"Agencies get hired to help their clients grow their business. Most of the time, this means doing a lot more than a one-off project. It usually means long term relationships.” says Joseph Jerome, Founder of Brand Builder Solutions.
Further, “retainers mean less pitching new accounts and more focus on clients” says communications and marketing consultant, Kylie Williams. A win-win.
Therefore, while many agencies cut their teeth on project work in some form as they start their agency or start new relationships, most agencies strive to switch to retainer relationships. Their hope? Ongoing services can ensure ROI for their clients and in so doing, ensure cash-flow consistency and growth for themselves.
But, going from a website project to a long-term relationship isn’t always smooth. Companies often approach agencies just to fix a website, even though they usually need help with other things as well.
When I started the HubSpot partner program in 2009, very few small digital agencies were selling retainers. In fact, the reason many joined the program was to learn how to sell inbound marketing retainers instead of just website projects or short-term SEO projects.
Today, many agencies have figured it out. To help the rest learn how to turn website conversations into long-term retainer relationships, my team at Databox teamed up with Brand Builder Solutions to ask 27 agency pros how they do it.
Before we dig in, it’s worth making note of a few interesting facts about the marketing agencies who shared their advice.
First, we asked, “What % of your new clients initially hire you to redesign or build a website?”
As the data shows, websites are key to new client acquisition for agencies, with almost 70% of agencies reporting that at least 25% (and up to 75%) of their client relationships start with a website build or redesign. But, none of the respondents reported more than than 75% of their relationships starting off with a website. The takeaway? While quite a few of these agencies are closing some retainer clients right off the bat, the website is often where the conversation starts.
It’s not a surprise, therefore, to see that most of the agencies we surveyed are employing full-time web designers.
We also asked how often website work leads to other work. As you can see from the graph below, project work converts to more meaningful engagements at a pretty good clip.
But, how many of these agency’s clients actually sign on for a retainer?
Among the marketers we talked to, the percentage is very high. In fact, almost 40% of the marketers we surveyed turn at least three-quarters of their website clients into retainers.
How do they do it? Here’s what we learned.
“At Nextiny, we believe that websites are just a part of an overall growth strategy,” says Gabriel Marguglio. “But, even though they are just part of the strategy, the website is the foundation. It is impossible to attract leads online that will convert into customers without a website that is optimized in every way. Websites, therefore, are the first step.”
“When a potential customer comes to us stating that they need a website, we ask ‘Why?’ Usually, the answer is,’We have an old website and we need a new one, we should have done this a long time ago.’ We then ask, ‘But why do you think that you need a new website? What is going to be the objective of this new website?’ and ‘Why do you believe this new website will achieve that goal?’”
“Therefore,” Marguglio continues, “the conversation changes into goals and the purpose of a site which usually is that they want more business, more leads, more sales, etc. At that point, we communicate that we don’t believe that websites by themselves can fix any of those issues and that they are just the starting point when you are trying to generate leads, opportunities or sales using online marketing.”
“To help prospective clients understand how else we can help then, we ask them about their business goals, plans to achieve them, challenges they are having or anticipate having, and their timeline for implementing their plans and achieving their goals. (Some refer to it as GPCT.) If the prospect is committed to do what it takes for growth,, we continue defining what that would look like for them, but if they are not, then we take a different route: we offer a Website + Strategy + Coaching retainer. We then help our clients at the pace they are comfortable with. We might just help them with a website initially. We might help them build a strategy that they execute themselves. We might enter into an ongoing relationship where we are coaching them as they implement that strategy themselves. Or they might decide to engage us to execute more of the work for them. Over time, as we show them what we can do and what is possible for their busines, they usually invest more with us.
Alisha Chocha of Your Marketing People says this: “When it comes to helping small businesses understand why a retainer is important, it's critical to teach them about how the whole inbound marketing funnel works—from turning website visitors into lead, to a buyer, to an advocate of the brand. It never stops at a website rebuild or redesign because a website is only one component in the grand scheme of things.”
Choch continues, “Websites give your brand an identity/voice, but are not necessarily built to convert new leads - landing pages do that better. That's why we tell clients instead of just focusing on getting a website, you should think of the whole customer journey.”
