If you run your creative agency like most, then you rely almost entirely on word-of-mouth referrals to grow. When this works, it’s great! But when it doesn’t, you just have to sit back and hope something changes.
This is the feast or famine cycle of business most agency owners are painfully familiar with. This happens because when you depend on word-of-mouth referrals, essentially you are depending on little more than luck.
When you’re overworked and have more projects than you can handle, hiring somebody to help you out is still a scary prospect because just a few months ago you were struggling to pay your bills. How do you know that won’t happen again?
Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about making payroll every month?
What about being able to confidently grow your team because you know your pipeline is full?
While that may be far from your current reality, it doesn’t have to be a pipedream.
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To make this a reality, you need a system that lets you stop depending on luck and start reliably finding and closing clients so you can keep your pipeline full and grow your business without the stress of unpredictable cash flow.
At Hubstaff, we make time tracking software for remote teams and some of our best clients are digital agency owners. When I came onboard as the Marketing Director, I launched the Agency Advantage Podcast to interview successful agency owners and get them to share actionable advice to help our listeners grow their businesses.
I’ve talked to hundreds of freelancers and digital agency owners and know that one of the main things holding both groups back is the unpredictability of finding clients.
To help remedy that, I put together a 3-part system based on my interviews with agency experts that will reliably keep your pipeline full and let you build and grow a real agency.
Build an audience
Whenever I bring up building an audience to agency owners, I get a lot of pushback. Even after explaining that this can be as simple as building and maintaining an email list, I often hear, “What do I need a list for? I’m not trying to build a brand, I just want clients.”
I can understand the feeling, but without having some way to capture the attention of potential buyers, you end up turning away everybody who isn’t ready to buy today.
That may be fine today, but what happens tomorrow when you don’t have any work?
If you have the mindset of building an audience, then instead of turning those people away, you can use your content to keep them engaged, provide value, and position yourself as an expert so that when they are ready to buy, they come to you first.
And when they do come to you, the sale is much easier.
“Great, but that sounds like it takes a lot of time…”
The fastest way to build an audience is to borrow somebody else’s audience by guest posting or appearing on their podcast. You’ll notice that’s exactly what I’m doing here at Millo.
You can do that by following these four simple steps:
- Find somebody reaching your target market
- Pitch them on why you are uniquely able to provide their audience with value
- Deliver on your promise
- Bring them into your audience by giving them a way to learn more on the topic (an email course, ebook, etc.)
The process doesn’t have to be complicated. You just need to make sure your host’s audience is made of people who could be potential clients and that you give them a reason to join your audience.
So if you’re a web designer, this probably means you shouldn’t be going on web design podcasts because you usually aren’t being hired by other designers.
For more information on building an audience, check out my interview with Kai Davis, founder of Double Your Audience.
Build a system to scour job boards (no, I’m not kidding)
Building an audience gives you another growth engine in addition to referrals, but because it can take time to get results it still doesn’t completely get you away from the feast or famine cycle. To really smooth out the peaks and valleys, you need an outbound strategy.
A great way to do that is by reaching out to people who have posted requests on job boards.
Before you get your pitchforks out, I’m not talking about sites like Upwork. Instead, I mean sites like Authentic Jobs or even better, ones specific to your niche, like Dribbble.
The trouble with these job boards is that you are going to be competing with a lot of noise, but fortunately, most of them suck at writing emails and treat it like a numbers game.
If you can follow these 5 rules for writing non-sucky emails, then you’ll be able to stand out from the crowd:
- If you want to get real results for your business, you can’t just spam out the same message to everybody you contact. You can use a template, but you need to really personalize each email.
- Your subject line needs to prove that you know about your prospect and you aren’t spam
- It takes more than 1 sentence to connect with somebody, but at the same time, nobody wants to read an encyclopedia
- Don’t give your prospect more work! (tell them what to do next)
- Follow up until they say yes or no
To learn more about writing emails that win you clients, check out my interview with Robert Williams, founder of Let’s Workshop.
Relentlessly pursue your dream clients
If the first two steps help you break free from the feast or famine cycle, it’s this last step that sets your agency on the path for growth.
While there are probably 1000s of good clients out there for you, there are a small number that have the potential to truly change the trajectory of your business. For some of you this may be Fortune 500 companies, while for others it may be people willing to spend more than $500 on a website.
I’m talking about the type of clients that can take your agency to the next level, whatever that level may be.
Most agency owners assume that just by working their referrals they’ll be able to move upmarket and start attracting the big dogs, but that doesn’t always work.
Sure, you are probably taking on bigger projects than when you first started, but it’s going to take awhile for the mom & pop shop down the road to refer you to somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody in the C-suite at Coca Cola.
By being deliberate and creating a process to consistently reach out directly to these dream clients, you set yourself up to not just stay busy, but to work on bigger and more exciting projects.
Isn’t that what you got into this for, anyways?
The 5 steps to landing dream clients:
- Identify 20-100 clients who have the potential to transform your agency
- Find the decision maker at each company, the person who has the authority to actually hire you
- Research the hell out of them. Your goal is to learn enough so you can customize your efforts to their specific needs. These dream clients are worth enough that you can afford to spend time to truly personalize your approach and increase your chance of success.
- Find a creative way to physically get your message in front of them and get them on the phone. This is where the strategy stands out and where you get to have some fun. These high-value prospects are getting pitched every day, so you need to stand out if you want to get their attention. I’ve seen people do this by sending a literal message in a bottle to the prospect, or even a hollowed out book. Find something that when they receive they have no choice but to read it and give you a call.
- When you have them on the phone, explain your unique value and make the sale.
To learn more about creative outreach and see the hollowed out book example, check out my interview with Jake Jorgovan, founder of Outbound Creative.
Setting up your agency for success
This 3-step system keeps your pipeline full because it combines inbound and outbound to smooth out the common peaks and valleys of freelance work. It helps you grow by consistently reaching out to clients a step above where you are now.
And if you consistently execute this system, not only will you start to break free of the typical feast or famine cycle, but you’ll be steadily moving upmarket. This “growth by default” is how you build a lasting, profitable agency.
Now, it’s your turn! Tell me in the comments what tips you have to keep your pipeline full.
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