Giving Away the Farm: Proposal Development for New SEO Agencies

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There’s a huge difference between making money from selling SEO and actually making a living — or making a difference, for that matter. A new marketing agency will quickly discover that surviving on $1,000 contracts is challenging. It takes time to learn the client and their customers, and poorly written contracts can lead to scope creep and dissatisfied clients.

It’s common for agencies to look for ways to streamline operations to assist with scaling their business, but one area you don’t want to streamline is the proposal research process. I actually suggest going in the opposite direction: create proposals that give away the farm.

Details matter, both to you and your prospective client

I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute! I don’t want to do a bunch of work for free!

I too am really sensitive to the idea that a prospective client may attempt to be exploitative. I think it’s a risk worth taking. Outlining the exact scope of services forces you to do in-depth research on your prospect’s website and business, to describe in detail what you’re going to deliver. Finding tools and processes to scale the research process is great, but don’t skip it. Detailing your findings builds trust, establishes your team as a high-quality service provider, and will likely make you stand out amongst a landscape of standard-language proposals.

Be exceptional. Here’s why I think this is particularly important for the proposal development process.

Avoid scope creep & unrealistic expectations

Just like the entrepreneur that doesn’t want to tell anyone their amazing idea without first obtaining an NDA, new SEO agencies may be inclined to obscure their deliverables in standard proposal language out of fear that their prospect will take their analysis and run. Generic proposal language is sometimes also used to reduce the time and effort involved in getting the contract out the door.

This may result in two unintended outcomes:

  1. Lack of specific deliverables can lead to contract scope creep.
  2. It can make you lazy and you end up walking into a minefield.

Companies that are willing to invest larger sums of money in SEO tend to have higher expectations, and this cuts both ways. Putting in the work to craft a detailed proposal not only shows that you actually care about their business, but it also helps manage the contract’s inevitable growth when you’re successful.

Misalignment of goals or timelines can sour a relationship quickly. Churn in your contracts is inevitable, but it’s much easier to increase your annual revenue by retaining a client for a few more months than trying to go out and find a replacement. Monetizing your work effectively and setting expectations is an excellent way to make sure the relationship is built on firm ground.

Trust is key

Trust is foundational to SEO: building trustworthy sites, creating valuable and trustworthy content, becoming a trusted resource for your community that’s worth linking to. Google rewards this kind of intent.

Trust is an ethos; as an SEO, you’re a trust champion. You can build trust with a prospect by being transparent and providing overwhelming value in your proposal. Tell your clients exactly what they need to do based on what you discover in your research.

This approach also greases the skids a little when approaching the prospect for the first time. Imagine the difference between a first touch with your prospect when you request a chance to discuss research you’ve compiled, versus a call to simply talk about general SEO value. By developing an approach that feels less like a sales process, you can navigate around the psychological tripwires that make people put up barriers or question your trustworthiness.

This is also referred to as “consultative sales.” Some best practices that business owners typically respond well to are:

  • Competitive research. A common question businesses will ask about SEO relates to keywords: What are my competitors ranking for? What keywords have they optimized their homepage for? One thing I like to do is plug the industry leader’s website into Open Site Explorer and show what content is generating the most links. Exporting the Top Pages report from OSE makes for a great leave-behind.
  • Top questions people are asking. Research forum questions that relate to the industry or products your prospect sells. When people ask questions on Yahoo Answers or Quora, they’re often doing so because they can’t find a good answer using search. A couple of screenshots can spark a discussion around how your prospective client’s site can add value to those online discussions.

Yes, by creating a more detailed proposal you do run the risk that your target company will walk away with the analysis. But if you suspect that the company is untrustworthy, then I’d advise walking away before even building the analysis in the first place; just try getting paid on time from an untrustworthy company.

Insights can be worth more

By creating a very transparent, “give away the farm”-type document, SEOs empower themselves to have important discussions prior to signing a contract. Things like:

  • What are the business goals this company wants to focus on?
  • Who are the people they want to attract?
  • What products or pages are they focused on?

You’ll have to understand at least this much to set up appropriate targeting, so all the better to document this stuff beforehand. And remember, having these conversations is also an investment in your prospect’s time — and there’s some psychology around getting your target company to invest in you. It’s called “advancement” of the sale. By getting your prospect to agree to a small, clearly defined commitment, it pulls them further down the sales funnel.

In the case of research, you may choose to ask the client for permission to conduct further research and report on it at a specified time in the future. You can use this as an opportunity to anchor a price for what that research would cost, which frames the scope of service prices later on.

By giving away the farm, you’ll start off the relationship as a trusted advisor. And even if you don’t get the job to do the SEO work itself, it’s possible you can develop a retainer where you help your prospect manage digital marketing generally.

Prepping the farm for sale

It goes without saying, but making money from SEO requires having the right tools for the job. If you’re brand-new to the craft, I suggest practicing by auditing a small site. (Try using the site audit template we provide in the site audit bootcamp.) Get comfortable with the tools, imagine what you would prioritize, and maybe even do some free work for a site to test out how long it takes to complete relatively small tasks.

Imagine you were going to approach that website and suggest changes. Ask yourself:

  • Who are they selling to?
  • What keywords and resources does this target user value?
  • What changes would you make that would improve search rank position for those terms?
  • What would you do first?
  • How long would it take? (In real human time, not starving-artist-who-never-sleeps time.)

Some of the tools that I find most helpful are:

  • Moz Pro Campaigns > Custom Reports. This is an easy one. Create a Moz Pro campaign (campaigns are projects that analyze the SEO performance of a website over time) and then select “Custom Reports” in the top-right of the Campaign interface. Select the modules you want to include — site crawl and keyword rankings against potential competitors are good ones — and then offer to send this report to your prospect for free. It’s a lot harder for a customer to turn something off than it is to turn something on. Give away a custom report and then set up time to talk through the results on a weekly basis.
  • Builtwith.com. This free service allows you to investigate a number of attributes related to a website, including the marketing software installed. Similar to a WHOIS search, I use this to understand whether the prospect is overloaded with software or if they completely lack any marketing automation. This can be helpful for suggesting tools that will improve their insights immediately. Who better to help them implement those tools or provide a discount than you?
  • Keyword Explorer > Lists. Create a list in Keyword Explorer and look for the prevalence of SERP features. This can tell you a lot about what kinds of content are valuable to their potential visitor. Do images show up a lot? What about videos? These could be opportunities for your customer.
  • MozBar. Use the Page Analysis tab in MozBar to assess some of the website’s most important pages. Check page load speed in the General Attributes section. Also see if they have enticing titles and descriptions.
  • Site crawl. If you don’t have Moz Pro, I recommend downloading Screaming Frog. It can crawl up to 500 pages on a site for free and then allow you to export the results into a .csv file. Look for anything that could be blocking traffic to the site or reducing the chance that pages are getting indexed, such as 4XX series errors or an overly complex robots.txt file. Remedying these can be quick wins that provide a lot of value. If you start a Moz Pro campaign, you can see how these issues are reduced over time.

Want to learn how to add SEO to your existing portfolio of marketing services?

Starting on April 4th, 2017, Moz is offering a 3-day training seminar on How to Add SEO to Your Agency. This class will be every Tuesday for 3 weeks and will cover some of the essentials for successfully bringing SEO into your portfolio.

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