These days, competition in digital marketing is fierce. Being found online is no longer a simple task, but rather one that requires careful planning and consideration. To make matters more complicated, simply being found isn’t enough: you still need to convert those visitors into leads or even customers. Especially in the marketing industry, it can be hard to differentiate yourself from the slew of other companies that offer, what appears on the surface, to be the exact same thing. Understanding what sets you apart is key to promoting your brand and building your recommendability.Understanding what sets you apart is key to promoting your brand and building your recommendability. Click To Tweet
UpCity sat down with Creative Director & Agency Lead Alex Wright to discuss how he’s leveraged the power of online reviews and digital word-of-mouth to carve out his own niche in the industry.
Q: You’ve been an UpCity partner for quite some time and have been in the marketing industry for much longer than that. Tell me a little bit about how your agency was born.
A: Our start is a bit uncommon because it really was a total career change. I spent a lot of time in the commercial and fashion arts, so I’ve always had an eye towards visual communication, and I was running an Internet-based service company so it seemed like a great fit and was kind of a natural progression. I definitely didn’t start out saying, “I want to be a digital marketing agency owner.” It just kind of came to be. Obviously, the agency is in my name and that’s because in the beginning, I was the only person, but now it’s grown and grown and I’ve got other people working for me.
Q: I think you’d be surprised how many people stumble into the industry like that.
A: I think one of the things that really sets us apart is the quality of service we provide as a smaller agency.
There are a lot of smaller agencies out there that do really tremendous work. Our clients really, really love working with smaller agencies and enjoy the advantages that we provide over larger operations. I just think we provide a very different level of service and a different type of service. I’m not saying better or worse, because it depends on the client’s needs, but for the people that we work with, we’re a really good fit and I don’t think they’d find that fit with a larger agency.
Smaller agencies aren’t always small because they’re not good or because they haven’t gotten big yet. We live in a culture that seems to value growth beyond anything else. Our key to success, and I’ll get to this later, is knowing what the right and wrong jobs to take are. We DO NOT take every job.'Smaller agencies aren't always small because they’re not good or because they haven't gotten big yet.' - Alex Wright Click To Tweet
We’re small for a reason, because that’s what our clients want, and we charge plenty of money, so it’s not that were small because we’re bad at what we do or because we’re just regional or hokey, it’s that we’ve set out this niche of providing a level of service that our clients really value and we’re small by choice.
Q: I think you hit the nail right on the head: small doesn’t mean bad, it just means small. When it comes to choosing the right size company to partner with, it all comes down to the customer’s needs.
Let’s actually dive a bit deeper into that topic. You mentioned your business’s focus isn’t growing into something huge, but rather providing great service and doing killer work. What strategies do you use to stay profitable and how important has recommendability been to the success of your business?
A: We’re happy being small, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to grow. Profit margin is important; I want my team to have job security, financial security. We ARE growing. In fact, we’re growing by a lot in percentage terms. I’m just not looking to have dominance in every city and be the biggest agency around.
When I look back at the end of a job, I ask myself, “Was that an awesome job or not? Did we hit our budget? Did we go over budget? Is everyone happy? Did we grow from that? Or did that suck?” I keep track of the commonalities between the awesome jobs and that helps us stay on track.
I don’t actually even mind going over budget. Our pricing has a max, so if we go over, I eat that cost myself. If we had an AWESOME job that we can use to get more great work in the future, and we can use the things we’ve developed for that project or other projects, I’m happy to go slightly over budget. The single greatest challenge in growing our business is knowing what will be a good, positive, profitable job and knowing which ones aren’t, and being confident enough to say no to the ones that aren’t.
I listened to an ad agency exec talk years and years ago in New York. It sounds so simple but it’s really stuck with me. The basic premise was “Great work begets great work. Shitty work begets shitty work.” If you spend your time doing crap work for crap clients, you’re just gonna spend all your time doing crap work for crap clients. Somehow they’ll refer you to their other crap client friends and your portfolio will be full of crap work. But, if you flip it and you do good work for good clients, I’ve found that more great clients come in as a result. Good work begets good work. I’ve really found that to be true.'Great work begets great work. Shitty work begets shitty work.' - Alex Wright Click To Tweet
Q: I absolutely agree. Doing great work will always drive more business, and a higher quality of business. People want to share great work, they want to recommend great work to their friends.
