Post-Google update season is typically a boon for SEO providers (good ones and bad ones unfortunately). The industry isn't dead or dying, it's simply evolving. In fact, most things in the business world do not "die", they simply evolve.
I suppose dying versus evolving is a matter of personal preference. I prefer to view markets, verticals, and models as evolving because it helps me accomplish a few different things:
- learn why certain practices and opportunities faded, or are fading, away
- learn what is working now and why
- combine those two basic pieces of knowledge to shape future plans and opportunities
If all you do is bemoan the fact that a particular area of your business is evolving past what may be working now then you'll surely miss the boat on the next wave of success. Even if you don't miss the boat completely you'll be stuck in a self-perpetuating game of always chasing something rather than being out in front of it.
Chasing successful models, rather than creating them, certainly can be profitable but you should strive to have a mix of both in your business. Whether it's a completely new business segment (say PPC if you largely do SEO) or just new tactics (more diverse link building for your own web properties, as one small example) you should be looking behind you, to your left and right, and in front of you.
If you are a solo SEO, or mainly run your own web properties, one smart way to diversify your revenue stream is to get into some client work. This can be a tough proposition, it was for me, because many of us who run our own properties are not too keen on scheduled meetings (especially frequent ones) or dealing with some of the timeless issues of client work:
- rapidly changing expectations
- red tape
- lots of chefs
- writing custom proposals
Many of these items can be thwarted by having a clear, frank discussion about what you'll be doing and by setting parameters from the outset. Hopefully you're in a position where you don't have to sell to eat; meaning, running lean and avoiding debt-leveraging is the best way to be able to hand pick your clients (in my experience).
If you have to take on everyone who walks in the door then your results will suffer, your reputation will suffer, and your work will become a big burden to bear. If you have employees who deal with clients in this type of environment then you will likely lose your best people over time and your workplace will become nothing more than a sweatshop with computers.
In addition to all of those negatives, having to sell/sell/sell probably means your margins are thin which directly leads to client's not getting the appropriate service and attention, relative to what they are being billed for.
Selling, itself, might be the biggest hurdle for you. Before I got into this industry I was an insurance agent, Being an insurance agent helped me immensely with being able to sell an otherwise complicated product to folks who didn't have a full grasp of all the relevant subject matter (specific coverages, exclusions, and so on). Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful for you and your SEO sales.
Similarities Between Insurance and SEO
I sold Personal Insurance (car, home, renter's, condo, jewelery, etc) and it was a weird product to sell. It's one of the few things people buy that they hope they never have to use and they have to buy it every year (assuming they have stuff they need to protect). There are some interesting parallels to selling SEO, oddly enough. The serious buyers in the insurance and SEO marketplaces are looking to protect a valuable asset; in insurance it may be their home, car, or life. In SEO it's basically their online presence.
As with any other industry, there are tire kickers and price shoppers. I would caution against excluding price shoppers from a "preferred" client list. They may require a bit more upfront work but just because the might be doing cost comparisons it doesn't necessarily mean they are cheap. In fact, they might be a dream client so avoiding the "well they are price shopping so they must be cheap" argument would serve you well.
Remembering that the sales process is some odd combination of value, facts, and emotion helped me avoid the (very easy to fall into trap) of selling price. I knew many insurance agents that sold on price and did pretty well short term. A more defensible strategy long term, and where agents really make their money, is on retention. If you set the client's expectation that your only benefit to them is price they will leave you, soon, for the same reason.
If you are looking to build a solid client base you have to be able to compete on price but not sell on price. You should be able to answer questions beyond price if you truly believe in the product you are selling.
Before I was an agent I was an underwriter and responsible for the profitable growth of an insurance agency's book of business. I managed anywhere from 50-75 agencies at a time. I can tell you, without equivocation, that the agencies who avoided the trap of selling (not competing) on price absolutely killed it on retention.
In the insurance world, as in the SEO world, retention is mission critical to long term success. If you let price define your business then you'll be participating in a race to the bottom and end up like barely profitable PC makers.
So, how did I compete on price but not sell on it?
- basic study of behavioral economics
An example here would be conditioning the client to understand the difference between best price, better price, and lowest price. A stripped down policy that doesn't cover everything they want to cover or need to cover, which is $300 cheaper that what I'm selling, isn't the best price or even a better price compared to my price. It's the cheapest but not the best.
In my experience, most people who have stuff to protect (new cars, homes, boats, jewelry, etc) will spend the extra money to get a quality policy from someone they feel they can trust and whom they feel is knowledgeable and those are the the type of clients you want!
A company or person who values their online presence and marketing initiatives should be willing to pay a bit more for more reputable work from a reputable company. If you have evidence to back up your claims of being that company then you will win more than you lose even if you aren't the lowest price.
