher your online visibility, the more likely it is that new clients will find you.