Austin F. Cline is the founder and CEO of ASUN Digital, a B2B marketing agency.

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How to Start an SEO Agency

Opening an SEO agency is an attractive business venture for many marketers. They are low-cost and high-margin businesses. However, while the profits may seem like an easy catch, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to running a successful SEO agency longterm.

If you’re thinking about starting an SEO agency, consider these 5 things most new owners commonly overlook and make sure your venture gets off to the right start.

1.) You need to know SEO… like really know it

This probably seems obvious. The reality is, there are lots of courses and con artists selling 2-hour agency courses or promising you can become a Facebook expert in just 3 months. These are complete bullshit. Ten video lessons and a bunch of spreadsheets will never replace the experience of actually running an SEO campaign.

Good SEO is a high-level marketing service like copywriting and full-stack development. If you want a business that will succeed in the competitive SEO market, you need expert-level knowledge of search engine optimization before opening your agency. You need real-world experience running SEO campaigns and delivering results for clients.

You need to know how to sell, what to charge, how to execute an SEO campaign, and how to communicate and manage clients. Without experience, the digital agency business cycle will be foreign to you and you’ll risk going out of business quickly.

If you don’t know SEO yet, get a job at a digital agency or in-house at a company. Then get a few clients on the side to acclimate yourself to freelancing before stepping out completely on your own.

2.) You need to understand how to market a business

Mastering the technical side of SEO is great. But, when you open an SEO agency, you’ll soon find you need more than just a technical skillset to succeed.

When a company hires you to do SEO, they’re hiring you to grow their business. If you only consider yourself a technician—someone pushing levers behind the scenes—your clients won’t value the services you’re providing. Marketing is a vital part of any company’s success, and clients are looking for agency partners who bring them great marketing ideas.

As an SEO expert, you need to understand their sales goals, sales funnel, and brand strategy in order to provide accurate SEO strategies. You need to speak their language, not spew technical nonsense.

Too many digital freelancers and agencies ignore these fundamentals of marketing. I’m not saying you need to learn copywriting and design, just that you need to step outside your SEO bubble and learn the business side. You’re no longer a staff member or employee. You are a business owner, and it’s time to step up your game.

3.) You need to know the basics of web design

SEO and web design are closely related. In fact, nearly every SEO campaign I’ve ever handled included an element of web design or development.

Our SEO agency has in-house designers and developers, but if you’re not in that position you need to brush up on good web design practices before opening your agency.

You don’t need to know how to mockup a full website or code from scratch (although these are both very helpful), but you do need to understand things like semantic HTML, javascript rendering, stylesheets, conversion optimization, page speed optimization, and responsive design. These are each crucial to a good SEO campaign.

4.) You need to build partnerships

Agencies and freelancers are starting to specialize at a higher rate than ever before. At the beginning of your SEO agency, you may not have all the necessary resources to run a full-scale SEO campaign. That’s why building relationships with other agencies or freelancers who can supplement your skills is important.

When you first start your business, reach out to agencies, freelance designers, developers, content marketers, copywriters, and editors. Let them know you do SEO and ask if they will partner with you for specific tasks.

Freelancers vs. Agencies

If you hire freelancers, I recommend finding experts who charge a lot. As you build processes in your agency, it will be harder and harder to bring new workers in, so the more you work with the same people, the better. And good, reliable freelancers are not cheap. Low-cost freelancers are not worth the money saved. The experts know their worth, are consistent, and will make you look good with your clients.

Depending on the situation, I like to partner with agencies first and freelancers second. Agencies typically have more resources and bandwidth to get the job done correctly and quickly.

Building these partnerships might feel awkward at first. You’ll think, “Why am I doing work with another marketing agency? Aren’t they the competition?” Maybe, but probably not. Consider these points:

First, agencies may not do the same work you do. High-level SEO is a unique skill that a lot of marketing agencies don’t have expertise in. Your skills may even be as valuable to them as theirs are to you.

Secondly, even if you both do SEO, you might know a particular industry better than they do and vice-versa. Calling on an expert in a particular niche is common among creatives. Industries like medical, health and wellness, and gambling require expertise and insights that can be foreign to an agency that doesn’t specialize in these areas.

Eventually, the goal is to hire a team of experts. Until then, build win-win relationships with others.

5.) You need to choose a specialization

Finding the right specialization is key to your agency’s growth. There are a ton of marketing agencies out there. If you want to grow your agency, you need to specialize in something and stand out.

There are lots of industries that could use your SEO services. Doctors, wellness practitioners, B2B companies, SaaS companies, financial, tech… I’m only touching the surface here.

Before you choose, think about who could use your services the most.

If a particular industry doesn’t need SEO to grow, it won’t be a good vertical to specialize in. But even if an industry does rely on SEO and digital marketing, think about the value of the lead you bring them.

If the lifetime value of their customers is low, your service will not be valuable to them. For example:

To a roofer or homebuilder, an average lead is worth $10,000+. To a chiropractor, an average lead is worth $500-$2,000. Therefore, homebuilders will pay you more than a chiropractor since your services are more valuable to them.

Choosing a specialization is important to your branding and your processes. It’s the best way to grow fast and be profitable. When you specialize in an industry, you immediately separate yourself from the generalists. You can laser focus your sales and lead generation and grow fast.

Consider specializing in a service

Another option is to narrow your service offerings. Chances are you’re great at one or two things. Trying to be full service right off the bat is a losing proposition. Simply put, it’s tough to sell, support, and service every single marketing need for a client.

Would you rather be known as an expert at one or two things, or just be kinda good at 10 different things?

Don’t be afraid to limit your offerings in the beginning. There is always room to expand when you get bigger and learn the industry more.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the things to do when starting your agency. I hope you found them helpful.

Have questions about starting your own agency? Email me: austin at austincline.com

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