Framing the Offer
What never worked for me in SEO sales was pre-packaged offers. I know it works for some agencies but I always felt like I was selling Hot Cakes and Hash Browns rather than an actual service. Plus, as time goes on and the market becomes more complex and sophisticated so do solutions.
Offering add-on services is great for ROI, so if you're an SEO firm maybe you start offering PPC, conversion, and social services. Add-ons make package pricing super-tough if you are doing it at scale. Packages significantly keep pace with increased RFP demand but are you really delivering the appropriate price for each client as well as for your bottom line?
I do not see how you could advocate for packages across the board because the core of the "for" argument would be that you can sell 2 different sites at the same price inside of different verticals. If you do that how are you maximizing value to you and the client? You aren't, it's that simple. Are they in the same vertical? Ok, but the competition is likely different, the search volume is likely different, and so on.
If you just sell a pre-priced packaged you will negatively affect quality in a variety of ways:
- client being overcharged
- client being undercharged
- cutting corners to save margin
- under-delivering and taking more margin to try and save the account
- not maximizing the balance between client ROI and company profit
I do like using packages after customizing the quote, this is where the framing comes in. As an insurance agent we were generally pushed to try and get folks to prepay the policy for the year through a variety of methods:
- full payment discounts
- increased cost for use of credit cards
- monthly billing fees
So if you were my client I would frame this as "billing discounts". Take a $1,000 policy as an example:
- stipulating a normal $5.00 per month billing fee totaling $60.00 per year = 6%
- most companies give a 5-10% discount for paying in full (cash or check), we'll say it's 5%
The discussion would be something like "We can save you over 10% per year if you pay in full with cash or a check via our cash discount option." Or you could frame the non-cash payment option, which removes the 5-10% discount as a convenience charge of some sort. The information is the same either way, but frame it in that way and you'll have much more success with those kinds of sign-ups.
If you go the custom quote route with SEO proposals you get all sorts of benefits:
- built-in up-sell opportunities (more keywords/verticals, more competitive keywords/verticals, PPC, social, conversion, etc)
- the ability to not only cross-sell services but explain the benefits as well. Explaining how PPC can benefit SEO (and vice versa), with examples, at the time of quote delivery is more powerful then just lumping it into a pre-packaged, pump and dump quote
- paint a better picture in a more holistic campaign, specifically targeted to their business, versus a pre-packaged one (add and remove specific services that might not be needed or relevant after some initial conversations prior to quoting the service)
- play quotes off each other (offer at least 3 options, shooting for at least the middle option)
Package pricing works far better in the insurance world versus the SEO world. Insurance options and coverages have specific costs to them determined by predetermined risk tables.
In SEO you have to evaluate competition against an unknown, ever-changing algorithm in addition to figuring out potential ROI in the PPC world against CPC's that could be all over the place from industry to industry as well as potential profitability from conversion optimization help you might be interested in offering.
Being able to customize quoting options puts you in a better position to frame your offers versus a more stagnant pricing model like you see in the insurance market (even though you can still introduce framing effectively there). Of course, custom quoting comes with its own issues like spending time of RFP's versus actual work.
One solution to the sunk cost on creating custom proposals is to, after your initial discovery call/feeling out call, charge a fee relative to a few hours of your time (or however long it takes you to do a mostly accurate proposal or even a ballpark figure if the client is comfortable with a range). If they balk at that then they probably aren't serious and they likely do not respect your time. If you have a solid reputation you can probably do this with some success, if you are new and unestablished you might need to bite the bullet for awhile.
What Makes Sense For You
There are so many variables that come into play when figuring out this piece of your sales process. You can have some packaged pricing for sure, many PPC companies offer a percentage of spend as a base fee as an example. With the recent, frequent (and substantial) algorithmic changes it really is important to be able to put together a package specifically for a client based on their situation, goals, and budget. It's going to be hard to base your business on selling SEO as a widget-type process (20 links per month, 10 articles per month, etc) going forward.
Some SEO's are all-client based, some just run their own properties, and I think there is a trend starting where SEO's are doing both. Each business model has its own pro's and con's, as well as many different variables, so one set of tips will likely not resonate or be specific to all. However, I think there are a few overarching points that SEO's looking to diversify into client work or who want to be more profitable on the client side should consider:
- get to a point financially (cash flow, debt, margins) where you can pick and choose clients ASAP as it is such a beneficial position to be in on a number of fronts
- if you are currently a packaged product seller start experimenting with custom quotes (and try to put out at least 3 options)
- try a few different pricing options for the actual proposal work and delivery
- be as clear as possible when discussing deliverables (my biggest mistakes have been because of this, bad for me and bad for the client)
- before and during the design of your pricing strategy read Rafi Mohammed's books on pricing
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