As we discussed in our post explaining the three foundations of successful digital agencies, one of the first components that any agency will need to focus on is their business strategy. Before you can actually start formulating your offerings, selling those services, and fulfilling on them, you’ll need to decide who your company is, how to brand your agency, and more. These decisions will have trickle-down effects into your sales & marketing efforts as well as your operations, so it’s important to answer these questions early and stick to your strategy as your agency grows.

This week’s Agency Playbook post will focus on a key factor of your business strategy: differentiation. Differentiating yourself in a cluttered market plays a key role not only in your overall business strategy, but also in your agency’s marketing efforts as well (as noted in the venn diagram below).

How Saturated is the Digital Marketing Space?

We’ve discussed in previous posts that the sheer number of digital agencies is staggering, with some estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to potentially millions of agencies across the globe. In local U.S. markets there can often be multiple agencies within only a few miles of each other. The UpCity Top Local Agency Marketplace ranks close to 50 reputable digital marketing agencies in Chicago alone (and that number expands even more if you start take into account web design firms, social media agencies, and the vast array of specialized companies).

This becomes even more problematic when you consider the number of newcomers to the digital marketing industry that brand themselves as “experts” or “all-in-one shops”. The availability of drag and drop website builders, thousands of SEO tutorials and videos across the web, and other free resources has only increased the amount of new agencies appearing in the space. Unfortunately, this has led to a large number of business owners choosing these low-cost, low-expertise agencies over the real experts in the field.

In speaking with our community of reputable agency partners about their approach to differentiating themselves in today’s saturated market, we noticed remarkable similarities. The most successful agencies follow similar strategies and trends, so we’ve compiled some of the best responses we received so you can learn first-hand from some of the best minds in the industry.


Take a Clear and Concise Approach

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to differentiation. Every agency is different, with unique strengths and weaknesses. A solid approach to differentiation is clear and concise. You should be able to confidently describe your approach in a few sentences; if you can’t, then you still have more work to do.

There are three things we do consistently to help stand out in a saturated market:
1. Use paper to stand out: Go against the grain in a “digital” market and be tactility or touch-focused by using only high-quality documents and printed materials. We opt for the best quality business cards and print/bind our proposals and research presentations. It goes a long way for a client remembering you when everyone else is emailing.
2. Implement a vertical market: If a company (any company) develops a vertical (niche) market to target, it not only save time and money but they will quickly become the expert service provider for that vertical and thus allow them to stand out amongst the crowd.
3. Deliver only quality results: That sounds simple enough, but keep the client’s interest above your agency’s even if that affects your bottom line in the short-term. It is hard not to stand out and earn those referrals and repeat business when your client sees you care.

– Shane Robertson, Integrity Web Studios LLC

Many digital marketing agencies these days are from far-flung places, who provide cheap services aimed at the lowest common denominator. In contrast, our agency strives to provide high-quality premium digital marketing services to high-end clientele. We are more a boutique SEO firm and work with only a few clients at a time, rather than a cattle farm approach. We want to be known as a trustworthy SEO company. In addition, we very much practice what we preach, as we also own and operate our own portfolio of online businesses, so all the techniques that we apply towards our clients are the exact same tools and techniques that we apply towards our own online businesses. As such, a client can be sure that they are getting great services from an agency that really knows what it is doing (not just a group of nameless hired staff). Lastly, our reputation is based on 30 years of experience in the internet industry and a key group of staff members with a solid background (MIT & Stanford alumni).

– Jess Dominguez, BlueOcean SEO Agency


Define Your Target Market

The amount of specialization in the digital marketing space has increased dramatically over the last decade. There are specialists in SEO, PPC, social media marketing, web design, conversation rate optimization, email marketing, marketing automation, and a slew of other disciplines. With each new technological advancement, even more niche specialities spring up. What’s more, within each of those disciplines there are agencies that focus on specific verticals, since different types of businesses need to leverage each of these channels differently.

Your agency can’t do everything at once, nor can you service all types of clients with equal expertise. For this reason, it’s important to define not only the specific types of services that your agency will provide, but also to define your target market.

The biggest reason that the market is cluttered is agency over-extension. Too many agencies are trying to do too many things so they can maximize revenue. As a result, clients are receiving mediocre performance across different marketing channels instead of hiring experts in each area to crush results. It’s impossible to be an expert at SEO, social, web design, CRO, PPC, etc. all at the same time. At Victorious, we do one thing only, and we do it well: SEO.

– Michael Transon, Victorius

Choose Your Clients Wisely

Your agency should have a clearly defined persona for the types of clients that you’ll take on. Some clients simply won’t be a good fit for your agency. There’s nothing wrong with turning away one potential client if you feel that the relationship just isn’t right. The fact of the matter is that there’s no shortage of companies in need of digital marketing. You just have to find the right ones!

