So you’ve got some marketing skills, and you’re wondering how to start a digital marketing agency.
But there’s just one problem…
How do you start a digital marketing agency with no experience?
There have never been more opportunities to strike off on your own in the digital marketing space than there today. But how do you actually do it? Where do you start, and how do you scale?
The secret to starting a digital marketing agency with no experience is to have an actual strategy, grow organically as you learn, and deliberately build word of mouth with a specific type of client. It’s about taking aim for a target audience vs. shooting randomly for anyone who will pay and hoping something lands.
There’s also a major misconception that starting a digital marketing agency has to mean a HUGE process that requires building a massive company doing “all the things” and taking all the clients.
In reality, a digital marketing agency can be just…you. It’s not about the pricey software or offices or employees. It’s about determining who you help, how you help them, and then actually doing the work.
The business model of an agency is fairly straightforward. Sure, you can tinker around the edges about whether to bill by the hour, by week, by task, or by the project. But at its core, you are providing specialized knowledge for a fee. An agency of one and an agency of 10,000 work in basically the same way.
With that concept in mind, here’s how to start a digital marketing agency with no experience.
1. Set Your Business Goals
Before you decide to do anything, you’ve got to do some planning. What do you want the business to actually look like? What’s the end goal? The vision?
Starting your digital marketing agency without some sort of direction in mind is like trying to get to a new restaurant with no address and no navigation. You end up lost, taking wrong turns, and probably not having much success.
If you’ve observed the industry for any length of time, you’ll notice that agencies with conflicting goals run into trouble often. But the ones that stick to their vision do well.
- Some agencies want to maximize prestige. They focus on recognizable clients who are willing to do interesting work.
- Some agencies want to maximize profits. They focus on boring but high growth, high opportunity clients.
- Some agencies want to maximize freedom / autonomy. They focus on low maintenance, consistent clients.
- And some agencies want to maximize business value. They focus on internal operations, cash flow, and strong branding.
There is no correct goal – except to choose a specific goal and stick to it no matter what.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to starting a digital marketing agency. There are big agencies, small agencies, agencies that focus on just one part of digital marketing (like search engine optimization), and full-service agencies who do everything from design and development to paid media, local marketing to social media marketing to content marketing to SEO.
The buzzword in the agency world is about “landscapers” vs. “gardeners”. I’ve seen this term on some forums, but most recently via Nick Eubanks.
“Landscaper” agencies focus on coming in and solving specific business problems, sticking to a checklist, and layering additional services. They are fast, have set rates, and focus on services rather than outcomes. They are like landscaping companies who show up, cut grass, spread fertilizer, leave – then call in the Fall about trimming and leaf raking.
“Gardener” agencies focus on developing a deep knowledge of the clients’ business so that they can use a range of tools to grow the business into what it could be. They are heavy on digital marketing strategy. They establish a long-term relationship and focus on a long-term business & marketing goal rather than specific marketing services. They are like professional gardeners who show up, spend most of the time discussing your property’s potential, and then work towards that outcome.
It’s up to you to decide who you want to serve and how you want to serve them.
What To Consider
- Do you want to serve local clients, or go outside of your local sphere?
- Are you focusing on a specific industry?
- Do you want to offer a specific digital marketing service, or a variety of services?
- Will a potential client need to be within a certain budget?
- Are there services you don’t want to offer? Niches you don’t want to serve?
What To Avoid
- Avoid trying to have something for everyone. You know what they say about a jack of all trades… you’re a master of none.*
- Avoid direction hoping. Pick a direction and see it through until you have enough data and experience to make a decision on changing directions.
*of course, the rest of the saying is that ”…oftentimes better than a master of one.” It’s also good to consider if you are going to be a specialist agency – like an “SEO Agency” – or are you going to be a digital agency that happens to focus on one industry.
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2. Define Your Target Audience
The irony of all ironies is that usually, marketers are horrible at marketing themselves, mainly because they don’t go through their own steps.
If you’ve done any marketing before, then you know one of the first things is to clarify your target audience. The same applies to starting your digital marketing agency.
Who is your ideal client?
Once you’ve decided on who you want to serve, it’s time to dive a bit deeper. What are they struggling with? How do you help them with that problem?
Outline the wants, needs, likes, dislikes, habits, and information of someone you think would definitely be an ideal client for your agency.
Outline what their marketing needs are, what their goals are, and how you can help achieve those goals through the service(s) you’ve decided to offer.
Don’t just armchair your vision, imagine it. Ask potential customers what they struggle with when it comes to getting the word out about their business.
What do they wish they could get some help with? What do they look for in a digital marketing company?
