Iconsive has been in business for coming up to 3 years now, and the time has flown by.
During that time, we've made a few big changes, and in today's post I'm going to explain why we repositioned our inbound marketing agency twice (once in 2013, and then again in 2015).
This story will hopefully help those of you out there trying to grow your own businesses, and demonstrate the fundamental importance of having a strong position and brand.
Our Initial Positioning
Iconsive was founded in 2012, by Martin (our Operations Director) and myself. We started out offering SEO services to small businesses, and designed our messaging and website to appeal to this demographic. I had a lot of SEO experience which I had built over years of marketing online storage company, File Den, which grew to 3 million registered users between 2006 and 2011, before being acquired. I also did a significant amount of consulting for a number of companies and start-ups on their SEO in the period leading up to forming Iconsive.
We pitched our SEO services to small companies (mostly £250-£500k turnover) who were struggling to generate business online. Our services focused around optimising their websites, then doing outreach campaigns to secure guest posts on other blogs, which sent traffic back to our client's websites (and also increased their authority in the eyes of search engines, driving organic search traffic).
Our hypothesis was that we could automate and outsource most of the work, and have minimal ongoing client engagement, scaling up a high turnover business with lots of small accounts.
Whilst the target audience engaged with us well, it was nearly impossible to build a sustainable business, for a few key reasons.
- The biggest issue was that the companies we were targeting couldn't afford to spend more than £1,000 per month on digital marketing services. Convincing them to invest even at that level was immensely difficult.
The budget wasn't there, and investing in SEO, a "black art" to many business owners, appeared risky: many company owners had been burned by shady SEO companies, and micro business owners were usually price focused, rather than value driven. I lose count of how many times we were compared with companies selling automated £27/mo SEO subscriptions (or their "cousin's husband's friend Ben", who worked in IT, knew how to do seo and stuff and would do it for free).
When we sat back a few months in and started crunching the numbers, they just didn't add-up. It wasn't working. Business owners wanted much more engagement than we could offer for the fees they were paying, proving our hypothesis wrong.
- The second biggest issue was proving results to clients. We had a lot of conversations that went like this:
Client: So how did we do last month?
Me: We increased your organic search traffic by 20%. Are you getting more phone calls, or leads?
Client: No, nothing has changed that I can see. Are we #1 for "XYZ Keyword" yet?
Me: Not yet. We're not putting all our focus into that one super competitive keyword, because the longtail is where the highest quality leads come from. Your business will get better results by focusing on less competitive, but more relevant keywords, where we can quickly rank you in the top few results.
Client: But Google Adwords says only a few people are searching for them. We need to be #1 for "XYZ Keyword".
We'd go round-and-round like this for a while.
Many of our clients would see us increasing organic traffic each month, but because we were just their "SEO people", we couldn't connect the dots and measure the impact our SEO efforts were having on lead generation. This made it very difficult for us to prove an ROI to clients, even when we were confident it was the case.
- We were witnessing a key trend in the industry. Content was now a fundamental part of SEO, and before long "SEO" as an individual, silo'd service would be a thing of the past. If we wanted to survive as an agency, we needed to transition ourselves to producing strategic content that: attracted the right type of people, converted visitors into leads, nurtured leads into customers and maximised customer lifetime value.
We then needed to be able to prove to our clients that this additional revenue was generated by our work.
In early 2013, I began reading about HubSpot, content marketing, and inbound marketing. I was completely sold on the concept, and 100% convinced this was the direction our agency needed to head in to be successful. I had significant content experience behind me, blogging as part of Iconsive's marketing strategy to date, and previously developing File Den's marketing strategy. I'd written everything from Adwords ads to press releases, so it came naturally.
During the summer we began speaking to HubSpot, and invested the capital required to become a certified HubSpot partner & inbound marketing agency. We went all-in. We were going to only offer fully integrated inbound marketing services from this point forward, on a retainer basis.
I dove head-first into all of HubSpot's training resources, and spent months learning obsessively about everything inbound, and transforming Iconsive's own marketing so we could be our own best case study.
We understood that there were significant differences between the way businesses and consumers buy products/services (despite all marketing being "human-to-human"), and saw specialising in B2B as a way to clearly differentiate ourselves from many of the other UK-based inbound/content marketing agencies at the time, who had no specialism at all, beyond inbound marketing.
Since becoming a HubSpot partner, our agency has grown predictably, and sustainably. However, as anyone in business knows, there's no panacea. Things can always be improved, and there's always a way to get better results.
- Initially we didn't have case studies we could share with customers. Whilst we freely shared our own marketing results, this wasn't enough to secure the larger retainers we needed to take our business to the next level. We had many presentations which finished with a prospect saying "This all sounds great, but I need to see an example of a client in our industry you've done this for before I sign."
We didn't have the example they wanted, and had learnt the hard way previously that offering short term contracts, "trial/free" work and similar wasn't the right way to build a partnership based on mutual value and trust.