There is nothing wrong with being picky with whom you do business with. If someone comes to you and explains what they want done, but are not happy with your proposals and pricing, this could be a huge red flag. If pricing is a constant concern for a potential client, it’s okay to let them go. Always show you are proud of your agency and value the services it provides, as well as acknowledging the hard work your staff puts into each project.

– Justin Harris, AdLava

Are you going to target small business owners or are you going to target larger, more established companies? Are you going after clients with little knowledge of or experience with digital marketing or are you going after companies with clearly defined digital marketing objectives? Do you want a collaborative relationship with the client or do you want a more hands-off client who will let you take the reins? You should define your target personas and tailor your branding and your offerings to those potential clients.

We target a specific client type: they are collaborative, are able to articulate marketing goals and already understand digital components form an important part of the mix. Plus, they are serious about budget and resource allocation.

– Karl Hindle, Wellspring Search

Find Your Niche

Some of the most successful agencies have refined their target market to specific verticals. While this strategy may limit the amount of potential clients you can take on to some extent, it offers a number of advantages that outweigh the downsides. With a specific vertical in mind, you can more precisely tailor your offerings to provide specific benefits to that type of business. Further, when it comes to finding new talent to add to your team, you can fine-tune your search to bring on qualified individuals with experience in that field. This allows you to build a highly-focused offering that is supported by an experienced team, both of which will go a long way when it comes time to pitch potential clients.

As a growth agency, we focus on financial advisors and CPAs primarily because their market is relationship driven. No one is going to give an advisor $3 million+ in investable assets based on a few blogs and social media posts. Attracting affluent clients requires a multi-layered sensory approach driven by relationship building touch-points.

– Sonia Dumas, Curio Haus


Communicate Your Unique Value

Every agency is unique in its own way. Some agencies base their reputation on the expertise of their team. Other agencies base their reputation on the value that they’ve provided to previous customers. Others base their reputation on their company culture. Be clear about how your agency is special and communicate that to your customers in every way possible, from your website and branding to your behavior in client meetings to the reports you deliver. A company with a clear vision and identity will always stand out from the crowd.

Creating a strong web-based value proposition on your website is one of the best ways to differentiate your agency. Your website should quickly and effectively articulate who you are, the services that you offer, and how you differentiate yourself from the competition. To get all these items across to website visitors in a short period of time (a few seconds), use high level messaging vs. dense text and make sure images and messaging are in sync.

An effective website should be aligned with the different types of visitors. To achieve this, you’ll need to look at visitor behavior optimization when building the site. First, identify the classes of visitors and what their needs are. Then build and design the website from the perspective of the visitors. The result is more engagement and online conversions, putting your agency a step ahead of competitors.

– Mikel Bruce, TinyFrog Technologies

Let Your Culture Shine

Company culture can be a key differentiating factor that sets you apart from your competitors. Make sure that you communicate your culture clearly in all your branding and communications. One of the hardest parts of forging a successful new client relationship is establishing a level of comfortability and trust. When your clients know that they’re working with like-minded individuals who share the same values, it sets the stage for success.

Your brand and culture should exude onto the client the minute they walk in the door for a proposal meeting. The easiest way to get new clients and differentiate yourself, is to have the client feel comfortable with your culture. Culture sets the tone for how your company is conveyed to the public. Showcasing your awesome website, your hardworking and talented staff, as well as the friendly environment of your office, will be a key to making your company stand out.

– Justin Harris, AdLava

The personality of our company is infused in everything we do, from our website and collateral to our conversations with potential clients. We embrace the startup hustle and that work hard, play hard mentality permeates Buhv’s website content and design. Our playful, edgy tone resonates with clients looking to make a statement in their own industry.

– Robert Lane, Buhv Design

Promote Your Successes

It’s one thing to tell potential clients about the value you can provide, but it’s even better if you can reliably demonstrate it with case studies and examples of your previous work. Showcasing your past triumphs not only puts the focus on the tangible value that you can provide a potential client, it also shows that you’re confident in your ability to replicate that success.

We try to approach our content from an empathetic perspective. The reason you’re looking to find a company like us is to solve a big problem. We try to showcase examples of big problems we’ve helped solve and how we approached them.

– Jesse McCabe, Solid Digital


Focus on Relationships

Whereas in the past business relationships relied on strong face-to-face, person-to-person interactions, nowadays technology has made things much more impersonal. Email, group messaging apps like Slack, phone calls, and text messages have allowed for companies to expand their client base beyond just their local area; however, that doesn’t mean that relationship building shouldn’t be a key aspect of your differentiation strategy. Potential clients should understand that your agency is there to support their business, not just to take their money. When it comes time for them to make a decision about which agency to work with, the agencies that come off the most personable will always beat out those who seem overly data-driven or profit-focused.