Make 2 to 4 very specific personas. Remember that your initial market is not your total market. Even if you start out by targeting a very specific geographic area or a very specific customer doesn’t mean that you can’t expand. It’ll just give you more focus.
I know that I spent my first few years just serving “everyone.” I had no idea who I wanted to do marketing for, so I ended up with a crazy mix of clients. At first, I had a:
- solo yoga business owner who had no budget and wanted a brand feel for her clients
- a midwestern manufacturer who wanted his website to impress vendors and leads for his non-digitally savvy sales team
- a fast growing automotive business who wanted marketshare at any cost
- a church with very exacting content management system requirements
- an ecommerce website focused with SEO problems and payment gateway issues and seasonal sales
I had too many tools, too much overhead, too many demands, and no ideas for how to grow or even hire help. I couldn’t sell on a promising prospective client for fear that my existing clients would leave.
What To Consider
- Get specific. It’s better to start small and scale (i.e. being a digital marketing agency that helps local dentists get more clients through organic search) than try to help everyone and get lost in the noise (i.e. being a digital marketer who can do anything for any business).
- Remember that your initial market is not your total market. It just gives you focus for your marketing efforts and lead generation.
What To Avoid
- Avoid businesses that don’t align with your overall business strategy. Sure, it’s great to get work in the beginning, but remember… pick a direction and stick to it. If you don’t offer a service, don’t offer it – even if it means turning down a little bit of money at the beginning.
- Avoid businesses that won’t provide good word of mouth, case studies, or testimonials. A toxic client will only be profitable in the very short-term. They always lose money in the long-term.
- Personas aren’t just for a marketing plan. Have 2-4 for your own business direction so you know who to say yes to and who to say no to. You won’t be a successful agency without saying no at some point.
3. Build an Online Presence
Once you have an idea of what type of agency you are, who you serve, and how you serve them, it’s time to think about how you’re going to present this information.
This means building your online presence through your website and social channels.
Setting Up Your Website
You don’t need to have a full-blown website to have a digital marketing agency. But given you’re helping people get seen online, you should have some sort of online presence.
If you are going super-lean, you can use a Facebook page, Yelp profile, or a few focus (aka “landing”) pages (more on that in a minute).
But going without a decent-looking website will put you behind the curve and place limitations on what you can do with your brand & marketing campaign.
That route will give you a good technical foundation with a fast, simple setup and access to other business tools like email and digital storage. It will also allow you to implement a customized off-the-shelf design – “themes.”
Themes allow you to have a website that looks good enough to make a sale without spending months and lots of money on a 100% custom design. Creating a website on something like WordPress also allows you to implement a 100% custom design when that time comes.
Note – self-hosting WordPress does have a learning curve. For a long-term website with a business that has resources, it’s worthwhile. But – there is absolutely a role for a hosted website builder for many businesses – especially if your business will focus on clients who use a specific platform (like Wix, Squarespace, or Shopify). I have a guide to selecting a good website builder here. Practicing what you preach goes a long way with skeptical prospects.
Note – the other benefit of self-hosting is recurring maintenance revenue. Reseller hosting plans are super-affordable and can allow you to bundle a maintenance package for web design clients that are super-profitable. That said, some website builders allow you to arrange users.
Setting Up Focused (aka “Landing”) Pages
As I mentioned above, a few high-quality focused pages on your website can get you a long way. In addition to your Home page, About page, and Privacy page, you need landing pages to address specific needs.
When I say “landing pages” – don’t think of anything too complex or anything that you would need to A/B test.
I’m simply referring to pages that visitors can land on from a search engine or an ad and find exactly what they are looking for. I like to call them Focused Pages rather than Landing pages.
Why? Here’s a pro tip that few website owners will admit to nobody cares about or even sees your homepage.
Your homepage is for people who already know you who are. For businesses in a single specific service, you can use it to “rank” for your main industry term.
Landing pages go beyond your homepage.
Landing pages are for new (or returning) visitors to land on and convert. Before you build out all your website pages, you should develop focused landing pages that sell to one or all of these buckets:
Service-specific – These pages should promote your services. But, they shouldn’t be generic. You should make them either focused on the problem that your service solves (ie, no website traffic) or focused on the application of your service. For example, it’s one thing to offer “SEO” – it’s another to make websites more crawlable, more relevant, and more visible in search.
Geography / Demography specific – These pages are all about the location service & logistics of obtaining your agency’s services. Even though your work might be global, your clients’ are likely not global. They will pay for someone who understands their local market. Additionally, if you have a keen understanding of a demographic (ie, college students), then you can focus on that as well.