For example, Marguglio asks his prospects, “How long does it take for a lead to convert into a sale? Days? Weeks? Months?” With that information in hand, he tells them to, “Think of that time and all the touchpoints that will be necessary so you can stay top of mind while they are still deciding.”
He continues, “And what about previous customers that revisit your website—are you marketing to them with the right message and offers?” and explains, “It's typically more cost-efficient to market to past buyers than generate new business because they already have that positive past relationship with you. Marketing doesn't stop once you get people through the door—it involves a lot of different components.” Once Marguglio explains this, he’ll ask his prospects, “Do you want an agency to just build you a new website or who will help convert your traffic into long-term clients?”
“Before we start working with a new client on their website,” says Erica from The Spot On Agency, “we review their branding and strategy to ensure a solid marketing foundation has been built. If it needs work, we will recommend new messaging and our strategy workshop.”
“Clients come out of the workshop with a list of action items for a marketing campaign, such as blogging and content creation, and usually enlist our help with the copywriting and/or design through an ongoing marketing retainer.”
“As far as the website, we make it known that the new design will be primarily based on assumptions, and the only real way to validate what we've done is through analytics and testing. We let them know that a design retainer is a way that we can make continuous improvements to their website.”
Jerome adds, “Even if a site is being replaced, if it’s getting visitors, then there is something to be learned by what those visitors are doing. Using data about current performance, we can reduce assumptions.”
Julia Payne from Incisive Edge says that a client’s “website is a culmination—a reflection—of strategic planning across buyer personas, customer journeys, competitive research, positioning and messaging. The site needs to speak to your audience and address their pain points together with their buying and decision-making journey.”
“A site that’s developed in isolation of a strategy is nothing more than a design folly. It’s never going to achieve its true potential in terms of driving leads, clients and ROI. ”
“Clients usually say that they want to talk about the website first and leave the chat about marketing until the site is live,” says Ryan Scollon, a freelance provider of SEO and PPC services. “This is when I explain to them that’s completely backwards and often results in building a website twice. In fact, we have had many prospective clients come to us that have had their sites built elsewhere and we have to tell them that their website is missing the key things needed to grow and convert traffic.”
“So it’s important to think about the marketing first, so we can build the new site with marketing in mind.”
Robert Johns from UNINCORPORATED has a similar focus early in client relationships:
“[W]e know that a client isn't simply looking for a better-looking website; they want a new site that will lead to better business results. After all, people don't want a drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”
“The very first question we ask clients during the planning process is, ‘What is the primary purpose of your website?’ This question exposes the core challenge they're looking to address. And more often than not, clients want their site to generate leads and sell products.”
“If a client wants to generate leads, for example, we'll then ask, ‘Do you have a CRM? What happens to a lead's information after they submit a form? What automated email workflows are set up?’ If these areas haven't been addressed, we're then able to have a conversation about additional work.”
“In short, we've found that solving one problem often exposes another. If you've built trust with a client and they see you as a true partner, a simple website project can lead to a long-term retainer.”
TSL Marketing makes sure “that clients know that a redesign is just the first step toward optimization. We ask them about the business growth they’re looking to achieve, and prescribe ongoing solutions to help them start a path to those goals,” says Ryan Nicholson.
4. Uncover Their Sales and Business Goals
“It all comes down to their goals and what they want to achieve,” says Oliver from Catalyst. “Rarely does a client want to build a new website for the sake of building a new website. Generally speaking, companies want their website to help them build awareness in their market and to generate conversions.”
“While a website can do that, of course, there's a lot of ongoing work in the background that's needed to ensure those conversions happen on a regular basis, such as backlink building, ad campaigns and content creation.”
“We make it very clear at the start of the relationship that while the website is a very important tool in achieving their wider goals, more needs to be done than just launching a new site.”
Eric Swain outlines Equinet’s strategy:
“In discussion, we step them back from the web project to ask about their business goals, their marketing goals, and why (and how) they think a new website is going to help them achieve them.”
“We broaden the scope of the discussion, ask a lot of questions, get them thinking about the overall marketing/sales/revenue flow in a more holistic way. Have they developed a strategic approach to how the website sits at the centre of an overall content and inbound marketing strategy?”
Several marketers specifically brought up the importance of SEO.
