There’s been a lot of research on agencies’ use of tools (Mirren has published a report on it annually for the past six years), and I want to share some of that information while adding new context. Specifically, how can your agency make smarter choices about tools from a new business standpoint, and how can you use your tools more effectively?
Why are agency tech tools so important in 2018?
One, the traditional agency model is under threat from multiple fronts: agencies-of-record are an endangered species, agency relationships are shorter and smaller, consultancies are encroaching, brands are taking more work in-house, and agencies can’t retain talent. Also, while juggling their client workloads and running their business, agencies are supposed to simultaneously go after new business, adapt to a staggering volume of new expectations and trends for “agencies of the future,” and also evolve their agency structures to adapt to the new reality. Let’s be honest: it’s a lot. So more than ever, agencies are looking for ways to do things smarter and to be more efficient in their pursuit of those tasks.
Besides that, there have never been as many tools on the market as there are now. The number of SaaS tools on the market increased by 30x between 2014 and 2016 to a staggering 150,000 apps, according to Cloudlock. The growth hasn’t slowed since then. Scott Brinker’s epic Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic is updated annually, and this year his “Martech 5000” became 6,829. That’s just in the martech sector. It doesn’t include the apps serving IT, HR, customer service, and other functions. Of course, agencies don’t only use marketing apps. Agency new business tools alone could fall under multiple umbrellas; for example, marketing, sales, collaboration, productivity, and social. The choices are mind-boggling.
What types of tools do you actually need?
Your agency’s needs will determine your best-fit tools, but generally you should consider these categories of tools:
- Marketing automation
- Social media tools
- Virtual calls and meetings
- Research or list-building services for prospect identification
- Website performance tracking
- Account management / Project management
- Proposal software
- Accounting / Payroll
- Creative / Content
- Security / Backup
Do you really need to have software to address each of these categories? No. Depending on your business model, you may not need all of these functions. You may also meet these needs with a smaller number of multi-purpose tools (for example, Hubspot can be used for CRM, marketing automation, social media, website performance, and email, among other things).
Respondents in Mirren’s 2018 survey (pdf) indicated that 23% of agencies now use Excel as their CRM, and that’s up from 13% in 2017. If that’s what truly works best for your agency, then so be it. No need to over-complicate things. As agency consultant Karl Sakas has pointed out, its better to use Google Spreadsheets to track your projects than to use nothing. Just commit to using something consistently and make it work for your agency.
Isn’t this a post about tools for new business? But not all of these tools directly support lead generation and new business acquisition. What does accounting software, proposal software, or project management software have to do with securing new business? Actually, a lot.
It is important to know which clients and projects are most profitable for your agency, and what types of business you are most likely to close. If you aren’t tracking things carefully, you won’t be able to tell which clients bleed you dry and which are the most valuable. So how will you know who to go after for new business?
To set up a strong new business program for your agency and determine benchmarks, you should know the average length of your sales cycle, what percent of pitches you win, etc. New business efforts are most effective when your agency is already functioning at a successful baseline. It’s harder to win new business when agency operations are in distress.
To give another example, proposal software can do more than just save valuable time. It can also facilitate new business acquisition by building access to performance data into every contract, so that you have what you need to create compelling case studies that illustrate business results.
The other side of that coin is that your new business-supporting tools will be much more effective when they are adopted in the context of an ongoing, strategic new business outreach process. If you don’t have this foundation to build on, then it’s just more tools being used to chase the wrong prospects, or used too inconsistently to be effective, and even when you have an opportunity to generate new business, it falls between the cracks. So you really have to get that in place first and be thoughtful in your selection of tools and commit to put the necessary time into them and make them part of your new business strategy in order to get results. Just as outsourced new business, by itself, is not a magical band aid solution, neither are these tech tools.
How should I find new tools for my agency?
First, I would caution against jumping onto any new software bandwagons too quickly. Even using new tools on a free trial basis requires an investment of your agency resources and has an associated cost. There should be a lot of consideration before you even get to that stage.
Karl Sakas put together a list of project management tools for digital marketing agencies earlier this year. In it, he gave some advice that is relevant for all agencies evaluating new tools: “Be careful—there’s no single ‘software savior’ for your agency,” noting that changing your project management software, in particular, is very disruptive to agency productive. He recommends that “new software might be worth it if you aren’t using any system at all right now, [or, if you] face significant problems with your current project management software that are already hurting productivity.” And otherwise, it’s probably not.
“Remember, the grass is rarely greener—new software may have the same shortcomings as your current system, and they’re likely to have new problems.”