Industry-Specific – These pages should promote your expertise within specific industries. Even though marketing principles do not differ much across industries, clients want someone who can understand their perspective. If you know more than someone else about [X] industry, you should promote that. And if you can go deeper within a niche, then do that.
Now – the magic here is combining buckets & going deeper within each bucket. Until you are big & growing, going niche is your friend. Create combinations to make extremely focused pages.
“Digital Marketing for the Travel Industry” will not bring in your first clients.
“Facebook Marketing for Airbnb Hosts in Atlanta, Georgia” absolutely will.
The goal here is to sell to people at the very bottom of the sales funnel – the prospective clients most likely to convert and most likely to succeed. These pages will both rank organically – and you can use them for paid ads (i.e., Facebook Ads, Google Search Ads, etc).
What To Consider
- Detailed content (like a blog) can take your presence a long way. Think about future functionality you may want to have on your site so you can choose a platform that supports it and don’t have to create something from scratch once you’re ready to implement it.
- Practice what you preach. If you’re a copywriting agency, make sure your copy is up to par. If you’re a design agency, make sure your site looks like you can actually design something. If you’re an advertising agency, have some ad case studies. If you are a social media marketing agency, have pages that exceed best practices.
- You don’t have to be everywhere (i.e. Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, [social media platform du jour]). Pick your starting channels and expand later if need be.
What To Avoid
- Avoid perfection. The goal is to have a online presence that shows you’re legit, but being an agency is about billable hours. Don’t spend more time working on your own presence than your clients’.
4. Get Visible (AKA Getting Leads and Clients)
Once you have a place to send people, it’s time to get some leads and clients.
Again, marketers are notoriously bad at marketing themselves. But the days of “build it and they will come” are long gone. You actually have to do something to get clients and start building your portfolio, especially if you’re starting a digital marketing agency with no experience.
Here are a few key steps to follow to get the word out about your digital marketing agency.
Word Of Mouth And Referrals
Above all other marketing techniques, agencies thrive on word of mouth and referrals. In fact, many top agencies are past the point of direct response marketing. They grow exclusively on word of mouth. They know how to appeal to certain markets and what kind of performance it takes to get further referrals.
The focus of your landing pages will help word of mouth since you’ll develop a simple, straightforward reputation.
In order to get referrals, you’ve got to get clients to back up your reputation. This brings me to…
Also known as hustlin’. This consists of all the tedious and tough pitching that you know you need to do… but don’t want to do. It’s a true marketing effort and the opposite of a brand awareness digital marketing campaign. It’s straight direct response pitching.
Now, it doesn’t mean spamming. It means going directly to your market and doing appropriate outreach.
It means emailing and Facebook messaging people that you know might be interested in your marketing services (or know others who might be). It means…cold calling a potential customer. And sending them to your landing pages to learn more about your agency or hopping on a call with them to talk about how you can help them. And again, the focus of your landing pages will help make word of mouth simpler. You’ll stand out when people remember you as “the [X] marketer for [Y] industry in [Z] city.
It means helping within industry forums. I got my first handful of web design clients after helping people on the WordPress.org support forums. I got my first eCommerce client after helping in the Shopify forums. I never pitched anyone directly, but this type of manual, hands-on work counts as direct outreach.
When you’re just starting out with no experience, direct outreach is one of the most effective ways to get clients quickly (which you can then turn into referrals). Use traditional marketing if that is what it takes to start your digital marketing business. I hosted a physical seminar with an actual print ad to get my first clients.
Tap into your existing network, look for projects that you can knock out of the park, and continue to get your name out there without having to spend money on ads or wait for your inbound strategy to grow (more on that in a minute).
Yes, it’s true — Google Ads and Facebook Ads can be expensive for a good return on investment, especially for the close-to-converting keywords that you should try to buy. This channel requires some marketing budget.
But if you are serious about building a long-term marketing strategy for your digital marketing agency, then your goal is a bit different when using paid traffic.
You are buying data. Lots of data.
You should be doing a few things with your new traffic.
- Look at what keywords are driving the best leads. Google Ads & Facebook give you this information. Try using modified broad match for your keywords. Many times customers are using a wider variety of keywords than you’d guess.
- Run your ads very focused on geography, especially if you’re a local agency. If you have a landing page for a neighborhood, set up a campaign for that area. Beat the big guys with local familiarity.
- Look at what landing pages are driving sales & calls.
- Look at what areas are driving sales.
- Test ad copy and figure out the right messaging. You can use this data to inform any print or display campaigns.
- On Facebook, you can get *really* specific with your audiences. Do that. Create an audience of 100 who you *know* would be perfect. Make sure they know about you. Use the campaign to warm up any direct pitch.