José Morales from Sneakerlost says that “perhaps the main argument is that a website is something alive, It has to be improved, reworked, updated, optimised...etc, many actions that must be practiced on a daily basis.”
Morales outlines a few of those actions:
- “Once the web is done, you have to do a technical SEO audit to check if everything is ready to grow organically.
- We will do a keyword research to know through which terms our potential audience will find us and introduce them in the content of the site.
- We will have to create and configure Google Analytics to know the performance details of our site and measure its evolution.”
Sagefrog’s Ben Johnston agrees:
“While they may have existing rankings, few clients understand how to continually carry out SEO tactics that can increase ROI of their new site. You may have a sparkly new site but you still need to put that site to use by adding new quality content and carrying out continual SEO that should increase search visibility.”
“We typically turn a project into a retainer by explaining the importance of ongoing SEO, and why extending a project another 2 months for SEO doesn’t work. Because SEO is a continuous, time-consuming process, it’s important to stay on top of it if they want a better ROI from their website project.”
To land a retainer, you need to bring up the option to the client. But when do you bring it up? And how? We got several opinions.
Introduce Retainers Right Away
“From the very beginning, we incorporate our recommendations for how their website could be improved from a conversion standpoint,” says AdVision’s Meredith Cook. “A beautiful website is lovely to look at, but if it isn't built to convert, the marketing value just isn't there.”
“We focus on actionable conversion rate optimizations and ongoing SEO work to show the client the value we can provide them over time. We want them to know it's not a one-and-done deal—digital marketing is a dynamic process that needs constant support. That's where we retain clients.”
Anne Shenton from Ascend Inbound gives similar advice: “By posing the right questions early on in the process, you'll have a better chance of selling other solutions down the road.”
Shenton notes, however, that “it has to be a soft sell. We try to speak to their pain points vs. introducing a solution right out of the gate.”
Jerome adds, “Be upfront about what kind of investment will be required to achieve their goals. If it’s going to be $250,000 over the next 2 years you’ve got to say it. Just make sure you present it in a way, so that they understand they can invest that money in internal resources, with your agency or another another agency. But, you have to tell them so they can taccount for it in their planning. You’re not just selling ‘you’, you’re selling the realistic commitment needed for the outcomes desired.”
Throughout the Project
“We try to offer bits of advice (ranging from quick wins to major overhauls) as we work through the redesign to help position ourselves as experts,” says SparkReaction’s Kelly Groover.
“As we have these discussions, we find our clients asking if we can discuss these items further after the website project is complete. Once the client understands all of our offerings, recognizes us as an expert and sees our proven value after the website project is complete, it's a smooth transition into an advisory retainer.”
Toward the End of the Project
Cain from Good People says this: “I find the best way to keep clients past the initial refresh/setup phase is to offer a high-value retainer follow up.”
“For example in the past, our agency was contracted to design a website. Towards the end of the process, we started stressing the need of monthly search engine optimization and social media content to help drive sales and traffic.”
Cain gives the following advice to other agencies, “They're already working with you, they will be open to more if you provide maximum value on the first project. Always under promise and over deliver. You are being paid to [solve] the client's problems, so stay on the look-out for future issues they may face, and provide proactive solutions to those problems. Not only will they thank you, but they'll be much more likely to keep you on a retainer.”
Brenda Ledwith from Living Online gives this advice:
“We also lead clients in softly and say that they only need to use our digital marketing services for a few months and then if they don't see a dramatic increase in their business profits, they are free to cancel their contract. Once we show them the value they are getting by combining ongoing digital marketing with their website, they stay on long-term and we enjoy a fantastic partnership.”
Incitrio uses a similar strategy, says Angela Hill. “We create the website as the foundation for all future online marketing work. After the website goes live, we offer a 1/2 day of CMS training and two weeks of "go live" support.”
“After that, we make recommendations for ways to leverage this great foundation and drive more traffic/leads. That turns into a website support and online marketing retainer that is created as a month-to-month retainer with the option to cancel at any time.”
“By giving them the option to cancel, we have ‘skin in the game’ and prove that it is our responsibility to earn their business and keep their business every single month. By giving them an easy out, they know that they are not committing to a bad long-term relationship. Understanding that clients have been burned by other unethical agencies and giving them the control over the length of the contract creates peace of mind.”