— Karl Sakas, Agency Consultant
Sakas’ standard, one that he recommends for agencies where project management software is concerned, is that “good enough” is best. “No software will meet all your requirements,” he says. Of course, other categories of tools may be more limited in scope and easier to swap out than project management tools. It’s still good advice to choose carefully, change providers rarely and with good reason, and when you do adopt a tool, commit to it fully and use it consistently.
If you are exploring new tools, a couple of sites I’ve found helpful in the past to narrow down options are G2Crowd.com and TrustRadius.com. While you still have to take the user reviews with a grain of salt, these platforms seem to have a higher reliability and lower tolerance for fake reviews. You will be able to find reviews for most new business tools and software there, as well as compare and contrast features for many of the most popular tools.
I would give greater weight to reviews and recommendations from businesses similar to yours: in size, in function, and based on how they are using the tool. If they are evaluating a tool based on a mix of features that you wouldn’t be using, it’s less applicable. You can also often find which software they used previously, or if this is the first tool they have used for this purpose, how long they have used it, and how advanced of a user they are. These are all important factors to consider when weighing the relevance of their review to your situation.
What are some tools that we might consider using?
Here are some of the tools we use and have found effective within The Duval Partnership:
- G-suite (Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Folders, Email, etc.)
- Hubspot (it’s become less small-biz friendly, but it’s still the leading marketing platform)
- Salesforce (there’s a reason this is the top CRM, but its imperfect)
- MailChimp (we use this for some emails and are happy with it)
- ToutApp (we use this for some email projects; it was also recently acquired by Marketo)
- Uberconference (free conferencing and screen-sharing; we’ve used Join.me too)
- Grammarly (because I can’t always be trusted to spell things correctly)
- Canva (for quick, easy, and inexpensive design tasks)
We have at least four tools that provide an email function, and we use each of them, but for different purposes. That is something to be cautious about, though, as it presents new challenges with managing unsubscribes and potentially overlapping communication.
We also have used many of the database services and list providers on the market, and haven’t found one that we’d rely on by itself. In addition to our internal research department, we work with various outside research companies to build customized lists. And we always end up doing some old-school online digging to make up for data gaps.
Nobody seems to consider browser extensions for agencies. I have probably a hundred (most not currently enabled), but some of the active ones include:
- BuiltWith Technology Profiler (quickly identities all the technologies on a webpage)
- WiseStamp (supports branded email signatures)
- Boomerang (lets me schedule my late night emails to deploy in the morning)
- FontFace Ninja (identifies fonts on any site I visit)
- PageSpeed Insights Pro (quickly identifies page load problems)
- Awesome Screenshot (allows video screencasts with annotation)
- ColorZilla (grabs the right color codes easily from any site)
- SessionBuddy (saves my open tabs so I can easily restore them after a browser crash)
- MetaSEO Inspector (one of many apps I have that provides quick SEO data)
You can find curated lists of recommended Chrome extensions for business owners here, and for salespeople here. Check the latest user ratings in the app store before downloading. In my experience, these apps are easy wins; little to no commitment required and they often add very useful functionality. When they don’t, I just disable them.
Depending on your setup, WordPress plugins or mobile apps may also be important for your operations and new business process. Here are some curated lists of options:
- NerdWallet’s 25 Best Small-Business Apps in 2018
- Proven’s 75+ Best Apps for Small Business: Ultimate List (Updated for 2018)
- WP Beginner’s 24 Must-Have WordPress Plugins for Business Websites in 2018
- SUMO’s 50 Best WordPress Plugins for 2018: A Sumo-Sized Guide
In early 2018, Databox.com surveyed digital agencies (mostly from their partner program of 90+ agencies with above average tech-savviness) to ask them about which software tools they recommend and why. If you’re on the market for new tools, this post is worth a look. Some of the recommended tools are:
- PandaDoc (“An all-in-one software that streamlines your sales workflows. Create, send, track, and eSign client-facing documents designed to win more business.”)
- Hubspot (Recommended for Calendar, CRM + SalesPro, and Marketing, Hubspot is “an inbound marketing and sales platform that helps companies attract visitors, convert leads, and close customers.”)
- Grammarly (An online grammar, spelling, and plagiarism checker in free and paid versions).
- Teamwork (“An online project management software that does Tasks, Subtasks, Task Templates, Gantt charts, Apps and loads more. Accelerate your team’s performance by assigning tasks, communicating and tracking progress in one place.”)
- G-Suite (“Google’s suite of intelligent apps (formerly Google Apps). Get business email, video conferencing, online storage and file sharing.”)
