It was the end of March and the end of a way of doing business.
At SEOmonitor, we had a lot of questions as to how to adapt our mission of supporting SEO agencies to acquire, manage, and retain more customers, to the context of a crisis. And we needed to act fast. So we started with understanding.
What follows is the story of how a couple of SEO agencies managed to weather the storm and what we can learn from them in a quest to show what post-pandemic agencies can look like. It involves customer research, experiments, a lot of data aggregation, and changes in roles that are here to stay.
It was also the end of March when we decided to start an in-depth conversation with agencies trying to address the variables and known unknowns that they were facing, as we were struggling to figure the best solutions together.
Under the name of Office Hours, a series of weekly live chats with SEO agencies’ founders unfolded, tackling hard subjects like client retention, cash flows, furlough, and sales during a crisis.
How much of your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) was affected?
That was the question we started the debate with. Getting insights into COVID-19’s impact on the industry meant being better prepared for what was to come. More than 100 answers poured in and the data showed significant percentages of business loss between March and the start of April:
The agencies were expecting an even more challenging impact.
Yet, as we know from past recessions, progressive companies, by Harvard Business Review’s terminology, which use the optimal combination of defense and offense strategies, are the ones that survive and even thrive post-downturn.
It’s no easy feat.
A company needs to balance an optimal mix of defensive moves like cutting operational costs without firing employees, with offensive moves like investing in existing and new business in order to answer consumer needs. HBR’s research shows that’s how companies manage to grow during and after the recession, distancing themselves from their competitors.
So there was an upside to the situation, perhaps.
It was during one particular Office Hours that the idea of an agency 2.0 first appeared.
Tina Judic, CEO of Found, a successful digital growth agency, talked about the opportunity in the midst of chaos to think about a Found 2.0: redefining your agency by reassessing your strengths and opportunities in the context of a pandemic. They were working on it and were pretty excited about it.
That’s when we started looking even closer for answers: to the agency we used to be. An agency that was already reinventing itself.
As we were searching for ways to support agencies navigate uncertainty, Upswing, an established agency with a 1.2 million EUR turnover, was adapting to the late March context with the mix of defense and offense mentioned in recession studies.
The agency was losing MRR and the circumstances weren’t too bright, as clients were struggling with their businesses as well. They realized that continuing long-term SEO strategies was no longer viable, so instead, they started thinking about ways they could help their clients at that moment and make an impact.
How could they create more value? Everyone was strained and under pressure.
What if clarifying shifts in demand for each business, using the agency’s market data, and all their resources, could provide that extra value and the short-term tactics their clients needed then?
So Upswing took a risk and invested in innovation. They built a proprietary tool in almost no time, Upswing COVID-19 Data Trends, highlighting SEO trends for each industry, with daily updated data.
They also decided to keep all their people (no employees in furlough) and not accept discount requests, being an independent agency with cash flow strains. Another risky move, but also one that would support the whole team refocus on creative ways to provide and leverage the new, real-time data.
When the market shifts so dramatically and fast, you can’t just ignore it. “Business as usual” is out the window and the less you change during a crisis, the more effects it will have once the crisis is over.
Upswing realized that and their answer was to invest in research and leverage their unique advantage of real-time data on customer demands from day 0. It was counterintuitive, but it proved to be a risk worth taking.
Even before the lockdown, they prioritized client communication with daily check-ins, making sure they can intervene in a productive manner.
Plus, the team created personalized dashboards for each client in their portfolio in order to know how their business fared from one week to the next, while keeping an eye on industry trends and proactively suggesting solutions to them. And they did that to help frozen accounts as well. Every 2 weeks, they sent specific insights and suggestions on how to act on them from an SEO point of view to yield results fast.
When one of the biggest classifieds players in CEE wanted to downshift their contract, Upswing decided to try a different approach, that meant more research, more investment, more consultancy.
Once more it was about ways to provide them with more value than a discount and usual services would bring. So, instead of focusing on negotiating the downshift, they leveraged their new strength: more relevant data on search trends.
Upswing’s team devised a plan for this client that highlighted:
They managed to secure the same subscription as before for their largest client.
Their investment didn’t stop at data.