“After shifting to this approach, I now have better client retention. Most retainer clients now end up staying on for years.”
“We start out by explaining that it takes continuous effort to keep building a presence online and keep attracting new traffic and leads,” says Conversion Crew’s Ron Dukker. “Building a new website is only part of this trajectory and one of the tools we need for helping clients grow.”
“We only take on clients who are open to this philosophy and are therefore open to working together for the long term on a retainer.”
“My agency’s approach has always been on finding quick wins and then transitioning into long term success,” says JD Parkman from Marketing Media Wizard. “If a client doesn’t trust you right off the bat, it doesn’t matter what you can do for them, as you’ll never be around long enough to find out. Convincing a client to stick with you starts with trust. You earn trust by achieving quick wins and giving them something tangible to translate to value.”
“Now, what’s a quick win, you ask? It can be many things, but most importantly it’s something they’ve pointed out in our initial conversations that we go in and solve an aspect of it for them quickly. Once they see we know how to methodically approach and handle their problem is when they trust us to handle it long term.”
“The digital advertising ecosystem has earned their worth when it comes to providing a range of metrics, benchmarks and reporting to Ad buyers,” says Zachary Weiner of Emerging Insider Communications. “In many cases, agencies from PR to social, branding to design have not kept up.”
“By showcasing valid back-end and front-end reporting, an agency should be able to showcase not just the value of the work done, but the value of the ongoing relationship and where it will continue to head. Every month, an agency should be able to support their billing/retainer for the next by providing strong qualitative and quantitative reporting.”
Many of our clients start the conversation by comparing their website to the competition rather than digging into the data behind their site,” says Adam Stewart of Denamico. “In order to make informed decisions, we shape the discussion around traffic and conversion metrics, which ultimately leads to creating goals beyond a new site build or redesign.”
“Rather than simply selling a menu of services, we've found success in providing a combination of business, marketing, and sales consulting on a retainer basis. This allows us to really identify what will help our clients grow their businesses in a more predictable and measurable way—while giving us and the client the flexibility to pursue strategies and tactics on a quarterly or monthly time frame.”
Web Canopy Studio’s Caroline Maier also emphasizes specific data points: “We not only talk through the needs and storytelling components of their new website, but also look at their Sales & Marketing alignment to see where their numbers fall flat.”
“By analyzing where they see a dip (either in website visitors, or leads converting to MQLs) we can develop an Inbound Strategy to help support the new website to turn visitors into leads. Typically, clients will hire us on an Inbound Retainer following a project to assist with content development, strategy and analysis as well as training their internal staff on how to apply those techniques moving forward.”
Structsales is “really into data-driven design and content,” says Niloo Lopez. “So after a website review we have a couple of workshops to really understand the customers personas and the journey to decision for the personas. After that, we design and build the site.”
“This will normally lead to us having a retainer regarding campaigns and content production for the client. Content is what really matters and content is also the bottleneck for most of our clients. It is time-consuming and sometimes hard to create valuable content that looks great and also adds value to the buyer‘s journey.”
The members of Avidly “are strong advocates of a data-driven approach and the Growth Driven Design approach (introduced to us by Luke Summerfield at HubSpot) to developing websites,” says Thoralf Lindström. “In order to get the best results from a website, you need to constantly analyse and follow up. This is a job that few customers are capable of doing in house.”
Avidly also helps their website design clients understand the value of inbound marketing as they are completing initial projects. “Additional to that, we believe that support for inbound marketing and sales has to be developed inside an organization before they are ready to adopt it. So, we always offer free support during that process, that positions us well to be considered for further projects and after that a retainer.”
“In-house marketing teams need training and help. You can offer workshops and training services to in-house teams. There are already a fair number of agencies who provide services like these and this is also an excellent way to get engaged with a company.” shared the CEO of Square 2 Marketing, Mike Lieberman on his blog for agencies.
He shared how this has lead to opportunity for ongoing work for his agency: “We did an onsite training workshop for a company in January and are now talking to them about additional work. As long as you can deliver the training profitably, you should make sure this is an active offer in your services portfolio.”
