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7 Things I Learned Running SEO at a Digital Marketing Agency

Leading SEO at a digital marketing agency or even growing an agency of your own is fraught with potential pitfalls. Here are a few lessons to help you out.

7 Things I Learned Running SEO at a Digital Marketing Agency

Before co-founding my current company, I lead the SEO team at a digital marketing agency catering to SMB clients for six years.

I had no prior experience running a department, let alone a company.

Naturally, I made a lot of beginner’s mistakes.

In this article, you’ll find the seven most important things I learned about leading SEO inside an agency — things I wish someone had told me back then.

1. Choose Your Services Carefully

We positioned ourselves as a full-service digital marketing agency but looking back, we weren’t.

Not by a long shot.

We didn’t have enough experience or staff to be great at everything.

And even if we had had all that, I (now) strongly believe that you need to carefully pick your niche and become really great there.

So, we weren’t really a full-service digital marketing agency. Frankly, we weren’t great at the full spectrum of SEO services, either.

We did wonderfully when it came to technical SEO, keyword research, and strategy, but were lacking in creating content, building links, and doing digital PR.

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As a consequence, our recommendations sometimes didn’t reach their full potential when implemented simply because the content wasn’t great enough and the supporting links weren’t there.

Not only did this negatively impact the overall perception of our SEO work, but it also spilled over into web design and the other services we offered.

Interestingly, the clients who absolutely killed it were content-minded and PR-savvy themselves.

Together, in a symbiotic relationship, we created great content while gaining links and PR — all atop a solid technical foundation.

The lesson: We shouldn’t have been offering content creation, building links, and doing digital PR. These weren’t our strong suits. We should have partnered with true specialists in these areas instead.

2. Don’t Go All Out With Every Prospect to Win the Contract

Unless you have a massive sales force and you’re going after an enterprise contract where you need to go all out, don’t invest too much time with every prospect to win their contract.

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Prospects will often want you to do a lot of unpaid research prior to their possibly signing. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re really just looking to get free ideas.

This happens throughout the entire consulting industry and has been happening for decades.

I know, it’s a shocker that this was happening in SEO, too… what can I say? I was young and naive back then.

At first, we were going all out and writing a detailed proposal for every prospect. But the ROI on that was too low.

Sure, we did win contracts — but we lost plenty, too.

Sometimes we got a clear “No,” but other times we were ghosted entirely and knew the prospect had probably just waltzed off with our ideas.

Over the years, we refined our lead-scoring process and made sure to let the prospect know about ballpark prices early on in the process.

We used case studies that described what we did, how we did it, and what we achieved for other clients.

And when we were picking up positive signals, we’d provide a rough but tailored outline as to what the prospect could expect from us.

If we were still good, we’d describe it in a formal proposal.

By the time we got to that stage, we knew we had an 80–90% chance of winning the contract.

If the prospect wanted to get more ideas and research from us during the sales process, they’d have to sign.

No exceptions.

If they couldn’t commit to the full package right away, we’d start with something small to give them an idea of what it’s like to work with us and take it from there.

The lesson: If you’re low on sales resources, be careful about how much time you spend winning prospects. Create an efficient sales process that works for you and leads to a healthy ROI on the time you invest into winning contracts.

3. Don’t Write One-Size-Fits-All, Massive Deliverables

Massive deliverables often end up unread – and their recommendations unimplemented. Who you’re writing the deliverables for should be your first consideration.

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If it’s a small business owner, do they need to understand your 40-page Technical SEO audit? No, of course not.

If you’re writing recommendations for a developer, do they need to understand the full content strategy you’ve put together? Probably not.

Give them some background followed by the recommendations that are relevant to them, such as how to improve the internal link structure.

Write your deliverables with an eye to the folks who need to act on them.

If they are in different roles, write different deliverables. Keep them brief; include mainly the essentials, but give them the option to dig in further and learn more about the “why” behind the recommendation.

And of course, every deliverable should contain a prioritized summary of things they need to do, accompanied by the investment required and the expected impact.

If you’d like to dig deeper into this, check out Areej AbuAli’s article on the topic.

The lesson: Write all of your deliverables using an outside-in approach, and keep in mind that less is more. Enable those who want to dig deeper to do so, but make this optional.

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4. Be Mindful of “Not-Invented-Here” Syndrome

As an SEO expert, it is vital that you keep trying new things – to build tools yourself, to push yourself to do better, and to improve your processes.

