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It might have been her refreshingly honest take, or maybe the unapologetic nature in which she shared it, but right away I could tell there was something different about Andi Graham.
Graham founded and is currently CMO and Managing Partner at Big Sea, a digital agency based in St. Petersburg, Florida with 22 employees and an average client retainer of $10k/month.
And while many of Big Sea’s clients may use HubSpot, the agency doesn’t necessarily prescribe to the cure-all mentality that often surrounds the inbound marketing methodology.
“We go to INBOUND every year and I talk with a lot of other agency owners and every time I have these conversations I realize that we just do things differently,” said Graham. “The things that work for them work because they have such a routine-based business. Everything is cut and dry, contracts might be based on deliverables and how many blog posts you wrote. I just find that droll and boring.”
In place of any sort of routine, playbook, or menu of deliverables, Graham and Big Sea employ a goals-first approach toward providing agile, successful programs for its clients.
It works. And others are taking note.
“Unfortunately we do get some of [other inbound agency] cast off clients who are unhappy with the slow burn success and knew they were not where they could be. Part of that is brand positioning–do your customers want to be known for being reliable and safe and always doing the same thing? Or do they want to try something new and get noticed?
So how is Big Sea’s approach any different?
I sat down with Graham to hash that all out. What followed was an honest, refreshing, and inspiring take on how agencies should evolve in a climate where everyone is either doing inbound marketing, or has already tried it with varying degrees of success.
Q: What is Big Sea’s niche? What industries are you playing in?
Andi: We don’t have a niche. I know that sounds crazy and that everybody who is successful has a niche, but we actually don’t like doing the same thing over and over and over again.
We find that we’re most successful for our clients when we can bring in all kinds of different tactics and approaches that we’ve tried in other industries and for other clients.
So even though we have multiple clients in many industries–we have a number of clients in the family entertainment center industry, education, and a lot in B2B–we like to keep it mixed in a way that we can figure out how we can use tactics across different Industries and different verticals without getting locked in.
Q: So no repeatable playbook of deliverables?
Andi: We want to understand how we can apply the things that work across multiple industries and not pigeonhole our way into ‘only this approach works for this industry.’
For instance, the addition of direct mail to an inbound campaign can be incredibly effective, especially when you understand your personas. Inbound marketing is fully digital, yet a lot of the customers who support the B2C clients that we work with are not fully digital. So looking at different socioeconomic factors like age, income, even just lifestyle–there are things that make a postcard mailing a thousand times more effective than an email. So while we can send 50 emails for the price of that one postcard, when we’re looking at it at 3% return on a postcard and looking at 1% or less return on an email, there’s value there.
We’re all looking at the same numbers, right? It’s all the same funnel.
We still build the funnel in the same way. We still have offers in the middle of the funnel and then work toward closing in the revenue generation down at the bottom. But these things are not tied to this specific inbound methodology. It’s not just ‘blog post leads to an email signup leads to a fill in the blank–to me a Facebook pixel is a higher quality lead than an email address. We know more about the user from their Facebook pixel than from a simple email address.
Q: Sounds like you’re more open to outbound marketing. It’s used as a supplement.
Andi: The inbound stuff that we do helps bolster the outbound stuff. Someone may have received a postcard but then they go to the website and see that we are writing about these topics and are experts in this area.
It’s the same approach it’s just used in a different way.
Q: How does not having a niche impact the approach to new business?
Andi: That’s a great question. We haven’t had a problem with new business though I suspect we could be growing faster if we put some sort of concerted effort into honing ‘this is how we do these things.’
When we sell marketing packages to clients we really sell it as an open-ended ‘we don’t know what the hell we’re doing and we won’t know that until we are 6-8 weeks into your engagement but here the variety of things that might include and we are going to change that up on a monthly and quarterly basis completely.’
We do sprint planning at the beginning and middle of every month and will literally change course completely from what we had planned if it’s not getting the results that we want. I tell clients ‘you wouldn’t want us locked into a quarterly strategy if it’s not proving fruitful. You want us to have that flexibility.’
We have clients that have been with us since I was a freelancer working by myself. Then I built the agency in 2005, started hiring people in 2008, and we’ve had clients that have been with us since then. They’ve grown with us and grown with the agency, and they would tell you that that’s part of what they appreciate about us–we’re constantly pushing and striving and growing and improving and there will never be any moss on this rolling stone.
Q: I’m guessing Big Sea’s pricing model looks a lot different than the standard menu of deliverables?
Andi: It is very different than that. We use value points which a lot of agencies are moving toward, but our value points are different for every client.
Those value points translate to both the time invested, the level of expertise required, i.e. is this something I have to be involved with? Or something one of our 22-year old marketing coordinators can pull off?
How many hands have to touch it? Do we have to get a designer, developer, or a UX specialist involved? How many stages of conception does this have to go through?
While we have a key that has blog posts at a certain number of points, that will change for each client. For some clients blog posts are very low value, so they’re only one point.
Our goal is to hit the client’s goals. We say ‘these are the goals we can hit based on your budget. If you want to hit higher goals than that, we need more money to invest.’ Then we build the tactics from there based on the value points we have assigned.
Q: That goal-first approach must allow for more flexibility, creativity, and experimentation. How does that impact the team?
Andi: I think at first when we started moving in that direction, it was stressful and they were considering whether or not they’d be able to perform and be as creative and think about these things on the fly.
Now it’s fun and it’s exciting and it’s creative. The one thing about being an agile agency that we love is that nobody is punished for having a great idea at the wrong time.