We work to provide a uniquely positive experience for our clients, with an extreme focus in the areas of relationships and results. Each client has a dedicated specialist that is intimately involved in the marketing on their account, and able to provide feedback on progress, current objectives, etc. That relationship is valuable to our client, and as long as we are also providing them with positive results, we typically have a very happy client on our hands.

-Jonathan Jenkins, Thrive Internet Marketing

Work with Your Clients, Not for Them

Your clients should feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns about their digital marketing campaign. Too many agencies position themselves as experts and often fluster their clients with an array of data and terminology that can be overwhelming. By positioning yourself as a partner that will work with them, not simply a contractor who will work for them, you will stand out from the crowd in a market that’s filled with jargon and numbers.

You’re not just another client, you’re THE client. We work with you, not for you.

– Darian Gerr, Agency Jet

We expressed the importance of client education in our post on overcoming common barriers in the pitch process and the same holds true for differentiating your agency. Provide real value in the form of blogs, videos, podcasts, and other informational materials so that potential clients can learn more about the work that you do. This not only shows your expertise, it also positions your agency as an educational partner who is here to help clients better understand the value you provide.

Every SEO agency makes big promises, and businesses are wary of trusting any of us. One way we differentiate ourselves is by educating people about SEO through our blog, videos, and podcast appearances. You can’t lead by following, so our goal is demystify SEO, and let people know it is more science than black magic.

– John Locke, Lockedown Design


Get Creative with Your Offerings

This is where we start to see some overlap between your business strategy and your sales strategy. Your offerings should be unique and should be tailored to the type of clientele you serve and your agency’s specific expertise. You don’t want to pitch a cookie cutter offering that your client can get from any other agency, so get creative! This may mean being flexible with your minimum contract lengths, adjusting your prices to stand out from your competitors, or simply pitching your services in a different light.

Be Flexible

When it comes to defining the terms of your client contracts, a key differentiating factor can be the minimum commitment you expect or your cancellation policy. Most agencies these days operate on minimum 6 month contracts since most types of digital marketing (especially SEO) won’t achieve instantaneous results. If you’re confident in your agency’s ability to deliver results, then month-to-month contracts can help set you apart from your competition.

Our core differentiation is our month-to-month contracts. While some agencies will sign a minimum 6-12 months contract, we believe our clients should have the power to really decide if they are happy with our services. If at anytime they are not happy with our customer service, results or strategy then they have the ability to cancel our services with no penalty. This provides extra incentive for our team to make sure we are doing everything we can to help and service our clients.

– Sean Standberry, LYFE Marketing

Be Value-Driven, Not KPI-Centric

Too many agencies today focus on key performance indicators and define success by whether or not certain numerical goals are achieved. We don’t mean to downplay the importance of defining KPIs, but in most cases, potential clients are more interested in what you can do for them, not just that you can get them to page one. This goes back to ensuring that you communicate your unique value and showcasing your past successes. Set yourself apart by letting your work speak for itself. Focus on value, not numbers.

Most of the competition focuses on keyword placement (“We’ll get you on the first page for your most important keywords!”) as a value driver. We believe keyword placement is only a means to an end – revenue and return on investment. Because of this, you’ll find the majority of our website and marketing focuses on the real revenue and return on investment we’ve generated for customers.

– Michael Transon, Victorius


Practice What You Preach

Last but not least, it’s important to practice what you preach. If the value you hope to provide clients is that you will help them stand out as industry experts, then you should ensure that your agency’s brand reflects that as well. If your agency specializes in creative web design, then your site should be interesting and innovative. Your branding and the strategies you advocate for clients should align.

We walk the walk for what we talk and preach about. Our content plan consists of bi-weekly podcasts with top marketing industry experts and we take these and turn them into blog posts for our site as well as contribute to a few high authority sites. We strongly believe in differentiating yourself as a company by being helpful and educational so we apply this practice to ourselves.

Our website is our platform to house the awesome content we are consistently producing. We also like to give a feel of our culture (more on the hippy/spiritual side) as we like to attract clients who share our passion for wanting to make this world a better place.

– David Reimherr, Magnificent Marketing


Each of the agencies we’ve quoted in this post have successfully differentiated themselves from their competition by following these basic principles. It’s important to note that these are only a handful of the many ways in which your agency can stand out from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find new avenues for differentiation.

Jordan Stella
Customer Success Manager at | More Posts

Jordan J Stella is a digital marketing professional whose passion is to help brands find their voice, tell their story, and connect with real people. As Customer Success Manager for UpCity, Jordan helps clients integrate our Agency Growth Engine into their existing workflows and processes.