However, be mindful of the “not-invented-here” syndrome and don’t avoid things that you didn’t create yourself.

This applies to research and processes just as much as tools.

Remain open to saying goodbye to the things you’ve created if a better alternative comes along. This could be as small as redoing your keyword research process when a new team member joins, or as big as moving away from a custom-built CMS.

We saw this happen several times when working with our clients’ development partners. They were holding on to old tech they’d built themselves when there were much better alternatives out there at a lower price.

What they thought was their strong suit turned out to be their kryptonite.

The lesson: Don’t hold on to something when you know there’s a better alternative out there. Don’t get too attached; always be ready to move on. Keep your eyes on the prize: providing the best service you can.

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5. Balance Work On the Business vs. In the Business

Agency life is busy, chaotic, and thrilling. It’s dangerously easy to get distracted.

I’d always neatly plan out my week, but would rarely ever finish the essentials.

It’s hard to strictly focus on your planning when a potential dream client calls you up and wants you to consult on their SEO strategy. Or when a big client suddenly cancels a contract.

At times, I didn’t have a good balance between working on the business versus working in the business.

I was the lead SEO, and our relatively small team looked to me to keep improving and refining the SEO services we offered. In that role, I needed to spend enough time in the business, or things would go downhill in the SEO department.

Things got a lot better when I hired an experienced SEO. That brought back the balance for me.

The lesson: Carefully balance how you spend your time as an agency owner or team lead. Don’t let the business side of things suffer while you keep your SEO offerings cutting-edge.

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6. Performance-Based Deals Are Tricky

Prospective clients would frequently ask us if we were open to doing performance-based deals. We often declined but when we did say yes, we ended up getting into some that barely made us money.

Performance-based deals are tricky because you need to settle on which KPIs will determine your performance.

Is it just leads, or is it qualified leads or sales?

What do you get paid during that initial period where you’re investing and building up organic traffic but seeing few results?

What happens if your client’s company is sold?

What if they want to stop working with you, or vice versa?

Performance deals can feel like a complicated marriage that can easily go awry.

To add to that, these performance-based inquiries are sometimes a sign of a struggling business — or even their last gasp before going under.

You don’t want to go down with them.

Maybe the peers I’ve discussed these types of deals with and I haven’t figured out the right way to do performance-based deals. What I can tell you though is that they sure are slippery.

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The lesson: Discuss every aspect of these deals with your potential partner. Talk about what makes for a successful partnership, and what does not.

7. Think Carefully Before Signing Exclusivity Agreements

Clients may ask you to sign exclusivity agreements, preventing you from working with other companies similar to theirs.

They don’t want their competitors to benefit from what you’ve learned by working for them.

While that has always made sense to me, keep in mind that:

  • By agreeing to this, you’re potentially losing out on business from their competitors.
  • You need to ask enough in return to make the exclusivity worth your while.

We signed exclusivity agreements with several clients and most ended up being wildly successful.

Even so, in most cases, the exclusivity agreement cost us way more revenue in the long term than it brought in the short term.

Clients’ competitors and companies in adjacent niches (which were excluded, too) noticed this success and approached us.

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Yet we couldn’t work for them.

There were times where one client was spending 50K/year with us, but we were turning away 200K/year in revenue.

We had been so eager to sign this client that we didn’t put enough thought into making sure that exclusivity kept making sense for us, as the client wasn’t upping their budget.

In another case, the contract value of a client actually decreased while a bounty of inquiries flowed in from competitors and businesses in adjacent niches.

When this happened, it was clear to me that we hadn’t thought this through.

Signing the exclusivity agreement was a massive commitment from our side, and we should have asked for a significant and comparable commitment from their side, as well.

We should also have negotiated shorter exclusivity periods and stipulated that if their commitment waned, they would lose the exclusivity.

The lesson: Don’t be blinded by the short-term reward when a client wants to sign an exclusivity agreement with you. Think about the downsides for you, and make sure the exclusivity agreement leaves room to address them.

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To Your Agency’s Success!

We all start somewhere and learn a lot of tough lessons along the way.

Hopefully, these seven lessons of mine will help you keep from repeating these same mistakes.

Or at the very least, they may make you think twice before signing that performance-based deal or exclusivity content.

To your success!

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Steven van Vessum

VP of Community at ContentKing

Steven van Vessum is the co-founder ContentKing, and has been doing SEO since 2006. He’s been on all sides of ... [Read full bio]

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