In terms of recommendability, it’s been absolutely critical to our business. I was one of the first people on [the UpCity] Marketplace, and when you first released reviews, I said to myself, “This is important and I’m going to write all of my past clients who I have a great relationship with.” I just said, “Hey, here is this new platform. Would you mind writing a review?” I got eleven awesome reviews right away and I was at the top of the Austin list for about a year until other people caught on to how powerful reviews are on your Marketplace.
The reason you guys are even more important than Google reviews for me is because you guys always keep that #1 or #2 position when you type in “web design Austin.” What I find my clients do is they type “web design Austin” into Google and a bunch of things come up. It’s [UpCity] at #1 or #2 with “Top Web Designers in Austin,” or whatever list, and then under it in the SERPs is a whole bunch of agencies or other sites. Customers would much rather click on UpCity, which provides a list of vetted agencies, than go through that same list in Google and figure it out for themselves.
I’ll say this, a very recent job just came in and the client outright said, “I’m calling you because of your online reviews.” It’s absolutely huge for us, not just for SEO (the backlinks are hugely valuable), but it’s also great because PEOPLE READ THOSE REVIEWS, and people call us and know what kind of service to expect from the words of our past clients, not just from our website.
Q: I guess that just goes to show that all those stats I’m always quoting on our blog are correct: word-of-mouth is HUGE. Knowing that your company focuses so heavily on customer service, I’d love to hear more about what strategies you’ve found to be most effective for keeping clients engaged. Put simply, how do you drive great customer service and keep customers engaged from the first touch to conversion and beyond?
A: One thing that’s pretty unique is that I’m the only one that talks to clients directly. I think they’re really surprised when they call and the very first person that answers the phone is the agency owner/person whose name is on the sign. Those initial calls are interviews and a lot of that is me vetting them as much as it is them vetting me. Going back to before, it’s really important to me, before saying yes to a job, to know that we’re really going to be able to provide value for them and that it’s going to be a good fit for us. I think those interviews go both ways. I’d never hand that responsibility over to one of my internal team members, because in that call I can hear in their voice…they might say they need X, but I can hear that they really need Y, so those are important discovery calls for me to know what the job is going to be.
Another super effective strategy that we use that I think is pretty unique is that we offer managed WordPress web hosting (which we offer as an option but to date, none of our clients have NOT chosen it) as a way to keep in touch with clients over time. We actually don’t make money on it; we charge them what our hosting provider charges us and I intentionally don’t have it on automated billing for clients. I easily could automate the process, but every 6 months when I need to send them a bill or we have a big update to push, I send them a note about it and it’s a great way to stay in touch with them and be friendly.
I think it’s worth the time it takes to send that invoice because then they write me back about something that’s going on and who knows, we might end up doing ongoing work for someone based on those conversations. I’ve intentionally made it less automated just to add an additional touch point, which has turned out really great. The level of personal care that we give is, frankly, outstanding, and being able to be in touch with our agency later and have it be the same email, the same phone number, the same person to take care of them, I think they really appreciate it. We aren’t just another automated charge like AT&T or your cable bill. Sometimes being a little inefficient can actually be beneficial.
Q: You bring up an interesting point: your reputation isn’t just about the work you do or the service you provide, there’s a lot to consider from an optics perspective as well.
A: It’s ALWAYS an optics thing. These are people that don’t know what a DNS record is; they don’t know what a server does; they don’t know GoDaddy from WPEngine from Flywheel. And, you know what? They don’t care. They want their site to look good and work well, so if we hand over that hosting or we do just an automated half-ass job with something, it’s an optics thing. It looks bad on us.
If you try to squeeze every last dollar out of every little thing you do, it’s almost like winning the battle but losing the war. With hosting, we don’t make a lot. We cover our costs. It keeps people happy, gives us an extra touch point, and helps drum up additional business every now and then.
Alex Wright has been creating commercial websites and optimizing digital experiences for over a decade. He co-founded an award winning software-as-a-service website for commercial artists in the fashion and advertising industries that grew to 22 countries before being acquired by an industry competitor. He now works with his Austin-based team building digital marketing tools for clients in the legal, healthcare, automotive and architecture sectors.