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digital agency to optimization advisoryOver two years ago, after growing a digital agency into one of Oregon’s fastest growing companies three years in a row, I received the following question: Where does the agency provide the most value to its clients?

I’ll admit that as the Founder and President of this agency, called The Good, the answer concerned me at first. At that time I knew that the areas where we provided the most value was not where the majority of our revenue came from.

This realization caused me to do something radical: I decided to pivot my award-winning business in a totally new direction. And it is by far the best decision I’ve made at The Good yet.

It took a lot of courage and over two years to focus our offering away from a general digital marketing agency to a focused conversion rate optimization advisory. But by focusing on a culture of optimization, we’ve aligned our company, team and clients around where we provide the most value to those clients, and most importantly, their consumers.

Along the way, we experienced hard-earned lessons that, in sharing, I hope will help to accelerate your agency’s transition from marketing to optimization while avoiding some of the pitfalls we encountered, and unlocking the success that your own radical pivot can provide.

From Marketing to Optimization 

As a generalist digital marketing agency that had a distinct point of view about user experience, I knew that our clients didn’t hire us because we could build them a great looking and technically sound website.

Clients hired us because they knew we could build them a highly optimized online consumer experience that converted into online sales, leads, and subscribers.

Clients raved about our up-front research that brought a voice to their online consumers. And they saw results in our iterative and data-driven approach to improving their site after launch – in fact we’ve always yelled from our soapbox that “the launch is just the beginning.”

But it was clear that the one-stop digital marketing and development agency model had turned into a commodity. There are just too many other agencies with the “do everything for everyone” model, and there’s always someone else willing to do it cheaper. And they usually (surprise!) tout the same laundry list of skills as everyone else:

The all-too-common digital agency Services or About Us page.

These were all clear signs of a commoditization of the model. I knew we had to redefine The Good’s offering to stay relevant, and become much more focused in our offering.

Why Conversion Advisory, Specifically?

We define ourselves as Conversion Advisors, meaning that we no longer drive site traffic (marketing), instead we make sure a conversion happens once the traffic is on the site (optimization). This focus has led us to what we are today: conversion rate experts who deliver more revenues, customers, and leads.

We hold the belief that once the consumer has reached your site, your marketing has won. It is then time to serve the consumer’s goals. But most brands continue to market. In fact, we believe this so much we wrote a book on how to optimize under this belief: “Stop Marketing, Start Selling”.

The consumer’s needs come first online. We care deeply about their satisfaction, happiness and loyalty. And if you help consumers meet their goals, they will convert into a sale or lead.

But even though we’ve always focused on digital marketing, we still rarely knew if we were really winning or losing. We always ended engagements with questions such as:

  • Did that website overhaul and relaunch really provide a high return on investment for our client? Did we make them more money then they gave us, quickly?
  • Did the social campaign turn into sustained revenue increases? Or just followers?
  • Did the high cost of replatforming move the needle for the client in the end? Or does it just look pretty?

We desired a way to easily calculate the ROI for every client engagement.

That desire led us to further build a culture of optimization into everything we do at The Good.

A Culture of Optimization: What We Had to Change

While evolving into a trusted conversion rate optimization advisory we learned quite a few lessons about building optimization into our culture – specifically around four main areas: core values, team, clients, and focus on results.

Here are some of our key learnings.

Core Values

It may sound cliché, but it really does all start with core values.

We found that the consumer’s experience must be in the core values. If we didn’t clearly draw a line in the sand and take a stance, we would never attract a team who is passionate about helping consumers accomplish their goals online.

The Good’s “Why” culture poster, on display at the entrance of our office.

This lead us to the following “why” statement: Beyond the big creative idea (found at marketing and advertising firms), we make what matters to people.

Any successful business owner will tell you that a good core value is one that can be polarizing. It should both attract the correct team members and repel the wrong ones at the same time.

Our “why” statement often offends those who have worked at general marketing firms their entire careers. But at the same time it often attracts those who want a change from that generalist environment and are passionate about optimizing the consumer experience online.

The Right Team Members

As the agency changed directions, naturally so did our team. Letting some team members know that their roles were not part of the new direction of the company was certainly the most difficult part of the overall transition. But I also looked at it as an opportunity: we were rebuilding our team around optimization, and here was our chance to do it right.

I became a student of TopGrading and sought out only A Players, defined as “one who qualifies among the top 10 percent of talent available for a position.”

This meant looking for life-long learners, and those with the proper credentials that showed they cared about optimizing the consumer experience, such as Optimizely’s Platform and Developer certifications.

For all of our roles, we found great success in iterating and optimizing our role descriptions and success metrics until we were attracting the best candidates.

The Right Clients

As a business owner, learning to say “no” more than “yes” to potential clients and turning away revenue, is extremely difficult.

The reality is that not everyone will be a good fit. Some brands are not internally aligned with a culture of optimization.

We’ve learned to decline working with clients who don’t concern themselves with their consumer’s goals, who don’t have the necessary traffic to achieve results from multivariate testing within a timeframe that matches their expectations, or who are in a panic and need immediate results that cannot reasonably be met within the time that conversion optimization requires.

If we don’t clearly see a path towards client ROI, we find it is better to say so as early as possible. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope back into the generalist marketing agency and we wouldn’t be solving for one of our main reasons for focusing on optimization.

For clients who do fit culturally, but perhaps don’t have the revenues to support working with an advisory, we will often offer suggestions on how the potential client can move forward, so they can get to a spot where testing and optimization makes sense and we can provide clear ROI. We’ve found that they will often come back to you when they’ve hit their goals, ready to become your latest client.

Focus on Results

Focus on the client’s results, daily, and then promote based on those results.

Once we were in a very trackable and metric driven area, we could use those results for marketing and new business.

Some of the metrics we’ve found success in tracking to prove ROI for our clients include:

  • Conversion rate increases
  • Online direct sales increases
  • Mobile sales increases
  • Efficiency of digital marketing spend by channel
  • Net promoter score increases

A lot of these metrics fit with the Growth Hacker mentality that is all about iteration and trackable improvements. While a controversial term at times, the Growth Hacking mentality is the next wave of marketing – or I’d argue even the current wave of smart marketers.

Optimize for the Future 

As iteration and trackable improvements have become the standard way of marketing, generalist digital marketing agencies are short-lived.

By focusing on a culture of optimization, you can align your company, your team and your clients around where you provide the most value to those clients, and most importantly, their consumers.

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