- Increasingly other agencies began to call themselves "B2B Inbound Marketing Agencies". Most HubSpot partners were discovering that accounts in the B2B space tended to be higher value, and trended towards similar messaging to us. We couldn't call ourselves the "only" B2B Inbound Marketing Agency & HubSpot partner, not even in the UK.
This meant that potential customers were beginning to think they could compare our solution to other companies, like they would paper, and send out the dreaded RFP. We refused to take part in RFPs, with a strong belief that they're incredibly inefficient, wasting both agency and client time, and that marketing services aren't a "commodity" that can be bought like paper.
Customers are purchasing creativity, ideas, and strategy, in addition to execution. It's impossible to quantify that and compare it directly agency-to-agency. This is also where an agency adds a lot of value, and we don't think an agency should be expected to give their highest value work away for free as part of a bidding process.
To truly overcome this problem we needed to somehow be the "only" choice for our clients.
- Whilst our client value increased dramatically (we began working with higher value clients, and thanks to HubSpot, could prove the ROI we were generating for them), it was still short of where we wanted to be.
Choosing a New Focus in 2015
During 2015, the team has been increasingly thinking about three primary things within the company:
- The type of work we most enjoy doing.
- The type of work we do best.
- The type of work we're winning most often.
As a co-founder, I've spent a big portion my previous life building a SaaS company, and love the sector. The nimble software start-ups that come in and disrupt entire markets fascinate me. I realised I was inadvertently spending a lot of time each week reading about the SaaS industry, emerging strategies, and what these companies were doing. I shared this with everyone in the company, from freelancers to the permanent team, and my enthusiam was contagious.
My partner, Martin, spent most his career working as an Application Consultant. He watched enterprise software being implemented and saw what could go wrong (and did go wrong) when software is used badly. This means he is equally passionate about SaaS' ability to disrupt legacy software licensing and implementation models which are still frighteningly common in the enterprise.
It was obvious that SaaS is a sector where we enjoy working.
Next, when we began looking through the performance of our clients to-date, we discovered that our SaaS clients tended to outperform others. Whilst all of our current clientbase is delighted with the results we have achieved to date, we had a deeper understanding of how SaaS businesses worked as a result of our combined experience, and found that we could always develop more effective marketing strategies for them.
This made it clear that SaaS is a sector where we're doing our best work.
Finally, we went through our sales data, and looked at where we were securing opportunities. We have never lost a partnership deal that's gone as far as a presentation with a SaaS company. Most often, the company had decided they wanted to work with us before we even gave them a sales presentation. This was a very different experience to other companies we were speaking to.
It was indisputably the work we were winning most often.
SaaS: The Perfect Fit
This resulted in SaaS appearing to be a perfect solution to the (smaller) problems we'd been experiencing since becoming HubSpot partners.
From June 2015 onwards we only partner with companies selling SaaS solutions. We allow them to focus on what they're great at (building a product customers love, raising investment, winning deals, providing an excellent customer experience, developing a strong company culture, recruitment... the infinite list goes on) whilst we take responsibility for their inbound marketing strategy.
Our SaaS clients love it, we love working with them, and we're able to become deeply specialised in delivering inbound marketing results that would always exceed the results other less specialised agencies could.
In addition, our clients love that they can call us and get an expert response to questions like:
- We're considering a LinkedIn ad campaign, have those worked for any of your other SaaS clients?
- Why aren't people signing up for our free trials?
- Would an additional monthly webinar work well for converting leads into software demos?
- We're adding a new product to our range. What's the best way to cross-sell that to our existing customers?
- Should we pay for an explainer video to be made and added to our website homepage?
So, all things considered, we've gone all-in again.
Iconsive is now the Inbound Marketing Agency for companies selling SaaS solutions.
The early signs show it's working, too. The "right" leads are engaging with our content more thoroughly, and having more productive conversations with us. It's also easy to demonstrate our sector expertise, and the value we've added to businesses just like theirs.
Isn't it about time you thought about further specialising, too? Whilst it reduces your total addressable market size, you become a much clearer choice for that market. Long term, there's nothing to stop you adding additional specialisms to grow the business, or corner new markets. You can even take the Procter & Gamble approach, and develop a "house of brands" to avoid diluting your existing brand and position.
If you've not read it already, read Zag: The #1 Strategy of High-Performing Brands. It's a short book you can read in a couple of hours, and re-enforces the changes to our business I've described in this blog post. If you've not thought too much about your brand or positioning to date, it's a must read.
Connect with me on LinkedIn and send me a message if you represent an inbound marketing agency that would like to receive referrals from us: we still get plenty of excellent leads from non-SaaS companies that need great agencies to work with.
We look for agencies that specialise in specific industries, like us, and are aiming to build up a roster of highly specialised inbound marketing agencies we can refer non-SaaS leads to, providing a great experience for the people we can't help ourselves.
As an aside, we will continue to deliver great results for our non-SaaS clients. We have invested in understanding their organisations/markets, creating an effective strategy and resourcing their inbound marketing, and will continue to work with them. We've just made the decision not to actively onboard new clients outside of SaaS, so we can be hyper focused on building our position, expertise and experience in inbound SaaS marketing.