They realized marketing their repositioning is just as important, so they redesigned the Upswing website to be fully contextualized to the pandemic times, they created online events on the subject matter, and appeared in media constantly.
Transforming the role of the agency into a more consultative partnership proved to be a winning strategy for retaining clients, though it implied a fine offense-defense line:
And because of this fast-thinking, Upswing managed to quickly stop their churn which was reaching 12% in March, and they’re currently on the rise, estimating a full recovery by the end of May.
As we write these words, the world is progressively coming out of quarantine. New needs and issues will continue to appear as behaviors and priorities transform.
There are still many questions left for agencies to answer like:
But, as we’ve seen from agencies like Upswing or Found, there are a lot of opportunities and lessons to learn for what comes next.
SEO teams have the opportunity to dive deeper into their clients’ businesses. There are a lot of advantages on their side: access to search data and know-how to use that information on how demand is drastically changing to support their clients’ business decisions.
An agency also has more flexibility and can adapt faster. You can support clients to be more data-driven and consult them on the best short-term tactics to apply or where there is room for pivoting.
But that means to have the courage to innovate in terms of services and “business as usual”. You have to spark strategic conversations based on your market research and provide relevant, actionable data that can truly help a business now.
It is an avenue that can support the 2.0 version for many years to come, expanding the types of services provided and the positioning of the agency as a strategic partner more than a campaign executive.
It’s also an opportunity to start observing internal processes and what the forced remote setting brought that can further the consultative role and transform your agency in productive ways.
Going one step further in the agency’s development from marketing consultancy to management consulting, as we’ve hinted in our story so far, also implies a better use of data: clients need their agency both to formulate business issues and find actual, viable solutions now.
You can discover new ways and new software to use industry and client data, or even create the tools to leverage it, while using it day to day, week to week, month to month to support your clients now and in the immediate future.
We remember one of our conversations when Found told us how they helped a B2B client in the tech sector, in a similar vein to Upswing’s example. They discovered a healthcare sector insight based on a BBC news piece which seemed to be relevant to sales. They decided to analyze Google News and looked at the frequency of that topic over the past two months, to see if it was something truly worthy. The spike after COVID-19 continued to grow, so they helped the client pivot their business in that area.
There are many opportunities for agencies to be creative with their data still, as the world continues to create a new normal.
Conversations are not the same anymore, so the changes in positioning also bring different ways of creating new business as an agency. There is this opportunity to focus on a higher-level strategy and offer both consultancy and your executive resources to support clients identify where they can shift their business.
Taking the time to really know the client and the industry as a whole, proactively finding potential problems and creative solutions for their current struggles and reinventing the pitch – these are all patterns that seem to bring success from what we’ve gathered.
Another productive avenue is to understand clients based on their offline versus online capabilities and support them continuously as they make the transition, learn, and even pivot their businesses.
We know it’s hard to predict the next step with so many variables, but since the outbreak, our business strategy continues to grow in accordance with the new needs and pains of SEO agencies.
Ever since the pandemic started, we asked many questions and listened to many stories to shape our own: we kept on learning and designing solutions adapted to the new context and the agencies’ need for different, more relevant data.
That’s why we first launched Search Trends after COVID-19, a free tool that surfaces Exploding and Tanking keywords, topics, websites, and industries. This means SEO professionals are able to understand the new demand in a certain industry and go as narrow as they need to for their clients, both old or potential. We also included the calibrated search volumes in our platform as an option.
Then, to make clients’ struggles more visible, and help teams like Upswing’s know which of their clients are at risk and how their agency’s MRR might be affected, in real-time, we updated our own SEO agency dashboard in SEOmonitor to include a client health tracker.
With a clear view on Business Health after COVID-19 (conversions and sessions) and Campaign Health (SEO objective status), SEO agencies have the relevant data to act fast on average and bad health and continue supporting their clients in the new business context with different strategies.
These solutions are constantly optimized along with all our products dedicated to SEO agencies, supporting them to focus on what matters now and navigate the post-pandemic context.
Join us, and hundreds of SEO agencies’ clients, in the journey of bringing more transparency and measurability to the SEO industry. Click here for a trial that doesn’t ask you for a credit card, but gives you full access to the platform.