In web development when you’re working in a waterfall-based environment, you can be three quarters of the way into a project and somebody’s like, ‘wait, wouldn’t this be an awesome way to display this information?’ or whatever it is, but when you’re so far down the road it’s really hard to change those things. You’re on a stuck budget, with a stuck scope, and a stuck timeline.
When we’re working in an agile environment, we can say ‘oh my gosh that’s a great idea, what’s the value of that over all these other things we have planned? That sounds like it’s going to have way more impact, let’s try that and abandon all these other things we had planned for this month.’
It keeps everyone excited to contribute in a way that’s useful and they’re excited to have the time to do that. It gives them the headspace to think about things that way when they know 50% of their time gives them the freedom to play, try new things, and experiment. That’s where marketing magic happens.
Everybody’s got enough dang email in their inbox. They’ve got enough ads in their Facebook feeds. We’ve got to have the headspace to think about and try new things.
Q: You’ve been frustrated over the years with the formulaic nature of the inbound marketing methodology. Is that what’s led to a more dynamic, goals-first approach?
Andi: I don’t know that we ever fit into HubSpot’s perfect partner bucket. We’ve always been bucking what they’ve asked us to do and I’ve never really fallen into the ‘let me take all your sales training courses and sell it like this and then follow you along your little path.’
The way that I think about HubSpot is that it’s a wonderful franchise opportunity. If you want to buy into being a franchisee, then you can follow their game plan and they will lead you to success, there’s no doubt about that. I am not that person, this agency is not that agency, and our humans are not those humans.
We always tell people that we are HubSpot Gold, but platform agnostic. If HubSpot is not the right platform for you then that’s not what we’re going to recommend even though we love it above all other marketing platforms for the most part.
We’re not tied to it. We’re tied to results and making our clients successful. If there’s a better spend for our clients than that 3k enterprise level plan, then that’s what we’re going to do.
I know HubSpot is going to hate me for this, but we’re actually moving all of our family entertainment center clients off of HubSpot because of the per contact pricing. There’s not a lot of value on the sales side of things for family entertainment centers. You’re trying to get people into your centers to go bowling, or to play in your arcade, or go to your escape rooms, or to play laser tag–you don’t need a lot of nurturing to get people to make that decision.
Now, for other clients HubSpot is fantastic.
Our goal is to be good stewards of our clients’ investments, and if we’re not successful for them, or HubSpot isn’t successful for them (or any platform for that matter), then we need to be willing to abandon it and try something new at any given moment.
Q: It seems like a common theme with Big Sea. No playbooks. No routine. You’re different.
Andi: We go to INBOUND every year and I talk to other agency owners, I’m in all kinds of agency groups and chat rooms and I actually just got off a one-on-one call with one of the largest inbound agencies to get some advice on some structural things we’re doing here.
Every time I have these conversations I realize we just do things differently.
The things that work for them work because they have such a routine-based business. Everything is cut and dry, contracts might be based on deliverables and how many blog posts they wrote. I just find that droll and boring.
Unfortunately, we do we get some of their cast-off clients who are unhappy with getting the slow burn success and knew they were not where they could be. Part of that is brand positioning–does your band want to be known for being reliable and safe and always doing the same thing? Or do you want to try something new and get noticed?
That’s what we try to do.
Q: Big Sea has shifted its strategy to lead with goals. Why that evolution?
Andi: A great example of this happened in October.
We have a client with an online e-commerce business, an in-person school, and we just built and launched an online school for them. We did all kinds of production of online video-based classes and then built them a whole system to sell those classes.
Our goal was to repay the investment they made in setting up the online school and for web development, video production, marketing–in three months.
This was one of the first months where we had Databox, so [after launching the online school] the entire marketing team had the numbers in front of them as watched orders come in. Instead of telling the client, “here are the tactics and what we’re going to do,’ we told them ‘we’re going to hit this sales goal.’
We knew that every email we sent would sell more and more, so instead of saying, ‘we’re going to send five emails for you and here’s what we expect’, we said, ‘we’re going to sell this much revenue for you, and however many emails, social media messages, special offers, etc., that takes, we’re going to do it.’
That was a great example of: This is the goal, and the tactics are only going to be as big as we need to support that. If they wanted a larger goal, they would’ve had to invest more, as we would’ve had to put more time, energy, and tactical execution into it as well.
It’s nice to say ‘here’s the goal we’re going to hit and here’s why.’ That’s the approach we’re taking across the board in 2018.
Q: Do clients typically have goals going into an engagement? If not, how do you go about setting those goals for them?
Andi: Most of our clients have no idea about their goals. They just know they need to make money. It’s up to us to break it down for them and help them understand what a lead is worth.
Sometimes they have a high-level revenue goal that they need to hit, so we’ll just talk to them about what a good lead looks like and do as much lead scoring as possible.
The more history we have with a client, the easier it is.
Q: Is it an oversimplification to say that simply starting with the end in mind is a good approach?
Andi: No, that’s always a great approach. If we know what the revenue is and how many of their leads convert to sales, and we know what the conversion rates are, then we can influence whatever side of that we need to and we can work on those independently as goals as well.
Q: Historically, have you always had documented goals with clients? Or is this goal-first approach be a more systematic way?
Andi:We’ve always had goals. They’ve been in spreadsheets, which is another problem Databox is solving for us, but we had goal tracking spreadsheets that were updated at the end of each week so we could see where we were with regards to the goals we were tracking.
The problem is I think we’ve done a very poor job of tying those goals to anything larger than the goal themselves. So our goals have been, ‘let’s get 20,000 visitors’, but there’s no ‘why’ behind it, and so now we’re starting with ‘why.’
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