Jerome suggests fully analyzing the current website first. “I see lots of opportunities missed when things get oversimplified. The buyer doesn’t look at the site the way a company looks at their own or how a developer might look at it. If the navigation of your is messed up, the buyer doesn’t see the call-to-action to your primary landing page or gets pushed to alanding page without the right context, conversions are not going to happen.”
“Every single page is important. We see websites with dead end pages all the time that leave the buyer confused as to what comes next.”
“We can quickly detect these issues by looking at their data. We first look at high level metrics like bounce rates, time on site, conversion rates. We then analyze the most popular pages and the pages with issues with heat map software. We will look at traffic by channel to see if the traffic they are generating is converting. If the site is getting a lot of search traffic, we will dig into SEO data to figure out how that is performing.”
“Many of our new website clients start with purchasing an audit from us. This allows us to do a website design with the business goals in mind. It also sets us up to advise them on ongoing basis after the launch.” Jerome added.
“We always give a bit more than the Client asks for,” says Extrabrains’ Illia Termeno.
“For example, when doing a web design project, we do competitive research and give actionable advice based on it. During the conversations, we ask about ongoing projects and share our opinion. These little things help our Clients build confidence in what we do. Thus, contract prolongation or extension becomes a simple decision.”
Blend Commerce goes above and beyond in a different way. “The absolute key for us is ensuring that team members who are actively working on a clients project are also talking to the client on a regular basis,” says Adam Pearce.
“In the past we'd used a project manager to assist clients, but found that this lead to clients being frustrated when they had specific questions or needed detailed guidance. By ensuring that the team member completing the implementation acts as the main point of contact, a more collaborative approach can be taken, which inevitably leads to a longer term relationship.”
There’s no better way to impress your client than by going above and beyond what’s normally expected of an agency. No matter how you do that, it’s a direct route to a retainer relationship. So take a moment and ask yourself: how can you give extra to your next client?
“Too many agencies think of websites as stepping stones to retainer business. They end up hiring one developer and designer without too much thought about their processes, which leads to doing shoddy work, which does not lead to happy clients -- or retainers. In this way, it’s a pothole, not a stepping stone.
“It’s better if agencies specialize and stick to what they do best. The thing that leads to a retainer is being able to help people and doing it well. In other words, just because your relationship starts with a website discussion, don’t think you need to be great at doing it in-house.”
“Through our partner program for agencies, we have helped agencies secure retainers by doing the initial website work for them.” Jerome added.
Kathy Heil from Storyteller Media shared how Brand Builder Solutions helped her win retainers, “With a new client, we worked with Brand Builder Solutions to launch their website. We wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity had we not had a web design solution as part of our retainer work. They looked at eight different agencies and they chose us. We won because of the combination of our specialized video and content marketing capabilities in their industry and because of the superior website development processes and experience Brand Builder brought to the table”
Not an expert at website design? You do not have to pass up the work. Instead, “work with someone you trust who is awesome at it, while you deliver on the things you do well. Chances are, they will be able to refer clients to you for your specialty too. Not only will it increase your chances of securing a retainer, you’ll get a lot of referrals as well” added Chris Queen of Brand Builder Solutions.
Make a Commitment to Predicting and Delivering an ROI via Retainers
Since the time when I began teaching agencies to sell retainers in the early days of HubSpot’s partner program, a lot has changed.
- More agencies than ever are offering retainer services.
- Pricing retainers has evolved significantly with points-based and value-based pricing.
- The scope of retainers has changed drastically as marketing technology has drastically improved and marketing channels and tactics have exploded in numbers.
- Agencies are helping their clients’ sales and services organizations now too.
But, as the agencies above shared, the reasoning for selling digital marketing retainers has not unchanged in the past 10+ years. It is two-fold:
- A way to deliver ongoing and compounding ROI to clients.
- A way to improve cash-flow consistency and profit-margins in your agency so you can fund your own growth.
While my time at HubSpot was spent helping agencies secure retainers, during my time at Databox, we have been focused more on helping agencies keep those hard-won retainer clients. The key, I have seen over and over again, is to ensure your agency is actually delivering the ROI you promised.
Unfortunately, as the article demonstrates, many retainer relationship do not start off on the right foot, making delivering ROI an impossible feat.
Hopefully, by compiling this list, though, more agencies can properly secure and maintain better retainer relationships.
What are you doing to secure great long-term relationships with clients?