- Slack (“Slack is where work flows. It’s where the people you need, the information you share, and the tools you use come together to get things done.”)
- Content Snare (“A content collection tool that automates the content gathering process to save you hours of your precious time on every project.”)
Mirren’s research and agency-recommended tools
Mirren has done a report (pdf) for the past six years on new business tools used by agencies. 58% of the agencies responding to their survey have 25-250 employees, and another 29% have fewer than 25 employees. It’s worth a read to understand 1) which tools are most widely-used by other agencies, and 2) the reasons why certain types of tools are under-used or considered less effective by most agencies.
Respondents in Mirren’s study indicated the most important considerations when evaluating new business tools are their effectiveness, efficiency, and ease of implementation and use.
Their tool categories include:
- Social Media Tools
- Contact Management / CRM software
- Marketing Automation / Inbound Marketing Platforms
- Target Audience Research Services
- Prospect Contact / List Building Software
- Prospect Intelligence Tools
- Content Development Tools
In this year’s report, usage was up in every category of tools. Unfortunately, Mirren says, the fact that most agencies don’t have a consistent new business program in place results in low to average effectiveness ratings for most tools. For a tool to be effective, context, strategy, frequency, and commitment matter. Most agency tools in the Mirren report were rated ineffective, even though respondents also indicated that the more they used a tool, the more effective it became (suggesting the issue is with the users rather than the tools). Which is why more care needs to go into selection and implementation of tools in the first place.
Few of the tools in the Mirren report scored above a 4, on a scale of 1 to 5. Tools that did rate above 4:
- Winmo (list building tool)
- Mintel (market research provider)
- Pearlfinders (“sales platform; provides contact data and insight that enables sales and marketing professionals to generate revenue from prospects, clients and existing networks”)
- LinkedIn (professional social networking with advertising and prospect data features)
The top five tools rated as being among the “three most essential new business tools” across categories:
- Winmo / The List (17%)
- LinkedIn (13%)
- SalesForce / Hubspot (Tie) (6%)
- Google Tools (4%)
- SharpSpring / Access Confidential (Tie) (2%)
Note the relatively small percentages in the top five. This reflects both the multitude of tools on the market, and fact that “agencies are increasingly open to trying tools that don’t necessarily fall into the top 5 every year,” (Mirren).
Looking at just a couple of the tool categories, for CRM tools, Salesforce dominates (39% use it), closely followed by Hubspot (used by 31%), Excel (still used by 23%), Pipedrive (used by 12%), and Zoho (used by 9%). Marketing automation tools are dominated by Hubspot (41% use it), then SharpSpring (used by 23%), Pardot (15% use it), Act-On (used by 11%), Marketo (used by 10%), and Constant Contact (used by 8%).
Marketing automation is one of the least-used tool categories in Mirren’s report; only 37% of respondents use any marketing automation tools. At least half of the agencies that are using them haven’t adapted them to be more effective. As Mirren observes, such tools “require agencies to be proactive, which is something most struggle with.” Most of their respondents indicated they didn’t have “the time or resources to sustain marketing efforts that drive inbound leads,” undermining agency investment in this tool category. But honestly, if you are paying between $1,000 and $2,000 a month for your marketing software (which many agencies are), why not pay a little bit more for a freelancer to work on some lead nurturing emails and thought leadership content for your agency?
Finally, agencies are using more list-building platforms than ever before, with 69% of Mirren respondents using some type of prospect contact or list building service. The top two tools in this category are Winmo / WinmoEdge (73% use it), and LinkedIn (63% use it).
There is an overwhelming amount of content and options out there for agency new business tools. Just remember that more is not necessarily more. Adopting more tools when you don’t have the bandwidth to fully implement them and switching tools frequently is unlikely to yield great results.
These three things will have the greatest impact on your success with agency new business tools:
- First, be very thoughtful and strategic in your selection of tools. Do your due diligence and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Secondly, when you do implement a new tool, fully commit to it. Implement it across the agency, train everyone who needs to use it, and make it part of your ongoing processes. One of the findings of Mirren’s study is that increased usage and investment in a tool leads to increased effectiveness from that tool. But paying for tools and using them halfway (as many agencies do) is not a recipe for optimum results.
- Finally, introduce new tools in a context of strategy and greater purpose. You have to have a grip on your agency KPIs and understand what’s working and not in order to make plans for future growth. You need a new business plan and processes in place so that you have guideposts for using your tools.
By Mark Duval / Duval Partnership