Organic Search (SEO) Traffic
Organic traffic (SEO) still might not be the best next channel to pursue after paid traffic. There’s a great big wide world of paid and organic traffic sources, and if you’re working on building a portfolio and just get some experience, this is going to take a while.
And yet, if you’re playing the long game, setting up your SEO strategy now can have huge payoffs in the end.
Google processes more than 3.5 billion queries per day. And for most queries, most of the clicks go to an organic result. And you’ll know from your Ads campaigns that click for competitive keywords can be quite expensive. That’s a cost you don’t have to pay if you rank in the organic results.
So I won’t hide my enthusiasm for SEO and inbound marketing. It’s my specialty and is the giant battleship that will keep on going once it’s headed in the right direction.
When you are setting your marketing strategy for your digital marketing agency, you just have to know what it takes to get organic traffic and what it will take on your part to get it done.
Often you’ll just need a handful of really useful posts to prove your expertise. Don’t go after generic topics. Show off your specialty. Do a tutorial on tools that you know your audience is trying to use. Write about an issue that you know everyone is dealing with.
What To Consider
- Your first goal when you’re starting an agency is to get clients. Billable hours drive everything (and is what will enable you to invest in other marketing efforts).
- Some of your best leads can be in your own circle. Don’t discount the network you already have.
- No one will know about your business if you don’t tell anyone about your business. You don’t need fancy business cards, a beautiful website, or even some elaborate marketing funnel. You DO need to tell people what you do.
- You do have to walk the walk, but you don’t have to rely on your own area to build your business. If you do SEO and you choose not to use SEO to generate leads, that’s fine — but be prepared to speak to that with potential clients.
What To Avoid
- Avoid being a generalist. Yes you need clients, yes you need revenue — but remember the business strategy you set upfront.
- Avoid adding additional work without increasing the scope to “win” a client. If clients want additional services and you offer them, great! Let them know how that changes your fees. Earn respect with results, not with price or perceived responsiveness.
5. Define Your Growth Plan
Building a digital marketing agency doesn’t mean you have to become the next big company doing Super Bowl commercials. As I mentioned before, a digital marketing agency can be an agency one.
You should, however, have an idea of how you’d like to grow. Being a one-person company still doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself.
As you start to grow, think about the teams, systems, and deliverables you want to have in place to help support your clients.
For your marketing team, would bringing on a full-time copywriter help you sign two more clients? Could you outsource design work or administrative tasks that take up your time to a place like Fiverr? Are there digital marketing skills that you need?
For your tools, what are the essential tools?
What tools can you let your new client pay for and what do you need upfront? What can you as the agency owner bundle and muddle through?
For your systems, do you have a written system for new clients? Even if you are solo, you need to have a written system that clients pass through. It should be something that you can set out in a contract. You can (and should) find examples for Master Service Agreements (MSAs) & Statements of Work (SoW’s) to build of.
Make sure you have an internal project management system – even if it just lives in a Google Sheet.
For your deliverables, do you have a way to show value to your clients? Do you have a way to gather feedback from them?
If you are an SEO, then written audits, keyword maps, written outreach & content strategies will help make the “magic” of SEO real for your clients.
Can you automate processes so that you can scale and provide value to clients…while still maintaining a client relationship? I use Semrush to automatically send local listing reports to my local SEO clients.
It goes the same for every type of marketing. What format will you use? Who can you talk to within the industry to get a base understanding?
Doing some advanced planning here will help you scale faster and easier than waiting to figure it out when the workload becomes too much.
What To Consider
- There are certain tasks only you can do. What are those? Keep your focus there.
- A bigger team doesn’t necessarily mean a better agency. Some of the best marketers I know run with a very lean crew.
- Think back to your business vision. Do you have services you want to provide but YOU can’t do? Are there people you can hire that can cover a few different areas (i.e. a writer with graphic design experience)
What To Avoid
- Avoid getting caught in the weeds. You can’t make any money if you’re sitting in your inbox for five hours a day. Automate!
- Avoid thinking of outsourcing as an expense. Crunch your numbers and think value and reinvestment.
- Avoid going the “cheap” route when hiring help. You get what you pay for.
- Charge what you are worth. If you are making your clients money, then charge what you are worth…and make them even more money!
Starting a digital marketing agency with no experience doesn’t have to be a daunting process full of questions, unknowns, and hurdles.
It does require that you clearly understand what you want out of your agency, who you’re going to help, and how you’re going to help them.
If you are trying to start a digital marketing agency, follow the process and you’ll be all set!